I got to this part in Jenny Uglow’s A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. The book is about King Charles II and Britain, mostly England, in the 1660s. And this is from right after the Great Fire of London.
It was a scene of horror, but also one of wonder, a natural curiosity drawing the observant men of the Royal Society. In the broken tombs in St Paul’s, they observed the mummified bodies of bishops buried two centuries before, while in the tomb of Dean Colet, a more recent burial, his lead coffin was found to be full of a curious liquor that had conserved the body. “Mr Wyle and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and it was a kind of insipid taste, something of an ironish taste. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like brawn.”
I grant this sounds daft that someone would go into the still-smoldering ruins of London after the greatest fire it had yet known, locate a corpse that hadn’t been destroyed, see that it was secreting some fluid, and declare, “I gotta lick that!” But that’s just what chemists had to do, back in the days before real professional laboratories with clear analytical protocols and even a concept of analysis existed. Everybody doing chemistry had to rely on touch and scent and taste. It helps us remember why Louis Pasteur was the first chemist to ever live to be 34 years old.
Here’s some of the new openings in town.
Four Flats. This newly opened concept bar charges a flat four dollars, serving up just as much volume as your four dollars is worth. This simplifies the problem of working out what you can afford but complicates the problem of how large a glass you’re going to get. Fair selection balanced by more variable-sized glasses than you can possibly imagine. Tour groups are admitted to the stock room for two hours before the open of business every day. Do not ask for the complimentary water as that’s just delivered by fire hose. 4 pm – 2 am except Sundays we think. 118 E Quarrel St.
The Can Trader. Just the spot for the beer fancier looking for something new and unexpected: before the bartender fills your order any other patron is allowed to swap your order for hers or his. The trading doesn’t stop there as in the ten minutes leading up to the hour anyone is allowed to swap their drink with someone else’s yet again. Add to that the lack of labels and you could easily spend a night having some fantastic pale ale or IPA or something you never heard of before and never have the faintest idea what the heck you’re drinking. Opens 2 pm daily, closes after the brawl. 44 Upper Pridmore’s Swamp Road.
Newscaster Karaoke Brew Pub. Taking the karaoke-bar concept up just that one extra notch this spot lets patrons sit at a real working news desk. They can try to work their way through the local, state, and national news, then on to weather, sports, human interest features, Mister Food’s Recipes For People Who Guess They Like Food As A Concept, a recap of weather, and the humane society’s adoptable pet of the day in-between batter-dipped mushrooms and $2 PBR’s. 3 pm to 2 am except between 6:00 and 6:30 and 11:00 and 11:35, or any time the security guard is noticed down the hall. Channel 6 broadcast studios, back door, password “Chris Kapostasy sent me”.
Molecubrew. You know that Carl Sagan quote about making an apple pie by starting with a universe? People who can’t get enough of that are believed responsible for this new experience in being surrounded by test tubes. No brand names, but patrons get to pick quantities and amounts from over 4,500 flavor compounds. And, gads, yes, you have to tell them you want ethanol and water and carbon dioxide and good lord. Though it’s been going only a month they’ve got a thriving community going on Telegram with all sorts of recipes that range from “kind of PBR-ish, if I have to pick something” through “an experience you probably will admit you had” and on to “Diet Pibb Xtra”. Act cool. Best menu item: fried stringy things most of which are potatoes, although if you get one that is an actual fried shoestring your entire tab is free. An evening here will let you know which of your friends think it’s the height of hilarity to speak of “dihydrogen monoxide”, so you won’t have to spend time with them anymore after that. If they start talking about the hazards of dihydrogen monoxide you can shove them under the safety shower and flee. 12 noon – 12 midnight except Mondays. Gibbs Alley, Science and Educational Store District.
The Introverted Turtle. This charming former abandoned laundromat has joined the city’s growing Introvert Chic movement. Its concept, perfect for the country’s newest self-identified self-satisfied community, lets one spend the night hanging out with almost no social interaction. Patrons, bartenders, and kitchen staff alike spend their experiences hiding underneath the cloth-draped tables and never speak to any other person out loud. Submit orders by crumpled-up pieces of paper tossed in the general direction of the bar without looking or by Twitter direct-message to an account they swear no living person is monitoring. Instead of attaching a name to your order list the name of your table’s mythical South Seas island. Hours not listed because the staff kept whimpering whenever we asked them. Sorry. 2250 Lower Plank Lake Road, Upper Level.
A Space. A combination sports bar and live-action roleplaying experience, this newest addition to the Shops That Used To Be Part Of Muckle’s Department Store has the look of a partly-open-plan office floor for one of those companies where nobody really knows what they’re doing or why. Settle in pretending to be part of the sales, marketing, IT, administrative support, or janitorial sections, and enjoy a different selection of food, drinks, prices, and of course programming on the highly realistic computer or TV screens at every desk or corners of “break” rooms. An extra feature described as “Orwellian” and “a nightmarish intrusion on privacy but also strangely comforting” is that the TVs in the bathrooms show footage of the most recent employee to use the bathroom, proving they did indeed wash their hands before resuming service. 10 percent discount if the maitre d’ can guess your actual job. Must bring W-4 for verification to collect. 11 am – 1 am, 111 Canal Street, Lunch Entrance.
