Saturday, March 29, 2008


Last night, we attended the world’s only 3D stereo planetarium at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. In the 120 seat oval theater Shawn Laatsch, the planetarium director, gave us a personal tour of the universe, starting with the stars in the Hawaiian sky, zooming out to the Earth, the Moon, through the solar system, beyond one light year, (the farthest we have sent any object from earth), and then out hundreds of millions of light years from Earth. Objects in space are being charted at an astonishing rate using new telescope technologies and Astronomers are creating databases of the contents of the universe allowing us to see the objects and formations in 3 dimensions. The Big Island is rapidly rising in stature in the international Astronomy world due to the published discoveries using the world class optical telescopes on Mauna Kea’s summit and the quickly shrinking viewing opportunities from telescopes elsewhere due to light pollution. In support of the telescopes, all street lights on the Big Island have been replaced with dark sky light fixtures, the road to Mauna Kea summit has been improved, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy provides a visitor’s center and residences at 9000 feet for Astronomers and those supporting the telescopes to access the telescopes at 14,000 feet atop Mauna Kea.

It’s not just the cosmos tours of the most up to date discoveries, it’s access to Astronomers in the audience to answer any question you might have, and colloquia’s by visiting Astronomers. Tonight’s colloquia featured Dr. Mike Brown a Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech who is in town waiting for the clouds to clear on Mauna Kea to get time on the Keck telescope. Dr. Brown is best known for his discovery of Eris, an object larger than Pluto and resulting in demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet status. Keck’s optical pictures are far superior to Hubble due to its adaptive optics, drawing Dr. Brown and other prominent Astronomers to the island.

Hilo and nearby Waimea are headquarters for the international Gemini Observatory and Joint Astronomy Center, the Smithsonian Observatory, Japan’s Subaru Observatory, the University of Hawaii Observatories, the Caltech Submillimeter Array, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Keck.

The confluence of the Observatory activities and the University of Hawaii Hilo (UHH) Astronomy degree programs has resulted in a massive number of projects, grants, and activities in Hilo related to Astronomy and space travel. Hilo residents have created the AstroDay Institute and the Ellison Onizuka Space Science Day. The Hawaiian Astronomical Society and the world-class ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center provide classes and events that allow Astronomers to show off their stuff and attract a new generation of scientists drawn to the excitement in the field.

UHH hosts Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), a joint project of Japan and the US to develop technologies that enable humans to sustain life on another planet; UHH faculty and students are involved in the All-sky High Resolution Air shower (ASHRA) detector program which studies cosmic radiation; UHH is participating in the development of the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) asteroid detection system. This is only a sampling of Astronomy and research happening in Hilo.

The Big Island of Hawaii is the heart of Astronomy and is fast becoming the future space research center where Hawaii’s deep understanding of surviving disasters combined with the Hawaiian culture of exploration and navigation to a new land may be keys to mankind’s success in space travel.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


While living in Silicon Valley I joined investor groups to learn the fundamentals of how to invest. The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) is a great organization that arms individuals with information and tools to invest in stocks. Joining the local group, I was able to learn from 70 and 80 year old investors that had been living off their investments for 20 or more years. Their understanding of the market and in some cases their painful learning experiences were a great gift to me. What I learned in the meetings and tutorials I attended over two years created the basis of my investment plan.

In the group, the younger investors (50 to 60 year olds) had been putting their assets into the Chinese stock market through individual stocks and other instruments. Their initial investments had performed incredibly well, so they had expanded their investment, in some cases up to 50% of their total assets, into the Chinese economy. I wondered how we could believe in capitalism and free enterprise and at the same time invest in a totalitarian government. Is our return on investment more important than our values?

Did the fast money in Silicon Valley made by juicing startups into IPOs and using exotic financial instruments destroy our belief in free enterprise being the engine to create wealth? They said the dollar is weak and that the US government no longer supports fast growth allowing them to generate the money they needed for retirement. But the fundamentals of capitalism, freedom, and free enterprise are not about the value of the dollar; they are about supporting an environment where we are free to retain the wealth we create by generating value in a free market.

Is the future of investment that if a totalitarian regime or despotic dictator gives us a better return, we will invest our money there instead of a company that creates great products and services, takes care of their employees and their community and the environment?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hawaii Real Estate: What is Really going on??

Realtors and Home Mortgage brokers in Hawaii have been congratulating themselves on the low foreclosure rate in Hawaii and the housing prices holding rather than slumping as they are on the mainland. "I think fundamentally it's kind of different here because the different ethnic groups have more of an obligation here to make the payments people here are not willing to just walk away," said Donald Lau, president of the Hawaii Mortgage Brokers Association.

