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Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket's trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. But seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modeled more closely on the human brain.
B. JACK COPELAND AND DIANE PROUDFOOT
Indeed, technically its name is U.S. Route 50. It's in Nevada, and it's the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end. In conceptual terms, only one thing on the entire route vaguely calls to mind the existence of humanity: a cottonwood tree, the only one that found water, with hundreds of pairs of trainers hanging from its branches. Falconetti, an ex-boxer from San Francisco, had decided to walk the length of it. He'd filled his green army rucksack with several gallons of water and a tablecloth to spread in ditches when it came time to eat. He went into a shop in Carson City, a supermarket with five foreshortened, ridiculous shelves. Stumps, he thought, if these five shelves were fingers. He bought bread, a large number of freeze-dried packages of jerky, and some butter cookies. He set off, passing through the city limits, leaving them behind; a silhouetted plateau rose up before him in the distance. The asphalt, fleshy, sank down in the 37°C midday heat. After a time he came past the Honey Route, the last brothel before the desert commenced, and Samantha, a dyed brunette who was doing her toenails in the shade of the porch, acknowledged him in the same way she always acknowledged passing cars, trucks, and pedestrians, simply wishing them luck, though on this occasion she also said: If you see a guy on his own in a red Ford Scorpio, and he's going to New York, you tell him to get back here! Falconetti pressed play on his Walkman and pretended he hadn't heard. Instinctively he quickened his pace, his feet sinking farther into the 37°C asphalt. He'd left San Francisco almost a month earlier, after the army kicked him out. There, while still in the army, he'd read the history of Christopher Columbus, and, captivated by the man's audacity, had the idea of doing the same as him but in reverse: going from west to east. He'd never been outside of San Francisco before.
As soon as he saw it he felt sure that it wasn't a good thing, though it didn't necessarily seem bad, either. Strange. It was a shoe, a shoe thrown into the middle of the asphalt expanse. Neither 2 nor 4 nor 8, nor any other even number, but the odd number par excellence: 1. Billy the Kid, making the journey from Sacramento to Boulder City with his professional mountain-climber father, was used to traveling in the back bed of the truck among the 11-millimeter ropes, the Petzl harnesses, and the large assortment of carabiners. The father, just Billy, had improvised a harness for the child, cinching carabiners tight on either side of the belt so he wouldn't go flying on the curves. Billy the Kid was beaming. They'd left early that morning to be in time for the Third Boulder City Rock Climbing Competition: his father was taking part. They had breakfast at the first gas station they came to — the classic, deep-fried peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and coffee — and Billy the Kid, swirling the dregs of his decaf coffee, pictured his mother a few hours earlier when, on the threshold of the house on the outskirts of town, and possessed of a beauty that to the child seemed definitive, she had drawn his head to her breast before giving him a kiss. Like every Sunday, Drive safe, she'd said to his father after also kissing him. Billy the Kid slept in the back and when he woke, in the distance, stock-still on the asphalt like a rabbit without a litter, paralyzed by the uncertainty that is a magnet to solitude, he saw it, a high-heeled shoe, brown perhaps from the desert earth, or perhaps actually brown. Neither 2 nor 4 nor 8, nor any other even number.
Love, he thought, like trees, needs tending to. He couldn't understand, then, why the stronger and sturdier the poplar grew in its 70.5 acres, the worse things became in his marriage.
