Frontier Nerds: An ITP Blog

Dead Drop at 319

Eric Mika

This morning I installed a dead drop at 319 Scholes street in Brooklyn.

Four gigabytes worth of zeroed bits are now available for web-free semi-anonymous file exchange.

319 Scholes StreetThe door to 319 Scholes Street

Dead Drop installed at 319 Scholes Street


Dead drops was initiated by Aram Bartholl during his residency at Eyebeam — the project involves embedding digital storage in buildings or other large, immovable objects in public space. Aram’s “Dead Drops Manifesto” follows:

Dead Drops is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. Anyone can access a Dead Drop and everyone may install a Dead Drop in their neighborhood/city. A Dead Drop must be public accessible. A Dead Drop inside closed buildings or private places with limited or temporary access is not a Dead Drop. A real Dead Drop mounts as read and writeable mass storage drive without any custom software. Dead Drops don’t need to be synced or connected to each other. Each Dead Drop is singular in its existence. A very beautiful Dead Drop shows only the metal sheath enclosed type-A USB plug and is cemented into walls.You would hardly notice it. Dead Drops don’t need any cables or wireless technology. Your knees on the ground or a dirty jacket on the wall is what it takes share files offline. A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space. In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data. The Dead Drops movement is on its way for change!

Free your data to the public domain in cement! Make your own Dead Drop now! Un-cloud your files today!!!

I really like this project — it sits at the intersection of the practical and the conceptual, and forces us to rethink data exchange and anonymity. In the course of researching dead drops, I read hundreds of comments from visitors to Aram’s blog posts outlining the project. A huge percentage of the comments are Henny Penny hysterics about the security implications involved in plugging your laptop into a dead drop. (Viruses! Destructive circuitry! Illegal content!) Such is the nature of creative tear-down on the web.

Nevertheless there’s something about drawing data exchange into real life that amplifies paranoia and brings out a sense of peril. If my thesis project about building a decentralized mesh-based alternative internet ends up solidifying, I’ll definitely revisit this issue of how trust works so differently in real life.


Installing the drop was relatively simple. I followed the how-to guide. As fate would have it, there was already a hole in the building’s brick facade that was just the right size for a USB key. With that already sorted, I started by cracking open the key’s plastic case and mummifying it in PTFE tape for water protection:

A collection of toolsA USB keyA dismantles USB keyA dismantled USB key wrapped in protective tape

Next I mixed up some cement, and embedded the key in the wall:

Close up of the door at 319 Scholes StreetUSB key placed in the wall at 319 Scholes StreetA small container with freshly mixed cementUSB key cemented into the wall at  Scholes Street


I seeded the drive with a few files of interest, and posted it to the dead drops database — this is the 66th drop to be installed worldwide. I’ll be checking the drive every few days, and if anything interesting shows up I’ll write a post.

I’ll be interested to see how well / long it holds up to the elements, since the Eyebeam drop met an early demise after a rainstorm, and the Union Square drop was lost to vandalism.

Building a Real-Time Web Library for Processing

Eric Mika

Four beer tap handles labeled with web services

In the course of working on my big screens project this semester — a real-time web clock — I’ve realized that it would be awfully nice to have a Processing library to abstract away all of the footwork involved in skimming the latest data from the usual Web 2.0 suspects like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.

There’s already some nice work on this front.

Mark McBride’s excellent Tweet Stream library for Processing works exactly as advertised. There are also Java wrappers for popular APIs (flickrj comes to mind) that should work in Processing and are likely to make data extraction easier.

But, many of these approaches are lacking, and getting from a raw API to a real-time stream can be a lot of work. So I’ve started work on a Processing library whose sole function is to provide a real-time stream of web data from as many sources as possible, with as little delay as possible.

A few considerations and concerns for the design and implementation of the library are outlined below.

One Library vs. Many

Traditionally, APIs wrappers / libraries come à la carte. You want Flickr? Download the Flickr library. You want Twitter? Download the Twitter library. Etc.

That’s nice, but all of these libraries work in slightly different ways and putting two or more services together requires plenty of fuss and glue code. I think a lot of the interesting things you can do with real-time data involve placing it in the context of other events, which favors a one-library approach.

Also, consolidating the services into a single library means that we can use polymorphism to make dealing with generic “event” objects from different sources relatively painless. E.g., if you wanted to work with tweets and Flickr updates in similar contexts, you should be able to manage everything from a single array list since their event objects inherit from some kind of generic event class.


Not all services with high-rates of incoming data have clean, public-facing APIs for grabbing said data.

In the case of Foursquare, for example, there’s no way to access the most recent public check-ins through their official API. The API allows certain kinds of interactions with the service, but it doesn’t do exactly what we want.

Likewise, Facebook’s status API doesn’t let you do an empty search for all of the latest updates — instead you’re limited to a specific search term. So, in this case, there’s an API that almost does what we want, but we’ll have to get clever if we want something resembling the whole stream of public status updates.

