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December 30, 2005

'If you meet her again, she'll be the last thing you'll see'

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So reads the cover of Mark Burnell's first thriller, "The Rhythm Section."

I first heard of Burnell in a review in The Economist of the latest (fourth) book in his series featuring Stephanie Patrick, aka Petra Reuter and whomever else she needs to be to accomplish her missions.

The reviewer recommended going back to the first and then reading them in sequence.

Excellent idea.

I just finished the third, entitled "Gemini," right on the heels of the second, "Chameleon."

Long story short: Stephanie is a college student in England whose life is turned upside down when her parents, brother and sister are killed in a plane crash in the late 1990s.

She spirals downward into a hell of grief and pain, turning to drugs, drink and prostitution to try to numb herself.

Near death, she happens to bump into an investigative reporter who's making his rounds in her section of London.

He tells her that he has conclusive evidence that the crash was not the result of an accident but, rather, a terrorist bomb.

The news galvanizes Stephanie, who slowly and painfully extricates herself from her death spiral and begins to plan revenge on those who murdered her parents.

She is instead drawn, against her wishes, into a netherworld of black ops and eventually forced to join Magenta House, a shadowy British organization whose charter begins where those of MI5 and MI6 end.

As such, she is trained to become one of the world's most dangerous assassins, drawn deep into a mirror world of espionage where deniability isn't necessary since there is nothing to deny — the agency she works for doesn't exist in a normal sense.

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Over the course of the three books I've read so far Stephanie's character deepens and becomes increasingly intriguing, primarily because of the dichotomy between her real world identity of Stephanie Patrick and her operational one as Petra Reuter.

Suffice it to say Petra is a cold–blooded assassin with incredible skills and fearlessless along with a willingness to absorb frightening punishment and pain and continue to function with an almost insane singlemindedness to complete her mission.

The author's attention to the nuances of her personality and her wish to love and be loved and her simultaneous recognition that it is impossible for her to do so, split as she is to her very core, makes this heroine most subtle and complex and interesting.

The details of the places, people and weaponry, along with the tradecraft involved in creating aliases and one–time–use identities down to their tiniest particulars, are extremely absorbing.

I'm saving the last book in the series, "The Third Woman," for a few weeks from now, so I have something to really anticipate.

From the books:

    "Chameleon":

    Petra's was never a large profession. Sure, you can find a killer on a street corner in the run–down district of any city. You can even find self-styled assassins relatively easily; in the Balkans, or the Middle East, you can't move for enthusiastic amateurs. But those of us who formed the elite numbered no more than a dozen. Our backgrounds were diverse but we were united by the quality of our manufacture.

    I used to imagine meeting other members of the club. I pictured us sitting around a table in a restaurant, trading industry secrets, putting faces to names, assessing the competition. I'd hear gossip from time to time. Usually from Stern, the information broker, who'd offer a morsel in the hope that I would pay for something juicier.

    When I was Petra Reuter, none of the concerns of Stephanie Patrick affected me. Nor did any of the issues surrounding my profession. I didn't worry about morality. I worried about efficiency. I didn't worry about the target. If I was offered the contract, he or she was already dead because if I didn't accept the work, somebody else would. When I looked through a telescopic sight, or into the eyes of the victim, I never saw a person. I never thought about the money, either; that came later. Instead, I was always thinking... would any of the others have done this better than me?

    ********************

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    "Gemini":

    I don't bother trying to pick a fight. In the past I would have. And Alexander would have expected me to. But we're beyond that now. These days I know what I am and I don't bother to deny it. I've accepted myself. I'm a professional woman of twenty–nine, trying to balance my work with my private life. On the Underground, in the supermarket, at home or in the office, most of my concerns are the same as everyone else's. It's only the nature of my work that marks me out.

