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Monday, June 13, 2016

Celebrating 10 years of Bits & Bytes

by Mark Ollig

Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

Today’s column marks the tenth year of writing Bits & Bytes on a weekly basis.

It was June 12, 2006, when yours truly reemerged from his self-imposed column hiatus, and resumed writing about the world of the Internet and technology, from an occasionally overly-active mindset.

As with most anniversaries, one looks back and reminisces.

So, let’s recall a few of the columns I hope you’ve enjoyed reading over the years.

“The past is prologue: from BBS to Blogs” June 12, 2006 column was originally written for the quarterly newsletter of the telecommunications company I work for.

The column was about my fascination and nostalgic reminiscing’s of the late 1980s and early 1990s, computer bulletin board system software programs being installed on personal computers.

I wrote about people connecting telephone modems to their computers, so they could “go online over a telephone line” by dialing the telephone number of a local BBS (Bulletin Board System).

There, they could chat, share software files, read news, and play games with others within the BBS; which in many cases became a “virtual community.”

Some of you will remember in the very early 1990s, a number of businesses and media outlets installed and advertised their BBS, as a way for the public to connect with their products and services.

BBS’s were used before the Web and websites became popular.

“The BBS is the father to today’s website,” I once wrote.

While living in Winsted during the early 1990s, I installed and operated a dial-up BBS called: “WBBS OnLine!”

I became enthusiastic about the possibilities of this “digital online world,” especially after reading “The Virtual Community” by Howard Rheingold, whom I made personal contact with through Twitter, some years ago.

“He wrote about the potential of this exciting place called cyberspace; the new electronic villages, and how from the comfort of our homes we could share information, do research, participate in local community issues, and eventually work from home or ‘tele-port’,” I wrote about Rheingold.

So, I was off and running. This piece inspired me to resume writing a weekly column for my local hometown newspaper.

The June 12, 2006 column can be read at:

A cleverly installed “coffee pot camera” was the focus of the April 4, 2011 column titled: “Computing ingenuity led to the creation of XCoffee.”

One evening in 1991, a group of computer science researchers were working at the University of Cambridge, located in England.

They enjoyed drinking coffee while writing programing code, working with the university’s computer server, and its campus network.

The room containing the precious beverage inside a coffee pot was several floors above where the computer researchers worked.

Understandable frustration would set in when one of them; with empty coffee cup in hand, would painstakingly climb several flights of stairs to the coffee room, only to discover the coffee pot was empty.

This discouraged person would then have to wait several minutes until the next brew of fresh coffee was made.

After much thought, those computer science researcher folks figured out a way to know if there was coffee in the pot before having to climb all those stairs.

Their solution consisted of using computer cabling, an old Acorn Achimedes computer server installed with ‘X Window System’ protocols, and a gray-scale video-frame grabber circuit card.

They also rigged up a video camera to work with the video-frame grabber card installed in the Acorn Achimedes computer server.

With the video camera mounted to a laboratory retort stand in the coffee room, they pointed the camera’s lens directly at the coffee pot.

The video output from the camera, was cabled back to the Acorn Achimedes computer server.

Another researcher, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, wrote a special client software program which would operate within the computers in the rooms networked to the university’s internal data network.

This client software would communicate with the newly activated Acorn Achimedes “coffee computer server” which now had a datalink connection to the university’s computer server.

The “coffee camera” would send its video to the “coffee server” and the video-frame circuit card would “grab” or screen capture, a recent video image of the coffee pot every few seconds.

A small, gray-scale still image was then displayed on the computer monitor of any researcher running the “coffee client” software program.

Now, instead of hoping there was coffee in the coffee pot, they would be able to visually see the coffee pot from their computer screens at their desks, and know the answer before climbing up those stairs.

Updated coffee pot images eventually made their way onto the Internet in 1993, and became an online sensation – as the entire Internet could see the “XCoffee” pot, too.

Updated images of the coffee pot were turned off nearly 15 years ago.

Yours truly did find one saved, gray-scale image of the XCoffee pot:

Using Twitter, I corresponded with Quentin Stafford-Fraser (living in England), about his adventure with XCoffee, which was also the first webcam on the Internet.

Stafford-Fraser replied; “Thanks Mark . . . And best wishes from this side of the pond!”

The original Bits & Bytes XCoffee column can be read here:

I occasionally wrote Bits & Bytes articles for my local hometown newspaper during the mid-to-late 1990s.

In one article written July 22, 1996, I made a couple of bold predictions.

“The Internet will become the new phone network of the future. In the next ten years, the Internet itself could become the next telephone network of choice,” I prognosticated.

“The Internet may compete with Cable TV. Soon, in my opinion, the day will come when TV stations will be providing programs in real-time, with video and sound over the Internet comparable with or better than the audio and image quality you currently receive on your TV,” I confidently wrote.

It turns out these 20-year-old predictions proved fairly accurate.

In 1997, I wrote an article announcing the city of Winsted’s first website.

