Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Questions for the Explainer, 2011

Slate's 'The Explainer' column has posted the greatest unanswered questions left over from 2011. Great fun.

Long ago I posted my own attempts at responses to some of the 2008 questions for The Explainer. I'm going to try that again. (My mind is pure. I have not read the comments.)

2. It's not really topical, but it's been bugging me for a while: Why do comedy clubs have such unfunny names? Not just boring—it's hard to tell a joke in a three-word business name—but it's usually something inane like “The Laugh Factory” or “The Chuckle Hut.” Why don't they just name comedy clubs after comedians?

I've never been to a comedy club, but this bothers me too. I think it bothers me because of the implication that comedy clubs think the public is a bunch of morons who won't understand if they give themselves even remotely original or creative names. Surely that can't be true?

7. Why do furniture stores rely so heavily on the advertising gimmick of “going out of business” sales? It seems obvious that they aren’t actually going out of business, but are just trying to drive traffic to their store. I can understand why they might do this, but the real question is, why is this so prevalent among furniture stores and no other industries? It seems the same principles that apply for furniture could apply elsewhere, but I only see these with furniture stores. I’m guessing the answer has to do with some furniture industry pioneer and his lasting legacy.

I always figured it was an industry-wide in-joke. When you see a commercial for a furniture store that's having its 2nd annual going out of business sale, surely someone along the line's got their tongue firmly in cheek. Right?

8. Why don't roaches live in cars more often? There seems to be plenty of food in many cars to support them. Do they get motion-sickness?

My guess is that roaches only start to infest a place after it's remained stationary for a while. So a perpetually parked car full of delicious organic foodstuffs is eventually going to attract roaches.

10. Odd to say the least, but why do so many of our states end with the letter a? Way too many to be happenstance—there must be a reason.

Because in the linguistic mindset of our European and particularly Anglo-Saxon predecessors, that '-a' ending is the sort of ending the name of a geographical area ought to have. It's an English language thing. Note that all the continents (except Europe) end in the letter 'A' as well. Sure, plenty of American states have names that at least nominally came from Native American languages, but they all those names got chewed up and spit out by the rules of English phonetics before they became state names.

12. When you cut open a pumpkin, there is no whoosh so there must be a gas inside the pumpkin filling the "empty" space. What is it and how does it get inside.

I'm going to admit that I never took Physics of Naturally Occurring Spongy Substances back in school.

13. When parking in a nearly full parking lot, is it quicker to a) park in the first open space you see and walk, or b) drive a few laps around the lot and grab the closest possible spot? In my experience the two ways are about even, since the extra time spent driving for "b)" means a quicker exit when you leave. Please settle this using statistics as my wife has refused to argue anymore regarding this issue.

Gotta smile at the story implied by that last sentence.

14. Let's say that a meteor never hits the earth, and dinosaurs continue evolving over all the years human beings have grown into what we are today. What would they be like? Would they have a society? A language? iPods?

Clearly this person has never seen the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'Distant Origins', which aired back in 1997 and was about a race of civilized dinosaurs living on the other side of the galaxy.

More seriously, any answer to this question would have to be pure speculation; it's the paleontological equivalent of asking a historian what modern geopolitics would be like if the Roman Empire never collapsed, the Mongols conquered Europe, or the Chinese industrialized first. As a kid I poured over Dougal Dixon's book The New Dinosaurs, a lavishly illustrated zoological survey of a contemporary Earth where dinosaurs never died out. But none of Dixon's neo-dinosaurs had developed civilization. No dino-iPods.

17. Why don't they ever use “presents” in advertisements? It’s always about “gift”-giving, and “gift” ideas, never a “they'll love these as presents.”

I bet some advertising consultants did some linguistic research and determined that 'gift' is a much punchier-sounding word than 'present'. I'm not even sure I'm joking.

18. Why is it wrong to say things like, "I'm not a ___ (e.g. anti-Semite, racist, whatever); half my friends are ___ (e.g. Jewish, black, whatever)." It seems logical, if not said after an offensive remark, but it seems we learn quickly in life not to make that statement because it's quickly laughed at and discredited. No, it hasn't happened to me in 25 years, but I'm not sure I understand why it's taboo.

I don't think it's taboo, so much as it's become a pop culture cliche that this construction is used solely by bigots who want to deny their bigotry. My guess is that it goes back to old-timey Southern gentility, when a white person could be on perfectly polite and civil terms with numerous black people, yet be appalled if one of his or her kids dated one.

And it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I've got the idea that the only people who say 'I don't hate X. Some of my best friends are X' are people who hate X, and I don't want to come across as hating X, then I won't say it.

These days it's become an ironic joke. Hipsters say it to be funny. TV and movies use it to signal that a character is an unconscious bigot.

Related is the observation that when a person begins a sentence with 'I'm not racist, but...', what follows is almost invariably racist.

26. We are taking my daughter to Disney World. I remember as a kid being a little scared and intimidated by the huge characters. Why are they so big? Is there a psychological study that finds this to be the appropriate size for fantasy characters; does it make them more fantastical? I think quite the opposite. It almost breaks the illusion and calls out the fakery.

The final sentence is absolutely true; there's nothing less lifelike than a seven-foot-tall Goofy walking around forever frozen on that one facial expression. I suspect there's no reason why you couldn't create character costumes that were more life-size; the problem is in finding enough four-foot-tall people to wear them. (And truly life-size renditions of Chip and Dale and other small, not-as-anthropomorphic-as-Mickey rodents will have to wait for advances in robotics.)

30. Why aren’t there any topless casinos in Las Vegas? There are plenty of casinos and plenty of strip clubs in Vegas but there aren’t any combinations of the two. It seems like someone would create a casino where the dealers were topless.

I've never been inside either a topless bar or a casino, but I know a money-making idea when I see it. I predict this person will be a successful entrepreneur in 5 years. Who else wants to invest?

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