If forced to decide, I suppose my favorite item in that compendium of useless gadgetry, SkyMall, would have to be the iCarta Stereo Dock a bargain at $99 (plus S&H). Sure, there's lots of competition in the field of iPod amplifiers/docking stations, but the iCarta Stereo Dock has something that wipes the competition clean: a toilet-paper spool.
"Why do we call it the king? Because it's the only docking station made especially for the 'throne' room," reads the iCarta's ad copy, further informing us that the iCarta is "perfect for the man who has everything."
Including, we must assume, diarrhea.
Did I mention that iCarta's four-speaker design boasts "moisture-proof construction"?
Seven years ago, the iCarta would never have made it into SkyMall's glossy pages, for the simple reason that the iPod had yet to hit the market. Yes, the iCarta Stereo Dock, its obvious utility notwithstanding, belongs to that ephemeral class of products I'll call parasitic.
One telltale mark of a parasitic product is that its marketability is dependent on the popularity of another product that has already achieved its own measure of success. Of course, not all parasitic products have such a directly dependent relationship to their host as the iCarta does to the iPod. Some depend more on the cultural climate created by their host products. As long as we're talking about iPods, it's fair to say that the Zune, Microsoft's poorly performing iPod clone, has the iPod to thank for its existence.
What's the other telltale mark of a parasitic product? Its market appeal is always limited, giving it a short shelf life and dooming it to eventual failure.
Take the three-pack of Oscar Mayer Fast Franks Beef Frank in a Bun I picked up this morning.
In a world where every gas station on every street corner offers a host of endlessly spinning hot dogs and foot-longs, why would the product developers at Kraft Foods ever imagine there'd be a market for a plastic-wrapped hot dog and bun combo that, unsheathed, cooks up in a mere 35 seconds?
My best answer is that they're banking that high oil prices will keep people from driving so much. If people don't drive so much, they won't go to gas stations nearly as often. And if they don't go to gas stations, they won't have such ready access to the world's hot-dog supply. Abhorring a vacuum, the Oscar Mayer Fast Franks Beef Frank in a Bun has rushed in to fill the market need.
But like any parasite, the success of a product like the Oscar Mayer Fast Franks Beef Frank in a Bun rests on the good graces of the host. In the case of skyrocketing crude prices, the host has so far been unmoved to change its driving habits. According to a recent study conducted at the University of California-Davis, gas prices climbed 20 percent between March 2001 and March 2006. Meanwhile, drivers reduced their gas consumption just 1 percent.
Accordingly, we can infer that gas-station hot-dog consumption has declined a mere 1 percent. While that may be a sizable number of dogs, it's not enough of a gap to support a product like Oscar Mayer Fast Franks Beef Frank in a Bun (which, to be fair, rivals its gas-station counterpart).
The host is rejecting this parasite and Kraft Foods should flush it down the toilet. As luck would have it, the iCarta Stereo Dock is available to supply a moisture-proof soundtrack.