Sunday, September 24, 2006

How Else Are You Going To Learn This?

or: From the "Public Service" File

If you have an opened packet of chewing gum in your shirt pocket when said shirt goes into the wash and then the dryer, the gum does not, in fact, make a mess of the entire load of laundry. Instead, you'll find the paper wrappers from the individual sticks slightly shredded, and the foil-wrapped sticks folded neatly into thirds and slightly compressed. At least, that's how you'll find three of the four hypothetically laundered sticks of gum. The jury is still out on that fourth stick.

Incidentally, the comments are still open and being monitored for reader requests, which has, disappointingly, resulted in only one entry so far.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wax Production in Medieval Germany

The German city of Homburg is perhaps best known today for its contributions to haberdashery. Homburg, like it's similarly named cousin, was the birthplace of a casing-less ground-meat product, a revolutionary idea in Germany. Unlike the other ground-meat product, the Homburg patty was not, in general, favorably received. A common remark by the citizens of Homburg was, "Better on the head than in the mouth." Fashion at the time being at least somewhat subject to practicality, the Homburg patty was modified over time both to sit more reliably on the head and to be made of a material that failed to begin smelling rank after only a few days of wear.

Back in the Eleventh Century, however, Homburg was a major center of dyed wax production. It was noted particularly for a variety of purple wax. The color was derived from the extract of a local herb, Salvia puniceus; the mixing of this dye into parafin by the standard techniques (that is, melt the parafin, add the dye, and allow the parafin to set) resulted in an extremely uneven distribution of the dye.

As a consequence, the city's monopoly on Homburg purple wax™ (or it would have been, had the concept of trademark existed at the time) owed at least as much to the proprietary nature of the blending technique for the dye as to the geographic uniqueness its source. So lucrative was the purple wax business, and hence so secretive the dye-blending technique, that it was protected both by Act of the city magistracy and a committee of municipal witch-hunters. In the year 1031 alone, over 20 witches were burned at the stake for attempting to learn the method of making Homburg purple wax to use in the furtherance of the Devil's unholy purposes.

Particularly popular were Homburg's purple wax drawing-sticks. (The word "crayon" would not appear for almost two more centuries, when they were popularized throughout Europe by the Duc de Rayon, who was later commemorated by the DuPont Corporation for his pioneering contributions to chemical engineering.) Children in every south-German hamlet or burg could be seen playfully defacing their homes' walls with colorful drawings of horses and inedible meat products.

Homburg purple wax fell out of favor in the year 1036. A travelling Greek organ grinder named Stavros arrived in town in early May, after having been chased out of Saarbrücken by the torch-wielding citizenry for reasons that have been lost to history. His monkey, named Gunther (after the organ grinder's grandmother), escaped one day while the organ grinder slept after a particularly valiant lunchtime attempt to consume the local cuisine. Gunther slipped into the home of the Chief Magistrate through an open window, where he came upon a few unattended purple drawing-sticks belonging the the Magistrate's 9-year-old daughter, Helga. Being a monkey, and hence not especially adept at discerning the edible from the inedible, Gunther ate the drawing-sticks.

Upon being discovered by the Chief Magistrate, the startled Gunther emitted a simian shriek, reported to sound like "Mwa! Ha ha! Ha!" In shrieking, Gunther displayed his bare teeth, which had been colored purple by the wax. So amusing was this sight, that the Magistrate related it regularly at cocktail parties to anyone who would remain in his vicinity long enough to hear. Soon, the story of Herr Purpurroteraffe (as the Chief Magistrate came to be known behind his back) spread throughout West-Central Europe.

News of the Purple-Mawed Monkey of Homburg eventually reached the court of Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor, being of royal blood, took this story to indicate that a monkey in Homburg was attempting to usurp his throne. A military expedition was launched at once, with over one thousand troops assembled to march on Homburg. The military contingent marched to the gates of city, which they were about to sack when the magistracy requested a parley. The situation was explained to the Emperor with the assistance of some cleverly improvised hand-puppets, and the attack was called off. However, a condition for sparing the city was that they were to cease production of purple wax immediately and indefinitely. The citizens of Homburg eagerly agreed, secretly being grateful for the attendant decline in time spent scrubbing wax off of their walls.

The prohibition on purple wax continued for many centuries as a tradition among wax-workers, until 1908 when the Crayola Company introduced a purple crayon with its new "Condemned Colors" box of eight. Purple is now a widely accepted constituent of crayon assortments everywhere, only slightly diminishing the popularity of perennial favorites red and blue.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Riffing the Light Fantastic

I'd like to do something a little different. I'd like to take requests. Use the comments, and give me a couple of words (perhaps drawn randomly from /usr/share/dict/words or the equivalent) or a phrase. I'll try to come up with something for as many of the suggestions as possible. I won't promise anything deep or well-researched, but there's likely to be a fair amount of sarcasm. Posts will appear as I get around to them, which will depend on the quality of the suggestions and how entertaining I find the whole exercise.

And no, this is not a cheap ploy to figure out how many actual readers I have. I'm pretty sure that number is somewhere between two and five.