Ladybugs II: Electric Boogaloo

It’s difficult to believe that our home has been infested with ladybugs for four months now. (Actually, it’s only the media room that’s infested; they don’t go into the rest of the house.) Kris and I still debate their origin — eggs in the houseplants? or in through the window? — but we don’t debate that they’re fun to have around.

When I’m not mistaking them for soy nuts, or drinking the ones who crawl into my water bottle, they’re actually fairly entertaining. Even the cats think so. They’re just a little messy. There are ladybug carcasses all over the floor. On a trip to the bathroom in my stocking feet last night, I felt the tell-tale crunch of another ladybug going to the great garden in the sky.

As we were getting ready for bed we counted the swarm on the light fixture. “My personal best is twenty-five,” Kris told me. We counted twenty-one (though the eight on the cord itself was some sort of record). “You should take a picture,” she said, and since my camera was close at hand (eBay auctions, you know), I did. It was rather difficult because a) ladybugs are small, and in order to appreciate their vast number, it’s better to see them in person; (b) it’s difficult to produce a good photo shooting into a light source; and (c) my shots were hand-held. Still, here is a gallery of ladybugs:

The first shot is the broad overview of ladybugness.

a wide shot of the entire light fixture, ladybugs and all

Doesn’t look like much, does it? Click on the photo. It’ll open a full-size version in a new window. Scroll around. Count the ladybugs. Imagine them all flitting about, bonking into the light, making a more-or-less constant click-click noise. Imagine a wayward ladybug flitting by one of the cats: cat-snack. (And remember: there are even more ladybugs on the other side of these light fixtures; you’re only seeing a portion of them.)

Most of the ladybugs are various shades of red with black spots. A small percentage, however, are black with red spots. They’re inverse ladybugs. Are they bossbugs? Are they pariahs in ladybug culture? One was hanging out on the cord last night with some regular ladybugs:

a photo of several ladybugs on the cord, including a mysterious black ladybug

It’s possible that the ladybugs are drawn to the light fixture for warmth. I like to believe that they revere it as some sort of god, that they are drawn to this spot by some sort of holy ladybug dogma, are bound to pay homage to the god of light. And then get eaten by a cat. Or by me. Yech!

ladybugs worshiping at the altar of light

In other news, my second batch of eBay auctions ended Sunday. It wasn’t nearly as large as the first, but a couple of the items yielded a nice profit. (A couple of the items went dirt-cheap, too, which makes me sad.)

What’s odd about all this is that for some reason I find myself unable or unwilling to spend the money I’m earning. Yes, I’m continuing my normal monthly comic book purchases, and going out to eat now and then, but usually a large influx of money like this would lead me to some sort of frivolous expense: a new Mac! a new camera lens! a zillion comics! It’s true that I have bid on a couple of eBay auctions (including this lot that I really, really wanted — my max bid was $318), but I haven’t won anything; I’m unwilling to bid wantonly. What the hell is wrong with me!

Small Meals

I started an exercise regimen at the end of January. That’s going well, but I’m actually gaining weight, not losing it. Why? Because I eat like a pig. As a result, I started a diet regimen last weekend.

The fact is: every time I’ve ever achieved sustained weight loss, it’s been as a result of meticulously counting calories. Am I going to eat those Sno-Balls? Fine. Then I’d better be entering them into FitDay so that I know what else I can’t eat later. Many people can lose weight without a detailed balance sheet. I cannot. It’s not that I don’t know how bad certain foods are for me, it’s just that I don’t alter my behavior unless the cold unfeeling numbers are staring me in the face: Sno-Balls == 360 calories.

One rough thing about counting calories is that so many modes of eating become problematic. Eating in restaurants? Whoa, that’s a monkey wrench. Fixing a nice meal at home? Counting calories is possible, but it can get complicated. The easiest way to eat when pursuing this sort of regimen is to just consume pre-packaged, pre-labeled food. I know this is bad on oh-so-many levels, both nutritional and moral, but sometimes certain values must be compromised for the more important goal. In this case, I’m going to be eating out of cans and boxes and the like for several months, until I can get myself steeled to a proper diet.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered one delicious, balanced meal: the corned beef sandwich. One slice of bread (not two), a hunk of cheese, and a couple slices of corned beef (along with some ketchup, mustard, and a slice of onion) produce a delicious and filling small meal that only packs 250 calories. Add a bowl of chicken noodle soup and you have a feast!

