oniony trivia roundup

The holiday is fast approaching, and the smells of charcoal grills, cold beer, and paid time off will hang heavily in the air. Flags and pantaloons will flap in a gentle breeze and spirited games of badminton and bocce await. That glorious three day weekend is almost upon us, but until then everybody’s working for the weekend. It’s happy hour, though, so pull up a stool ‘cause the trivia roundup is buying shots.

onion futures :: penicillin :: urine :: datsun :: cyoa


1. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange was founded in 1898 as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board, and is the place to go to trade in agricultural commodities and futures (at their core, bets on whether the price of a commodity will increase or decrease over a specified time span). The first futures market was the Dojima Rice Exchange, founded in 1730s Japan as a way for samurai to convert their rice-based payments to coin. Here’s a list of things now traded on the CME: Live Cattle, Lean Hogs, Feeder Cattle, Class IV Milk, Class III Milk, Frozen Pork Bellies, International Skimmed Milk Powder (ISM), Nonfat Dry Milk, Deliverable Nonfat Dry Milk, Dry Whey, Cash-Settled Butter, Butter, Random Length Lumber, Softwood Pulp, Hardwood Pulp.

Not traded on the CME: onions. Onions? Onions. In 1958 Dwight Eisenhower, who was wearing an onion on his belt, as was the style at the time, signed the Onion Futures Act. The OFA prohibits onion futures trading, and to this day is the only law banning trading of a single commodity. Turns out this was kind of a big deal, as at the time onions were a full 20% of contracts on the CME (they’d actually been introduced in the 1940s as a replacement when the trading of butter contracts ended for reasons I cannot ascertain).

cornering the onion market

In what is basically the plot to Trading Places, a couple of guys tried to corner the market on onions. They were successful enough to eventually control more than 98% of all onions and onion futures contracts in Chicago. Of course, this also meant that, for at least a little while, they owned a shitload of onions, and had to figure out how to store more than 30,000,000 pounds of them. Most of the country was experiencing onion shortages, but in Chicago 50 pounds on onions were selling for less than the sacks they came in. Having gone short on onion prices, the pair made millions on this venture. They left behind them a trail of rotten onions and bankrupted onion farmers (shortest history of the financial system ever: ruling class manipulates financial instruments to make money of the proletariat. Repeat, with occasional class revolt and heads on pikes. Smash capitalism).

In a classic example of treating the symptom and not the disease, onion trading was outlawed—rather than, you know, outlawing the rules that allow someone to manipulate the market in such a way. This cut the legs out from under the CME, which almost folded until some new management arrived, presumably the Duke brothers


and suggested opening up trading in pork bellies and frozen concentrated orange. That’s not a joke, FCOJ and pork bellies saved the merc exchange.


For what it’s worth, some traders would like the onion futures act to be repealed, because onions turn out to be a highly volatile commodity, even moreso than corn or oil. Incidentally, in your classic example of processed meat arbitrage, commodities and futures trading might be the reason for the apparently unpredictable nature of the McRib’s availability.


alexander_fleming2. Alexander Fleming famously discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillum mold in 1928, after accidentally contaminating a Staphylococcus culture and finding a ring of mold inhibiting the growth of the bacteria. However, the potential medicinal benefits of molds have ancient roots. The ancient Greeks used molds to treat wounds and prevent infection, though never figured out exactly what the active ingredient was. 17th century Poles mixed wet bread with spider webs to make a poultice for wound treatment. More recent medical researchers had come tantalizingly close to cracking the code: Lister had toyed with molds as an aseptic for surgery in 1871; in 1877 Pasteur recognized that molds could inhibit growth of the anthrax bacteria; in 1895 an Italian researcher reported on antibacterial properties of mold in a water well; and in 1897 Ernest Duchesne published his dissertation in which he studied the healing properties of penicillum, including having cured guinea pigs of typhoid. Duchesne is really the big loser of this lot, as what should have been groundbreaking work was ignored on account of his youth. Despite all of these clues, no one ever quite put two and two together to see the bigger picture.

