Universal remotes, evolution, sex, and sight

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So Amanda had this TV. It had a remote. The remote sucked. It was broken. Then I moved in and with me came a universal remote. Lucky Amanda. I programmed the universal remote (a Radioshack 5 in 1) to handle the TV as well as a DVD player and a stereo. The remote handled everything. The old remotes hung around for a while occasionally being used, but then disappeared. Then we got a different DVD player and I had forgotten that the remote was a universal jobbie, so we just started using the remote for the DVD player Then we got an iPod cradle with speakers and a Roku. I purchased a Radio Shack switchbox during the Creation Science Fair at Har Mar in 2010 (some of you will remember that i did that, I was showing off a bit.) I ran the Roku to the TV via the switchbox. I ran the new DVD to the TV with the switch box. I got rid of the stereo (it was 99 percent broken). The switchbox was necessary because of the lack of connectors on the TV. While I was doing that, I also ran all of the audio outputs to the iPod cradle. And there was a Wii, so that ran through the switchbox to the TV as well as the iPod cradle.

So we had a TV remote that was originally a universal remote, but we forgot that it was a universal remote. We had a DVD remote. We had a Roku remote. We had a remote for the iPod cradle. We had a switchbox which was not have a remote but was kinda like a remote.


  • … to watch TV: Using the ex-universal remote, turn on TV, operate with remote.
  • … to watch Roku: Use ex-universal remote to turn on TV and switch to channel zero, go to switch box and hit “aux” button, press button on iPod cradle remote to turn it on. Depress second button on iPod cradle remote for a moment to switch from iPod mode to aux in put mode. Use Roku remote to operate Roku. If done improperly there will be a big noise. Make appropriate adjustments.
  • … to watch a DVD: Use ex-universal remote to turn on TV, change to channel zero, activate iPod cradle and switch from default (iPod input) to aux input. Hit the switch on the switch box to switch to DVD. Operate DVD using DVD remote.
  • … to play the Wii: Activate and switch input to iPod cradle. Turn on Wii with Wii controller. Hit switch on switchbox to switch to “game” and use ex-universal remote to turn on TV and switch to channel zero. Operate Wii with Wii controller devices.

We got used to it.

Then, we got a new TV with multiple inputs. Now, everything is plugged into the TV, so the switchbox and the iPod cradle remote are out of the picture. We’ve gone from five remotes/switches to three, but it seems like we’ve simplified a lot more than that.

So, last night, I’m looking at this ex-Universal remote, suddenly remembering that it is not just a TV remote but a universal remote that now has only one job: Operating the TV, and even that job is obviated because the TV is no longer with us. And I got thinking, “The cat is getting pretty good at stealing and hiding the remotes. I wonder if I could adapt this universal remote to operate some or all of our devices, to have it as a backup.”

So I got on line and checked manuals and stuff and no, this universal remote is old and won’t operate the TV or the Roku, though it might operate the DVD player, but that is hardly worth doing.

So we went from:

  • A TV with a remote
  • A DVD player with a remote
  • A Stereo with a remote


  • Universal operating TV, Stereo, DVD


  • Universal operating TV
  • Switchbox facilitating use of several other devices
  • iPod cradle remote operating sound on iPod Wii, DVD, Roku
  • Roku remote
  • DVD remote


  • Universal = no longer has function
  • iPod cradle operating iPod
  • DVD remote operating DVD
  • TV remote operating sound on Roku, Wii, TV and DVD
  • TV Remote operating TV
  • Roku Remote

And all this time we’re basically sitting there on the couch doing the same thing.

Globin gene family anyone? Opsin gene family? Myosins? G-Proteins? Proein Kinases? Cytochromes? Silent genes? Vestigial organs?

In just a few short years the same basic function (sitting on the couch watching stuff, sometimes just listening) has been supported without interruption, but over this time almost every single device has been replaced and many have changed their relationship to each other. Remotes all derive from some ancient primordial remotes. Perhaps the remotes are related to the switch boxes, which go WAY back in evolutionary time. Somewhere in the garage I think I have two mono RCA rotator switches that were first used in my parent’s stereo, installed in parallel by my brother to allow switching the inputs to an amp from a stereo, a wire recorder, and a reel-to-reel, in the year Kennedy was shot. Surely, these fossils represent the ancestors of both remotes and switch boxes. Over time some of these devices have become vestigial. The more costly vestigial devices were eliminated from the system right away (costly to have laying around). The TV remote is still there but no one is keeping track of it any more. It was almost co-opted to take on a novel function (as secondary backup remote) but that did not happen to work out. The batteries have already been scavenged by whatever organelle does that.