Small meals. Small meals. Kris has always scolded me for my inability to control portion sizes, and now I’m paying the price for it. Small meals. That’s what I’ll be consuming until the summer…

Around Rosings Park

As meteorological spring approaches, so does the yard work. Rosings Park is bursting at the seams, ready to explode with life. You know what that means: no rest for the Roth-Gates.

Kris and Tiffany spent most of Saturday working in the yard. They pruned the roses, fertilized them, and put down a layer of pine needle mulch (from our redwood). They pruned the fruit trees. The planted daylilies and clematis.

Meanwhile, I spent four hours enduring the hell that is pruning arborvitae. I hated this chore in Canby, and I hate it in Oak Grove. We don’t actually have any arborvitae on our property, but Curt and Tammy have a tall hedge on the border next to our vegetable garden. As you may recall from last year’s garden science entry, this hedge casts a long shadow. They let us trim the hedge by a couple of feet, and we hope that this will be enough to give us better sun on most of the garden. If it’s not, we will have to extend the garden further into the lawn than we’d already planned. We must have room for Kris’ army of tomatoes!

After Tiffany helped us pick up all the arborvitae debris, we found ourselves drained. Exhausted. Fortunately, Courtney (and Andrew) had prepared a wonderful southeast Asian dinner for us to share. We didn’t have to cook! We just had to drag our tired bodies a few miles and force ourselves to eat delicious food like Indonesian chicken and mango with sticky rice.

We slept well last night.

Today we walked up to the store to purchase miscellaneous garden supplies. I got a new pear of gloves and another grape plant. We really want an Interlaken; the flavor is fantastic. We’re not certain which varieties we actually planted in 2004. There were Interlaken cuttings in the mix, but it’s kind of crapshoot as to what actually got planted. Now we have one for sure.

Though the yard has laid dormant for most of the winter, there has been a little activity. There are always birds. There are always squirrels. Over the past couple months I’ve snapped a few photos that I keep meaning to share.

First is a photo of a crazy sparrow. Last summer a family of sparrows made a nest in the roof above the workshop. Momma and Poppa Sparrow gave birth to a family of small family, and then the whole group left at the end of the summer. A few weeks ago Kris told me that I needed to go out to the workshop because I’d accidentally shut a bird inside. When I went out it became clear that the bird wasn’t trapped inside; he was trapped outside.

This little sparrow wanted into the workshop. Why? My only hypothesis is that he was part of the family that lived in the eaves. Whatever the case, he spent ten or fifteen minutes fluttering against the window, trying to force his way inside. He was skittish, though, and flew away any time I got close. This was the best photo I could snatch of his antics:

Last weekend we had some freezing temperatures. This made the robins cranky. They’ve only just begun showing up around the yard, drawn primarily by the bird baths. With the sever cold, the bird baths froze hard. Kris would add water when she could, but even the new water froze within half an hour. The robins would gather on top of the ice and stage mass protests. I once saw six robins on top of the ice. Here are four:

A few weeks ago I took a bath in the late afternoon. The sky was clear so that the setting sun bathed the yard in deep golden hues. The bathroom window fogged, and I thought the effect was ethereal. The camera didn’t capture it as well as I’d have liked, but still: here’s one of those abstract shots I mentioned I like (and plan to take more of):

Finally, the cats love the spring because it means family time in the yard. If you check the Flickr sidebar, you’ll find pictures of each of our children helping us in the yard.

Emily Lenae

Steph holding Emily (photo by Jeff)

The Roth family welcomes a new member: Jeff and Steph are proud to announce the birth of Emily Lenae. She was born on 23 February 2006 at 9:08 a.m. She weighed 7lb 13oz and was 20-1/2″ long. Everyone is doing well, though Jeff reports big brother Noah is more interested in the heavy construction equipment outside the hospital window than in his baby sister.

