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  • Across the Universe…


    Here’s what pops up on my screen when I walk away from my laptop for a minute- a graphic that tries to gives a snazzy visual for all the number-crunching and interpreting that’s going on. That’s right, I host the SETI at Home program, wherein massive data coming from space is shared amongst the personal computers of the world, all of which now have a chance to be the one that registers a communication from another (and possibly hostile!) lifeform in the universe. This is distributed by the BOINC application, which also assigns you credits based on how much data you’ve processed for the program. I’m at 528.30 credits right now. You can do absolutely nothing with these credits, but users go wild over them and freak out when a glitch or upgrade causes them to lose credit points. Whoever decided to add that barometer of usage understood a lot about human nature and the fact that we all like to keep score of everything, especially things that really don’t work that way. As a result, some people devote their old computers to run constantly for SETI and end up with rows of hard drives dedicated to it.
    While it would be mighty sweet to be a part of the first intergalactic communique, especially if it were from another planet just as they went through their trucker/cb phase and were saying something like “Breaker One-Nine, this is Little Gray. Got your ear on?”– it’s clearly not the best use of my computer’s spare time. BOINC also lets you contribute to more practical projects like analyzing protein strings for DNA study that could actually benefit medical treatment, assisting global warming research, and several other worthy operations. I’ll probably soon switch over to one of those projects.


    For now, I think I mainly do it because when I was seven I got to go to Puerto Rico with my parents, and we visited the radio telescope observatory at Arecibo. At first I was bummed because I thought there would be a big optical telescope that I would be looking through, and saw a big dish in the ground out in the jungle instead. I quickly realized how cool this was though once I let go of my image of me putting my eye in a giant pipe, and a guide explained how radio telescopes worked in astronomy, well enough that even as a seven year old I kind of understood. Later of course, the scope became part of the SETI project and it’s turned up in several movies. Most notably to me, is Contact, which has one of my favorite openings to any movie- the immense pullout that follows Earth’s radio transmissions on the way out of the solar system and keeps going. So yes, I had to go to YouTube and look it up.

    Some days I can’t think of anything to blog about, and some days I can ramble on about my screensaver.


    Comment from Eric
    Time: September 10, 2007, 6:01 pm

    I, no fooling, was just talking about Contact with someone today, being unpleasantly reminded that no, the movie I was thinking about was Arrival, starring Charlie Sheen.

    And two minutes ago, I was thinking that you might be interested in this list of things about space that don’t make sense. Now, because of serendipitous coincidence, I feel as though I have to publicize it here.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: September 10, 2007, 7:01 pm

    Thanks for that link, that’s full of good stuff. And in number 10, it has this link to a piece about the Arecibo dish receiving three signals from the same area that sounded interesting. That’s Mad Serendipity, in fact.

    Comment from Ben Herman
    Time: September 11, 2007, 7:27 am

    That was an informative link. All these years I thought cosmic radiation was something that turned you into a walking pile of orange bricks, or something like that. Who knew? Next thing you know, someone is going to try and tell me that exposure to gamma rays will not actually cause a person to transform into a big green angry monster, or that being bitten by a radioactive spider won’t give you super-strangth and the ability to stick to walls. How disappointing!

    Comment from zailo
    Time: September 11, 2007, 10:14 am

    Holy crap! That was cool. I had seen Contact but apparently I had walked in late because I have never seen that before.
    I just saw a program saying that scientist now think that all galaxies have a super-blackhole at their centers.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: September 11, 2007, 12:51 pm

    A delicious chewy super-blackhole, you mean.

    Comment from Spencer Curran
    Time: September 12, 2007, 7:55 am

    dn’t know if you’ve already seen this Jeff, but guess who’s a reason to love comics?

    Comment from Parker
    Time: September 12, 2007, 8:38 am

    I hadn’t- how cool! Thanks for the heads up, Spencer!

    Comment from sschroeder
    Time: September 14, 2007, 2:09 pm

    I think I found your stats page:


    SETI@Home used to track CPU hours in addition to work units (which was nice if your machine was a bit slower). I don’t think they do that with the current system. The current system is also incompatible with the credits from the old system. Perhaps that was necessary, but I don’t think that change was popular. They preserved the legacy tallies for veteren users, as you can see on my stats page, but just counting credits now isn’t as cool for some reason:


    I pretty much retired from participating shortly after switching to the new set up. My computer is old and doesn’t agree with BOINC so well. And, as you say, this project doesn’t seem like a great use of CPU time. Some of the other projects they have now could be more interesting.

    When I was doing SETI@Home, or in the wake of losing interest in it, I looked into a bunch of other distributed computing projects, many of which don’t even exist any more: Popular Power, Process Power, distributed.net, Genome@home, Folding@home, GRID.org, DCypher.net. I think at least one of them had the ambition to try and pay people for their CPU time. I don’t think that worked out in the end.

    So if SETI doesn’t feel like a good fit, you might be able to find something else. It probably won’t have the big competitive user base that SETI has, and so that might trap you for a while longer.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: September 14, 2007, 2:32 pm

    I find the graphic screensaver oddly relaxing, but yeah, I’ll probably switch to something that actually helps people before long.