Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Back in the Day IV

This is Back in the Day IV. I came across some old photos on my last trip to Florida and figured I'd post a few to the old blog. I'll see about posting more photos over the next few weeks.

Senior Year Cross Country: I ran cross country in 11th and 12th grade.  Steve Oakley was the best runner, but I got the captain pin at the end of the season.
"Family" Photo: This is the only photo in existence that includes my mother, father, and brother.  It was taken in 1994, 11 years after my parents divorced.  I don't remember if we took this photo under the condition that nobody on Saipan ever saw it, but I wouldn't be surprised if we had.
High School Graduation: Eddie Murphy popularized the collarless shirt in the 1990s.  I almost wasn't allowed to graduate because I wasn't wearing a tie with my collarless shirt.  I had to borrow Dad's tie.
Track Star: This photo is also from 1994.  I remember my big accomplishment that season was getting my mile under 5:00.

Blue Steel: I posted this mainly so that my friends could make fun of how fat I've gotten.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jamaican in China

Alright, alright, so I said that last one was going to be the last blog of the year. I lied.

My good friend Walt Goodridge has been nominated for a Jamaican Blog Award in the category of Best Overseas Jamaican Blog for his blog, Jamaican in China. Please take a moment out of your otherwise busy schedule to help Walt. Visit the Jamaican Blog Award website and vote for Jamaican in China.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas

One day I'll act like a grown up and send Christmas cards to all my friends, family, and colleagues. That day has not arrived yet.

Merry Christmas, faithful readers.

Playing with Other People's Livelihoods

Rampant systemic corruption is the number one reason the Northern Mariana Island's economy has been in a downturn since 1997. The other excuses, the Asian economic crisis in 1997, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, SARS in 2003, JAL pulling out in 2005, and President Bush's economic policies for the last decade, are just that, excuses.

Things will not get better in the islands until the corruption ends. Is it really worth going through the list of the most egregious examples? No. Read Saipan's newspapers on any given day and there is bound to be a story about government corruption.

Today's story of corruption has the Speaker of the House suggesting that constituents of lawmakers not aligned with the Speaker be fired from their government jobs. However horrible it is to retaliate against a government worker for not supporting you in an election, retaliating against a government worker to force the will of another politician raises things to a new level of douchebaggery. Imagine what would happen if Nancy Pelosi threatened to close down government offices in states with Republican senators. What investor in their right mind would spend a single penny in a place like that?

The fact that many of the government employees on Tinian and Rota are useless unqualified cronies is besides the point. People's jobs and livelihoods should not depend on the whims of one person. Those workers have families, debt, and responsibilities. They should not be used as pawns by the people elected to represent them.

Casinos are not a magic bullet for killing the Northern Mariana Islands' recession. The answer to improving the economy lies in creating a government and rule of law that is uniformly enforced, not dependent on family relations and political alliances. Even if Froilan gets this casino, who is to say that he won't change his mind and turn on the casino investors the way he has turned on the people of Tinian and Rota. Would you trust millions of dollars to one man's mood swings?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kilili's Sprint Update

From Delegate Kilili:
Since being alerted by constituents that Sprint, the telecommunications company, was incorrectly billing calls to area code 670, the Northern Marianas, at the rate for calls to country code 670, East Timor, I have been working with the company to resolve the billing mistake and refund customers money. In some cases thousands of dollars are involved because of Sprint’s error. But we have been able to get Sprint to agree to reverse these charges. If you know a Sprint user who is being billed at the East Timor call rates of $4 per minute for calls to the NMI, please let them know to contact their congressional office for assistance.
And in vase you were wondering, Verizon Wireless still sucks.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Snowy Days Are Here Again

It is snowing in our nation's capitol today.  How awesome is that?  Not so awesome if you're driving.  My drive to the Metro station took about twice as long as usual.  I learned today that the Mini Cooper was not designed for snow.

It seems like only yesterday I was living in the winter wonderland of Takaoka, Japan. Sometimes it is hard to believe I went from Japan, to Saipan, and now Washington, DC.  How did that happen?

