Donating Cycles, Making the World Better

One of the things I generally try to do is leave the world in a slightly better state than I found it. Of course, I’m not always perfect at that, but on the whole I think it’s a good goal to shoot for.

To that end, I recently started participating in BOINC again.

If you haven’t heard of it, BOINC is a system where nonprofit science research teams can solve computationally complex problems without having to build or buy time on horrifically expensive supercomputers, by using all the spare idle computation time of ordinary people who leave their computers on even when they aren’t using them. BOINC detects when your computer is idle, and donates CPU cycles to researchers, basically making your computer part of an enormous ad-hoc supercomputer. You can choose what research projects you want to participate in.

Back when I lived in Canada, I joined BOINC and allowed them to use my laptop to look for new treatments for diseases by studying protein folding.

I dropped out of BOINC when I came back to the US from Canada, but I’ve just re-joined again.

This is my old 2012 laptop, which now does nothing but BOINC. I’ve joined two research projects, Rosetta@Home (which does research on protein folding to look for new drugs and disease treatments) and World Community Grid (which looks for genetic markers for cancer and searches for cures for diseases that are too uncommon or appear in parts of the world too impoverished to be worthwhile for conventional for-profit pharmaceutical companies).

I have a computer that is essentially a backup Time Machine server and Web server, and I may run BOINC on that as well.

I would encourage anyone out there who wants to help solve real problems by donating idle computer time to join.

Basically, you just install the BOINC software, choose a research project from a list, and that’s it.

BOINC stops running whenever you use your computer, so it won’t slow you down, but it means your computer time isn’t being wasted whenever your computer is turned on but you aren’t sitting in front of it.

Visions of Barcelona: Incomprehensible Beauty

Her name was Wendy.

I met her my first year of university in Sarasota, Florida, at a tiny college that is now at war with Ron Desantis called New College. It wasn’t my first year of uni—I’d been to two other universities by that point already, and would ultimately end up getting my degree from yet another—but it was my first year there.

She played a song for me. Well, she played several songs for me, really—she’s the reason I still love the Indigo Girls—but she played a particular song for me, Gaudì, by the Alan Parsons Project.

That opened up a rabbit hole. It was 1990, just before the Internet as we know it started to become a thing, and I wanted to find out everything I could about Antoni Gaudì, the completely bonkers architect, and the Sagrada Familia, his most famous work.

I resolved then that one day I would visit Barcelona and see the Sagrada Familia myself.

Last month, I did. It was, by a large margin, more magnificent than I could have imagined.

Mad scientists get all the media limelight. Not enough people truly appreciate mad architects.

The Sagrada Familia is deliriously, exuberantly bonkers, a brash monument to defiance of conventional ideas about working stone.

A lot of folks are familiar with it, at least in passing. If you see a photo of the exterior, odds are good you’ll recognize Gaudì’s weird, still-under-construction cotton-candy masterpiece.

Apologies in advance, this post is about to get really image-heavy. All bandwidth abandon, ye who enter here.

We were in Barcelona last month to spend some quality time together, and to do a photo shoot of the Borg Queen xenomorph hiphugger parasite strapon, about which more later.

Our first full day in Barcelona (or was it our second? The days blurred together), some of us headed out into the Spain summer heat to see the gloriously insane architectural wonder of the Basilica of the Sacred Family.

(They did not, of course, allow bunny ears inside the church.)

The place was…words fail. Brilliant. Grand. Magnificent beyond anything I expected. I cried when we got there.

I’ve seen photos, of course. But no pictures, not even the ones I’m posting here, can do any justice to the scale of the place. Even standing outside doesn’t give you a sense of the enormity of this monument to a strange man’s strange vision.

These oddly angular figures are much larger than life-sized, with a Cubist vibe I really dig.

The level of detail absolutely everywhere, inside and out, is just breathtaking. Gaudì was obsessed with animal motifs, that decorate the walls and doors all around the church.

One of the many doors is this enormous heavy thing of bronze, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs. (And yes, the text is backward on the door.)

I love that you can tell which symbols resonate with people by which symbols visitors touch.

