Thursday, December 17, 2009

LEARNING TO LOVE HAWAII’S VOG

One of the phenomenon’s of the ancient world was the Oracle at Delphi. Delphi is located in central Greece along the slope of Mount Parnassus where three tectonic plates meet and numerous faults intersect venting fumes from deep within the earth. The Oracle, an older woman chosen from the local villages, sat over a crack in the earth where the gaseous emissions from the rock put her into a trance that allowed her to foretell the future and answer questions. Visitors from around the Mediterranean region and even Egypt came to consult with the Oracle about their future, families, aspirations, when to declare wars, when to plant crops, and how to deal with famine. From 1400 BC to 390 AD, pilgrims to Delphi could make an appointment with Oracle and after paying a fee, hike up a path, file one by one into the temple, and get earthly-emission-based advice.

Stories of the Oracle’s renowned visitors and powerful advice abound. Over a span of 1800 years the Oracle advised notables such as Aegeus, Cadmus, Herakles, Oedipus, Perseus, Xerxes, Lysander, Philip II of Macedon, Cicero, Nero, Hadrian, Diocletian. The Oracle also declared Socrates the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance.

When we visited Delphi many years ago and stood near the vent, we felt dizzy and light headed after a while. It is very similar to how we feel after being in heavy VOG (volcanic emissions) here on the Big Island. Exposure to VOG affects our state of mind and makes the modern world feel far, far away. On days when it is really thick, it completely obstructs our view of Hilo Bay by whitening it out leaving visible only wisps of grey colored clouds that encircle the trees and houses. The VOG mutes the sounds of passing cars and bird songs making it seem like our ears are plugged. It feels like we are living on the Isle of Mists visited by Odysseus. On the really heavy VOG days we wonder if it was like this in final days of Pompeii and we are about to be buried in 30 feet of hot ash.

The VOG reminds us that the earth is a living thing. When the sulfur burns our eyes and throats we find it easier to mediate, easier to contemplate life, and gain a sharpened appreciation of the small but wonderful things in life like seeing blue sky and taking another breath.




Monday, December 14, 2009

YEAR OF THE WHITE TIGER

Every year we enjoy reading the yearly predictions for the upcoming Chinese year and about the animal associated with the year. After plodding along, tightening our belts, and keeping our collective noses to the grindstone, the current year of the Ox will be coming to a close in February. Chinese astrologers claimed that last year’s hard labor would restore our losses from the previous year. We’re not sure how much the hard work helped, but the recent stock market rally helped.

Now we are prepared for the roar of the arriving Metal Tiger year starting on Valentine’s Day (February 14, 2010) which astrologers say will bring upheaval to the world through turmoil, short tempers, and unpredictability. In Hawaii, many business owners take the predictions of the Chinese year seriously and some have told us they expect it to be a tough year for them. Some Tigers, like Tiger Woods, may already be feeling the upheaval.

The upcoming 2010 Tiger year has the element Metal associated with it which is why some call it the year of the Golden Tiger, from the perspective of gold money, while others call it the year of the White Tiger. The White Tiger is connected to the symbol of jinx in China, so some Chinese believe the year will not be good.

The metal element is not a good for Tiger, which prefers wood, fire and earth elements, so the prediction is that Tiger and metal will be in conflict and restrict the Tiger from freedom, causing it to be a challenging year for those born in the year of the Tiger. India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), and South Korea consider the Tiger their national symbol, so 2010 may bring big changes to those countries in particular.

The animal associated with the Chinese year a person is born supposedly predicts how the year will be for each individual based partially on the relationship of their birth sign animal with the year’s animal. The Snake and Monkey have difficult relationships with Tiger, so they may have a challenging year. Tiger’s friends, Horse and Dragon, may find the year to be invigorating and successful. The year of the Tiger is associated with the earthly branch symbol, a system built to track time using observations of Jupiter, which some predict bodes well for real estate.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

CHANGING REGIONAL ECONOMIES

During the past decades we have been amazed at how much difference a small move from one place to another can make to our enjoyment of living. We found that differences in prices, lifestyles, jobs, and opportunities between neighborhoods in the same city or county can be substantial. During times of great economic prosperity, the trouble of moving has not always been worth the small benefit gained by shifting between neighborhoods or areas. But in times of swift economic contraction, like we are currently experiencing, rapid changes in regional economies can make the inconvenience and cost of a move well worth it. If you are mobile, you may find that a region nearby has lower costs, greater employment opportunities, and better living conditions. These same economic upheavals can change a neighborhood from safe and cozy to noisy and violent and cause previously unaffordable neighborhoods to suddenly lower rents. Some of our moves have resulted in us having to trade something dear for moving to a lower cost area – like our safety – but most of our moves gained us much more than we lost. Overall, we have found that taking notice of regional economies and having the freedom to move between them has had financial benefits as well as greatly increasing our quality of life.

When we moved to Silicon Valley in 1996, we arrived as the region was recovering from a downturn making housing cheaper there than it had been for over a decade. Some of it was luck, but some of it was due to our calculations of the cost and benefits of one location over another in order to find opportunities to reduce our debts and improve our quality of life. For over five years we had been visiting Silicon Valley, always calculating the daunting amount we would have to earn to live there. In the mid-1990’s, it changed and we realized that housing prices had dropped enough and wages had gone up enough that the area was suddenly affordable. We calculated that the wages and benefits for our skill sets were so much higher in comparison to what our same skill set was worth in New Mexico, that it was suddenly far cheaper for us to live in Silicon Valley. Ten years later, the scenario completely changed and the wages and opportunities in the region for our skill set were in no longer sufficient to allow us to pay for even a downsized lifestyle.

Now we are focused on studying the regional economies of the Big Island of Hawaii, each with unique living situations, costs of living, and cultures. Two years ago when we moved to the Big Island, we calculated that it was about 50% cheaper to live on the east side of the island than the west side. Over the past two years, the reduction of visitors and loss of tourism jobs have dramatically changed the economic situation on the west side of the island. Since the eruption of Kilauea in March 2008, the west side has also had to deal with a cloud of volcanic emissions (VOG) causing many residents to move back to the mainland or over to the east side. During the same time frame, the east side’s economy has been bolstered by the increased enrollment at the University of Hawaii in Hilo which has bumped up rents and federal earmarks and state funds that have supported research, institutions and increases in Hilo jobs. Though it is hard to compare Kona rentals with Hilo rentals due to their differences in age, setup, and expenses included in the rent like grounds maintenance, water, sewer and garbage, we estimate that west side rents are off 50% or more from when we were looking at rentals there two years ago.

The combination of factors that have resulted in Kona’s regional economy changing so dramatically reminds us of the situation we experienced in Silicon Valley in the mid-1990’s and we believe will result in new opportunities for the west side of the Big Island over the next decade.

