Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hi & Ho, We Plant Trees

Several years ago, Peter Krahn (of Peppermill Records) released a compilation of tree planting songs, written and performed by tree planters, about planting.  He made this available as a free release from Peppermill.  The compilation was titled, "Hi and Ho, We Plant Trees."

I've always been impressed that I've gotten into planting trucks at several different companies and heard songs playing that were on this compilation.  It's been shared widely over the past several years.

With a new Interior planting season about to come upon us, and a new crop of planters about to hit the field, I think it's time that I shared this music again (you can download the songs further below).

Here's the cover art for this album:

Many thanks are due to the individual artists, for making these songs available, and also to Krahn, for putting this project together!

If you want to audit or download individual songs, here are links to all of the songs on SoundcloudIf you want to download any of these songs, click on the download arrow icon near the top right of each widget.

If you want to download the whole album in one shot, here's a link that you can right-click on, and choose the "save target/file/link as" option:

This link is saved as a single RAR archive, which can be uncompressed natively in Windows.  If you're using OS X on a Mac and you're looking for a way to extract/unpack a RAR archive, two free programs are The Unarchiver and UnRarX, both of which can be found with a google search.  The RAR archive file is 163 MB in size, with all of the MP3's from the album.


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Andrew Nikiforuk's "Empire Of The Beetle"

“Empire Of The Beetle,” by Andrew Nikiforuk, is a pretty interesting book for anyone who is interested in forestry. The subtitle of the book is, “How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests.” But the book is about more than just beetles; a few other pests are also discussed.  I read this book several years ago, and wrote a short review at the time.  Since the spruce beetle is now becoming more of an issue in British Columbia, I thought it would be good to re-visit "Empire Of The Beetle," so here is my initial review.  I'll be talking more about the spruce beetle in future posts.

Many people have probably heard about the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) epidemic in western Canada. But the pine beetle is just the most visible face of a larger issue. In the past few decades, several species of beetles have girdled and killed more than thirty billion lodgepole, pinyon, ponderosa, and whitebark pines, as well as white spruce and Engelmann spruce. This sort of devastation is actually quite normal for forests, when Nature is left alone to do its work, but the economic consequences of this destruction have caused the current epidemics to be labelled as a “problem.”

Beetles are probably one of the most successful examples of life on our planet. Beetles (Coleoptera) make up a third of all life on Earth, and a quarter of all animals. Estimates for the number of different species of beetles are in the vicinity of ten million. If you took just one part of the beetle family, the bark beetles, there are more than a thousand more species than there are types of mammals on Earth. Beetle fossils exist that are a third of a billion years old (significantly older than dinosaurs), and various species can live in almost every environment: in rivers, lakes, jungles, caves, forests, deserts, and mountaintops. Bark beetles cooperate on a social level, and bury their dead. If you look globally at species of animals that are smart enough to hunt in packs, there is only a very short list: humans, wolves, hyenas, lions, killer whales, piranhas, ants, and bark beetles.

One interesting thing is that bark beetles themselves do not kill the trees they inhabit. Beetles, like some other insects, act as a sort of mobile zoo, carrying all kinds of other life forms with them. The spruce bark beetle, for example, can carry up to ten different species of fungi, six different kinds of mites, and nine different types of bacteria. All of these organisms work together as a complex mini ecosystem, as the life cycle of the beetle continues. It is the effects of these various organisms, in concert, that lead to eventual conifer mortality.

The interesting thing is that beetles are not necessarily bad for the forests. Some people would disagree, particularly those who focus on an immediate snapshot of the forests, and who worry about the current economic potential. But in the long term, over decades and centuries, beetles are unquestionably an important part of forest maintenance. You see, beetles basically act to keep a forest healthy overall, in the longer term. There is no need to protect the trees from the beetles; the beetles and the trees have been living in a symbiotic relationship for millions of years.

Starting about a century ago, North Americans began to focus some efforts on fire suppression within the forests. The obvious rationale was that if forest fires were suppressed, there would be more wood. But nature relies on regular fires (every few decades) to keep a forest “tidy” and healthy. By putting out the small fires, what happened was that fuel loads began to increase. When a fire eventually came along that couldn’t be put out right away, it could grow to enormous size.

