Summer In Naka

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Summer days are for enjoying ice cream with friends.

I took this picture of some neighborhood kids yesterday, while on a walk with Momo. It is the kind of moment I remember from my childhood. I was struck at the tragedy that there are children in several countries right now whose lives are being devistated by wars over resources at the same moment. All the talk of religious differences, politics, race, etc. is really rubbish - window dressing or excuses used to motivate the troops and gain support of the people of the countries involved. In reality it is all about economics. Money. Greed. Wars always have been. Shouldn't kids all be able to share the same kind of happy, normal, childhood of those in the picture I took? What will it take? What future is there for any of them if we don't make it happen? In not now, when? If not us, then who?

Hello Kitty Hits The Road

Love it or hate it, over the last 30 years Sanrio's "Hello Kitty" has become an icon in Japan and is recognized around the world. Last weekend, one lucky customer at Mitsukoshi Department Store in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, won the opportunity to purchase a one-of-a-kind Mitsubishi i "Princess Kitty" car.

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At JPY2.1 million (about US$18,300), the car is priced 600,000 yen higher than usual. The promotion celebrates Mitsubishi's advertising relationship with Sanrio and also raises money for Japan's UNICEF, which will get 200,000 yen of the proceeds.

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The detailed customization includes special paint, decals, and even Hello Kitty shaped headrests. (Somebody just shoot me.)

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Powered by a 3 cylinder 660cc engine, the Princess Kitty (a Mitsubishi "i") uses just 5.3 liters of gas per 100 km (that's 43.3 mpg US) and emissions are 50% lower than the Japanese 2005 Low-Emission Vehicle requirements. (I can't resist pointing out that my bicycle cost less than 1% of the price of this car, uses no fossil fuel, requires no insurance premiums or license taxes, and doesn't pollute at all).

Between you and me, just seeing this overly cutesy pink blob in my driveway would make my stomach feel quesy. But for you Hello Kitty fans, here's a link to more pictures.

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Just click Hello Kitty.

Personally, I'll wait for the black and white "Pandabonium" special edition Mitsubishi Colt EV (an electric car announced for 2010), which will have bamboo patterned seat covers and of course a slide trombone horn.

PS - If you collect guitars, like Moody Minstrel does, Mitsukoshi is offering a one-off Hello Kitty electric guitar made by Fender in the USA for "only" JPY 2.5 million. That's right. It costs more than the car!

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The Meatrix

I don't know how I missed these award-winning flash animations before. The first one came out in 2004, and part two came out in March of this year. Great parodies. Let "Moopheus" teach you all about The Meatrix and how to free yourself from it. Click on the images below to see "The Meatrix" and then "The Meatrix II: Revolting".

They were created by Sustainable Table and Free Range Studios. Very clever.



Flowers Fit For A Queen

I want to share a comment that NZM of the blog "M and J Adventures" made today regarding my June 30th post about the Tagimaucia flower, as it captures her personal recollection of a slice of Fiji history. NZM was born in Fiji and lived there until age 15. She is presently living in Dubai. Give her blog a visit (just click on the name above) and say "Bula".

Without further ado, here is NZM's comment:

"Whenever the Queen came to Fiji, she was always gifted with a bouquet of Tagimaucia.

I can remember one occasion when she came into Suva on the Royal Yacht Britannia. In those days, you could drive onto the wharf without any hassle - we always used to go there on our Sunday drives!

On the night that the Queen was due to leave Fiji on the Britannia, we were on the wharf with scores of other people to see her go.

She arrived in her Rolls Royce, and walked up the gangway, turning to wave at all of us who were cheering on the dock. In her arms, she had the most amazing bouquet of Tagimaucia.

Then she went up on deck, her Rolls was lifted on board, the ropes were cast off, and the Britannia sailed out of Suva Harbour with the Queen and Prince Philip not going inside until we could hardly see them anymore."

