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July 29, 2006

The most amazing 84-year-old woman on the planet

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Her name is Na Wal-sook and she is pictured above, heading for work.

What does she do for a living, you ask?

She is a South Korean sea diver, the oldest active such individual according to Norimitsu Onishi's July 17 New York Times story.

But why does that make her so amazing?

Because her job entails putting on a wet suit and mask and free diving — without any breathing devices, instead holding her breath for minutes — into the icy ocean off the tiny islet of Marado, her home, to comb the bottom for shellfish which she then sells to local restaurant owners.

Here's the fascinating article.

    A Tourist Boat Nudges Women Out of the Driver’s Seat

    Besides being the Korean Peninsula’s southernmost point, this windswept, treeless islet was long famous, in these parts at least, for its strong women and docile men.

    The women, after all, held a grip on economic power. They were the ones who earned the family living, diving into the sea for abalone and lucrative shellfish, which they sold on the main island, Cheju.

    The men did not dive, fished little because of the rough seas, and could not farm because the waves crashing against the bluffs sprayed seawater on the flat, sea-cucumber-shaped islet. The men stayed home and took care of the children, or fell into bouts of gambling, drinking and idleness.

    But change, ineluctably, reached even this lost corner which, on a recent visit during the rainy season, was shrouded in mist so thick that it seemed suspended on the world's edge. Change came 14 years ago when a regular ferry linked Marado to Cheju for the first time, bringing with it tourists, settlers, Chinese restaurants and jobs for the formerly jobless men.

    Before the ferry, Marado had mostly dirt roads, intermittent electricity and no link to the outside except the islanders' own small boats.

    As the population grew, from 63 to more than 100, so, too, did the confidence of the men of Marado.

    "Before the ferry, the women had maybe 60 percent of the power and we had 40 percent," said Chi Han-bong, 49 , who now charges $3 to tourists for a ride around the islet on his 12-seat motorized cart. "Now, I'll say we have 70 percent of the power and they have 30 percent."

    People may quibble over the percentage, and whether it has actually tipped in men’s favor, but they agree that the ferry has altered the balance.

    "They really are more confident now," said Kim Choon-geum, 51, who is married to Mr. Chi and serves as the president of the Marado Sea Women’s Association.

    "Now that my husband is making money, I feel I should be deferential to him, a little bit," she said, adding with a smile that she still earned more than he did.

    Like their sisters throughout coastal areas in East Asia, the sea women here spend their days diving into the sea with no breathing devices, simply holding their breath for minutes as they comb the sea bottom for shellfish.

    Women, whose bodies are thought more able to spend long hours in the cold water, experts in the subject say, have had a monopoly on this business, so that the sea women have long enjoyed an uncommonly powerful position in otherwise male-dominated societies.

    "In Marado, women make a lot more money than men," Byun Soon-ock, 75, said in a whisper. "So, of course, we had a bigger voice. My voice was literally bigger than my late husband's. The women were making all the money, so we made the decisions at home. I was the one who allowed my late husband to buy a boat."

    Mrs. Byun and her sister, Byun Choon-ock, 79, both widows, have given up diving and now run a seafood restaurant.

    "All the husbands looked after the kids while we were in the water," the older sister said. "But often they'd get bored out of their minds because they had little to do. So they'd drink and gamble. Not big gambling — just for cigarette money."

    Na Wal-sook, who still dives at the age of 84 and is the oldest active sea woman, dropped by in a glistening wetsuit and mask over her head. She sold the sisters her catch — three octopuses, assorted shells — for $35.

    Her husband, now deceased, Mrs. Na said later, was a drunkard and womanizer, forcing her to rear 10 children on her own. "We had no other way to survive," she said. "We had no choice but to be strong."

    Still, Byun Soon-ock, the younger sister, said she had loved her husband.

    "Even though he was a man, he was more like a woman," she said. "He was so nice and tender. He was very feminine. I couldn’t tell the difference whether he was male or female. So I never begrudged having to feed him."

