Thursday January 10, 2008

The Tensor Explains It All, Again

Late in 2006, Slate's Explainer column published a list of strange questions that hadn't been answered over the course of the previous year, and asked readers to pick one of them to be answered after all.  As you may recall, I took it upon myself, helpful fellow that I am, to answer some of those questions.  Well, Explainer has published a similar list of questions for 2007, and I decided to help out again.  This time, though, I've raised the the difficulty—I'm answering all the questions this year.  Nothing up my sleeves.  No net.

Q:  Could you play sports in space, if you had a spacesuit?

A:  Well, Alan Shepard famously hit a golfball on the Moon (or so NASA would have you believe...).  Nowadays, though, a spacesuit isn't necessary.  For more information, see my informative post on variable-gravity fencing.

Q:  Can a baby get drunk off of nonalcoholic beer?

A:  Only if that baby is a total lightweight.

Q:  Very rare to find a hotel room with a light on the ceiling, they're usually floor lamps or desk lamps. Is there some structural reason for that?

A:  It's simple physics, really.  If you put a lamp on the ceiling, it would fall down and break.  And if you put a floor lamp anywhere but on the floor it wouldn't be a floor lamp any more, now would it?

Q:  Mitt Romney is running for president. His father, George Romney, a former governor of Michigan, ran for president in 1968. Is "Mitt" named for the mitten-shape of Michigan?

A:  Yes!  The elder Romney had the foresight, when his son was born in 1947, to name him after the shape of the state he planned to govern from 1963 to 1969.

Q:  How do surface-dwelling fish survive monster sea storms?

A:  They hold their breath.

Q:  If I drank a bunch of orange juice, which caused me to get heartburn, then ate a bunch of antacids, would it neutralize the vitamin C, thus providing no benefits from the ingested vitamin? If so, if you ate antacids continually, would you get scurvy?

A:  That's exactly right.  In fact, scientists now understand that sailors on long sea voyages were prone to scurvy because of all the antacids they took to deal with the stress caused by constantly worrying about pirates and sea monsters.

Q:  I've been looking for information on how the word "dick" became an insult, especially since people still go by the name Dick. Why would anyone choose that name, when it has other meanings?!?!

A:  What the hell are you talking about?  "Dick" is one of the most respectable names we have.  Next you'll be telling me that "Peter", "John Thomas", and "Jimmy" are insulting.

Q:  Why do male ice skaters have routines that are so feminine in execution? After all these years, there should be some kind of movements on ice that would be more masculine-looking. The gymnastics shows have them.

A:  I'm not sure how to break this to you, but...well, when a man and a woman love each other very much, that man isn't very likely to be a figure skater.  Do you see where I'm going with this?  Here, maybe this will help:

Q:  Why are some cats softer to the touch than others? Is it possible I have the softest cat in the world?

A:  (1) It's because of their fur.  (2) No.

Q:  In Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, he says that Jason Bourne can pack with great economy of space, allowing him to pack much more in a small bag than it would seem. How would one do this, and is it even a real thing?

A:  It is not a real thing.  You see, Robert Ludlum wrote what we linguists call "fiction", which means he could just make stuff up.  No real, non-fictional human person can pack better than any other.

Q:  Do you have any idea why sporting the moustache was so much more common in the military than in any other job in 19th-century Western countries, and to some extent present-day Western countries?

A:  In the 19th century, dueling was still common among military men.  In a duel, you want to have every possible advantage over your opponent, and sporting the moustache provided that edge.  In addition to the obvious visual intimidation and distraction, a skilled stachemeister (as they were called) could actually use his manly endowment to entangle his opponents blade and, with a disdainful twist of his lip, disarm him.  There are even reports of the moustache being sported in such a way as to deflect bullets, but these are, of course, absurd.  Come, let us laugh together at the absurdity of those reports!

Q:  If an unscrupulous bar owner was to mix diethylene to, say, whiskey, what would the effect be on the consumer?

A:  None at all—in fact, many of your finer Chinese whiskeys already contain nearly 30% diethylene.  That's 60 proof to those of you who use the metric system.  (I've got my eye on you, Canada!)

Q:  I am an Afro-American woman. I am in my youthful 50s. My hair is strong and a little past the shoulders. I wear it pressed (hot combed or flat iron). It is also a salt-and-pepper color; I get great compliments on it. The problem I have is static. Could you give me some tips on what to use to stop this?

A:  By far the most effective treatment for hair-static is the tinfoil hat.  A properly-designed foil chapeau allows excess electrical charge to travel from the hair to the specially designed "horns", from which it is harmlessly discharged as bursts of lightning.  It will also help reflect the beams from the orbiting mind-control lasers.

Q:  There was the most beautiful sunset here in Indiana last evening. Would the California fires have anything to do with that?

A:  No, the sunset is generally caused by the sun passing below the horizon (hence the name).  The California fires were nowhere near bright enough to be seen from Indiana.

Q:  I haven't seen this in the news, but perhaps you could explain it anyway. Why do people feel like destroying things when angry?

A:  What news are you watching that doesn't have angry people destroying things?  Did you send in this question from some kind of fairy-tale, candy-cane, tra-la-la-la-lollypop alternate universe?

Q:  Why do most reptiles go to sleep when you rub their bellies? I have done it myself with everything from domestic water dragons to wild alligators, but I heard recently that it is bad for them—and they only appear to be sleeping, when in fact they are having trouble breathing. Is this true?

A:  Dude, you are a FREAK.  Leave those poor lizards alone before I call Reptile Protective Services.