Tomorrow is my last day here at the Smithsonian (did I just admit to blogging from work?), but if tomorrow is a snow day, today might be my last day. We'll see how deep the snow is in the morning, I guess.  I'm probably going to stay on as a volunteer, though.  I'm no longer coordinating islandwide cleanups, so I need something to do in my free time.

Since I've been here I've created 273 Google Ocean posts, making me the largest contributor to the Explore the Ocean layer of Google Earth (click on the Explore My Ocean badge on this blog to see my work).  The media team here has created a video to highlight the posts I've created, which the Smithsonian will release as soon as the Google Ocean page is finished on the Ocean Portal (no timeline on that yet).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saipan is not in East Timor

Lately Sprint Wireless has been charging $4.00/min for phone calls to Saipan, listing the calls as East Timor when the monthly statement arrives. I don't know much, but I know that Saipan is not in East Timor.

As a new Sprint customer (Verizon SUCKS!), I don't want to have to pay $4.00/min when I call Brad Ruszala to get the play by play of his latest workout.

I'm trying to enlist the help of the United States Congress in this fight, so I sent this letter to Kilili:

Monday, December 13, 2010

CNMI Shark Fin Ban

Shark fins in Palau: I do not believe that there is a big shark fishery in the CNMI, but the demand for shark fins in the CNMI is having an impact on shark populations region-wide.   The rest of the photos in this blog post show how much shark-derived product is being sold in the CNMI.
The CNMI is close to enacting a law that would ban shark fins. HB 17-94 would "prohibit any person from possessing, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distributing shark fins in the CNMI." The CNMI bill was inspired by similar legislation from Hawaii that is now public law.  However, the Hawaii bill bans all shark products (meat, fins, cartilage, and oil), while the CNMI bill only bans shark fins.

Shark Liver Products: Squalene is made from shark livers.  It is sold in all of the asian health stores on Saipan, including some of the hotels.
The CNMI bill has been making its way through the legislative process for several months now.  Introduced in July 2010 and referred to committee twice, the bill finally passed the House 18-0 last month, but not without amendments that significantly weakened the original protections. The most glaring amendment reads, "a person in possession of a shark fin or a shark fin lawfully taken under Federal or Commonwealth law shall not be subject to the penalties in this Act." These 29 words create a loophole that would effectively exempt all shark fins, rendering the bill meaningless. I will call this the Richard Seman Amendment, since it was included at his behest.

Shark Fin Soup: The greatest demand for shark comes from shark fin soup.  All of the Chinese restaurants serve it.  I remember eating it at the Hyatt Regency Saipan as a kid.
When the bill made its way to the Senate earlier this month the Richard Seman Amendment was NOT removed although jurisdiction was expanded to include the Department of Public Safety, which will make enforcement more likely.  The severity of the fines was also increased and there will be jail time for first time offenders. Last Thursday the Senate passed this new version of the bill 9-0 and sent it back to the House.

Shark Fin Soup: The demand for shark fin soup has led to the depletion of many shark species.
The House now has the option of passing the bill in its current form, or not passing the bill and sending it to conference.  Since the bill was passed by both chambers unanimously, I am sure that the shark fin bill will be passed.  The question now is which version of the bill will be making its way to Governor Benigno R. Fitial's desk.

Shark Cartilage: Shark cartilage is sold as modern day snake oil, promising to cure all kinds of ills.
In the meantime, the world has already started to take notice. Environmental organizations have issues statements, Humane Society International in one, Shark Savers and WildAid in another, that shower accolades on the CNMI leaders. The story is also being picked up by media within the dive community, including and Shark Defenders.

Shark Cartilage: Hey, shark cartilage cures everything the marijuana advocates claim marijuana cures!
It is no surprise that the international environmental and dive communities want to see this bill become law. Sharks are slow growing, mature late, and produce few young. As a result of their biology and overfishing, one third of all pelagic sharks threatened with extinction. The international community is rallying around shark protections around the world, and as such the bill is being followed on Facebook and on message boards by people in places that people in the CNMI would never imagine.