    Indeed, the men of Marado were highly esteemed for their sincerity compared with their counterparts on the slightly bigger islet just north of here, Kapado, population 314. Since Kapado is suitable for farming, and has long had a dock, its men have been considered wealthier but also more slick.

    Outside the home, even though the job of Marado town leader has always been held by a man, there have been doubts about the reach of his power.

    Choi Sun-ja, 68, who moved here with her husband a decade ago, once got into an argument with some sea women and approached the town leader for help in resolving the dispute.

    "But he told me, 'You know, they don’t listen to me anyway,'"she recalled, saying she realized then that relations between men and women were just different from what they were back on the peninsula. "I revere my husband. It's the only way to make life calm and positive. I don’t see that attitude here."

    The ferry, though, brought development, paved roads, a huge solar energy panel that meets most of the islanders' needs, new restaurants and inns. Tourists now flock here during the summer months. Even an idiosyncratic cocker spaniel named Gomgom, owned by a man who wears a red No. 12 soccer jersey, has developed the habit of befriending strangers and guiding them throughout the islet.

    "Men are busy now doing lots of things in tourism," said Kim Ock-min, a 38-year-old man who manages one of Marado's two Chinese restaurants. "Before they had their little boats but really didn’t do much."

    The new balance has brought stability to at least one couple.

    "We'd fight like crazy before," said Mrs. Kim, the president of the sea women’s association.

    Mr. Chi, her husband, said, "I think we’ve become more intimate."

    "Simply put," he added, as tourists stepped into his cart, "when the women alone were working and seeing us stay at home, being idle, they used to get angry. Before, the men had nothing to do but get drunk and gamble. Now that both of us are working, they see less of that idleness and don’t get angry anymore."

July 29, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Experts' Expert: Eric Felten on the very best ice cubes in the world

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Felten writes the "How's Your Drink?" column appearing every Saturday in the Wall Street Journal's Pursuits section.

In today's he waxed eloquent on ice cubes, their history and best use.

    His final paragraph:

    But now we take ice's quality for granted, and our drinks suffer for it. We almost always chill our drinks at home with ice cranked out by the restless little machine in the freezer. By and large, these are neither cubes nor lumps, but ugly, stubby crescents. That just won't do. Happily, one can still buy ice trays, and at Sur la Table you can get chic silicone trays made by Tovolo that produce big, beautiful square-sided cubes. What a rich, satisfying sound they make rattling in a glass, and how perfectly they chill the drink. Yes, making your cubes in trays takes a little effort, but so did sailing ice from Boston to Calcutta.

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You can have the very same Tovolo ice cube trays (pictured up top) lovingly described by Felten.

Two trays, each producing 15 ice cubes, in Blue, Pink or Red are $9.95.

July 29, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'One-Man Star Wars Trilogy' — Charles Ross does it all

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That's right: he whistles like RD-D2, he becomes C-3PO, reenacts Princess Leia's signature do, rolls his eyes like Luke Skywalker and channels Jabba the Hutt.

Ross (above) — who's viewed the first three "Star Wars" movies hundreds of times — slices, dices and extrudes their essence in precisely one hour by the clock.

How good is he?

Let's just say his reenactment is entertaining enough that he's able to make quite a nice living performing it all across North America.

Wrote Peter Marks in his front-page story in today's Washington Post Style section, "When Ross's 60-minute mission is complete, blissed-out 'Star Wars' groupies might have to forcibly pried from the seats."

If you live anywhere in the Washington, D.C. area and you're interested in seeing Ross do Darth et al, you're in luck.

The show is one of the marquee events of the Capital Fringe Festival currently underway downtown.

"One-Man Star Wars Trilogy" happens tonight (Saturday, July 29) at 6 and 9 p.m. and tomorrow (Sunday, July 30) at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre (641 D Street, NW; 202-393-3939).

Tickets here.

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Don't show up at curtain time and expect get in: the previous nine days' performances have been sold out.

July 29, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Plastic Grocery Bag Rack

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Now that I've got a more or less lifetime supply of paper garbage bags I can ask for the far more easily manageable plastic variety.

What better way to celebrate than with this nifty contraption, which purports to enable me to carry 15 (fifteen!) plastic grocery bags with one hand.