Oh, but the inside…

The inside is where you truly get a sense of just how enormous, how vast this space truly is.

These photos don’t do it justice. No photos do it justice. The sheer overwhelming magnitude of this vast space inspires awe.

Just standing in this vaulted space, just existing here, is a deeply, profoundly awe-inspiring sensation.

We got here after a long (and honestly rather tedious) guided tour of the outside, which I recommend you skip if you ever visit—it was almost enough to suck one’s soul through one’s ears, so incredibly bland and boring it was.

I don’t rightly comprehend how it’s possible to make Gaudì or his grand creation boring, but somehow, the tour guide did it.

But all that was burned away in the avalanche of wonderment at stepping through the door into the church and really appreciating, for the first time, such incomprehensible beauty.

Standing there bathed in ethereal light, it’s hard not to feel like you’re within some living thing.

Even the light itself is alive, as much a part of the architecture as the stone and the glass. This space flows with light, in a way no picture can ever show. The light moves constantly, always changing, brilliant, flowing along the walls as the earth spins and the sun moves across the sky, never the same from moment to moment..

Every time you look up, it’s different, the light, the color, bringing even more life to what always feels alive.

My friend Alice, who I met in Tallinn some years ago, was able to join us in Barcelona. She found a quiet place from which to try to capture the extraordinary play of light and stone in watercolor.

When I visited St. Paul’s in the Vatican, I saw a monument to tedious human greed, every pope trying to outdo the one before, inscribing their names in gold above each new wing. Here…this place is the opposite of that, beauty rather than hubris, inspiration instead of braggadocio.

Everywhere your eye turns, there’s more to see, more to discover, more to explore. The breathtaking level of detail that fills every part of this space is hard to take in, yet it all works together exquisitely.

Even the essential infrastructure, utilitarian things like staircases, become objects of beauty.

Backing up to take the whole thing in, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and humbled. I visited the Sagrada Familia twice, and it made me cry both times.

It still isn’t finished, and won’t be for decades. Antoni Gaudì envisioned a cathedral in the old style, a work of generations finished a century more after it began, touched by the hands of many architects.

Some of the more modern elements include design philosophies that Gaudì might not have chosen, like this strangely abstract Jesus re-envisioned as a Sith Lord, but that’s part of the point.

He saw the Sagrada Familia as a sort of paper boat set adrift into the future, something he would never live to see completed, a project that would be guided by future generations long after his time was over.

It’s a heady and powerful thing to touch those walls and feel the way it has become not one person’s project, but a project by humanity. No words or images I am capable of can ever truly express even one percent of the incredible experience of being alive to witness such a magnificent undertaking.

Nome, Alaska: Simultaneous Sunrise and Sunset

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as every fule know.

What we don’t often think about is this is really true only at the equator, and even there it’s only entirely true during the solstices. For people anywhere else, or at any other time, the sun actually rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest (if you’re in the southern hemisphere) or rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest (if you’re in the southern hemisphere). Or at least it would, if the earth weren’t tilted on its axis.

Since the earth is tilted, not only does the sun generally not rise and set at locations 180 degrees apart from each other, the location of sunrise and sunset wobbles as the year goes on.

When you’re north of the Arctic Circle, things get really weird.

At the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set at all, and during the winter solstice, it never rises. The rest of the time, it makes circles in the sky. The circles wobble as the year goes by…during the summer, most of the circle is above the horizon, and as winter comes, the circle sinks below the horizon. (So, if you plot the path of the sun in the sky–when it is in the sky–over the course of time, it actually does a spiral.)

Last night,  I climbed to the top of Anvil Mountain just outside Nome, Alaska (which is near enough to the Arctic Circle to see some of the weirdness) at 2 o’clock in the morning to watch the “sunset.” I say “sunset” because it’s still pretty much full daylight out. The sun dips just barely below the edge of the horizon, but it doesn’t stay there, and it comes up again shortly thereafter…meaning we saw a simultaneous sunset and sunrise.

The red in the sky on the left of this panorama is the sunset. The red in the sky on the right is sunrise. The sun is traveling in a shallow arc that just barely dips beneath the horizon.

