Monday, December 26, 2011

Finished The Icarus Agenda

Sometimes I think I read a book simply because it's long, and I won't have to make a decision on what book to read next for awhile.  Of course I don't have to read a book, as far as that goes, but I've almost always got one going.  For awhile I had an "upstairs" book & a "downstairs" book, but the past few months I've only had the upstairs book, which I generally read in bed.  If they have lots of a pages with small type, like Robert Ludlum's Icarus Agenda, it's going to take me awhile.

I almost always finish the book, even when it requires trudging through.  Like this one.

I suppose this book would be described as a "thriller", no big surprise there.  It is very action oriented, with strong characters doing things most mortals would never dream of.  Strong is not always the same as believable.

Also par for the course is the whole set of assumptions behind the plot.  Its a book about conspiracies.  Not just run of the mill conspiracies, but several unrelated conspiracies by small groups of powerful people to control or influence countries, regions and economies.  And the hero that combats them.  That is essentially what the book is about, for pretty close to 700 pages.

Now where have I come across this plot line before?  Pretty much everywhere.   It's been done to death, and it had been done to death by 1987, when this book was written.

Anyway, I suspended disbelief for awhile and read the book. That's about all I can say about it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

There once was a gal from Nantucket.

I decided to break all the rules and write a clean "Nantucket" limerick.  Not sure why, but here goes.  And I feel the need to apologize in advance.

There once was a gal from Nantucket,
Who put all she had in a bucket.
She'd tote it around,
All over town,
Until she decided to chuck it.

That's all.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Chigger Fighter: A dream

From an NIH website:   Chiggers are tiny, six-legged wingless organisms (larvae) that grow up to become a type of mite. Chiggers are found in tall grass and weeds. Their bite causes severe itching.

I provided the definition because I don't know if chiggers exist in the great white north, I don't know if people in colder areas are familiar with them.  I've lived in the northern reaches of the USA and in Europe and I don't remember chiggers.  It could be that they don't survive places that have winters cold enough to kill off the bugs.  Or it could be that I was a little older and tended to wear shoes.   When I was a young child in Kentucky I spent a lot of time not wearing shoes, and I was very familiar with chiggers.  They're little critters you can't even see - and by the time you realize you've run into them, it's way too late. Nothing dangerous, but uncomfortable.

Anyway there was a person who was a free lance chigger fighter.  He waged war on them, but because of state regulations he was not allowed to kill them or cause them harm, at least not on purpose.  He had to have a chigger fighting license, attend a bi-annual week long chigger warfare refresher course, and provide a safe place place for the chiggers he captured.   He was subject to occasional inspections, and made the chiggers available for scientific study upon request.  The state government paid him a modest stipend for these services. 

He had constructed a chigger friendly habitat in a small room in a corner of his house.  He didn't know how many chiggers he had, but he could pick up their habitat with one hand, put it on some scales and see that it was slowly gaining weight, even accounting for the ones the state removed.  He scale was sensitive, to 1/100th of an ounce, and he often wished he could afford one that measured to 1/1000th of an ounce, but he couldn't justify the expense.

He lived in a small house out in the country, close to the road on a very sharp curve.  The curve was at least 200 years old, and the reason why there had to be such an unusually sharp curve at that exact point had long been lost to history, especially after the courthouse where all the county records were kept  burned down some 80 years earlier.   The locals new all about this curve and generally slowed down.  But every now and then someone would come along who didn't know the road, would ignore the signs or for some reason would take the curve too fast.  He had years of ruts in his yard from dozens of cars whose drivers failed to negotiate that curve in varying degrees of disaster.  Usually the cars didn't stop.

One evening - the classic dark and stormy night - a driver was driving much too fast, missed the curve completely and crashed through the wall of his chigger prison.  The collision smashed his chigger habitat.  There was nothing to be done - undoubtedly some chiggers were killed, but undoubtedly some, perhaps millions upon millions, had been set free - released into the environment, including his house.

