Reptiles have gone through boom and bust cycles in Japan, but this time they appear here to stay. Though still a small proportion of Japan's pet population, Harada said about 80,000 people now own them. Clean and quiet, they usually reside in terrariums -- a big plus in Japan's cramped apartments, whose leases often forbid conventional four-footed friends because of their mess and noise. "They're also way more convenient than dogs or cats because you don't have to make time for walks. And some of them don't even need to be fed more than once a week, freeing you to go off on trips," said Harada, who himself owns 30 reptiles. Nationwide, snakes and lizards tie for second place in popularity among reptiles. Turtles remain number one, in part due to a well-known Japanese folktale, "Urashima Taro", in which a young man rescues a turtle, who changes into a beautiful woman and takes him to a kingdom under the sea.
Social pressure also has an impact. "A lot of people are afraid their neighbours will think they're weird if they keep snakes or iguanas," said the owner of a Tokyo reptile shop, declining to give his name. But many reptile lovers believe the real reason behind their popularity is the Zen-like solace they offer from the hurly-burly of real life -- especially now, when economic pressures and job fears loom large for many. "Reptiles have very contained lives in their own environment and live at their own pace," said Hitoshi Koieyama, director of the Reptile Clinic, Japan's only reptile hospital. "This seems to make people feel calm." There is, in addition, the cathartic effect of fright. "Reptiles, especially snakes, bring a bit of the fear of nature into your home. People need that tiny sense of danger," Harada said. "If a snake doesn't come after you, it's no fun." This pleasure does not come cheaply. While some iguanas can cost as little as 2,000 yen ($18.25), more exotic beasts such as chameleons can cost hundreds of dollars. And some go for as much as 300,000 yen or more, encouraging a black market in illegal imports. Several Japanese, including a couple on their honeymoon, were arrested in Australia last year, their luggage found crammed with rare reptiles.
Although the ascetic nature of reptiles makes their care seem easier than that of other pets, this is deceptive. In fact, detailed recreation of their natural environment, with dry sand or lush greens, and elaborate calibrations of heat and humidity, is needed to keep them alive. The smallest deviation may cause trouble. Air-conditioning, essential for human owners in Japan's hot, soggy summers, gives many animals colds or pneumonia, while the dry heat of winter homes can cause life-threatening constipation in iguanas. Maintaining a nutritional balance is also hard, Koieyama said. "People have to give them as much attention as their kids." Or even more. Koieyama said he knew at least one mother who spent more time on her iguanas than her children. In his clinic, Koieyama treats ailing reptiles with a mix of gentleness and cutting-edge technology, referring to his patients as "little ones". An enervated lizard gets a vitamin injection and is soon jumping around its cage, while a skink with paralysed hindquarters receives a laser treatment. If needed, he even does surgery -- removing eggs from a turtle unable to lay due to stress, or fixing an iguana's broken leg. "It's so hard to tell when a reptile isn't feeling well that they usually come in on the brink of death," he says.
After hearing such problems, Harada decided to start "Scale" magazine to provide help for owners who might not know for example, that the little iguana they were buying would in three years at least triple in size. The glossy, twice-yearly journal is crammed with information on building terrariums, chameleon propagation efforts, and a look at iguana health through the seasons. Ads plug food guaranteed to produce "well-nourished, healthy mice" for feeding snakes. "Reptiles are just really cute," Harada said, struggling to express his feelings. "Even their expressions are cute." "All I have to do is see one little scale, and I just melt."
His passion for the Skycar and its potential to change society is shared by some senior U.S. government scientists, who say he is perfecting the technology necessary to spring commuters from earthbound traffic jams and send them flying free into the skies. "It is not a question of if but of when," said Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, the nation's leading civil aeronautics laboratory. "The market is there. The technology is there. What will slow this down is government regulation."
