Thursday, October 30, 2008


The site selection process for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has stirred up great controversy in Hawaii County. The process of an international group of scientists “deciding” where in the world to put their massive telescope, as though they have the power to put it anywhere they choose, has turned the TMT project into one of the key issues in the local election for the Mayor of Hawaii. Billy Kenoi is for the project and Angel Pilago is against it. The public dialog that has resulted from the TMT has left many of the supporters of astronomy in Hawaii wondering if their continued support is wise.

We applaud the amazing discoveries that the international astronomy community has made from their Mauna Kea telescopes and have considered ourselves one of the supporters of the many observatories in Hilo.

Last week we were at an “Astrotalk” at the University of Hawaii in Hilo to hear about the progress of the refurbishment of UHH’s Hoku Ke`a telescope atop Mauna Kea. The new director of the scope “entertained” us with the story of how he was able to get the base of the telescope building expanded beyond its current footprint against the advice of the engineers involved. The purpose of the story may have been to impress us with his will power and commitment. These traits would be important in the achievement of one of his goals which is the amazing feat of supporting a “local” in getting a PhD!

After the talk we felt compelled to express our distaste for his very low opinion of locals and inform him that there were already many “locals” with PhDs. We also explained that our understanding was that it was not legal for any refurbishment project on Mauna Kea to expand the footprint of the existing buildings by even one centimeter and that we expected him to learn about and follow the laws while director of the University Telescope. Another official of the University interrupted stating that it was irrelevant to insist that the laws be followed as “the people of Hilo would starve to death” if it were not for the “trickle down” economics coming from astronomy money spent in Hilo. This individual said he had been doing community outreach for the University for the last 20 years.

We left that meeting wondering what the benefit the town of Hilo was getting from having hundreds of astronomers living here and getting paid four times the average local salary. Are we really going to starve to death if all the telescopes on Mauna Kea are shut down?

We have come to think that the University of Hawaii community outreach person has it backwards. It is the astronomers that make the big salaries and gain international acclaim because of the sacrifices the people of this island of Hawaii are making to keep the sky dark at night for their telescopes.

It is the astronomers who will be unemployed and looking for work and food if these telescopes are shut down, not the “locals”.

Since moving to Hawaii we have been obsessive about making sure we help keep our light pollution down to support the astronomy efforts on Mauna Kea so it is a shock to discover how poorly we are thought of by the astronomy community and that they think they are doing our community of Hilo a favor rather than the other way around.

As the Thirty Meter Telescope issue rages on, those of us in Hilo that once sat on the fence about adding yet another telescope upon the fragile summit of Mauna Kea are wondering if it might be time to turn the porch lights up on high so the astronomers can get a better view of what the locals have been doing to support them and their income and acclaim over the last 20 years.

Here are some links to additional information:

Friday, October 24, 2008


From where we are living in Hilo Hawaii the current world financial crisis is as confusing to us as the California housing boom was in 2005. When the world around us makes no sense, we find ourselves compelled to adjust our life so that at least our financial situation makes sense to us. In 2005, while living in Silicon Valley we had a list of the things in the world that made no financial sense to us and we made dramatic personal changes in response. Now we find ourselves creating a new list of what makes no sense in this current worldwide financial bust and what we are going to do about it.

Here is our list from 2005 and 2006 in Silicon Valley:

· It made no sense to us that our house in California had doubled in value in 24 months for no apparent reason. Our income had not gone up for six years and the dramatic increase in the price of the house meant we no longer could qualify to buy our own house. There was no way to protect the equity in the house because our insurance company refused to insure it for more than we paid for it, so if it burned down, we couldn’t replace it. We came to the conclusion that the only way we could protect our equity was to sell the house and we did.

· It made no sense that everything was getting so expensive. Food, gas, electric, medical, and services of every kind were inflating at a rapid pace at a time when the local economy seemed to be shrinking. There were acres of deserted office buildings in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, grocery stores were shutting down all around us, jobs were moving overseas, and income and benefits were going down. In response we cut our expenses to conserve our cash so that we could survive what seemed to be localized inflation.

