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Friday, December 8, 2017

Pre-web: The BBS online community thrived

©Mark Ollig

Years before web browsers redefined how the internet is used, many of my generation were going online locally by way of a dialup computer Bulletin Board System or BBS.

In the late 1980s, computer hobbyists (such as this writer) were avidly reading Boardwatch magazine, which contained articles dedicated to BBSs and their human system operators, known as SysOps.

Computer hobbyists were spending many hours (and dollars) installing BBS software and hardware onto their computers to communicate and exchange information with other computers over modems and traditional analog telephone lines.

I began with a text-only interface BBS software program developed by Galacticom, Inc.

It was not a simple “plug and play” process installing and programming BBS software and the additional components and hardware on a computer.

The name of my bulletin board system was WBBS: OnLine!

WBBS (Winsted Bulletin Board System) sounded like a radio or TV station; making it easily remembered – besides, yours truly thought it was pretty cool.

I placed local newspaper ads, wrote an article describing the features of a BBS and how to log in, and created paper flyers advertising WBBS and posted them all around town.

My car’s vanity plates read WBBS, which got a few stares while driving down the road.

ProComm was a telecommunications software terminal program commonly used for accessing a BBS, as were Kermit, PC-Talk, and Qmodem.

Personal computer users began getting the BBS bug and soon were participating in the WBBS online community.

I discovered being a BBS SysOp was keeping me busy.

WBBS user members could send and receive BBS email messages with other members, text-message with each other in real-time in the discussion (chat) rooms, play games, and send and receive software files shared within the BBS community.

Internet address emails were sent and received to WBBS members via a UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy) remote connection program through a telecom carrier I knew.

Some hobbyist BBSs had many telephone modem lines, which allowed a larger number of simultaneous users.

WBBS used six telephone lines connected to six modems, so six dialup users, plus your humble SysOp controlling the central computer BBS console, could be online at the same time.

Many of the WBBS members were from the Winsted and Lester Prairie areas, where the telephone number to reach the BBS was a free, local call.

I later updated WBBS with a GUI (Graphical User Interface) for a more visually-friendly, easily-maneuverable point-and-click experience for its members who downloaded the GUI client software.

Regular members of the BBS might stay logged in for hours chatting with others, and some would stop by to play games, check their messages, or just to say “hello” and “what’s new?” to folks in the virtual community’s chat room.

In addition to the enjoyment of being on the BBS, many also discovered the camaraderie taking place in the BBS community’s chat rooms.

In early 1993, I gave a presentation of a BBS during the Winsted Civic and Commerce Association lunch-in, below the American Legion Club in Winsted.

I used my new OmniBook laptop computer and a desktop computer which hosted a BBS program for the demo.

The desktop computer was set up to represent a business BBS, and the laptop as a customer’s home computer.

Each computer connected to a dedicated telephone line, which I installed for the presentation.

While the local business people ate lunch, I explained what a BBS was, and then demonstrated how a person could use their home computer to call a telephone number and connect with another computer operating a BBS software program.

I showed how a BBS menu program could be specifically designed to enhance their business with an online presence for communicating, selling, and providing product and service information to their customers.

This working demonstration must have made a good impression, because I was asked a lot of questions. Many business people also came up to the presentation table to see how I had the computers set up, and to get a closer look at what was displayed on the monitors.

The local business people reacted very favorably to the idea of online consumerism and the benefits it could provide for interacting with customers. Remember, this was nearly 25 years ago.

By the late 1990s, BBS users wanted internet web access.

Some BBSs obtained direct access to the internet by leasing a dedicated 1.54 Mbps T1 facility connection from their local telephone company.

A member could then access the internet through the BBS, which acted as an internet gateway.

BBSs were becoming ISPs (Internet Service Provider), and thus needed to charge its users an internet access fee to pay for the expensive monthly T1 internet connection charges.

Eventually, people began leaving the dial-up BBS world, preferring to traverse internet web content through commercial dial-up computing servers providing internet access.

Popular online servers included CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL (America Online), who charged hourly or monthly rates for online access.

Sadly, many of the local dialup BBSs (including WBBS: OnLine!) shut down and went offline, while others relocated their BBS community to an internet website.

Visit Bits & Bytes online at

Above is a "cut and paste" of of flyers I used in
1992 for the Bulletin Board System.
(submitted photo by Mark Ollig)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Upsurge in holiday shopping spending

©Mark Ollig

Thanksgiving is over, and that can mean only one thing: it’s time for the holiday shopping season.

