The Questions We Never Answered in 2009

Digging through the bottom of the Explainer mailbag.

God knows there’s been plenty to explain in 2009. We answered questions about a new president, a continuing economic crisis, a global flu pandemic, and the battle in Congress over health care reform. We also made time to figure out when drunks started wearing lampshades, how prostitutes pay their taxes, and how much cash a politician can cram into an Apple Jacks cereal box.

For all that—more than 250 columns over the last 12 months—we were able to address just a fraction of the thousands of e-mails we received. Today we renew an Explainer holiday tradition and present a selection of inquiries culled from the voluminous backlog. These are the reader questions that Slate felt either ill-equipped or unwilling to answer in 2009.


As always, we’re counting on you to tell us which of these unanswered questions most deserves its own column. The top vote-getter will be designated the Explainer Question of the Year for 2009, and a response will be posted in the next few weeks. Click here to Vote for the Question of the Year if you have Internet Explorer.



The Explainer’s Unanswered Questions From 2009

  • Can sex offenders have children?
  • Why have I never seen a female gas station attendant?
  • I was in a Cheesecake Factory restaurant in ATL over the weekend—jammed to the doors at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon. What I want to know is, why???
  • How would the law punish Siamese twins if one of the twins committed murder without the other being involved? For instance, if the twins were walking down the street and one pulled out a knife and stabbed someone. It seems to me that you couldn’t punish one without the other suffering the same punishment.
  • Which major global leader speaks the worst English? Thanks.
  • How do flea/tick/mosquito collars work? Would it be possible to create a similar device for people? That would be a great weapon against insect-borne diseases.
  • I have always wondered who played the characters of the Wicked Witch of the West’s monkey army in Wizard of Oz. Were they the same little people who played the munchkins or am I missing something here? It’s no big deal, but I have always wondered.
  • Can a state be kicked out of the union? I am thinking, of course, of Texas.
  • I don’t care about NASA and the space station stuff any more. Am I the only one? Should I care?
  • What could humanity possibly be like, or possibly have evolved into, if we as an entire species never discovered and/or harnessed the power of fire?
  • I have a little goatee. Why do people in Arab countries—I’ve not noticed this in Paris or L.A., for example—insist on touching my beard, then taking the same hand and kissing their fingers in a sort of “Italian, it’s delicious!” gesture? When I ask, they just laugh. This has happened to me literally dozens of times.
  • Why do auctioneers talk like that?
  • Are there really special agents like ‘s Jack Bauer working for the U.S. government? Just total badass muthas who can basically do anything? Or are Navy Seals and Army Rangers the toughest we’ve got?
  • In our culture when dealing with babies and little kids it’s always funny to put something on your head as a pretend hat. Is this the case in every culture? What about where they always wear turbans?
  • Why do we use the term chicken to imply that someone is scared, along with the standard bock-bock? Are chickens naturally skittish birds? And why cats? What’s a scaredy-cat?
  • Why do all people (it seems) cross their legs so much?
  • is it leagle to own a phone sex company in new york state****how do i protect my self what other things do i need to do i have girls lined up and ready to go ,,,,,,, just want to be leagle dan
  • Sometimes celebrity look-alikes are dead ringers for the celebrities. How does that happen? Mostly we take this phenomenon for granted, but how could it possibly be that someone more closely resembles Beyoncé than her own mother?
  • How many human female eggs would it take to make an omelette?
  • Is this possible? You cause a horrible accident, the shock of seeing it causing you to go pale. But at the same time people looking at you for causing the accident make you blush with shame. And so the two forces cancel each other out, leaving your face’s normal color intact. Or is the shock component more powerful than the blush component, or vice-versa? For what it’s worth, my guess is the shock component is more powerful than the shame component. But the shame component might actually help retain some color in the face, thus preventing a ghostly white color. For non-tanned Caucasian individuals, that is. 
  • What would be the citizenship of a baby born to astronauts on the way to or from Mars (or on the Moon)? Let’s make it extra-complicated and presume the parents are of different nationalities.
  • No one knows you as well as your sibling whom you are closest to. Michael Jackson had many siblings. Which one was he closest to? That sibling is the one to listen to.
  • Suppose you’re sitting at your desk and viewing a real-time beach scene on a Webcam set up 2,000 miles away. And you’re watching somebody get assaulted. Do you call your own 911 number to report it, or what’s the next best thing to do?
  • Please give me dimensions for a wooden box for a body whose ashes weigh 6 lbs.
  • Where can I buy wine that has the word frog in its label?
  • I just started researching information on the subject regarding lack of sleep. I know a very good subject for research. Would there be an interest by any research groups that you are aware of?
  • How long does an elderly person with pneumonia and respiratory problems have to live?
  • I have some questions about washing the following vegetables for use in a fast-paced delicatessen: (1) If I wash red onions, they become soggy to put on bread for a sandwich. Do I need to wash onions? (2) If I wash mushrooms, they are soggy for our salads. Do I need to wash mushrooms? (3) If I wash lettuce, it becomes soggy for placing on bread for a sandwich. Do I need to wash kale? And can I get by without washing iceberg lettuce if I remove a few outer layers?
  • My son plays drums in a band, they play 6 hours, he wears a black derby, his face is blood-red, heat escapes from the scalp, is he loosing his hair because of this? He is 33.
  • I have always thought yawning is contagious—you see someone yawn and you find yourself yawning. I’ve read articles that confirm this is true. So when I had my first child and was desperate to get him to go to sleep, I would yawn while he was looking at me in hopes of making him yawn, realize how tired he was, and go to sleep. Instead, he would just stare at me. He was immune to my yawning. With my second child, I notice the same thing. But now my first boy is three-and-a-half and he will yawn when I yawn. So when does yawning become contagious?
  • It’s 30 minutes till my bedtime and I want ice cream. I had a big dinner and a big glass of water and I’m not hungry. I thought to myself that it might be a waste to eat it now if I’m full. Then I wondered How about if I put some in my mouth, swirled it around to taste it, then spit it out? Then I will get to taste it but I won’t get uncomfortably full. But I instantly knew that would never work. I wouldn’t enjoy it at all if I couldn’t swallow it. Is that just me? Do you have to swallow food to enjoy it?
  • Why do film posters and DVD cases all use the same vertically-stretched, unreadable font near the bottom that shows the full credits for the film?
  • Why do they clap at the opening and closing of the stock market each day? And who are those people up there every day who are clapping? How are they chosen? They all look so stupid standing up there clapping about an economy that’s gone down the toilet big-time!!!
  • Re: chess, how do you play chess?



Which of these questions is most deserving of an answer? The top vote-getter will be designated the Explainer Question of the Year for 2009 and will be addressed in an upcoming column.

Previous Questions of the Year:

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?

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