· It made no sense to us that everyone in our neighborhood seemed so rich and spent money so lavishly. There were new BMWs and Land Rovers in every driveway and delivery trucks were arriving regularly with new furniture, garden gazebos, and hot tubs. We assumed that our income was just not keeping up in the Valley and that our neighbors must have been getting huge salary increases and stock option packages that were paying for their extravagances. At the time it never occurred to us that our neighbors were funding their purchases with second and third mortgages on their houses. We hunted for other jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the US in hopes of a salary increase or lower cost of living relative to our income, without luck. On interviews to Colorado and North Carolina, we were surprised to see other communities with shuttered malls and acres of empty office space. It looked to us like the US economy was doing poorly in 2005 and 2006 and yet that contradicted the view of growing affluence visible from our front porch. We decided that instead of buying another house, we needed to downsize our life tremendously and accept the embarrassment and reality of our shrinking personal affluence. We sold off many of our possessions and moved to a small apartment in Sunnyvale to downsize as much as we could.

· It made no sense to us that jobs in Silicon Valley had become so stressful at the same time that the seemingly high pay was so low relative to the cost of living. The days of big bonuses, profitable stock options, and promotions were long gone. Even with our downsizing efforts, the cost of rent, food, commuting, phone, computers, combined with the growing cost of medical coverage, and taxes in Silicon Valley resulted in us spending more each month than we earned. Every month our quality of life became lower, and we dealt with it by going to Hawaii as much as possible for as long as possible. After being fired in 2007, the only thing that made sense to us was to move to Hawaii, where in Hilo we were able to significantly downsize our expenses from our apartment dwelling situation in Silicon Valley while at the same time increasing the quality of our life.

Though we were wrong about the source of the apparent affluence in Silicon Valley, our actions to deal with what made no sense, led us to a wonderful new life in Hawaii. Now in 2008, with our new Hilo perspective, there are many aspects of the world's current financial crisis that make no sense to us. Though we are sure there are major aspects to this financial crisis that we are totally missing like we did in 2005, here is our current list and actions we are taking to make sense of it all.

· Even today, house prices remain much higher than they were in 2003 when the economy was in far better shape. The growing number of foreclosures and unsold inventory seems to be having little effect on prices. In one small area of the Big Island there are over 550 houses and condos for sale, probably representing about 20 to 30% of all the homes in the area; but the prices remain vastly higher than in 2003. The prices are way beyond what a working resident could qualify for at a time when the State of Hawaii is getting hit hard by a slowdown in tourism and unemployment is on the rise. We think renting makes sense until house prices go down or the employment situation gets much better.

· The Stock markets worldwide are dropping fast. It makes no sense to us that the market value of the companies in our personal micro mutual fund with high earnings and excellent prospects are crashing so low. If the stock market is a leading indicator, like the experts claim, the severity of this market crash predicts a future global economic depression that could last a decade. We think high paid corporate technology and management jobs will be scare. We are working on learning new skills that will allow us to make an income, or at least feed ourselves, in the coming decade. Perhaps our experience with bananas will allow us to work as local plantation laborers. We have already had an offer to live in a tent on a friend’s property in return for harvesting her macadamia nuts.

· The Chairman of the Federal Reserve says we are having a global liquidity crisis and yet we can’t get enough interest on our savings to come close to covering current inflation which is estimated to be 5.8% in 2008. The best FDIC insured rates that we can find are 2.6%. It makes no sense to us that we can’t get higher interest for our cash if there really is a shortage of cash worldwide. We think there is actually huge deflation in the world as the easy credit that caused the surge in prices abruptly disappeared ending the high demand for products and services and draining cash from investments and retirement funds to pay for debt. We think the Federal Reserve is flooding the economy with low interest cash to avoid the economic contraction that comes with staggering deflation. As deflation accelerates over the next year, we think that interest rates will go up for the cash remaining in the soon to be smaller world economy. We are preserving as much cash as possible in FDIC insured accounts as we are not sure which banks will survive the current financial crisis.