The National Retail Foundation (NRF) reports consumers will be spending, on average, $967 during this holiday season.

The dollar amount breaks down as follows:

• $608 on presents for family, friends, and coworkers;

• $218 on holiday purchases such as decorations, food, and candy; and

• $141 on other “non-gift” purchases for their families and themselves.

With its headquarters in Washington, DC, the latest NRF survey revealed 164 million Americans shopped during this year’s Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Sunday, and Thanksgiving Day.

This week’s Cyber Monday online shopping revenue was estimated to have been $6.6 billion.

Anticipated total holiday retail sales revenue this year is predicted to be nearly $679 billion, which is $23 billion more than last year.

NRF states 73 percent of the shoppers will partake in charitable giving during this holiday season.

Individual state retail associations, such as the Minnesota Retailers Association, are a branch of the NRF; its website is

“Retail in Minnesota is so much more than inventory and cash registers. Minnesota retailers don’t just sell a product, they sell a whole experience,” states a message on their website.

In Minnesota, 69,575 retail establishments support 782,000 jobs. Our home-state retail business revenues provided nearly 16 percent of Minnesota’s overall 2016 gross domestic product (GDP), which was $296 billion.

Minnesota provided 1.81 percent of the 2016 US GDP, ranking it 17th out of all state economies.

Here’s an NRF fun fact: All 20,000 Mall of America parking spaces could fill with Minnesotans supported by our state’s retail businesses.

A brief video from the National Retailers Association regarding retail business in Minnesota is available at

In the US, 3.8 million retail establishments provide 42 million jobs, with combined GDP revenues of $2.6 trillion.

The NRF November survey reports 46 percent of younger consumers, age 18 to 24, said they plan to spend more this holiday season.

Out of all consumer age groups, 54 percent said they would spend the same, while 16.6 percent said less.

One often-purchased holiday gift is the ever-reliable gift card; for when you just can’t come up with a gift idea for that hard-to-buy-for person.

Most holiday shoppers will end up buying four gift cards, averaging $45 each.

I was surprised to learn the total spending on this year’s holiday gift cards is estimated to be $27.6 billion.

NRF’s November survey breaks down the percentages of the type of retail holiday gift cards consumers will be purchasing this year:

• restaurant – 36 percent;

• department store – 33 percent;

• various dollar amount credit cards – 24 percent;

• coffeehouse shops – 21 percent;

• movies/music/entertainment – 18 percent;

• online retail business – 14 percent;

• electronics store – 14 percent;

• bookstore – 12 percent;

• grocery/gasoline – 11 percent; and

• individual gas station – 9 percent.

I learned the NRF has the most members of any retail trade association on the planet.

Follow the National Retailers Association on Twitter at @nrfnews.

Be sure to visit my Bits & Bytes online webpage at

(Below Clipart Of LLC royalty user fee paid for by Mark Ollig)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Serious gaming started 45 years ago, with Pong

©Mark Ollig

How many of you recall playing the challenging table tennis (ping-pong) game called Pong on your television back in the mid-1970s?

Ah yes, I, too, was addicted to playing Pong.

Allan Alcorn, who worked for Atari Inc. as an engineer, designed Pong when he was 24 years old.

A standing cabinet version of his video arcade game was first installed in September 1972, at an establishment called Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, CA.

Pong was an instant success, and was being regularly played by the bar patrons.

However, a couple of weeks after its installation, the Pong video arcade machine began having problems and stopped accepting quarters.

Much to the dissatisfaction of the bar patrons (and I imagine the tavern owner), the Pong game stood inoperative, and so the bar manager called Atari and said, “The machine is broken,” and asked to have someone come out and fix it.

When Alcorn, himself, came out to investigate, he may have smiled after discovering why the Pong machine was not working.

The cause of the trouble was too many quarters had become jammed inside the cabinet’s coin-catcher.

This story takes me back to the days when I was out repairing public payphones (What’s a payphone, Grandpa?).

Sometimes I’d find quarters, dimes, and nickels had become lodged inside the payphone’s coin chute assembly, causing the phone to become “out of order.”

But, I digress back to today’s topic.

Atari had obtained enough funding to announce, Nov. 29, 1972, that Pong video arcade cabinet games would be mass-produced on an assembly line and sold commercially.

