The Most Useless Review (Ever)

Claude Shannon and His Ultimate Machine sounds like a rip-off of a Tom Swift novel. Half adventure story, half science fiction, half detective yarn — more halves than you could stuff into Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout (1910), one of the first of more than 100 books in which Tom and various gizmos, plots, and places have figured over the past 100 years. Picture Tom as the boy-scientist tinkerer of a bygone era, with elements of MacGyver, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter thrown in. As famous in his day as any of those three in recent times, probably with the Swiss army knife, but no bullwhip and certainly no wand.

So what about Claude Shannon and His Ultimate Machine? Should you just wait for the movie? Why wait? Watch this video on YouTube, erroneously labelled (as many sites now do) as a “useless machine”:


The little girl’s happily incredulous final comment — “That’s all it does.” — pretty much says it all, right?… Nah.

In fact, Claude Shannon was a real person, much more than a tinkerer; and the Ultimate Machine (UM) was a one-of-a-kind working device on his desk, decades before it was available in kit form. The concept for the Ultimate Machine, however, was dreamt up by Marvin Minsky. Just to be sure you understand the importance of this co-paternity for the UM, here are thumbnails of their credentials (the Wikipedia links have full details):

  • Claude Shannon was an electrical engineer and applied mathematician at the former AT&T Bell Labs. He is best known for his 1947 work on ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, often described as “information theory.” It began the theoretical underpinnings of much of what we now take for granted every time we place a phone call or send any message that must be “encoded” to allow its efficient transmission.
  • Marvin Minsky is a mathematician and computer scientist, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT, winner of the 1969 Turing Award (the Nobel Prize-equivalent for computer scientists), and pioneer in artificial neural networks, among many other things.

    So, this Ultimate Machine must be a big deal, for two guys of their stature to have been involved, right? Right. Simply stated, it is a machine whose sole purpose is to turn itself off. Here, taken from what is presumably an official biography of Shannon on the AT&T Website, is a description from Arthur C. Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite and famed science fiction author:

    Nothing could be simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.

    I beg to differ with Mr. Clarke. I do not find either the concept or its various manifestations “unspeakably sinister.” Rather, I find it existentially stimulating and wonderfully amusing. But that’s just me. You decide for yourself. Here are some links on which you can see comments about the past 50+ years of such devices and video clips of a variety of reconstructions:

  • Kevin Kelly’s The (Unspeakable) Ultimate Machine, which aggregates a number of significant links and, in particular, has a string of about 30 comments (up to May 2010) by readers who describe various versions of the UM that they recall or owned;
  • Brett Coulthard’s The Frivolous Engineering Company, which includes links to DIY/UM construction plans, YouTube videos, and the appearance of a “Useless Machine,” conveniently still a UM, on The Colbert Report;
  • user jcfjca’s YouTube video of a reconstructed UM at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn, Germany;
  • Gizmodo’s report, including a video, on a LeaveMeAloneBox, yet another LateOnTheScene name for the Shannon UM; and
  • TMUMEVER’s custom “Useless” boxes. Hand-made out of mahogany, with your choice of several brass labels. If you have fantasized for decades about having your own UM, as I have, Tyler’s price of $150 works out to only a few dollars per year of unrequited longing. A bargain at half the price.

    The Most Useless Machine

    What I find puzzling about all of this is its currency: the oldest of the links above is from March 2008, and much of the material is less than six months old. The same seems to be true for many sources on the Web. Whatever the reason for this upwelling of interest, there are now two versions of the UM for the iPhone and iPod touch that could reach a much larger audience than any of the foregoing — The Most Useless Machine (MUM) and The Most Useless Machine Ever (MUME). With his entire career spent working for AT&T, Claude Shannon would surely appreciate the delicious irony of a UM available on a telephone, even if he could only imperfectly imagine our technology from his own childhood reading, say, Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1914).