Click on the picture to embiggen!

Nome, Alaska: The Last Train to Nowhere

As the result of a lengthy and somewhat improbable series of events, I’m in Nome, Alaska, working on another book.

A few days back, we took a drive on the one road that goes through Nome. Nome is inaccessible by car; the only road links it to the nearby towns of Council and Teller.

If you drive out toward Council, a trip I recommend only during the summer and then only in a large 4WD vehicle, about twenty miles from Nome you’ll come across the long-deserted ghost town of Solomon, a leftover from the gold rush in the early 1900s. Near Solomon, you’ll find what’s left of a failed attempt to bring rail service to Nome.

In 1903, an enterprising group of people formed a company to build a railroad to serve the gold mines near Solomon. They bought a bunch of secondhand elevated railway engines from New York City and hauled them up to Nome by barge.

In 1907, a storm washed out the one rail bridge between Solomon and Nome, leaving the trains stranded on the edge of the water. The company folded and simply walked away, leaving the trains where they were, to quietly rust away into the tundra.

That seems to be a common theme in Alaska. The landscape is dotted with abandoned mining equipment, wrecked construction vehicles, and huge pieces of machinery simply left where they were when they became inoperable.

The locals call this steam engine graveyard “The Last Train to Nowhere.”

Even during the summer, it’s cold and windy here. The train never was reliable under the best of circumstances, so it’s no surprise there was no effort to replace it.

Science is cool!

This…is a real animal. It’s called a Tardigrade, and it’s a (barely) macroscopic animal about half a millimeter long. It has eight legs and can survive exposure to hard vacuum. It belongs to a sister phylum to arthropods, though these guys technically aren’t arthropods.

This particular image comes from The Scientist, where it’s a finalist in their annual science image contest.

The next time you’re watching Star Trek and you see a supposedly ‘alien’ species that’s really just a white 21st-century human with a wrinkly nose, think about the amazing diversity of body plans right here on Earth, and then think about how profoundly unlikely that would be.

“But why aren’t we spending it on CHILDREN? Think of the CHILDREN!”

So for those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of days: Yesterday, something amazing happened.

No, I don’t mean the US soccer Olympic team beating Canada by one point in a dramatic overtime goal. I mean something really amazing. Something mind-blowing.

We took a one-ton nuclear-powered robot rover and threw it 350,000,000 miles, then landed it on the surface of another planet using cables from a flying rocket-powered robot crane.

And it worked. That’s the cool thing about science: It works whether you “believe” in it or not.

However, as always happens whenever NASA does something amazing, a bunch of people have trotted out all sorts of nonsense about how we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration when there are so many problems back here on earth. I went to a Curiosity landing party at the local museum of science and industry, and sure enough, someone posted something on the Facebook page for the event something to the extent of “I wonder how many children will die from lack of clean water while we land a probe on Mars” or something.

Now, I have been told that it’s technically illegal to beat these folks. And I’m sure their hearts are in the right place; they’re not trying to be anti-intellectual, they just have little sense of the size and scope of the economy, nor how much money gets spent on space exploration, nor how much money we spend every year on things that we really could do without. And they seem to have an either/or mindset as well, as if to say that every dollar that goes to space exploration is a dollar that is taken away from needy children as opposed to being taken from, say, the Pentagon’s budget for paper clips.

Now, I think that doing things like, oh, finding out if there is life on other planets in our solar system represents a better investment of money than, for instance, buying T-shirts with pictures of NFL logos on them–something we typically spend about four times more per year on than we do on trying to learn about the universe.

So I spent some time doing a bit of research, and I’ve put together a handy-dandy chart that shows the cost of the Mars Curiosity mission, compared to the cost of some other things we might be acquainted with. The chart is a little lopsided, in that it shows how much we spend per year on other things, and the cost of the Curiosity mission so far represents seven years’ investment; to make things more representative, the bar for the Curiosity mission should be 1/7th as long as it is here.

Since we aren’t technically allowed to beat folks who complain about the cost of space exploration, hitting them over the head with this chart will have to do instead. (Figuratively! Figuratively! You can’t literally hit folks with it unless you, I don’t know, print it out and wrap it around something first. Which, as I mentioned, is technically illegal.)

