Citizen science and 21 years of SETI@Home

Since April 1999, before the term “citizen science” was coined, I have been contributing my spare computer power to a citizen science project called SETI@Home. The idea with these sorts of projects is to install software that runs in the background, which downloads units of data from the project’s servers, and performs complex analysis on the data when otherwise idle. Over time this helps scientists who don’t have a lot of funding (but who are also not in a big hurry), since if enough people help out they don’t have to pay for supercomputer time. In the 1990s when SETI@Home was started, supercomputer time was very expensive, but everyone left their computers on all day running flying toasters and suchlike on the screens. Looking back, it seems people cared less about their power bills.

Thus, SETI@Home began as a screensaver. It analysed radio astronomy data collected by a group of researchers at UC Berkeley interested in SETI (the “Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence”). It looked for unusual signal peaks, or other forms of potential interstellar communication, amongst the background noise of radio astronomy data, gathered mostly from the enormous Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico.

In more recent years, the software was rewritten as a module for a more generic application called BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. Installing BOINC enables users to contribute their spare computing power to many different research efforts, by downloading separate modules for things like solving protein structures, sifting molecules for cancer therapies, searching star field databases for undiscovered asteroids, or modelling the climate.

By “contributing” I mean that I have pretty much continuously left my home PC on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for just over 21 years. For some of that time I was even leaving my work computers on too, since at first that was pretty common practice among SETI users. In the late 1990s, Weta Digital left their supercomputers crunching SETI units when not rendering special effects, and they racked up a massive early lead that took other SETI users many years to catch up on.

In 21 years (as of May 2020) I have contributed just over 33 million BOINC credit units, which puts me in the top 99.9% of just over 1.8 million SETI@Home users, and second in the “New Zealand” team of 357 users. The only interruptions in that time were power cuts, hardware upgrades, several replacements of PC, reinstalls of the operating system, or emigrating to the UK and back. When later revisions of the SETI@Home software enabled it to use the graphics processor as well as the CPU, it massively increased the computing power available. Since my home PCs have always been gaming machines, and a GPU at full tilt will dump well over 100W of extra heat into a PC case, I had to start using process throttling to manage the temperature budget, especially in summer.

Despite this, processing SETI@Home units quickly became an end in itself, a little mini-game to accumulate as many otherwise meaningless “internet points” as possible. I have not tried to figure out how much electricity all this computation equates to, and nor do I particularly want to!

A shout out to ASUS, whose NVidia GeForce 8800GT graphics card purchased in 2008 faithfully crunched SETI units 24/7 for nine years (I upgraded to an EVGA NVidia GeForce GTX 970 in 2016). It still works, given an AGP slot to put it in, so that’s some impressively reliable hardware right there, although admittedly I fitted it with excellent silent heatpipe cooling from QuietPC in Christchurch, because the stock fan did make a bit of a racket at night while I was trying to sleep. Yes, 11 years ago I was a bachelor with the gaming PC in the bedroom. Yay, stereotypes!

Anyway, SETI@Home announced this month that they are going into hibernation. They have gathered more data than they need, and have stopped disseminating units for processing. This marks the end of an era, but at least I get a shiny certificate.

I got a certificate of participation! Woo!

Now I can turn my PC off. Or perhaps I can carry on crunching for Science United.

Update, May 2021: I can’t help wondering how many yachts I could own by now if I’d mined cryptocurrencies instead…

Farewell, Lucy

Jungle Spirit Lucy Touchnose, 23 March 2007 – 7 January 2020.

Loyal and faithful companion, watcher of birds, master of yowls, sniffer of cobwebs, chaser of ping-pong balls, supervisor of gardening, chief supermarket bag inspector, destroyer of catnip, much beloved. Lucy gave us her last high five this week after she was diagnosed with an aggressive tumor. She will be very much missed by all who were lucky enough to fill her bowl and scratch her ears. Sleep well.

Climate denial codswallop

To all my friends posting and sharing climate denial codswallop on socal media, I love you but please consider spending those late night hours looking up the real climate science first, before believing Mike Hosking or some other clueless twit on the telly or the internet.

Start here, at Skeptical Science – a list of all the myths, misconceptions and outright nonsense, sorted by popularity, with their rebuttals and counter-arguments, and as much actual scientific detail you could possibly need.