    The Most Useless Machine Ever

    In fact, I have both of these apps on my 32GB iPod touch. I have been using MUM from Nagi Software for about six months, and MUME from One Week Apps for about three months. This expertise qualifies me to offer a comparative review in the same spirit of uselessness in which Shannon and Minsky created the UM itself.

    The following table compares 19 of the most objective metrics of the two products. (Let’s be honest: They are pretty much the only objective metrics, but I was astonished to see how many I could identify. I mean, it’s almost like this is a real review!!!)

    Useless Machine Apps

    Release/Update2-Jul-10 (U)11-Mar-10 (R)
    Memory3.8 MB3.4 MB
    Theme negatorFixedVariable (random)
    iOS4.0 or later3.0 or later
    iTunes categoryEntertainmentEntertainment
    iTunes rating4+4+
    iTunes priceFree$0.99
    Banner adsOccasionalNo
    DistributorNagi SoftwareOne Week Apps
    DeveloperXixian NiUnspecified
    Website as of 31-Jul-10InaccessibleUnder development
    Online supportNoneemail


    Ease of use is comparable for both apps. If you can flick your finger up the touchscreen, then you can turn the switch to its “On” position. The rest follows automatically.

    The biggest distinction is in some of the visual features. MUM offers five different themes — wood, metal (above-upper), icy world, chocolate, and soccer — whereas MUME has only wood (above-lower). The latter seems fairly close to what Arthur C. Clarke described, so if historical fidelity is important in your apps, then that might tilt you toward MUME. For myself, I like the industrial brushed-metal finish in MUM, a holdover from version 2.0.

    On the other hand, I find that the option of either the clock or counter in the lower right-hand side of MUM can be distracting to its serious, focused use. I have similar hesitation because of the photorealistic toggle switch on the wooden surface of MUME, which is the only feature initially visible. There is something a bit jarring about its appearance atop the wood-grain finish. (A clock is promised for a future version on the iTunes page for the app.) Rather than issue a spoiler alert in the tradition of film reviews, I will simply refrain from commenting on the nature of the Theme negator, the “device” that emerges from under the lid to turn the switch off, in each of the apps. Suffice to say that they are quite varied within the five themes of MUM (although no negator appears at all in the Soccer theme, the only obvious bug in either app); within the single theme for MUME, you should expect some surprises! Support for both apps is minimal.

    Finally, there is the matter of price. MUM is free, but with occasional pop-up ads on the bottom of the screen (new to version 3.0). MUME is 99 cents, but no ads. If this trade-off makes the decision for you, then you were probably appalled at the thought of $150 for a hand-made mahogany UM. That also means that this review could actually have been useful for you, my facetious disclaimer notwithstanding. But for me, as long as my wife never reads this post, I will happily use both MUM and MUME while awaiting Tyler’s return to his workshop in October and the chance for a certain mouse-click in PayPal.

    UPDATE (April 19, 2015): I made three changes: (1) cleaned out some broken links; (2) embedded the video of the little girl, which I had used in a post last year on Escherian puns (check it out if you can’t imagine how Canada geese, a drawing by Dutch artist M.C. Escher, and an Ultimate Machine could figure in the same discussion); and (3) added the link to the video of Marvin Minsky.

    I also considered revising my useless review of the iOS apps. The original two apps, The Most Useless Machine (Nagi Software) and The Most Useless Machine Ever (OneWeekApps), are gone from the App Store. I subsequently found two others, Bearguseless (Imagimotion) and Useless Box (Eugenius Studios), only the first of which is still in the App Store as of this update, and it hasn’t been revised since its release in 2010! So there will be no revision. After all, what could be more useless than a review of “Useless Machine” apps which are themselves now almost entirely unavailable and therefore useless?

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    2 Responses to The Most Useless Review (Ever)

    1. Pingback: Article and Review of the Two Ultimate Machine Apps «

    2. Brett says:

      Fantastic article and review!
      If there ever was a device worthy of contemplating over one’s navel, the UM is it.

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