I encourage the House to pass the Senate version of the bill and send this much needed legislation to the governor's desk as soon as possible. The world is moving towards more conservation, and ultimately towards restoration. I want the CNMI to be on that train.

If you are reading this, I encourage you to show your support to the leaders in the CNMI House. Representative Diego Benavente introduced the bill and has been a champion. Rep. Froilan Tenorio is the Speaker of the House, and his support will be key to ensure its passage. The contact information for both leaders is available on the CNMI Legislature website. You can also join the CNMI Shark Fin Free Zone Facebook Group.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Anthology Deadline Next Wednesday

Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands – There is one week remaining for local writers to put the finishing touches on their short stories, poems, and essays before the deadline to submit writing for the upcoming anthology of Mariana writers, Stories from Wild Bill’s: Life, Love, and Spicy Tofu.

According to Wild Bill’s editor Angelo Villagomez, “This is an opportunity for local writers to get published and have their work be available to an international audience.”

Villagomez added, “Our goal is to showcase local talent and in doing so tell some great stories.”

The deadline to submit is Wednesday, December 15, 2010. Submissions will be blind reviewed by a panel of editors and writers chosen for publication will receive two copies of the printed book. The first edition is scheduled for a Spring 2011 publication.

Please refer questions to Villagomez at

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Not OK in America

I'm only making fun of Republicans when I say that America is the greatest country that Jesus ever created. I think this is a great country, but I don't think it is the greatest. There are lots of things I like, but there are some things I don't like. If you can't afford a car, or if you get sick without health insurance, or if you're a gay muslim democrat vegan migrant worker scientist, you're pretty fucked.

With that said, I chose to live in America. This country presents economic and educational opportunities that exist nowhere else in the world, even during the middle of the Great Recession.

Now I'm babbling. Here are some photos of things that I found in the Philippines that would never be allowed in America:

There is a restaurant in Manila called the Hobbit House. They have the place done up in a Lord of the Rings motif, charge (relatively speaking) exorbitant prices for beer and food, sell t-shirts and hats, and, oh, did I mention that all of the waiters are midgets? Maybe I'm being a little too sensitive, but I don't think this would fly in America.  But if it did, I'd probably go there.  Hobbits, girls, and beer?  I'm so there.

Hey, guess what? You're ugly!  We love our plastic surgery in America and while it is fine to give every sorority girl an eating disorder and image issues, we draw the line at telling hideously deformed whatever it is that is in that picture they need some work. 

Americans like having white teeth and would have no problem if the color chart in this girl's hand were showing off the color of her pearly whites, but she's actually showing off her snowy white skin. An advertisement like this would cause outrage in America. I remember a few years back someone accused Rollins College of being racist because their summer school brochure said you'd get a tan while you studied or something along those (tan) lines (ha, ha). You see, some people don't work on their tans because they were born with one. Racists!

And one last thing, I started a Facebook page today called Gay Muslim Democrat Vegan Migrant Worker Scientists for Sarah Palin.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Stupid Donut Holes Again

When I first read the submerged lands bill submitted by Delegate Kilili last year I was concerned that it would cut three gaping donut holes out of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, right in the area with the highest biodiversity and biomass. I raised this issue with the Delegate and he assured me that nothing in his bill would change the monument declaration signed by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009. I'll give Sablan the benefit of the doubt and agree that his bill would not immediately turn President Bush's ocean legacy into Swiss cheese, nonetheless it could lead to a scenario where the islands are constitutionally protected, the federal waters are presidentially protected, and everything in between is open to commercial fishing and other damaging activities.

My reasoning comes directly from the proclamation language (second page, last paragraph):
"Submerged lands that by legislation are subsequently granted by the United States to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands but remain controlled by the United States under the Antiquities Act may remain part of the monument, for coordination of management with the Government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. (emphasis added)"
The word may was the big concession that Governor Fitial negotiated. May was used instead of shall so that down the road the CNMI would have the option of keeping the area protected as a part of the monument or opening it up to commercial fishing, coral harvesting, or other types of non-sustainable activity. May is not what the people of the CNMI wanted and it is not what 6000 people signed their name to support. May is something that was put in at the last minute to appease Governor Fitial and a handful of aides with close ties to the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council.