If you want to build a bridge, consult an engineer. Do not consult the aromatherapist who thinks engineers are conspiring to build fake bridges. Ditto vaccinations, flat earth theory and all the other anti-intellectual bullshit that seems to be circulating these days.

I spent three years studying climate science at university, and I can tell you that it is complicated and resistant to summary, which is why it doesn’t do well in the US media, so if you want to understand it you’ll need to spend some time. Let me assure you though, it does all add up; multiple otherwise unrelated datasets all say the same thing: that climate warming is happening, human civilisation caused it, and it won’t end well for us unless we do something about it. But don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself, start here. And no, I do not care about rebuttals, I’ve heard it all before. This is not a discussion. This is also not a matter of opinion, like your favourite restaurant. In scientific matters, you are not entitled to your opinion unless you can successfully defend it in the appropriate forum (published journals), so good luck with that.

I’m probably going to regret posting this later, but I’m so fed up with it, and it’s doubly frustrating because it’s such a difficult topic to try and explain properly, and endlessly refuting the same old tired long-debunked arguments over and over again is EXTREMELY tiresome. Please understand that I’m just trying to help, and this is a good place to start. You’re welcome.

See also:

Stokes, P. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” in The Conversation, 5 October 2012.

Taste North Canterbury 2018

TASTE NORTH CANTERBURY 2018 – Christchurch (25 October 2018)

The newly launched North Canterbury Wine Region, a merger of the Waipara and Canterbury wine growers associations, held a tasting event in Christchurch on a rainy October Thursday evening. Amongst the winery stalls were some local makers of sheep milk cheeses and free range pancetta and salami. There was a lot to taste!

It is sad to see that Tresillian has closed; snap any up if you see them, they made very good wines. Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley were two makers whose stalls had large queues all evening. I don’t know what it is about all that loony biodynamics codswallop but it sure attracts good reviews from wine writers, and plenty of customers clamouring for the new releases. I think apart from a few notable exceptions (anything from Millton’s Clos de Sainte Anne vineyard, for example), biodynamics seems to be an excuse to overcharge for overrated wine, and the breathless, credulous enthusiasm some reviewers have for it is the same that we find in audiophile magazines about gold-plated HDMI cables and wooden volume knobs. But I digress.

Present at the event but not reviewed here (since we visited them on previous days) were wines from Lone Goat, Black Estate and Pegasus Bay.

Pegasus Bay established the first vineyards in Canterbury in the 1970s and are one of the few wineries to make Bordeaux style reds in the South Island (the Maestro is excellent), although they initially established their reputation from very good Rieslings. Lone Goat make fantastic Riesling from 30 year-old vines, amongst the oldest in Canterbury and originally planted by Giesen, who have since moved to Marlborough. They also make the country’s only Ehrenfelser, and an excellent one too. Black Estate make wine that I wouldn’t write home about, and are proof that fluffing about with lunar calendars, Zodiac signs and homœopathic preparations (congratulations, you watered your vines!) does not always result in better wine. Sorry to go on about it, but what a load of cobblers, I mean really.

Pleasantly surprising amongst the excellent Rieslings and Chardonnays were several very promising, tropical fruit-forward examples of Albariño. In the reds, for what it’s worth, my favourite Pinot Noir wines were from Fancrest Estate and Mon Cheval (Pearson Estate), and whilst the Pyramid Valley Earth Smoke Pinot Noir was very nice too, it was more than double the price. Two makers presented very good Syrah, in a cooler-climate, northern Rhône style with an emphasis on complex floral aromas, and even a good Tempranillo from Mount Brown. Continue reading “Taste North Canterbury 2018”

Sagrantino from Italy and Australia

A rare and exciting opportunity to taste a wide selection of Sagrantino wines was held recently at Wellington wine bar and restaurant, Noble Rot. A privilege, not just to be able to taste several Sagrantino wines together, but to do so in a setting of five courses of beautiful food, and presided over by Noble Rot founder and one of New Zealand’s most awarded sommeliers, Maciej Zimny.

It was possibly the first of its kind in New Zealand. Several Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wines from Umbria over several vintages were included from our collection, and each representing a different approach to making Sagrantino wine, and one of them a passito, a sweet red dessert wine. Two wines from Australia were also included, representing contrasting styles and climates from King Valley and McLaren Vale.