Many people have mistakenly assumed that beetle-killed trees would lead to increased forest fire risks. I actually believed that myself, several years ago. That seems logical, because when you look at a dead tree that has been killed by a beetle, it's dry and reminds you of firewood. But when you start to get experience with forest fires, you quickly realize that the majority of major forest fires are “crown” fires. Rather than the coarse wood (the thicker primary branches and trunks of the trees) burning, it is the “fines,” the needles and leaves, that provide the quick fuel that burns fast and hot. Although you would think that living green trees would be moist and less prone to fire than dry and dead stems, the exact opposite is true. Fire likes smaller pieces of fuel with more relative surface area that is exposed to oxygen, and fire also likes density, so flames can jump from fuel source to fuel source. You get this with living trees, but not dead ones. When a tree has first been killed by beetles, yes, it's a high fire risk for the first year or so. But once the needles drop off, it is not a high fire risk. The lesson here is that determined fire suppression eventually guarantees either a catastrophic fire or a bark beetle epidemic.

Any competent forester or woodsman will tell you that a diverse forest is the best kind. But logging companies like to work with monocultures, large tree stands where all the trees are the same species and the same relative age. When forests are harvested and replanted, they are usually planned as a plantation of just one or two dominant species (spruce, pine, fir, or cedar) and all the trees end up having the same approximate age. But it is this kind of forest that is most susceptible to damage from beetles. Basically, the beetles see these forests as a massive free lunch, and in attacking the trees, they are really just protecting the trees from themselves (from overcrowding). When forests are left to themselves, beetles attack a very small number of trees each year, in a system which promotes diversity and balance. It is only when “unnatural” large concentrations of a single species are allowed to grow together that true epidemics become possible. As foresters said in East Texas in the 1980’s, when southern pine beetle growth exploded, “What we have here is not an epidemic of southern pine beetles, but rather, an epidemic of southern pine.”

At this point, the decision about what to do with beetle-killed forests is what concerns me. Many foresters prefer the “mow it down and salvage the wood” approach, resulting in more clear-cutting than would have otherwise been the case. As a tree planter, I initially wished that the BC government would take more of the beetle-killed areas that they couldn’t salvage log and just bull-doze the standing dead wood, and then let our industry replant new forests (preferably multi-species). But since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the interplay between various parts of the forest ecosystem. The northern boreal forests are very efficient carbon sinks, perhaps more so than tropical rainforests. A beetle-killed forest left standing to rot slowly will also release carbon slowly, over a period of many years. As that gradual release takes place, the carbon loss is offset by new undergrowth, which happens very quickly as the sunlight can easily penetrate through to the forest floor. So effectively, leaving dead trees standing is an effective carbon sequestering strategy, probably much more wise in the long run than cutting the dead wood for use by wood pellet factories, where the product gets shipped halfway around the world. Of course, we tree planters could probably still speed up that renewal process by planting a mix of several species in these understory plants.

I won’t go any further into the ground that the book covers, because that would spoil things for people who are planning to read the book. But I should note that a 2001 provincial review in British Columbia suggested that in terms of the “costs and benefits of clear-cutting beetle-kill ... a forest renewed by bark beetles was a much smarter economic proposition than a monster clear-cut designed by humans with forestry degrees.” I personally don’t want to suggest that the pine beetle epidemics are a good thing in an absolute sense. But I do think that a moderate level of pine beetles is an important part of natural renewal, and beetle renewal does have positive aspects that politicians and logging companies sometimes seem to ignore in favour of short-term economics. I guess the best thing though, would be for you to read the book and form your own opinions. Here's a link to buy the book:

Empire Of The Beetle on

Friday, February 26, 2016

Tree Planting Books: Eating Dirt

About five years ago, a book came out that focused on life in the coastal tree-planting community.  The book was called "Eating Dirt," and was written by Charlotte Gill.  I eagerly read it as soon as I got my hands on it, and wasn't disappointed.  Charlotte was a tree planter, but the book didn't focus entirely on planting. There was also a lot of background about the logging industry in general, and some background on tree physiology and historical biology, with both local and global perspectives.

At the time, I wrote a very short review and made some notes.  I've been tempted to read the book a second time since then, but I'm also working on writing a couple books of my own.  I really don't want anything in her book to influence what I'm writing, which is why I've reluctantly refrained from a second reading.  However, I took my original notes and I'm posting them here today because I want to remind planters about this book.  At some point over the next several weeks, I'll share some notes about three or four other books that should also be of interest to planters.