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My love was working in the yard. I wasn’t. We have a well-agreed-upon divide of household chores. My love gardens, while I bring in all the groceries in one trip and offer to run back to the store for the butter we forgot. Anyway, my love encountered what we believed to be poison ivy.
That was natural enough. There’s been poison ivy in the yard before. We got rid of as much as we could last year in an expedition that brought us into the neighbor’s yard. A lot of ivy was growing through the fence. Somehow our neighbor was willing to accept our offer to dig a noxious weed out of his yard for free. It takes all kinds to make a neighborhood Most of that kind are neighbors.
But we got to thinking about poison ivy. Most poison you get into your body, and then you get very sick or die, and that’s that. The whole point of poison is to stop getting eaten by heaping a pile of dead animals around where they tried eating. But poison ivy? You get it in or on you and then maybe up to three days later you get an irritating rash that lasts up to three weeks. As poisons go this is pretty incompetent. It depends on animals brushing up against it and then, a couple days later, being pretty irritated. And then the animals are supposed to peruse their travel logs and review any suspicious plants they might have passed near. And then after extensive reviews determine the element in common to all these itching incidents is being up to seventy-two hours removed from the close proximity of a bit of poison ivy. That’s asking a lot from animals, who are lousy at tracking infection vectors, except the Malayan Golden Forensic Mousedeer.
So I put “the heck is even with poison ivy” into DuckDuckGo and right there on the first page of results is a link from something called “mamapedia” and I’m not going to touch a link with a domain name like that. My most optimistic guess is it’s like Wikipedia but with the charming parts of a southern accent. According to some non-scary-pedias the thing that makes poison ivy so kind-of poison-ish is called urushiol. Turns out nearly all the itch-based plants, like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, sumac oak, oak ivy, and so on, get their itching by liquids called urushiols. Urushiol is a kind of compound known as an oleoresin, which is a kind of resin whose name you can yodel.
It’s not a poison, though. These plants use it somehow to retain water. That it irritates skin is a side effect. The plant doesn’t get anything out of it. It’s just the plants needed to retain water and they muddled on the best they could. There’s a lesson for us all in that. I like to imagine if we explained the situation to a session of the Poison Ivy Witenagemot, in a committee of the whole, they’d apologize. “We had no idea,” surely they’d declare. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” and then we could share with them water-tower technology. And we’d all have a good laugh about the misunderstanding that caused so much irritation over the centuries. They’ll mend their ways, limiting their irritation to watching old TV shows on modern HDTVs with the aspect ratio all wrong. I’m not saying that isn’t also irritating. But it’s a quicker kind. It’s an irritation you can resolve simply by jumping up and down and shouting, “What is wrong with you people? We spent fifteen years explaining letterboxing movies to you and you finally got it and now don’t you even notice how everybody on The Mary Tyler Moore Show looks like a pile of mashed potatoes wearing Seventies Plaid?!” and then being asked to leave the room.
It turned out our poison ivy wasn’t, anyway. It’s an easy mistake to make. Poison ivy comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, ranging from stringy vines crawling around dead trees up to functional self-service gas stations ready for the new chip cards the United States is getting in twenty years after everybody else in the world. All you can be sure of is that leaves-of-three thing, but it’s no surprise if you count up the leaves on a perfectly innocent plant it might happen to be a multiple of three. Something like a third of all the counting numbers are a multiple of three. Still, ours was a false alarm. The plant was a perfectly innocent Striated Woodsy Guiltywort vine, brought over from the old country by settlers who thought that was a good idea. And that emergency cold shower after applying all that urushiol repellant was just jolly good practice in being made miserable after poison ivy exposures.
Also besides not being actually all that poison, poison ivy isn’t ivy. At some point you have to wonder if the people who named it were quite sure what they were doing.
I was reading a collection of the writings of Count Rumford, the late-18th/early-19th century scientist who pioneered the study of heat and was only a traitor to his country by certain definitions of the term, and ran across this in a paper he wrote about, among other things, whether it’s better to wear a fur coat with the fur pointing outward or inward (this was just, like, a little one-page digression, plus back then they didn’t know so much about which stuff needed to be scientifically proven):
Experiment No. 14. — Procuring from a gold-beater a quantity of leaf gold and leaf silver about three times as thick as that which is commonly used by gilders, I covered the surfaces of the two large cylindrical vessels, No. 1 and No. 2, with a single coating of oil varnish; and, when it was sufficiently dry for my purpose, I gilt the instrument No. 1 with the gold leaf, and covered the other, No. 2, with silver leaf. When the varnish was perfectly dry and hard, I wiped the instruments with cotton, to remove the superfluous particles of the gold and silver, and then repeated the experiment, so often mentioned, of filling the instruments with boiling-hot water, and exposing them to the cool in the air of a large quiet room.
OK, so, wait a second: there’s a profession called “gold-beater”? And not only are they responsible for beating gold, they’re adulterous gold-beaters because they also smack silver around? Or at least back two hundred years ago you could be a professional beater of gold. It leaves me wondering about other such professions which involve doing terrible things to elements; have we now progressed to the point that someone could have a job as:
Of course not, because you can’t libel beryllium, since anything awful you say about it is true. But it’s got me wondering about the others. The world is suddenly bigger and more complicated than I thought and I need to blame someone for this, so I fault beryllium.