Friday, November 27, 2009

THE VALUE OF A PERSONAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT – PART TWO

We described the reasoning behind our current assessment of the US economy being in a fierce local deflation with simultaneous international inflation and a devaluating US dollar in our previous part one blog. We are using this personal view of the economy to develop our plan so we (hopefully) can flourish in this rapidly evolving global economy. We believe every family’s situation is different, and though our approach might work for us, it may be useless to others. We share it with the hope that it helps others to think about different views of the future to see their potential opportunities for income and happiness.

Investments

When we were employed in Silicon Valley, we created a “personal mutual fund” of stocks.
We have been monitoring our stocks and some, like natural gas, have done very well while others have lost a lot of value. Our plan is to hold on to stocks in U.S. companies that are producing internationally exportable raw materials as we believe they will have expanding markets and profitability. We are reducing our holdings in stocks with less exportable products such as domestic natural gas producers because it is difficult to make it exportable (converting it to LPG) and we expect depressed prices for piped natural gas in the US for many years. We expect stocks in US retail markets to continue to decline and will exit them if there is a market rally. We only hold stocks from US stock markets due to our belief that the oversight of financial reporting in the US, though often disappointing, is still higher than stocks in international markets and investment information about US companies is more reliable than other county’s at this point.

We mentioned in a previous blog
that our real estate holdings in Hawaii have been severely deflated, off over 50% and still dropping, but we will hold on to them even though we expect local deflation to continue to lower their value for the next year or more. We believe real estate in Hawaii will ultimately rise spectacularly in price as the deflating dollar makes Hawaii real estate cheap for affluent Asians and Europeans. We sold our house in California and are enjoying the freedom of mobility that renting gives us, however, if the prices for Hawaii real estate continue to plunge, it will at some point be smarter for us to buy a house or condo than to continue as renters. We are closely tracking the price of foreclosures in Hawaii County and watching in awe as the prices drop, particularly on the west side of the island.

Cost of Living

We are constantly looking for ways to cut back our expenses and preserve as much of our savings as possible. Prices of imported food, gas and materials are rising which drives us to find local replacements or live without where possible. We have dramatically changed our lifestyle from our corporate days in Silicon Valley to our laid back lifestyle in Hawaii. We eat less, exercise more, sleep more, and use less energy. We are monitoring the cost of living in every part of Hawaii County and noticed that west side prices are more deflated, particularly for rent, compared to the east side, perhaps due to the huge decrease in tourism on the west side and the growth of University enrollment on the east side. We expect deflation for local products, such as rent, services, and locally grown food, to continue as the State and County furloughs and layoffs continue to lower income in the east side economy. As we study the rents on the west side, we are considering a move to reduce our monthly expenses, though we are concerned about the intense VOG (volcanic emissions) on the west side.

Income and Employment

We have been jobless for over two years now and getting another job seems unlikely as the local and national economy continues to shed jobs. Where in the 1990’s and roaring 2000’s earning an income seemed effortless, now it seems impossible. The fact that major companies such as Sony, GM, and Citibank are struggling to make an income with their huge market share and experience, makes us feel a little better about not having a job right now.

We are viewing our future income producing activities as needing to be self created rather than dependent on a job. We are focused on developing a product or service that we enjoy and will make a valuable difference to others. We are assuming that social security and Medicare won’t be there for us by the time we would qualify in a decade and a half, so our income producing plan has to be something we can do for a very long time. We are thankful that our savings and downsizing efforts are allowing us this precious time to enjoy Hawaii and gain new skills in this rapidly evolving global economy. Though it takes time, we will constantly reassess our plan as the local and global situation changes.

We are eager to hear from others about their approach in this current economic situation and how they plan to flourish in these current times.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

THE VALUE OF A PERSONAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT – PART ONE

We have always found the mass media view of “the economy” useless for predicting the risks and opportunities in our world. So we came up with a personal viewpoint and forecast for the global economic downturn and we have found it useful and comforting to have a view that makes sense to us and points us to where we will have the best opportunities in the future.

Our assessment of the current economic situation is colored by our experiences of the past and our view of the current situation. The 1930’s Great Depression was caused by massive speculation in stocks. Money was borrowed to buy stocks that were consistently increasing in value turning investments in the stock market into a quick way to “easy street” - a magical place of wealth and no work. When the massive speculation based economy fell apart it brought extreme deflation due to the assets that the banks had lent money on being priced far under the value of the loans. Banks could not return depositors money which caused most of them to go bankrupt. The abrupt loss of the American banking system’s assets resulted in widespread loss of jobs and wide spread poverty, where the majority of American workers had a hard time making enough money to pay for food and rent. It was not until 30 years later, in 1962, that the stocks of surviving Depression Era companies like General Electric recovered their 1929 values.

The current economic crisis looks a lot like the Great Depression scenario to us except that residential housing was the currency of speculation rather than stocks. As the bank loans for housing mortgages have come to exceed the value of the houses, the banks’ assets have fallen far below the amount of money they owe their depositors resulting in banks across the US (124 so far this year) and the world going bankrupt.

During the roaring 2000’s, the amount of global “mortgage currency” created is estimated to be about $40 Trillion. The Federal Reserve has been electronically creating an unprecedented amount of US dollars (currently between $750 Billion to $1.5 Trillion and growing) and pouring these new dollars into the banking system and global economy to reduce deflation and keep money flowing due to the head of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke, being a student of the Great Depression and working diligently to minimize the severe cash shortage and banking collapse that was so destructive in the Great Depression. Assuming real estate losses are at 50% of their value, the sudden global currency that has gone missing is about $20 Trillion, or ten times the current cash infusion by the Federal Reserve. Though the huge infusion is small compared to the global losses and has not stopped rapid deflation of things such as real estate, the response by the Fed will result in this economic contraction being different than the Great Depression.

Here is our take on the situation:
1) The huge amount of dollars being created by the Fed and the US’s massive deficit spending will continue to strongly devalue the US dollar against most other world currencies.

2) The absence of personal credit in the US due to tightened credit standards and the low rate of employment will be highly deflationary as American workers will no longer have money to buy things, even on credit.

3) The low dollar value will raise the cost of imported goods and restrict Americans access to raw materials that are in high demand by other nations.

So in summary, we are entering a deflationary period for non-exportable assets with rapidly rising prices for imported items such as computers, electronics, cars and exportable raw materials like lumber, corn, cement, oil, and steel. The strange situation unfolding is a rapidly devaluing dollar combined with fierce local deflation which will likely continue for several years. At the same time that raw materials become globally more expensive, American raw materials will have great price advantage internationally. Deflation is new to us after 50 years of inflation and it will take some time to grasp the full extent of how it will change things in Hawaii and it is further complicated by the simultaneous occurrence of international inflation.

So we ask ourselves continually, what is our smart move in a deflationary, devaluing economy with rapidly rising international raw materials prices? In our next blog we will describe our plan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

RISKS OF VOLUNTARY FORECLOSURES

We have been reading with dismay about people walking from their mortgages even though they have the income to make their mortgage payments; these are known as “voluntary foreclosures”. The motivation is to avoid paying for a house where they owe more than the current price of the house, forcing the bank to take the loss when the house is foreclosed upon.

