On Microwaves and Human Dignity

One of the ongoing questions under discussion at my college these days is this: how can we best make use of our embedded tutors?

In answer to that question, I offer the following email conversation held between myself and my Augmented Instruction tutor this semester.

I think it will offer some valuable insight into the relationship between instructor and AI.

On Mar 14, 2017 12:01 PM, “Joshua Geist” <jnicholasgeist@gmail.com> wrote:

In contrast to your spam-Add-Minute-and-wait-till-it-feels-done approach to timing, it occurred to me that perhaps not everybody gets frustrated that their microwave timer can’t do half-seconds.

On Tue, Mar 14, 2017 at 12:49 PM, Redacted Redacted <redacted@redacted.redacted> wrote:

I am glad to get this email— I was worried that still thinking about microwaves the whole drive back to Visalia was abnormal.

And yet, productive. I have concluded that the level of efficiency in the usage of microwave buttons is dependent on how much time you need something cooked for, due to the nature of the buttons. I argue that anything that will be cooked for four minutes or less should be cooked using the “add minute” button.

So in our example, we have two different choices:

1) Put in the amount of time you need, directly. This formula is:

[cook time]+[minute]+[second]+[second]+[start]

I agree with you on this in general, but some microwaves—microwaves which, to my mind, are vastly superior to the more common designs—assume that numeric input is cook time, which it obviously should be. That’s what a microwave is for, right? If I push [1][3][0], is there any better interpretation than that that is cook time? There is not. What, is my microwave also a remote control for my TV? Am I using it to dial my phone? NO. I am using it to cook food.

More importantly (for the below), if our microwave eschews the ludicrous Cook Time button, [9][9] refers unambiguously to one minute and 39 seconds.

In this formula, we are assuming you know, to the second, how much time you require, so there is no need to cancel out remaining time. Also, there is the option of adding another button under [minute], but that doesn’t come into play in this equation.

2) Use the “add minute” option, and, of course, cancel out leftover time. This gives:

[add minute]x+[cancel]

X” in this equation is the amount of minutes you are adding, obviously, and therefore must be a positive, whole number. Because the “add minute” button begins the microwave automatically, we remove both the “cook time” and “start” variables. However, we do add in the need to cancel out old time.

A minor objection: in most cases, the first press of Cancel will stop the microwave, meaning that you have to press Cancel again to clear the remaining time. I would submit that this should read

[Add Minute]x + [Cancel] + [Cancel]

Of course, you could open the door while it’s running, but this is most likely dangerous, and at the very least distasteful.

The conclusion? The original formula requires the pressing of five-six buttons, total. Five is the minimum amount of buttons to be pressed.

In the second formula, two is the minimum amount of buttons to be pressed, if x is equal to 1, and can be up to 100, if x is equal to 99 (an argument could be made that it will take over a minute to press “add minute” 99 times, therefore the maximum could be increased. But this is a different argument).

Therefore, if 1≤x≤4, the second formula will be equally or more efficient than the first, because in those cases it would only require the pressing of two-five buttons, total.

On an ideal microwave—which does exist; the microwave in the lunchroom at the Hanford Center works this way (and yes I will bring it to class for a demonstration if need be)—the math is different.

1-9 seconds: I think we can stipulate that microwaving something for less than ten seconds is stupid; just hold it in the sun for a second or something.

10 seconds-60 seconds:

[6][0][start] = 3 buttons
[AM][Cancel][Cancel] = 3 buttons

61 seconds-99 seconds:

[9][9][start] = 3 buttons
[AM][AM][Cancel][Cancel] = 4 buttons


[3][0][0][start] = 4 buttons
[AM][AM][AM][Cancel][Cancel] = 5 buttons


[4][0][0][start] = 4 buttons
[AM][AM][AM][AM][Cancel][Cancel] = 6 buttons

And sadly it’s all downhill from here.

If we add in the sadly-prevalent [Cook Time], this means that there is one case—10-60 seconds—where using the [Add Minute] approach is more efficient. However, I would argue that trying to optimize that situation is foolish; the obvious approach is to go out and buy a better-designed microwave. Any time and opportunity cost therein incurred would be made up almost immediately by the button-press time savings.

And if you value efficiency above your own dignity and above the needs of others, you could omit the second [Cancel] press in the [Add Minute] approach and leave your leftover filthy shame seconds for others to see and know, which certainly changes the equation somewhat.

But given an ideal microwave, the add minute approach is almost always worse than specifying cook time.

Plus there is less distance to move your fingers when repeatedly hitting one button up to four times, and less eye-search and mental processing time and power required. But that’s another point altogether.

Let me finally add that these calculations leave out the moral and emotional aspects of this process. Certainly, we can reduce microwaving to a question of mere efficiency, but this loses all of the complicated nuance of the task. How does one account for the feeling of pride one gets with a careful, accurate estimation? How does one factor in the way the food tastes just a little bit better knowing that its perfect temperature is the result of my own insight and forethought, rather than haphazard button-slapping? How too the knowledge that those who share the microwave with me will feel my respect and admiration manifested in a clean timer?

These things are worth a little lost efficiency, to my mind. Honor the human soul within you. We are better than Taylorism.

Quod erat demonstrandum.