Jeff and little Emily (photo by mom)

My eBay Method

My first batch of eBay sales is finished; the buyers are receiving their items, and feedback is being exchanged. Of the 24 items I posted, 22 sold. Bids totaled $1145.92, from which I earned $915.65 profit. (My expenses were: $32.80 listing fees, $44.30 closing fees, $39.12 PayPal fees, and $114.05 shipping fees.)

In my auctions, I’m doing two things that conventional wisdom frowns upon — using ten-day listings and providing free shipping — yet I feel that both of these are helping me get better prices. I know that when I buy things off eBay, I always bid more for free shipping. It’s just nice not to have to hassle with a shipping price. And though many people say ten-day auctions don’t produce higher sales prices, I’m not convinced. Especially on my more desirable items, the bidding rose a fraction every day. Might all the bidding have been compressed into seven days if I’d elected to host shorter auctions? Perhaps. But I’m comfortable paying forty cents for three days extra.

In true J.D.-fashion, I kept a detailed spreadsheet on each listing (condensed version). Before posting each auction, I determined a minimum desired sale price and a maximum expected sales price. Two items (both old Apple II computer games) did not sell. Two others — my precious Little Nemo book from 1972, and a Superman book from 1978 — sold for less than what I’d hoped. Everything else met my minimum desired sales price, and nine of the items sold for more than I expected. Two of the items sold for way more than I’d expected.

Cosmic Encounter, a board game I bought in the early nineties, sold for $232.50 — I had only expected it to reach $150. The biggest surprise, though, was a set of Bible commentaries. I’d spied this set of books in the Sellwood Stars antique mall soon after we moved to the new house. They were listed for $8, and I wanted to buy them, but Kris pooh-poohed the notion. I went back the next day and bought them anyhow. I liked that they were the same size as my Modern Library books. During last fall’s great book purge (for which this eBay stuff is one of the last steps), I decided I didn’t have room for the Bible commentaries. On a whim, I checked eBay and was shocked to see that complete sets sold for $150. My set wasn’t complete, but I figured it would go for $125 or so. It sold for $222.50.

Other items that sold for more than I had expected include my Star Wars VHS tapes (widescreen, THX, super-deluxe edition, the last prints before Lucas started tinkering with the original films) which sold for $51, and a Tintin popup book which sold for $43.

I have a second batch of auctions up at the moment. Aside from a couple of items, they’re not doing as well as I’d hoped. I had to take one item down because it wasn’t what I thought it was. Two of the nine remaining items don’t have bids yet (though Sunday is still several days away, and these items do have people watching). Still, bidding has reached $110 for these items, which isn’t far from my $150 minimum desired total. (My maximum expected is $265.)

I am now giving serious consideration to auctioning some larger ticket items, things such as:

  • my film-based SLR camera — this would leave me committed to digital;
  • lenses better suited for film work than digital work (such as my 20mm wide-angle lens, which has an effective focal length of 30mm in digital);
  • my 700mhz iBook.

One problem I keep encountering is that I’m not expert enough about my various items to know how to describe them correctly. By this I mean, many of the items I have for sale are collectables, or items where the condition is important. I often don’t have a basis for using the right words (e.g. “mint”, “near-mint”, “very good”) to describe condition. Instead, I perform a sort of visual assessment and then try to convey this information via words. Turns out, I may be overstating the blemishes. One buyer wrote me in private e-mail: “The [books] arrived today, and my wife is very pleased, indeed. They are in much better condition than we even hoped…” I guess it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than to do the opposite.