According to Experian, a credit rating service, over half a million borrowers walked from mortgages that they could afford in 2008, double the number from 2007. These home owners are not unemployed or out of savings, they are just choosing to not pay their mortgages anymore because they see it as an easy way to make some quick cash with no long term downside. According to Citigroup one in five foreclosures are now voluntary, people with jobs and savings and able to pay the mortgage. They are using the fact that the banks are slow in foreclosing to get a free place to live for months and sometimes years before having to move out for non payment. Surprisingly, Experian found that people with high credit scores are 50% more likely than people with average or low credit scores to walk from an underwater mortgage believing that a foreclosure will be only a minor ding to their credit score.

It may seem as though they are right. After all, there has been no public outrage at this practice and there have been no stories of anyone being arrested for financial fraud for refusing to pay the money they owe the banks while still having the same financial conditions as when they were given the loan.

The US government has electronically created almost a trillion dollars to shore up the global banking system from the problems caused by borrowers defaulting on “sub prime” loans. The loss of income to the banks from voluntary foreclosures may have even greater implications to the global economy than the defaults of high risk borrowers. Deutsche Bank predicts that the number of homeowners underwater will grow from 14 million, or 27% of all homeowners with mortgages, in 2009 to 25 million homeowners, or 48% of all those with a mortgage, before home prices stabilize. Assuming that the practice of voluntary foreclosure continues unabated and 25 million Americans voluntarily walk from their mortgages the US tax payers will be left to cover the trillions in bank losses or let the global banking infrastructure collapse in bankruptcy.

In 1985 we bought 5 acres outside of Dallas, Texas during the oil boom and when the oil boom went bust, the property became worthless. When we needed to move from the area for a job, we were stuck with a mortgage for an amount that was huge to us at the time. We continued to pay the taxes and mortgage for the property until it was paid off. After 10 years the Dallas economy recovered enough for us to sell the property for what we originally paid for it. Though we lost the use of that money and the interest on that money for 10 years, we considered it our tuition in the school of hard knocks. It taught us a lot about the real value of real estate and that knowledge has been worth far more than the money we lost on that underwater property. We currently have a Hawaii property that is underwater by over 50% and dropping. Our mortgage, maintenance and tax payments are our current tuition payments in the new economic school of hard knocks. We make those payments because we promised in writing we would when we took on the mortgage and we think keeping our promises is very important. But we also believe that walking away from our property, as the voluntary mortgage walkers are doing, would be incredibly shortsighted.


Here are the reasons we believe the voluntary foreclosure walkers are making a big mistake:
1. RENTS WILL SKYROCKET: The majority of the mortgage walkers will have to live in rentals along with the massive number of Y gens (now bigger in size then boomers) and others not able to qualify for a house loan. The increased demand for rentals will cause a sharp increase in rents. As we experienced in the 1980’s, rental costs can greatly exceed the cost owning a house. The mortgage walker may find that they are never again able to buy a house on credit making them a renter for life and exposed to the ever increasing rental rates.


2. US DOLLAR BECOMES FORMALLY DEVALUED: The massive amount of US currency being created to keep the banks afloat is causing the dollar to lose value against other currencies like the Japanese Yen and Euro. In the last 3 years, the dollar has lost 30% of its value compared with the Yen. Many large currencies have fixed exchange rates with the dollar such as the Chinese Yuan and Saudi Arabian Riyal and there is growing international pressure for these countries to formally devalue the US dollar. This devaluation could happen without notice and easily be 30% or more causing raw materials that we compete for internationally to skyrocket in price. The building materials that we were able to buy cheaply in the past may make buying a new house in the future unaffordable.


3. PERSONAL CREDIT CONSEQUENCES: So far the only consequence of walking away from a mortgage that we have heard about is losing 100 points on one’s credit score. But what if Congress decides to collect the losses being incurred by the FDIC and bad mortgages being purchased to keep the banks afloat from widespread foreclosures? They have access to everyone’s IRS statements, bank statements, and IRA/401K arming them with the information they need to uncover who is really broke. What if stronger consequences are implemented by banks and mortgage walkers lose their right to credit of any kind. They may be relegated to paying for cars, college, and clothes the way it used to be done, through layaway plans, savings and cash.


The people with good credit and income that are walking away from their mortgages may be creating another economic backlash by requiring the federal government to put even more trillions of dollars in the banking system to cover their debt. This will further erode the value of the US dollar with other international currencies making the money saved by walking away from their mortgages seem insignificant. Owning real estate and a house where living costs are relatively fixed are the primary ways to financially survive the dropping value of the dollar.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

WHY THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN IS DIFFERENT IN HAWAII

As the surge in foreclosures in Hawaii and the State furloughs and layoffs begin to hit home here in Hilo, we wonder how tough this downturn will get in the Aloha State. We realize that Hawaii has a long way to go before there is a turnaround and there will likely be more painful pay cuts and layoffs here in Hilo over the next year or two. But we are convinced this downturn will be different and shorter in Hawaii then on the mainland and here are our reasons:


1. Many of the jobs created by the tourist and real estate industry over the past ten years were filled by people from the mainland and Europe. We have noticed that as the jobs have evaporated over the past year, the mainlanders have already packed up and returned to the mainland. This helps the unemployment situation here because the large number of unemployed workers that would normally be competing for the few remaining jobs available in Hawaii are no longer in the State. So unlike the situation on the mainland, every new job that becomes available in Hawaii will have less people competing to get it.

2. The Hawaii tourist industry has a long history of being volatile with big increases in visitors after sharp downturns. Hawaii has traditionally had a low rate of unemployment, so the sudden high rate of lost jobs is likely to recover as quickly as it has in the past. In spite of this current downturn, visitors are likely to keep coming to Hawaii for the same reasons they have always have: Hawaii is an incredibly beautiful and fun place to visit.

3. Over 25% of Hawaii’s visitors are from foreign countries and that percentage has been growing as Asian countries have become richer. This makes Hawaii less dependent on the mainland US recovery for its recovery. The strong drop in the dollar as compared to the Euro and Yen since 2007 makes Hawaii a real travel bargain for foreign tourists. When the concern over the global pandemic flu lets up, we believe that the Asian, Japanese, and European tourists will return in even greater numbers.

4. Boomers have been a big factor in the surge in tourism in Hawaii over the last decade and as they start retiring they will have even more time to visit. One of the benefits of retirees moving to Hawaii is that they usually don’t take a job away and their retirement and savings income adds to the economy. As the 77 million Boomers in the US retire over the next 10 years there will be a huge increase in their visits and relocations to Hawaii creating more jobs and new sources for State tax income.