Charlotte Gill, the author, was a planter for over twenty years.   She started in Ontario, but moved out west.  When she was still working in western Canada (up until just a few years ago), she worked eight or nine months each year, predominantly planting coastal projects (the professional part of the industry), plus a bit of southern Interior work in the early summer months.  Many of the people that she mentioned in the book are people I know.  When I'm planting on the coast, I usually work in the same area where she did a lot of her work (the north Island), and I've worked for the same company that she often worked for.

Here's an excerpt from a review by Quill & Quire:

"A thoroughly Canadian story, Eating Dirt is not out of place alongside other classic memoirs of the bush by Susanna Moodie or Farley Mowat."

Eating Dirt was the winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction, and was also short-listed for both the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust

There were a few things in the book that really caught my attention. For instance, she was talking about the amount of ground that a million trees covers. When this is quantified in acres or hectares, it somehow seems less impressive than her way of illustrating: one million trees covers five hundred city blocks in Manhattan. My own camp usually plants close to six million trees a year. I didn't really think about how much ground we cover until I thought of it as almost three thousand city blocks.

Another interesting fact is that when you're in a full forest canopy and you look up, it probably looks like the branches of adjoining trees are all intertwined above you. But they aren't. The trees are able to somehow sense their neighbours and the branch tips almost always stays a few centimetres away from each other. Of course there are occasional exceptions, but natural avoidance is generally the case. Charlotte mentions a lot of facts about trees and nature that seasoned planters take for granted, but which would probably surprise readers who aren't planters.

Charlotte also talks about the number of calories a planter consumes in a day: around five thousand. If anything, I think this is an under-estimate. It's hard to count calories accurately in a bush camp, because most planters just load up without measuring portions, and shovel the food in as quickly as possible. But I've always been curious about caloric intake, I've always tracked my own personal food costs while planting on the coast, and I've sometimes made attempts to measure my calories. A normal person might be shocked. Here's a fairly normal example of what I might eat in a day on the coast:

Breakfast: 970 calories

3 yogurt cups = 240 calories
3 cinnamon buns with butter = estimated 375 calories
Bowl of strawberries = 45 calories
Four hard-boiled eggs = 310 calories

During Day, While Planting: 3,835 calories

4 pepperoni sticks = 320 calories
8 granola bars = 1280 calories
About 1/3rd block (150g) of marbled cheddar = 600 calories
A cup of chocolate chips = 805 calories
Anywhere from 8-12 bottles (500ml) of water = 0 calories
Three bottles of Gatorade (591ml) = 390 calories
One half of a large bottle of Clamato juice = 440 calories

Dinner: 3,415 calories (which I eat over a period of a couple hours)

Two cups of rice (bazmotti/risotto/brown/long grain) = 400 calories
1/2 bag of cheese perogies = 840 calories
A third of a bunch of asparagus = 30 calories
1 large chicken breast = 165 calories
Half of a bunch of broccoli = 105 calories
Half cup of butter (1/4 pound) on these previous items = 810 calories
Half cup of cheddar cheese on these previous items = 265 calories
1 litre of almond milk = 360 calories
Large bowl of ice cream = 440 calories
A couple gatorade containers of water that I take to bed = 0 calories

Total for the day: 8,220 calories
(and about a dozen litres of fluids)

A lot of planters who work hard for 8-10 hours per day can eat this much food, day after day, and still lose a significant amount of weight as the season progresses. Back when I planted full-time in the Interior, before I was a supervisor, I typically lost about 25 pounds in the first 6-7 weeks. By the way, I vary my diet a bit from day to day when I'm coastal planting - I really enjoy meat, so some days are a lot more protein heavy (fish, chicken, or red meat), and pastas or quinoa are often a staple on the coast too.  It all depends on my mood.  I've been having a lot more smoothies full of fruits and juicing greens lately too.