The M400 Skycar, the result of 30 years of research and the equivalent of more than $100 million in investment, certainly looks like futuristic transportation. With a slim, tapered body hunched between four massive engine cases, the vehicle resembles a ruby-red Batmobile equipped with jets and an elegant single wing rising like a gigantic spoiler off the tail. The passenger compartment features a bubble-like glass canopy to provide views of the landscape below and the endless sky above. The four-seater model is designed to carry a maximum payload of 740 pounds (335 kg), have a range of up to 900 miles (1,440 km) and get roughly 15 miles-per-gallon (24 kpg), using regular automotive fuel. The price tag, thus far, is estimated at a steep $1 million. But Moller officials say they are confident that, with time and increased production, the price could be brought down to a more affordable $60,000.
Jack Allison, the company's vice president, said flight tests were scheduled to begin behind closed doors by the end of September, and that the plan was to display an airborne Skycar to the world media by the end of the year -- although initially the vehicle would only be shown hovering, tethered to a crane. "We want to be close to 100 percent confident before we take it in front of the public," Allison said. When the M400 makes its public debut, it will take its place in a long line of "vertical take off and landing" (VTOL) vehicles that Robert Moller has created, including a series of wacky, flying saucer-style machines that proved more photogenic than airworthy.
Moller, a Canadian-born engineer fascinated by the hovering techniques of hummingbirds and mosquitoes, began working on a VTOL, or "volantor," in his garage in the early 1960s while he was a professor at the University of California at Davis. His first effort, the XM-2, was powerful enough to take off but proved wobbly in the air. For the next 20 years he tinkered with the idea, becoming so committed to its success that he left the university to found Moller International. In 1989 he introduced the M200X, a volantor in which the pilot sits in the middle of a round disc that has eight high-powered fans arranged around its rim. This vehicle was able to take to the air and had good vertical thrust and stability. But it proved balky, sending Moller and his engineering team back to the drawing board.
The scientists agreed that the keys to the project were the engines, which had to be both powerful and lightweight enough to send the Skycar soaring. The answer was found in the rotary engine developed by German scientist Felix Wankel in 1957. Unlike traditional piston engines, Wankel's engine features a triangular rotor turning inside a combustion chamber, a simple and efficient design that has only two moving parts. Moller modified the Wankel engine further, making it significantly lighter and connecting it directly to the fan blades that generate thrust for the Skycar. This thrust is directed through the rounded engine housing and shoots jet-like through vanes that can be angled downward to generate lift, as well as back for forward push. Having bought the technology behind the Wankel engine in 1985, Moller International's improvements have made the motors into a marketable commodity once again. Smaller versions of the engine have been fitted in motorcycles, boats and into a hybrid gas-electric car, all markets for an engine that promises both reliability and relatively low pollution levels. But for Moller the engine will always be first and foremost the "enabling technology" for his Skycar -- the next big thing in moving people around the globe.
Moller's supporters in the scientific community say the Skycar will revolutionize the way people live, a transformation as great as when the automobile supplanted the horse-and-buggy. With advances in satellite tracking technology, planners are close to implementing a system that would allow computers to run small aircraft like the Skycar as 100 percent "fly-by-wire" vehicles -- removing the need for on board pilots and removing the danger of a fender bender at 20,000 feet (6,096 m). NASA's Bushnell said that with computer controlled Skycars moving efficiently through the skies, highway traffic jams would vanish. The vast range afforded by the new vehicles would also change the structure of the community, feeding into similar changes being wrought by the Internet. "There is a lot of empty space in this country," Bushnell said. "With telecommuting, and this machine, you can live where wherever you want. The country will de-urbanize to a much greater extent than it is now."
Automobile industry analysts have been a much harder sell, with few placing bets that the station wagon is headed for the dust heap of history any time soon. "You haven't even got computers running cars yet, let alone aircraft," said Jim Hall, an analyst at Autopacific Inc. "But the real issue is affordability, and the affordability of this thing is not proven. If they end up making a $300,000 flying car that's great, but it's not a growth market."
