One of my latest guilty pleasures has been doing Google Book searches on my favorite topics. A search for “tea” yielded a full scan of Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, a meditation upon the social meaning of the beverage (particularly in Japan, but larger meaning can certainly be extrapolated). Okakura writes:

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the ordinary facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. … [W]hen we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.

Okakura also offers insight on the foibles of globalization (applicable, still, 100 years after he penned this tome):

Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavorable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers.

(And, an addendum in the form of a cool link: the National Institute of Health has an interesting collection of info on America’s tea craze, which blossomed right around the time Okakura’s book came out.)


About 10,000 tea stalls in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, are closed in protest of spiraling fuel costs — an interesting story in the context of global energy costs, etc.

The story I’ve linked to is quite short; I’ve only found mentions of the strike in The Hindu and, and the reporting is woefully insufficient. Are the stall owners being reactionary? Have long-time subsidies given way to what the government and/or regulators perceive as more “fair” pricing? How does this (or can this) contrast with the reaction of, say, Americans to higher gas prices?


Image licensed under Creative Commons by Flickr’s net_efekt.

Two interesting stories in the Wall Street Journal today on different sides of mental illness: The first explores the ways in which certain drug companies may have exaggerated the effectiveness of prescription medications used to treat mental illness in the U.S., and the second looks at how families in China grapple with the mentally ill.

The second story perturbed me a bit; the narrative centers on a family that constructed a cage in which they imprisoned their son, who had stabbed a neighbor to death. I think what bothers me is that it implicitly borders on the belief that something of this nature wouldn’t happen in the U.S., that the way we construct mental illness is so evolved as to avoid any such irrational, desperate measures. I’m sure if one looked closely enough at court records or crime blotters in the U.S., it would be easy to find similar stories — exhausted parents with no money, no insurance, and no other options make choices that in hindsight seem unnecessarily cruel; I doubt the reporter meant to conflate Chinese culture and an individual’ behavior, but lacking context or broader epidemiological details, the story makes me a bit uneasy about what readers might infer.

Today it was widely reported that mortgage lender IndyMac will cut its workforce by 24% — or about 2,400 employees; just another headline in a paper full of the depressing consequences of the housing-market shakeout from this summer, at first glance, but some reports chose to highlight a rather interesting factoid.

About 400 of the employees cut are based in India.

There’s such a to-do about people in India “taking our jobs” that (in an admittedly sickening way) it’s almost refreshing to hear that they’ll also be affected by the downturn. See, fellow Americans? It’s not as if people in the subcontinent are immune to shocks to the economic system. Certain people benefit, and certain people get screwed, and eventually we all either find a way to adjust, or we sell our Harley-Davidsons and move back in with our parents.

In this spirit, I recommend Steven Landsburg’s op-ed today in the Times, “What to Expect When You’re Free Trading.” We all want that damned Wal-Mart smiley-face to whistle down the aisles as prices fall, but you can’t have everything: higher wages and no job loss and prices dwindling ever lower. Something’s gotta give — which is not to say that we can’t endlessly debate the fairness or unfairness of whatever snaps at the stress — but something’s gotta give.

I’d prefer if the Western press featured better coverage of international stories, or if there were less anachronistic synopses of current events in India, and I just happen to be more fascinated by social phenomena than by economic shifts. But I’ll take this glimpse into the country — even if it’s only a passing glance as the door behind which millions of lives teem closes — as a start.

An interesting piece about the human toll of sourcing products from low-cost countries: “In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay” (David Barboza, NY Times). I think this passage should send shivers down the spine of anyone buying cheap toys from Wal-Mart:

“I work on the plastic molding machine from 6 in the morning to 6 at night,” said Xu Wenquan, a tiny, baby-faced 16-year-old whose hands were covered with blisters. Asked what had happened to his hands, he replied, the machines are “quite hot, so I’ve burned my hands.”

Equally if not more resonant was J. Adam Huggins’ documentation of Indian steelforgers contracted to make manhole covers for Con Edison. Barefoot and sweating so we can save some dollars … it just doesn’t seem quite fair.

(Password/logins may be required; I used BugMeNot to bypass it.)

Excellent op-ed in the Times today, “Putting a Plague in Perspective,” by Daniel Halperin (a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and the 2005-06 HIV prevention adviser in southern Africa for USAID) — Halperin marshals an argument that by focusing on funding AIDS projects in Africa, rather than wider public health concerns to address problems such as inadequate access to safe water. He writes:

“Many millions of African children and adults die of malnutrition, pneumonia, motor vehicle accidents and other largely preventable, if not headline-grabbing, conditions. One-fifth of all global deaths from diarrhea occur in just three African countries — Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria — that have relatively low H.I.V. prevalence. Yet this condition, which is not particularly difficult to cure or prevent, gets scant attention from the donors that invest nearly $1 billion annually on AIDS programs in those countries.

I was struck by this discrepancy between Western donors’ priorities and the real needs of Africans last month, during my most recent trip to Africa. In Senegal, H.I.V. rates remain under 1 percent in adults, partly due to that country’s early adoption of enlightened policies toward prostitution and other risky practices, in addition to universal male circumcision, which limits the heterosexual spread of H.I.V. Rates of tuberculosis, now another favored disease of international donors, are also relatively low in Senegal, and I learned that even malaria, the donors’ third major concern, is not quite as rampant as was assumed, with new testing finding that many fevers aren’t actually caused by the disease.”

“Wombs for rent: Surrogacy business booming in India” (Associated Press)

The Indian/global press has been covering this story for some time now, but it’s a pretty compelling stuff, so I’ll let the article’s nut graf speak for itself:

“More than 50 women in this city [Anand, India] are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan, Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.”