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.

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.

Clicker Training

After a a few weeks of settling in, I thought I’d give some clicker training a go with Lucy, Destroyer of (Laptop) Mice.

In a word, astounding.

I’m only peripherally familiar with operand conditioning, but I bought and am following Karen Pryor‘s Clicker Training for Cats book. I started on Sunday with loading the click with chicken liver treats. After 5 clicks she had cottoned on and 10 clicks later she was targetting a biro with her nose and I could lead her around the room with it. 5 more clicks and she was giving me high fives in the air with her paws. This all took less than five minutes!

Now it’s Wednesday and she’s quite reliably giving high fives, coming when called, sitting and staying on her spot and getting down from the table on command.

For some obscure reason teaching her to switch the light off on command and to play the piano are high on the list…

General Relativity

Why is General Relativity so damned difficult and inaccessible? Because of tensor fields.

So what’s this about tensors? Well, caclulus might be abstruse enough already, but tensor calculus takes abstrusity (?) to a whole new level. A tensor is a multidimensional generalisation of scalars and vectors, to n-dimensions. So, a scalar quantity such as mass, having one dimension, can also be thought of as a tensor of rank zero. A vector quantity such as velocity can be thought of as a rank one tensor. Things become complicated when dealing with more complex quantities, such as elasticity, a rank four tensor in materials science.

Performing calculus with tensors becomes useful when considering quantities with two or more dimensions. The great benefit is that it allows you to treat quantities with as many dimensions as you need with the same notational convenience.

A tensor field is a tensor quantity that varies across all points in space. A magnetic field, denoted B, is a vector field, and so can be treated as a tensor field of rank one. The space in which the field is mapped may be the standard Euclidiean 3-space, but might well be some other space, like gee, how about a 4-dimensional spacetime? And I haven’t even mentioned Riemannian manifolds yet.