So now when someone says “Why are we wasting money on space exploration instead of fixing problems here at home?” you can say “Why are we wasting even more money on Halloween candy, Christmas trees, or perfume, or football games?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “We shouldn’t spend money on perfume when there are so many problems here at home.”

Because, you know, spending money on perfume is way more important than finding out whether or not there is life not on this world.

Boston Chapter 8: A Rooftop Made of Awesome

By this point in our trip, as we lingered in St. Louis, I believed I had seen the most awesome thing ever. Perhaps not the most awesome thing that could exist, mind you; but certainly the most awesome thing that did exist.

That was, I must confess, a failure of imagination on my part. I was, even now, still a little bit naive. We had not yet, you see, gone on to the roof of City Museum.

We also had neglected, in our eagerness to explore the awesome candy bar made of awesome (metaphorically speaking), to notice that our traveling companion Erica was not to be seen–a harbinger, as it turned out, of what awaited us in Louisville. But more on that later.

At some point–I think it might have been when we were exploring a tunnel made of mirrors whose entrance was an enormous clockwork bank vault door about twelve feet across–we got a text from our wayward traveling companion.

That tunnel is pretty cool, by the way.

So is the snack bar, which includes among other things a set of chairs made out of old bumper cars, and a lot of secluded little cubbyholes with unexpected furniture in them..

But I digress.

We met with her downstairs, between the gigantic fish sculptures whose mouths opened into tunnels up to the ceiling and the main entrance whose walls were decorated with antique circuit boards, and after some discussion, we decided to check out the wonders on the rooftop.

The roof to City Museum is accessed via an elevator whose shaft is filled with windows, which you get to via an entrance flanked with nude statues of women supporting the world atop their heads. (On these, I have little to say, as I had always been led to believe that that role was filled with elephants riding on the back of a great turtle…but I digress.)

Peering over the edge of the rooftop is an interesting experience. It is not often that one sees an airplane and a bus protruding from the side of a building, with tunnels made of rebar extending both around and through them.

Peering around the roof is even better. There’s a Ferris wheel, bolted to the highest point of the roof; and an enormous slide which towers from the platform with the giant metal praying mantis on it, that swoops down to the fountain that spits water at passers-by. The slide has a tunnel atop it, so those who eschew prosaic things like staircases can, if they wish, climb back up the hard way.

We ended up riding the giant slide by the praying mantis several times. It’s a mind-bogglingly terrifying climb up, at least for anyone with even a residual trace of the ancient fear of heights which lurks in the recesses of our dim collective unconscious. Which means, naturally enough, that it’s a total blast to do.

It’s so high that even sitting at the entrance to the slide can induce a bit of virtigo.

I have video of myself sliding down this slide a speed somewhere between “ridiculous” and “insane,” which I have not yet found the time to upload to YouTube.

We also spent quite a lot of time on the ferris wheel, which in addition to being bolted to the top of a skyscraper had also, apparently, been modified to spin rather faster than is traditional for this particular variety of carnival ride. Again, hella fun.

The view from the top is quite lovely.

The rest of the roof is decorated in a kind of “industrial wasteland meets Disney World” motif, only cooler. We scampered about for a time, like visitors in Kubla Khan’s domain.

Alas, our taste of the bliss which awaits the righteous in the world beyond was all too brief. We still had a lot of ground to cover, and the pet lesbians to reach before nightfall. So we made our reluctant departure. On the way out through the parking lot, I looked up, nothing with some sorrow an array of fascinating structures we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore.

We returned to the car and resumed our journey to Boston, on our way toward our next milestone with the pet lesbians and, before that, the Guatemalans who would abscond with one of our party. That story will be told next time.

Signal Boost: Hellbender Media

A bit more than a year ago, a very good friend of mine, edwardmartiniii, started a project to write a new horror short story every week for a year. The result appeared in a blog he called Tales from the Blinkspace.

