Before we settle down in our comfortable chair, or arrange the cushions on the bed to lean back and watch the news or a late-night movie, we have to gather the remotes. In my experience, they are never there near the gadgets where they should be. So we have to try and remember who was the last person who watched TV the previous evening: Was it the one who likes to lie in bed and watch? Maybe you’ll find one remote under the pillow. Was it the person who sits on a couch with his laptop? He might have left it on his desk. Maybe someone took it to the other room where there are already three remotes.

In control: A good universal remote for many devices is expensive.

One brand has channel buttons to the right, volume on the left and mute in a top corner; the other has volume to the right, channels on the left, and mute at the bottom. In my opinion, lesson 1 of using the remote is to master the position of the “mute" button. Because if you don’t, you can end up having a minor domestic dispute late in the night.

And then there are the “fast-forward" and “next" and “previous" arrows on the DVD or media player remotes that I still get confused about. I think manufacturers of television sets would do us a great favour if they could standardize the design of the keypad, at least the part that controls the basic functions like volume, mute and channels.

I have often toyed with the idea of buying a universal remote—a single remote that can control many devices. But the good ones are expensive (Logitech has a range that starts at about $50, or Rs2,190, and goes up to $400), and two, you have to use a computer to program the functions of the buttons. These are not simple, plug-and-play devices; they come with elaborate manuals. In fact a high-end universal remote is like a touch-screen computer, and my worry is that we might have to call a technician just to program it.

Recently, our television started changing channels by itself. When I was first told about it I just laughed it off. “Must be a poltergeist," I said. I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t happened to me late one evening. It was quite eerie. Some 10-odd channels suddenly changed in a flash. The instinctive reaction was to blame the other person but when I was told “you’re the one who’s clinging to the remote", I realized something was seriously wrong with the TV set.

Even an extensive Net search didn’t throw up a clear answer: Do you live near a cell tower? Is the channel button stuck? Are you sitting on your remote? Is your pet standing on it? (Our angry dog once chewed up a remote, but that’s another story.) Maybe it’s the batteries in the remote. So we changed all batteries but it didn’t work.

One website mentioned “remote control conflict". So we moved all remotes to the other room and tried to change channels and adjust volume with the knobs on the TV set. Most sets have these basic controls, but the channels kept changing at random. The mechanic had a simple solution: Your TV is too old, he said.

Anyway, one Saturday afternoon the TV died. We switched it on, off and on again, pressed every single button on the remote, but there was not a flicker of life in the box.

Now we have a new TV set, which means getting used to a new remote control. The problem is every time I hit “Mute" I end up pressing “Menu".

Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.

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