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(click for larger image)

This first day cover from Fiji Post commemorates the Royal Visit of 1977. The stamp shows a Fijian girl presenting Queen Elizabeth II with a bouquet of tagimaucia. The Royal Yacht Britannia is featured on the envelope. The Queen has visited Fiji many times starting in the first year of her reign, 1953.

Thanks for sharing that memory with us, NZM!


Tally Me Banana

I used to grow "apple" bananas (actually a Brazilian variety) in my yard on Maui, and even though I lived in one of the driest regions of the island, the challenge was not getting them to grow, but keeping the plants from taking over the whole yard.

Here in Japan, we get our bananas from the Philippines, something the Japanese should enjoy while oil used to ship them 2,000 miles is still cheap and available. We eat them every day starting with oatmeal and bananas for breakfast. Two bananas will give you about 1000 mg of potassium which is great for your cardiovascular system, as well as about 90 mg of magnesium and many vitamins. They can help to counteract all that excess table salt you probably get if you eat a Western diet.

Today, K found bananas on sale - 5 for 100 yen (about 86 US cents). These bananas are each about 220 grams, so for my US friends that works out to about 35 cents a pound. She bought ten and used some to make banana bread with blue berries (yum!).

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Banana Bread with Blue Berries - won't last long in this house...

What got me on the banana thing tonight, besides banana bread? .... no, not the "papa's got the shipfitter blues, and loving you has made me bananas" song... It was a post on Peceli and Wendy's blog, Babasiga. Wendy is used to getting about 6 bananas for a dollar in Fiji, but right now she's at their Australia home and bananas have become scarce. I'll let you visit her blog and read why that is and about how much she had to pay for ONE banana. (Hint for all you carnivores out there: how much does steak cost?).

Hopefully, you don't have to pay too much for this wonderful fruit. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, they can help protect you from stroke and ulcers, lower your blood pressure, and give you a boost of energy to start the day. Even when they are expensive they are probably cheaper than prescription drugs for doing those things and have no side effects that I know of.

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Go Bananas!

Sunshine On My Shoulder

Inspite of predictions for another week of overcast and rainy skies, the sun popped out Tuesday around mid-day and gave Kashima an afternoon of blue skies accented with scattered clouds. Stayed nice Wednesday and Thursday too.

I'm not the only one who responded in a positive way to these developments. As I walked and rode my bike around the neighborhood, I noticed a lot of things putting on a happy face.

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The birds were out in numbers - swallows, swifts, sparrows, crows, etc. Here, a flock of sparrows wheels around the top of a cedar at the local shrine a block from our house.

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Down by the Shingon Buddhist Temple, what I guess is a variety of orchid spreads its petals.

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The hibiscus is the State flower of Hawaii. This one is the biggest I've ever seen, measuring over 25 cm (10 inches) across, it is bigger than our dinner plates. It is thin enough to let the light through, yet strong enough to remain flat. Amazing.

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Tiger Lilies are one of my favorites around the neighborhood.

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Yes, the insects like the good weather too. This fancy lady (shown actual size) is an Asian Longhorned Beetle. They have made their way by ship to parts of the US around Chigago, New York, and New Jersey, where they do major damage to hardwood trees. Hopefully they can be controlled and restricted to the evironments where they belong.

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Yup. Another Rhino Beetle in my yard. This one has a four pointed horn and measured 7 cm including the horn. He was munching on a fallen kumquat when I spotted him.

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We are blessed with lots of butterflies around here. I have trouble catching them with the camera as they are always on the move. Not the best shot I'll admit, but the best I could do at a distance. This is a monki-ageha butterfly (English name "Red Helen" - Helen happens to be my mom's name) which measures about 10 cm (4 inches) across.

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Here's one I "borrowed" from a butterfly website so you can see just how beautiful they are.

A lot more plants and animals came out to enjoy the sun with me. Down at the lake, the rice fields are a lush green and the fish are jumping and birds circling overhead.

After such a long rainy season, I feel like singing that John Denver song - "sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy"...

Enjoy your summer. (And if you're "down under", enjoy your Winter.)


Rhinoceros In My Yard!