Delegate Kilili is the highest federal official representing the Northern Mariana Islands. I do not want him to pass off to someone else the decision on whether the submerged lands surrounding Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion may or may not remain a part of the monument. The local leaders on Saipan are too volatile to make an informed decision. They are swayed by blood ties and petty feuds and rarely make decisions based on their merits.

I want Kilili to show leadership and make the decision. Will the submerged lands surrounding the three islands remain or not remain a part of the monument? He should not leave the decision up to someone else.

My position on this issue has been clear since before the monument was declared. The submerged lands surrounding the three islands should be granted to the Northern Mariana Islands, but remain a part of the monument to be co-mananged by the federal and commonwealth governments. The submerged lands bill in its current form does not accomplish this, nor does it provide guidance on who gets to define may, whether it be the US Congress, the US President, the Commonwealth Governor, or possibly the Mayor of Rota.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Congrats, William Aila Jr.!

The Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument (from left to right): Mike Tripp, Ike Cabrera, William Aila Jr., Angelo Villagomez, and Ken Kramer.
Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument's good friend William Aila Jr. has been chosen by governor-elect Neil Abercrombie to be the next Director of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources. William is a pseudo-celebrity on Saipan. He made big news in 2008 when he traveled to Saipan to share his experiences with the creation of what was is now Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. When he visited he appeared on local talk TV and radio, spoke to the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, and met with a number of community and elected leaders.  William helped the leaders and people of Saipan make the decision to advocate for the creation of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.

On behalf of the Saipan Blog and all our readers, Congrats William!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Still Famous in Saipan

During my trip to the Philippines I decided to browse the website of the Mariana Island Nature Alliance, of which I am a former board member and executive director. I was totally stoked to see my mug on their front page!

The photo in the bottom left hand corner is also mine. I took it on Maug during last year's expedition to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. The photo also appears in Our Northern Islands.

I donated the photo to Marine Photo Bank for environmental organizations to use for educational purposes. I'm glad that my past work on Saipan is still able to pay dividends even though I am now thousands of miles away.

Five Year Anniversary

Five years ago today I woke up to a clear fall day, rolled off my futon, and stepped into the kitchen in my small apartment in Takaoka, Japan. I flipped open my laptop and got a video chat request from my brother Alex in Florida.

"Dad's dead."

It is hard to believe that five years have passed.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Get Out of Town

Edz and I had a busy day out and about yesterday. We spent most of the morning at the Manila Ocean Park and then spent a few hours exploring inside Fort Santiago. I thought I'd try making a vlog, a video blog, and this is my first attempt. My skills need some work.

Right now I am packing up my things and Edz is taking a nap. I'm going to wake her up in about an hour and we are going to head to the airport. The Best Western La Corona Hotel (which I highly recommend for price and location) offers a shuttle to the airport for P400, but Edz says that is too expensive and that we should just hail a taxi from the road. At 3:30 AM.

This trip has been great, but I've already started thinking about the pile of things I have to take care of when I get back to work. I really needed the break, though.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This is Why I Blog

I know Brad Ruszala knows why I think this is funny. To the average Filipino, Rusty Lopez means a relatively fancy shoe store in a relatively fancy shopping mall. To the average American, at least to the average American that grew up the way I did, Rusty Lopez conjures up drunken joke telling during college. I'll leave it at that. I will refrain from explaining out of respect for my younger readers.

My Big Fat Filipino Adventure is coming to an end. However familiar I thought I was with Filipino culture before this trip, I still found myself taking pleasure in noticing the small everyday things that are so different from my own culture. I find myself thinking about how I would write about all these things if I were to write about them, but I'm not sure if I'll get around to doing it.

