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98.11.11
Biotech at the Barricades

Some would say the avant-garde is dead.This avant-garde wants to live forever.

98.11.05
Dharma Geeks

Sure, there's Buddhism on the Net, but maybe the Net itself is Buddhist.

98.10.28
Revisions of Slavery

What the Web accomplishes that neither Hollywood filmmakers nor PBS documentarists can.

98.10.21
Liberty and Linux for All

Microsoft's worst nightmare may not be a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

98.10.15
Everything for Sale

In the world of online auctions, anything (and everything) goes on the block.

98.10.08
The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.

98.09.30
Neurodiversity

On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

98.09.23
It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

98.09.16
Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

98.09.10
Celebrity Trades

With the market in turmoil, the only safe bets may be at the box office.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
A Little Help From My ... Friends?
November 18, 1998

Rod Barnett "Let me clarify something," Rod Barnett writes on his personal Web site, next to a disconcertingly large color mug shot of himself. "I HAVE NEVER HAD A PROBLEM GETTING A DATE. If I really wanted to I COULD BE MARRIED IN 3 MONTHS. THAT IS NOT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT!" What is "this"? A personal ad, with a twist: Barnett is offering $10,000 to anybody who introduces him to the person he marries (or proposes to). "The primary reason people can't find a compatible partner," Barnett notes under a snapshot of himself sporting a Banana Republic T-shirt, sunglasses, and a bright white grin, "is a simple lack of exposure."

Sensing similar possibilities for exposing herself, the novelist Lisa Scottoline recently placed a different sort of ad in The New York Times Book Review. Very much in the spirit of Tom Sawyer's approach to whitewashing his Aunt Polly's picket fence, the ad announced: "THE CREATIVE PROCESS ISN'T PRETTY. Lisa Scottoline has posted a draft chapter of her upcoming legal thriller, Mistaken Identity, on her web site. You are invited to edit this work-in-progress online. Express yourself."

Barnett and Scottoline are not alone in recognizing that the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to enlist the aid of countless strangers (and their computers) in one's endeavors. Take, for example, distributed.net -- an organization dedicated to "proving that when you add up all the idle time on all the computers all over the Internet, enormous tasks may be accomplished." The organization recently made a name for itself by solving two cryptographic challenges posted online by RSA Laboratories. The challenges were designed to test whether a "committed adversary" could crack the U.S. government's Data Encryption Standard; distributed.net demonstrated, with the help of volunteers who downloaded free software from its site, that the government's ciphers are indeed vulnerable to a "brute-force attack."

ET online Others, too, have had related ideas. The decision by Netscape to open its source code to the public for debugging and enhancement is well-known -- as is the successful evolution of the open-source operating system Linux, which is often cited as an example of just how powerful free collaboration on the Internet can be. In many cases (as with some of distributed.net's projects), this collaboration doesn't even require the participation of human beings. The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), for example, makes free software available to all and "harnesses the power of thousands of small computers like yours to solve the seemingly intractable problem of finding HUGE prime numbers." The soon-to-be launched SETI@home project uses a strikingly similar approach: it invites participation in "a scientific experiment that will harness the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence ... by running a screensaver program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data." There's no financial reward offered, but, the SETI@home staff write, "there's a small but captivating possibility that your computer will detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth."

Such efforts are sure to gain in popularity, particularly as computers get more powerful and more interconnected. Adam L. Beberg, the founder of distributed.net, writes on his site that in the coming years his organization "will tackle large problems in encryption, finding large prime numbers, or playing chess at a level unknown previously," and goes on to express his sincere interest in taking on "other large problems that no individual, corporation or government could tackle alone." Some day soon -- after finding the world's largest prime number and discovering intelligent life in space -- Beberg may find himself drawn to even more daunting tasks: editing Lisa Scottoline's book, perhaps, or arranging Ron Barnett's marriage.

--Toby Lester

* * *

Note: Always on the lookout for new trends, we at Atlantic Unbound have decided to join in the fun: this week we're launching a new feature called Word Fugitives, by Barbara Wallraff, the author of The Atlantic Monthly's Word Court column. We're inviting all of our online readers to join in a brute-force attempt to coin new words for familiar concepts that don't yet have names.


Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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