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Things you can donate which aren't kidneys.

02 October 201011:42AMscienceintrospection

Something that turns up a lot in religion and self-help books is the idea of 'tithing' or giving away 10% of your income, traditionally to the church but possibly to any charitable cause.

While I'm mostly inclined not to believe either religion or self-help books, this is something I can get behind, because it seems like it would be pretty easy to just make it part of your routine and forget about it while still making the world a better place. Like jogging, or using a recycling bin.

There's one small flaw with this: I don't actually earn any money, so giving away a tenth of it is pretty difficult. So I had a think about what I have that accumulates or persists in much the same way as money, and after some consideration I got two things:

  1. Blood (and possibly organs)
  2. Computing time Now while I absolutely have every intention of donating blood at some point, because it helps loads of people, the very fact that I haven't yet is testament to the fact that, unlike jogging and recycle bins, it's not something which is easy to make so routine and everyday that I forget it's happening. By the same token, Organ donation requires major surgery and/or death, not necessarily in that order, which is again a little difficult to do every day.

The other one was literally staring me in the face. I can say with 100% certainty that (unless you like printing out random blogs) you're sitting in front of a computer right now, and that computer is connected to the internet, and in all probability, your great big powerful computer with gigs and gobs of RAM and several woggahertz of processing power is sitting there doing this:

This should actually be a crime

Now, I'm sure if you've ever been to a university physics department, you'll have seen a great big supercomputer, usually behind some glass right in the foyer coughUWAcough, and they'll have bragged to you about how useful a computer like this is for solving big maths problems and crunching microscope data and simulating solar systems (not actually that hard, but I digress) and whatnot, but supercomputing is actually a both a lot more broadly applied than this and a lot differently structured. For several years (and if you've been keeping up with computer stuff even a bit you'll have noticed this) computing has been heading less towards doing stuff faster and more towards doing lots of things at once, to the point where even the low power netbook I'm using right now has two standard processors and a third (admittedly crap) one just for graphics. Supercomputers have been heading this way too. It's called grid computing.

The beauty of grid computing is that it's not just something that places like universities can do. Using the internet, and some pretty standard desktop hardware, you can construct a very efficient, very high-capacity computer which can do as many things at once as it has members. And since it's not in a physics department, it's available to things that aren't physics- anything from modelling localised climate change to curing aids to genetically engineering a more eco-friendly and nutritious strain of rice.

And this is the part where we get back to the idea of tithing. Giving money requires having a source of income. Giving blood is time-consuming and requires leaving the house. Giving processor time? Well, installing the software takes about five minutes, and setting the preferences might take another five, but after that? You forget about it. Your computer can just sit there While-U-Facebook™, chugging away at folding proteins or searching for aliens or curing cancer. If you're really nerdy and have a seperate computer which is always running to run a webserver or grab torrents, stick it on that (it'll balance the bad karma from your illegal downloads!). Even if you're not normally a techy person, you can do useful scientific and humanitarian computing.

So now you're all fired up, here's how to get involved:

  1. The easiest way is to join a project, like the World Community Grid, which contributes to a number of research applications and has a relatively easy-to-use client. Standard sign-up stuff, username-password-email.
  2. Download the client, from the download link at the top of the page.
  3. Install the client.
  4. Once BOINC (the software) is running, punch in http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/ (or maybe there's a list, I don't remember), and your username and password.
  5. Try to resist the temptation of logging in every day to see how many points you've earned. Remember, it's meant to be something you just forget about.And that's about it. Ridanculously easy, doesn't affect your everyday performance (and if you need performance, you can always suspend it) and is a lot better use of processor cycles than a screensaver. That sounded like an infomercial. Anyway.
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