Three years later, Atari released the consumer version, called Home Pong, using a game console.

The Atari Home Pong console connected to a television and sold for $98.95, which in 2017, would be nearly $580.

Before Pong was on the scene, Ralph Baer had invented a simple “dot chasing” video game, called Chase, in 1967.

This game is played by connecting a brown controller box to a television.

By 1972, Baer’s design developed into what became the Magnavox Odyssey home video game console.

The Magnavox Odyssey game console was manufactured by the television maker of the same name, Magnavox, so consumers reasoned the Odyssey console would only work on a Magnavox television, when, in fact, it could be connected to any television.

The attentive folks at Atari picked up on this false belief and began printing “Works on any television set, black-and-white, or color” on all of its Pong game boxes in what I consider a brilliant advertising strategy. The result was increased sales of Pong game consoles among Magnavox television users.

Going back to 1958, William Higginbotham, instrumentation division head at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, created a game played using an oscilloscope connected to an analog computer as a way of entertaining visitors to the laboratory.

Higginbotham called this game Tennis for Two.

The year 1952 saw the first computerized digital graphical game called OXO, in which an individual played the tic-tac-toe game against a computer.

A person used a rotary phone dial as the game controller when playing OXO.

Dialing a digit from 1 to 9 represented the location of where to place an X or O on the tic-tac-toe board displayed on the computer’s cathode ray tube (CRT) display screen.

Alexander S. Douglas wrote the programming code for OXO at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The OXO game was played using the processing power of a 1949 British computer called Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator.

Going back further, we find World War II radar images to be the inspiration for a game played using a CRT.

Inventors Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed for a US Patent Jan. 25, 1947.

Dec. 14, 1948, both were granted US Patent 2,455,992 for Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.

“In carrying out the invention, a cathode-ray tube is used upon the face of which the trace of the ray or electron beam can be seen. One or more targets, such as pictures of airplanes, for example, are placed upon the face of the tube. Controls are available to the player so that he can manipulate the trace or position of the beam, which is automatically caused to move across the face of the tube,” reads the text from their patent.

A player’s manipulating “the trace of the ray or electron beam” on the CRT of their device has been likened to how an Etch A Sketch game creates the solid lines on its gray screen.

Check out this informative YouTube interview with Pong’s Allan Alcorn at

Be sure to visit my Bits & Bytes online webpage at

(Pong video arcade game cabinet)

This column originally published Feb. 14, 2011, and was recently updated by the writer.

Friday, November 17, 2017

North Korea’s internet is a ‘walled garden’

©Mark Ollig

Granted, it’s not the global internet you and I access; quite the opposite. It’s a tightly-controlled network within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

I can best describe the DPRK/North Korean version of their country’s “in-house internet” as similar to a company or organization’s private network or intranet system.

An intranet or (internal network) is a communications/computer network with software programs and services used by the computing devices of specific users with authorized access.

The North Korean name for their internet system is “Kwangmyong,” meaning “walled garden.”

Kwangmyong connects with the country’s educational and governmental research institutes, its libraries, and higher learning (universities) webpages.

The official media source for DPRK is the Korean Central Television/News Agency, which is also accessible on Kwangmyong.

Other content available includes the state insurance corporation, official government web portal, and the Pyongyang Broadcasting Agency’s webpage.

There are also webpages for the Pyongyang International Film Festival, the Korean Tourist Board, and the state-owned airline of North Korea; Air Koryo.

Kwangmyong connects with the North Hwanghae Provincial People’s Study House, which is equipped with spacious computer rooms for use by university students and military officers.

Pyongyang is the largest city and capital of the DPRK, and contains several internet cafes available with Kwangmyong.

Kwangmyong’s resources are normally accessed via computer modems and dial-up telephone lines.

This type of access – including the webpages I saw – was reminiscent of the modest graphical user interfaces found on CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, and hobbyist computer BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) during the early 1990s.

North Koreans have no connection from Kwangmyong for accessing the global internet.

In order to own a computer, a North Korean needs the permission of their government, and they must register it with their local policing agency.

A demonstration of how Kwangmyong is used was the theme of a recent video I located.

This video included some English translation by Finland foreign news correspondent Mika Mäkeläinen.

Mäkeläinen was in the company of a North Korean presenter who explained and navigated through the information hyperlinks on Kwangmyong from a North Korean university classroom computer.