It's logical that in a brothel there are all different kinds of women, and even more so here in the Nevada desert, whose monotony, the most barren in the whole of the American West, makes necessary certain exotic palliatives. Sherry's having makeup applied in the ad hoc backstage out back, beside the now-dry well. She doesn't trust the light-bulb-frame mirror they provided her with and, as when some client shows up unexpectedly, she glances in the rearview mirror of a rusted, broken-down Mustang. The sun and snow have been eating away at the vehicle since a man who was never seen again left it there. His name was Pat, Pat Garrett. He showed up one November evening, just as the temperature was about to drop, asked for a girl, the youngest they had, and Sherry stepped forward. Pat's thing was collecting found photos, anything as long as it was found and featured a human figure; he went around with a suitcase full of them. When they were lying in bed together, as he gazed up at the wall he told her how he'd worked in a bank in L.A. before unexpectedly coming into an inheritance, at which point he'd quit. His penchant for the photos came from his time at the bank, from seeing so many people; he always found himself imagining what their faces would be like, and their bodies, in a context beyond the teller window — itself somewhat akin to the frame of a photograph. But after receiving the inheritance money, his other penchant, gambling, had seen him lose almost the entire sum. Now he was headed east, to New York, in search of more photos. Here in the West, he said, it's all about landscapes, but there it's all portrait. Sherry didn't know what to say. He opened the suitcase and began passing her photos. Picking one from the deck, she was confronted with the unmistakable visage of her mother. She was smiling, with her arm around a man who, Sherry understood, was the father she had never met. Her head subsided onto Pat's chest and she held him tight. He stayed on for several days after that, during which time she stopped charging him, cooked his food, and neither of them set foot outside the room. The night Pat left he couldn't get the Mustang started, but he managed to thumb a truck headed for Kansas. The next day, having discarded the possibility that he had fallen down a well or gone to Ely for cigarettes, she sat and waited until nightfall with her sight fixed on U.S. Route 50's last divisible point. When she couldn't take it any longer she wept, sitting on the hood of the Mustang. She checks her lips in the rearview mirror and the makeup artist gives her the call, One minute till we're on air! A Nevada TV news show is doing a special program on freeway prostitution. Into the microphone they ask: What are you proudest of, Sherry? Love is a hard job, she says, loving is the hardest thing I've done in my entire life.
At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen-and-a-half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they've become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency — the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it's worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially on the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colors (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkeling flippers, ski boots, baby booties, and booties made of leather. The passing traveler may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there's a life beyond — not beyond death, which no one cares about anymore, but beyond the body — and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve. Bob, the owner of a small supermarket in Carson City, stops 100 feet away. From the nearest to the farthest thing, he enumerates what he can see: first the very red mudflat, followed by the tree and the intricacies of its shadow, beyond that another mudflat, less red, dust-bleached, and finally the outline of the mountains, which appear flat, depthless, like the pictures they had in the Peking Duck Restaurant across from Western Union, which shut down, he thinks. But above all, as he looks at these overlapping strips of color, the image that comes most clearly to mind is the differently colored strata formed by the horizontally layered offerings on his supermarket shelves. There's a batch of bacon fries halfway up that is always delivered with a little gift-like offering of round Danish butter cookie tins strapped on with sticky tape, the lids of which feature a picture of a fir tree with baubles on; he doesn't know this. Both trees are beginning to stoop.
One of the biggest problems faced by hotels is the theft of small objects. It's estimated that, annually, the large hotel chains lose over half a million towels, a loss they simply have to factor in, as they do with the disappearance of pens, ashtrays, shampoo, sewing kits, toothbrushes, and all manner of bathroom supplies. But dinnerware and cutlery also disappear, and door knockers, towel rails, mirrors, bedding sets, designer lamps, flower arrangements that make excellent last-minute presents, plants and their pots, rugs and telephones. In exchange, clients forget watches, parrots that speak various languages, urns containing the ashes of loved ones, earrings, necklaces, high-quality lingerie, orthopedic braces, contact lenses, inflatable dolls, books of all kinds, an array of adult toys, reports on the secret services of various nations, and even live crocodiles inside crocodile-skin suitcases. The Houses of America chain, after calling an amnesty on everyone who in the company's 62-year history had left with some object in their suitcase, has decided to try recovering its property peaceably, and to that end has created the first Museum of Found Objects, with headquarters in Los Angeles and Chicago, though the catalogue can also be found online. There, a permanent exhibition is held of all the objects forgotten by their clients, so that those who might have some stolen object or other in their houses may choose what they want from the catalogue and in this way permute the one for the other. But, and the sun began to set in the lobby of the hotel. Until the penumbra [synthetic repetition of night only accessible by interior phenomena] united the emptiness of the vestibule with the bodies of the people coming in and going out. It took the bellboys by the hand. It procured death. The death of the novel.