Tree planting is a job that most people would hate. For actual tree planters, it's more of a love/hate relationship. For people who've never done it, this book is a great insight into one of the strangest industries in Canada. Check it out if you can. Here's a link to order a copy from Amazon:

And while you're waiting for your copy of the book to arrive in the mail, here's a link to a lot of tree planting photo galleries that I've taken over the past ten years. Each of the photos on this page is actually a link: click on it, and you'll be taken to a page with dozens of other photos. In all, there are several thousand photos that I've put online:

 If you'd like to learn more about the Canadian Tree Planting industry, visit:


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Photos of a Moose Rescue in Northern Ontario

This happened a while ago (spring of 2012), but I was just looking at some photos and thought of this again and thought I'd post it to share it to a wider audience.  It's the story of a moose that got trapped in a fiber pond in Ontario.  The notes below are taken from the email that I received about it:

Sunday April 15, 2012 dawned cloudy and cool in the little community of Terrace Bay, located along the north shore of Lake Superior.  My friend and fellow Conservation Officer Jeff Anderson stopped by the house, my wife Eleanor made fresh coffee and we were enjoying a day off now that the fishing season for walleye had finally closed.
When the phone rang that morning, it was to alert us that a moose was helplessly mired in a spillway next to the towns pulp mill. Normally, the hustle and bustle of a busy factory would discourage wildlife from getting too close, but in this case, the mill had been idle for quite some time and the mill yard was quiet and tranquil. 
The large man-made ponds that surround the property are part of a system used to treat waste water. They are all fenced except for the one closest to the buildings. Its unclear as to how the young adult bull wandered into the first one, maybe he was fleeing a vehicle on the nearby road, or perhaps he just thought it was a marsh. Whatever the reason, he attempted to cross the football-field sized settling pond and began breaking through the deep layers of sodden wood fiber. 
We quickly hatched a plan and began gathering some rope, hip waders and snowshoes while Jeff grabbed a patrol truck, uniform and shotgun. It was important to be prepared for any eventuality! When we all rendezvoused at the site, we were faced with the saddest looking animal you could imagine. Utilizing the snowshoes to stay on top of the layers of fiber, we were able to approach the bull, fasten a chain knot around his neck and attempt to pull him free utilizing the winch on Jeff’s patrol truck. Unfortunately, we could not pull him horizontally with sufficient force to drag him out without the risk of injuring him, so we needed a new approach.
Mill staff came to the rescue and arrived on scene with a large, tracked loader equipped with a boom grapple. The rest of us shovelled a space around the moose’s chest around which we were able to secure a heavy line. With this new ability to lift and pull from around the animals girth, the big bull was slowly drawn out of the muck and onto the bank. 
It appeared as though he had been there overnight and he was near death from exhaustion and stress.  Remarkably, by supporting him in a prone position, giving him a couple bottles of water to drink and rubbing his legs to restore circulation, he began to perk up! After 20 minutes and several attempts, he stood up on wobbly legs for the first time in many hours. He tolerated us as we held him up and later, as he began walking with our assistance. It was a very strange experience to calmly accompany him for the long walk around the ponds perimeter, but we all felt the same heart-warming feeling when he quietly stepped into the bush under his own power, and disappeared from sight.

Terrace Bay is a town on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, Canada about 150km East of Thunder Bay.

This was written by Paul Dennis, Conservation Officer, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Starry, Starry Night

One of my checkers from last year (Mike Ross, known online as Lars Zergun), put together a YouTube video a few years ago which I really liked. I'm posting it here instead of on my music blog because I think the people here would enjoy it more (specifically the tree planters).

The video is a compilation of shots that Mike took, some of which are from planting, and some of which are not.

The background track that he set the clips to is called "Vincent" by Don MacLean of "American Pie" fame, which was actually on the American Pie album. It's a beautiful (and pretty famous) song which has been covered by dozens of other artists.

The song refers to Vincent Van Gogh, the famous post-impressionist painter who shot himself when he was 37 years old, long before his paintings became famous. Click here for a bit of background on the meaning of the song.

Here are the lyrics to "Vincent":

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colours on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds and violet haze
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue
Colours changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artists' loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you Vincent
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you

Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They're not listening still
Perhaps they never will...

Friday, February 19, 2016

Audio Versions of Tree Planter Training Material

I've been working on a project for the past year and a half that involves a comprehensive training program for first-time tree planters in western Canada.  It involves a text version of the material, which may turn into a published book eventually, plus about seven hours of accompanying multimedia.

