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Why can’t I walk past Maplin without buying stuff I don’t need?

Blow me a fuse, darlin’, I got 499 more where that came from

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I am like a fat man in a cake shop

My first exposure to the lure of Maplin Electronics was in the mid-1990s while working on a long-lost gem of leisure IT publishing that Ziff-Davis blandly named Computer Life.

In those days, most computer publications were for tech-heads or business, while videogaming titles targeted boring hardcore mentalists who would have complained about latency issues even if they’d been given a Cray. Computer Life, on the other hand, was the first computer mag devised for the kind of person who kept their PC in the living-room rather than the bedroom.

It was the Q magazine of computers. While journalists on other rags would fight each other to interview the likes of Michael Dell or Larry Ellison, we’d sit rock and film stars in front of a PC and force them to er... Yahoo themselves (there was no Google at the time) and record their reactions. Robin Williams was fun; Clint Eastwood was curt but revealing.

Years before crap TV game shows adopted the name – always accompanied by a stage snigger so that viewers get the joke uhuh uhuh – we ran a regular feature entitled "Don’t try this at home". These were little electronic projects ranging from the irresponsible to the dangerous that in one way or another involved voiding the warranty on your computing kit.

It wasn’t so much a case of teaching readers how to combine a flatbed scanner and PC to create a fax machine so much as showing them how to convert a fax machine into a burglar alarm. The projects weren’t particularly nerdy – I don’t remember much in the way of coding, for example – but most of the hardware bollocking did require matrix board and a soldering iron.

And where does the average slipper-and-cardigan home computer owner find matrix board, resistors and the like in the mid-1990s? Along with our readers, I was forced to discard my dog-eared copy of Neuromancer as I was introduced to a burgeoning and seedy underworld of cyberpunk literature known as The Maplin Electronics Catalogue.

Ultrasonic dog-chaser: A totally practical gadget for any, er, office space

This fascination for tech gear that I don’t understand, heightened by the way the products don’t have names so much as alphanumericals, is utterly compelling for a deadhead like me. I wish I knew what this junk was for, but since I don’t, I’m now too embarrassed to leave the shop empty-handed. So I buy another set of screwdrivers or, better still, a fob of weird-looking, not-quite-allen "keys" that far from being useful around the office actually fit nothing known to man.

Each afternoon, I return to the office with an armful of purchases. Yesterday it was a bumper pack of rechargable batteries I don’t need plus a 100-mile telephone extension cord I don’t want. The day before, it was a junior hacksaw, double-sided tape and a gadget that apparently makes dogs go away.

In short, having spent seven months clearing the office of vintage junk, I am gradually filling it with brand new junk. I now have exactly twice as many two-way electrical plug adaptors as I do devices that require plugging in.

This is in sharp contrast to the electrician I called in last week who managed to turn up without bringing any fuses. Of course, he didn’t admit to not having any at the time. I simply deduced the fact the next day after discovering the kitchen microwave no longer worked, and when I went to change the fuse, I discovered it no longer had one because the lazy bastard must have nicked it to put in something else.

To heat up my lunch, I salvaged a fuse from one of those two-way plug adapters, so it all worked out in the end.

Reminder to self: must buy a pack of 500 13-amp fuses next time I’m in Maplins. Oh, and a DSL line filter I don’t need and wind-up desk ventilator that probably won’t work when I get it back to my desk. You never know when you’ll need a broken fan.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He keeps a box of unnecessary cable extensions, adapters and gadgets under his desk at home, another in the garage and three more at work, despite the fact that half the contents are racing towards obsolescence while the other half is so old and pointless that they could be sold as collectors’ items.

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