It nearly came down on me as opened the garage door this morning, but missed me by inches - a rhinoceros! There I was, staring at its huge horn as the rhino glared back at me. I was amazed at its size. Where did this thing come from?

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Well, OK, so it was just a Rhinoceros Beetle, but I could scarcely have been more startled. This one is a large example of the species at 5 cm (about 2 inches) in length. I swept him off the driveway, out of Momo's reach (she likes to "play" with insects), and he climbed up on a piece of wood where I took this picture:

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Beetles are popular pets for Japanese kids. They are easy to catch in the wild and just require a small amount of fruit or veggies to munch on for food. They live for two or three months. In the cities they are sold in department stores along with plastic cages. The Rhino beetles are common and sell for around US$7.00, but the two horned stag beetle, called o-kuwagata here, are more difficult to find and can bring prices of US$400 to over $1000. Plastic models of beetles and other insects are also a common sight in Japanese toy departments.

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As you can see, the long horn - which only males have - is forked at the end.

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Fiji has some even bigger beetle species. One of them, Xixuthrus heros, a longhorn beetle, is the longest beetle in the world at 16.5 cm. The Taveuni Beetle (Xixuthrus terribilis) is also quite large at some 14 cm. They are endangered and very rare however.

Some people may find beetles cute and want them for pets, but I'm happy to leave them outside, thank you very much.

Great name for a rock band with a big brass section though -
The Horned Beatles
- don't you think?


Rainy Days

It is still "tsuyu" or rainy season in Japan. The weather is warm and rainy. Tsuyu or "baiyu" as it is called, literally means "plum rains". At this time the plums are ripening and the rains often make them fall from the trees. The Japanese make a lovely plum wine with them.

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Snuggling is nice.

So, if you don't have to go to work, what do you like to do on a rainy day?


White Woman's Burden

Take up the White Man's burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

from The White Man's Burden
-Rudyard Kipling

This poem, of which I have only reprinted the first verse, was written in 1899, a year after the USA took the Philippines from Spain and began the slaughter of Filipino people in order to bring the survivors a "perfect justice" as US General William Shafter put it at the time. Shafter thought that goal might require killing half the population. Kipling’s poem reflects the attitude of empire, whether of Victorian England, the USA, or any other empire that pretends to be doing good as they subjugate other nations and peoples to serve their own economic and strategic ends. It is the patronizing attitude that Europeans had a solemn duty to impart their "superior" culture to the wild heathens which occuped the rest of the planet - even if it killed them.

I have just started reading a rather amazing book of this period, published in 1907. It is about Fiji and other island nations, the author having been hired by Cunard Steamship Line to write travel brochures for South Pacific destinations as well as an investment prospectus for British entrepreneurs who might wish to invest and settle in Fiji. Those islands had been ruled by Britain since 1874, having been signed over to them by Ratu Sera Espenisa Cakobau, the King of Fiji, to avoid possible military action by the USA due to Fiji's default on debts to American businesses.

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Fiji Post Card from 1905 (courtesy Jane's Fiji Home Page)

A striking attribute of the author of the book I am reading is that she is, well, a "she". Beatrice Grimshaw was born in Ireland in 1870. She became a journalist in Dublin and then worked for a series of steamship companies. She traveled the South Pacific, wrote a lot of books, both non-fiction and novels, and lived twenty-seven of her years in New Guinea. She never married. The biographies I have found about here are mostly dry and factual and don't delve into her thoughts or personal life, which is a shame. What she did with her life is so interesting and unusual for a woman of that time (I think) that it would be fascinating to know more about what her motivations were.

The book, titled "Fiji and Its Possibilities", first appeared in England as "From Fiji to the Cannibal Islands", for in addition to Fiji, she also wrote about the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu).

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Photo of Beatrice Grimshaw (1870 - 1953) from frontispiece of the book.

