What’s up with the Chia Pet? Why every Christmas are we bombarded with ads for these weird things? Where did they come from? Who buys them? Some things in the world need an explanation. This is one of them.
— Chia Pest, San Diego
Our favorite Christmas trick was the year Grandma soaked the elves in the tub, lined them up in the living room window, and sprinkled them with chia seeds. Chia Elves, I think she said they were. We had to get rid of them when the green stuff died and they started to smell pretty bad.
The original chias, at least 50 years ago, came from Mexico. A combination of traditional, handmade bull- and ram-shaped planters with native sage seeds. If you can keep the greenery alive long enough, you should get small blue flowers from the chia seeds. An American found them in Mexico and started importing them on a small scale into the U.S. For decades they chugged along slowly as a sort of weird, traditional Christmas trinket, a last-minute stocking stuffer, or a gag gift for the company Christmas party.
In the late 1970s, a marketing whiz from Chicago encountered the Chia Pet at a trade show, bought the rights to it from the original importer, and set about making sure we all knew about the amazing, educational clay figures. The line expanded to include Elmer Fudd and Homer Simpson and other licensed characters, the advertising department came up with the “Ch-ch-ch-chia” commercial jingle, and we were hooked. Why? No one really knows. It’s just one of those off-the-wall things that catches some screwy part of the American imagination and makes a fortune for the manufacturer. About half a million chias are sold every Christmas and, presumably, thrown out every Fourth of July. And chias are now made in ch-ch-ch-China, like everything else. We have no better explanation for the strange Chia Pet.
There are lots of things I don’t understand about TV. But one of the things I’ve wondered since I was first aware of TV is why there’s no Channel 1. We’ve got hundreds of channels of junk, but no Channel 1. Is that the channel that used to have all the good stuff on it? Where did it go?
— Ted, San Marcos
Well, once upon a time, back in, oh, 1945 or so, the FCC started dividing up the airwaves for this newfangled TV thing that everyone wanted. They chopped the broadcast band into 13 parts and numbered them 1 to 13. Things went along okay for a while, until it became clear that the band-greedy TV was eating up some valuable radio space. You can fit about 600 radio frequencies into one TV channel, so the FCC lopped off Channel 1 and reassigned those waves to radio. And it’s been that way ever since.
My uncle used to tell us a story about how his mother’s hair turned white overnight after her husband died. We’ve never challenged him, but I’ve always wondered how that’s possible, that somebody’s hair could turn white overnight. So can you tell me?
— Nameless, via email
An old, old wive’s tale. Stories of famous people turning white overnight go back centuries. Marie Antoinette is said to have gone white the night before she was beheaded, but wiser heads have said her hair was already white, you just didn’t notice it under all her wigs. Anyway, hair once it’s hanging off our heads is dead tissue. Nothing short of hair chemicals can change the color. A dermatologist from NYU finally addressed the question in a volume on hair and said these stories might come from an affliction called alopecia areata, a sudden overall loss of hair. It particularly strikes pigmented hair, not strands that have already turned white. So our subject is suddenly struck with alopecia, the darker strands fall out, and only the whiter strands are left. The overall effect is that all the hair has turned white. I’m sure it’s too late to try this version on your uncle, though.
Why when I spill something wet on a dress or a tablecloth or some other fabric, the fabric always turns dark? If the dress is light blue, the spill turns it dark blue. Why would it change color at all?
— Rhonda, via email
Before anything is spilled on the fabric, the light hits it and is reflected back pretty much unmolested. Add water to the mix, and things are much more complicated. The water scatters more of the light, scatters more of it into the fabric itself, so less light reaches your eye, and the spot looks darker than the original fabric color. It’s as simple, or as complicated, as that.