“City of Winsted now on the Web” it was accurately titled.

By the way, this article made the front page of the newspaper – not that I’m bragging; ok, maybe I am just a little bit.

“Filled with color photographs and useful information, the City of Winsted Web site contains city notices, meetings, community information, and much more,” I wrote.

“Winsted, welcome to the World Wide Web of the Internet,” I ended the article with.

“City of Winsted now on the Web” can be found here:

All 527 Bits & Bytes column titles can be seen at:

The last ten years (including some from the 1990s) worth of columns can be read here:

As always, I can be found on Twitter at: @bitsandbytes.

Thank you for reading Bits & Bytes.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Behind-the-scenes fun with Facebook Live: Part two

by Mark Ollig

“This is our team!” Producer Nitin quietly whispered to those of us watching along on Facebook Live.

He approached the news desk, where NBC Bay Area morning television news anchors Sam Brock and Laura Garcia Cannon were seated.

We continue where we left off last week: participating in a Facebook Live video broadcast from the NBC Bay Area’s “Today in the Bay” TV news studio, as chaperoned by Producer Nitin, via his cellphone video camera.

While broadcasting live on-camera to the television audience, Laura sets up a news story as the TV station switches to its prerecorded account of it.

The two news anchors, now off-camera, notice the approaching cellphone pointed at them, and smile.

Producer Nitin told the anchors the Facebook Live community was watching.

Sam Brock looked into Producer Nitin’s cellphone camera and said, “I was just thinking if, you know, five years ago, someone saw someone walking around with a phone, just talking to themselves . . . doing paces around a studio, you would think; ‘what is that guy? Like, crazy?’” he laughed.

“The Facebook Live thing is pretty new, so a lot of people are kind of getting used to the idea,” Producer Nitin replied.

With the news anchors being off-camera, they appeared to be in a more relaxed, and jovial mood.

Facebook Live users are typing out messages and comments, and my “Greetings from Minnesota” is usually seen and occasionally acknowledged by Producer Nitin.

Close to 100 Facebook users were actively participating in this Facebook Live video feed.

“Let’s say good morning to some of our Facebook friends,” Producer Nitin said to the two news anchors, as he began reading some of the comments being typed by those of us participating in this live-feed.

I quickly typed; “Good morning from Minnesota!”

Producer Nitin saw my greeting, mentioned my name, and told the morning news anchors I was a regular viewer of their Facebook Live video feeds.

They both smiled while looking directly at the cellphone camera.

Sam then asked; “What’s Mark . . . like, is that like Oh-leg or Ah-lig?”

Producer Nitin knew the correct pronunciation of Ollig was “Oh-leg” and told them, to which Sam smiled and nodded, while Laura grinned, and said; “Ah, we’re learning!”

So, there I was; seated in front of my computer screen in Minnesota, sipping coffee, while two professional television news anchors, located in a major TV market in California, were trying to get the pronunciation of my last name right.

Not too bad at all, Mark.

Producer Nitin was informed by the floor director the news anchors were about to go back live on the air, so he quietly backed away from the news desk.

Sam and Laura checked their paper copy, looked up into the studio TV camera, and resumed reporting the news, reading from the teleprompter.

Oh, did I mention all the television cameras in the news studio were being remotely operated by folks in the control room?

Producer Nitin then quietly walked through the studio exit, down a hallway, and into the newsroom production area.

We watched people at work inside their office cubicles; on the phone, obtaining news from their sources, and busily typing out stories to be sent to the studio set, for on-air broadcast by the anchors.

During a previous broadcast, Facebook Live viewers followed one person walking from the newsroom production area, carrying a handful of papers (news copy) to the studio news desk.

The papers were given to the news anchors, while they were off-camera.

Digressing back to the current Facebook Live video feed, producer Nitin walked past someone who was busily typing, and cheerfully said; “Good morning, Kari Hall!”

Kari looked up and smiled. She has been an NBC Bay Area meteorologist since May 2015.

Still walking, Nitin then stopped by morning traffic anchor Mike Inouye, who was preparing his morning traffic reports for broadcast.

Inouye smiled, and gave a brief behind-the-scenes description of the current road conditions in the Bay Area, to all the Facebook Live viewers.

The traffic video Mike saw was high-quality, and in real-time; not in the ten second updated “screen captures” I view when looking at any one of the 200 MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) metro area online cameras.

Producer Nitin then walked into the darkened control room, where I saw many horizontal rows of television monitors on the wall, along with the folks operating the news studio TV cameras.

The control room director was busy determining which TV camera, or television monitor’s video, would broadcast live to their television viewers.

My participation on Facebook Live was not only a learning experience; it was also fun.

At times, I felt like the “proverbial fly on the wall” during those behind-the-scenes segments.

To be clear, Facebook Live is not only for the media. It’s for any Facebook user who would like to broadcast live video to their followers.

To learn more about broadcasting using Facebook Live, check out:

The homepage for NBC Bay Area is:

Follow me on Twitter at my @bitsandbytes user handle.