Santa Claus is an Extraterrestrial
This year I’m looking forward to spending Christmas day eating Chinese take-out and watching It’s a Wonderful Life with my parents.
My mother was born, raised and bat mitzvahed in Brooklyn but moved to Eugene with my father when—after completing his PHD at NYU—he was offered an associate professorship at the University of Oregon. At first glance, they make an odd couple, my mother vivacious, witty, and—as my male friends never let me forget—beautiful, and my father the eccentric, absent-minded, professor with a fringe of excitable grey hair around his bald dome. In their relationship my father is the air—unable to hold two thoughts together and off on a tangent at first intuition—and my mother is the earth—making sure the bills get paid and my father leaves his books and papers long enough to eat three meals a day.
Once a year, on Christmas Eve, ever since I returned to the west coast to pursue my masters at UC Berkeley, I count out one hundred forty one dollars at the bus depot cashier’s window and take the seventeen hour bus ride from Berkeley to Eugene. Normally, I don’t look forward to it but the events of this past Christmas put things into perspective.
Last year I spent Christmas day in federal custody in a four by eight holding cell lit by a single fluorescent fixture; to explain how I got there I need to tell you about the Plan and to tell you about the Plan I need to tell you about the mastermind behind the Plan who, for purposes of anonymity, I’ll call Romero.
I met Romero at the SETI program at UC Berkeley. The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence is considered fringe science at best and absolute lunacy by many but I was drawn to the field when I entered the graduate program in astronomy. You see, I have always had a fascination with patterns and a knack for understanding them. From the interlocking knots of a hand-knit sweater to the infinitely repeating patterns of the Mandelbrot set. The SETI program appealed to me because much of the work is looking for patterns in the chaos, finding meaning in the deep black void.
Romero is too smart for his own good and could have an outstanding career, as his adviser tells him, if he only applied himself. He was offered a position at NASA based on his early graduate work in Astrophysics but passed up a six figure salary for a stipend working as a lab assistant in the SETI lab. He is an aspiring musician influenced heavily by the Spectral Music movement of the 70s. I went to one of his shows which consisted of feedback caused by string-less guitars leaning against a wall of amps while Romero tweaked dials and flipped switches on a bevy of D.I.Y. effect pedals. To be honest, he combined the stage presence of an air traffic controller with the audio aesthetics of sitting on a jet engine while the plane’s taking off. Afterward, I tried to think of nice things to say while my ears rang from the sudden onset of tinnitus. He lit a clove cigarette with his flash drive lighter and tried to act nonchalant when a pair of girls told him they thought his music was “cool” even though they “didn’t understand it”.
We bonded over a common interest in computer games, specifically a family of competitive multi-player first person shooters. Soon after we met we were regularly staying late at the SETI lab to accumulate frags and shout profanity at one another. My affinity for patterns gives me an edge in these sorts of games. I can quickly memorize new maps: where the best weapons respawn and at what frequency, where players will sit and camp and where the best ambush points are. When I’m in the zone I have a near omniscient knack for knowing when Romero will be rounding a corner (and have a primed grenade sitting there waiting for him). This is a source of great annoyance for Romero who is a competitive FPS player by his own right. After a multi-hour late-night gaming session Romero and I would head to the corner taco truck for beef tacos and soft drinks and talk about games.
Romero began talking about how he was working on solving the problem of static maps. Eventually he told me how he had developed algorithms for creating navigable 3d spaces using existing game assets. It was the holy grail of procedural level generation. The only problem, it took tremendous amounts of computing power. His home PC, a custom overclocked beast, whimpered at the task and took over a week to pump out a small area. But the success was enough to whet our appetites.
It just so happens that the Astronomy program at UC Berkeley, specifically the SETI program, has access to the largest distributed computer in the world. Astronomy enthusiasts around the world have installed the SETI@home program on their computers. In all, over 280,000 computers worldwide accept and process packets of data from the Arecebo radio telescope in Puerto Rico looking for spikes in the frequency bands most likely to be used for extraterrestrial transmissions.
