Spoutin' Off: A neighborhood watch for computers

By Michael Rau

February 26, 2007

I read an Associated Press article the other day that not only tickled my funny bone but made me realize there was a topic on which I had planned to write a column but had never gotten around to doing. The story I read makes it a perfect opportunity.

So there's this guy in Minneapolis named James Melin, who's a software programmer for a county government agency. He has seven computers in his home and on these computers, he's running SETI@home.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this program, it's run out of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. I'll talk about this more in a minute, but for the purpose of this story, what you need to know is that if you're running SETI@home, the software periodically logs itself into a server at UC Berkeley and exchanges data.

Anyway, one of the computers in the Melin home is his wife's laptop, and it was stolen from their home on New Year's Day.

Now Melin - obviously a pretty smart guy - realizes that if whoever stole the laptop doesn't recognize SETI@home on the computer, and isn't aware of what it's programmed to do, if the perpetrator went online, the laptop was going to log onto the SETI@home server. And because the SETI@home project is a public online community, activities by community members (or more specifically, their computers) are recorded and posted online, along with their IP information.

So Melin decides to monitor the SETI@home database to see if the stolen laptop would "talk" to the Berkeley servers, and sure enough, his wife's laptop "checked in" three times within a week. He gave the IP to the Minneapolis Police Department, which got a subpoena for records from the ISP. They tracked down the laptop and returned it to the Melins.

Now my goal wasn't so much to tell you about the Melins (although I love that story) as it is to tell you about SETI@home.

SETI is, of course, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. It's one of those things that either fires the imagination or leaves you snoring. I, for one, fall into the former group, and in fact, I've been a member of the SETI@home community for many years.

Here's how it works: Astronomers use radio telescopes to systematically scan the sky in search of radio signals of types and modulations that would indicate they came from an unnatural source - that is to say - technologically generated, thus indicating they were created and sent by an intelligent being.

The purpose isn't to prove or disprove anything specific but rather just to determine if there's anyone else out there.

Over a period of time, these scans collect millions of gigabytes of data. The problem arises in trying to find enough processor time to run the calculations.

Someone in the UC Berkeley brain trust realized that there were a whole lot of computers out there that spent most of their time sitting idle, waiting for something to do. Why not tap into all that unused processor capacity?

So they wrote a small application, which they dubbed SETI@home, and put out a call for volunteers. Upon signing up, a member would download and install the application on their computer, set the configuration parameters and then let 'er rip.

While online, the application logs onto the SETI server, downloads a packet of data, then runs the calculations in the background whenever the system is idle. Once the packet is processed, the results are sent back to the SETI server and a new packet of data is downloaded and the process begins again.

For those of you who think that there are few people who find this interesting - think again. There are now more than 3 million of us who are part of SETI@home's "distributed supercomputer."

(If you want to see how I'm doing, go to their Web site and check. My SETI@home username is 'asoundidea'. You'll see that compared to some, I'm a relatively minor contributor, but that makes it no less satisfying.)

Maybe the search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn't your thing, but you're still intrigued by the idea of sharing your computer capacity for a good cause.

Well, those bright folks in Berkeley realized that there were many other scientific disciplines that could greatly benefit from the shared computer system employed by SETI@home. So a couple of years ago, they created a new application called "BOINC", which stands for "Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing".

Now, you download and install BOINC and then choose from many different projects (including SETI@home).

In this way, you share your computer resources to contribute to scientific research in the field of your choice. These include other projects dealing with astronomy and astrophysics, but also include projects conducting research in medicine, earth sciences, and other fields.

C'mon - share your unused computer resources for a good cause.

Who knows?

You might end up getting an unexpected benefit from belonging to such a community - just like the Melins of Minneapolis.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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