Better get serious with that TRX thingie, huh?

But I digress.

From the website:

    Grocery Bag Rack

    This lightweight portable steel frame conveniently holds 15 plastic grocery sacks by their handles upright and stable in the back of a station wagon, SUV, or sedan trunk so that groceries do not roll out and scatter on the drive home.

    The wide base, rubber feet and angled design of the rack prevent tipping and sliding and a handle makes it easy to carry the entire rack and accompanying sacks directly from the car.

    The rack keeps remaining grocery bags vertical while you remove a single sack and put away its contents.

    When not in use the rack folds flat to 1" thick for easy storage.

    Open: 18"H x 22"W x 18"L.

    Powder-coated steel.

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What's wrong with the back seat?

Everyone knows everything's better in the back seat, what?

$29.95.

July 29, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Don't put that melon in the fridge'

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Say what?

Everybody knows ice-cold watermelon is the bee's knees, so why all of a sudden are we being told to keep our watermelon out on the counter at room temperature?

Oh, now I see: the food police have arrived with a writ that says unchilled watermelons are far more nutritious, with a much higher percentage of caretenoids (natural antioxidants linked to various health benefits).

But facts, you say, give me the facts.

OK.

"Ripe watermelons continued to synthesize caretenoids at 21°C [70°F] storage, for example adding 11%-40% of lycopene and 50%-139% of beta carotene, while the caretenoid content of their refrigerated counterparts did not change," wrote Clive Cookson in yesterday's Financial Times.

The study demonstrating the above was performed by Penelope Perkins-Veazie and Julie Collins of the Watermelon Working Group at the U.S. South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Lane, Oklahoma and published in the current (July) issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Read the abstract of the scientific report here.

Read the original article in its entirety here.

Note: if you do so you're a better person than me.

In parting, I ask you this question: when did we ever care one whit about the nutritional value of watermelon?

Next thing you know they'll be telling us not to eat cotton candy 'cause it's bad for our teeth.

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Me, my watermelon will stay in my refrigerator until they pry the icy, dripping rind out from between my cold, dead lips.

July 29, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cat Hammock

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What Humphrey and Bogart (my other kitty) are getting for Christmas.

From the website:

    Cat Hammock

    This small hammock provides cats with their own space to rest 10 inches off the ground and has two different sleep surfaces to keep cats comfortable in different seasons.

    One side is 100% 600-Denier polyester in hunter green for keeping cool during warmer months and it easily flips to reveal a faux fur fabric that helps trap warmth during colder months.

    The level of the hammock also helps keep cats warm during the winter by elevating them above cold floors and drafts.

    The hammock is easily removable from the frame and washable for easy cleaning.

    The powder-coated steel and wood frame disassembles for storage in a carrying bag (included).

    12"H x 28"W x14"L.

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The only question is whether I should get one or two.

What do you think?

$39.95.

July 29, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

How is it that China is far more able to deal with a natural disaster than the U.S.?

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In this past Wednesday's (July 26) New York Times appeared Jim Yardley's brief story about Typhoon Kaemi, which "came ashore on the southern China coast Tuesday afternoon [July 25], prompting the evacuation of more than 643,000 people in a region still recovering from an earlier storm that caused major flooding and left more than 600 people dead."

How do you spell "Katrina?"

But here's the sentence that blew me away: "State news media reported that officials had sent text-message warnings about the storm to six million cellphone users in the region."

Impressive.

Here's the piece.

    Typhoon Drenches South China After 643,000 Are Evacuated

    Typhoon Kaemi came ashore on the southern China coast Tuesday afternoon, prompting the evacuation of more than 643,000 people in a region still recovering from an earlier storm that caused major flooding and left more than 600 people dead.

    State news media reported that the typhoon struck the coast at 3:50 p.m. in Fujian Province before being downgraded to a tropical storm. It was expected to dump rain along the coast and gradually move inland toward Anhui Province. It was the fifth major storm to hit the Chinese coast during this summer’s typhoon season.

    Early Wednesday morning, heavy rains doused Fujian, as well as Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces, but it was too early to determine the extent of any damages.