    Upstairs, on the ground floor, I run into Rosie Chaudhuri. I haven't seen her since she came to Maclise Road after Marrakech. The fact that we're friends is strange because we're so different. She truly believes in Magenta House. She heads S10, Operations (Invisible), the newest section, which was established afer the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. S10 leaves no traces. Its victims die from natural causes, or accidents, or they simply vanish, ensuring they don't become martyrs. Among Magenta House staff, S10 is always referred to as the Ether Division.

    Rosie's parents are both first–generation immigrants. Both are doctors, both still practising; her mother is a GP, her father is a chest specialist. They live in north London and have three other children, all boys. Two work in the City, one shoots commercials. None of them has any idea what she does. Like me, she lies. Like me, she's so good at it, it's as natural to her as telling the truth. They believe she's a security analyst at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London. Elsewhere it might seem strange that a young second–generation Indian woman is heading an outfit like the Ether Division. But in our world it seems perfectly normal because we can be anybody we need to be at any given moment.

********************

I just checked Amazon U.S. and for some bizarre reason Burnell's first book ["The Rhythm Section"] is priced at $80 and up, probably because it's out of print in this country.

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If you'd like to read it, order it from Amazon Canada where it's $10 (Canadian).

December 30, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Rump Guard™ Protective Back Pocket Tool Organizer

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"Nothing sends a good pair of jeans into retirement like treating the back pocket as a tool holster."

'Nuff sed.

$11.99 here.

December 30, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MetaCritic — 'We deal with criticism'

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What's this?

It's a new website that assigns a score from 1 to 100 for each review of a new book, CD, TV show, movie or videogame.

They average the numbers and give extra weight to more influential publications.

Here's the touch I like: They use a green, yellow or red background for the numerical scores so that you can weed out the stinkers at a glance, even without your spectacles.

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See, it's like traffic lights: green means go, yellow means think about it, and red means no way.

You don't need a weather man to know what color the traffic signal is.

Wait a minute — that's not right....

Quotes from reviews are included along with links to the full individual reviews if available.

[via Sam Schechner and the Wall Street Journal]

December 30, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ice Mat

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From the website:

    Ice Mat is a cooler's best friend!

    Filled with purified water, this wafer-thin mat takes up little room, and stays frozen much longer than ice cubes!

    Flexible enough to wrap around bottles or odd-sized containers, or lay flat.

    Foods and beverages stay ice-cold; no messy melting inside your cooler.

    Also great for picnic baskets and lunch totes.

    Re-usable. 15-1/4" L x 9-1/2" W.

Kewl.

$5.98 here.

December 30, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

bookofjoe's eBay adventure

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This morning I was just sitting here, doing something close to nothing... when I decided I'd check on the Pop Art Nun Bun auction, now in day 4 of 7.

The top bid is currently $285, up from $170 when we last visited the seller.

Then I got to thinking: maybe it's time to stop giving valuable stuff away, like the four iPods that I bought at retail and then gave to various and sundry friends after each one froze repeatedly while I was out running with them.

So I thought to myself, why not try selling something on eBay?

I've purchased things there: click on the graphic up top for my eBay history, 10 items bid on or purchased via "Buy it now."

See what a good customer I am?

The one auction I do recall winning was for a Philip Treacy hat, back in 2003.

Nice hat.

You can even leave it on, if you like.

Wait a minute....

While I'm here, let me ask you a question: what do you think of the practice I've developed lately of inserting a link to song lyrics when I come upon a phrase or word that drops a penny in my memory bank?

Does it annoy you?

Amuse you?

It amuses me so that's why I do it — I mean, I ought to have some say in how things are around here.

Shouldn't I?

Anyway.

I was reading last week that eBay is a wonderful seller's — as opposed to buyer's — market: only 5% of eBay's users are sellers, while fully 95% are buyers.

That's astounding.

Especially when you read the stories every so often of how people are willing to pay more — sometimes way, way more — than something is worth once they get into an auction for it.

Well, guess what: I found out this morning why that lopsided 5% v 95% ratio exists.

It took me fully 45 minutes to get into my eBay and PayPal accounts, update my email and passwords and credit card information, and simply view what I'd done on both sites in the past.