Her voyage to Fiji in 1904 was arranged by Union Steamship Line of New Zealand. Grimshaw spent a good deal of time in Fiji and visited Viti Levu, where her ship ported at the capital city, Suva. She took another ship to Labasa on Vanua Levu and spent six weeks exploring that island. I was delighted to see that she also visited Taveuni. You'll forgive me if I've peeked ahead a bit in the book. My copy is literally falling apart, which is to be expected from a book that is ninety-nine years old. I have put a plain cover over it to hold it together and just leaf through it at the dining table where I don't have to put undue stress on it. I'd like to get one in better shape, but they come rather dear on the used book market. An interesting aside - my copy is stamped on the copyright page with the seal of the Kansas State Library, Topeka, Kansas with the date July 30, 1908.

It promises to be interesting reading. The colonial attitude is a bit hard to take I'll admit. At times she is downright racist, such as this line which came after her description of an incident on Vanua Levu. She felt slighted by some Fijians who didn't stop to remove their headbands in respect as she passed: "A Fijian, at best, is only outwardly submissive to the white race. He is a craven at heart, and therefore easily kept down by the British rule; but loyalty to an employer is not one of his virtures." Whoa! Obviously both the lands and the people of acquired nations were there for sole purpose of serving the empire, of which she evidently felt she was a representative by birth. The white woman's burden I suppose.

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(click map for a larger more detailed one)

At the same time, I find it remarkable that a woman who grew up in Victorian England was so independent as a journalist and writer and so adventuresome as to travel to the other side of the globe and experience undeveloped countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and run a plantation for several years. I am not sure whether the case is that she was a remarkable woman for the time, or, perhaps rather that the accomplishments of women are largely ignored by historians, so when I do read about one, I assume she was an aberration. Food for thought.

The history books we get in school - including many at university - are at the very least watered down, and more often than not entirely biased. Reading contemporaneous accounts of events is a good antidote.

Grimshaw also has a religious bent that is not lost on the reader. (I'm not knocking anyone's religion here, just the condescending attitude that a person of one faith might have for a person of a different one.) Though born into a protestant family, she converted to Catholicism at age 23, the act of which itself indicates a level of dedication regardless of the specific religions involved. She says that she found strength in the church where ever she went. That fits into the colonial mind set as well. As they say in Hawaii, the missionaries came to do good, and did very well. Not that money was the motivation of the missionaries - it certainly was not in Hawaii's case, but colonialism is a kind of package deal in which most of conquering people believe they are doing the new subjects a favor by blessing them with a better economic system, medicine, education, modernization, religion, "spreading democracy", etc. Whatever benefits, real or imagined, accrue to the conquered, the bottom line is that the empire profits in commerce and influence.

In future posts, I'll share some of Grimshaw's observations and experiences, along with some photo illustrations from the book and some of my own photos of the same areas as they appear today.


Vikings and Panthers

If you think I'm going to talk NFL Football, you are on the wrong blog. I am SO not into football, I had to look up those teams just now to make sure they were both in the NFL. Really.

Anyway, this post is about a couple of blogs I'd like you visit. One comes from none other than Pink Panther in Macao. Pink Panther has been "hanging around" many blogs for the last several months, including this one, kind of like a kid who wants to learn to fly will stand looking through an airport fence. Don't get me wrong, we all have enjoyed Pink Panther's comments and we looked forward to her striking out on her own. Well, she finally has got her own wings and started up a blog called "Life of Interspersion". She's off to a great start with some beautiful pictures from the local Lotus Festival and a wonderful shot of a baby Francois' leaf-monkey with golden fur. Her latest post is in Chinese and something about old style letter writing between friends vs making friends with electronic messaging. Welcome to the wide world of blogging, Pink Panther.

The other blog is authored by Martin Frid from Sweden (land of the Vikings) who happens to live in Tokyo, Japan. Martin's blog "Kurashi News From Japan" has posts with the news you probably missed of interest to consumers and environmentalists (and more) in Japan, Korea, and Sweden. Pretty interesting mix, smorgasbord style you might say, always served up with wisdom and humor on the side.

So when you have a few minutes, pay these two a visit.