5. Though the furloughs and layoffs are really tough, people in Hawaii don’t have their identities defined by their job and they enjoy and value the extra time to talk story with their family and friends. Food is shared as a part of family and groups that socialize and people take the time to fish and grow food in their backyards, so most people living in Hawaii are not going to go hungry. The pain of lost income has the buffer of the Ohana factor in Hawaii where families move in together to share costs and help each other out. Those without a job have much to contribute to their family like fixing the roof, keeping up the garden, watching grandma and the kids, cooking or making clothes. When the jobs come back, people won’t be depressed or out of practice but happy to have work outside the house.

Hawaii is the best place in the US to be unemployed. People in Hawaii are not obsessed by world news or getting ahead and they don’t look down on you if you don’t have a job which makes it easier for us to focus on the warm beautiful days gained instead of career opportunities lost.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

THE YEAR OF ASTRONOMY IN HAWAII COUNTY


2009 is the International Year of Astronomy for the world to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to study the sky (versus watching for returning ships or spying on neighbors). Astronomy enthusiasts across the world are using their telescopes this weekend in an effort to share Galileo’s experience of seeing Jupiter and its moons with as many people as possible

Hawaii County has had numerous activities surrounding the year long celebration. One of the highlights was a monthly lecture series featuring the Directors responsible for the telescopes on Mauna Kea mountain.


Today was another great event, an open house of every Observatory on Aohoku Place in Hilo above the University of Hawaii. Seven of the nine Observatory headquarters on the island of Hawaii are located on this street with the titanium cones of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center located below them.

The Observatories located in Hilo are the Gemini Observatory, Joint Astronomy Centre, Japan’s Subaru Observatory, CalTech’s Submillimeter Array Observatory, the Smithsonian Submillimeter Observatory, NASA Infrared Telescope, and University of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Observatory.

The Canada-France-Hawaii telescope and Keck Observatory offices are located in Waimea. Hilo will soon have a new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) which is planning to start construction of the largest telescope in the world on Mauna Kea in the next couple of years.

Subaru telescope is funded by Japan and they celebrated the day with music and tours.

We were delighted to get a tour of the Subaru facility.
They showed us the area where Astronomers can remotely control and view the telescope operation.

Subaru has a lab with a replica of the telescope mounting used on Mauna Kea so that they can test new devices and verify they will properly install before they haul them up to the almost 14,000 foot level.


Hilo has an active Astronomy community with regular lectures by visiting Astronomers sponsored by Astrotalk and a yearly AstroDay event supported by the Astronomers, museums and University of Hawaii. Most kids on the island have have been exposed to astronomy through ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s family events, camps, after-school programs, and school fields trips supported by the Moore foundation
.
Hilo is a great place to be into Astronomy with many opportunities to learn and participate in observing the Universe and the dark skies program that limits light pollution and makes the Big Island one of the best places on Earth to view the skies at night.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IS GLOBAL VOLCANIC ACTIVITY INCREASING?


Living under the constantly erupting Kilauea Volcano in Hilo, Hawaii, we are especially attentive of news about other volcanoes around the world. It seems to us that a lot of volcanoes have been erupting during the past couple of years. Some scientists claim there are not more active volcanoes than usual but just more reports due to the increased population combined with better communications. They claim that 50 to 70 volcanoes erupt each year and 20 are always erupting.

But looking at volcanic reports, there seems to us to be a large number of active volcanoes, many of them having huge eruptions pushing emissions far up into the atmosphere. Since the beginning of 2009 thirty-seven volcanoes around world have started or continued eruptions,
including Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. Many of these erupting volcanoes are having major ash emissions reaching high altitudes which cover the earth.

In Indonesia at least seven volcanoes are currently erupting; Krakatau’s eruption has pushed ash to10,000 feet and Ibu’s eruption created a white-grey plume which rose over 1300 feet above its summit. Volcanoes are erupting in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Mariana Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Barren Island, and Japan. In September, the Mayon Volcano in the Philippines exploded ash up to 2300 feet.



In Alaska, Redoubt’s eruption created an ash emission up to 50,000 feet in March and Cleveland Volcano created an ash cloud reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet in October. Sarychev Peak Volcano on the Kurile Islands pushed ash emissions to 34,000 feet and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is having a record six volcanoes simultaneously erupting.




In August, Mexico’s Popocatepetl Volcano emitted ash to an altitude of 27,000 feet. Chaitén Volcano in Chile has had major eruptions this year with ash emissions reaching 100,000 feet. There are eruptions taking place in Mexico, Chile, Columbia and the Galapagos Islands. In Europe Montserrat Soufriere Hills, Mount Etna, and Stromboli Volcanoes are erupting.

Volcanoes are mostly tracked by satellites, so eruptions are not always seen due to the satellite’s position, darkness or clouds. This list does not include the numerous strong earthquakes under or near volcanoes this year, nor the consistently emitting volcanoes like Yellowstone or Long Valley in Mammoth Mountain which discharges 50-150 tons of carbon dioxide gas at the Horseshoe Lake Tree Kill Area range daily

The rate at which sulfur dioxide (SO2) has been released from Kilauea Volcano here in Hawaii has typically been between 150 and 200 tonnes/day, but in late December 2007, the emission rate increased to nearly 300 tonnes/day and it continued to rise until March 2008 when it reached 1,800 to 2,000 tonnes/day. The rate has slowly let up since then but is still up to 500 to700 tonnes/day, almost 4 times what is was before 2007. These emissions have crated haze and vog across Hawaii which sometimes reaches all the way to Guam.

Two thousand years ago Plutarch claimed that the eruption of Mount Etna in 44 B.C. dimmed the Sun and suggested that the resulting cooling caused crops to shrivel and produced famine in Rome and Egypt. Gasses from volcanoes result in numerous impacts on the climate and the USGS is currently studying gas emissions at 70 active volcanoes in the US alone.
Sulfur dioxide is known to cause global cooling and ash injected at high altitudes can blot out the sun.

We notice here in Hilo that on days when heavy volcanic emissions (VOG) are overhead, it reduces the electrical production from our solar panel by 50%. We wonder if these global volcanic emissions will mean a colder winter this year or perhaps for several years to come?

Monday, September 21, 2009

LONGEVITY IN HAWAII

Residents of Hawaii have a longer life expectancy than any other state in the United States, according to a study conducted by the Harvard University Initiative for Global Health and the Harvard School of Public Health. The average Hawaiian resident can expect to live 80 years and women live even longer averaging 83.2 years. Researchers on the project discovered that longevity is not influenced by personal income, inadequate health insurance, or violence but is somewhat influenced by chronic disease and injury.

The US National Center for Health Statistics shows that on average residents of Hawaii have a life span of 81.7 years, almost 4 years longer than residents on the US mainland have with their average life span of 78 years. The average life span of a person living in Hawaii is closer to that of a person living in Japan, which has the longest average life expectancy of any country in the world at 82.1 years.