The most interesting thing here is the bit about the function being preserved as the underlying gear changes. That clearly happens in evolution. After all, how can we have male and female sexes in so many related organisms with fundamentally different underlying processes to get those two sexes? Even if there are a few common proteins (and there are not unless something has been discovered recently) definitively linked to all examples of animal sex differentiation, we already know that males and/or females and/or hermaphrodites are derived from very different steps and use different parts and different genes to get that way.

There are of course systems that work exactly the opposite way. There are no light-using systems in animals that I can think of (correct me if I’m wrong) that don’t at some point use a derivative of an opsin coding gene. Opsin seems to be the only thing that gets you the ability to convert photons into neural impulses. Yet even this system has its underlying complexity in phylogeny, ontogeny and function. There are eyes that turn ON the neurons to send signals to a brain (or whatever) and there are those that turn OFF the neurons to send signals to a brain (or whatever). But they all use Opsin and surficial similarities such as those we see between the eye of a squid and the eye of a sperm whale are evolutionary homeoplasies (convergences).

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled media center, draped with many cables of many kinds, with an amplifier singing mpgs, with various dvd players flitting about, and with an old vhs turning into damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth of new technologies; Inheritance of old gear which is almost implied by going to the store to buy new gear; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase of equipment so high as to lead to a Struggle for Shelf Space, and as a consequence to Remote Selection, entailing Divergence of Digital Formats and the Extinction of less improved formats. Thus, from the war of AV, from Copyright and DRM, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the surround sound home theatre. There is grandeur in this view of a living room, with its several power strips; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, advertised as being on sale this weekend!

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18 thoughts on “Universal remotes, evolution, sex, and sight

  1. When it comes to universal remotes, Harmony is the only way to go:

    Logitech Harmony One Universal Remote with Color Touchscreen

    Logitech Harmony 700 Rechargeable Remote with Color Screen

    Logitech Harmony 700 Rechargeable Remote with Color Screen

    Logitech Harmony 650 Remote Control (Silver)

    If you can find an old model, like the 880, you can get all the benefit for a better price. Even if you can’t, it’s worth every penny. No more complicated sequences involving changing modes or multiple remotes. If you want to watch a movie, you press the “Watch a movie” button. The remote will take care of the rest for you.

  2. Goddamn Logitech – I’m in No-way and the stupid site keeps dumping me on an unintelligible website with no options to view information in English.

  3. I changed itzac’s comment to give links that work to some of the harmony remotes . I’ve got no experience with them but they look cool. Not cheap, though.

  4. Thanks Greg, I was about to try posting a different link.

    Honestly, I think I prefer the old generation to this new generation. They didn’t used to impose artificial limits on how many devices you could control. I’d say it’s all the more worth it to try and find an older model.

  5. MadScientist: “Goddamn Logitech – I’m in No-way and the stupid site keeps dumping me on an unintelligible website with no options to view information in English.”

    Try viewing through a free anonymous proxy site. Yes, most will inundate you with popup ads and you can’t post anything, but at least you can view content through an English language country’s server. They’re fairly easy to find if you search for them.

    I’ve lived in Taiwan and South Korea for the past 10 years. I’ve been through internet hell with the number of websites which couldn’t grasp that “smart scripts” aren’t. It started around 2004 and was worst about 2006, though it’s gotten better.

    Most companies have stopped automatic redirection, but some are still assholes and won’t give people a choice. That includes google which will force you to the local language repeatedly until a cookie is set in your browser.


  6. I echo the Harmony recommendation. And here’s why: the database for devices, and the logic for figuring out how to control them as a gestalt, resides on the Logitech web site, not in the controller.

    This means that they can stay up-to-date on new gear as it hits the market, and your controller does not become obsoleted (unless somebody tries a new technology for control, unlikely in IR, though may happen in the 802.11 world – then your phone or tablet becomes your universal controller).

    Therefore all you have to configure is, on the site, the list of all your gear, and how they should be set up for what you want to do. What I call “Intent-Oriented”. Then their server figures out the control signals and downloads the setting to your controller. Voila. New gear or changing the routing is then but a short web visit away.

    I have two of these things now. My wife can finally switch between DVDs, VHS tapes, and TV, without my constant attention.

  7. I remember when I was the voice activate remote, jumping up and switching channels with rotating switches actually located on the TV and adjusting rabbit ears at the command of adults. Good thing there were only 3 channels back then.

  8. Greg, you know nothing! The old remote is part of a PLAN. Just because you can’t figure out what it does doesn’t mean it’s useless. Don’t you dare throw it away or you’ll upset the natural order of things.