For your interest, I opened my eBay account back on December 10, 2001 (top) — a few months after I acquired the very first computer I ever owned (a blue cathode–ray tube iMac), I think in September of that year.

But I digress.

The user experience on both eBay and PayPal was horrible. (eBay owns PayPal.)

Painful, slow, tedious, annoying.

On a scale of 0-10, with Amazon being 10, I rate the eBay/PayPal websites at 1.

The only reason I don't give them a 0 is because neither site crashed while I was doing my business — though they're both plenty slow.

Anyway, I am going to go ahead and try to sell something on eBay just to see if a TechnoDolt™ can do it.

The item?

A Panasonic portable DVD player, model LX-8 (below).

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I purchased it earlier this year thinking I'd maybe watch movies on it when I was in my hotel room in Richmond during my anesthesia delivery visits.

But when I was there I had no interest in watching a DVD; I'd rather read.

So the device is right here, along with all the instructions, warranty cards, in the box.

It works: I tried it.

I paid, if I remember correctly, $900 for it; I recall getting it just after it came out.

I'm sure the price is much lower today.

Hey — I've got an idea... let's look!

You can see for yourself here.

Ignore the really low prices because they're fake; the lowest price on Froogle for a brand–new (not "refurbished") one is $541 here.

The highest price I could find is $999 here.

The person who'd buy it there is the one I want in my upcoming auction.

Yes, I'm gonna do it: the next time I feel like banging my head against a wall for while, instead I'm gonna try to set up a seller's auction for my DVD player.

I have no doubt it will be a major pain in the butt, what with the extreme degree of difficulty required just to get up to speed on what already existed.

But I'm nothing if not persistent.

As I think you've learned — either to your delight or dismay — in the time we've been together.

December 30, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

World's most beautiful toilet plunger

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$49.50 here.

December 30, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

War Plan Red: The Secret U.S. Plan to Invade Canada

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No, you haven't ended up on The Onion's website — the above is the subject of Peter Carlson's front–page story in today's Washington Post Style section.

War Plan Red was created in 1930, updated during the 1930s, and finally declassified in 1974.

But wait — it gets even better.

Turns out that Canada wasn't just sitting there like a bump on a pickle: back in 1921 they'd developed a plan to invade the U.S.

Here's the sensational article:

    Raiding the Icebox

    Behind Its Warm Front, the United States Made Cold Calculations to Subdue Canada

    Invading Canada won't be like invading Iraq: When we invade Canada, nobody will be able to grumble that we didn't have a plan.

    The United States government does have a plan to invade Canada. It's a 94-page document called "Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan -- Red," with the word SECRET stamped on the cover.

    It's a bold plan, a bodacious plan, a step-by-step plan to invade, seize and annex our neighbor to the north.

    It goes like this:

    First, we send a joint Army-Navy overseas force to capture the port city of Halifax, cutting the Canadians off from their British allies.

    Then we seize Canadian power plants near Niagara Falls, so they freeze in the dark.

    Then the U.S. Army invades on three fronts -- marching from Vermont to take Montreal and Quebec, charging out of North Dakota to grab the railroad center at Winnipeg, and storming out of the Midwest to capture the strategic nickel mines of Ontario.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy seizes the Great Lakes and blockades Canada's Atlantic and Pacific ports.

    At that point, it's only a matter of time before we bring these Molson-swigging, maple-mongering Zamboni drivers to their knees!

    Or, as the official planners wrote, stating their objective in bold capital letters: "ULTIMATELY TO GAIN COMPLETE CONTROL."

    * * *

    It sounds like a joke but it's not.

    War Plan Red is real.

    It was drawn up and approved by the War Department in 1930, then updated in 1934 and 1935.

    It was declassified in 1974 and the word "SECRET" crossed out with a heavy pencil.

    Now it sits in a little gray box in the National Archives in College Park, available to anybody, even Canadian spies.

    They can photocopy it for 15 cents a page.

    War Plan Red was actually designed for a war with England.

