I'm afraid I can't remember in whose blog I saw a link to SeisMac, a piece of freeware that uses the accelerometer built in to Intel Mac laptops to "convert" the computer into a seismometer. I do recall, though, how geekishly excited about the idea of that software I was, and then how disappointed I was when all of the times I tried to download it resulted in error messages. But now it seems that I'll be getting a chance to run some similar software on my MacBook after all.
It turns out that one of my professors is working on a project that aims to take laptop accelerometer readings beyond just a neat thing to watch on your screen, a fantastic procrastination tool, or a means for comparing the waveforms of actual earthquakes to the jolts caused by an overenthusiastic upstairs neighbor getting too involved in Wii Tennis (not that I have experience with such neighbors, of course not...). The software being developed for the Quake-Catcher Network will take that laptop accelerometer data and use it to help narrow in on epicenter locations, map shaking, and even give some degree of early warning for larger events. For people who only have desktops or whose laptop is too old to have a built in sensor, the project also involves development of a flash drive-sized USB accelerometer. (Even though my only computer is a laptop, I kind of want one of the USB accelerometers anyway, simply because the concept of carrying around seismic instruments on one's keychain makes me geekishly happy.)
The software is nearing the point where it will be tested by larger groups of people than just the developers, and even though I'm not technically admitted to the program here yet, I still get to help with that test. I'm sure I'll be writing more about how that goes once it gets started.
Another aspect I find particularly exciting about QCN is that there have been plans to use it for education from the get go. This should definitely show students (and non-geoscience-specific teachers) a side of California's chronic shakiness that they haven't seen before, which will hopefully in turn increase general awareness of how earthquakes happen and how seismic networks work, and maybe even prompt a few people to go on to formally study this stuff. I get the impression both from my own K-12 experience in northern Virginia and from talking with people in California that earth science is not considered by whoever comes up with the curriculim to be as serious of a science as biology, chemistry, or physics. In Virginia, there's an earth science unit in fifth grade science, and then a year-long basic geoscience class in high school (which, at the science and tech magnet high school I attended, was outright considered a joke class by most of the students); the other day, I was told that fifth grade is the only time some parts of California have earth science in the public school curriculum. I find it very strange that a state with little to no active geological processes would teach more than a state known for its earthquakes, mudslides, and fires, but at the same time, I'm not surprised based on some responses in the introductory geology class I took in university - only about a quarter of the class knew what the San Andreas Fault was (they'd heard the name, but couldn't explain what it actually is), never mind that it's only twelve miles from campus. Ideally, the curriculum will be expanded sooner than later to include more geoscience, but it seems to me that things like the QCN software used in schools will make the limited study that there is now more hands-on and meaningful.