He is, and I say this without reservation, one of the best horror writers I’ve ever read. His stories are quirky, unpredictable, occasionally Lovecraftian in feel if not in subject, and very often brilliant. Quite a few of them made me think, one of them gave me nightmares, and I even appear in one as a character (no, I won’t say which one, you’ll have to find it yourself).

And now it’s a book.

I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who’s a fan of quality short stories. You can see more about it on his Web site, Hellbender Media, here or find the book on Amazon here.

Linky-Links: Sex, Polyamory, Tech, and Humor edition

It’s time for another massive collection of links, so I can close some of my browser windows and reclaim a whole bunch of RAM on this computer. Today’s list is heavy on sex, tech, and humor, making it different from any other linky-links post in exactly zero ways, I suppose.


From New Scientist magazine, we have the article Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness. It discusses fMRI scans of a volunteer who masturbated to orgasm inside an fMRI scanner while the experimenters recorded her brain activity. If I had the budget, this is the sort of science I’d be doing.

The Sexacademic blog gives us a story titled Explaining Porn Watching With Science!, which talks about the neurochemical pathways active during porn watching, and along the way debunks some lurid, sensationalistic pop culture ideas about “sex addiction”.

On Sexonomics is an article Porn by the Numbers 5: On feminist porn. The myth that porn, or “mainstream” porn (whatever that is), never shows women in a positive light and is never aimed at a female audience is as enduring as the legend of Bigfoot. I was recently at a Science Pub, in fact, in which an otherwise sex-positive sociologist decried the portrayal of women in “mainstream” porn. The argument became neatly circular later when she said that “mainstream” porn is that which portrays women negatively. The fact that someone with a doctorate in sociology can think about something in such an intellectually sloppy way testifies, I think, to how emotional the subject of porn (and especially feminist porn) is.

Society and rape

Speaking of feminist issues, some time ago a prominent female blogger was approached by a stranger in an elevator at a convention. Said stranger asked her to go back to his room with him. She blogged about the incident and why it was inappropriate, and provoked a firestorm that many of you Gentle Readers are probably aware of. Her thesis is pretty simple: Lots of women are sexually assaulted; if you want a positive response from women, don’t approach them in ways that would make sexual assault easy.

A lot of men–including some men that I know personally and otherwise find to be basically reasonable people–flipped out about that, and started wailing nonsense like “Feminists think all men are raaaaaaapists!” Which is total bunk; what’s being said is that SOME men are rapists, but rapists don’t wear special T-shirts or have a secret handshake that identifies them, so if you’re being approached by some strange guy you have no way to know if he’s likely to assault you or not. That means being aware that a strange dude you meet might be willing to assault you. (The defensive, “you’re saying all men are rapists” response from a lot of guys is similar to the sort of response you see in US society when you try to talk about institutional racism; people who think “Well, I’m not a rapist” or “Well, I’m not a racist” become so reactionary when they hear what might sound like an accusation that they refuse to discuss rape or race in any sort of rational way.)

All that is a longwinded introduction to the next two links, The first, Women in Elevators: A Man To Man Talk For The Menz, talks about the reasons that women can be suspicious of being approached by strangers. Not every dog is aggressive, but nearly everyone feels some trepidation when approached by a strange dog, because there’s no easy way to tell dogs that bite from dogs that don’t. I’m sure somebody somewhere will be upset and insulted by a metaphor about dogs (“You’re saying all men are dogs!”), but if that’s the case, that dude probably can’t be educated.

And second, for the dudes who say “Well, women should just say so if they don’t want to be approached!” we have Another post about rape. This one talks about how women (and men, to be fair, though to a lesser extent) are strongly socialized not to say “no,” not to assert boundaries, and not to upset people. It is, I think, a toxic set of social values, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. The point is, simply asserting a boundary carries a social cost. (This is why I think the idea of affirmative consent, adding “only yes means yes” to the idea of “no means no,” is so important, as I’ve talked about before.)


For quite a while now, people have been bugging me to find a new home for my polyamory pages that until now have livedo n my site at I’ve finally built a new site for them, More Than Two. I’ve blogged the new link before, but f you haven’t taken a look recently, you should. There’s now an RSS feed of new articles, and some new content has been posted.

