SAN FRANCISCO – Signals from aliens, an unskilled rapper and a Swedish-American computer geek converged in an unusual, nerdy ode to a couple's love for each other.
The story began with a project by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, which has signed up more than 1 million volunteers worldwide in a search for extraterrestrial intelligence since 1999.
The SETI@home project uses volunteers' computers when they go into screen-saver mode to crunch data in search of possible evidence of radio transmissions from space using data from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
James Melin, a software programmer for a county government agency in Minnesota, volunteers with the project and runs SETI@home on his seven home computers, which periodically communicate over the Internet with University of California servers.
Whenever communication takes place, servers record the remote computer's Internet Protocol address and file it in a database that people running the software can view.
An IP address — a set of numbers separated by periods — functions like a street address or a phone number to provide an identity for any computer connected to the Internet.
Several years ago, Melin installed SETI@home on his wife's laptop, which was stolen from the couple's Minneapolis home on Jan. 1.
Annoyed at the break-in — and alarmed that someone could delete the screenplays and novels that his wife, Melinda Kimberly, was writing — Melin monitored the SETI@home database to see if the stolen laptop would "talk" to the Berkeley servers.
The laptop checked in three times within a week, and Melin sent the IP addresses to the Minneapolis Police Department.
Officers subpoenaed Quest Communications, Melin's Internet service provider, to determine the address where the stolen laptop logged onto the Internet. Within days, officers seized the computer and returned it to the rightful owners.
The computer contained Kimberly's writings, and thieves didn't appear to have broken into her e-mail or other personal folders or programs.
But the returned computer contained 20 tracks of rap music with unintelligible lyrics, possibly from the person who stole the computer or bought it on the black market.
"It's really, really horrid rap," said Melin, 43. "It makes Ludacris look like Pavarotti."
Kimberly, 31, said the incident reaffirmed her love for Melin. They met when she was only 15 years old, while she was dressed as a medieval wench and he was a Scots highlander at a Renaissance Faire.
The native Minnesotans bonded over their Scandinavian roots and remained friends for a couple years, interacting in their medieval garb at summer festivals. They began dating when she was 17 and got married just shy of her 20th birthday.
Since Kimberly got laid off last year, the couple has been living apart. Kimberly moved to Oceanside to work on her writing, and her husband plans to join her after he's vested in his pension.
"I always knew that a geek would make a great husband," Kimberly said Wednesday. "He always backed up all my data, but this topped it all. It became like 'Mission Impossible' for him, looking for hard evidence for the cops to use. ... He's a genius — my hero."
Dave Anderson, a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of SETI@home, said the case appears to be the first successful recovery of a stolen computer through SETI@home, one of the world's best known distributed computing projects.
Unless a computer-savvy thief uninstalls nearly every piece of software before connecting to the Internet, he said, SETI@home would track the machine — and the thief would likely never know it.
"I have some advice for thieves: Don't connect to the network," Anderson said.