Continue reading “Sagrantino from Italy and Australia”

Australian Syrah then and now: current line-up

Tonight was the second part of a two-part tasting of Australian Shiraz with Geoff Kelly at Regional Wines & Spirits, the first being the 1996 library tasting (see previous post). This time we blind-tasted eleven new 2013-14 Australian Shiraz wines, including the Penfold Grange which is north of $850 per bottle, and with an Elephant Hill Hawke’s Bay 2013 Syrah thrown in to keep us honest.

Each wine was very well-built, young and purple, peppery and bold. Each wine had something to say, but unfortunately this time I exhausted my palate by the ninth, and couldn’t make head or tail of the last three. Shame, because although I liked them the Lloyd Reserve which I admired in the library tasting was hiding among them.

As we poured the blind wines into glasses, the colours of all the wines were good healthy young Syrah deep purple-red, although I could tell there would be something special about No. 6 and No. 9 just from the density of colour; No. 6 looked like you could stand a spoon up in it.

For me the remarkable wines were Nos. 3, 6, and 9.

No. 3 reminded me of a big, older-style blackcurrant jam Australian Shiraz, with lots of berry, ripe toffee and a long oaky finish. The minty, freshly-crushed basil leaf on the nose typical of South Australian Shiraz goes well; Geoff says if he likes it he calls it “mint”, or “eucalypt” otherwise. Someone else remarked this wine might be like Kylie crashing a Holden ute full of Foster’s into a blackberry patch. Enjoyable perhaps, but not especially subtle. No. 6 was the most beautifully dark rich purple-red, with an intoxicating, highly concentrated nose of mostly blackcurrant, but also warm florals and a whiff of rough-sawn timber. The wine itself was complex, initially spicy but with savoury meaty flavours and berries competing for space, with a longer finish. No. 9 for me was also a dense colour, with a peppery lavender on the nose and an interesting hint of baked dates or figs, not over-sweet but nicely integrated into the plum fruit flavours for a lingering complexity.

Once again we gathered some “wisdom of the crowd” data to see if as a group we could pick our wines, and this time we did a bit better; results are below.

Blind rating totals from the new 2013-14 Australian Syrah tasting.

The Penfolds Grange hiding at No. 6 was correctly identified by about half the group. I was overthinking things too much and was trying to re-taste the last three wines at this point, to find the rich, complex wine that would be a likely Grange candidate. I had assumed that, having never tasted it before, something as ludicrously expensive as the Grange might surely be less up in one’s grill with its big bold Aussie blackcurrants, so although No. 6 was beautifully dense and concentrated, I had assumed the Grange was busy being all sophisticated elsewhere. Once everyone’s hands shot up, however, it became clear the cat was out of the bag! The No. 9 I liked was the Elephant Hill 2014 Syrah Reserve, which surprised me, and the Lloyd Reserve from Coriole in McLaren Valley was hiding at No. 10, which was interesting to re-taste after The Grange. It has that torn basil leaf mint and lavender on the nose, with savory and plum, liquorice and a good long finish.

Of futher note was No. 11, the Cape Mentelle 2013 Shiraz from Margaret River in Western Australia. This was a more delicate wine than the others, with interesting and complex boquet of jasmine, perhaps roses, with a good plum fruit body and a nice mild spiciness like a hint of Christmas cake, with a good long-ish finish. It was certainly different enough from the others that three of us thought it was the Hawke’s Bay Syrah.

Herewith the full list of wines:

1. 2015 Wirra Wirra Shiraz Catapult, McLaren Vale, South Australia
2. 2013 Domaine Chandon Shiraz, Yarra Valley, Victoria
3. 2014 Burge Shiraz FilsellBarossa Valley,  SA
4. 2014 Two Hands Shiraz Gnarly Dudes, Barossa Valley, SA
5. 2014 John Duval Shiraz EntityBarossa & Eden Valley,  SA
6. 2012 Penfolds Shiraz Grange, Barossa Valley, SA
7. 2012 Wirra Wirra Shiraz RSWMcLaren Vale,  SA
8. 2012 Elderton Shiraz Command, Barossa Valley, SA
9. 2014 Elephant Hill Syrah ReserveHawkes Bay, New Zealand
10. 2013 Coriole Shiraz Lloyd Reserve, McLaren Vale, SA
11. 2013 Cape Mentelle Shiraz, Margaret River, West Australia
12. 2013 Seppelt Shiraz St Peters, Grampians, Victoria

