SETI@Home sacking and the death of local newspapers

Two newspapers and a local radio station cover the same story, and it looks like two different stories. At the very least, one account is so incomplete as to be misleading.

The story is not a big one, and largely concerns local news outlets. Given that many people are bemoaning the closures of local papers, it is worth thinking about whether they actually worth having.

Brad Niesluchowski who works for a school district in Arizona was fired, and is being investigated by the police. The problem is that there are conflicting accounts of what he actually did.

According to local radio station KPHO and the Australian Daily Telegraph he was sacked for putting SET@Home on 5,000 school computers leading to a huge increase in electricity bills.

According to the East Valley Tribune, he was also incompetent, took 18 school computers home, and is alleged to have downloaded pornography on to schools machines.

Although his conduct was irresponsible if either set of allegations is true. He is supposed to have cost the schools district $1m in higher electricity bills and parts (it would have to be primarily the former). The problem is that these are two very different stories.

The schools district also does not look good, thanks to some idiotic comments made by its employees. The first is that you cannot simply uninstall SETI@Home, and it will be expensive to remove. It looks like it can simply be uninstalled on Windows. They might be using MacOS or Linux, but software removal on those operating systems is almost always easy.

The other is this gem:

“We support educational research and certainly would have supported cancer research,” said Higley superintendent Denise Birdwell. “However, as an educational institution we do not support the search for E.T.”

I assume by cancer research she means Folding@Home or some other similar project. What exactly is wrong with the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence? Does she mean that it may be acceptable for third rate organisation like the National Science Foundation and the University of California at Berkeley to back SETI, but it does not meet the high academic standards of the Higley Unified School District? Perhaps the message is that you should not try to answer big questions? Either way, it is hardly a wonderful attitude to find in an educational establishment.

Getting back to the topic of local newspapers, this is not an isolated failure. Local newspapers (any thing less than city-wide) have been uniformly awful for as long as I can remember. One would have thought that journalists who had to cover a small town would be able to get to know it thoroughly and find interesting stories. It never happened. They were primarily a way of distributing classified ads with just enough content to make them look like newspapers.

I grew up in Wimbledon and we had no fewer than three local newspapers (I think four one time), all free apart from a hopeful knock on the door by the delivery boy just before Christmas. The only time they were ever worth reading was an occasional piece on then-controversial plans to redevelop the town centre. That is exactly the sort of thing that bloggers now do much better. Local papers are not needed for democracy to work, and they are not needed by communities, and we have better ways of distributing ads. Let them die unmourned.

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