    In the late 1920s, American military strategists developed plans for a war with Japan (code name Orange), Germany (Black), Mexico (Green) and England (Red).

    The Americans imagined a conflict between the United States (Blue) and England over international trade: "The war aim of RED in a war with BLUE is conceived to be the definite elimination of BLUE as an important economic and commercial rival."

    In the event of war, the American planners figured that England would use Canada (Crimson) -- then a quasi-pseudo-semi-independent British dominion -- as a launching pad for "a direct invasion of BLUE territory."

    That invasion might come overland, with British and Canadian troops attacking Buffalo, Detroit and Albany.

    Or it might come by sea, with amphibious landings on various American beaches -- including Rehoboth and Ocean City, both of which were identified by the planners as "excellent" sites for a Brit beachhead.

    The planners anticipated a war "of long duration" because "the RED race" is "more or less phlegmatic" but "noted for its ability to fight to a finish."

    Also, the Brits could be reinforced by "colored" troops from their colonies: "Some of the colored races however come of good fighting stock, and, under white leadership, can be made into very efficient troops."

    The stakes were high: If the British and Canadians won the war, the planners predicted, "CRIMSON will demand that Alaska be awarded to her."

    Imagine that! Canada demanding a huge chunk of U.S. territory!

    Them's fightin' words!

    And so the American strategists planned to fight England by seizing Canada. (Also Jamaica, Barbados and Bermuda.)

    And they didn't plan to give them back.

    "Blue intentions are to hold in perpetuity all CRIMSON and RED territory gained," Army planners wrote in an appendix to the war plan.

    "The policy will be to prepare the provinces and territories of CRIMSON and RED to become states and territories of the BLUE union upon the declaration of peace."

    ***

    None of this information is new.

    After the plan was declassified in 1974, several historians and journalists wrote about War Plan Red.

    But still it remains virtually unknown on both sides of the world's largest undefended border.

    "I've never heard of it," said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute in Washington, which thinks about Canada.

    "I remember sort of hearing about this," said Bernard Etzinger, spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

    "It's the first I've heard of it," said David Courtemanche, mayor of Sudbury, Ontario, whose nickel mines were targeted in the war plan.

    Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he'd never heard of the plan.

    He also said he wouldn't admit to knowing about such a plan if he did.

    "We don't talk about any of our contingency plans," he said.

    Has the Pentagon updated War Plan Red since the '30s?

    "The Defense Department never talks about its contingency plans for any countries," Whitman said.

    "We don't acknowledge which countries we have contingency plans for."

    Out in Winnipeg -- the Manitoba capital, whose rail yards were slated to be seized in the plan -- Brad Salyn, the city's director of communications, said he didn't think Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz knew anything about War Plan Red: "You know he would have no clue about what you're talking about, eh?"

    "I'm sure Winnipeggers will stand up tall in defense of our country," Mayor Katz said later. "We have many, many weapons."

    What kind of weapons?

    "We have peashooters, slingshots and snowballs," he said, laughing.

    But the Canadians' best weapon, Katz added, is their weather.

    "It gets to about minus-50 Celsius with a wind chill," he said.

    "It will be like Napoleon's invasion of Russia. I'm quite convinced that you'll meet your Waterloo on the banks of the Assiniboine River."

    ***

    As it turns out, Katz isn't the first Canadian to speculate on how to fight the U.S.A.

    In fact, Canadian military strategists developed a plan to invade the United States in 1921 -- nine years before their American counterparts created War Plan Red.

    The Canadian plan was developed by the country's director of military operations and intelligence, a World War I hero named James Sutherland "Buster" Brown.

    Apparently Buster believed that the best defense was a good offense: His "Defence Scheme No. 1" called for Canadian soldiers to invade the United States, charging toward Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle and Great Falls, Mont., at the first signs of a possible U.S. invasion.

    "His plan was to start sending people south quickly because surprise would be more important than preparation," said Floyd Rudmin, a Canadian psychology professor and author of "Bordering on Aggression: Evidence of U.S. Military Preparations Against Canada," a 1993 book about both nations' war plans.