I finished a major stage in the project this week, namely, the end of the final main revisions to the underlying material.  I had expected to make a number of significant changes after seeing how the material worked out after the first year, because I knew that I would probably want to add things that had been overlooked.  The final text version can now be downloaded from the following link:

Tree Planter Training PDF

I've also spent the past week turning all of the information into a series of twenty audio files, to match the twenty sections of the text.  All of the audio files are in MP3 format, at 320 kbps.  I've posted the files onto my SoundCloud account, in case people want to listen and/or download just individual specific sections.  Also, for people who want to download the entire projects, I've put all twenty MP3's into an archived RAR file, which you can download from this link:

Tree Planter Audio MP3's, RAR Archive

This will be faster than clicking on the download arrows of all twenty SoundCloud links.  RAR archives are now native within Windows.  If you're on a Mac, you'll have to download a free program such as "The Unarchiver" or "UnRarX," both of which can be found with a google search.  Or alternatively, if you're having problems with that, just download the files individually from the SoundCloud links.  If you're doing that, just click on the little down-arrow icon in the top right of the embeds below.

The final versions of the videos are not yet available.  The initial versions that went online in April of 2015 were, frankly, quite boring.  It was a last minute job, and the goal at that point was simply to get rough versions online with the basic content.  Those original videos were in a simple talking-head format against a black backdrop, so they are very boring to watch.  I'm still working on those.  Believe me, the final versions will look about a hundred times more interesting, with green-screening and special effects and tons of field footage incorporated.  But it will take me several more months to finish editing and producing the final videos, so don't expect them online until winter 2016/2017.  In other words, I recommend that you stick to the text/audio material for now.

If you want to follow progress on the project, you can visit - but for now, here are all the SoundCloud links in one place:

Introduction to the Industry

Why Do We Plant Trees?


Working Safely, Hazards

Rules & Regulations

Camp Life

Map Reading

Nature & The Environment

Basic Silviculture Knowledge


Common BC Coniferous Trees

The Planting Prescription

Planting Gear

Planting a Seedling

Meeting Quality Requirements

Spacing, Density, & Excess

Site Preparation

Maximizing Productivity

Behaviours & Attitudes

Wrap Up

 If you'd like to learn more about the Canadian Tree Planting industry, visit:

 If you want to join Replant's tree planter group on Facebook, visit:



Thursday, February 18, 2016

Introducing the Salmonberry

A couple years ago, I was planting on the coast in the fall.  The owner of the company, Nick, stopped by our room one evening after dinner.  He looked at me, and said, "I'm sorry."  I was puzzled, so I asked him what he was sorry for.  He said, "For tomorrow."  That sounded ominous.

The next morning, seven of us went out to a block together.  At the crew's tailgate safety meeting that morning, Nick had said that we were going to a very challenging block.  It turned out to be two giant patches of salmonberry, over our heads, that needed to be fill planted.  Luckily, the forester had herbicided the block, so although we'd have to work through a fairly thick tangle of brush, at least all the leaves were gone, so we could see where we were going.

It didn't look that bad, and Nina and I set out together on the low side of the road.  After the first four trees, I realized that it was going to be a tough day.  I don't usually bother to ask the tree prices, but I made an exception:  "Hey Nina, did you ask what the price was on this block?"  She said, "Eighty cents."  I started to laugh.  That was the last time that I laughed that day.

The moral of the story is, "When you think you want higher tree prices, sometimes you are wrong."

Anyway, that wasn't the point.  The point is that this purpose of this post is to teach you what salmonberry looks like.  Well, maybe not so much the plants, but at least the berries.  Salmonberry berries are often a very colourful orange-yellow colour, which I've never seen in other berries.

Salmonberry berries can also turn red after a while:

Occasionally, they can get to be quite large:

And most importantly, they're tasty!

So now you know what a salmonberry berry looks like.  Aside from the fact that the plants can grow to be taller than tree planters, and are extremely thorny, and you need a machete to force your way through them, they're a pretty cool plant.  The salmonberry is fairly common in coastal areas throughout British Columbia.

Here's a link to the Wiki, if you want to learn more:

 If you'd like to learn more about the Canadian Tree Planting industry, visit:


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Summer 2014 Planting Memories Video

Every summer, I take a video camera with me out tree planting. I don't have a lot of time for filming, but I do generally get to use it occasionally and get three or four hours of footage. And then, after the season is over, I boil that down into three or four minutes of some of the best clips, and turn that into a "Summer Memories" video for, my planting website. I got distracted with other projects for a while this winter, but I recently finished the 2014 video.