The restaurant, in the Rue Montorgueil pedestrian zone near Les Halles in central Paris, has just closed for a short break. But founder Philippe Reihac says he will reopen it later this year to continue what he calls both an amusing social experiment and a serious exercise in understanding blindness. "People react differently. Some are claustrophobic and leave immediately, others enjoy it so much they don't want to leave at all, but everyone finds it memorable," he says. "People come for the fun of it. Then they realise they can ask us anything, nothing is taboo. It's amazing the gap there is to fill," says Michel Rossetti, who lost his sight 10 years ago. "I need you to hold hands and form a chain, we're going down into the dark," one of the organisers tells a group of guests as they quaff down orange wine aperitifs. In a bizarre reversal of roles, blind guides shepherd the group through a makeshift restaurant to their tables as they paw vainly at the darkness, wide-eyed and blinking. Once seated, the helpless diners will need braille menus translated and be guided, mouthful by mouthful, through dinner.
"It may sound silly, but there's a certain smug satisfaction in the blind leading the sighted," Rossetti told Reuters with a grin. "I get a lot of pleasure out of it." Once past the three thick curtains which shield out every ray of light, only bumps and squeals disturb the blackness. Faced with a daunting obstacle course of tables and chairs, guests lose any scruples about grabbing strangers to help them. "Help ! Where is everyone?" cries one. "Can someone take my hand? Thanks. Ouch! Hello? Is that a chair? Excellent! Oops, I'm sorry, I didn't see you were sitting on it." Open for just three months, the Gout du Noir is the most ambitious in a series of dark events that Reilhac, a former Cannes film festival administrator, has dreamed up since 1992. In a typical evening, one diner sits down too soon and finds herself alone at the wrong table while another swerves to avoid non-existent pillars. Everybody sticks their fingers into the humous and fish starter while trying to find their plates. As knives slide off plates and forks come up empty, fingers replace cutlery and faces drop to gobble guiltily from plates. "For the first time in my life I licked my plate clean without a single horrified look," one woman said afterwards. Yet the guides politely point out they would never dream of eating sloppily in public -- a gentle reminder the evening is not supposed to end up as a chimpanzees' tea party.
"People generally want to take it seriously and understand our handicap," says Rossetti. "There's always some messing about but if people started throwing food about I'd get up and leave." Shame prevents most guests letting their manners get out of hand as they marvel at how deftly their hosts handle food and wine and how easily they flit to the buffet and back. But for the less-adept sighted diners, every dropped napkin is lost forever and the salt remains elusive to the last. "Can someone pass the bread? Where are you? I can't find your hand," cries one distressed woman, before Rossetti guides her hand to a tendered baguette. "How am I supposed to pour the wine? How will I know when it's full? Oh no! I think it went on my plate, but I don't know," yells the man next to her.
By dessert, the mayhem settles and the hilarity fades. With inhibitions erased by the dark, a barrage of questions is volleyed at the hosts. What do they miss most? Colours. Independence. Being able to tell by someone's expression whether they are interested in what they are saying. What do they hate most? People thinking if you're blind you must be deaf too. That well-wishing passers-by shove you across roads without even asking if you wanted to cross. And the hardest thing? Moving from place to place. The humiliation of asking directions only to find there's nobody there. And the fact that a handicap never goes away. But the guides pepper their answers with funny anecdotes, and the overriding message is optimistic. "People find blindness the most frightening of all handicaps but you can live with it fine as long as the people around you understand what it's like," says Rossetti. After the meal, diners are led upstairs for coffee without getting to see what the restaurant actually looks like. Once in the light, they're amazed to see who they've been talking to and nobody leaves without leaving a comment in the guest book. "A flavoursome encounter, laughter, intimacy, darkness became clear -- what a surprise and what a sweet pleasure for the soul," read one entry. And in almost-perfect braille, another read simply: "SVPER".