After living in Japan and then Saipan, and now back in the mainland, blogging doesn't hold the same excitement for me that it once did. Still, the beauty that is the world I live in and explaining it through my words and amateur photography are why I still blog.

Maybe 2011 will bring a resurgence to the Saipan Blog. Or maybe I'll stop blogging all together.

Books About Saipan

If you are doing research about Saipan, the Saipan Blog undoubtably comes up in Google search after Yahoo search after Bing search. Over the last six years I've written about nearly every environmental and political issue under the sun, explained how to get your Saipan driver's license, given tips on buying a car, and even posted a hard to find photo of Justin Bieber kissing Miley Cyrus. I also compiled The Master List, a woefully outdated list of all the blogs on Saipan. Posted below is a list of recommended books. There are other books I would add to the list, but for whatever reason the publishers or the authors don't make their books available online (thus limiting their readership to the 37 people living on Saipan who read books regularly). These books are all available online and can be delivered anywhere in the world:


Jamaican on Saipan by Walt Goodridge
Chicken Feathers & Garlic Skin by Chun Yu Wang
Nobodies by John Bowe
Our Northern Islands by Dennis Chan
World Peace, a Blind Wife, and Gecko Tails by David Khorram
The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank
Battling for Saipan by Francis O'Brien


Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy
Warriors in the Crossfire by Nancy Bo Flood

Thursday, November 25, 2010

50% Off for Christmas

Our Northern Islands is available for 50% off the regular price for the next two weeks for shoppers who would like to give the book as a Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa) gift. In order to receive the discount, the book must be purchased on and when prompted the following discount code must be entered: DPQ5DC28.

Our Northern Islands is a book about the first expedition to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and contains over 70 full color photos of the uninhabited islands north of Saipan. Written by recent high school graduate Dennis Chan, the book details the 10 day expedition taken to the newly created Mariana Trench Monument just months after its declaration by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009.

Chan joined the expedition after winning an essay contest sponsored by the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument, "Why I want to the visit the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument."

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will support the educational programs of the Friends of the Monument and create more opportunities like the one given to Dennis.

What people are saying about Our Northern Islands:

"Youthful enthusiasm and neophyte adventure jumps out of the pages of this book.”
-Jaime Vergara
Saipan Tribune

"I am so proud of Dennis for putting this book together at such a young age."
-Delegate Gregorio Sablan
United States Congress

Thanksgiving in Batangas

We decided to spend an extra day at the dive resort and this morning finally made it to Edz' familiy's house. I met Dad, big sister, brother-in-law, and son, Elvin's wife and two kids, and of course, Edrian.

We've decided to not try to fit another trip into the weekend. We are going to stay in Batangas City tonight and tomorrow night and then head back to Manila on Saturday. I board an airplane back to the land of Freedom and Sarah Palin first thing Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

To Eat or Not To Eat

longfin spadefish philippines
Longfin spadefish (Platax teira) at Daryl Laut dive site in Batangas.
I am not one of those environmentalists calling for an end to all fishing.  On the contrary, I want to see better managed oceans, mainly through the creation of systems of marine protected areas.

The science of marine protected areas is conclusive: marine protected areas lead to more fish, bigger fish, more biomass, and greater diversity. The specific increases vary depending on a number of factors including enforcement, size, and even things like unforeseen cascading interactions within the ecosystem.

One of the benefits is the spillover effect, wherein fish who can't read (like Nemo's dad, Marlin) wander outside the boundaries of a marine protected area and into the nets of local fishermen. I learned recently that the spillover effect has its limits, though, and that on average extend only 600 meters past a park's borders (which suggests to me that optimal marine spatial planning would place a marine protected area every 1200 meters).

longfin spadefish fish market
Longfin spadefish (Platax teira) at a fish market in Manila.
So the point of this ramble is that with properly managed marine protected areas, divers like me can contribute to economic development by traveling to coral destinations to scuba dive and local fishermen can continue to sell their catch in local markets.

Also, turtles are awesome!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Holy Great Scuba Diving, Batman!