University students were seated at other desks and could be seen and heard using their computers.

I observed some of the hyperlink pages clicked presented a “This webpage is not available” English message on the demonstration computer screen.

“Let’s see if we can get somewhere else,” a person on the video said.

Next, I viewed a list of about 40 hypertext links, each labeled in the Korean language. The presenter clicked on a link which opened the Kim Il-sung University webpage.

This university is located in Pyongyang, North Korea, and was built in 1946. It contains a large computer lab.

The presenter described the content on this webpage, including numerous achievements performed by the university, and the listing of student resource hyperlinks.

When asked by Mäkeläinen if the university’s webpages had any journalism information, or if they taught journalism, the North Korean presenter paused and then briefly conversed with another person. The presenter then clicked a hyperlink on the screen showing a news webpage containing articles and stories.

Another hyperlink was selected showing a webpage featuring movies on compact discs which could be ordered or downloaded to a computer.

It was pointed out several computer anti-virus software programs were also available for ordering.

Another hyperlink opened the webpage for a North Korean restaurant. “Cooking is science and art” was one of the articles found there.

This 11-minute video can be viewed on the Finnish webpage,

I took a screen-capture photo of the North Korean classroom showing students using computers. Framed photographs of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, can also be seen on the wall at the front of the classroom.

Here is the classroom video screen-capture photo I uploaded to my blog webpage:

Of the 25 million people in North Korea, approximately 3,000 have access to Kwangmyong.

The North Korean global internet service provider is Star JV (Joint Venture) Company.

It’s been reported only high-ranking North Korean government officials, citizens with “special permissions,” and select foreign visitors have the approval to use the global internet.

Since 2010, these select few were routed to the global internet through China’s Unicom internet connection.

As of last month, Russia’s telecommunications company, TransTeleCom, activated a newly installed internet fiber-optic cable into Pyongyang, in what I assume is a backup in the event China’s internet-provided connection is interrupted.

The Twitter username for Mika Mäkeläinen is @Mikareport, and the official news feed for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is @DPRK_News.

Be sure to visit my Bits & Bytes online webpage at

Below is the classroom video screen-capture photo.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Technology captures bygone voices of indigenous Californians

©Mark Ollig

 A collection of 2,713 wax cylinders containing native voices more than 115 years old are being heard for the first time.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), beginning in 1901, California Native language speaker’s stories and songs were being recorded onto the surface of wax cylinders (think vinyl records).

More than 100 hours of assorted languages spoken by indigenous California Native Americans who lived in the state are stored in this collection of wax cylinders.

In all, California has more than 90 indigenous languages associated with 21 different language families, making the state linguistically more diverse than any area of its size in the western hemisphere.

Over the years, patches of mold covered the surface of the wax cylinders, making the use of standard audio mechanical playback devices and needle stylus’s ineffective.

There was a concern any playback device or stylus which came into physical contact with the wax cylinders, would further deteriorate their surface.

May 20, 2015, the NSF awarded Abstract No. 1500779 for “Linguistic and ethnographic sound recordings from early 20-century California: Optical scanning, digitization, and access.”

This grant was awarded to the University of California-Berkeley (UC), which had begun a project named “Documenting Endangered Languages.”

May 31, 2018, is the scheduled completion date for digitizing and archiving the audio contained on the wax cylinders.

Thus far, this NSF grant has awarded $200,000.

The restoration and digitalization of the wax cylinders were urgently needed, as the analog speech patterns contained within the indentations/grooves on the wax, had become practically unrecognizable.

New technology developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was used at UC to create non-intrusive digital transfers of the audio information contained in the wax cylinders.

Optical laser light was used to “see” through the mold and capture the audio pattern indentations on the wax surface.

The indentations were then digitally scanned and stored as files on a computer.

No equipment or devices came into direct physical contact with the wax cylinder during the process.

The optically-obtained high-resolution image of the wax cylinder was then fashioned into a three-dimensional (3D) image using a special computer software program.

The software program used algorithmic processes on the 3D image of the wax cylinder.

The program then mathematically calculated the movements of how a needle’s stylus would be following the indentations of the spinning 3D wax cylinder.

Finally, a software algorithm then comparatively extracted and authentically recreated what the audio signal would actually sound like.

Faithful audio reproduction was also retrievable using this technique from damaged or broken wax cylinders.