    "At a certain point, he figured they'd be stopped and then retreat, blowing up bridges and tearing up railroad tracks to slow the Americans down."

    Brown's idea was to buy time for the British to come to Canada's rescue.

    Buster even entered the United States in civilian clothing to do some reconnaissance.

    "He had a total annual budget of $1,200," said Rudmin, "so he himself would drive to the areas where they were going to invade and take pictures and pick up free maps at gas stations."

    Rudmin got interested in these war plans in the 1980s when he was living in Kingston, Ontario, just across the St. Lawrence River from Fort Drum, the huge Army base in Upstate New York.

    Why would the Americans put an Army base in such a wretched, frigid wilderness? he wondered.

    Could it be there to . . . fight Canada?

    He did some digging.

    He found "War Plan Red" and "Defence Scheme No. 1."

    At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., he found a 1935 update of War Plan Red, which specified which roads to use in the invasion ("The best practicable route to Vancouver is via Route 99").

    Rudmin also learned about an American plan from 1935 to build three military airfields near the Canadian border and disguise them as civilian airports.

    The secret scheme was revealed after the testimony of two generals in a closed-door session of the House Military Affairs Committee was published by mistake.

    When the Canadian government protested the plan, President Franklin Roosevelt reassured it that he wasn't contemplating war.

    The whole brouhaha made the front page of the New York Times on May 1, 1935.

    That summer, however, the Army held what were the biggest war games in American history on the site of what is now Fort Drum, Rudmin said.

    Is he worried that the Yanks will invade his country from Fort Drum?

    "Not now ," he said.

    "Now the U.S. is kind of busy in Iraq. But I wouldn't put it past them."

    He's not paranoid, he hastened to add, and he doesn't think the States will simply invade Canada the way Hitler invaded Russia.

    But if some kind of crisis -- perhaps something involving the perennially grumpy French Canadians -- destabilized Canada, then . . . well, Fort Drum is just across the river.

    "We most certainly are not preparing to invade Canada," said Ben Abel, the official spokesman for Fort Drum.

    The fort, he added, is home to the legendary 10th Mountain Division, which is training for its third deployment in Afghanistan.

    There are also 1,200 Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

    "I find it very hard to believe that we'd be planning to invade Canada," Abel said.

    "We have a lot of Canadian soldiers training here. I bumped into a Canadian officer in the bathroom the other day."

    ***

    Invading Canada is an old American tradition.

    Invading Canada successfully is not.

    During the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold -- then in his pre-traitor days -- led an invasion of Canada from Maine.

    It failed.

    During the War of 1812, American troops invaded Canada several times.

    They were driven back.

    In 1839, Americans from Maine confronted Canadians in a border dispute known as the Aroostook War.

    "There were never any shots fired," said Etzinger, the Canadian Embassy spokesman, "but I think an American cow was injured -- and a Canadian pig."

    In 1866, about 800 Irish Americans in the Fenian Brotherhood decided to strike a blow for Irish independence by invading Canada.

    They crossed the Niagara River into Ontario, where they defeated a Canadian militia.

    But when British troops approached, the Fenians fled back to the United States, where many were arrested.

    After that, Americans stopped invading Canada and took up other hobbies, such as invading Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Grenada and, of course, Iraq.

    But the dream of invading Canada lives on in the American psyche, occasionally manifesting itself in bizarre ways.

    Movies, for instance.

    In the 1995 movie "Canadian Bacon," the U.S. president, played by Alan Alda, decides to jump-start the economy by picking a fight with Canada.

    His battle cry: "Surrender pronto or we'll level Toronto."

    In the 1999 movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," Americans, angered that their kids have been corrupted by a pair of foulmouthed, flatulent Canadian comedians, go to war.

    Canada responds by sending its air force to bomb the Hollywood home of the Baldwin brothers -- a far more popular defensive strategy than anything Buster Brown devised.