Finally, here is my eBay auction routine, which is based on much reading, and asking many questions in various forums:

  • I start my listings on Thursday afternoons and evenings. I run ten-day listings. My goal is for them to end on Sunday evening between seven and ten Eastern (four and seven Pacific). This gives me two weekends to attract bids.
  • If I need to, I pay the extra ten cents to prepare listings in advance and schedule them to start on Thursday evenings. This week, I don’t have any ready to go, so I’ll rush home after work and spend about three or four hours madly posting items in real-time.
  • I offer free shipping, insurance, and delivery confirmation. (I’m considering nixing the insurance.) Sure, I could charge for these, but all of this money is gravy anyway, and I haven’t yet been burned by the free shipping, so I’m willing to keep doing this. I think it builds goodwill.
  • I offer a money-back guarantee, but only if the item is not as described. (Not if a person changes his mind or made a mistake.)
  • I post low starting bids. The more popular I think an item will be, the lower the starting bid. In the case of the Cosmic Encounter game, for example, I knew there would be plenty of interest, so I started bidding at 99 cents. If there probably will only be a couple bids, I start bidding near my minimum desired sale point. For example, I wanted to sell eight books at a minimum of $20 each, so I started bidding for them at $9.99 a piece.
  • Which brings up something else: I research the hell out of each item I’m posting. I dig through eBay to find what similar items fetch. I also look to see how many bids they get. I check other places (Amazon,, other forums) to see what other places sell the item for.
  • I craft my title with great care. For example, I’m currently selling a book entitled The Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. I could put all that into my auction title, but it would be a waste. Instead my title is geared toward keywords that I think interested parties would use: HIDDEN GAME OF BASEBALL Thorn Palmer SABR Bill James. The last three terms have nothing directly to do with the book, but people interested in SABR or in the work of Bill James will be interested in this book. I want them to see it in their search results.
  • I try to have a good description, listing the strengths and flaws of my offerings minutely. I generally say things like “I think this book is in great shape, but be aware that the cover has a small tear and the previous owner’s name is on the flyleaf”, etc. I also try to place additional keywords in the description, but sprinkled into conversational sentences. For example, in my auction for some Tolkien animated films on VHS, I’m using the names of Peter Jackson, Liv Tyler, etc.
  • I refuse to accept bids from headaches: people with negative feedback, people who haven’t been paying, and people outside the U.S.
  • I take photos and post them in the description. I use the 35-cent gallery feature so that my photo appears when people browse listings. If condition is a concern, I use many photos to convey the state of the item.

These techniques seem to be working well so far. I’m excited to go rummage around to find more stuff to sell. I have a stack of Flash Gordon comic strip compilations, old Apple II computer games (I’ve decided to sell these as a lot instead of individually), science fiction novels, and camera equipment that I’m hoping to post soon. I’d really like to find a couple additional big-ticket items like the game and the Bible commentaries. Maybe I should root through my Star Trek collection. I probably have some good stuff there…

A State of Mind

The more I know, the less I know.

That is to say, the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s so much I will never learn, that there’s so much to know and never enough time to know it all. Unsurprisingly, I have huge gaps in my knowledge. One of these gaps is North Korea.

Here’s what I know about North Korea: it’s a communist nation; the U.S. fought a thinly-veiled war against the Soviets with Korea as a staging ground; M*A*S*H was set in Korea; our President considers North Korea part of the Axis of Evil; the biggest nuclear threat to Portland is probably from North Korea. That’s it. That’s all I know. And some of that is probably wrong.

Because of this, it was eye-opening to watch A State of Mind, a recent documentary about one aspect of life in North Korea. Now I have a better understanding of North Korea as a nation, of its people and its culture.

A State of Mind (netflix)is nominally the story of two girls preparing to perform in the enormous gymnastics exhibition that is North Korea’s Mass Games. The film is about more than that, though. It’s about ideology. It’s about culture. It’s about family. It’s about privation. For ninety minutes, it transports the viewer into another world.

One strength of this film is that it is completely non-judgmental. It neither praises nor condemns communist North Korea, with its food rationing and its rolling blackouts. It neither praises nor condemns the blatant propaganda pushed by the State, or the Orwellian “always-on” radio in every household. When the lights come one evening after a blackout, one girl’s father shouts, “Dirty American Imperialists! This is their fault!” (or something similar).

The dedication with which these girls, aged eleven and thirteen, train for the Mass Games is remarkable. For months, they spend two hours every afternoon learning synchronized gymnastics moves with hundreds of other girls. In the weeks leading up to the event, they actually spend eight hours a day in training. The results are spectacular: a mass of human motion in which individuals are subsumed into a giant collective group organism capable of great beauty.

