Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kids, Try This at Home: Man's Search for Aliens Got Him Fired

"Man Looks for Aliens, Loses Job"
DiscoveryNews (December 2, 2009)

"A basic human desire is to look for life beyond Planet Earth. We look at the stars wondering if a tentacled creature is gazing back at us and we ponder if life on Earth was spawned by alien bacteria hitching a ride on a meteorite.

"We also spend a large portion of our space exploration budget looking under rocks on Mars to see if any creepy crawly fossils can be found.

"However, the big question is: Are there any other intelligent forms of life out there? If there is, surely they must be communicating? If they are communicating, perhaps we can hear their signal?

"Cue the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the novel techniques being used to hunt for aliens. On its most basic level, SETI use radio antennae to eavesdrop on ET's chatter, but so far we haven't heard ET 'phone home' (or 'phone Earth' for that matter)...."

the SETI project has been a distributed computing program called SETI@home for quite a few years, to analyze data picked up by radio telescopes. One of my brothers-in-law ran the SETI@home screensaver for about seven years, and I've been dedicating some of my computer's resources to SETI@home for some time now. (It's part of Berkeley's BOINC program.)

This article caught my eye, both since I'm interested in the SETI@home program, and the possibility that there was a legal angle to its use I hadn't considered.

Turns out, the fellow who lost his job had racked up an impressive 575,000,000 or so "credits" by running the SETI@home program on his computers. That's impressive: I devote about half my system resources to the program, when I don't need the power for graphics or video work, and so far have just over 9,300 credits - if I'm reading the report right.

So, how did this chap manage to get 575,000,000 credits?

Simple: He loaded the software on Arizona's Higley Unified School District's computers.

All of them.


Really, really stupid.

He used to be the district's system administrator. When accountants tallied up the effect his escapade had on the district's power bills, plus wear and tear on the hardware, they figured that he'd cost the district somewhere between $1,200,000 and $1,600,000. That's a lot of zeroes.

The alternatively-prudent former system administrator wasn't, technically, fired. He was, according to the article, "asked to resign."

I can't blame the district for taking exception to their former computer system administrator's unauthorized use of the district's equipment. A million dollars may not seem like much, these days: but it's still a lot of money.

As for me, I'm keeping SETI@home on my own computer. I own the hardware, and pay for the power: and I don't mind the slight extra cost.

There's the (extremely remote) possibility that my computer will be the one to sort a coherent signal out of the welter of data. Maybe something like "you may already have won the Glinzfarble Sweepstakes!"

More likely, someone will find a use for the mass of analysis that SETI@home is creating.

And, in the meantime, it's a cool screensaver.

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