    Moviegoers left theaters humming the film's theme:

    Blame Canada! Blame Canada!
    With all their hockey hullabaloo
    And that bitch Anne Murray too!
    Blame Canada! Shame on Canada!

    But it's not just movies.

    The urge to invade Canada comes in myriad forms.

    In 2002, the conservative magazine National Review published an essay called "Bomb Canada: The Case for War."

    The author, Jonah Goldberg, suggested that the United States "launch a quick raid into Canada" and blow something up -- "perhaps an empty hockey stadium."

    That would cause Canada to stop wasting its money on universal health insurance and instead fund a military worthy of the name, so that "Canada's neurotic anti-Americanism would be transformed into manly resolve."

    And let's not forget the Web site http://invadecanada.us, which lists many compelling reasons for doing do: "let's make Alaska actually connected to the U.S. again!" and "they're just a little too proud" and "the surrender will come quickly, they're French after all."

    The site also sells T-shirts, buttons, teddy bears and thong underwear, all of them decorated with the classic picture of Uncle Sam atop the slogan "I WANT YOU to Invade Canada."

    What's going on here?

    Why do Americans love to joke about invading Canada?

    Because Americans see Canadians as goody-goodies, said Biette, the Canada Institute director.

    Canadians didn't rebel against the British, remaining loyal colonial subjects.

    They didn't have a Wild West, settling their land without the kind of theatrical gunfights that make for good movies.

    And they like to hector us about our misbehavior.

    "We're 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' and they're 'peace, order and good government,' " Biette said.

    "So if you're a wild American, you look at them and say, 'They're just a bunch of Boy Scouts.' "

    ***

    Canadians are well aware of our invasion talk.

    Not surprisingly, they take it a bit more seriously than we do.

    When "The West Wing" had a subplot last winter about a U.S.-Canada border incident, Canadian newspapers took note.

    When Jon Stewart joked about invading Canada on "The Daily Show" last March, Canadian newspapers covered the story.

    When the Toronto Star interviewed comedian Jimmy Kimmel last year, the reporter asked him: "Is it only a matter of time before America invades Canada?"

    "I'm not sure," Kimmel replied.

    In 2003, the Canadian army set up an Internet chat room where soldiers and civilians could discuss defense issues.

    "One of the hottest topics on the site discusses whether the U.S. will invade Canada to seize its natural resources," the Ottawa Citizen reported.

    "If the attack did come, Canada could rely on a scorched-earth policy similar to what Russia did when invaded by Nazi Germany, one participant recommends. 'With such emmense [sic] land, and with our cold climates, we may be able to hold them off, even though we have the much weaker military,' the individual concludes."

    Etzinger, the Canadian Embassy spokesman, isn't worried about an American invasion because Canada has a secret weapon -- actually thousands of secret weapons.

    "We've got thousands of Canadians in the U.S. right now, in place secretly," he said.

    "They could be on your street. We've sent people like Celine Dion and Mike Myers to secretly infiltrate American society."

    Pretty funny, Mr. Etzinger.

    But the strategists who wrote War Plan Red were prepared for that problem.

    They noted that "it would be necessary to deal internally" with the "large number" of Brits and Canadians living in the United States -- and also with "a small number of professional pacifists and communists."

    The planners did not specify exactly what would be done with those undesirables.

    But it would be kinda fun to see Celine Dion and Mike Myers wearing orange jumpsuits down in Guantanamo.

    Eh?

December 30, 2005 at 10:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Panic Mouse

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Great name, what?

From the website:

    Mouse Toy Provides Hours Of Entertainment For Your Cat

    This wacky mouse has a flexible "tail" that moves in random patterns, stimulating hunting instincts and keeping frisky felines guessing where it will go next.

    Adjustable height, speed and catnip-filled tassel add to the excitement.

I don't know about that claim of "hours of entertainment", though — it seems to me that most cats not on sedatives or tranquilizers would make mincemeat of this toy within a few minutes.

Requires three AA batteries (not included).

$24.95 here.

Great picture, too.

December 30, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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