A State of Mind isn’t for everyone. I’m sure that many would find the film slow and tedious. I found it fascinating. It was like a travelogue to a hidden kingdom where cold Soviet-style architecture stood side-by-side with Japanese-style tradition. It was interesting to see some aspects of 1984 and Anthem made real. (It’s a chilling reminder of the direction this country is headed with all of the State-sponsored propaganda we’re fed, and especially the ongoing erosion of individual rights.)

Some North Korea-related links:

Lastly, I’m hosting the A State of Mind trailer (right-click to download, or left-click to view in browser).

Obviously, this film is yet another in the series of documentaries that Kris and I have been watching. She admits that she, too, finds them fascinating. They’re generally much more fulfilling than a normal movie. I’d much rather watch a film like Mass Games than a film like King Kong or 40-Year-Old Virgin. Did I already ask you all to recommend documentaries for us? I don’t care: I’ll ask again. Tell me about documentaries that you loved, and I’ll add them to my Netflix queue.

Free Skate

Why is ice dancing my favorite sport in the Winter Olympics? Because you get moments of pure brilliance, like the one I just saw: the French couple’s free dance was simply amazing. (I’ll post a link to it here if I can find it online.)

“What are they, in the French Revolution?” I asked Kris as the pair took the ice. He was wearing a puffy shirt; she was wearing a poodle skirt (without the poodle). Their clothes were bloody. Their skin was covered in ashes.

“No way,” said Kris. “They didn’t wear clothes like that during the French Revolution. You’re thinking of Les Mis.”

But, of course, I was right. They skated to the Les Mis soundtrack. Perhaps they weren’t the most technically adept couple, and they made some mistakes, but damn if they didn’t have fun. I had fun watching them. They skated with passion. Their lifts were amazing. They sang along with the music.

Who cares if they’re going to finish 18th; I loved their performance.

This is why ice dancing is my favorite.

Some things you should know: I’m only mildly interested in other figure skating events, which I often find absurd. It’s not like I’m a figure skating aficionado. Also, the ice dancing competition is spread across three events: the compulsory, the original, and the free skate. The compulsory is rather tedious, the original is good, but the free skate — which is what’s on tonight — the free skate is a fantastic fusion of music, theater, and athleticism. It just may be the apex of human achievement!

Enough hyperbole. I’m going back to the competition…

I’ve seen a lot of stuff over at YouTube during the past few months, but I’ve never tried to link to any of the videos until now. It’s easy! Below is a clip of the famous Torvill and Dean “Bolero” routine from the 1984 Olympics. The announcers keep bringing this up; it’s a good reference point.

Perfection? Indeed!

As I say, the apex of human achievement.

Rocky Mountain School of Photography

As spring approaches, the photography bug begins to stir inside me. I want to photograph the sunrises. I want to photograph the icy foliage. I itch to get outside. To combat this bug, I spent this weekend at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography “photo weekend” in downtown Portland.

Simon Climbing a Ladder

The Rocky Mountain School of Photography is based in Missoula, Montana. It offers photo weekends — a series of workshops on various photographic topics — throughout the country, as well as various week-long workshops throughout the world. (Workshops this year include trips to South Africa; Victoria, BC; New Zealand; and the Oregon Coast.) The Rocky Mountain School of Photography is best known, however, for its eleven-week summer intensive career training program. (I have a friend who quit her job to do this program; she said it was the best thing she’s ever done. It’s something I’d like to do some day if I can afford it. The program costs $7200!)

The End of the Day

The photo weekends offer a quick taste of their extended content, condensed for hobbyists such as myself. Classes are taught for groups of about fifty students, ranging in skill from novice to professional. Here are the courses that were offered this weekend:

The classes I attended are indicated by italics.