One of the attractions to us of living in Hawaii is to be in a place where people are healthy and fit and live longer lives. But Hawaii, like the rest of the US, is having major increases in obesity among baby boomers so we wonder if the state will maintain its high longevity rates. The percentage of overweight adults in Hawaii increased from 29.7% in 1991 to 33.3% in 2005. Obesity rates increased during the same time period from 10.7% to 19.7%. Below is a chart showing how Hawaii County (the Big Island) compares with the state of Hawaii's overweight rate by age group. The rates of being overweight and obese in the baby boomer age range is dramatic compared with residents over 75 years of age.



Hawaii’s State Department of Health understands the importance of physical activity and healthy eating for reducing disease and early death. In 2008, Kolodziejski, Hirokawa, Benson, and Irwin prepared the Hawaii Physical Activity and Nutrition Surveillance Report 2008. Their report characterized the behaviors of adults in Hawaii by surveying how many adults met the national recommendations for physical exercise (moderate activity for 30 minutes on 5 or more days of the week or vigorous intensity activity for 20 or more minutes on 3 or more days of the week) and ate a healthy daily diet ( 5 or more fruits and vegetables a day). In the State of Hawaii, 50.8% of adults did the recommended physical exercise. Overall the percentage of Hawaii County residents that did the recommended exercise was a tiny bit higher than the state average, the highest percentage living in the Kona area. The report divided Hawaii County into four regions: North Hawaii in the northwest, Hilo area in the northeast, Puna and Ka’u in the southeast, and Kona in the southwest part of the island. Here is a percentage breakdown by the four regions in Hawaii County.


Differences in income were not found to be significant, but differences in race were. Japanese and Filipinos exercised the least and Native Hawaiians and Whites exercised the most. Older people exercised less than younger people.

In the State of Hawaii, 31.8% of adults ate the recommended diet. Overall the percentage of residents in Hawaii County that ate the recommended diet was a bit higher than the state average, the largest percentage living in Puna and Ka’u areas. Here is a breakdown for Hawaii County.


Differences in schooling and income were not found to be significant, but differences in age and race were. Japanese were significantly less likely than Whites to eat the recommended diet and a significantly higher percentage of adults (46.8%) in the 80+ group met the daily recommendations. The percentage of adults in the 70-79 age group (39.9%) that ate the recommended diet was significantly higher than the younger adults in the 20-59 age group. Though the Japanese were less likely to eat the recommended diet, Whites were significantly more likely to be obese than Japanese adults.


The study showed that disease-free adults reported higher rates of physical exercise and were significantly less likely to have diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Adults that ate the recommended diet were less likely to have diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and were significantly less likely to report being overweight or obese. Hawaii residents older than 85 have already lived longer than the average life span for residents in the State of Hawaii and continue to eat more healthy than the rest of us.

Hawaii offers an abundance fresh produce and opportunities for outdoor activities. If we eat the recommended amounts of the fresh fruits and vegetables and exercise regularly we should be able to improve our health and have the opportunity to share in Hawaii’s renown long life span.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

WONDERS OF OLIVE OIL

For decades, the Mediterranean diet has been touted as a diet which improves cardio-vascular health and extends life. Olive oil has been determined to be the primary ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that results in the health benefits accorded to our Greek and Italian friends. We have been buying olive oil for years, careful to get the cold-press extra virgin variety.

Recently, I was reviewing the wonders of olive oil in my book about Healthy Fats and I noticed a previously overlooked researcher’s note at the bottom of the page: “All studies on the health improvements due to olive oil were based on “cold-pressed, virgin, unfiltered olive oil”. Apparently, the researcher was concerned that many of the health benefits may be from the suspended particles in the olive oil that are removed by most olive oil producers to extend the shelf life.

Olive oil used by locals in the Mediterranean areas is essentially the same as eating the raw fruit. Cold pressed olive oil is the only plant oil eaten raw and made by simply crushing and pressing the olive without heat or chemicals. Every other oil (canola, corn, safflower, peanut, and even regular olive oil) goes through a refining process using high heat and chemicals to extract the oil. If cold pressed olive oil is not filtered, it produces a cloudy and more pungent oil with a shorter shelf life. This fresh oil, called Olio Nuovo, is raw and complete with the solids from the crushing. It has to be refrigerated and has a limited shelf life, just like other fruits. The Olio Nuovo is available only once a year when the olives are harvested (just like our favorite French Beaujolais Nouveau) and it changes to regular olive oil over time as the solids settle.

It turns out that the label “Cold-Pressed Extra Virgin” is no guarantee that olive oil has been processed without chemicals, heat, or dilution with other oils. The United States has no labeling laws governing the production and labeling of olive oil.





So began our search for unfiltered, cold-pressed, virgin olive oil in Hilo, Hawaii. A visit to the newly opened Island Naturals health food store in Hilo Shopping Center led us to our first bottle of unfiltered olive oil: Olio Nuovo from Napa Valley, California. The taste is very different from the extra virgin olive oil that we have been buying. The cloud of green glop suspended in the oil makes it seem more like eating an olive than oil. Now we wonder if by using this unfiltered olive oil we will finally see the great health benefits promised by the Mediterranean diet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE LIFE FORCE IN A TOMATO

Being spoiled by the incredible food available in Hilo, Hawaii we packed a cooler of Big Island grass fed beef and fresh Ahi tuna steaks for our visit to Waikiki to make sure we had some fantastic dinners without having to rely on pricey restaurants. We noticed that one of the hotels had an Ahi special, a steak for $24, not including side dishes or drinks. The stack of $3.50/lb Ahi steaks we lugged to Oahu translated to many delicious, low-cost meals.

We are regulars at the Kino’ole Saturday Farmers Market in Hilo. It is smaller than the huge Hilo Farmer’s market but most of the vendors grow the produce in their backyards or small farms. The tomatoes we buy there aren’t the perfectly round ones found in mainland grocery stores; they are oversized with odd shapes, non-GMO tomatoes. We have become very attached to these tomatoes along with the lettuce, broccoli, green onions, avocados, cabbage, carrots, and white pineapples we buy there on Saturdays.

While in Waikiki we shopped at a store on Kuhio Avenue, the closest grocery store for the local condo residents there. We expected the high prices, but were surprised at the pitiful state of the produce. The only tomatoes available were a long way from where they were grown in Mexico; they felt dead, lifeless and old. When we hold the fruit and vegetables at the farmers market in Hilo, we can feel their freshness, nutrition, and the life force in them.

We are mystified that people living in Waikiki do not have easy access to the Big Island’s quality produce. How is it that 196 nautical miles or a 45 minute air flight separates the people in Waikiki from the life force in a fresh tomato?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

REPORT ON WAIKIKI AND HAWAII WRITER'S CONFERENCE


Last week we were in Oahu to attend the Hawaii Writers conference and found Waikiki in a strange state. There were lots of tourists, lots of closed restaurants, and lots of retail store fronts with paper covering the glass. In one major hotel on the beach 75% of the retail shops were closed and the few stores that remained open were having discount sales. At night the restaurants a few blocks from the ocean front hotels had huge lines with waits of over 45 minutes. We met visitors staying in ocean front resorts for $99 a night, 25% of the normal hotel rate. We were able to get a kama'aina rate of $200 a night for a 2 bedroom with a kitchen, living and dining room on Beachwalk Road.




