Sunday, April 24, 2011

Robot Bonding

When I started my first job, I got a Roomba to celebrate.  I’m usually a pretty frugal guy but I opted for the most expensive model at the time, the iRobot Roomba 610 Professional Series.  It now looks like there is a newer model, the 780, but mine was the top of the line when I got it.  It was around $500.

Now, a Roomba is a vacuuming robot.  Its main purpose is to clean.  But to tell you the truth, I really got it to look at its artificial intelligence.  How smart was it?  How effective was it at cleaning?  If it got stuck underneath a chair, could it get out? 

Was it worth $500?  Probably not, especially considering I could have gotten a Roomba for much cheaper that would have performed adequately.

But watching the damn thing was fun to me.  It would zoom around, lightly bump into walls, and do a decent job at cleaning the place.  And you can’t help but bond with a Roomba.  You start to cheer for it to get out of corners.  And I made the mistake of naming the Roomba.  I gave it the Korean name Meehee. 

My experience was just like this excellent article in The Washington Post, Bots on the Ground.

Ted Bogosh recalls one day in Camp Victory, near Baghdad, when he was a Marine master sergeant running the robot repair shop. 

That day, an explosive ordnance disposal technician walked through his door. The EODs, as they are known, are the people who -- with their robots -- are charged with disabling Iraq's most virulent scourge, the roadside improvised explosive device. In this fellow's hands was a small box. It contained the remains of his robot. He had named it Scooby-Doo. 

"There wasn't a whole lot left of Scooby," Bogosh says. The biggest piece was its 3-by-3-by-4-inch head, containing its video camera. On the side had been painted "its battle list, its track record. This had been a really great robot." 

The veteran explosives technician looming over Bogosh was visibly upset. He insisted he did not want a new robot. He wanted Scooby-Doo back. 

"Sometimes they get a little emotional over it," Bogosh says. "Like having a pet dog. It attacks the IEDs, comes back, and attacks again. It becomes part of the team, gets a name. They get upset when anything happens to one of the team. They identify with the little robot quickly. They count on it a lot in a mission."

I also bonded with Meehee.  I would tell her she had done a good job when she finished cleaning, would laugh when she would chase my girlfriend around the apartment (even though she wasn’t actually playing).  I’d even say hi to her when I got into the apartment.  Am I crazy?  At least a little bit, but it’s built into human nature to anthropomorphize objects.  Now when those objects possess or appear to possess intelligence, all bets are off.

That’s why I was upset when I broke Meehee, similar to the way the explosive ordnance disposal technician was upset when Scooby Doo was blown up.

Here is my journal entry for that day:

Ran Meehee but she threw an error.  Opened her up to see if I could fix her.  She was still under warranty, I think, but I opened her up anyway.  Couldn’t fix her and with regret, I threw her out now that I voided the warranty.  Need to get another vacuum.  Learned 4 things:
  1. Don’t spend a ton of money on one thing.  Meehee was the most expensive thing in my apartment for a long time.  When I get a new computer, that will be the most expensive thing, but I’ll be using it a lot more than a vacuum, so it makes sense.
  2. Stop trying to open things up to fix them.  I can do it for something relatively easy like a computer, but other things I can’t.
  3. Keep it simple.  Didn’t really need a complex vacuum cleaner and now I feel bad for throwing her out.  It’s all wasted energy.
  4. Don’t name things that aren’t people.  I had a sentimental attachment to an object because I named it, which is silly.

Meehee had a pretty good run and I’m sad to see her go.

Still, at the end of the day it’s just a god damn vacuum cleaner so there’s no reason to get so emotional.

I wrote the whole thing, then read it later and added the last sentence.  Meehee was just a goddamn vacuum cleaner, but the line was blurred for me.  I had to force myself to remember that she was just a goddamn vacuum cleaner.  Imagine what it will be like once robots can really interact with humans.  It will be even harder to throw them away once they truly become a part of the family.  What happens when you need an upgrade?