Australian Syrah then and now: 1996 library tasting

Tonight we went to one of Geoff Kelly‘s illuminating wine tastings, held as ever at Regional Wines & Spirits next to the Basin Reserve in Wellington. This was part one of a two part tasting – a library tasting of 20 year-old Australian Shiraz wines, with a 1996 Hermitage thrown in as a yardstick; Next month part two will be a tasting of eleven new vintage Australian Shiraz with a good Hawke’s Bay Syrah to compare. Tonight was a blind tasting, in order to gather some interesting data from participants before revealing which wines were which.

It really is quite intimidating to try twelve magnificent 20 year-old red wines, and try to remain objective about comparing their colour and weight, nose (aroma), taste, complexity, and so on. As humans we’re notoriously bad at taste and smell compared to our other senses, so even just trying to identify the different flavours is a constant challenge. They are sometimes elusive or fleeting; there at the start, but then gone with the vapours a few minutes later. Sometimes they are maddeningly familiar, but the right word, recollection or label for it is just out of reach. Geoff, a true national treasure, runs a good show; reminding us not to speak too much aloud and cloud each others’ judgements, but dropping a few helpful hints and starting points to look for in aged reds, and Australian Syrah in particular, drawing on his 40 years of wine cellaring, judging, and writing.

Most of them were just as you’d imagine beautiful aged 20 year-old Syrah to be: plum or berry dominant, interesting florals, smooth, and tannins tamed by oak and time. That is, apart from No. 5 which to my nose was of fresh cowpat and sweaty horse. No. 7 to me had an unpleasant butyric bile odour, but it had weird almost salty savoury taste, like Parmigiano. My favourites were No. 3 for its sheer number and complexity of different and intriguing flavours, and its beautiful long velvety finish, and No. 8, which was a standout for me. It was the most purple-red of the set like it was only three years old, while all the others had aged to a fairly uniform red-ruby, near garnet colour. It had a bold nose of cognac, almond and cherry, with a slight floral element of jasmine and violets. Strong dark plum fruit but with a savoury hint of truffle, and its long-lingering tannins, whilst softened with the oak, were still unwinding even after all this time, and could probably go for another ten years.

Before revealing the wines, Geoff asked us to rate a first and second favourite, a least favourite, and which we thought was the French wine hiding in the glasses. This data set is tabulated below.

No. 5 was the 1996 Cape Mentelle from Margaret River, Western Australia, which might have had either a dose of brett or it was corked. No. 3 was the 1996 d’Arenberg Dead Arm from McLaren Vale, South Australia, and No. 8, my favourite, was the 1995 Coriole Lloyd Reserve, also from McLaren Vale. The No. 7 was the ludicrously expensive Hermitage (AOC Syrah from Rhône, France), the Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle; Jancis Robinson writes about this wine, here. Luckily for me, Regional Wines had a couple of the 2011 Lloyd Reserves in stock!

The full list of wines are detailed on Geoff’s library tasting page, and reproduced here:

1. 1996 Seppelt Shiraz Mount Ida, Heathcote, Victoria
2. 1996 Barossa Valley Estates E&E Shiraz Black Pepper, Barossa Valley
3. 1996 d’Arenberg Shiraz Dead-Arm, McLaren Vale, South Australia
4. 1996 Jim Barry Shiraz McRae WoodClare Valley, SA
5. 1996 Cape Mentelle Shiraz, Margaret River, West Australia
6. 1996 Burge Shiraz Meschach, Barossa Valley, SA
7. 1996 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, Northern Rhone Valley, France
8. 1995 Coriole Shiraz Lloyd’s Reserve, McLaren Vale, SA
9. 1996 Bannockburn Shiraz, Geelong, Victoria
10. 1997 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz Langi, Grampians, Victoria
11. 1996 Henschke Shiraz Mount EdelstoneEden Valley, SA
12. 1996 McWilliams Shiraz Maurice O’Shea, Hunter Valley, NSW


After a lovely day wandering around Verona, we caught the 5.30 pm fast Italotreno to Bologna, and had tea at a Chinese-run canteen near the hotel. Rather good fresh pasta and what-do-you-know, Bolognese sauce? And only €5. Lovely. Collapsed into the hotel room for an early night.