The keynote address at the Writers Conference given by the bestselling author of “The Deep End of The Ocean” was memorable. She disclosed her personal difficulties of being injured from a fall and recently losing of all her savings earned from her book sales. She described herself as the most famous broke person she knew. It was moving to hear her talk of dealing with the grief of being suddenly poor after achieving wealth from her writing.

Many of the sessions at the Writers conference discussed the transition the book publishing industry is in today. In the past, publishers have relied on newspapers to channel their books to market. Editors got reviews of their new titles from the big newspapers and lobbied to get them on one or more of the best seller lists to drive sales. But newspapers are quickly disappearing and the traditional book reviewers, best seller lists, and the publicity routes to book buyers are disappearing with them.

In response, publishing editors are starting to require that their authors have a “platform”, a term used repeatedly at the conference without definitive definition. The common thread of the term “platform” was a mechanism to reach potential book buyers. A platform could be regular seminars given by the author that reaches student buyers or a lecture circuit to reach attendee buyers. But recently, it is more often a social media presence to reach potential buyers.

The internet is the becoming a new avenue for publishers and authors to gain access to readers and let them know about newly published books. The result is that an author’s blog readership, web site hits and even twitter followers are becoming new metrics for the publishing world to define the potential audience size for a book that could translate into sales. If an author has a platform or potential audience of book buyers that is big enough, a publisher is more likely to sign book deal.

Many of the conference attendees were fiction writers or retirees working on their memoir and struggled to understand how to use the internet to promote their book. We heard a few stories about how fiction writers have been building social media platforms – one writer started a blog by one of her characters. We wonder how readers will react when they discover the personal blog they are reading is a fictional character used to promote a book. Publishers now expect a web page for each book title and are urging writers to do speaking engagements, twitter their whereabouts, and use social media to promote book sales.

We had a couple of takeaways from the Writers conference. First we are convinced that social media is gaining momentum as the numbers of twitter followers and blog readers of some prominent authors are beginning to exceed the entire subscription rate of some major newspapers. As frustrating as it must be to newspaper writers and columnists, we believe that the demise of the newspaper is not because there are fewer readers, but because readers want control over what they read. Secondly, we were confronted with the impact of the slower economy in Waikiki by observing the empty store fronts and knowing that the attendees to the Writers conference, themselves struggling financially, were not going to be a big help with Hawaii's sales tax shortfall.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

VITAMIN X

Last week I went to a talk by Guy Toyama, the Director of the Friends of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), located next to the Kona airport. NELHA was funded to generate electricity from the temperature difference between deep cold sea water and warm surface seawater but has grown into a technology center that incubates innovative companies in food, energy and water. The tenants use the deep seawater in unique ways such as raising shellfish, making high nutrient drinking water, sea horse farming, and growing blue green algae.

I was intrigued to hear about a company called Nutrex Hawaii that makes a nutritional supplement from algae. The key substance in the supplement is astaxanthin which is created when the algae is stressed by a drop in water temperature. The stressed algae turns red due to its creation of astaxanthin. This same substance is created by lobsters when they are put into boiling water. Astaxanthin is also found in wild salmon which is why the meat is bright red. Farm raised salmon is grey colored so they have been buying the red algae to feed to their fish to get the same red color of wild salmon.

Researchers have been studying astaxanthin
, a phytochemical, for a number of years, and some think that it is so potent in improving health that they have started calling it vitamin X. Vitamin X has been shown to relieve arthritis pain, prevent macular degeneration, and improve physical stamina in humans. It also reduces LDL cholesterol in the blood and inflammation in general. It reduces the pain from sun burns and in studies on mice exposed to carcinogens, it reduced their cancer incidence rates about 50%.

So off I went to get some of this Vitamin X for myself. I found it, BioAstin, in Hilo at Abundant Life and immediately started taking 2 pills (8 mg) with each meal. You would get 4 mg of astaxanthin by eating 4 oz of wild salmon.
So far I haven’t noticed any change, but I am optimistic that I will get all the health promises of joint and tendon health, skin health and UV protection, eye health, anti-aging, increased immunity, and cardiovascular health.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SUBTLE CHANGES, BIG IMPACTS

As the global economy continues to contract there is much news about the growing ranks of the unemployed and the millions that have had to take jobs paying less than half of their previous incomes. We don’t hear much about those being asked to take smaller salary cuts and contribute more to their medical plans. Employers often promote these 5% to 10% pay cuts as something their employees and their families should easily be able to weather. For us it brings back memories of a time when we got a 2% raise while at the same time having to cover a greater percentage of our medical plan, which added up to a 7% pay cut. This seemingly "small" pay cut significantly changed the quality of our life.

Small changes, that seem like they shouldn’t be a big deal, can completely change what works . If the voltage in the electric grid was cut by 7%, most appliances would stop working. If you cut back on the gasoline in your car by adding 7% water, your car wouldn’t run.

Though a 7% pay cut seems small, particularly in comparison to those without jobs, our experience is that it lowers the quality of your life far more than 7%. The income we lost was money for our savings, cell phones, babysitters, movies, and dinners at good restaurants. When our income suddenly stopped paying for these things, our motivation to work hard dropped. Since the pay cut affected not just us but all the employees working for the largest employer in the region, it devastated the businesses that were no longer getting our income; many of them closed down. In the same way that appliances are designed to run on a certain amount of voltage , most of our lives are designed around getting a certain amount of income for the work that we do. If a person loses their job, it is expected that it will greatly change their life; they have time to make those changes. It is like a car with no gas, no one expects it to run. But those with "small cut backs" may also find, as we did, that much of what was working stops working. We had to completely redesign our lives while still working full time and deal with the fallout of the shrinking local economy.

We know from experience that the "lucky" people who keep their jobs with only a pay cut will get no sympathy and may even get contempt from family, friends and the community who cannot understand why such a small change in income could have such a large impact.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

WILL TWITTER LAST?

We thought tweeting on Twitter was a web fad and would quickly fade away. We could not imagine knowing what someone was doing every minute being useful or interesting to us. Last Saturday, I had a conversation about it with @larryczerwonka while attending the second Big Island Meet and Greet for Internet Fans and Geeks in Hilo at Big Island Pizza. His description of rapidly gaining over 20,000 followers and using the media to promote his business made us want to give Twitter a try.


We signed up on Twitter, a very easy process, as @hiloliving. After becoming followers of some of the tweeters we knew, we immediately started receiving a large number of tweets. Since the storm Felicia was heading towards Hilo, we followed our favorite weatherman @GuyHagi at KGMB. Guy’s tweets were very helpful, giving us constant updates about Felicia developments. It was a relief to have up-to-date information on the storm and changed our view about Twitter’s usefulness. It turns out when a hurricane is headed directly towards your town, getting weather updates every minute is interesting and useful.