At the end of the day, my memories with Meehee are bittersweet.  I realize that sentence is preposterous, but it’s how I really feel.  Afterwards, I got a $50 vacuum cleaner that does the about the same cleaning job as Meehee.  The difference is that it take 15-20 minutes of my time to clean my apartment instead of 45 minutes to an hour of Meehee’s time.  I come out slightly behind.

Was Meehee a waste of money?  Yes, but I do like supporting iRobot.  In 10-15 years when Roombas are really good at cleaning, when they can walk up and down stairs, and when they can clean themselves, then I’ll get a new Roomba.  I just won’t name it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

YTMND is Dead. Long Live YTMND! (Part 2)

So why did YTMND begin a slow death in 2006?

A number of reasons.  One was unoriginal content.  YTMND users were just straight ripping crap from other sites, movies, and TV shows.  That’s okay, but it’s much more viewable on YouTube, which could capture the same video and audio quality.  There’s no point to viewing that stuff compressed to hell and with nothing added.

Furthermore, bad YTMND users drowned out the good ones.  Bad users formed voting blocs and downvoted sites from users they didn’t like, regardless of site content.  This was bad, but much, much worse than that was just that bad users flooded the site with crap content.  Users self-moderated, of course, but it’s difficult to try to pick out the gems from a torrential downpour of diarrhea. 

Not trying to overinflate my ego, but I imagine other content consumers followed the same path as me.  In college I would have a lot of free time, so I would just monitor the “recently created” and vote on sites.  I’d give good sites a 4 or 5 so that they would rise to the “up and coming”, where they would be voted on by more users.  The highest rated of these would then go to “top rated this week”, the cream of the crop.  Max’s favorites would then be moved to the Hall of Fame.

Over time I stopped visiting the “recently created”, because there was just too much crap.  I only check out “up and coming”.  Then there was too much crap there, so I only looked at the “top rated this week”.  You know what happened next for me.

I imagine the big content creators had a similar fate.  They would spend a long time creating a site, post it, it would gain in popularity, and they would bask in the Internet fame.  As time passed, however, they would post a site and would have a different result.  It would maybe get downvoted, maybe get upvoted, but it was increasingly being ignored.  Good site were now being lost in the shuffle.  As content creators were ignored, they left the site, and it began to die.

Also, I think the site was way too much for one man to maintain.  Max had his hands full and was not able to satisfy his users’ requests for features.  As they saw their pleas continually ignored, even more users began leaving the site.

And it was hard for Max to monetize the site.  With all content user-created, it was difficult to get advertisers to get on board.  YouTube figured it out by becoming ubiquitous, but it was much harder for YTMND.  The best example is the following YTMND:

This site has over 9 million views.  Pretty significant for YouTube and absolutely massive for YTMND.  But this site was a huge money loser for Max and YTMND.  With so many users using bandwidth to view the site and no advertising revenue to make up for it, Max was deep in the hole.  Also, this site is terrible.  There is no original content, just the comedian Tom Mabe’s stolen material.

I went to YTMND today and the 1, 2, and 3 in the “top viewed today” sites are all from 2005 or 2006.  Furthermore, these all have barely over a 1,000 views for today.  In the height of the site’s popularity, all of the top viewed were well into the thousands of viewing for that day.

Nowadays, YTMND lives on barely.  There is also a YTMNDtv channel on YouTube.  Many of the YTMNDS on YTMNDtv have way more views than they ever had on the YTMND site itself, due to YouTube’s popularity.

There are a lot of videos on YouTube that continue on in the same vein of humor as YTMND.  I am partial to videos by Jimbomcb that use Team Fortress 2 as a canvas.  Some of my favorites:



damn it

Still, it’s sad to see a piece of Internet history fade away.  I’m reminded of this article on the Washington Post:

The most pertinent quote:
“YTMND is more than just an excellent work time-waster. It's the perfect manifestation of how the Internet enables artists -- and would-be artists -- to express themselves in ways not previously available.”

That spirit lives on in an area of YouTube, but I kinda liked having it in all in one place. 