After making the leap from alfalfa field to kitchen, the insects' next step could be onto the plates of astronauts. "You can't take cows out to space, but you can carry colonies of insects," said Julieta Ramos Elorduy, an insect specialist at Mexico City's UNAM university and author of several cook books involving insect recipes. "There are 3,687 species in the world of edible insects, and 400 in Mexico. They're extremely nutritional because most of their bodies are made up of proteins. They could be the foodstuff for long space journeys," she added. A space ship could have buckets full of worms multiplying as astronauts blast out to the stars. In Mexico, insects are boiled in lemon, sprinkled with chili or fried in olive oil to make ant egg tacos or bug pate. Sprinkle some ground nuts and seasoning over a plate of pasta and voila!: spaghetti al la gusano amarillo (yellow worms). For Bautista Antonio, going to market in Oaxaca with a large basket of chili-flavored grasshoppers balanced on her head, the space-age possibilities of insect cuisine are of little relevance. On a good day she can make 800 pesos ($86), a fortune in rural Mexico, and she is quite happy to sell to locals and the occasional curious tourist. "It used to be that only Mexicans would buy. Now tourists are also interested, especially Italians," she told Reuters Television.
Eating insects is far from uncommon. In Mexico insect platters are regularly on the menu of poor countryside dwellers. In cities such as Mexico City, insects have become haute cuisine, with restaurants specializing in so-called pre-Hispanic foods charging high prices. In Washington, the "Insect Club" caters to the more delicate palates of North Americans, while Asians, Africans and the aborigines of Australia do not think twice about popping crackly critters down their gullets. Bees, wasps, ants, worms and grasshoppers top the popularity polls in Mexico. The thick, juicy worm that inhabits the Maguey cactus, often put in bottles of the fiery Mezcal spirit to give it that extra bit of bite, is a valued delicacy and is also cherished in Asia as a powerful aphrodisiac. Since Aztec times 500 years ago, fly larvae, or "ahuautle," has been known as the Mexican caviar. From February to April, ant egg hunters cover themselves up and dig down into the nests of ant colonies, searching for the precious larvae known in Mexico as "escamoles."
In the village of Teteapulco in central Hidalgo state, Eufrosina Dias Rios brushed a writhing layer of ants off her husband Juan Aguilar Rodriguez's back as he reached into an ant hole to find his lunch. "This stuff is really good for energy. Around here we all eat escamoles," Aguilar Rodriguez said as enraged ants sprinted all over his body and tried desperately to rescue some of the larvae from the pile he had poured onto a cactus leaf. Ramos Elorduy, author of "Creepy Crawly Cuisine," among others, said insects could become an increasingly important source of food for the world as populations grow and people run out of land for corn fields and cattle. "Insects already play a big role (in nutrition) but their importance will grow, not just because of shortages of other foods. It will be because of their resistance and because they eat everything," she said.
The resistance she mentions is perhaps the biggest problem these days with eating insects. They have gradually become immune to many insecticides but the toxins build up in their bodies and will enter the metabolism of anyone who eats them. That is why Miriam Cortez, a chemical engineer at the Oaxaca Technical Institute, is launching a program to ensure consumers can get grasshoppers with no unsavory ingredients. Under the brand name "Uxharu," the old Zapotec Indian word for grasshoppers, Cortez is bagging and bottling crickets caught in areas where farmers do not use insecticides. "We are trying to bring some standardization into the sales process," she said, adding that the idea was to offer a product that would not harm peoples' health. Cortez's dream is to export packaged grasshoppers to the United States, where up to 20 million immigrant Mexicans live. She reckons they might prefer to chew on a few grasshoppers to eating a bag of potato chips at snack time. There is only one problem with crickets. Their legs tend to get stuck between your teeth.