Therefore getting real-time data from these services will involve some hairy HTTP polling and HTML scraping. These kinds of things are liable to break if / when the structure of the source page changes. There are also potential request rate limits to deal with. Keeping the library up to date and fixing breakage when it happens is going to be a challenge — but I can’t think of a way around this until more sites support officially-sanctioned access to structured real-time data through an API. (And good on Flickr and Twitter for providing real-time data in their APIs already.)

Actual Rate vs. Available Rate

Ideally, every single event from a service would be captured by the real-time web library. However, for extremely high-volume services (Twitter, for example), even the official APIs only give a fraction of the actual event streams. Again, there’s not really a way around this, but keeping tabs on what percentage of the full stream we’re currently reading might be useful — some way to compare the current message rate through the library to the actual message rate on the service’s end. (For example, it would be useful to know that the library’s current Twitter message rate is 30% of actual traffic.)

Conversely, being able to dynamically specify a rate limit for each service might be useful in certain contexts where bandwidth needs to be conserved or services need to be synchronized. (At the very least, rate limiting will be useful for my big screens project, where a full-rate sample of the services would result in graphic slowdowns.)

So how should it work from the library programmer’s perspective? Maybe something like this:

WebStream webStream;

void setup() {
// instantiate the web stream object
webStream = new WebStream(this);

// add as many (or as few) real-time services as you like
webStream.activateFlickr("api key here");
webStream.activateTwitter("api key here");

void draw() {
// Nothing to see here, yet

void streamEvent(Update u) {
// the web stream returns updates via a callback event
// this would print a quick summary of the most recent event
println("content: " + u.getText() +
" via: " + u.getAuthor() +
" at: " + u.getTime() +
" from: " + u.getServiceName());

That’s the plan, at least. I’ll work on this over the next week and eventually have some code for public consumption in the next month or two. If anyone has feature requests or a different take on how something like this should work, let me know.

Concept Dump

Eric Mika

An ever-expanding list of assorted things of direct or tangential relevance to my continued inquiry regarding a thesis on the subject of a post-apocalyptic pirate internet.


  • Inventing the Internet — Janet Abbate
  • Internet Architecture and Innovation — Barbara van Schewick
  • The Internet Imaginaire — Patrice Flichy
  • Access Controlled, The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace
  • Wirelessness Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures — Adrian Mackenzie
  • Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias — Edited by Peter Ludlow
  • Security in Wireless Mesh Networks — Editors Zhang, Zheng, and Hu







  • Prepared
  • Paranoid
  • Ad-Hoc
  • Mesh
  • Self-healing
  • Archive
  • Survival
  • Shelter
  • Network
  • Wireless
  • Web
  • Indestructible
  • Bootstrapped
  • Autonomous
  • Displaced
  • Intercept
  • Splice
  • Reroute

Dead Dead Drops

Eric Mika

Dead Drops is a project fresh out of Eyebeam that proposes a new and unsanitary means of network-free data exchange. The project seems highly relevant to my nascent thesis idea, The Post-Apocalyptic Pirate Web Kit.

Artist Aram Bartholl describes the project:

‘Dead Drops’ is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. USB flash drives are embedded into walls, buildings and curbs accessible to anybody in public space.

Everyone is invited to drop or find files on a dead drop. Plug your laptop to a wall, house or pole to share your favorite files and data.

It’s the digital equivalent of a glory hole.

I was curious to see what kind of content the drops have accumulated in their first few days of existence, so I printed a handful of maps and set out to visit each one. The site’s location database is a little clunky, but it turned up five drop locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan:

Map printouts of Dead Drop locations in New York

Eyebeam was the first stop. Here’s the drop:

A USB key cemented into a wall at Eyebeam

Plugging in was a bit of an anticlimax — nothing happened:

Testing the dead drop at eyebeam

The drive refused to show up on my desktop, and poking around with Disk Utility suggested that the issue went beyond a botched format or a corrupt partition. I emailed Aram about it, and he confirms that it’s gone down and attributes the loss to rain.

The Union Square subway drop also went down earlier today, possibly the result of vandalism. So it goes.

That leaves three more drops to explore, I’ll update this post as I make the rounds.

Even though my attempt to use the drop was a failure (thus far, at least), the concept stands on its own and presents an interesting counter-scenario to the ethereal mesh-networks I’m proposing for the post-apocalyptic pirate internet.

Let’s consider some dead drop novelties:

  • There is no electrical network — feet and subway trains do the work of shuffling packets around the city.

  • There are no loops — a drop is a dead end.

  • There is no censorship — there is no CAPTCHA or filter or firewall. Maintaining a standard of content is perpetually up to the next person to visit the drop.

  • There is no permission — anyone can delete or create any file on the drop indiscriminately.

  • There is no privacy — though the files on a drop may be of anonymous origin, you must be physically present at the drop’s point of installation to exchange data.

  • There is no protocol — where most networks impose a structure for communication (TCP / IP, UDP, OSC, MIDI, AT), the drop’s only structure is derived from the file system.

Big Screens is Coming

Eric Mika

ITP Big Screens event promo image

It’s coming up… December 3rd at the IAC building. Project descriptions and additional info here.