Edz and I are spending a couple of days on a peninsula just north of Batangas City called Mabini in a small town called Anilao. We are staying at a resort owned by a member of the Philippine Congress that is right on the water. I'd say it's a mid-priced place, but for the American traveler it is positively a steal. My only complaint is that the neighbors are burning garbage and microscopic plastic particles are slowing killing my brain cells as I sip on my Nescafe.

It took us six hours, three buses, two jeepneys, and a motor tricycle to get from Tagaytay to Anilao. After checking in we ordered lunch and set up for two late afternoon dives.

The hotel has its own dive shop and everything we needed to go diving. We met our dive master, Jason, down at the dock at 3 PM, readied our gear, picked our dive spots, and loaded onto the double outrigger bangka.

Our first dive was at Twin Rocks, which has been a marine protected area since 1991. There is some government information about Twin Rocks here and here and a socioeconomic study of the area here.

I thought I'd seen coral diversity before, but from what I've seen so far Saipan has nothing on the Philippines.

Edz thought the same.

That's going to have to do it for the underwater photos for now. I bought a housing for my Canon PowerShot SX210 IS before I left, but no strobe. Let's just say that I'm still figuring things out.

The sun was setting when we descended for our second dive at Koala dive site. Right before we went under, Jason told us, "We'll do a sunset dive. We can probably get about 30 minutes."

While the water was completely still at the surface, when we dropped to about 20 feet we got caught in the current whipping around the peninsula. There was no need to kick at all; the current zipped us along as it got darker and darker and darker. 10 minutes later we were in near darkness flying through empty space. There really wasn't much to see with no flashlights, so we surfaced and got back on the boat. We all agreed the dive was a thrill, even if we couldn't see much.

We have two dives planned for this morning. We'll see how things go from there. We'll either spend the afternoon by the pool or go out again. Edz has a one dive limit most days and making her do even two dives is a stretch.

Fat Haole Pricing Structure

After two days next to Taal Lake, one night spent on the shore and the other on the rim of the ancient volcano, we have traveled to Anilao, Mabini to partake in some scuba diving. The plan is for two dives this afternoon and two dives in the morning. I may have to go to Manila on Thursday for a meeting (work is taking advantage of my vacation), and we are still discussing what we'll do after that.

Taal was a great experience. Please enjoy some photos and some random thoughts:

Eden and her brother, Elvin, are my guides on my big fat Filipino adventure. The experience I'm having is something that I never could have without them, well, unless I invited one of my 500 Filipino Facebook friends to accompany me.

I've been on trips to other countries in Asia where the tour gives us a taste of local transportation. Here in the Philippines I'm doing the real thing, and although the thrill of sucking exhaust and hitting my head on the ceiling of every jeepney will eventually fade, for now I'm having a blast!

It is worth pointing out that I've been subjected to Fat Haole Retail everywhere we go. Without Edz and Elvin, I'd have a lot less cheese in my pocket and the middlemen and drivers would be planning for early retirement.

I'll probably dedicate a full blog post or book chapter to Edz and Elvin's tag team negotiating skills, but as an example, the first offer to rent three horses for a guided tour of Taal Volcano was P7,750 ($180). We ended up paying only P3,500 ($81) after about 20 minutes of negotiations.

During the negotiations I try to pretend I speak Swedish (learned as a child from watching the Muppets). It makes things easier.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I'll eventually stop posting photos of myself and get around to posting photos of the things I've been seeing. We've been using public transportation to get around. In this photo I'm standing at the bus stop waiting for the, uh, bus.

While we were in Manila we hopped on jeepneys for 7 pesos a piece to get around. To get from Manila to Taal Volcano we took the public bus. The 90 minute trip cost us 77 pesos each. To move around the city on the rim of the volcano, Tagaytay, we've been hiring what Edz calls tricycles, motorbikes with a covered sidecar.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Taal Volcano

While wading close to shore of the lake inside the volcano inside the lake on an island, I noticed one of the other visitors brandishing a pistol high above his head.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Reload.

"He's just showing off," explained Edz.

Nevermind. I just stayed in the water until he put the gun away.