  9. I’ve never liked universal remotes. They were always missing an important button or two that necessitated keeping the original around anyway. And then there’s the One-Button-Powers-On-Everything. At least one device will miss the first signal, and will from then on toggle in the opposite state until you get off the couch and resynch it manually.

    Besides, collecting remotes enhances your geek stat. More buttons == more toys.

  10. I also recommend Harmony remotes. Unfortunately, models produced since Logitech acquired the company are poorly designed and overpriced and/or crippled in the number of devices they will control. Look for older 6xx or 5xx models. These can be found for about $50 or so (I bought a few spares in case mine breaks). They are particularly good at handling switchboxes.

  11. Ben, I agree. I’ve always seen “universal” remotes as replacement remotes.

    The best way to manage your remotes, by the way, is to superglue them right onto the device they control.

  12. My old HP48 calculator, sadly now dead, made a pretty good fully programmable IR remote. A friend of mine set his up to be an uber-alarm clock by powering on his stereo system.

    I’m frequently tempted to get one of the cool new smart remotes… especially a programmable one with a learning function. Then again, I’m also tempted to just use a small computer and buy (or make) an IR output module so I can use 802.11, bluetooth, or whatever RF to control everything exactly the way I would want to. Just a bit too much effort required though.

    The evolution metaphor is cute, but breaks down a bit because standards don’t exist in biology.

    PS: Have you ever looked at IR remote’s emitter through a cheap camera (like a cel phone)? Cheap ccd cameras don’t have an IR filter… pretty blinky lights.

  13. Aha! Finally, someone noticed the evolution part of the post. Thanks!

    All metaphors break down at some point or they would be metaphors. In any event, evolution does have standards in much the same way TV’s and remotes do. In sub cellular contexts, much (most) of what happens is related to shape and matching of shapes. The reuptake enzyme can grab a neurotransmitter because of a lock and key shape association. A reuptake inhibitor can block that by mimicking the shape of the NT but being the wrong shape to re-enter the pre-synaptic cell, for example.

    The IR codes and the symbolic numeric codes the user enters or looks up somewhere are all lock and key associations like this.

  14. I liked your Darwin references towards the end of the post, Greg. I’ve spent way too much time struggling with remotes for myself and for relatives.

  15. Your evolution metaphor was kinda cute, but it was a stray comment that really caught my interest:

    “There are no light-using systems in animals that I can think of (correct me if I’m wrong) that don’t at some point use a derivative of an opsin coding gene. Opsin seems to be the only thing that gets you the ability to convert photons into neural impulses.”

    At this point I’m going to go on a string of wild speculation, a random chain of thought that crossed my mind. Considering how incredibly valuable vision is, and considering how many times various forms of eyes have independently evolved, I find it somewhat striking if there aren’t any other light sensing proteins. In a way I guess it makes some sense – there is a fairly narrow energy range for a molecule to be triggered by a photon without being swamped by continuous random internal thermal energy. Lets assume for a moment that the (apparently) uniqueness of Opsin proteins for light sensing is indicative of a genuine rarity of biologically viable light sensing molecules. Lets assume for a moment that life on earth was simply lucky to stumble upon that class of molecule early on in the tree of life. That leads me to consider the evolution of life on other planets, and the possibility that they did not share this particular chance occurence. They may have highly developed sonar senses, or other forms of senses we can scarcely imagine, but they may not have any conception of vision using electromagnetic-radiation. Even a highly technological species might largely miss the area of EM radiation, and to the extent they do discover it they might fail to develop it to the point of a highly sensitive imaging system. A species with something like sonar based vision would have an extremely empty view of astronomy. Without light based vision they simply wouldn’t notice the sky is filled with other stars.

    If I were a writer this could make an interesting premise for a sci-fi novel. It could provide at least a partial solution to the Fermi paradox. Maybe there are a number of other technological civilizations out there, but without light-based-vision they simply have no idea that there are other stars and other solar systems beyond their own. Their planet, or their solar system, would seem like an isolated island in empty space.

    If some sci-fi writer stumbles across this post you’re welcome to steal the idea. Just be sure to use “Alsee” as a name for someone or something cool in your universe 🙂 Humanity would be the race to initiate contact with other civilizations, and to bridge the blind-isolation between them.

  16. Absolutely. In my mind I have a sci fi universe in which it turns out that life emerges on anything close to any earth-like planet but only one in a thousand times vision evolves.

    I have written one sci fi book (a novella) so maybe I’ll start a new career.

    (The adaptation might be better as a radio show than a movie though)

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