    Government officials ordered a major mobilization before the storm, including the arrival of 3,000 officers of the People’s Armed Police in Fujian to respond to emergencies.

    State news media reported that officials had sent text-message warnings about the storm to six million cellphone users in the region.

    In addition, more than 60,000 vessels were ordered to return to harbors.

    The efforts by the government followed a confused response to the tropical storm Bilis, which came ashore in southern China about two weeks ago and set off mudslides and flooding.

    Initially, officials attributed about 200 deaths to Bilis, but that figure more than doubled last week amid accusations that local officials had tried to hide the true number of deaths. The Ministry of Civil Affairs sent a special team to investigate the allegations of a cover-up.

    Local officials have denied a cover-up and blamed any confusion on communications breakdowns at the height of the crisis.

    In the interim, the death toll from Bilis has risen to 612, with another 208 people missing. On Saturday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Hunan Province, where at least 346 people died in floods and landslides from the storm.

    Summer is traditionally typhoon season in southern China, but meteorologists say the storms have arrived earlier this year. Earlier, Kaemi swept across the Philippines before hitting Taiwan on Monday night.

    State news media reported that the storm had caused major disruptions on Taiwan but only limited property damage and four injuries.

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On July 13 the Times ran an article about how the U.S. is planning to institute an updated system for disaster alerts.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that a FEMA official said that doing it the way the Chinese did, via text message to affected cellphone users, "may not be available for some time."

At least FEMA didn't come right out and say, "real soon now."

Here's that July 13 story.

    U.S. to Update Alert System For Disasters

    The people who brought the nation the ominous announcement, ''This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System,'' are working on an alert system for disasters that could ultimately send messages simultaneously to millions of cellphones nationwide.
    The first steps to building the system, called the Digital Emergency Alert System, were displayed on Wednesday in a television studio near Washington, where federal officials used a Public Broadcasting Service network to transmit a message by satellite to a television set and a satellite radio receiver.

    The current system only allows the federal government to broadcast verbal messages nationwide or to a large region directly. The new one should be able to send distinct messages automatically that include video, audio, documents and graphics to specific urban areas or to emergency personnel automatically, officials said.

    Currently, 24 PBS affiliates have the equipment to receive and transmit the digital signal. By the end of 2007, all PBS affiliates should receive and transmit the signal, said Kevin G. Briggs, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official.

    Special receivers will be provided by the end of next year to most radio and television stations in large cities and to state emergency operations centers so they can automatically tap in to rebroadcast the special digital messages, which will be initiated by the federal government and distributed by PBS members.

    The new emergency signal can already be sent by satellite to cellphone companies. But trying to transmit simultaneously the information as a text message to every subscriber would probably overload the system, Mr. Briggs said, so federal officials are exploring technological solutions, meaning that this option may not be available for some time.

    The new alert system is expected to cost about $5.5 million to test and deploy nationally and $1 million annually to maintain, FEMA said.

    The upgrade in the alert system, which was created during the cold war, was inspired partly by the 2001 terror attacks and partly by Hurricane Katrina, when communications problems hampered government response and notification efforts.

    John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, said a benefit of the new system was that the digital broadcasts could be reliably sent out even if Internet or wired phone systems were knocked out or partly disabled.

    It also avoids a major weakness in the current system. Messages are now sent by relay from one broadcast station to another, a chain that can be disrupted if a location is out of service.

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I guess it's every man, woman and child for him or herself down in Louisiana and Mississippi this coming hurricane season.

Say what you like about internet firewalls and whatnot, it would appear the Chinese are far ahead of us when it comes to employing technology to preserve and protect its citizens.

July 29, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

World's most technical soda saver

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From the website:

    Beverage Saver

    Keeps Soda Bubbling and Sparkling Fresh!

    Ends wasting of good soda.

    Turns pop top openings into easy "pourables" with a flip of the cap.

    Makes drinking soda easier and more sanitary than drinking from the can.

    Dishwasher-safe plastic is in assorted colors; we'll choose.

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$4.99 (Pepsi not included).

July 29, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

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