The following day, we went for a wander, but nothing much was open. It’s right in the middle of the year, and Bologna being a (the?!) university town, in summer everyone’s away at the beach, and a lot of places are shut for two weeks. But mainly, it was also Ferragosto, a national holiday. We had a look around an old brick church, with an attached apothecary and herb garden (closed), and the famous leaning towers. We failed to walk past the Venchi chocolate shop, and accidentally bought some. We also found some stars in the pavement, for Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald.

The next day, we went on a booked food tour around Bologna and Modena. Up early sparrowfart for a look around a Parmesan cheese factory, followed by a look at a prosciutto factory, full of pig’s legs. But most remarkable was the balsamic vinegar producer we visited, where they boil grape must and stick it in six barrels with the holes covered with linen to let it evaporate. Each barrel is smaller than the previous, and made from different woods; first oak, then mulberry, cherry, juniper, chestnut and plum. Each year the barrels are topped up from the larger one before it, and the largest is topped up with new boiled grape must. This goes on for 25 years.

Then we had a four course lunch, with the local sparkling red, a lovely Lambrusco. The tour guide was a slightly odd Italian guy with small pudgy hands, with which he’d try to do a high five whenever he made another of his slightly off-key jokes, but sort-of grasped your hand afterwards which just added to the creepiness.

We got stuck sitting next to a loud American guy skiting about how much money he makes as a consultant helping casinos figure out how to make more money with their poker machines. Well, when he wasn’t complaining about how air travel in Europe isn’t as nice as the US. I asked him why on earth he wasn’t travelling by high-speed train, and what the casinos do about addicted and problem gamblers, which shut him up pretty fast. Then I told him I think all casinos should be evacuated and then burned to the ground with the owners locked inside, and they left me alone after that, which was nice because Bek’s table companion was much more interesting.

The next day after eggs and bacon for breakfast, we went for a stroll into town, via the shaded arches of Bologna’s famous arcades, and found the Music Museum. It had displays about Rossini and Respighi, who was the student of Martucci (I must try to get hold of some Martucci, apparently there’s a bunch recorded by Ricardo Muti for Naxos). They also had some cool early instruments and a Heckelphone.

Another day, another eggs & bacon breakfast and a coffee at the hotel, just before they closed up shop at 10 am. Packed up, checked out, and went over the road to the train station. Bought a high-speed rail ticket each to Florence from the billetteria (automatic ticket machine), which was €25 for a 35 minute trip. Bologna’s train station is very large, with 19 platforms all over the place. We jumped on the train to Florence, which was fairly space-age, even compared to the other fast trains we were on before.

Learning the contrabass trombone

Wessex Contrabass in F and Shires bass trombone, side by side.
Wessex Contrabass in F and Shires bass trombone, side by side.

I’ve recently acquired a Wessex contrabass trombone in F. It is pretty much a knock-off of the Thein Ben van Dijk model, and compared to this gold standard of contrabass trombone, this instrument is about an eighth of the price and certainly a perfectly good instrument to learn on. It plays really well throughout the range and the slide, valves and bell are all of high build quality, unlike some notoriously bad Chinese-made instruments of the past.

But really, this post is just an excuse to test out a nifty music notation WordPress plugin. The shorthand it uses is ABC which is a bit quaint compared to Lilypond, but it seems to work well enough. For instance, take the first scale we might learn on a contrabass trombone:

The contrabass trombone in F only has six positions on the open slide instead of seven. Furthermore, only the first five are actually practical, unless you are Tarzan, so we can play the G on the first (D) valve in third position. While the A is also theoretically available in first position on the D valve, it is indistinct and slightly flat. Play it on the open slide in fourth. Good. Now, how about an excerpt from Ein Alpensinfonie by Richard Strauss:

Sounds good! Now, pop along to the NZSO performance in March 2017 to hear Shannon playing it, live in concert! In the meantime, here’s this excerpt by Berlin Philharmoniker: