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One lazy afternoon I discovered a way to help the world, make better use of our precious resources and, generally, fill myself with a sense of well-being. And all with a few mouse clicks.

commentary One lazy afternoon I discovered a way to help the world, make better use of our precious resources and, generally, fill myself with a sense of well-being. And all with a few mouse clicks.

One afternoon, not too many moons ago, I stared blankly into the space of my cube farm, an expression of inglorious unproductivity etched into every pore of my face. The only working facet of my being was my stomach, which was slowly churning its way through lunch.

Okay, focus Derek. Focus!

I turned around and bathed myself in my monitor's liquid crystal glow. Firing up a word processor, I noticed that Task Manager's CPU monitor spiked briefly. As I began to slowly tap-tap away, I kept an eye on my processor usage. The CPU was flat-lining and was only stirred out of its slumber whenever I saved my work, dragged a window across the screen, or fired up or closed down an application.

Doing everyday work tasks, I couldn't get the processor to spike for more than a few seconds. The most sustained CPU usage I could manage was about 15-20%. This was with several Web pages open in the background (some with scrolling news and betting tickers), WinAmp pumping out MP3s and all my frequently used work applications open.

On a normal day back then, I would spend anywhere between two or three hours away from my desk, either at meetings, piling food down my gob-hole or otherwise indisposed. During these hours, my trusty PC would sit dutifully on my desk awaiting my return. Irrespective of how productive I was, or trying to be, and regardless of whether I was at my desk, my computer was barely being utilised. And for all those wasted computing cycles, it would be sucking power from the electricity grid and pumping out climate-changing carbon-dioxide.

Not wanting to waste the burnt coal I was throwing up into our atmosphere, I downloaded a bunch of distributed computing programs which contribute my PC's idle cycles to various fields of science. These applications pull down discreet chunks of scientific data from their respective research projects, process them in the background and upload the results when done.

Unfortunately, all the packages below require administrator privileges, so most of us will have to bug our sysadmins to install them on our work PCs. Alternatively, install them at home and put your computer to good use as the kids surf the Web or, heaven forbid, you pull stuff down over BitTorrent.

SETI@home 5.2.1
Donwload this BOINC (Berekley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) client package and connect yourself to the search for intelligent life in deepest reaches of outer space. Using this package you can also contribute to a wide number of other scientific projects, including predicting climate change, solving mathematical theorems or attempting to find cures for common diseases.

Folding@Home 5.03
Help Stanford University's Chemistry department "understand protein folding, misfolding, and related diseases".

JHDC (Johns Hopkins Distributed Computing) Screensaver 1.0
Assist the researchers at Johns Hopkins in understanding more about how the brain works by modelling the complex behaviour of neurons.

Do you know of other ways to harness our otherwise unused processor cycles? We'd love to hear them! Or tell us about your favourite research project utilising distributed computing. Just leave your comments below.