Session One
Photography Basics taught by Susanna Gaunt
Understanding Light taught by Elizabeth Stone
Zone System for Color taught by David Marx

Session Two
Understanding Your Digital SLR taught by David Marx
Creative Techniques in Color taught by Elizabeth Stone
Vacation and Travel Photography taught by Susanna Gaunt

Session Three
Macro Photography taught by Elizabeth Stone
Filters and White Balance taught by David Marx
Sports and Motion taught by Susanna Gaunt

Session Four
Composition taught by Elizabeth Stone
Enhancing Your Digital Images taught by David Marx
Photographing Kids taught by Susanna Gaunt

Session Five
Low Light and Night Photography taught by Elizabeth Stone
Sunrises, Sunsets, and Flowing Water taught by Susanna Gaunt
Printing and E-mailing Your Photos taught by David Marx

Session Six
Group Critique of Student Photos

The classes I attended were a mixed bag. The instructors were certainly knowledgeable — no question of that — but sometimes the subject matter seemed irrelevant (to me) or the presentation ineffective. For example, the Creative Techniques in Color class wasn’t about using color to enhance your photos; it covered infrared photography and multiple exposures and related topics. If I’d realized this in advance, I would have selected a different topic. The Sports and Motion class had potential, but the lecture followed our workbook almost verbatim, and no photographic examples were provided until the very end of the session.

However, the Enhancing Your Digital Images class was worth the price of admission all by itself. That session was fantastic, peeling away some of the mysteries of Photoshop in just two hours. (I now know what Levels are and what the Curves tool is for!) I’ve tried to learn Photoshop from books before, but they just cannot compare to what I learned yesterday. It’s clear to me now that I need to find a Photoshop class at a community college or an art school. (Or, if I can scrape together a thousand bucks, to attend a RMSP workshop on Photoshop in Missoula.)

Opal Creek Pool

One of the things I loved about the weekend were the little tidbits of advice the instructors dispensed here and there. Some of this goes against conventional wisdom, against the stuff photography students hear all the time. For example, we’re told from the start to always have UV/haze filters over our lenses — “It’s better to scratch a $10 filter than to scratch a $1000 lens.” I heard each instructor pooh-pooh this notion. Here, then, is the heart of this entry: little tidbits of advice gleaned from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography photo weekend.

  • If you have a favorite place to photograph, keep going back. Photograph it under different conditions: different times of day, different seasons, etc.
  • Any time you use a filter of any sort, you are compromising quality, losing sharpness. Only use filters when you need them. You paid big money for the glass in your lenses, but the glass (or plastic) in your filters is cheap stuff.
  • If you’re using white balance on your digital camera, the only filters you need are a polarizer and a neutral density filter. Warming and cooling filters are redundant, as those functions are handled by your digital camera’s white balance settings.
  • Student: “Do you use U/V filters?” “No! No! No! Don’t use U/V filters. They’re bad! Haze filters are junk. If you want to cut through haze, put on a polarizer.” Use a lens shade to protect your lens, not a haze filter.
  • Always use a lens shade. It prevents flare. It improves the quality of light. It protects the lens. (Use the lens shade instead of a cheap filter.)
  • If you like water, get a cheap $8 underwater camera from Target, then have the film cross-processed and pushed three stops.
  • Regarding the oft-cited rule that one ought to mostly do photography in the morning and evening (because midday sun is too harsh). “There is no bad light. It’s just a different quality of light.” (Which is not to say that you’re going to get good results photographing architecture at noon, just that you won’t necessarily get bad results.)
  • Learn to use fill flash, especially to provide catchlights in outdoor portraits. A catchlight makes the subject seem more alive.
  • Regarding one of my pet peeves, the ubiquity of the 8×10 format and the difficulty in making 8×12 formats: “I cannot believe that we, as photographers, have not rebelled. 8×10? Please!” A 35mm image is approximately 1.5 x 1 inches, or a 3:2 aspect ratio. This prints full frame on an 8×12. An 8×10 print actually lops off 17% of your image.
  • Most people (including me) use too much sharpening in Photoshop. Sharpening should be subtle. If somebody says to you, “Nice unsharp mask,” you know you’ve used too much.
  • Freezing film retards the aging process.

Though I found parts of the weekend dull and uninteresting, I’m glad I took the workshop. I will be a better photographer for it. (Actually, I’ll be a more efficient photographer — I didn’t actually learn anything to help improve the quality of my images, just to improve my workflow.)

