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High-Tech Alarms My Neighborhood

It is hard to convey the memorable circumlocutory tenor of Eddie's recorded message. It is an urgent communication of matchless telephonic originality.

It goes something like this: "Svhumnfer achtungschv loosh whschlumpff! Umphelshum! Sch-merschtish ploosh shphonethfg zee pol-eesh! Fffeeze shphonethfg she polishsh! Mmmeesssh fooon dsheei pooleeeesh!"

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There are not many of us (just three, in fact) who know that when the phone rings and this message enraptures our ears, we should slam down the receiver and phone the police. What it means, in translation, is that Eddie's house is being burgled.

Eddie lives three doors away from us. Usually, rather than talking on the phone, it is easier just to stroll down the avenue and bang on the kitchen door to have a chat. But a number of Saturdays ago, Eddie and I were back and forth on the phone the entire morning, finessing his new alarm system. Or trying to.

Eddie is a man of means, and one reason for this is that he never spends money unnecessarily. Put another way, he has an eye for a bargain. But bargains often carry penalties. In this case, a fuzzy tape loop: It proved incapable of clarity.

In our neighborhood, the alarm salesmen have had notable success. The area is alarmed to the teeth, but their effectiveness is still in doubt.

The noise alarms mingle merrily with the indignant cackle of the magpies, warbling persistently of theft and larceny for all to hear ... and ignore. Talk about crying wolf. The general assumption is that the homeowner has unwittingly set it off again. One alarm is regularly activated by the nocturnal shenanigans of cats. Another wails unconsolably in a brisk wind. Some local alarms simply flash silently, and can continue for days, no one noticing.

The house of someone I know well sports the cheapest alarm of all: a mere red metal box high on an outside wall. It cost 6 and is probably useless as a deterrent. But at least it doesn't flashily advertise the fact. Anyway, we have a dog.

Eddie's new machine is of a subtler sort. It can be set up to call, in turn, three trusted neighbors or friends so they can call the police. The thief is unaware of any alarm before the cop car arrives and arrest is pending.

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But, of course, the Eddie machine is just as fallible as all the others. While Eddie and Maria have been away for five weeks in Italy, son Tony has been in sporadic residence - and it was he who one morning unknowingly set it off. Receiving the inimitable message, I urgently motivated the due processes of the law. But by the time the police arrived, I had discovered that Tony was home and the house unburgled. I left Tony apologizing to the police - apologies that doubtless centered on his dad's disastrous tendency to go for low- (price) rather than high- (price) tech.

Actually, I find it oddly comforting that technology is not all it is cracked up to be. A small instance: Not many years ago, if you wanted to find a phone number, you could dial "Enquiries" and be answered by the archetypal, soothing voice of the helpful operator (invariably female). You would then hear her rustling through pages, and she would tell you the number. There would be time for thanks, and maybe even a brief exchange about her auntie's Yorkshire terrier.

Now the pages have gone and the operator is in the grip of a computer. And once the number is "accessed," she says quickly, "Here's your number now," and vanishes. A recorded voice gives you your number.

It works. It is quick. But it is not personal. It becomes personal, though, when the computer is down (and how often they are), or there is some difficulty in being sure that the accessed number belongs to the right party ("Is that 'Chisholm' or 'Chisholme'?")l Then the operator may dispense with the cold recorded voice and become, as in olden days, the voice with the smile.

FAR more discombobulating is the recorded Options Maze into which more and more institutions plunge the unwitting caller, starting with "If you have a touch-tone phone, press 1 now" and ending (if you are fortunate) 10 minutes later with "If you wish to speak with an operator, just stay on the line." The abject relief when at last a live person answers is sweet indeed.

But then we are, truthfully, all in the game together.

I have now signed up - on the very line that Eddie's machine automatically dials - to have all incoming calls recorded, if I am out or talking, by the British Telecom "Call Minder." This presumably means that Eddie's machine will be required to leave a recorded message for me to access later.

I seriously suspect his technology may not be quite up to that.

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