In case you have been wondering, I've been doing some "spring cleaning" on my sideboard. My regular blog links will be back shortly. I've missed them too.


Fate Is The Hunter

Last Wednesday night about 30 miles south of San Francisco in Menlo Park, California, an 18 year old woman (who had been issued her license only five months ago) was racing her Ford Mustang against a Cadillac Escalade along Highway 101 at speeds of 85 to 100 mph (136 to 160 kph). While trying to pass the Cadillac on the right, the Mustang sideswiped a Ford Explorer causing it to careen out of control and flip over several times killing the three occupants of that vehicle. The driver of the Mustang was unharmed and is being held on $300,000 bail on charges of manslaughter.

One might skim over such news such as part of the "normal" everyday carnage of America's highways where around 43,000 people are killed and 2.93 million people are injured every year. In fact, in the USA, car crashes are the leading cause of death for ages 3 through 33. (And you thought war was hell).

This case is different, however, as the people killed in the Explorer were Prince Tu'ipelehake and his wife Princess Kaimana of the Kingdom of Tonga along with their driver.

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Prince Tu'ipelehake and his wife Princess Kaimana

Regular readers of this blog know I don't get very excited over the fates of royalty. Again, this case is an exception. You see, in Tonga the 88 year old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, appoints most of the politicians. Only a minority of the parliament are elected. Prince Tu'ipelehake (a nephew of the king) was the leading reformist in the royal family. He was head of a national committee formed just a year ago to study democratic reforms for the kingdom, and was in California to meet with expatriates there on the last leg of the group’s public consultations.

The royal family has come under sharp criticism in the last several years with charges which include drug running and corruption. The pressure for reform has been stepped up especially by expatriates in the USA and New Zealand who send large amounts of funds to to their families in Tonga. The reform group headed by Tu'ipelehake has the endorsement of the king by the way, as the government recognizes the need for reforms to move the country forward, provide more opportunity at home and stem the flow of Tongans moving abroad (and I am sure, to keep the money flowing in).

In the wake of this tragedy, I am sure the people of Tonga will move ahead with even greater resolve to make their country a better place, but how sad that such a senseless accident will impact an entire nation. One can wonder why it was their car that was struck. Why does a tornado level one house and leave another standing? There are too many variables to calculate such things. I don't know. In such cases as this, fate is the hunter.


Missing Wingman

When I was a kid my dad had a business across the street from what is now the world's busiest general aviation airport as well as 18th busiest airport in the world - Van Nuys Airport, California. [For you aviation buffs out there - an outstanding -and I mean outstanding - movie is available on DVD about the history of Van Nuys Airport titled "One Six Right" with great pictures, music, famous personalities you didn't know were pilots, aerial scenes, etc.] Van Nuys Airport was a big part of my life growing up. The house my family lived in when I was born was just a few blocks from it.

An aeronautical engineer and pilot, Dad owned a few airplanes over the years, the first two being the two seat Ercoupe. Perhaps I'll write in more detail about them another time. I don't remember much about the first one other than it had cloth covered wings and tail, and a red engine cowling on which he painted a reindeer with a red nose and the name "Rudolph". While he refurbished the second one, in addition to taking me flying on occasion, he would take me with him to the airport and let me just hang around and sit in the cockpit.

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1946 Ercoupe

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Young Pandabonium in Ercoupe "47 Hotel" in the late 1950's

That 1946 Ercoupe, number N2047H or "47 Hotel" in aviation radio jargon, is still flying by the way - three owners and a full restoration later. She is now yellow with black trim.

There were also some WWII salvage aircraft and parts on the tarmac at Van Nuys. My favorite was a Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter plane. It sat forlorn, parked in a corner with the paint gone, tires flat, one door missing (yes, the P-39 had doors on each side) and the Plexiglas windows either crazed and opaque or broken altogether. Inside, the instrument panel had been stripped of anything useful and one faced empty holes with wires and cables dangling behind. But to a 10-year-old kid, that old hulk was a ticket to a flight of dreams.