But the reality is that Hawaii had a 142% increase in published foreclosures in Feb 2008 over Feb 2007 and there is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue. Hawaii’s foreclosure rate is only low compared to other states, based on RealtyTrac’s measurement, the measurement of choice by the Hawaii Mortgage Brokers Association. But Hawaii’s unusual foreclosure laws in most cases create no public record of the foreclosure or intermediate events such as default notices, auction notices, and bank repossessions which RealtyTrac and use to count foreclosures.

The drastic downturn in Hawaii real estate prices in the early 1990’s, mostly due to the collapse of the Japanese economy, resulted in Hawaii rewriting foreclosure laws to expedite the process and minimize abandoned properties. Two primary aspects of foreclosure law in Hawaii are unique from most states on the mainland: 1) there is no recourse for the original property owner after a foreclosure goes through. In other states, like California, the original property owner can reclaim the property for some period of time after the foreclosure adding risk to foreclosure buyers; 2) Hawaii has streamlined the foreclosure process so that the owner can give up the property without requiring legal intervention (non-judicial foreclosure). As a result, the transaction is almost completely transparent and unable to be counted. Recently, a bill was proposed to the Hawaii legislature to provide transparency into non-judicial foreclosures, which today have no way of being tracked.

Banks and mortgage companies such as Countrywide, Citibank, Indymac, Chase, Fannie Mae have their Hawaiian repro properties stashed on individual web pages or in some cases spread out among many realtors that are advertising the repros (REOs, short sales) along with other properties. Hawaii Information Service has changed their format seemingly to mask the number of for-sales in heavy hit regions of Hawaii. Zooming into their new google-map shows that a couple of dots near Kona represent a massive number of fire sales.

Hawaii is also being impacted by demographics. It has the greatest percentage of elderly of any state in the US. The elderly in many cases need to sell their homes and this will likely drive down the cost of housing. At the same time the young people in Hawaii are moving to the mainland in record numbers.

The reality is there is no way of knowing Hawaii’s foreclosure rate or comparing it to other states. What we do know is that foreclosures are happening and Hawaii is not as insulated from slumping prices and oversupply as realtors’ may lead you to believe.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Staggering Deflation

Standing in line in to check out of our hotel in Waikiki last week, five people in front of us had their credit cards bounce. The clerk initially assumed the machine was broken, but realized the guests with their 20 page bills had exceeded their credit card limits.

Everyone is expecting that the Fed’s lowering of interest rates and creating money to ease the bank credit crisis and fund the war in Iraq will cause inflation. But in reality the Fed would have to line the east coast with printing presses to print enough money to replace the estimated 11 trillion dollars created during the housing bubble and the additional 5 trillion dollars already lost in the world’s stock markets. As the economy moves into hyper-shrinkage, people are having their lines of credit frozen and their assets are becoming debts. This huge economic shrinkage will likely result in staggering deflation rather than inflation.

Surprisingly, the huge influx of money into the economy due to the housing bubble didn’t cause inflation because people spent most of their newly created wealth on goods from China with its new low-cost manufacturing infrastructure. The few things they bought in the US, like housing and vacations did inflate as we saw hotel prices go way up in Hawaii. The deflation we would have seen in 2002 as a result of the economic downturn was masked by the housing bubble and hid the extent of the real problems in the US economy. Unfortunately, the housing bubble resulted in an increase in bubble jobs while manufacturing and tech jobs continued to be moved overseas.

It seems everyone is focused on the housing bubble and not on what is next. The Fed’s cure to deflation, rapidly dropping interest rates, will make stocks a better investment. But what are the implications of having a large percentage of Americans declare bankruptcy? And what are the implications of people having their credit frozen and suddenly having to live within their means?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Can Boomers Afford to Live in the US?

Having a global economic meltdown limits opportunity at any time but being a boomer puts into question whether rejoining the job market or doing another startup will be an option in a meaningful timeframe. Downsizing our family expenses is our tactic while waiting for the answer.

We started downsizing our expenses in California, based on our Silicon Valley startup post acquisition feeling of job insecurity. We sold our house, gave away and sold 3/4 of our belongings, and moved to a small apartment in Silicon Valley. That move resulted in a number of our expenses going away: house insurance, property taxes, lawn maintenance, house cleaning and upkeep, and lowered our gasoline costs. Although our rent in Silicon Valley was higher (for a cramped and noisy apartment) than our mortgage in Santa Cruz county, we got clear of our impending ARM reset.

We moved to Hilo, Hawaii this past November after determining we could further downsize our expenses while recreating ourselves. Our downsizing results in Hilo so far are: rent lowered by 55% (for a far superior living situation in Hilo), our cable & internet services being lowered by 49%, our life insurance being lowered by 59%, and our COBRA being replaced by a family medical insurance plan 58% lower in cost. We find fish and produce is fresher and less expensive in Hilo than California (which is not necessarily the case elsewhere in Hawaii or even elsewhere on the Big Island). Although restaurants are more affordable in Hilo, we don’t eat out much since we now have time to cook.

