Indignity Vol. 1 No. 23: At the sound of the beep.


Indignity Vol. 1 No. 23: At the sound of the beep.

I Hate This Timer

WHY ARE THERE kitchen timers? What purpose do they serve? These questions seem as if they should be easy enough to answer, but it is clear from using the timer on this Frigidaire microwave that the people who designed it did not think about it.

Here is how the timer works. You press "timer," you enter an amount of time—four and a half minutes, say, to broil one side of a pan of pork chops, or 10 minutes to cook a pot of pasta—and when the food starts, you press "start." When that amount of time is over, the timer beeps: three loud beeps, each beep about three seconds long, with about one second of space between them. BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP.

As soon as you hear the beep, you turn your attention to the food. You remove the pork chops from the oven to inspect them and flip them over, or you scoop out a piece of pasta to bite into it for doneness. And then y—

The timer has stopped measuring your time. It is now measuring its own time: a silent interval of approximately 18 seconds, upon whi—

Two times each minute, it will keep on repeating this cycle: 18 seconds of silence, then 10 or 11 secon—BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP.

It will not cease until you turn your attention away from the pan of meat, hanging just on the edge of perfect doneness, or from the pasta, at that fleeting moment before too crunchy becomes too soft, and focus on the microwave, so you can hit the "stop/clear" button.

Eventually, I suppose, I could learn to anticipate this and hit the "stop/clear" button first, before doing anything else. Every microwave timer forces the user to retrain themself, one way or another—does it start and stop when you hit "timer," or when you hit "start" and "stop," or maybe either? But this particular feat of reeducation is contrary to the whole concept of a kitchen timer.

The point of a kitchen timer is to tell you that there is a task you need to be doing in the kitchen, right away, this second. By definition, that means doing something other than hitting the stop button on a timer. The timer is your signal that a moment has arrived that calls for your focus and attention—a step to be taken, a decision to be made, a—BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP...BEEEEEP.

This is the same technological world where you turn on the TV and get the TV operating menu, instead of getting TV, or where you need to get permission from your health app to set your alarm clock. Rather than the machine serving the user's needs, the user is required to service the machine. The Frigidaire microwave designers (why could they not stick to refrigerators?) believed their device was so important, they made it get directly in the way of doing the thing the device was supposedly built to do.

Presumably, they were inspired by the feature where the microwave oven, after being used as a microwave, keeps on beeping at regular intervals until you open the door and take the food out. I hate this, too—what if I'm just busy with something else in the kitchen?—but I recognize the logic. People do sometimes go away to do something else, miss hearing the beep, and forget till later that they were heating something up.

But there is no such benefit to having a nagging kitchen timer. You are already in the kitchen, or at least within earshot of the kitchen, because you are in the middle of doing something in the kitchen. If you are not, you have made a mistake that no amount of extra beeping can fix. All the repeating beeps tell you is that the time you were supposed to be waiting for already came and went—sometime more than 18 seconds ago.