Here are some more of my favorite YTMNDs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

YTMND is Dead. Long Live YTMND! (Part 1)

I haven’t visited the YTMND web site in quite some time.  It used to be on my bookmarks, I would visit it daily.  I am ashamed/proud that I am still one of the users with the most “site votes”, I have rated a ton of the sites on YTMND even though I created very few (although the ones that I did create were successful!).  I was more of a content consumer than content creator on the site.  When I left, the site was dying a slow death.  It still is, and I think it’s an interesting case to examine.

Note: YTMND videos that I post here may not work for you.  Many of them did not work for me until I logged into my old YTMND account and then viewed them.  Your mileage may vary.

First I should explain what YTMND is.  It stands for “You’re the man, now dog!” a hilariously bad snippet of dialogue from Sean Connery in a movie called Finding Forrester.  Max Goldberg looped the audio and added an image of Connery, and the first YTMND was born:

In 2004, Max launched YTMND to allow other users to easily create sites of a similar nature.  Just a picture and repeated audio was referred to as a “classic” YTMND, such as

Similar to the original YTMND, this is a sound blurb and image that is absurd to begin with, which then becomes something else entirely when looped.  Listen to this thing for 10 minutes and you will begin to lose your mind.

Another classic YTMND example:

A more standard joke.

Video could be used but looked kinda crappy. At least it loaded decently fast.  The site quickly became a kind of pop culture compost pile.  A bunch a crap was piled on, and users mixed and matched, threw up the result, which was then voted on by other users.  Similar to YouTube, but the average YTMND is less than 10 seconds and is usually intended for comedic effect.  Also similar to YouTube, 99% of YTMNDs are pure, unadulterated shit.

The history of YTMND is probably best summed up by a YTMND,

Sites were rated on a 5 star scale, 5 being the best (this 5 star idea is incorporated in the YTMND logo).  The idea was that good sites would be “upvoted” with 4 and 5 stars, bad sites would be “downvoted” with 1 and 2 stars, and the rest would muddle in mediocrity.  Of course trolls abused the system but it worked for the most part.

Anyway, the site was hot.  Users were taking pop culture (or sometimes creating some of their own), and other users were repurposing those ideas, remixing it, and adding their own flavor.  This frequently led to “fads”, where an idea would be beaten to death.  Say Zidane goes nuts and headbuts someone in the World Cup.  YTMND users would also go nuts, creating hundreds of sites within hours.  Most would be crap.  Some would be gems:

Note: you’ve probably seen that video repurposed elsewhere, but I am certain that the original was a YTMND.

YTMND was becoming more and more popular.  Because the site ran on user-created content, some parties were bound to get offended.  Scientology was one of them.  They sent Max a cease and desist order in 2006 in response to a few YTMNDs.  Rather than shy away from the fight, Max made insulting Scientology a contest.  Users were rewarded for the most creative jabs.  Here’s my favorite:

However, something began happening in 2006.  YTMND was fading in popularity.  Look at this graph from Google trends, comparing YTMND to another site with a similar audience, the picture messageboard 4chan (and to be honest, YTMND users frequently stole content from 4chan).

(I would appreciate it if you'd tell me how to post that image inline as opposed to just the link.)

For 4chan, its popularity has gone onwards and upwards while YTMND began fading away to its relative obscurity today.  Why the difference?  I think it’s reasonably clear what happened, and will get to it next week.

For now, some more YTMNDs.

A perfect example of the juxtaposition of pop culture frequently employed by YTMND users.

Another example of said juxtaposition.

More of a commentary on the current state of religion in the United States than anything else, really. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Old Laptop

Right before college started in 2005 I purchased my laptop.  It’s a Dell Inspiron 9300 that cost about $2000, with not all the bells and whistles, but most of them.  It’s got a nice video card for the time, letting me play new computer games as they came out, such as Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead.  But mostly in college, I spent (wasted?) an unholy amount of time playing a Warcraft 3 mod named Defense of the Ancients.  I could be speaking a foreign language with the amount of time I spent playing that game, but I digress.