Here's a link to the video:

I want to thank Jasmin Frederickson (of Chicken-Like Birds) for providing vocals for the backing track that I wrote, "Time To Plant Some Trees."  If you want to download this song, you can get it from SoundCloud as a free download:

You can find out more about Jasmin at these two sites:

Here are the full lyrics to the music.  I wrote it in C, but this version is performed in E.

“Time To Plant Some Trees” – by Jonathan Clark

Tempo 106bpm, C major, 4/4 time

Chords as follows (I’m writing a chord change every HALF bar here)
  Intro:  C  C  C  C
  Verse:  C  G  Am  Am  F  F  C  G  x 2
               Am  Am  Em  Em  F  F  C  G  x 2
  Chorus:  F  G  C  C
  Bridge:  G  G  F  F  C  C  C  C 
                 G  G  F  F  Am  Am  G  G 
  (single line of chorus repeats four times at end)

Verse 1:

Weary eyed, fumblin’ out of bed
there’s a Chill in my tent, this morning
Check the sky, with a sense of dread
feel relief, I don’t see clouds or storming

Stumble to the mess tent, and make a hasty lunch
the Block treats look quite tasty, I wanna grab a bunch
Steph is laughing in the kitchen, Haley’s making bread
this Heaping plate of food will get me through the day ahead

It’s, almost, time to plant some trees

Verse 2:

No camp meeting, so I go to the truck
“Boots bag shovel water lunch” is my rhyme
the Drive to the block, is, good we don’t get stuck
we Stop and park, the foreman says, it’s tailgate meeting time

the Block today is pretty big, we’ve got to get ‘er done
let’s Work real hard ‘cause staying late, it wouldn’t be much fun
if Everybody plants 2k, that should be enough
Watch for J-roots, close your holes, and don’t plant trees in duff

Bag, up, it’s time to plant some trees


Every day I dream about
the Things I’d rather do
but Working in the city has its
Disadvantages too

Verse 3:

This was day three, tomorrow is day four
Last, day, of the shift, then we’ll have time to rest
Dinner’s over, I am tired and sore
it’s Eight o’clock and I need sleep, I start to get undressed

Planting trees is pretty tough,
the Days are long, the blocks are rough
Swear that this year is my last, but
I know that,  I will be back

Let’s, go, it’s time to plant some trees
Give, me, a creamy section please
Flat, land, easy on the knees
It, is, time to plant some trees

Words and music Copyright 2014, Jonathan Clark.


Follow Jonathan Clark on other sites:
        Main Site:
        Music Blog:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Give a Gift to the World - Donate Spare Computer Time for Medical Research

As I write this, depending where you live in the world, today/tomorrow is the Christmas holiday for people of certain religions. Of course, there are billions of people around the world who don't celebrate Christmas, but who celebrate other holidays at certain times of the year when gift-giving is a tradition.

No matter what holidays you celebrate, or when you happen to read this post, how would you like to give a gift to the rest of the world? And it doesn't really cost anything (except a bit of electricity consumption when your computer is turned on).

The gift is participation in a volunteer "grid computing" project. Wait! I know, your eyes started to glaze over when you saw "grid computing."  Please, bear with me for a second!

There are literally hundreds of millions of computers around the world.  Many of them are inexpensive laptops or tablets for personal use.  You might not think that your "old laptop" is very powerful, but the interesting thing is that it is probably only "in use" for about 2-5% of the time when it's turned on.  The rest of the time, it's sitting there waiting for something to do.  Even when it looks busy, because it's streaming music or uploading a YouTube video, the brain of the computer (the CPU) is idle most of the time.

So it's possible (and easy) to set up your computers so when they're turned on but not in use, they're helping solve scientific problems that could benefit millions of people.  For example, my laptop is currently running projects to help study proteins.  This research is useful in fighting diseases such as malaria, cancer, Alzheimer's, and HIV.  My laptop is also helping to catalog a high quality model of our near galaxy.  It's also searching for pulsar stars, and working on a few other projects.  And it's not costing me a penny, other than my electric bill.

Ok, at this point, if you don't want to try to help cure diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, etc., then you can stop reading.  But if I've aroused your curiosity, let me describe in more detail how it works, and I'll explain some of the specific projects that I'm supporting.

The Software:

The project is called BOINC, which stands for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.  Berkeley of course refers to the University of California at Berkeley.  You don't have to be very tech-savvy to make it work on your computer.  The people at Berkley set up the software to try to make it as user-friendly as possible, and to run in the background so you never notice it.

