8 strange places to find USB ports

USB ports have become the universal computer interface. Why do we care? Because microcontrollers control the world, making the question of who controls the microcontrollers very important. Your car has dozens of microcontrollers -- possibly more than a hundred. Farm machinery, appliances, toys, weapons, home theater equipment, cameras, model trains, industrial robots, dog collars, surveillance gear -- they're everywhere.

There has to be a way to interface with microcontrollers. Sometimes this is the realm of programmers and engineers with specialized equipment. Sometimes they are user-accessible, and an easy and common interface is the good old USB port. For this I am happy, because I remember the painful bad old days of device connectivity. You young'uns won't believe me, but we couldn't just plug external hard drives or USB sticks into computers. We couldn't plug cameras and smartphones into computers, or turntables, speakers, headsets, multi-channel recording interfaces -- not even keyboards and mice. No, this was a strange and difficult task, and involved hassling with PS/2 ports, serial ports, parallel ports, IDE ports, and other primitive technologies.

Now there are USB ports everywhere, and here are eight of the strangest places I have seen them.

Dead Drops

A jaunty purple USB stick embedded in a fencepost in a public park, waiting to share random files from random people.

Dead Drops is "an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space." Translated from art-geek-speak, that means planting USB sticks in public places and encouraging people to share files on them. You're probably thinking, "But what if someone steals it? What if they put malware on it?" Both are possible. On Deaddrops.com, you'll see USB sticks mortared into walls. If someone really wants a $10 USB stick they'll chip at that mortar for days. I use a blob of silicone caulking, which holds it securely and is reasonably removable. The safest way to view files from untrusted sources is to boot a Linux live CD-ROM, such as Ubuntu. Most malware is Windows malware so Linux is immune, and a CD-ROM cannot be infected.

Aram Bartholl is the artist who conceived this project. He installed five USB sticks in different locations in the New York area with a single file on them, a README explaining the project. The project captured the imaginations of many, as you can see on the Dead Drops worldwide map. You can add your own Dead Drops to the database and map.

The convenient USB Fridge chilling a refreshing beverage.

Desktop beverage cooler

The USB bus carries a little bit of power, so low-power devices can draw power from it without needing a separate power cord. And so we can have essential comfort-enhancing appliances like the genuine USB Fridge for keeping a single can of juice or soda cool right on our desks, thereby saving us that long trek to the kitchen. It claims to lower beverage temperature to 47° in five minutes. There is a blue LED inside that doesn't really illuminate anything, but it looks cool.

You don't have to settle for a boring doorbell with the sleek, programmable iChime.

While we're on Thinkgeek, why not a the ichime Programmable Doorbell? It comes with a set of tones, but why settle for those when you can put your own custom sounds on it? Just think of the possibilities: scary sound effects for Halloween, special creepy tones for unwanted solicitors, your favorite symphony in tinny doorbell tones, or maybe even something welcoming, if you really must have that.

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