Pure signal.

Are you too lazy to use your remote control?

Well soon there will be a robot that does it for you.

This device operates using the same kind of “convenience tax” that the Windows operating system uses. I have tried to explain what the problem with this “learning tax” is in other posts, but I think that this device illustrates it better than an operating system, however the problem is exactly the same.

Say you have an average remote like mine — that has 100 functions on it. (sure, when you combine keys and include soft menus it is MUCH MUCH more than that — but we are talking about a concept here — so don’t get all weird on the math.)

Out of those 100 functions — I use on average 5 every day, and an additional 8 over the course of any month. For the first week (the initial learning curve) I’m going to remember how to use most of what I have learned with the remote, and the robot will learn all of that and store it with it’s voice activation.

So now, a couple of weeks have gone by – my 13 functions are programed in, the remote itself migrates under the couch or into the desk drawer. I am watching TV one night and I come across an opportunity to use one of the 87 other functions I can access through the remote. I never programed the robot to handle that function — the remote is across the room. If I am like most people I will just forgo the flexibility of those 87 additional functions rather than getting up and poking around with the remote. And don’t even get me started about what I never learned because I’m too retarded to read the manual.

So the cost of the convenience of the new device actually dramatically hobbles the usefulness of the tool that I have interfaced with it, a device which is probably actually much more useful than I ever got to experience — despite having paid for 100% of its functionality through the purchase price.

I first learned this law of human behavior when I spent a year in physics and calculus classes with my new HP48G and watched the very bright science and engineering students around me SIMPLY IGNORE the astounding functionality of their tools. Despite being technologically competent, and needing the functions that the calculator had, they lacked the — what was it — vision? insight? to read past the quick start guide. People paid $100 for a calculator which they only ever used $19 worth of. WHY?

This is the heart of the difference between command line learners and GUI learners. It is a real problem — through 10 years of tech support I would say it is the number one problem faced by computer users. You see this especially in the case of Mac users — who have convenient widgets to do most of what they want — can’t do it with a widget? It can’t be done.

A dramatic example that affects almost everyone who uses computers is the “convenience” afforded by packaged music software like “I-tunes” — the graphic interface of I-tunes is SO EASY to use. After you have used it for a couple of years you completely forget what you could actually accomplish with CDparanoia, lame, and sox.

If you love music I deeply encourage you to get out there and learn the command line of those three programs. But of course you won’t — because you have I-tunes, and you run it on default mode, and if you have to spend ninty-nine cents to get a song on your Ipod that you already had on your Zune — well — money is cheap. But the other things that you lose are quality and flexibility. You will pay more for less — as witnessed by the avalanche of shitty mp3s that are available on various file sharing sites.

And when you get in the habit of paying a convenience tax on everything in your life, you will find that you are working twice as many hours to get the same goods and services. All I can think is that you must really love your job.


March 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I have to admit, I suffer from just this problem — recently, too.

    I was working yesterday, and suddenly realized that I wanted to know the word count for the piece I was writing with Emacs. I realized I hadn’t setup Emacs yet with this capability, so I went for a bit of searching on the net, tried a couple things that didn’t seem to work right away, and eventually found some decent lisp code and explanation ( By the time I got it setup, I realized I was becoming frustrated because I was right in the middle of writing, and found myself distracted by this other task. I didn’t want to lose the inspiration of the moment I was in with my writing, but also wanted my tool to do what I needed it to do.

    I was able to get back to work without any problem — I think I lost all of 20 minutes noodling with my .emacs file — but I wanted to illustrate another perspective to the point I think you’re making here.

    In the example you offer, I think it’s pretty pathetic that a television watcher would forgo the opportunity of learning and investing that extra time to get out the old gadget, learn the function, teach the new gadget, and so on. They’re just wasting time by sitting and watching television anyway, so no harm, no foul.

    In the case of a productivity issue, though, I wonder when a distraction like this is too far out of the way. In the case of my setting up my .emacs file with some lisp code to be able to give me a word count, not such a big issue. In another case, I recently spent a couple weeks learning and working with a database to try and establish an organized method for making submissions to publishers, only to discover that I’d lost several weeks of time I could have been using writing, but was instead spent learning how to design and develop a database. That project sits unfinished now, simply because I had to question the validity of the project in the ultimate goal of getting something done with my writing.

    You use Mac users as an example, because I know how much you love to attack Mac users, but what’s interesting is that the Mac is flexible in a number of ways that your 100 function remote is. Most people just oblige themselves to use iTunes, and click on pretty widgets, but interestingly a program called Quicksilver ( is enormously popular, and is essentially just a command line with a shiny interface to it. What you type out on a command line to launch a document, or program, or to combine such is no different than a decent command line with arguments and a pipe. With Quicksilver, a user can send a specific image file in an email to a specific user in their contacts all by typing a command into Quicksilver. I only use it to launch applications, though I also don’t use my Mac for my normal work. There are also many hidden functions for many of the programs on a Mac that most people don’t realize, that are only accessible via command line. Mac users can enact a different functionality for their fancy, shiny software by typing in a command in their terminal app, but that would require going and getting it out of the drawer, or finding it under the sofa. Yet, if it were something that would enable their greater productivity, would it be worth it?

    Then again, isn’t the same true for most technology?

    Comment by Anonymous | March 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Your point is true and taken — one can get lost in “sharpening the tools” — and I think there does have to be a limit. But where you or I may need to establish a limit, I think the far more common problem is to not sharpen the tools at all.

    When I put it that way it makes it sound like it is some special skill that “people like us” have — I don’t mean that at all. It is just something I learned to do at some point from someone else who did it. It is a habit not a talent. There has to be some tinkering with your tools, some desire to use them well — weather you are clearing bush with a stone axe or hacking code on emacs. (hey that’s hip hop!)

    Anyone can start reading the manual and start breaking their shit on any day — and the sooner they do it the more technologically competent they will be the next time they need it.

    As a side bar — I am only hard on Mac people because I oversaw a mac lab for Seattle Public Schools — and the teachers who used that lab were uniformly illiterate. I have a philosophical argument against the company’s commitment to closed platforms and customer exploitation as well. I am fully aware that there is a large population of Mac fans out there who posses greater general computing experience than I do. But it is fun to have a pinata to beat on.

    Comment by bootslack | March 30, 2008 | Reply

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