· It makes no sense to us that there has not been more public outrage over the poison in our children’s toys and our food supply. Food poisoning has grown to be a worldwide disaster with no solution. Processed foods consist of ingredients from so many sources that the world’s governments seem unable or unwilling to ensure its safety. We are lucky to live in Hawaii where the growing season is 12 months long and we can buy most of our food directly from the farmers and fishermen. We believe that in the coming decades living in a place with access to fresh food, clean water, sunshine, and fresh
air will be prized for the health and wellness it brings.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Bananas, always popular in Japan, are the rage right now as people claim they are losing fat by being on a Banana diet. The demand for bananas in Japan has resulted in a national shortage of the fruit in Japan.
The claim is that if you eat one banana with room temperature water in the morning it will boost your metabolism and curb your appetite all day.

Japan has created specialized holders to carry their precious bananas. Here is a “Hello Kitty” Banana holder.

In Hilo, Hawaii our rental house came with a back yard full of mature banana trees. Until we started living with them, we didn’t realize how little we knew about bananas.

Bananas aren’t trees; they are a type of grass and the trunk is a pseudo-stem or fake stem that grows upright as tall as 25 feet.

After the “tree” reaches full growth, a flower comes from the trunk on a drooping stem.

The flower sets fruit and then drops its purple petals one by one leaving behind a bunch of bananas. When the first banana in the bunch turns yellow, it is time to harvest them, though many growers harvest them while they are green. The banana tree dies after the bananas ripen. New baby banana trees or suckers sprout and replace the dead trees.

We discovered the hard way that unlike other fruit, one doesn’t just “pick” a bunch of bananas.

Our first banana harvesting experience began when our neighbor came over to tell us that one of our bunches was ready. Until that time we had no idea when we should pick the bananas and several bunches had clearly been left too long. Since the bananas she pointed out were dangling from one of the taller trees, the best approach seemed to be to use our new aluminum ladder tree to get high enough to cut down the fruit.

Standing on the highest step to get a grip on the bunch, I cut away at the cord with a sharp saw. In no time the thick cord was cut putting the full weight of the bananas on top of me and crushing the ladder underneath. I ended up in a heap on the ground next to the flattened ladder and the bananas landed on the other side of the wall landing with a thump into my neighbor’s back yard.

We didn’t know that a bunch of bananas can weigh 50-110 pounds, far exceeding the weight the little ladder could bear. Luckily landing on my butt, I had no injury from the fall.

Our neighbor graciously cut the bunch up into “hands” and distributed the bounty in the neighborhood.

Our second banana harvesting experience I felt more confident since we had asked around and found that the way to get the bunch of bananas off the tree was to lean it down rather than climbing up to the bananas. The second bunch was on a smaller tree so the method was tried as I misunderstood it. I cut the cord slowly so that the bunch leaned down to where I could get a good hold of it, but after a few cuts the banana bunch broke free and fell to the ground since they were way too heavy for me hold on to with one hand while cutting with the other. The saw, which was stuck in the cord, was sent hurtling into the air with a loud twang as the tree sprang back up when the bunch broke off. I dodged out of the way as the saw came crashing back to earth; fortunately the saw didn’t hit me or anyone else.

For the third attempt, I convinced a local farmer friend to assist me and show me how to harvest a bunch of bananas. He had already shown us how to maintain the bananas, cutting down the dead trunks and pulling off the dead leaves. The trunks are mostly water and incredibly heavy to move and cutting the trunks squirts a thick juice every direction covering anyone nearby. I learned from him that harvesting bananas is notoriously risky, even if you know what you are doing. Lots of things can go wrong when you are dealing with a forest of trees with 100 pounds of dead weight dangling from above. Farmers harvesting a bunch from one tree can have a bunch fall on them from another tree. He showed me how to harvest the bananas as a team; banana harvesting is a two person job. He showed me how cut notches on the banana tree trunk (at about chest height) each a little deeper than the next so that the whole tree slowly bends down horizontally allowing one person to hold onto the bunch as the other cuts the cord so it can be pulled off the tree.