I would sit in the bare metal cockpit, my head below the level of the windows (no parachute to sit on), and yell "clear!" as I fired up the 1,150 horsepower Allison engine in my mind. Then I'd grab the control stick, shove the throttle forward and fly that bird to the windswept heights, firing the cannon at my imaginary foe. My secret wish was to buy it for $50 and park it in our front yard where I could restore it with money from my allowance, mowing lawns and paper route. That's part of the beauty of being a kid - your dreams don't have to be "practical".

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Bell P-39 Airacobra

The XP-39 was a state of the art fighter plane in 1939. A radical design, it placed the engine behind the cockpit to make room in the nose for powerful 37mm cannon that fired through the propeller hub. It could fly the pants off anything the Axis had in production. Before accepting it, however, the Army Air Corps engineers made several (very poor) design changes, the worst of which was to do away with a two stage supercharger, which resulted in what pilots of the time called "an iron dog". Bell was furious, but the company was nearly bankrupt and accepted the changes to make the sale. As re-designed, the P-39 could not handle high altitude, was slow climbing, the cannon often jammed after a few shots, and it was difficult to control. Still, at lower altitudes with a good pilot, it could even hold its own with the awesome Mitsubishi Zero. The Soviets actually did well with it against the superior German machines. Whatever its drawbacks, as America entered the war, it was one of the few aircraft the Air Force had and so it was put into service "warts and all".

Adding to my interest in planes, I had an uncle who retired in the 1960s as a full-bird colonel in the USAF. He flew P-40s in the Pacific theater as well as transports in Alaska during the war. He (and my aunt) also influenced my early interest in Japan and Hawaii as he was stationed in Japan in the 1950's and commanded Wheeler AFB on Oahu after that. I remember visiting them in the early 1960's at Wheeler. His office still had bullet holes in the walls left as a reminder of December 7, 1941.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, large numbers of P-39s were flown to the South Pacific and some were stationed in Nadi (pronounced Nan-dee), Fiji to protect those islands as well as the hundreds of fighter and bomber aircraft being ferried across the Pacific that used Nadi as a refueling point.

On April 22nd of 1942, a flight of two P-39s took off from Nadi on a sortie over the main island of Viti Levu. After ten minutes or so they were called back to base. Only one of the planes returned. The aircraft of one Lt. James W Blose went missing. The pilot has been on the MIA list ever since; the plane and pilot having disappeared in Viti Levu's mountainous jungle-covered interior. That is, until now.

In late 2004, a pig hunter came across wreckage of a plane now believed to be the missing P-39. Last month, an Air Force medical unit was sent to Fiji to train military members and participate in a health outreach program giving free medical and dental check ups. (Yes, the US Military still does some things worthy of praise.) While there, they have been taken to the wreck site and found human remains including part of a skull. These will be returned to Hawaii for identification.

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Lt.Col. (Doctor) Mylene Huynh and Capt. Kari Stone inspect their gear loaded on a C-17 Globemaster III while preparing to depart on a mission to Suva, Fiji from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii on June 14, 2006.

It is likely, I think, that the remains will be confirmed to be those of Lt. Blose and will be laid to rest at long last in the USA. Though the P-39 had plenty of quirks that could be the basis for speculation, the cause of the crash will no doubt always remain a mystery.

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May you rest in peace, Lt. Blose. Thank you for your service. I am also grateful for a story that brings back wonderful memories of my childhood dreams to "dance the skies on laughter silvered wings".

Web of Love

Inspired by the Moody Minstrel's picture of a beautiful kogane-gumo (gold spider) on its web, I've been paying more attention to spider webs, which at this time of year are plentiful around here. The other day, after a rain, I noticed a large web of about 60 cm (2 feet) that is suspended on a span of perhaps two meters running from our garage roof down to a wall. Covered with water droplets, it stood out like a diamond tiara against the dark background. I have not found the spider to compliment it on its artful engineering feat.

