The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Another stick in the wall

This is cool:

Across New York, there are USB drives embedded in walls, buildings and curbs. The idea is to create an anonymous, offline file-sharing network in public space. The drives are completely public and anyone can plug in to drop and download files.

Seriously, you can plug the USB drive into your laptop. ...

It's part of an art project called "Dead Drops" by Aram Bartholl and I have to say, it's pretty awesomely creative. I mean, if I saw a USB stick stick out of a random wall, I'd be dying to know what's in there. I'd have to plug in. It'd also be interesting to see what people would anonymously share on the public drive, well, until some jackass decides to upload a virus to screw up everybody's computer.

Personalizing machines

Diane will understand why Wired editor Jonah Lehrer keeps his crappy GPS. Not because her GPS is crappy, but because "Jack" talks to her:

I have a complicated relationship with my GPS unit. On the one hand, it rarely works. Here's what happened the last time I turned it on. First, there was a five minute delay while it searched for the satellite signal. Then, it couldn't find the street I was searching for. Then, it found the street but lost the satellite signal. Then, it regained the signal but sent me in the wrong direction. And then, after I'd already gotten accurate directions off my phone, the GPS unit finally decided that it knew where I was going. In other words, the device sucks.

But here's the funny part: I still use the device every time I'm even a little lost or unsure of where I'm going. In fact, I sometimes turn the machine on even when I know exactly where I'm headed. Why? I'm not quite sure. Although the device drives me crazy, and I'm constantly complaining about it (see above), I also enjoy interacting with that posh British voice emanating from the gadget, as it mispronounces every street name and tells me to take the wrong turn. When I'm alone in the car, the stupid piece of plastic feels like a companion.

... Why, then, am I so indulgent of my GPS unit? The answer, I think, has to do with the facade of agency. This machine speaks to me, calmly telling me where to go and why it's failing to telling me where to go. Sometimes, when the gadget is really struggling, I get the sense that it wants to apologize, that it feels bad it's so utterly ineffective.

For the record, "Jack" is Australian. And I have to laugh the way "he" reacts when Diane decides to follow a different route than Jack plotted for her: he seems to sigh and, with the patience of someone training a puppy, tells her he's "recalculating." We really aren't far away from Genuine People Personalities, are we?

Friday afternoon potpourri


Really. January.


Via Strange Maps comes a field outside Minden, Neb., shaped like...well, like Nebraska:

Strange Maps writes:

Is Nebraska Field a coincidence, then? When not being centrally irrigated, each of the mile-by-mile blocks is often divided into smaller fields, mostly rectangular but not really symmetrical. That sort of describes the shape of Nebraska – but still, chances of a field mimicking it so perfectly seem very remote indeed.

Nebraska is rectangular in an oblong sort of way, with straight borders everywhere except in the east, where it is bounded by the Missouri River. An immediately recognisable feature on its western border is the square chunk bitten out by Colorado, allowing that state to be completely rectangular.

The field mimics all these shapes: the straight lines north, west and south, the indentation in the southwest, the slightly slanting eastern border, near what looks like a little, elongated lake. And all in the right proportions too.

So: coincidence or design? It has to be one or the other.

Pretty cool, though.

Smarter than a cat

IBM has created a supercomputer with more cerebral capacity (as measured by neurons and synapses) than a housecat:

The simulator, which runs on the Dawn Blue Gene /P supercomputer with 147,456 CPUs and 144TB of main memory, simulates the activity of 1.617 billion neurons connected in a network of 8.87 trillion synapses. The model doesn't yet run at real time, but it does simulate a number of aspects of real-world neuronal interactions, and the neurons are organized with the same kinds of groupings and specializations as a mammalian cortex. In other words, this is a virtual mammalian brain (or at least part of one) inside a computer, and the simulation is good enough that the team is already starting to bump up against some of the philosophical issues raised about such models by cognitive scientists over the past decades.

...[B]uilding a highly accurate simulation of a complex, nondeterministic system doesn't mean that you'll immediately understand how that system works—it just means that instead of having one thing you don't understand (at whatever level of abstraction), you now have two things you don't understand: the real system, and a simulation of the system that has all of the complexities of the original plus an additional layer of complexity associated with the models implementation in hardware and software.

On the other hand, I've met a number of cats in my day, and as cute as I think they your really need that much computing power to outsmart one? I've seen gerbils do it.