BOINC is currently available for a number of platforms.  For Windows, your computer must be running XP (service pack 2) or a more recently operating system, which should cover 99.98% of all Windows machines still functioning.  For Mac's, you need OS X 10.4 or later.  There are also versions for Linux and for Android, although the Android software is currently not working properly since Lollipop was released.  That should be fixed shortly.

Here is the download page for BOINC:

How It Works:

Basically, an institution that has a very large amount of data to process, but not enough computers to do it, can set up their project with BOINC.  People who decide to contribute computer time to a project will receive small chunks of data to process.  Your computer will spend a few hours or a few days processing this chunk of data, and then sends the results back to the project's institution.  The institution then sends you another chunk of data to work on.  This all happens in the background, so you don't have to spend any time answering or sending emails, etc.  And if you're worried about the internet usage, you can restrict the times that data is sent or received, and you can cap the bandwidth if you want.  But for most people, this won't be a big deal.  The bandwidth that most of these projects will send/receive in a day is probably less than you'd use watching a two-minute YouTube video.  If you're on Android on a phone, you can tell it to wait until you're at a free WiFi point to send/receive, so you don't use any of your mobile data.

The strength of the system is that the institution can be sending chunks of data out to dozens or even thousands of computers all around the world to simultaneously help work on analyzing data!  If you're curious about what happens to data that can't be processed, and whether or not it affects the project, there are safeguards.  For example, if you are processing info for a project and your laptop gets run over by a bus, there are deadlines built into each chunk of data.  So for this example, if the institution doesn't get results back from the data chunk that your computer is working on within say, 30 days, it sends the same chunk out to someone else's computer to analyze.

Slightly Technical Section:

You can ignore this short section if you want to avoid technical stuff!

If you want to really control the parameters for BOINC, you can customize a lot of stuff.  For example, I have mine set up so that after ten minutes of no activity on the computer, it starts to run.  I think this is fairly typical, although maybe the default is one hour.  But as soon as BOINC detects that you're using the computer (either through physical interaction such as a keypress, or high CPU usage such as watching a video) then it suspends operations until it knows that you're not using the laptop yourself.  This way, your laptop is never "slowed down" when you're using it.

For CPU usage, I have mine set so that BOINC doesn't run if my CPU is over 15%.  When it is running, I have it capped at a maximum of 95% of CPU.  For people with advanced graphics cards, which probably isn't a lot of people, you can allow BOINC to use the processing power of your card.  For example, I have a fairly nice nVidia GeForce 870M video card, so that's also helping to do calculations when BOINC is running.  BOINC supports quite a few nVidia and ATI/AMD cards.

From the BOINC Manager program, if you want to get really technical, go into View and switch to Advanced.  Then go into Tools and select Computing Preferences.  This is where you can play with your CPU and network and hard drive usage settings.  You can also determine whether or not it auto-loads when you boot your device, or whether it has to be turned on manually.  You can also temporarily do a suspension of processing with a single click in the Manager program.  For instance, I have mine set up to auto-boot and run most of the time, but just in case, I suspend it when my computer is rendering large video and audio files (although it shouldn't run then anyway because my CPU is too busy).

Although BOINC runs on all major platforms, not all individual projects using BOINC are able to run on all platforms.  For example, many projects can't take advantage of GPU processing, and some projects only run in Windows and Mac environments.

Cool Stuff:

BOINC on all my machines has a screensaver, which I've turned on.  I've matched the screensaver start time to my "start BOINC processing after 10 minutes of downtime" setting, so when BOINC starts, the screensaver comes on.  You don't have to run the screensaver.  However, for some of the projects, it's pretty cool, and it's a nice conversation piece if someone notices it and asks what your computer is doing.  You can tell them that you're saving the world.

To get to your screensaver settings in Windows, go to Control Panel then Display then Personalization.  I have mine set to never blank, run the generic BOINC portion for 1 minutes, then run project screensavers for 1 hour.  So it keeps switching back and forth between the generic one (1 minute long) and then an hour of various project screensavers.  Within the project screensavers, I have it set to switch every 2 minutes, so there's more variety.

Some of the screensavers keep spinning or displaying changing graphics of stuff being studied, so a single screenshot isn't very exciting.  But here are screenshots from two projects that my laptop is running, from the Rosetta and Einstein projects:

These screensavers have captured the attention of many people who have been by my house to visit.