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“The means to gain happiness is to throw out from oneself like a spider in all directions an adhesive web of love, and to catch in it all that comes”
-Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy


Coming Home to Stay

“Endless money forms the sinews of war.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

The Republic of Fiji is not a member of the United States of America's "coalition of the willing" now occupying Iraq. While there are some 224 Fijian soldiers in Iraq, they are there under the auspices of the United Nations, to protect UN officials, not to fight a war.

So how is it that in proportion to the country's population (around 900,000), Fiji has suffered almost double the loss of life in the Iraq occupation than the USA? It's true. In the last two months, fourteen Fijian men have died there, three of them a few weeks ago when a roadside bomb exploded next to their convoy north of Baghdad.

It happens this way. The US is operating with minimum numbers of its own troops on the ground. This is not to save money, far from it. Rather it is to avoid implementing military conscription, which would be politically untenable. However, they cannot meet their recruiting goals, so a lot of security jobs must be done by contract to private enterprise. But every problem presents an opportunity as they say, and there is a lot of money to be made in filling the personnel gap.

So the office of the Vice President, who we all know was previously CEO of Halliburton Inc., gives no-bid contracts to Bechtel (whose board members include former secretary of state George Schulz and Caspar Weinberger, who was Secretary of Defense under Reagan, indicted for perjury in the Iran Contra scandals and pardoned by Bush the Senior) to build stuff in Iraq. Bechtel in turn hires a company called Armour Group Ltd to provide people for duties such as guarding their projects and convoys of trucks. Armour Group gets paid $US7000 per week per guard. (I am ever glad I don't have to pay US taxes anymore). To fill these positions, Armour Group hires a recruiting company by the name of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security goes about finding recruits for these positions. The pay offered is US$1500 per week. Now, that's about four or five times what a US soldier is paid and about three times the US per capital income, but it isn't enough to get most US citizens to risk their lives in Iraq. No way. So they look to lower income countries in Latin America and the South Pacific for recruits. US$1500 per week is a huge sum to someone in Fiji where the per capital income is around US$1850 per year. A guy could sign up for 18 months and come home with a tidy sum - enough to build a house, settle down, take care of his family, do things for his village. About 1,000 Fijians, mostly ex-soldiers and police officers, are working in Iraq and Kuwait for private security companies.

"Vilisoni was a happy man," said his sister, Senitiki, smiling at pictures of him horsing around in an Iraqi pool, or strumming a guitar. "He was always joking and telling stories."

That is exactly what Vilisoni Gauna decided to do when he signed on to protect a Bechtel power plant. He was from Nukuni Village, Ono-i-lau Island, in the Lau group of eastern Fiji. At the end of his first contract in May, he signed up for one more, this time it was for a more dangerous job - convoy security.

Vilisoni is home now, but he won't be building a house, or getting married or any of the other things he had planned. Mr. Gauna, 44 and a bachelor, Penaia Vakaotia, 32, and Mikaele Banidawa, 45 and father of three, were killed in that roadside blast last month.

So, that is how an empire's thirst for resources can bring grief to the people of a peaceful island nation half a world away from the conflict. The question that still begs for a sensible answer is, "why"?


Just Another Brick In The Wall

My new desktop picture shows a lichen covered retaining wall not far from our house here in Japan. Lichens are one of those things that are so ubiquitous that they become background and usually escape out attention. Yet if one takes the time to stop and look, they offer a subtle beauty with their colors and patterns.

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Lichen are found on every continent on the planet and the in harshest climates, from the Sahara Desert to Antarctica. Taking form with many different shapes and colors, they are symbiotic organisms made from members of two and sometimes three kingdoms: fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria. The lichen fungi uses one or both of the other two for their food making capability. In exchange, the lichen offers the algae a structure to live in. Fungi and algae can live separately, but they do better together.

As part of the ecosystem, they provide food for some birds and animals and are used by traditional Native American cultures as medicines and dyes. Lichen grow so very slowly that some of them are believed to be among the oldest living things on earth.

So take a look around - on the ground, in the trees, on rocks - and discover the beauty of the lowly lichen.