Thursday, November 15, 2007

Folding for better health

This post is going to be a little deeper than those to this point. Key word here is "little," of course. This is somewhat related to National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month.

(Please don't be upset at the following questions - I don't mean to be insensitive.) How many of you want to get cancer? Or Alzheimer's disease? Or Mad Cow (BSE), CJD, ALS, Huntington's, Parkinson's disease, or other cancer-related syndromes? That's what I thought - not something you want to get. But what happens if you do? (First, make sure you're ready - in fact, you should do that now, regardless - after all, you never know when you're going to make your way from this world to the next, so be ready! Here is one place you can find out how to get where you want to be when you find yourself at the end of this life, or, if you have a while - 80 minutes or so, here's a movie version summarizing "the whole story.") Anyway, once you've made sure you're ready, here's a way you can help right now:

This is a distributed computing application. What's that mean? It means it uses your computer when you're not. Which, actually, is most of the time - if you have Windows 2000, Windows XP, or Windows Vista, for instance, you can pull up the task manager (right-click on an empty area on the taskbar - that bar at the bottom that has the "start" button on it - and select "Task Manager" from the pop-up menu) and see that typically your computer is not using very much of its CPU most of the time. The Folding@Home software puts your computer to work when it's otherwise idle. It will download some data from the Folding at Home servers (which are housed at Stanford University - the project is sponsored by Stanford and run by one of the professors there), work on the data using the CPU that you're not using - and it will do this in a way that only uses the idle time and not interfere with your normal computing tasks - you won't even realize it's running, and send the results of its calculations back to the Folding@Home servers.

What are they doing with all the data? They're simulating the folding of proteins (hence the "Folding@Home" moniker). They have good descriptions about this on the website, but, in a nutshell, proteins must "fold" themselves into a particular shape before they're able to accomplish their tasks. Occasionally these proteins don't fold correctly, and this appears to be where things like Alzheimer's disease, some cancers, and the host of diseases previously mentioned start. The calculations required to simulate the protein folding is enormous - so horrendously big, in fact, that even supercomputers aren't very effective at accomplishing the simulations. However, with the distributed computing model, they're able to break up the simulations into bite-size pieces and hand these pieces out to millions of computers. Over the lifetime of the project more than 2.5 Million CPUs have contributed; currently there are a little over 260,000 active (that is, have returned work units within the last 50 days) CPUs working on the project.

How can you help? Download the software and run it on your computer. As a bonus, they have set up the system to keep track of how many units your computer has completed, and you can track your standings in the system. In addition, when you first run the software, you can configure it to add your statistics to the [LAPSE... brain dead] team. We're team number 258 - that's right down the middle of your numeric keypad. Why join the LBD team instead of starting your own? Well, for one, we're an "early" team - there aren't many teams with only 3 digits in their team number. For two, we're fairly well ranked right now - out of the 87,000+ teams, we're ranked in the top 1000. Not bad, eh? But we're slipping in the ranking... we need your help! Join us, let your computer do some work for a good cause, and help me feel better about "my" Folding @ Home team.

Ok, maybe this entire post is slightly selfish - I'm trying to get you to help me push my folding team higher up in the rankings. Not really. I'm very sensitive to Alzheimer's disease, which is why I chose this project instead of one of the other, purely cancer-related distributed computing projects. You see, my grandfather, R. A. Moore, Sr., was struck with Alzheimer's disease. Now he is no longer suffering - he had long ago set things right (see the links in the 2nd paragraph, above), and (for many years) now he is completely free of all his suffering. But I saw what the disease can do to a person while he is still here, and thus I want to do what I can to help. If you want more info about Alzheimer's, check out the Alzheimer's Association web site (where you can donate your money to Alzheimer's research).

According to the Alzheimer's Association, "by 2050, 11 to 16 million people will likely have Alzheimer’s." The folding project is making strides towards helping eradicate these diseases - see their web site for details of their current results and papers. The more data they collect the better their research will be. Your spare computing cycles (that is, all that "idle time" your computer generally wastes) can help.

This post is made in loving memory of R. A. Moore, Sr. I can't wait till we're reunited in Heaven! Until then, my computers will be running the Folding at Home software (Team 258! Team 258!) to help find a cure for Alzheimer's.

No comments: