How much is “all the tea in China” worth? And why are so many people not willing to do things for it? –Charlie, Palm Beach via Madison, Wisconsin

What do you mean, what is it worth? Who cares what it’s worth? The impressive commodity here isn’t supposed to be the money, it’s the awesome acreage of tea. This bottom-line mentality sorely vexes my sensitive soul.

I regret to say that my most recent tea statistics are from 1983. However, the Chinese have not been very cooperative since that column about having the whole population jump off chairs at the same time (see Earth: threats to orbital stability of, in my first book). Besides, my subscription to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Bulletin of Statistics ran out. Be that as it may, in 1983 China produced 401,000 metric tons of tea out of a total world production of 2.06 million tons. This is a pretty fair heap o’ tea, all right, and if you caved in and took it after all, there’s no question you wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store (for tea, anyway) for quite a while. However, in the scheme of things agricultural, it is not so much. In the same year China produced 169 million tons of rice, 4.3 million tons of rapeseed, and 1 million tons of jute, ambari, and hemp. Granted, “I wouldn’t do that for all the jute, ambari, and hemp in China” does not stir the emotions the way tea does, but we have to keep things in perspective. Also, I should point out that while all the tea in China might not tempt you, if somebody offered you all the tea in India, you might want to give it some thought. Indian production in 1983 was 588,000 tons, the largest output of any country. (China was #2.) As for why so many people aren’t willing to do things for all the tea in China, I don’t know. Maybe they’re still bugged about that little fracas in Tiananmen Square. But probably they just don’t like tea.


Noted friend of science Ken Grabowski of Chicago’s Field Museum has sent me a clipping from the American Geophysical Union journal that may help unravel the why-you-always-see-one-shoe-by-the-side-of-the-road conundrum once and for all [May 29]. It seems that on May 27, 1990, a storm struck the container ship Hansa Carrier in the north Pacific (48 degrees N, 161 W), resulting in–get ready for this–80,000 Nike brand shoes being lost overboard. “Six months to a year later,” the journal reports, “thousands of shoes washed ashore in North America from southern Oregon to the Queen Charlotte islands.”

Hmm, you’re thinking, and you’re not the only one. Ocean scientists immediately began investigating. So far, the report states, they have “gathered beachcomber reports and compared the inferred shoe drift with an oceanographic hindcast model and historical drift bottle returns.” Such a joy to see professionals at work.

Yet to be explained is how one of the shoes got from the Pacific coast to Louisville, Kentucky, where it was transformed into the orange work boot spotted by the Straight Dope Field Survey Team last May. As Cecil’s editor observed: “But Kentucky is landlocked!” You’ve put your finger on it, kid. Much obviously remains to be learned about ocean-drift patterns. Maybe it was the seagulls.

Another question that may be forming in the reader’s mind is: OK, maybe the shoes we see littering America’s roadsides today are the product of that tragic incident in the north Pacific. But how about the ones we saw before May 27, 1990? One shocking possible answer: You didn’t see any shoes. You just thought you did. The sight of that first roadside shoe, “six months to a year” after the Nikes went overboard, may have been so startling that you thought: How come you always see one shoe by the side of the road? But of course you hadn’t really. Listen, I’m not saying that explanation-wise it’s airtight, but it beats standing there saying “duh.” We’ll keep you posted on further news.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.