After Fleming’s discovery, clinical trials throughout the 1930s demonstrated the effectiveness of penicillin, but deployment was complicated by the inability to mass produce it. In March 1942, treating one patient for a strep infection used up fully half the industrially-produced US supply of penicillin. Three months later, there was only enough for 10 patients. Supply was so scarce that urine was collected from treated patients to re-process the penicillin they excreted. As the US entered into WWII, the need for penicillin became more acute, and plans for mass production were drawn up. These required a source of only the finest penicillum mold. A nationwide source turned up a mouldy cantaloupe from Peoria that happened to be growing a particularly pure mold (not joking), and this was used as the basis for mass-produced penicillin (at the time, grown in giant broth tanks. Mmmmm, penicillin broth. It’s now synthesized chemically). More than 2 million doses were produced by June 1944, most for the troops.


3. And hey, speaking of urine, it’s probably the most utile waste product excreted by your body. The Roman emperor Nero instituted the vectigial urinae (urine tax) on the pee collected and resold from public urinals, but his successor Vespasian really made the money off it (though lauded for his civility and, in the wake of Nero, his not-craziness, Vespasian was also filled with avarice). When Vespasian’s son expressed discontent at his family’s reputation as pissmongers (or, really, piss-middlemen, which is arguably worse), Vespasian is said to have pulled a coin out of his pocket, shoved it under his son’s nose, and asked if the smell offended him. The Latin phrase pecunia non olet (“money doesn’t smell”) is attributed to him. Vespasian’s other lasting legacy is having urinals named after him in most romance languages.

Why so obsessed with whiz? Ancient Romans used urine for tanning, to clean grease stains from clothing, and for tooth whitening (shudder). Urine has historically held interest for most cultures, for uses both industrial (e.g., fertilizer) and medical: saltpeter, a critical ingredient in gunpowder, was created by urinating on straw and allowing it to rot; the French treated strep throat by wrapping a pee-soaked stocking around the neck; urine was so important to middle-ages medicine that it was the subject of at least one painting (Bigot’s A Doctor Examining Urine).

an excellently rendered jar of urine

Medical doctors weren’t alone in their urophilia; alchemists loved them some pee. In the 1600s, a bankrupt German alchemist became the first to isolate elemental phosphorus, after performing some mystical chicanery on the hundreds of gallons of urine he’d collected and left to putrefy, though it later turned out that the “putrefaction” stage was unnecessary. As a final note: if your pee turns red after eating beets, the proper medical terminology is beeturia.


4. Datsun was originally formed as the DAT Motorcar Company in 1914, and built cars and military trucks. In 1930 a Japanese ordinance was passed allowing certain small-engine cars to be driven without a license, and Datson (literally “son of DAT”) was formed to start selling those cars. By 1934, Nissan had taken control of the company, and by 1958 the first Datsun (Nissan had changed the name) imports were trickling into California, where they attempted to carve out a niche selling small economical cars (like the Fairlady series),


before in 1970 releasing the sportier Z-car (the Datsun 240z). By the mid 1980s, Datsun was killed off and everything was rebranded as Nissan, though there are now plans to reintroduce the label in the next few years in certain markets. But the most important Datsun event happened in 1980, when the 10th anniversary “Black Gold” 280ZX was released alongside this Giorgio Moroder fever-dream of an advertising campaign:

5. The Choose Your Own Adventure series was developed by Edward Packard in the early 1970s, and came from stories he would tell his children, allowing them to decide what decisions the protagonists made. Several years later, the books were being published by Bantam and eventually sold more than 250 million copies in the 80s and 90s. More than 180 different books in the series were published, not counting the numerous spinoffs. Currently the trademark is owned by the aptly-named Chooseco, which is reprinting many of the books. Among the most popular CYOA books was Inside UFO 54-40, which had a secret “paradise” ending that could not be reached by any path through the book, but only by cheating. What kind of message does that send? Here are some actual CYOA titles:

Animal-based titles: Prisoner of the Ant People, War with the Mutant Spider Ants, Search for the Mountain Gorillas, Secret of the Dolphins, Surf Monkeys

The “You Are” series: You Are a Shark, You Are a Monster, You are a Superstar, You are Microscopic, You are a Genius, Who Are You?

Redundant titles: The Mystery of the Secret Room, The Secret of Mystery Hill

Two I’m legitimately curious about: The Trumpet of Terror, Blood on the Handle

Depressing titles: The Worst Day of Your Life, Tattoo of Death (“you have contracted hepatitis from an unsterilized needle. Turn to page 97.”)

Potentially disturbing treks through human history: The Shadow of the Swastika, The Underground Railroad, Gunfire at Gettysburg

The Master series: Master of Tae Kwon Do, Master of Karate, Master of Martial Arts, Master of Aikido (…and the boots to match)


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