We started tweeting photos of the surf crashing over the Hilo Bay water breaker and we’re surprised to see Guy Hagi become a follower, along with 8 other followers within 24 hours of signing up. Twitter content is searchable, providing a new way to draw interested readers to blog and web content. We realized that short tweets could provide timely content on the events we cover in our blog and website.

We think Twitter adds a new dimension to the internet, one focused on information in the moment, and we are excited about learning how to benefit from this new technology.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

WATCHING HAWAII OUTRIGGER RACES

We thoroughly enjoyed watching the State Outrigger Canoe Paddling Championship Regatta in Hilo Bay this weekend. Before moving to Hawaii we hadn’t heard about outrigger canoe races and had no idea how popular, competitive and colorful the island sport was. The Regatta was well attended by paddling teams from all over the State of Hawaii. The winning teams had an amazing cohesiveness, with six paddlers acting in perfect unison.

Outrigger canoes are deeply connected to the seafaring Polynesians in the Pacific that settled in Hawaii a thousand years ago. Early Polynesians were the most skilled navigators in history with the knowledge of how to travel huge distances across the Pacific Ocean by canoe using only the stars, clouds and seabirds as navigational aids. Studying the history of the Polynesians and their migrations have become a popular research subject by anthropologists, archeologists, linguists and geneticists, and the research has resulted in proof of the Polynesians navigational feats.

Two years ago scientists proved that a stone tool carved from volcanic rock, found by an archaeologist in the 1930s on a coral island near Tahiti, came from Hawaii. This was the first Hawaiian object found in east Polynesia, over 4000 kilometers away from Hawaii. More recently archaeologists found over 50 ancient rock engravings in Tonga with stylized images of people and animals close in form to engravings in Hawaii dated between 1200 and 1500AD. Similar petroglyphs have been found throughout eastern Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas, Tahiti and Hawaii. These findings are part of the growing evidence that early Polynesians navigated incredible distances across the Pacific Ocean.

A year ago a genetic study of almost 1,000 people revealed that Polynesians and Micronesians have the closest genetic relationship with Asians, specifically Taiwan Aborigines and East Asians. The first settlers of Australia, New Guinea, and the large Pacific islands just to the east arrived between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. These small groups were isolated and became extremely diverse during the following tens of thousands of years. Then, a little more than 3,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Polynesians and Micronesians, with their outrigger canoes, appeared in the islands of Melanesia, and during the following centuries settled the islands throughout central and eastern Pacific. Some of the islands that are considered part of Melanesia are Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

The research team analyzed more than 800 genetic markers of people from 41 Pacific populations and found evidence different from previous Y-chromosome research. The hypothesis from the study, supported by the mitochondrial evidence, is that ancestors of the Polynesians originated in Taiwan, moved through Indonesia to Island Melanesia, and then spread out to all islands of the Pacific without having any significant contact with the Island Melanesians along the way. Though the natives of Island Melanesians speak languages related to Polynesian, called Austronesian, they show a very minor genetic contribution to the Polynesians.

Recently scientists analyzed the Austronesian language family, which is one of the largest in the world with 1200 languages spread across the Pacific, to gain insight into Polynesian migration. By studying the basic vocabulary from 400 languages, such as words for animals, simple verbs, colors and numbers, researchers traced how the languages evolved to create a history of settlement in Pacific.

According to their language research, the Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Before entering the Philippines, the Austronesians paused for around a thousand years, and then spread rapidly across from the Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for another thousand years, before finally spreading further into Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Islands. Expansions were linked to the development of new technologies, such as better canoes and techniques to deal with the great distances between islands in Polynesia. Using these new technologies, the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever.

Racing and navigating long distances with outrigger canoes remains a popular activity in Hawaii and many other Pacific islands. Observing the unity and strength required to paddle outrigger canoes across Hilo Bay, we have incredible respect for the accomplishments of the early Polynesians.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

HAWAII’S AMAZING COFFEE FRUIT


We are big coffee drinkers and love trying all the varieties from coffee plantations around the Island of Hawaii. Coffee beans are the seeds of the bright red coffee fruit, called coffee cherries. Each fruit normally contains two seeds (beans) and some fruit pulp. An exception is the peaberry, which only has one bean to a cherry. We were surprised to learn that many locals eat the cherries, which are thrown away by coffee harvesters because they are too perishable to process. People in coffee growing regions of the world having been eating coffee cherries for thousands of years.

It turns out that coffee fruit is loaded with high concentrations of beneficial antioxidants and essential sugars. Roasting the coffee bean destroys these nutrients, so we aren’t getting them in our morning cup of Joe. Studies on the health benefits of coffee compounds claim the fruit contains polyphenols, in particular flavonoids, which have antioxidant characteristics that may reduce the risk of disease and cognitive decline .

The coffee fruit has many of the glyconutrients, also known as the 8 essential sugars, which are needed for optimal health and functioning in humans. We have never heard of these essential sugars, known as saccharides, but apparently they have special properties needed for cell to cell communication and proper cell functioning. Coffee cherries contain five of the eight saccharides (mannose, galactose, fucose, xylose, and glucose) which are believed to be essential for the proper functioning of the immune system.


Not having easy access to wild coffee, we bought a tree at a Hilo school plant sale. We read that it could take up to four years for it to produce coffee fruit, but after less than a year our coffee bush is covered with bright red coffee fruit. The coffee cherries have a thin red skin and fruit pulp with a texture similar to a grape. Our cherries are small, perhaps because the tree is young, but we were eager to taste our ripened coffee cherries. The red skin was tough and bitter, but the tiny bit of fruit pulp that covered the beans was sweet and tasty.

It is wonderful to live in Hilo where so many tropical plants thrive. We are delighted to find yet another fruit in Hawaii that is delicious and good for our health.

Friday, July 24, 2009

OBESITY AND AIR CONDITIONING


The high cost of electricity in Hawaii makes central air conditioning and heating a rarity in Hilo. Fortunately, the temperate climate and frequent trade winds minimize our need to change the temperature. But during weeks, like this past week, with high temperatures combined with high humidity, an AC starts sounding good.

While sweating under the ceiling fan, we are comforting ourselves with a recent study correlating the increase of air conditioning in US homes since the 1970’s with the increase in obesity. Researchers from the National Center for Healthy Housing in Columbia, MD and University of Illinois at Chicago, Ill studied the relationship between housing and the US population’s health over 30 years. The study combined data from serveral surveys of the population and housing of Americans.

Between 1972 and 2002, US households with central air conditioning jumped from 15% to nearly 60%. During that same time period, average BMI’s (Body Mass Index) in the US went from 24.9 to 27.7 (a BMI of 25 and above is considered overweight). The graph below was published in their study.

