When the author first arrived at the Explainer’s lair, many years ago, he found a stooped and sorry man inside, with hair gone gray from endless questions. The previous Explainer, once a master of the form, was by then burnt out and slightly crazed. “Got any useful tips for me?” this Explainer asked, hoping for a smooth transition.
“Just watch your back,” the old Explainer answered, and then he grabbed the newbie by the shoulders—in anger or in terror, one couldn’t really say. “Watch your back,” he said again. “Everyone thinks that he’s the Explainer, man. Everyone thinks he can beat the Explainer at his own game!” With that he gathered up his things and left.
It seemed like paranoia at the time, the ramblings of a writer who’d been into Q&A for far too long. In the end, this Explainer would also go a little batty (as Explainers do) from being buried in the mountain sum of human ignorance and cede the hat to several others. But that earlier ex-Explainer had a point. People were indeed competing in the question game: Google Answers started up in 2002, Ask MetaFilter came one year after that. By 2006, we had Amazon Askville and Yahoo! Answers, and in 2009, a site called Quora that explained things with such aplomb that Slate itself—the Explainer’s architect and sponsor—rolled it up into a blog. The worst had come to pass: Everyone is an Explainer these days.
That’s why the column was suspended midway through this year. The Explainer will be back from time to time to answer questions, but only when there’s some special, temporary cause for his revival. Otherwise Explainer’s done—license revoked—a Slate retiree.
The column has one more piece of business, though, before they close the Explainatorium for good: that final box of letters in the corner, full of recent reader questions that never found their way into the magazine. In fulfillment of a Christmastime tradition, the Explainer offers up this final chance to see those topics that he felt unable or unwilling to address in 2013. As usual, we’d like you to tell us which of these questions is most deserving of a column. The top vote-getter will be named the Question of the Year and answered in the coming weeks.
1. I am doing an English essay on whether Charles Manson was a case of nature or nurture. I’ve got lots of evidence for nurture; however I don’t know what to say about nature and was wondering if you could help me.
2. My stepsons have a strange affection or curiosity about poisonous things. They have been growing castor beans as of late. It disturbs me because I know they are very poisonous. I found a 5-pound bag of castor beans in my stepson’s house. His other brother took about half the beans out and took them home with him. Both boys have mental issues with schizophrenia and drug use from pot and different things. I am worried they don’t like me at all, and I just wonder how easy it would be for them to try to poison us because I think that what they’re doing is not in a normal person’s line of interest.
3. Why do people prefer to meet and talk over coffee to have a deep conversation?
4. How terrible are the “terrible twos”?
5. Why do Halloween costume companies feel the need to create costumes that objectify a profession? An example being the nursing costume. It is a common costume found around Halloween that is taken out of context and by the use seems to bash those in the profession.
6. I am interested in info that is pertinent to describing the effectiveness of undoing the ants that thrive in our computers! Speak or deny you have any helpful info!
7. How much does a big dog weigh?
8. What are the rules of a high school cop?
9. Hi there, I want to become the first deaf trillionaire in the world, as I wish I am a trillionaire—richest in the world!
10. What is the argument in favor of having differing dimensions of Major League ballparks? There’s a huge disparity between various venues when it comes to how easy it is for hitters to knock one out of the park, in terms of distance and design. What gives? Isn’t that a little like having the basketball rim at varying heights from court to court, or the soccer goal be different widths?
11. My dog had no energy and we took him in and the vet prescribed thyroid pills for him, and I kid you not, we saw a tremendous change in him, immediately! Is it safe for me to take the pills?
12. A recent spate of best-selling books, written by expat Americans and Brits, describe how living in France changed their lives or explain how the French Do Everything Better. My question: Are there any French-language best-sellers written by expat Parisians extolling the good life in America or Britain?
13. On average, which is healthier: fruits or vegetables?
14. I have four guns that were in an evidence room and the building was destroyed by fire. Ammunition was going off. Are my guns destroyed? Could they blow up in my face?
15. What did Native Americans think of tornadoes?
16. I am 25 years old and I find there are things in my childhood I can remember in vivid detail from the age of 3. However, there are people I don’t remember whom I actually hung out with on a normal basis in junior high. Why is that? They can tell me we did this and that, and I don’t recall the event or even that they went to my school! I didn’t hit my head or have any tragic accidents or any traumatizing moments, so I’m not understanding why this is.
17. Why does a writer use characters’ last name only and not the first name after they’re introduced? When the character is introduced, they use the first and last name. The next time the character appears, it’s usually by last name only. I find it annoying, confusing, and I can’t think of a reason for it. This happens a lot in books. An author will introduce six characters in the first part of Chapter 1, write about three as the main characters through the first half of the book, then bring back the other three with only last names. Now, I have to flip back to the beginning to find out if Jones is a man or Leslie is a woman. Usually turns out that it’s Carl Leslie and Naomi Jones. Not knowing messes up the character’s voices (in my head). It’s confusing when it’s a big book with multiple characters. Author John Hart is the only one I can recall who uses his characters’ first names (and it’s appreciated)! None of my writing professors have an explanation. They just mark up my papers, saying it’s wrong to use the person or character’s first name for subsequent mentions. I don’t think they know why; they’re just repeating what they’ve been told by others. Can you explain why the first name isn’t used?
18. Why do police put their hands on top of people arrested as they are placed into police cars?
19. I love palindromes (“A man, a plan, a canal—Panama!”) but I’ve always had an English-centric view of them. What are some palindromes in other languages? What’s the easiest language for palindromes? Something like Hawaiian that has fewer letters in the alphabet? Is there a super-simple-alphabet language where you make a palindrome every time you open your mouth? What about ideographic alphabets? Are they S.O.L?
20. Do actors get post-traumatic stress disorder?
21. Can the United States really give someone cancer?
22. Why were animals so big in the past?
23. Where did knock-knock jokes come from?
24. Why is there historically no mafia in Washington, D.C.? East Coast city, within driving distance and/or an easy train hop to traditional mob havens such as Philly, South Jersey, New York, etc. Other more far-flung cities—Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans, Buffalo—have long-established mafia presences. Why not D.C.?
25. Countless times in TV shows or movies, characters urge a wounded figure to stay with him, not to lose consciousness. Is there any medical basis for this? Doesn’t the body need to lose consciousness to cope with the emergency? Might these dramatic and good-hearted souls actually hasten the wounded character’s death?
26. Why do bald men tend to have hairy backs? Do the follicles just slide down?
27. Why does it feel good to feel for sorry for yourself?
28. Why is the side of the road called the shoulder?
29. Why, when given the opportunity to vote on end-of-year Explainer questions, do Slate readers so often pick the most inane question to be answered?
30. Why is venison not usually made into soup?
31. Why does it look to me like the second-hand on my analog wristwatch is frozen for a couple of seconds when I look at it to check the time?
32. When and why did people start drinking through straws?
33. My house is shaped sort of like a donut, in that there is a section in the middle around which you can walk through each of the rooms in a circular fashion. Often I end up chasing my dog in circles for so long that I have to give up because I get too dizzy to continue, and yet he always seems ready to keep going. So, my question is, do dogs get dizzy? Or is it a human thing?
Previous Questions of the Year:
2012: Why do the rich and famous always sunbathe topless?
2011: Why are smart people usually ugly?
2010: Why do boys like sticks?
2009: If a Siamese twin commits murder, does his brother get punished, too?
2008: What is the most disloyal dog breed?
2007: Why don’t we drop medical waste and nuclear waste into active volcanoes, the “ultimate high-temperature incinerators”?
2006: Can a bar of soap get dirty, or is it self-cleaning because it’s soap?