There is an urban legend of weight loss that occurs just by living in Hawaii. We wonder if some of the weight loss is due to the effects of eating so many bananas. The fresh and plentiful bananas in Hawaii taste more like cream to us than fruit so we didn’t think of them as a diet food. We hope the Japanese are right that bananas actually help you lose weight.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


We designed a portable micro solar system to provide emergency backup electrical power if the local power system goes down. In Silicon Valley we had a small Honda gas-powered generator used for emergency backup power for our computers and refrigerator. Power outages in the Bay Area were common and we used the generator many times a year. Since we live in sunny Hawaii, instead of the foggy Bay area, and the cost of gas and electricity is substantially higher here, we decided to make a portable micro solar system to use as our back up power supply and get the added benefit of reducing our electric bills by using it to generate power for everyday use like fans and other appliances.

About 15 years ago we had a small solar system at a mountain cabin in Colorado that was similar in scale to our design, with one solar panel and two batteries. We used it to power compact florescent bulbs for light at night and it did a fine job. Although the costs have remained about the same, our newly designed system has about 300% more battery storage and the electric controls are vastly better. Battery and solar panel technology have made a quantum leap in the last 15 years!

One of the challenges we ran into while cobbling together the system was finding all the parts and figuring out how to assemble them. After collecting parts for over 6 months, we wondered if wiring them together would cause the batteries to explode or get us electrocuted in the process. We convinced our favorite brilliant mechanic friend to come over and show us how to hook the system up without getting killed and thanks to him, the system is now up and running.

With the current state of solar products, a person with a simple understanding of electricity cannot easily or safely build a solar system on their own and the design we are describing is experimental. Hopefully, a venture capitalist or company will fund the manufacturing of affordable, portable solar power systems vastly better than this one. We want a light weight portable solar system completely assembled and ready to go (as are gas and diesel home power systems today) so we can pick one up at Home Depot, take it out of the box, and get power from it immediately.

We strongly advise that you do not assemble a solar system without help from a licensed electrician. The improvements in batteries and solar panels mean there is much more electrical power in the system and a corresponding higher risk for injury.

The Micro Solar System

Here are the components of the system, their cost, and where we bought them.

At Hilo Propane and Gas we bought a Mitsubishi solar panel for $792;

a Morningstar Prostar-50 Solar Charge Controller for $260;

and two Trojan T-650 deep cycle 6 Volt batteries and a Series cable for $300.
The batteries are sitting on a water hose cart we bought for $65 at Home Depot in Hilo. Home Depot cut plywood to size for the batteries to sit on for $9.
The blue wire was also purchased there for $23.

At Solar Works in Ocean View we bought a Coleman 800 Watt Power Inverter for $135.

At Ace Hardware in Hilo we bought plastic wire connectors for $5.

It isn’t pretty, but the system works and the cost for everything was about $1500 including the cart to make the heavy batteries transportable.

Here is a wiring chart of the experimental system.
In this design, we have not solved how to ground the solar panel or power inverter (in case of a lighting strike). Grounds typically involve pounding a long copper rod into the ground to hook the grounding wire. That implementation would defeat the portability of the system and since we are on solid lava rock, it is not possible to pound a rod into the ground. The solar panel is large and heavy to move in and out each day and though the batteries are on a cart, they are so heavy it is difficult to push. And the connectors to the controller are difficult to work with as the solar power wire is spun so that it is a challenge to attach it to the controller.

We are interested in making improvements to the system like utilizing new battery types that are lighter making the system more portable. There are new types of solar panels available that are adaptable in size and shape. We are eager to hear about portable solar systems that others are working on.