Ella Jumping on Her Bed II

Another keen thing I got from the weekend is that everybody’s photographic sensibilities are different. Sure, there are commonly accepted guidelines for producing photographs that appeal to a broad audience, but each person is always going to have a specific taste. One of the instructors loves to work in the abstract, and is quite fond of photographs that would bore most people to tears. This was a revelation to me. I, too, love to work in the abstract, but I don’t do it often because (a) I don’t have the training and (b) nobody I show the stuff to seems to like it. I like it, but I always figure there’s something wrong with the photos when everybody else blows it off. This weekend made me realize that it’s okay to be different, okay to develop a personal style, okay to to make images that only I like. Images like these:

    Corn Leaf

I’ve never posted the introduction to photography entry I wrote last summer. I finished about 90% of it, but got sidetracked before it was done. Maybe I should work on it so that I can share my (limited) photographic wisdom before spring and summer are upon us.

He Opened His Mouth and Breathed Out Spring

I am reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the third time in less than a year. If that is not a high recommendation, I don’t know what is.

I’ve mentioned before (as have several commenters) that there are some brilliant passages in this book. Though Clarke is unable to sustain this peak of quality throughout the entire volume, like an addict I keep going, craving the next hit.

Here is today’s hit:

Strange took the cup and drank the water down. The cup fell from his hand. Drawlight was aware — he did not know how exactly — that Strange was changed. Against the starry sky the black shape of his figure sagged and his head dropped. Drawlight wondered if he were drunk. But how could a few drops of any thing make a man drunk? Besides he did not smell of strong liquor; he smelt like a man who had not washed himself or his linen for some weeks; and there was another smell too — one that had not been there a minute ago — a smell like old age and half a hundred cats.

Drawlight had the strangest feeling. It was something he had felt before when magic was about to happen. Invisible doors seemed to be opening all around him; winds blew on him from far away, bringing scents of woods, moors, and bogs. Images flew unbidden into his mind. The houses around him were no longer empty. He could see inside them as if the walls had been removed. Each dark room contained — not a person exactly — a Being, an Ancient Spirit. One contained a Fire; another a Stone; yet another a Shower of Rain; yet another a Flock of Birds; yet another a Hillside; yet another a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts; and on and on.

“What are they?” he whispered, in amazement. He realized that all the hairs on his head were standing on end as if he had been electrified. Then a new, different sensation took him: it was a sensation not unlike falling, and yet he remained standing. It was as if his mind had fallen down.

He thought he stood upon an English hillside. Rain was falling; it twisted in the air like grey ghosts. Rain fell upon him and he grew thin as rain. Rain washed away thought, washed away memory, all the good and the bad. He no longer knew his name. Everything was washed away like mud from a stone. Rain filled him up with thoughts and memories of his own. Silver lines of water covered the hillside, like intricate lace, like the veins of an arm. Forgetting that he was, or ever had been, a man, he became the lines of water. He fell into the earth with the rain.

He thought he lay beneath the earth, beneath England. Long ages passed; cold and rain seeped through him; stones shifted within him. In the Silence and the Dark he grew vast. He became the earth; he became England. A star looked down on him and spoke to him. A stone asked him a question and he answered it in its own language. A river curled at his side; hills budded beneath his fingers. He opened his mouth and breathed out spring…

He thought he was pressed into a thicket in a dark wood in winter. The trees went on for ever, dark pillars separated thin, white slices of winter light. He looked down. Young saplings pierced him through and through; they grew up through his body, through his feet and hands. His eye-lids would no longer close because twigs had grown up through them. Insects scuttled in and out of his ears; spiders built nests and webs in his mouth. He realized he had been entwined in the wood for years and years. He knew the wood and the wood knew him. There was no saying any longer what was wood and what was man.

