A number of years ago, a colleague of mine introduced me to the SETI at Home project. SETI, for those less geeky than me, stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and, if I remember correctly, the project lives at HarvardUniversity. SETI software listens for patterns in the background noise of the universe in order to hopefully find something not random and, therefore, a sign of an intelligent source.
SETI’s greatest actual contribution to the world of science has nothing to do with ET trying to come home but, rather, came in the form of a distributed computing project called SETI at Home. This project gave users interested in the project a screen saver to download and chunks of data for it to crunch upon. The more people who installed the software, the greater the overall power of what had turned into the largest massively parallel super computing system would become.
I loved the idea of people installing software at home or work that would use idle time to process compute intensive projects. I did not, however, think that using all of this power to listen to noise in order to find a pattern. Shouldn’t such a massively powerful system work on cancer, AIDS or DNA research rather than trying to find a radio signal that may have emanated from some planet of near incomprehensible distance at a nearly incomprehensibly long time ago. By the time researchers could respond to the signal they heard, the solar system from which the signal came may have collapsed or any other catastrophe that might occur in a few million years may have caused said intelligent life to go extinct. True, simply learning that some other intelligent species may have existed in the past or may still live today would be of tremendous interest but little value to our species.
A year or so ago, my buddy Sina introduced me to another project like SETI at Home but worked on protein folding and can be found at the Folding at Home web site. This project, based at StanfordUniversity works on very complex problems with potential outcomes that can cure many different diseases and do a lot to improve the health and quality of life of actual humans.
There are a number of other “at home” projects that work on problems I think are important but I chose folding at home and I stick with it. Today, I am proud to announce that I have broken into the top 8% of individual contributors on the project which has nearly 1 million members. I don’t know if anything my various computers contributed has done anything to move someone’s research forward but, in this case, negative results are as valuable as positives as they can help eliminate trials shown to have little or no value.
As a lot of these “at home” programs work in the background, I suggest you find something cool and useful and sign up. You will not notice any sluggishness if you are running a reasonably current computer and joining a massive computer to solve health and other problems and your idle time will add value to something quite worthwhile.
I accept that trying to find ET is a bit more glamorous than finding a folded protein of value but your probability of making a significant contribution to the world is much higher with the projects working on “real” science.
I have an original Braille Blazer from the old Blazie days. It is loud and slow but it is working perfectly. If anyone wants it, I will accept any offer over $150 (plus shipping) and will contribute the entire sum (except shipping) to either Southeastern Guide Dogs or to bookshare.org, whichever the buyer prefers.
A few weeks back, I wrote an article called, “Three New Products,” in which I mention that I had started calling my Victor Reader Stream simply “Vic” in honor of my Uncle Victor Bastek who had fought in both the second world war and in the Korean conflict. A person named Mark Bastek posted a comment to the blog wondering if we might be related and, indeed, we are. Unfortunately, Mark Bastek did not include a personal email address to which my sister, who is really into the family history, and/or I could respond. We’re hoping this shout out results in Mark finding me again but using the information under the “Contact Me” link instead of posting a comment to which I have no way to reply. We would really like to get in touch with Mark as our mother grew up with his father in Jersey City and, somewhere in my very distant memory, I recall meeting him too.
Finally, I’m starting to get involved heavily in the accessible instructional information side of the world of technology used by people with vision impairment. Any pointers or tips to GPL (or similar) Daisy readers would be greatly appreciated.