Deeck is an internet user from Denmark. Not that this matters, internet users belong to no country. Born and brought up in Copenhagen, at the age of 18 he moved to an industrial town on a peninsula farther to the north, a place supplying manpower to the largest cookie factory in the country. He does the late shift, spending the rest of his nights online or designing websites for himself — with nothing in mind beyond his own amusement and satisfaction. To him it's very serious. He lives alone. Now that the smoking ban has come in, he's become an enthusiastic smoker. He set up one site as a place to exhibit the pictures he makes by sticking masticated pieces of chewing gum onto a canvas. His work divides along two aesthetic lines:
1. Nordic landscapes: snowcapped scenes featuring, at most, the archetype of a city, or a figure in the far distance. The best thing for this, according to him, was technological chewing gum, flat, almost abstract it's so completely flat, sugar-free, such as mint-flavored Trident, which once masticated turns near-white, with a slight cream tinge for the dirty snow of the high plateaus, and mint-flavored Orbit, pale green after 3 minutes' mastication, for the grass clumps that stipple the snow or the evergreens in the background. Or the special spearmint-chlorophyll-flavored Trident, which after 4 days' mastication goes a shade of brownish green; the way it turns granular is also perfect for figures that require texture, such as human figures or the cities suggested in the far distance.
2. Explosive blondes: for these a thick kind of chewing gum does the trick, the kind you buy at a newspaper stand, the very sugary kind, for kids (herein the secret of young boys' liking for blondes, he thought one day before bed). Thus, among the primary materials used most frequently were: the banana-flavored Bang Bang, hardly masticated, for the blond hair; the Sour Strawberry Chew, much masticated, for the skin on the chest; both together, barely placed in the mouth, taken out almost as soon as the saliva reaction has begun, for the most crimson of legs; and the Coca-Cola flavor for the lips, eyes, and nipples.
A Technical Data link on the site where he exhibits the pieces provides access to all of this information. But this and all the other sites he'd made he gradually began to abandon in favor of what has since then become the only thing he spends his free time on: found photographs. People from around the world send him pictures over the internet, anything as long as they feature human figures, and as long as they are found photographs, specifying their names and where they came across the photographs. He gets out of bed, it's 2:00 p.m. He skips the shower so as not to be late for his shift, which starts at 3:00 p.m. He sits in the kitchen, the Formica of the chair is freezing; he's already put the coffee on. He looks at his boots. He didn't even like them when he bought them. He takes them off and throws them onto the fire that's burning in the hearth. After a time all that remains are the bent bits of metal that keep the soles rigid. He pulls apart one of the cookies they make at the factory, and dunks a layer in the coffee; they're so buttery a floating archipelago of mirrors appears on the surface. He closes the tin. The lid is marked with an enbaubled Christmas tree. He lights a cigarette.
The binary system of numbers, 0 and 1, is employed as a means of calculation in digital computers and as a means of controlling a considerable variety of machine tools ... Its precursors were Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), who designed a system of binary-coded punched cards for operating looms ... The great value of the binary system is in operations that are binary by nature: on or off, open or closed, true or false, go or no-go and so on. A given electronic component of a computer is either on or off ... That is why the binary system lends itself so effectively to the rapid calculating done by computers ... Binary code means that the fabrics that commonly go to make up the clothes we wear, and electronic circuits, share certain similarities. In woven fabrics, the binary element is the warp/weft: the warp threads run lengthwise, the weft threads crosswise; the binary relation at a given point is whether a horizontal thread or a vertical thread is on top. The binary relation in the electronic circuit is whether a given area of an element is conducting or not.
F. G. HEATH
Excerpted from "The Nocilla Trilogy"
Copyright © 2009 Agustín Fernández Mallo.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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