I Think it was the old radio shows that got me hooked, turned me into an addict. I was an avid (my mother said "maniacal") listener to adventure shows like "The Lone Ranger," "The Green Hornet," "Sky King" and -- my favorite -- "Jack Armstrong, All- American Boy."
These shows brought excitement into my life and cereal into my mother's. Every time a show announced a new giveaway, I pestered my mother to go out and buy ever more boxes of Wheaties or Cheerios or Quaker Oats, which generations of our dogs grew obese on.
The hell with the cereal: I wanted the box tops, passports to wondrous gizmos that I remember as the Green Hornet Glow-in-the-Dark-Secret-Code Ring, the Sky King Combination Jackknife/ Microscope/Star Map/Belt Buckle and the Lone Ranger Secret Code/ Winchester Rifle/Hohner Harmonica/Pencil Case, which also glowed in the dark.
Thus I became hopelessly addicted not to Rice Krispies but to gadgets -- things no bigger than a breadbox that beeped and glowed and decoded the secrets of the cosmos. I grew from a boyish box-top clipper to what one friend calls a "gadget gourmet," a lover of microchips and integrated circuits and the wonders they perform.
And I'm thrilled to have lived long enough to see the effect silicon wizardry has had on gadgetry. We've made the technological leap from ratcheting gears and boinging springs to the eerie silence of dancing electrons and hypnotically glowing liquid crystal displays.
Thanks to far-seeing engineers and copy writers all over the world, we gadget gourmets are now witnessing the birth of an entirely new level of gadgetry: technokitsch, devices that answer questions nobody has asked, products that do things we never dreamed needed to be done.
Take, for example, the recently introduced Electronic Cat Door. You remember how the old-style cat door worked, of course. You cut a tabby-size hole in the back door, covered it with a piece of carpet, spent 15 minutes teaching your cat how to use it by shoving the yowling beast in and out and ended the day serving coffee to the firefighters who came to extricate your 2-year-old after he became wedged in the hole.
The Electronic Cat Door, however, which sells for $125, can be opened only by your cat, and only when it's wearing a special coded key on its collar. The door- mounted device, which plugs into a wall outlet, "reads" this key and admits only your high-tech feline -- not some homeless cat out mooching for spare giblets. Wonderful news, gadget/cat lovers, because it means a) you'll finally be free of the tedium of stamping your kitty's paw and checking IDs at the back door and b) your cat can now proceed directly from the yard to the kitchen table, where it will proudly present you with the remains of its latest catch. The law of the jungle doesn't submit easily to science.
Another gadget that interfaces with nature is the FishMaster, a $69 palm-size computer that attaches to one's fishing pole, providing invaluable information to new-age anglers. A digital readout shows the precise drag setting; a half-second beep sounds when a fish strikes; and a three-second tone signals when a fish is landed. What an improvement! Fishing the traditional way forced you to wait until you actually saw the fish flopping in death throes to know you'd landed one. FishMaster thoughtfully provides a beep to confirm reality.
The device lacks several features crucial to fishing -- a blood alcohol meter and a dynamite fuse estimator (helpful when you're blasting fish out of ponds and lakes). But FishMaster will "reveal the intense intensity of the fight," displaying the time it took to land the fish, its exact weight and a numerical index of how hard the creature fought to survive.
FishMaster also will let you accurately estimate the weight of the ones that got away. Great news for your friends. When you show them the videotapes of your fishing trip -- interspersed with an hour's narration of these incredibly fascinating statistics -- they'll be able to plead justifiable homicide after they beat you to death with a stuffed mackerel.
Those of you who live in the country will want the Positronic Mail Detector, "the world's first cordless electronic mail sensor for roadside mailboxes." Obviously designed by a brilliant team of engineers skilled in roadside mailbox technology, this $100 necessity consists of two units -- a flat 9-volt transmitter that's installed in a mailbox and an AC-powered receiver that sits in your house.
When mail is placed in the box, it engages a photocell sensor that activates the transmitter, sending a radio signal to the receiver. An audible alarm signals that the mail, God love it, has arrived. Effete urbanites spoiled by having mail delivered to their doors may not appreciate the real value of the Positronic Mail Detector. But now country dwellers can avoid unnecessary exposure to rain, snow, wind and sun when they trek to their mailboxes. They can sit in their comfy homes until the alarm goes off, old Shep barks, and there's peace in the valley again.
Like the FishMaster (don't confuse the two unless you have fish delivered by mail), the Positronic lacks a few important features. A state-of-the-art mail detector would signal not simply that mail had arrived but which kinds of mail had been deposited.
A low, menacing tone, for example, might signal the arrival of an inarticulate letter from an ex-spouse; a series of shrill beeps would announce bills; a pure, joyous whistle would sound for long-awaited checks; and -- most important -- a digitally synthesized violin would proclaim the arrival of a love letter. Now that's roadside mailbox technology.
Finally, a new piece of gadgetry with a sharply defined purpose. The Phone-E antenna -- only $19 -- is a fake cellular phone antenna you mount on your car's rear window. This, says the copy in the Sharper Image catalogue, is supposed to make everyone "assume you have a cellular phone -- the mark of success in the '80s."
The ersatz antenna is "finely crafted," you'll be happy to know, and made of enamel-coated steel and zinc (don't you just loathe cheap imitations of cheap imitations?). This means it's sure to weather the extreme pressure of class reunions, family picnics and tailgate parties -- the sorts of places where quality people are likely to check out what make of car you're driving, the types of antennas you're sporting, the message on your vanity plates and other crucial indexes of social status. Personally, I wouldn't be caught dead installing a peel-and-stick phony antenna. Unless, maybe, it glowed in the dark. ::