The next few days were spent dealing with his home owners insurance, being interviewed by state chigger control officers, filling out the state required "Incident of Chigger Death" forms, and obtaining prescription antihistamines to deal with the itching.  Weeks after his house was repaired & his chigger habitat had been recreated, after having been denied permission to fumigate his house because the chiggers were deemed too valuable for research, he visited a neighbor, someone he knew would do a little bit of black market fumigation for a price.  He hated to, felt guilty in fact, but gracious those little buggers could bite and they reproduced quite nicely in a nice warm house with lots of nooks and crannies to hide in, faster than he could capture them.

He suffered through a mild depression for weeks because of everything that happened after that car crashed into his house, and because of the incessant itching. 

After the illegal fumigation he redoubled his chigger warfare efforts, so that at the inspectors would not be suspicious the next time they came around.  Also he got the county to install a guard rail on that curve, and the county managed to get it funded through a state chigger warfare subsidy grant.  Things returned to normal, and he continued his struggle against the chiggers. 

He lived a long life, and after his death a resolution initiated by his state representative was passed in his honor, a medal honoring his years of chigger fighting was issued posthumously,  his next of kin (a nephew who lived across the country and hadn't seen him in years) received a plaque and the state flag which flew over the state capitol building on the day the resolution was passed.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Eventide, Lake Wobegon & Holly Springs

I don't really like to write up the books I've read, but I do because somewhere in the back of my mind I feel like it's a good exercise.  However  when I read them I never think about what I'm going to write about them.  I read them as if I'm never going to think about them again once I'm done.  Usually that's not the case.  Usually I write something about them, then never think of them again.

Each one of these books deserve their own write up, but it's not going to happen this time.  So, I'll mix them all together somehow.

Eventide by Kent Haruf, Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor, & Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon all have settings in small towns & the areas just outside of them, though the locations, culture & traditions of these small towns were quite different.  Eventide is set in the Colorado plains, Lake Wobegon Days in Minnesota, & Holly Springs in northern Mississippi. 

Holly Springs is the only one of them that is actually a real location.  Lake Wobegon Days has some very funny parts, but it's much more than a humor book.  If you pick up that book expecting a laugh on every page, you'll be disappointed. Also, it's humor is quite sophisticated.    Eventide was probably the most "realistic" of the three.  They are very different books, all worth a read.

The small towns (and I do mean small) are the common thread for all three books.  They all capture an undercurrent of humanity that you will not see if you just notice the surface of things.  Anybody who has lived in a small town any length of time knows that there is more going on than meets the eye. 

Eventide is very good at capturing both the good and the horrors of a small town rural-ish area. There are people in this town who work hard and are fairly well off though not immune to the tragedies of life.  This books gives you a pretty good description of modern life on a ranch, raising and selling cattle.  And the horrors (my word) are because what the author describes is completely plausible & realistic.  Elderly people just hanging on, people who are just down right mean, alcoholics, abused children & social workers who have to deal with this, the upheaval that can be brought on by what is probably a very treatable & essentially minor mental illness, people who, if they were ever tested, might be considered retarded and are fairly incapable of dealing with the problems of life.  There is an undercurrent of dysfunction in which people still manage to function, at least at a certain level.  I dont want to scare anyone off this book - it's pretty good.  Much better than anything I'll ever write.

Lake Wobegon days creates a fictional town with fictional people from the days of it's founding as "New Albion" by Congregationalists from New England, to the arrival of Germans (who were Catholic) & finally the Norwegians, (who were Lutherans).  The history of the town, and the railroad that came to it accidentally is very detailed, so be prepared for that.  It was the Norwegians who became the majority and changed the town's name to Lake Wobegon, because they liked the sound of it.  The author creates all kinds of characters in all kinds of situations, and it's interesting in a town dominated by the Lutheran church & the Catholic church (Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility), the narrator grows up as a member of the  "Bretherns", a much more fundamentalist protestant sect, and a much smaller group, than the Lutherans.  My favortie part of the book is a chapter long footnote entitled "95 theses 95" which a recent emigre from Lake Wobegon, back for a visit, was going to nail 95 theses to the door of the Lutheran church.  He didn't because he could hear the Luther Leaguers inside and he was afraid someone would see him, and he was also afraid the nail might ruin a really good piece of wood.  So he slipped it under the door of the local newspaper office, where years later it remains on the editor's desk, even though it was never printed.  The editor is waiting for a slow news week, apparently.  The 95 theses were a "dramatic complaint about his upbrining", and details the engraining of a very inhibiting value system.   There is a lot of humor in the book, and it is used very well to capture that dysfunctional undercurrent of humanity that exists in every small town quite nicely.  I don't know if that is what the author was trying to do or not.