Here are some of the projects that I'm supporting.  I have them set to cycle automatically, so my laptop processes one for an hour, then moves on to the next, so they eventually all get an equal share of my computer's time.  In the preferences, you can allocate different percentages of your overall CPU to various projects, in case there are some projects that you want to support more than others.

Milky Way 
This project is creating a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  They have a facebook page and website and YouTube channel, like many of the other projects.

Determining three dimensional shapes of proteins in research that will hopefully lead to a cure of some major human diseases, including diseases such as HIV, malaria, cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.

An astronomy project studying sixteen different properties of galaxies, and also helping to produce an atlas to help astronomers better understand the distant universe.

Sponsored by the Swiss Tropical Institute, this project is doing modelling/simulations of large human populations to determine optimal strategies for delivering mosquito nets, chemotheraphy, and new vaccines that are currently under development and testing.

Searching for spinning neutron stars (pulsars) using data from the Arecibo observatory.  Volunteers helping with this project have already discovered several dozen pulsars over the past couple years!

This is the project that got BOINC started over a decade ago.  This project searches through data gathered by various observatories and looks for non-naturally occurring radio signals from outside our solar system, in other words, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  So far, none have been found, but people continue to search.  You probably know this joke: "What's the biggest sign that extra-terrestrial intelligence actually exists?  That they haven't tried to contact us."

World Community Grid
This one, sponsored by IBM, is actually a group of non-profit projects on things like research into HIV/AIDS, cancer, tropical and neglected diseases, solar energy, clean water, and many more.  For instance, there is an Ebola research project available from this group.

If you want to see a more complete list of projects to choose from, go here:

Obviously, there are dozens of projects available to chose from.  You can contribute to just a single project, or you can contribute to a dozen or more.  Your choice.  You'll find that most of the projects specifically fall within research areas within the following fields, due to the data-crunching requirements of these areas of study:  astronomy, math, physics, quantum physics, biology & life sciences, and medicine.  Just remember that you have to install BOINC itself before you start participating in a project.

Getting Started:

After you install the BOINC software, you'll have to go to the "load project" section and pick a project that you want to support.  After that's set up, load another project if you want.  You'll probably be impatient at first to see it start working.  Give it time.  When you first install it, it needs some time to download data to process, to think about how to set things up, and so on.  Also, your stats screens and screen saver will display stats showing how many "work units" your system has completed.  Don't expect those to go up right away!  It may take hours or a day or two before your system finishes processing the first batch of data, then the data has to be sent back to the project sponsor and verified.  So it may look like you've processed 0 units of work for a few days, and then all of a sudden it'll jump up to hundreds or thousands of units processed.  Be patient.

Final Thoughts:

You may wonder how many people are participating in these projects?  As of today, it appears that about 236,000 people from around the world are contributing computer time to various BOINC projects.  They are doing this on about 481,000 computers.  By the way, many users are running BOINC on several machines and tablets and phones simultaneously.  For instance, I have it running on three devices in my house.

There are many web pages showing the stats and progress of various projects.  Some users gather together in "teams" to 

I highly encourage you to contribute to this project.  Seriously, what do you have to lose?  Some people leave their computers running all night, doing nothing!  Think of how good you'll feel if you know that your computer isn't dormant, it's helping advance research in the cure of diseases that kill millions of people every year!

Also, the screensaver options are great.  They've really drawn attention to the project when people see them.  The whole concept is a great conversation starter.  Next time you have friends over to visit, wouldn't it be cool to say, "Hey, I just set my computer up to help study a potential cure for Ebola."

If you're worried about the electric bill, remember that it's not going to cost you anything unless you leave the laptop on longer than you normally would have.  And realistically, leaving a computer on overnight, year-round, to contribute to these projects is not much different than donating $20 once a year to a local charity.

Even if you only have a single computer running the BOINC software, and it's only running a few hours each day, you're still contributing to a great cause.  And what about your computer at work?  If you're not on a special networked computer, maybe that one can also be allowed to BOINC?  You better check your company's policies first, but some companies are fine with this.  After all, it's for a great cause. 

Once again, here's the link to get you started:

Please, share this post with other people you know who might be interested in learning about these projects.  I've just added share/retweet/like buttons below.  There are probably lots of people out there who would love to contribute to some of these projects, but just don't know that the possibility exists.