At the Los Angeles Kennel Club, if you want to treat your dog to something special you can choose from one of 14 individual theme cottages with a lounge bed and a color TV/VCR. The cost is $45 a day. For $55 a day, your dog gets the VIP suite in the night attendant's apartment. Interested in extras? Order up a massage ($40 an hour), hot oil treatment ($10) or special agility training ($6 per session). There is also a Yappy Hour ($2 per day), pool time ($6 per session), kindercare ($6 per day), geriatric care ($6 per day), summer recess ($6 per day), extra play time ($3 per session), picnic in the park ($6 per day) and jamboree ($6 per session). And if you do not have time to drop your pet off at the Kennel Club, which is next to the Los Angeles International Airport, a limousine will pick him or her up. Rates vary by distance. And those finicky felines have not been forgotten either. Luxury kitty condos run $20 a day, while the "VIK" (Very Important Kitty) suite is $30. Kennel managers say it is not unusual for pet owners to spend more for extras than for basic boarding fees. "They'll get extras because they feel guilty," said John Cooney, manager of Club Pet Inc. in Huntington, West Virginia. "People don't like leaving their dogs with other people." Cooney said he has had customers who call from their vacations and ask his staff to give their dog a massage because they just had one.
Club Pet's accommodations have orthopedic floors manufactured by a sports court maker. The luxury suites also have a toddler bed and a color TV/VCR. The staff makes sure their doggy guests enjoy all the popular dog movies, of course, such as "Turner & Hooch" and "All Dogs Go to Heaven." Luxury suites cost $23 weeknights, $25 weekends. Extras include massages ($5 for 10 minutes) and 15-minute playtimes and walks ($3 each). For dinner, dogs can chow down on a gourmet meal of the same high-quality hamburger that is served to greyhounds at a nearby dog track. The kennel is in the second stage of an expansion that will include theme rooms (Aspen, Colorado, or Cancun, Mexico, for example), as well as a swimming pool and grooming school. At Club Pet International in Chantilly, Virginia, outside Washington, which is not affiliated with the West Virginia kennel, dogs get turkey dinners on the major holidays and hamburger and hot dog cookouts on the Fourth of July and Labor Day, according to manager Bob Rollins. A regular extras package that includes morning and evening playtimes and doggy ice cream and cookies at night is $10. The basic boarding fee for an average-sized dog is $17.50.
The kennel is in the process of installing video cameras in some runs so people can keep track of their dogs via the Internet, Rollins said. That extra will cost about $10 a day. For cats, there is a "Purrwood Forest," which has trees and plants and artwork playing off the characters in Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest. Kellie Wright, 34, a certified public accountant from Huntington, West Virginia, said she spends the extra money for the deluxe accommodations at the nearby Club Pet so Chelsea, her 3-year-old West Highland White Terrier, "can be in a more home-like atmosphere." "I don't have children yet so she's like a child," Wright said, adding that Chelsea sleeps with her at home. Asked if Chelsea ever used the TV/VCR at the kennel, Wright laughed, saying, "I don't know. I haven't asked her." Debbie Shannon, a registered nurse from Kenova, West Virginia, uses Club Pet for Deejay, a mixed-breed German Shepherd who will be three in October."I don't treat her like a dog. I like for her to be treated like family," Shannon said. She said she wants Deejay to have a TV at the kennel just like at home. "When I leave her alone at home I always leave the radio or TV on for her because I like for her to have the stimulation and the feeling that she's not there alone."
Krack, the executive director of the kennels group, said the dog owners' feelings make sense. Except for one point. "Dogs are color blind so why would a dog want a color TV set?" he asked. "Black and white would be perfectly fine for the dog -- but not for the owner."
Kapow! One woman watching the show on Canada's Global Television was less than amused and fired off a letter to the channel's president. "Televising this anti-woman cartoon demands that you personally offer a televised apology to woman viewers of Global Television," wrote the complainant. Global replied that the cartoon in fact portrayed the female characters in a strong light. "Given this, we do not believe that this episode of Bugs Bunny portrays women in a negative way, nor that it contravenes any provision of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code," it said. Perhaps not surprisingly, this did not satisfy the woman, who then complained to the broadcasting standards council. "If the audience had been adults, perhaps we could chuckle and forget it. This cartoon was aimed at children who are forming their attitudes to men and women," she wrote. "Therefore, this cartoon is offensive not only to women, but it gives a wrong idea of women to impressionable children -- women are evil inside." The council rejected the complaint, saying in its final judgment that while it sympathized with the viewer, the allegedly offensive phrase had clearly been a throwaway line. "Moreover, there is nothing in the demeanor of Bugs Bunny or any other character or element of the episode of the 'Bugs Bunny and Tweety' show which suggests a program attitude which could be broadly interpreted as constituting 'negative or degrading comments on the role and nature of women'," it said. That's all, folks.
