Backstory: Does the can opener need Dolby stereo?

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Despite my best efforts, a steady stream of appliances has flooded into my house lately, all of which I could live without, but each of which seems indispensable to some other member of the household.

As a sop to those pleading for an HDTV (right, let's make television even more appealing to the kids), I bought a combination VCR/DVD player to replace the VCR. My wife, seized with a sudden passion for kitchen appliances, has recently purchased a mixer, a crock pot, and a small George Foreman Grill. The big advantage of the George Foreman grill, as best I can tell, is that instead of making grilled cheese sandwiches or hot dogs on the stove we can make them on the grill, saving at least 45 seconds. My guess is the Mohammed Ali model would save us even more.

Here's what I've noticed about the small appliances and other purchases we've made with great excitement over the years (including a costly outdoor hot tub): They're indispensable right up until the moment you actually own them. Then they languish, used more out of guilt than necessity. We had a stationary bicycle that was heavily used for years, as a towel rack. But I digress.

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What's on my mind today isn't the questionable utility of the George Foreman Grill, or even the questionable utility of George Foreman himself (he hasn't shown up once to clean the thing). I want to know why every small appliance manufacturer needs to know so much about me. Look at the warranty registration card for even the smallest gadget and you will see a questionnaire worthy of a grand jury.

One of my favorite questions asks you to check all the activities, from a list of about 100, that you do regularly. Why is the manufacturer of a dust buster interested in knowing if I like gardening? Even if 90 percent of dust buster buyers enjoy gardening, are they planning to make one to vacuum up thistle? And why does the manufacturer of a $39 electric can opener want to know if I make more than $100,000 a year? Are they planning a version with Dolby surround-sound?

The people who make toaster ovens were curious about how many trips I've made out of the country in the past 12 months. Maybe they're planning a travel version compatible with electric outlets in Belize. A few years ago I might have said that I make regular trips to Pakistan, but now that could earn me a free trip to Guantánamo.

Manufacturers also have an inordinate interest in my family. The maker of the waffle iron wants to know if I'm married or single, and they're curious about the age of my kids: Are they planning to make a waffle iron out of Legos?

But my favorite question on these warranty cards is: Do you own your home or rent? This might make sense if it were being asked by, say, an adoption agency. But why do the people who make blenders want to know? Maybe they're interested in placing products in good, stable homes. There's nothing like a company that really cares.

Peter Zheutlin is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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