On the Polytical blog is this excellent essay, I’m Better ‘Cos I’m Poly. Anyone who is openly out about being poly has probably at some point or another been labeled as “smug” or “arrogant” about it, most often by someone who identifies as monogamous. This essay is an excellent deconstruction of the “smug poly” stereotype.

Geek Humor

First up, we have these very funny Sci-Fi Ikea Manuals. What would happen if light sabers were real? Or the Tardis was something you could get at Ikea? What would the assembly instructions look like? Apparently, in order to put together an Ikea light saber, you must first have your hand chopped off by Darth Vader.

Our travel down the surrealist path continues with Ride the Gummi Worm, Muad’Dib, a diorama of a scene from Dune done with Gummi Bears and a gigantic Gummi Worm.

Do-It-Yourself Science!

I have blogged in the past about using and Arduino mocrocontroller board to make sex toys. For folks who think that sounds like a good idea but aren’t sure how to use or program an Arduino, there is a comic book introduction to Arduino, which you can download as a PDF. If you don’t have a background in electronics or microcontrollers but you want to build your own Arduino projects, this is a great way to get started.

Speaking of Ikea, which I was a bit earlier, for those of oyu who are photography buffs comes this guide to building a cheap time lapse panning unit using only things you can get at Ikea.

And from the Department of Mad Science So Preposterous it Just Might Work comes the story of a high school student who rigged a camera and GPS transponder to a bunch of garbage bags, filled them with helium, and let them go. This is a really cool science project done on a tiny budget and with really fun results.


Over at New Scientist is this awesome article, Sky survey maps distant universe in 3D. The universe isn’t shaped like you think it is, and now a group of researchers are working on building what is by far the highest-resolution map of the physical universe yet undertaken…in 3D!

The Department of Unclear on the Concept

It’s likely that most folks reading this are aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s kind of the flip side of the American Tea Party movement;. The Tea Party is a bunch of mostly middle-class people who love and cherish the superrich and believe that the superrich, being such wonderful people and all, should be exempt from paying the same tax that the working class pays and should otherwise be given all sorts of concessions so that they can make more money. The Occupy Wall Street folks, on the other hand, embrace the heretical notion that taxes on the superrich should be increased so that the very wealthiest people are paying sixty percent of the taxes that the middle class pays, instead of fifty percent of the taxes that the middle class pays…even if it means that some of the world’s richest people might have to postpone purchasing that five-million-dollar yacht for a few weeks because of it.

I’m generally sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, though there’s at least one of them who simply doesn’t appear to Get It…nor to have a functioning sense of irony. He argues that the mainstream media lies or distorts truth to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, which it arguably does…so his response is to, err, do the same thing. And when he gets called on it over on, hilarity ensues. Read the comments to get the full effect; there’s even a followup here.

Link o’ the Day: HIV Visualization

From the Russian company called Visual Science comes this absolutely stunning 3D visualization of the human immunodeficiency virus:

From the article on the Web site:

HIV virion is a roughly spherical particle with a diameter between 100 and 180 nm. Virion is surrounded by cell-derived lipid membrane containing surface proteins. Some of these proteins are products of viral genome (surface glycoprotein gp120/gp41) and others are captured from the host cell during viral budding (e.g. ICAM-1, HLA-DR1, CD55 and some others). The gp120/gp41 glycoprotein interacts with receptors on cell surface promoting fusion of virus and cell membranes. Other surface proteins found in HIV perform supporting functions. […]

The HIV genome is approximately 10000 nucleotides long and contains 9 genes, which encode 15 different proteins. The most important viral genes (open reading frames) are Gag, Pol and Env. Gag encodes the p55 protein, which is subsequently cut into structural proteins: MA, CA, NC and p6. Pol reading frame encodes integrase, protease, and reverse transcriptase. Env encodes the two subunits of the surface glycoprotein complex. Other genes (Tat, Rev, Vif, Vpr, Vpu and Nef) produce accessory proteins, which modulate host cell metabolism and facilitate different stages of HIV life cycle.

Click on the picture for a larger version and other visualizations showing different cross-sections of the virus.