I wondered many times how to write a coherent article about this, and I came to the conclusion that there is really no coherence to this machine. That's the intrigue and beauty of it.
The following are simply things that came to mind.
I played with a friend's baby by coming close to her with my iPhone and making the requisite silly face and sounds. She reached for my iPhone, then swung it down. Come closer, reach for it, swing it down. Our peekaboo game went on forever, and her delight was unending.
Here's the video I took with said iPhone.
Maybe that's why this machine has had over 8 million views. It harkens to a time in our lives, which we don't remember, when games were nonsense yet we played them for hours.
So it may be useless, but it's downright fun.
Reflecting on Sisyphus
Imagine a steep hill, where you are tasked with rolling up a heavy boulder. You get to the top, thinking it's a landing, and pause. But that boulder rolls back down with accelerating speed. It is your mandate to go back down, and roll it up again. In fact, it is your fate that you undertake this labor forever, because the boulder will only roll back down again from the top.
This is about Sisyphus, who was a king in Greek mythology, and was punished by the gods with a seemingly meaningless, unrelentingly task. Albert Camus drew on this myth to advance his philosophy about the absurdity of life.
This machine undoes the very thing we do. Martin Seligman called it learned helplessness, a psychological state we come to, if our efforts repeatedly have no impact. It's a sad commentary, isn't it, if any of us is relegated to living a life like this.
So it's not only useless but also demoralizing.
Dealing with politics
How about this?
The mind behind this calls it political machines, and adds "This is a visual metaphor of your hard-earned tax dollars at work." If this reminds you of President Obama and Governor Romney debating one another, ahead of the big elections, then it's a perfect metaphor indeed. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, like a filibuster.
But you see the block of wood eventually slips off. May we conclude, then, that conflict between people inevitably breaks down and thus paves the way for resolution?
So it's useless, but not useless indefinitely.
Thinking about jidoka
Jidoka essentially is a feature or function that stops a manufacturing process, if something goes wrong. It's used in the Toyota Production System, and it prevents a problem from snowballing down the line and becoming bigger and unmanageable.
For decades it has been a preoccupation of researchers, professors and consultants: How to deal with human fallibility in manufacturing or essentially in any endeavor. But imagine engineering like this machine. Common mistakes can be corrected right away. Safety risks can be prevented. Innate flaws can be controlled for.
So it's positively useful, after all.
Making a business
His name is Brett Coulthard, and a year after that first video he incorporated a company called The Frivolous Engineering Company. Apparently the dude's been making a variety of these puppies and selling them like a doggie couple taking fertility pills!
Here I am, a fellow entrepreneur, laboring on my own brand of engineering, drawn from a complex theoretical framework and practical model, and praying that my stuff sells even just half as well as this dude's.
It's a wild thing sometimes to see what really makes people tick and to see a business thrive. It's awesome and brilliant!
So it's useless, but it makes money. You can't knock that.
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!
Ron Villejo, PhD