The researchers believe that the increase in obesity may be linked to the internal housing climate created by central air conditioning and forced heating because the body expends less energy in temperature ranges associated with climate-controlled settings. Improved thermal comfort provides an incentive for people to remain indoors, exercise less, and exert less energy through lower metabolic rates.

We tried out a portable room AC (Commercial Cool) from Walmart which vents out of the window. But using our Kill A Watt Electric Usage Monitor, we determined it cost over $2 an hour to run. The cost usually exceeds the benefit of having a small cooled area in the house.


We keep cool by opening all the windows and doors and using fans to blow directly on us. We notice on days when we swim in the mornings, we are cooler all day long, a strong motivator for us to get to our water aerobics class. Although these hot summer days keep us inside under the ceiling fan and out of the sun, the heat kills our appetite and forces us to drink lots of water, both very beneficial to our weight loss effort.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

SEARCH FOR A HEALTHY BIO-FUEL


Last month, while talking to a friend about Hawaii’s energy independence, I heard about the Jatropha tree. The Jatropha curcas tree is famous for its seeds - also called Barbados nut, Jungle Erandi, and Physic nut - which are considered an excellent source of bio-fuel due to their high percentage of oil content. The Jatropha tree is easy to grow, lives a long time, and the oil from its seeds can power diesel engines and aircraft without having to be refined.

The prospect of growing aircraft fuel was very exciting, so I gleefully took the seeds I was given and ran out to buy the supplies needed to plant them. Much to my delight, the seeds grew quickly into plants.

But further investigation about the plant, toned down my excitement. I discovered that the seeds are very toxic as are the leaves, the stems, and the mash left over after crushing the seeds to get the oil. Jatropha contains highly toxic cyanic acid in the seeds and carcinogenic substances in all parts of the plant. The yellow oil is aptly called Hell oil. Three year old plantations in India have shown that the claims about Jatropha being able to grow in poor, arid soil without the need for fertilizer or pesticides are not true. Their yields have been paltry in dry regions as opposed to over 3 times better when irrigated and fertilized like food crops. These poor yields in India mean the cost per gallon of Jatropha bio-fuel is higher than the cost of conventional gasoline and diesel. Worse, Jatropha plantations have caused health problems for the farmers working with the plants and children eating the tasty seeds. Jatropha fields near lakes have killed off fish populations and caused ecological problems in other areas. Eating the seeds causes vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and a burning sensation in the throat. It turns out my little aircraft fuel plants were toxic to my garden and me.

The realization that bio-fuel could create a toxic environment changed my view of plants. What is the point of bio-fuel if growing it damages the ecosphere? Isn’t supporting the environment one of the most important aspects of replacing petroleum production with bio-fuels?

This revelation led me to search for a Healthy bio-fuel and my discovery of the Moringa tree, which is known as “The Miracle Tree”. Moringa oleifera leaves are highly nutritious, said to prevent over 300 diseases, and have high concentrations of protein, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and calcium as well as a host of other vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Moringa seeds from mature pods can be browned, mashed and placed in boiling water to extract an excellent cooking or lubricating oil that floats to the surface. The oil does not become rancid and was once sold as Ben Oil. The tree is being planted all over the world as a primary food source for people because it is drought hardy and grows quickly.

In the Philipines – where Morianga is called Malungai – they have set up a manufacturing plant to use the oil harvested from the Moringa seeds to produce bio-diesel. Visiting MIT graduate students found the resulting bio-fuel had superior properties including fuel stability, good ignition behavior, and suitability even during winter. In addition to the income potential to farmers growing the plant for bio-fuel every part of the plant has commercial value including the mash leftover from the crushed seeds which makes an excellent feed for livestock.

My brief experience with bio-fuels has taught me that all green things are not necessarily non-toxic and non-destructive to people and the environment. And at the same time, there is the potential for the right bio-fuel plants to be a far greater benefit to the people and environment than just the fuel produced from plants. The right bio-fuel source can provide food, medicine, livestock feed, and great value to a local environment and economy. I am now in search of the Miracle Moringa seeds or starters to start my own garden of curative, healthy, beneficial bio-fuel plants.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE GLOBAL CURRENCY CRISIS

Growing up in Asia, we found it hard to understand the “real” value of all the different currencies we had to use when moving from country to country. In some currencies small numbered bills and coins bought a great deal and in other currencies the bills had numbers in the thousands and were worth far less than a dollar. Many Asian currencies were, and still are, illegal to trade outside their country so the exchange rates were “official” rates set by the government. The official rates were far higher than what the currency would have actually purchased, which resulted in an illegal “black market” where residents traded their currency for other currencies at a lower rate.

To understand the comparative values of these different currencies, we used an "ice cream cone equivalency"; the amount of currency it took to buy an ice cream cone became our basic value measure. This equivalency gave us a way to evaluate the cost of things: a taxi fare in New Delhi was 5 cones, a T-shirt in Jakarta was 4 cones, a piece of jewelry in Thailand was 10 cones, and a class trip was 300 cones. This comparison method made the currency values tangible and functional to us.

After we moved back to the US, we continued to convert money into equivalencies, but our comparison evolved from ice cream cones to weeks of vacation in Hawaii. When we considered the purchase of a new couch, for example, we equated it to a week of vacation in Maui which allowed us to understand our spending choices and the real value of our dollars at that time. The value of the dollar has varied wildly over the past thirty years which changed the value of a trip to Maui from one couch made in North Carolina in 1979 to ten couches made in China in 2009.

Since world-wide commodities, such as oil, are priced in US dollars, the US dollar has become the de-facto world currency. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar control the price of their currency by setting their “official rate” in US dollars. China, Japan, and many other countries have been placing their US dollars, earned from selling manufactured goods and commodities, into US government Treasury Bills and Securities.



The massive US stimulus spending package and US economic downturn have led these nations, notably China and Japan - the two largest holders of US debt, to become very concerned about a huge loss in the value of their assets held in US dollars. These countries are reducing the amount of US dollars they own and converting them to gold and other currencies in order to find alternative ways to hold their assets and maintain the value of their currencies. The international divestiture of the US dollar is causing its rapid devaluation. Some have been calling this an international currency crisis.

As a result, many people are convinced that the US dollar will soon be formally devalued by the US government. But since currency is only valued by comparing it to something, we wonder what the US dollar will be devalued against? The old metric of valuing the dollar with gold was thrown out in 1971 and in its place the value of the dollar has only been its ability to buy basic commodities in the world market like food and energy.

Here in Hilo, Hawaii a devaluation of the dollar would result in higher prices for foreign imported goods, but a great deal of food is grown on our island and diesel and gas can eventually be replaced with bio-fuels. Though for most of the US this devaluation of the US currency will not cause instant change, we believe Hawaii’s proximity and popularity with Asia may result in an immediate and disproportionately large influx of visitors and real estate buyers from Asia. We are pretty sure that we are not the only ones that measure the value of their currency in “weeks of vacation in Hawaii”.