The world’s gaze is fixed on a chimney atop the Sistine chapel, because that’s how Santa will enter to accept the job of new Pope.
Mea culpa. People are actually looking to the chimney to see whether the Vatican’s papal conclave has selected a successor to the retired Pope Benedict.
In lieu of Twitter, the assembled cardinals are using the slightly older tradition of smoke signals.
If black smoke billows from the chimney, it means they haven’t yet found their man. White smoke means a new Pope has been chosen, and they’re presumably burning the resumes submitted by other job applicants. So far, only black smoke has emerged.
In seriousness, it’s an ancient tradition and a pretty efficient one at that, given its ultra-low-tech nature. There’s no risk of typos, broken links or hacking, which is better than most contemporary methods of mass communication can offer.
Then again, there is some ambiguity. A new Pope or lack thereof are not the only things symbolized by white and black smoke. To avoid confusion, here’s a handy guide for differentiating Papal plumes from other colored clouds.
A rich fuel mixture: If black smoke is billowing from the tailpipe of your car, it could mean there’s an out-of-whack mix of air and fuel, which could be the result of leaking fuel injectors, a stuck fuel pressure regulator or a restricted fuel return. If it happens to your car, go to a mechanic. It it happens to the Popemobile, the Pope ceases to exist.
Monster on a Mysterious Lost Island: The marauding, shape-shifting terrorizer of the survivors of crashed Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 was eventually explained to be the embodiment of a mysterious and ancient Man in Black. And by “explained” we mean “not sufficiently explained.” The smoke monster gave the survivors something to run from, which was appreciated by fans who had a crush on Evangeline Lilly.
A Perfect Score on the Ringelman Scale: In 1888, a French professor of agriculture invented a scale for discerning the density of smoke. His students, we can only assume, were frequently bored. The scale is essentially a grid of black lines on a white surface, which one can use to measure smoke density if one has nothing better to do. Smoke with the highest density is black, and therefore gets a perfect score of five on the scale. White smoke? A lame zero.
A murder cover-up: An oft-used trope on detective shows is that cops look for black smoke spewing from the chimney of a murder suspect, since it means he is burning the clothes of his victim, or his own blood-spattered clothes. Pulp suspense novelist Dan Brown will surely work this detail into a Da Vinci Code sequel loosely based on the papal conclave.
Sweet tail lights: So you’ve already spent boatloads of money on tinted windows, a boomin’ stereo and sweet rims. But your ride is not fully pimped without a set of Black Smoke tail lights. They’ll let people know you’re braking… and cool. Suggested vanity plate: BLKSMOK.
Computer Malware: WhiteSmoke is a pesky piece of malware that has been annoying people and buggering up computers around the world for years. Though it claims to be a handy grammar checker and translator, most users complain that it’s a trojan horse and is tricky to remove by any means other than exorcism.
Mind-Controlling Jet Chemtrails: The government doesn’t want you to know this, but chemtrails are long white clouds emitted by clandestine jets and containing mind-control substances designed by the Illuminati to lull the populace into complacency during the advent of the New World Order. Probably reverse-engineered from the Roswell UFO. May cause autism.
A leaking headgasket: If white smoke billows from your car’s exhaust pipe, it might be due to burning antifreeze dripping from a compromised head gasket. Or perhaps the rubber valve stem seals have perished. Or maybe it’s automatic transmission fluid from a defective transmission modulator. Or maybe they’ve picked a new pope.
A properly built Native America smoke signal: Native cultures used smoke signals for centuries to communicate over vast distances. A good one will have pretty white plumes of smoke, which can be created by throwing grasses and green sticks onto a fire. Traditionally, one puff is a simple attention-getting symbol. Two puffs means all is well and camp is established. Three puffs signifies danger or impending battle. Four puffs: pope.
Good weed: When partaking in the world’s favorite form of herbal recreation, white smoke is good. Yellow or brownish smoke signify some form of impurities. Rainbow-colored smoke signifies too much. It has nothing to do with papal selection, but it might make you think the word “papal” sounds really funny if you repeat it a bunch of times.