I learned the audio quality using the above optical scanning and computer software technology, is superior to what would have been heard on a newly-recorded wax cylinder in the early 1900s.

By means of improved optical technology and program software modeling methods, investigators at UC have digitally recorded audio of the stories and songs by people in 78 indigenous languages which would otherwise have remained unheard; and thus lost forever.

The treasure-trove of the voices recovered from these wax cylinders is today being heard by the descendants of the indigenous people of California who recorded them.

These sound recordings from early 20th century California are a gift of language and culture from the past to the present.

The newly-archived digital recordings will remain available for future generations’ learning, scholarly research, and general appreciation for the rich history they bring to the present.

Speaking of recordings, Thomas Edison invented the speech recorder/cylinder phonograph in 1877.

Tin foil, instead of wax, was used as the recording surface for holding the sound vibration indentations of spoken words and music.

The tin foil he used was limited in the number of playbacks (using a hand-crank to rotate the cylinder), which could be heard before the foil’s indentations wore out.

The tin foil was later replaced with wax-coated cylinders, which could be repeatedly played, and was able to hold several minutes of audio.

The indigenous Native Californian wax cylinder collection is kept at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC campus in Berkeley, CA. Its website is

The National Science Foundation’s YouTube channel shows highlights used for obtaining the voices from the wax cylinders and digitally archiving them. I encourage my readers to view this informative video at

Follow my personal social commentary on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

(below is a screen-capture from the NSF YouTube video link)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A driverless bus, are you ready?

©Mark Ollig

Are you ready to hop aboard and take a ride in a battery-powered shuttle bus with no human driver, or even a steering wheel?

Don’t be nervous. A certified human shuttle operator will be aboard providing customer service for the passengers, as well as the human intervention of the autonomous bus ride if it’s needed.

This driverless, fare-free, 12-passenger shuttle travels at comfortable cruising speeds averaging 10 to 12 miles per hour, with a top speed of 20 miles per hour.

The city council of Arlington, TX is currently operating two self-driving electric vehicles under a lease agreement with EasyMile headquartered in Toulouse France, with offices in Denver, CO.

Arlington’s self-driving shuttle service is called Milo, meaning “mile zero” or the point at which shuttle passengers arrive or depart from an event’s location.

“Arlington is the first local government in the US to offer ongoing autonomous vehicle service to the general public,” said Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams.

These self-driving vehicles are shuttling people back-and-forth over non-public vehicular transportation roadways and trails within the city’s Entertainment District, where many events take place.

Arlington is exploring the use of autonomous transportation software and hardware technology, and is conducting a one-year pilot program which began in August.

Part of the purpose of the Milo pilot program is to familiarize the public with driverless vehicle technology, according to Bill Verkest, Arlington Transportation Advisory Committee Chair.

One of the routes Milo travels is the paved trail system connecting to AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys professional football team plays.

Information about Milo posted on the City of Arlington’s website includes the following:

• Milo shuttles are free to use, wheelchair accessible, and can hold up to 12 passengers, (or 10 passengers plus one wheelchair).

• Shuttle rides are available along select Entertainment District off-street trails during stadium and ballpark events.

• Although Milo runs autonomously, a certified operator will always be onboard.

• Milo has a maximum speed of about 20 miles per hour and can accelerate, brake, and steer by itself.

• Milo’s driverless technology comes with collision avoidance systems that detect other vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, and obstacles.

• Milo will operate by following a pre-programmed route on trails, not city streets.

• Milo includes air-conditioning and an automatically-deploying ramp for people using a wheelchair or those pushing a stroller.

“The experts are saying every day there is something new being invented in transportation. It’s a great opportunity for us to do these pilot projects, for us to actually test them in our community and for our citizens to be able to look at them and see if they work here and what their opinion of it is,” Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said about Milo during his 2017 State of the City address Oct. 18.

“We want to see how this technology performs, where it is best utilized and how it can be harnessed to potentially serve the city’s transportation needs in the future,” he added.

I encourage you to watch the City of Arlington’s video, “Arlington Unveils Milo Autonomous Shuttle Service,” at

Another video of Milo in action can be seen at

EasyMile was founded in 2014, and specializes in providing software powering autonomous vehicles and end-user smart mobility solutions. Its website is

Follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes, and visit my blog page at

(The above photograph is used with permission from the City of Arlington, TX)