oniony trivia roundup

The holiday is fast approaching; smells of barbecue, beer, and paid time off hang in the air. Flags and pantaloons will flap in a gentle breeze as spirited games of badminton and bocce await. The three day weekend is almost upon us, but until then everybody’s working for the weekend. Pull up a stool for the trivia roundup.

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1. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange was founded in 1898 as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board, and it is the place to go to trade in agricultural commodities and futures. Futures are, in the simplest sense, bets on whether the price of a commodity will increase or decrease over some time period. The world’s 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. Fast forward nearly three centuries, and 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.

Something not traded on the CME: onions. Onions? Yes, onions. Dwight Eisenhower signed the Onion Futures Act into law in 1958, prohibiting trading of onion futures. To this day, it is the only law banning trading of an individual commodity. The OFA was a big, big deal: at the time, onions comprised a full 20% of contracts on the CME, despite having been introduced to the exchange only in the 1940s as a replacement for butter. So, why eliminate onion trading? The answer: flim flam.

cornering the onion market

In what is basically the plot to Trading Places, a couple of guys once tried cornering the onion market. At one point they owned 98% of all onions and onion futures contracts in Chicago. Unlike a stock run where the buyer only gets paper, these guys actually owned all those onions—30 million pounds of them—leading to utterly surreal and absurd onion escapades. They had to find a place to store all the onions, for one thing, and while most of the country was experiencing an onion shortage, in Chicago fifty pounds of onions sold for less than the price of the sack they came in. Having shorted onion prices, the duo made millions, leaving behind a trail of rotten onions and bankrupted farmers, and another chapter in the long history of the ruling class manipulating financial instruments to consume the wealth of the proletariat.

Rather than outlaw the rules that allow such market manipulation, onion trading itself was outlawed, which seems rather like treating the symptom and not the disease. Its financial legs cut out from under it, the CME nearly went bankrupt until new management arrived and opened trading to pork bellies and frozen concentrated orange juice. That’s not a joke, by the way: pork bellies and FCOJ saved the mercantile exchange.

New CME management

Some traders are lobbying for the onion futures act to be repealed. It turns out that onions are highly volatile commodity—moreso than corn or oil—which is apparently a good thing when you are trading commodities futures.

Side note: in a classic example of processed meat arbitrage, commodities and futures trading might be the reason for the apparently unpredictable nature of the McRib’s availability.

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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. In the 17th century, Poles mixed wet bread with spider webs to make a poultice for wound treatment.

Medical researchers before Fleming had come tantalizingly close to discovering mold’s antibiotic properties. 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 and described curing guinea pigs of typhoid. Duchesne in particular was right there; what should have been groundbreaking work was ignored on account of his youth, and left behind. But despite these clues, no one had ever seen the big picture.

Clinical trials in the 1930s demonstrated the effectiveness of penicillin, but deployment was complicated by the inability to mass produce the drug. In March 1942, for example, treating one patient for a strep infection used up 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. Plans for mass production required the most penicillum-rich mold to use as a base. A nationwide search turned up a cantaloupe from Peoria growing a particularly pure mold, which 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.


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3. Speaking of urine, it’s probably the most utile waste product excreted by your body. Nero, of fiddling fame, instituted the vectigial urinae (urine tax) on pee collected and resold from public urinals. Nero’s successor Vespasian, lauded for his civility and, contra Nero, his not-craziness, was filled with avarice enough to get rich on the urine tax. Vespasian’s son once expressed discontent with his family’s reputation as pissmongers (or, more accurately, piss middlemen). According to legend, Vespasian pulled a coin out of his pocket, shoved it under his son’s nose, and asked if the smell offended him—the source of the phrase pecunia non olet (literally “money doesn’t smell,” or more colloquially, “the source of money does not matter”). 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, for which the pee of the Portuguese was said to be highly prized. 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. In fact, urine was so central 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 pee. In the 1600s, a bankrupt German alchemist became the first to isolate elemental phosphorus, after performing 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.

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4. Datsun began as the DAT Motorcar Company in 1914. After a 1930 Japanese ordinance allowed certain small-engine cars to be driven without a license, Datson (literally “son of DAT”) was created to build and sell those cars. By 1934, Nissan had bought out the company and changed the name to Datsun. Just two decades later, the first imports were trickling into California, seeking out a niche market for small economical cars, like the Fairlady series.

Datsun Fairlady

In 1970, they released the sportier and more well-known Z-car series, in the form of the Datsun 240z. But by the mid 80s, Datsun was killed off and folded into Nissan proper (there are now initial plans to reintroduce the label in the next few years). The most important Datsun-related event occurred in 1980, when the 10th anniversary “Black Gold” 280ZX was released, accompanied by this Giorgio Moroder coke-binge fever-dream of an ad campaign:

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5. The Choose Your Own Adventure series was developed by Edward Packard in the early 1970s, based on the stories he told his children, allowing them to decide the fate of the protagonists. The series sold 250 million copies in the 80s and 90s, encompassing some 180 entries, not counting spinoffs. Perhaps the most popular CYOA book was Inside UFO 54-40, which had a secret “paradise” ending that could only be found by cheating, clearly prefiguring the forthcoming age of PED scandals. Currently the series trademark is held by the aptly-named Chooseco. 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 (“to risk getting your tattoo with 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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