Home to Holly Springs is Jan Karon's first book in her "Father Tim" series.  Father Tim is an episcopalian priest and was the main character of her "Mitford" series of books, set in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  People believe it's loosely based on the mountain resort town of Blowing Rock, but I don't know.  However in this book Father Tim is returning to Holly Springs, Mississippi his boyhood home, & pretty much confronting his past.  Father Tim came from a fairly well-to-do family, and grew up in a large home outside of town, living in what was almost a World War II era version of plantation society.  The undercurrents that seem to be a common thread of these books come largely through Father Tim's flashbacks to his childhood.  The innocence of childhood and of small town life is illusory much of the time. (Always has been)  Things happen which the child is only semi-aware and which are never completely explained.  Life is both good and safe, dangerous and tenuous.  There are brutal people in the world.  Even when Father Tim is in the present, the undercurrent is there.  Most people he meets are nice enough, but some are living in difficult situations, some are gravely ill.

I've not done any of these books justice.  They're all worth reading.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Our eBay Month - Nov 2011

November was a very good eBay month for us, our best this year by far. 

Our postcard sales were better than average, and our photo sales (cabinet, cdv, snapshots, other antique photos) went through the roof.  We sold more photos this month than we have sold in any other month, by far.  We sold them in unheard of amounts, at least for us.  It was as if people suddenly discovered we sell photos.  I'm not sure why this was, maybe it was the holiday period, though none of the photos had a holiday theme.  Maybe it was domestic free shipping, but we've had that for a long time now.  So, we don't really know why sales spiked, which means there's nothing we can really reproduce to ensure continued sales.  So we'll do what we always do: list nice photos and describe them accurately,  price them reasonably, give free shipping to domestic USA address, package them up securely and get them mailed within one business day, and provide best customer service we can. 

November 2011 was the best month for us since December 2010, and even there, there is a caveat.  The only reason our gross in December 2010 was higher than last month was because of consignment sales.  Consignment sales accounted for 1/3rd or our total gross that month, and over half of our consignment sales was due to a sale of a fairly expensive item on the last day of the year.  Our net (which I see as our profit) for Dec 2010, was actually somewhat less than our net for November 2011.   You have to go back to July of 2009 to find a month where our net was higher than last month.  November was a good month.

And much of the July 2009 sales came via very strong consignment sales that month - it's funny, I can still remember what we were selling then.  Even though "Consignment" is still part of our store name, we don't really do consignment any more.

When sales go up, fees & expenses go up.  eBay charges a fee to list, a fee if an item sells, and a store subscription fee.  PayPal charges a fee when money is deposited into your account.  Fees get pricey.   Business expenses, especially postage, were quite high in November.  But I take the view that if the fees and expenses have increased, that means the sales have increased.  And the higher the sales, the over all less of a percentage expenses are.  This, by the way, is one reason large business can make a huge amount of money while small business struggle.  Just a little social commentary.

Our gross (and net) for Nov 2011 was almost twice as much as Nov 2010.   Interesting. 

Nov 2011 was a month of extremes.  On November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving, we had nothing to ship.  We were skunked - for the first time since sometime in 2009 we went a day without receiving any payments.  In the days that followed though, we set and then promptly broke a record (for us) for the amount of items shipped out in a single day. 

I've noticed we're getting quite a bit of repeat business - customers who buy things then return later and buy more.  In fact the repeat business has driven a lot of our sales, it's a good thing to have.

It's very hard to predict what sales will be.  October & November were very good months, July and August were terrible.  Back in 2008 there was a month when we actually lost money.  I have no idea how December will turn out, though right now it's looking pretty good.  We'll keep our fingers crossed.