Our downsizing has halved our yearly run rate to $60,000 (after taxes). This level of downsizing took us two years and a sizable investment in moving and stress to accomplish. We are confident we can downsize more by lowering our housing costs and using solar power, but we also expect a rapid rise in prices to reflect the increase in oil, perhaps ultimately reaching double digit inflation. We aren’t sure we will be able to downsize enough to be sustainable in this rapidly declining US economy and we aren’t sure we will be able to generate additional income.

We, like many boomers have no pension coming and our social security may go to nil by the time we are 65 since the government calculates the payment based on the last 15 years of salary which in our case could be all zeros. So we are left to create our yearly run rate completely from our investments and any future income. A $75,000 pre-tax income, would require $1.5 million in cash to generate, assuming 5% interest .

Watching the current US economic market collapse, lack of secure investment opportunities and employment rapidly evaporating we wonder if there will be greater opportunities for us and our resources in other economies.

Friday, March 7, 2008

To: Silicon Valley Solar Energy Startups

Solar energy startups may well fuel the next Silicon Valley boom and I am all for it! It is great to think about VC dollars and nights and weekends of entrepreneurs being used to support sustainability and to free us from our oil addiction and save us from John McCain’s “100 year war”. But please, remember the lessons learned by the software and systems start-ups of yore. Don’t try and boil the ocean – instead - create a solution for the lowly person like me, sitting in Hilo, Hawaii with an 875 watt Sony laptop and an electric bill that is already high and soon to climb to the stratosphere with the rising price of oil.

Today a medium priced solar panel provides about 185 watts and requires that I cobble together a solution with panels, daisy chained batteries, inverters and controllers. Translating solar power output to electronic device wattage speak is impossible. I need a solar solution that is portable (not 4 or more hard panels that I have to install on the roof of my rental house) to power my laptop. I want an integrated, turnkey system and best practices to go with it. We learned when creating complex IT software and systems, the best sellers were the products that installed easily and had interfaces that the common person could understand.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


We moved to Silicon Valley in 1996. It was a hotbed of excitement, new technology, and the smartest people I have ever met from all around the globe. Our project meetings were like the United Nations with brilliant people of every color and nationality. We were heady with the excitement over our latest revolutionary technology product and the prospect of customers using it. Silicon Valley was a wondrous place to be for a techie. At that same time, the outskirts of town had cheap housing, the salaries were high, and Techies were considered and treated as the most important asset of every big and small tech company in the valley.

Those days have ended as the jobs slowly moved overseas. First testing jobs, then coding, then designing, then managing, and finally architecting the software and hardware products. Lower labor costs were initially valued over experience or locality. Now, Asian workers have gained the experience and most corporate services have co-located with them in their countries. I am not saying it wasn’t a good idea to move the jobs to Asia, nor that the world's software products aren’t better off being developed and maintained in Asia; I think they might be. But those wonderous days of Techies being king in Silicon Valley are over.

Sure, internet jobs have sprung up, but they don’t pay as well. Housing and rents have gone up (even with the downtown they are still over double what they were in 1996) and the cost of living has quadrupled. The jobs are geared for the younger set that never knew a world without the internet, game consoles and cell phones.

As a sit in Hilo, Hawaii, connected to the whole world through my high speed internet service, I wonder what value an old information technology worker is to the world today. What grand new opportunities will these new global information tools offer to once again generate the heady excitement of creating solutions for the issues of the day?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Volcano in Hilo, Hawaii

The latest eruption of Kilauea is finally getting national attention. The photos of the lava flows through the old Royal Gardens subdivision are incredible. The flows have moved all the way down to a flat area above the ocean. At this rate it could hit the ocean at any time. Perhaps this activity is the reason for the uptick in tourism this January 2008 versus Janauary 2007.
But the fact that the vog (volcanic smog) has reached Oahu is the other reason for the attention. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is pouring out of vents on the summit of Kilauea; the Pu'u' O'o vent is one of the biggest emitters. Our small population in Hilo, though under a sulfur dioxide cloud for days last month, did not cause the stir that the air quality in Oahu is now getting. I have seen vog before, but never anything as thick as what we have seen recently. It looks like smog and completely hides our view (see the picture on my Feb 16 post). Right now the tradewinds have picked up, so Hilo is completely clear, presumably plastering Maui and Oahu with vog. SO2 is known to cause cooling in large quanities. It is interesting that our temperatures are in the low 60 degrees (F) here, much cooler than I expected in February.
The latest USGS updates reporting an increase in seismic activity, increased SO2, and inflating of the Pu'u' O'o indicates the volcano action may have just begun.