…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World
Yep, I’ve been participating in SETI@home for 15 years now. I remember those early years, when I heard about the project on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World program, and downloaded and ran the application first at college, then at home on my AMD K6-2 based computer running Windows 98 and with 128MB RAM and a 10GB hard drive (these were good specs back then!).
I remember the time I was the SETI@home User of the day and having my user profile featured on the project’s homepage.
Over the years I’ve upgraded and added computers. I remember AMD’s Socket A processors, the Athlon XPs, I had a variety of them, included a couple of the coveted “unlocked” ones such as a 2500+ where I dabbled with overclocking. I must have had eight computers on the go in my bedroom at one point – I even tried my best to keep them on at night during the warm summer months… sleeping wasn’t so comfortable.
I don’t overclock now. Times have changed and CPUs aren’t really the kings any more unless you have a lot of them. Now the way to crunch is with graphics cards. They can be overclocked but I find they run just hot enough without being pushed any more.
Since moving house a couple of months ago I’ve been able to leave more computers running 24/7 and this has lead to me currently having my highest performance ever, without buying any new hardware. In fact I haven’t upgraded or built any new rigs for a while – my highest spec graphics cards are still the Nvidia 6xx series, a couple of 670s and a 680, all in one rig – the 7xx series being more uptodate. In fact that rig is at its highest RAC performance too and is rated 33rd in the world out of all of the computers participating in the project.
My RAC is currently the highest in the UK, although I’m having fun regularly viewing a graph that depicts my performance compared to my closest rival.
The rivalry aspect is only a casual one I think. Many participants help each other through forums and especially within the team I’m in (GPUUG).
I don’t have any moments that I consider to be bad ones in my time participating in SETI@home. Anything I’ve had to deal with has just been part an parcel, and dealing with problems feels like all part of the fun. These problems might include parts failing, computers going down and me having to diagnose and repair them (some might consider the cost outlay to be an issue but I suppose I don’t spend every last penny of my earnings on parts so the money side isn’t stressful for me). Other problems over the years would also include my lack of internet access at certain times, where I even resorted to taking the innards of computers to work in my rucksack and cycling into work to keep the work units flowing (now that’s dedication!), and there have also been periods of server issues which a lot of participants found frustrating. Again, the frustration here might be because of the money that has been spent – if you have a lot of valuable computer parts that are left idle because the project can’t provide you with enough work then you might start to question your participation.
Perhaps money is the key issue with the project, like with some motor sports where the winners are the ones who can afford the best cars, the people at the top of SETI@home are probably the ones that can afford to/are prepared to spend the most on parts, and electricity. If there was serious rivalry this would be implying a jealousy that the person ahead of you has some more money to burn – if anything I think we each take our hats off to the noteworthy efforts of others.
Electricity usage is one of the issues I’ve had to deal with, and it’s only because of my recent house move and the fact that I’m responsible for my own electricity costs that I’ve been able to keep more computers on 24/7. You might think it would be the other way round, but when I was living at home my mum always noticed how much electricity we were using so of course I felt obliged to not let my usage get carried away. I think it has been good to have this restriction imposed.
Another restriction that is still present is my internet usage as I’m on a mobile broadband service that has a monthly data allowance, and SETI@home can transfer a lot of data in a day (100s of MBs on higher performance computers).
I also think the electricity usage is a moral issue too – I participated in Folding@home for a while but read a document that calculated that the project was likely doing more harm to health (through pollution linked to electricity usage by all the participants) than leading to health benefits by doing “protein folding simulations in the research into cancer cures”. Of course all participants of the SETI@home project and the supporting project equipement consume electricity, which inevitably means fossil fuels are being burned somewhere. There are also the raw materials used in the production of computer parts and the inevitable waste when parts reach the end of their usable life (even if a percentage can be recycled). Claiming one is putting otherwise discarded parts to use by participating in the project doesn’t stack up because older parts will be the least efficient. I’m mindful of these issues, yet I still feel compelled to participate.
I don’t feel that “the search for aliens in outer space” is my primary drive for participating in SETI@home. The idea is that someone (or likely a group of participants) in the project may (will hopefully) one day find a definite signal from an alien race, and I suppose be named and famed. I don’t have the “I want that to be me!” mindset. I think it’s just good geeky fun having too many computers that I don’t actually need, and giving those computers something to do to justify their existence.