But the local chapter of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) said Wednesday the apology was too little, too late. It said it was organizing pickets at Disney offices and stores in Los Angeles starting on Thursday. "There should be zero tolerance for this type of hatemongering and racial slander. We are not going to stand for it," said CORE vice chairwoman Sandra Moore. "We know of cases where young white males were riding around in their cars hollering at black women 'We just won a black hoe. Get in the car,'" Moore said, adding that other black activist groups were supporting the protest. The promotion ran on a KLOS-FM talk show for six weeks last year until a black woman employee at the radio station complained and it was discontinued. ABC said there no complaints from listeners at the time. Moore called for the two disc jockeys involved in the promotion -- Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps -- to undergo diversity training organized by black groups rather than in-house courses. Thompson and Phelps, whose show is a key attraction at KLOS-FM, are currently on vacation. Their show has continued and ABC did not specify what disciplinary action had been taken against them.
When he got to the Italian city, Rumbler was invited to the palazzo, where Cenni's "son" said his father was stuck at the hospital with his dying mother. "Inside, they were playing classical music very loudly. The son apologised for his father's absence and asked me to describe the portfolio of prints I had brought with me," Rumbler said. After two hours of waiting and phone calls, Rumbler was persuaded to leave the prints overnight so Cenni could see them when he got home. His guarantee? A receipt from the son. "I have to admit, it was our wedding anniversary and the print he wanted was one I hadn't managed to sell for a year. We were a little bit careless which is not an excuse," he said. After leaving, Rumbler never saw the Cennis again. "At first, I thought I would have a heart attack. Then I thought I would weep. It was a large amount of money, but I had to say Oh la, it was all our fault," he said.
The only consolation is that Rumbler is not the only one -- several of his colleagues have been similarly duped. "It was the same set-up each time. It was a fairly elaborate scheme," Sarah Jackson, historic claims director of the Art Loss Register in London, told Reuters. "(Cenni) would be unable to be there because he had a dying mother so the shipper or assistant would be left with the option of taking the painting home or leaving it in exchange for a receipt," she said. Some dealers were actually paid for the works of art but the cheques bounced. "It's unbelievable, absolutely amazing," said Christopher Mendez, a print dealer in London who alerted the police when two Italians tried to sell him some of Rumbler's stolen prints.
Interpol, the international police organisation, confirmed the scam was under investigation but declined to give details. "There have been swindles before but never as complicated as this," Mendez told Reuters. Rumbler had sent a list of the stolen prints to Mendez. Shortly afterwards, the two Italians came to Mendez's office, offering the very same prints for sale. "When these two idiots came in, I called the police," Mendez said. "What I can't understand is it was such a stupid thing to try to sell on the open market." Rumbler got 10 prints back, but one was badly damaged. He is out of pocket some $180,000. Jackson said she had not been able to determine how much money had been lost. "Not every dealer who has been duped has told the police or some may not have realised they were part of the same scam. No-one knows the size of this," she said. Rumbler sent out hundreds of messages to colleagues to warn them of the conniving conmen. It was only after his return from Venice that he realised some of the works on display in the palazzo had been prised from their owners only hours before.
"For years we've heard all the ideas for the perfect 'sports fan' chair -- you know, the kind that you can just hunker down in without having to get up between plays," La-Z-Boy vice president John Case said in a statement. "We figured, Why not? Let's make it. "Who needs skybox seats when you can get front-row luxury in your own living room?" Case said. "Oasis is the ultimate recliner for the true sports fan." La-Z-Boy said the chair will be available in a wide array of fabrics and leathers, and the company is even planning on introducing demonstration models in October in the colors of various sports teams.
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