Thursday, December 18, 2008

Questions for the Explainer

Slate's Explainer column has dug through the bag of questions they never answered in 2008. Good fun.

Is it just me, or do all national anthems the world over, no matter how rich and exotic the culture, seem to sound like European marching-band music? Wouldn't one expect China's national anthem be more "plinky"? Shouldn't Iraq's national anthem sound a little more "Arab-y"?

I hope they pick this one to answer, because I've noticed the same thing. Years ago I had an Encarta encyclopedia on CD-ROM which let me listen to every country's national anthem, and they all sounded disappointingly similar.

When and why did the Communist Chinese change the name of their capital "PEKING" to Bazging? Sorry, I don't know how it is spelled. Thank you.

There are many opportunities for snark here (c'mon, "Bazging"?) but I just can't get beyond the fact that, with all the places to find information online, this person asked Slate a Wikipedia question. One might as well ask the Explainer what year Brazil became independent, or who was Prime Minister of Canada before Brian Mulroney.

If one gets a personal e-mail from a very famous or important person, such as the president, or the queen of England, or the Pope, or Paul McCartney, can that e-mail have monetary value? I guess not. It's just an electronic transmission on a screen. There's no original. There's no way to buy or sell it. Seems a shame tho.

I hate to be pedantic, but I'm not sure it counts as a "question" if you answer it immediately in the same paragraph. It's a shame; I'm intrigued and I can see a near-future SF short story exploring the idea.

I live in Washington, D.C., and we have very long escalators coming out of the Metro. If I grabbed the handrail when I first step onto the escalator and did not let go until I was at the top, my body would be almost prostrate across the steps. As I go higher on the escalator, I have to readjust the hand that is grabbing the rubber handrail. Why can't the companies that make escalators sync the steps and the handrails so that they go the same speed?

I lived in DC for a couple of years. This is absolutely true!! Escalators here in Taipei don't work that way. OK, this is another question I genuinely want answered.

How did early man deal with growing toe and fingernails?

Early man did not sit in an office all day long. Early man had to run around barefoot outside and find food with his hands. Early man scoffs at you and your delicate sense of personal hygiene.

If someone with DNA from the Stone Age were born today, would they be normal?

There are two ways to answer this question. The reasonable scientific answer would be to point out that the Stone Age was a really, really long period of time; it began at whatever point you want to arbitrarily designate as the beginning of the human race, and in some parts of the world it hasn't actually ended yet. If you create a child today with Homo erectus DNA (in some sort of unholy anthropological version of Jurassic Park), you're going to have yourself a poor kid who's going to be a freakish curiosity his whole life. But if you create a child who's got the DNA of the guys who created cave paintings in France, you'll have yourself a perfectly normal kid. The other way to answer this question is to refer to the excellent 1987 documentary The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, in which actual Stone Age physiology can be compared directly with modern human beings.

During this weekend's football playoff game in Green Bay, the temperature at kickoff was 0 degrees, and by the end of the game was -4 degrees. When players get injured in such weather, do they bother putting ice on the injury? Wouldn't that warm up the injury to 32 degrees?

I'm not sure of the science involved here. I'd like to point out, though, that ice can become much cooler than 32 degrees. 32 degrees is just the upper limit, beyond which it will melt. Also, which will make your hand freeze faster: leaving your hand exposed to cold air, or sticking your hand into a snowdrift?

Burma's dictator has a chestful of bullshit medals. What's up with that, Explainer?

I like this question. Compare Burma's dictator with North Korea's Kim Jong-il, who wears the drabbest clothing ever seen on an evil dictator (assuming he hasn't died already). Someone should do a study of dictators' dress styles. I suspect the main fault line lies between (noninally) Communist and non-Communist regimes.

Can men eat the Activia yogurt that is advertised exclusively to the modern woman in khakis? Will it have the same internal regulatory effects on the male system that are promised for the female bowels? If not, why not?

I am a man and I have eaten Activia yogurt religiously for the past year. My bowels have never been more regular, although I do menstruate.

Can an average person not in politics get a pardon from the president of the United States? (Possession of forged instrument, October of 1989.)

Can you see what I'm doing? I'm making the "rubbing coins between thumb and forefinger" gesture.

Please explain the method of formation and origin of black holes. Are they located at the Bermuda Triangle area and why there?

The question that launched a hundred made-for-cable sci-fi movies.

Who made up the rule that if you wore a shirt all day, went home, and washed it, you can't wear it the next day?

This law was passed by Congress in the fall of 1882 and signed by Chester A. Arthur in the Oval Office.

Why don't humans have a mating season?

I think this is my favorite question of the lot of 'em.

Hi, I am Anna. I am only 11 years old! My friend told me about this black hole, and I have gotten really scared. I don't want to die! I thought if it didn't happen today, it wasn't going to happen. I did not know nothing about it happening in Spring! I find it unfair that scientists are making a machine that could possibly destroy the entire human race. Me and my friends have cried about the black hole, and I find it really upsetting. There has been barely nothing about it on the news. I am so nervous. I just think I am too young to die—is there any way we could stop it happening?

I'm leaning towards the assumption that "Anna" is male, a physics major, about 21 years old, thinks this letter is the funniest thing ever, and wrote it while helplessly giggling. I also assume "Anna" is referring to CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Now, as I understand it, the scientists at CERN are trying to create a black hole in order to drop the Earth into a wormhole which will enable us to access parallel Earths at earlier stages of chronological development, enabling us to revisit bygone periods of our history. For example, a temporal assassin can kill Hitler while he is still a struggling artist in pre-WW1 Vienna, thus preventing the rise of Nazi Germany and saving the Jews who would have died in Holocaust.

I am 79 years old. I bring this up first to help explain my question. In the late 1930s or early 1940s, I was looking through an old stack of Life magazines, and there was a picture of an old couple sitting on the porch of a cabin (or shack) up in the mountains somewhere in Appalachia, with the notation: "The King and Queen of America?" The small article with the picture stated that if George Washington had become king of the U.S., these two would (under the usual custom) be our king and queen. I have thought of this from time to time, even doubted it. (It might have been part of the propaganda of the time, the Depression years, that we were all equal, etc.) I am dimly aware that George Washington had brothers, and that it is possible that the descent is known. As I remember, it was a lovely picture, the old couple looking out over a valley, with mist, and smoking their corncob pipes. Can you find the picture? Can you tell me whether there was truth in the assertion?

I love this idea. I have no idea how much truth there might be in it. But it inspired me to go to Wikipedia to look up:

The current German Kaiser. He's 32 years old.

The current Tsar of Russia? There are two claimants, this lady and this elderly gentleman.

The King of Italy is apparently a rather infamous figure in his homeland.

Ever wondered about the heir to the throne of the Qing Dynasty in China? I get the feeling he's led a relatively modest life. Living in the PRC, you can't blame him.

The French throne has lots of claimants, thanks to the multitude of royal houses they had in the 1800s. There's this guy if you're a fan of the House of Orleans; there's also this guy for you Bourbon fans. And of course there's a head of the Bonaparte dynasty.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'd bet the cave drawing humans would have better eyesight than we do. Nearsightedness would have been deadly back in the day - no corrective lenses and everybody went hunting and had to avoid lurking snakes and tigers.