I used to keep the laptop on all the time in college.  This may seem stupid (because it is stupid) but I was impressed with people who were on AOL Instant Messenger for days at a time.  You could see how long someone had been logged on if you moused over their name.  There was one fellow whose AIM uptime was measured in weeks and I got a kick out of that.  So I dutifully logged into AIM and kept my laptop on to rack up days in my AIM uptime, even though it is most likely that no one noticed and if they did notice they were more likely repulsed than impressed.

Then one day I woke up and I couldn’t get the computer to operate.  It was just a blank black screen with the fans whirring away and was burning hot to the touch.  Unplugged it and took it to the computer repair store on campus and learned I had fried my hard drive.  Turns out laptops aren’t supposed to be on all the time.  I plunked down $60 or so to get a new hard drive and waited a week to get my laptop back.  This was the cost of hubris.  I’m thankful this was a relatively cheap escapade that still provides a valuable lesson to me this day.

A funny thing happened during the week that I waited for laptop.  I thought I was going to be way less productive without my laptop, but it was the other way around.  Without goofing off easily available at my finger tips, I was twice as productive.  I had oodles of time to relax with friends and work out.  Instead of using my laptop in my dorm room, I would go to one of the many computer labs on campus, log in, get my work done, then log out.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I would still goof off, but would do it in much more concentrated spurts.  I would work, then spend 10 minutes on, work, then 10 minutes on, wrap everything up and then log out.  I spent 15-20 minutes of solid blocks of time on distractions instead of logging on probably dozens of time throughout the day (racking up who know knows how much wasted time).  The short breaks are even more pernicious because they disrupt my train of thought, and without them I was an efficient machine.

After I got my laptop back, I tried to avoid the short break distractions with limited success.  I give in to them frequently now, six years later.  I will look into site blocking software if this blog gets more serious or if I found myself short of time.  I remember reading about the software on XKCD somewhere…

Anyway, over the years the only other repair to the laptop was replacing the keyboard because I knocked out some keys.  This was around $40 or so.  The battery died a few years into its life and rather than purchasing a new one, I just use the laptop as a desktop replacement, always plugged in.  I am well aware that it would have been far cheaper just to get a desktop to begin with, but you live and you learn.  And I do use the laptop as a laptop on occasion when I travel.

Still, I am proud to have had this laptop for 5 ½ going on 6 years this summer.  I can’t find great data, but a user on says his company’s laptops last around 2 years, making my feat look relatively impressive.  I imagine in our throwaway culture that the 2 year average lifespan for laptops is relatively accurate.

And I do take pride in owning and maintaining the laptop.  A couple years ago I opened it up and cleaned out all the dust using a guide from Dell (there was a TON of dust).  This lowered the internal temperature and stopped the fans from sounding like an aircraft getting read to take off – I probably should do this again soon, it’s starting to sound like I’m on the tarmac again.  Earlier in the year I wiped the hard drive and reinstalled Windows XP.  This got the machine running as good as new.  I didn’t install any games this time around because I just don’t have the time for them anymore.

In fact, I recently sold my Wii for $100, controllers for $50, and Wii Fit for $50.  I definitely could have bargained for a better price, but I was eager to get them back into circulation with someone who would actually use them.  There was an article about a guy selling his guitars because he didn’t use them any more on or, but I can’t seem to find it now.  I’ll also be getting rid of my TV soon, so I can be one of those guys who mentions he doesn’t have a TV all the time apropos of nothing.

Anyway, almost 6 years now and the laptop is still chugging away.  I have $2000 sitting in an ING savings account to replace it when it breaks, but

1)      the laptop is doing just fine.  I don’t move it so it has minimal wear and tear.  At this rate, hopefully it will last forever.  And
2)      That is too much money to spend on a replacement.  I put the $2000 in the savings account when I expected I would want to get a diesel desktop gaming rig, but my priorities have shifted.

If my laptop broke today I would go out and get an iPad 2 or one of its tablet competitors after some research.  All I do now is web surf, use the occasional text editor, and create the occasional spreadsheet. For these activities, the tablet is fine and $2000 is way too much. I just transferred $1000 out of that that savings account so I don’t feel obligated to spend that much when my laptop does break.  So I did accomplish something semi-concrete from this blog post.  Who says blogging is just navel-gazing?