All was silent. Snow fell. He screamed…


Like rising up from beneath dark waters, Drawlight came to himself. Who it was that released him — whether Strange, or the wood, or England itself — he did not know, but he felt its contempt as it cast him back into his own mind. The Ancient Spirits withdrew from him. His thoughts and sensations shrank back to those of a Man. He was dizzy and reeling from the memory of what he had endured. He examined his hands and rubbed the places on his body where the trees had pierced him. They seemed whole enough; oh, but they hurt! He whimpered and looked around for Strange.

The magician was a little way off, crouching by a wall, muttering magic to himself. He struck the wall once; the stones bulged, changed shape, became a raven; the raven opened its wings and, with a loud caw, flew up towards the night sky. He struck the wall again: another raven emerged from the wall and flew away. Then another and another, and on and on, thick and fast they came until all the stars above were blotted out by black wings.

Strange raised his hand to strike again…

“Lord Magician,” gasped Drawlight. “You have not told me what the third message is.”

Strange looked round. Without warning he seized Drawlight’s coat and pulled him close. Drawlight could feel Strange’s stinking breath on his face and for the first time he could see his face. Starlight shone on fierce, wild eyes, from which all humanity and reason had fled.

“Tell Norrell I am coming!” hissed Strange.

In the past few hours, I’ve listened to this passage three times. I’ve read it on paper three times. I’ve copied it from the book to the text editor. It retains its dark hold on me each time I read it, enchants me. I wish that I could write like this.

When I have finished with Jonathan Strange, I will move onto a book that Kris recently read and loved: The Time Traveler’s Wife. And then I will re-read another book that captivated me last spring: Cloud Atlas. This is a golden age of fantastic fiction. There’s some wonderful stuff being produced by strong writers, stuff that’s accessible even to those disinclined toward fantasy and science fiction, stuff that’s quality literature by any measure. For children, there are the Harry Potter books and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. For adults, there are the three books I’ve cited and several others. It is a great time to be a fan of speculative fiction.

Kentucky Fried Kitten

On the way to pick up dinner tonight, I came up with a brilliant business idea. Kris thinks it’s doomed to failure, but I don’t know. What do you think?

Here’s the concept: Kentucky Fried Kitten, just like Kentucky Fried Chicken (which was where I was headed to pick up dinner), but with kittens. And better!

Imagine your typical fast food restaurant, but with a special glassed-in cage area in which hundreds of kittens romp and play. While the parents are ordering food, their brood can paw at the glass wall, admiring the furry little scamps inside. “Which one do you like, Johnny?” asks Mom, and Johnny points to a little calico in the corner. A smiling teenager grabs the calico kitten, gives a wave, and vanishes to the kitchen.

A few minutes later: voila! Dinner is served. Deep-fried kitten. Crisp and juicy. Crazy delicious.

Some other key ideas regarding this exciting business opportunity:

  • BYOC! Customers will get a discount if they bring in their own cat.
  • A number of delicious dipping sauces will be available, from standards like honey mustard and barbeque, to more exotic flavors like spicy thai and yellow curry.
  • Customers can create a wide variety of combo meals, with popular sides such as mashed potatoes and cole slaw, and new favorites like goldfish crackers. Also, customers will be able to opt for white-meat only meals for a nominal surcharge.
  • Toys with the meals? No way! Each child gets to keep the skin of the kitten she eats. While the meat is coated in a mixture of secret seasonings and then dunked in bubbling vegetable oil, a specially trained employee is mounting the kitten’s skin for the customer to take home. Johnny’s little calico is a treasure for years to come.
  • Think of the low overhead. The Humane Society is always whining about how there are too many kittens. KFK takes care of that problem and provides delicious, nutritious meals in the process. (It may even be possible to charge the Humane Society for taking the kittens of their hands!) This is a meal that even Bob Barker would be proud to eat.
  • This is an opportunity for people to have closer contact with the food they eat. You always hear people preaching the importance of this, but do you ever see it put into practice? Now you will!

As you can see, this is a revolutionary concept, and the franchise opportunities are endless (as are the potential profits). I need to do some more brainstorming — you can help — before I move on to a business plan, but I think we’re close to a go here. I’m thinking of brining in Ken Lay as CEO.

Kentucky Fried Kitten: coming soon to a street corner near you.

Mmmmm…Finger-lickin’ good!