So the Plan was set and the time was picked. The lab rarely closes with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when it is completely empty. I bought my bus ticket in advance and stuffed it in my back pocket, the last bus for Eugene left Oakland at 1:30 on Christmas morning and would get me to Eugene in time for dinner. We would get into the lab first thing on Christmas Eve, install the level generation software on SETI@home’s servers, and game for fifteen hours straight. At 10:15 am, Romero was putting the finishing touches on the configuration. Appropriately, he told me, the random seed would be generated from actual data captured by Arecebo.
By 10:30, we were in the game. Every few matches, just about the time I had begun to pick up on the patterns in the level, Romero would switch the map. It was gaming perfection thanks to hundreds of thousands of sleeping computers around the world secretly calculating 3d geometry, baking light maps, and applying textures for the simulated battleground of two gamers. At 2:00, according to plan, we took a fifteen minute break to grab food and drinks from the taco truck and then were back to our keyboards and mice with greasy fingers and a sugar high.
I crouched in a shady alcove and waited for Romero to run by before giving him both barrels of my shotgun. Romero cursed at me and I heard the rapid clickity click as he summoned the next level into existence. This level was set in an abandoned building and I climbed two flights of rickety stairs to a narrow hallway and proceeded carefully checking the doors to my left and right for supplies. Third door on the left opened to reveal an invisibility power up which I greedily took. Romero never saw me coming. Next level.
A similar level, another abandoned building and another narrow hallway. A stroke of luck brought me another invisibility orb. I chuckled to myself as I grabbed it. “What?” Romero growled suspiciously. Next level.
An abandoned building and a rapidly growing sense of déjà vu, again I climbed two flights of decrepit stairs and found myself in a narrow corridor. I paused for a second in front of the third door on the left before keying the open command. The invisibility orb hummed and throbbed. My face flushed, a prickling sensation ran from my feet to my head spreading outward down my arms and making my fingers go numb. This wasn’t similar to the level before it, it was the level before it. We had looked for chaos in the void and found order.
Fifteen minutes later we were both staring at the readout of a digital oscilloscope. “Fuck me.” Romero breathed. In a quiet part of the sky where the nearest star is thousands of light years away we were picking up a steady tick. There was nothing random about this noise, it was a signal.
We found sub-signals within the signal and soon we were pouring over screens of numbers. The first patterns were the easiest to pick out: an ascending numerical pattern in base-4 notation, the atomic structure of water, the molecular signature of a star. Then the patterns grew more complex: mathematical formulas and huge tables of data scrolled across our displays. The meaning of the data was of no interest to me, only deciphering the pattern. As far as I knew, I was unlocking the cure for cancer and the Rosetta Stone for an alien civilization. Romero followed along feverishly recording everything.
Before we knew it, it was 2:30 in the morning, I wouldn’t be getting on my bus to Eugene this Christmas, no Chinese food for me. When the F.B.I. breached the door with a pneumatically powered battering ram I peed myself. In my defense, hours earlier I had washed down my spicy beef burrito with two 355ml thick-glass bottles of Hecho en México Coca-Cola, and, despite having a full bladder, I had sat there, riveted, holding it. On the plus-side, it made the job of strip searching me unpleasant.
They bagged every piece of electronic equipment we had, put them in file boxes, and loaded them onto a truck. Anything we could have used to store data was confiscated. They even took Romero’s early-80s calculator watch. (I think the display may have said “BOOBIES“.) The sad part is all this valuable data probably ended up in a government warehouse somewhere. I think they decided to shelve it, some things are better off being unknown. They let us go Christmas afternoon and Romero sparked up a clove cigarette. As he put the lighter back in his pocket he smiled.
The papers he’s published this year make him the top candidate for the Nobel prize in Physics and Medicine and I’m sure there’s more to come. When it came down to it, Romero ended up applying himself.