By Rachel Konrad
February 14, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- Signals from aliens, an unskilled rapper and a
Swedish-American computer geek converged in an unusual, nerdy ode to a
couple's love for each other.
The story began with a project by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the
University of California, Berkeley, which has signed up more than 1
million volunteers worldwide in a search for extraterrestrial
intelligence since 1999. The SETI@home project uses volunteers'
computers when they go into screen-saver mode to crunch data in search
of possible evidence of radio transmissions from space using data from
the Arecibo radio telescope.
James Melin, a software programmer for a county government agency in
Minnesota, volunteers with the project and runs SETI@home on his seven
home computers, which periodically communicate over the Internet with
University of California servers. Whenever communication takes place,
servers record the remote computer's Internet Protocol address and file
it in a database that people running the software can view.
An IP address a set of numbers separated by periods functions like a
street address or a phone number to provide an identity for any computer
connected to the Internet.
Several years ago, Melin installed SETI@home on his wife's laptop, which
was stolen from the couple's Minneapolis home on Jan. 1.
Annoyed at the break-in and alarmed that someone could delete the
screenplays and novels that his wife, Melinda Kimberly, was writing
Melin monitored the SETI@home database to see if the stolen laptop would
talk to the Berkeley servers. The laptop checked in three times within a
week, and Melin sent the IP addresses to the Minneapolis Police
Officers subpoenaed Quest Communications, Melin's Internet service
provider, to determine the address where the stolen laptop logged onto
the Internet. Within days, officers seized the computer and returned it
to the rightful owners.
The computer contained Kimberly's writings, and thieves didn't appear to
have broken into her e-mail or other personal folders or programs.
But the returned computer contained 20 tracks of rap music with
unintelligible lyrics, possibly from the person who stole the computer
or bought it on the black market.
It's really, really horrid rap, said Melin, 43. It makes Ludacris look
Kimberly, 31, said the incident reaffirmed her love for Melin. They met
when she was only 15 years old, while she was dressed as a medieval
wench and he was a Scots highlander at a Renaissance Faire.
The native Minnesotans bonded over their Scandinavian roots and remained
friends for a couple years, interacting in their medieval garb at summer
festivals. They began dating when she was 17 and got married just shy of
her 20th birthday.
Since Kimberly got laid off last year, the couple has been living apart.
Kimberly moved to Oceanside to work on her writing, and her husband
plans to join her after he's vested in his pension.
I always knew that a geek would make a great husband, Kimberly said
Wednesday. He always backed up all my data, but this topped it all. It
became like Mission Impossible for him, looking for hard evidence for
the cops to use. ... He's a genius my hero.
Dave Anderson, a research scientist at University of California,
Berkeley, and director of SETI@home, said the case appears to be the
first successful recovery of a stolen computer through SETI@home, one of
the world's best known distributed computing projects.
Unless a computer-savvy thief uninstalls nearly every piece of software
before connecting to the Internet, he said, SETI@home would track the
machine and the thief would likely never know it.
I have some advice for thieves: Don't connect to the network, Anderson
Copyright 2007 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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