happy earth day! (and why distributed computing is awesome).

When I think of the Earth as a whole, my first thoughts are usually just of a pretty blue and green beachball spinning around up there in space; but for a more comprehensive picture of it, I believe a breakdown of what’s inside is necessary. It’s a one of a kind beachball planet, and it’s the only one we know of that we can live on. The earth is all of the land, all of the water, all of the air, and (most importantly) all of the life inside the spinning sphere. We, as the the most intelligent species living here, have a huge effect on the planet. Of course, the effect we have could be a lot worse, but there is a lot we could do to make our effect severe.

So, on a day where we celebrate our home world, I would like to talk a little about how we can help make it better, with very little effort, by participating in what are known as distributed computing projects. Oh boy, doesn’t that sound scary and difficult! A distributed computing project gives you a piece of software to install on your computer one time, and then tells that to use your computer to help scientists to do their work faster. Once you have the software running on your computer, your job is done, your computers processor does the rest! It will be sent calculations that it will do, and it will return the results to the people who need them (usually scientists/researchers). ‘But don’t those scientists/researchers have access to far better computers than mine?’ I hear you ask (or imagine you ask, at least…). Well, yes; but the whole point of this distributed computing thing, is that dividing the work into smaller parts for less powerful computers to do, is more efficient and faster than leaving it to a handful of ‘supercomputers.’

If you do run a distributed computing project, you will probably notice that your computer might be a little hotter than normal, and your fan is running a lot more frequently, or even constantly. This may worry you at first, as you think your computer is too slow, or that by using the software, you think your computer will become less responsive for your own personal work. This should not pose a problem, as most projects will just use the processor power that is idle, i.e. what you don’t need. If you suddenly need your processor for something, the software will notice this fact instantly, and back off. Usually,  most people use only a small amount of their processing power, unless they are playing some high-intensity games or watching HD video or something like that. This is a way to make use of all of the rest of that power while you are getting on with your work.

Choosing a project to participate in

For someone who is new to distributed computing, the first thing you need to know is that there are many different projects to choose from, depending on your own interests. A lot of these projects use the same software on your computer to delegate the work, which can be found here: http://boinc.berkeley.edu/. Once you have downloaded and installed the software on your computer, you need to choose a project (or a few projects), from this list: http://boinc.berkeley.edu/projects.php. Personally, I’m participating in World Community Grid and SETI@home. The former is really a collection of several sub-projects, which you can choose from in their preferences (I choose all), and the latter is a more specific project.

In conclusion, I pose to you this question: can you think of any good reasons not to participate in such efforts? Happy Earth Day, Earthlings!

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