Q:  Would it be possible to "shoot" someone with "lightning"? Like, a Taser with no electrodes.

A:  Let me answer your question with a riddle: Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?

Q:  Why do men almost never win on ABC's Wheel of Fortune?

A:  It's simple linguistics.  As demonstrated by researcher Louise Benzedrine and reported in detail several times a week last year by Mark Liberman over at Language Log, women talk WAY more than men.  (Amiright, fellas?)  Thus, the ladies have far more experience exercising their language faculty, which in turn improves their performance on all sorts of language-related tasks.

Q:  Are any of the scorpions in central Vietnam deadly? I was stung three times one night, and evacuated to a hospital where doctors said the one that stung me was the only lethal one in Vietnam. Truth or lie?

A:  Lie.  You've fallen prey to one of the most common scams perpetrated on foreigners in Southeast Asia: the old your-scorpion-bites-are-life-threatening-so-we-must-evacuate-you-to-a-hospital trick.  Next time just roll over, go back to sleep, and pay no attention to the scorpions stinging you.

Q:  Why don't we drop medical waste and nuclear waste into active volcanoes, the "ultimate high-temperature incinerators"?

A:  Because hippies, that's why not.  [This is the question that won the vote over at Slate, by the way.  Here's their not-very-satisfying "answer".]

Q:  Hello. I am an editor and writer and I would like for everyone to change some letters that are now in lowercase to uppercase. An example would be the 18th century to the 18th Century. Where does one go about starting to do this?

A:  ThE Answer is sImple, mY frIEnd: stArt A lingUIstics blOg! YOU'll bE amAzed At hOw qUIckly YOU Are sUddenly consIdered An authOrity On All thIngs lAnguage-related.(BTW, you forgot to finish with "I am not a crackpot".)

Q:  Is it "open sees me" or "open says me"?

A:  The latter, because Popeye will never lead you wrong.  (And he could kick Chuck Norris's ass, too.)

Q:  Can dogs be mentally retarded?

A:  Yes, but it's pretty much impossible to tell.  (I say this as a confirmed cat person.)

Q:  Why don't they build into cars a secret button for police to use, and when these people are trying to get away from police down the freeway and city streets at 100 mph, the following police car could push the button, making the engine on the speeding car stop? Surely there must be some smart person who could make this.

A:  I'm trying to picture how such a system would work in practice. Help me out.  How are the police supposed to get into the car they're pursuing at high speed in order to press the secret button?  The only way I can see this working is if the police used their flashing lights to hypnotize the criminal, implanted a post-hypnotic suggestion to press the secret button, the woke him (or her!) up.  That might do the trick.

Q:  Why does having a foreign accent make a person seem more attractive?

A:  There is no "why", my friend, there is only the undeniable fact.  Accent = Hawt.

Q:  How often are presidents born, and how often do they die? Do they die in bunches, or on average every four years?

A:  Presidents used to be born all willy-nilly and die off in droves, but since the passage of the 28th Amendment regulating the Presidential life cycle, Presidents are grown in vats, born in laboratories, and die on schedule, every four years.

Q:  When a fly lands on a ceiling, does it execute a barrel roll or an inside loop?

A:  I don't have a joke for this one, because that's actually a really good question.  [The folks at Slate point out that Cecil Adams has already answered this one.]

Q:  Is there such a thing as "crazy eyes," where the whites go all the way around the corneas and makes the person look psycho, such as those of runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and wife-dismemberer Stephen Grant?

A:  I think you've answered your own question.

Tangent:  mataglap (read the description)

Another Tangent:  My driver's license picture from a couple of years ago was, unhelpfully, taken right after I blinked.  So far, even though I appear to be displaying classic crazy eyes in that picture, no longer have purple hair, have grown a beard, and now wear glasses, no TSA employee has ever given me a second look when checking my photo ID.  This despite the fact that I have an extra layer built into one of my shoes, which they've also never noticed.  Way to stay alert, guys!

Q:  I've always wanted to know why bald heads shine!!!

A:  Sorry, that's a statement, not a question.  Thanks for sharing, though, I guess!!!

Q:  Who is Daniel Engbert? I'm sure that I'm spelling his name wrong, but he's one of a few guys that you regularly go to as a reliable source—and I want to know who he is and why he's qualified.

A:  Daniel Engbert is the latest in a long line of heroes who guard the innocent in the jungles of the mysterious country of Bangalla. For over twenty generations, Engbert and his ancestors have protected the people, swearing the Oath of the Skull: "I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me."

Q:  What infections do viruses and microorganisms suffer from? My guess is none. They only suffer from random mutations and suffering caused (mostly by humans) by chemicals.

A:  It's worse than you think, my bleeding-hearted friend.  In recent decades, humans have so polluted the natural habitat of viruses with our wicked chemicals that rates of virus cancer have skyrocketed. Fortunately, the Virus Protection Act of 2008 would allocate several billion dollars to clean up the virusscape.  Won't you please help? Call your Congressional representatives today!

Q:  I have been looking for an old movie from about the late '60s. I was born in 1960 and watched it as a little kid. It was a Santa movie and it had the Devil in it. It was like the Devil was trying to stop Christmas. I remember the Devil was wearing red PJs. Santa has a magic powder that would make people sleep. It was a cute movie. Please help.

A:  That's 1959's Santa Claus.  [Bah, scooped by Slate!  I need to post these things faster.]  Capsule review: meh, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was better.

Q:  What do the SWAT teams do to keep their fitness? Like, do they run for half an hour, or do five pressups?

A:  The SWAT teams are so hard-core that during training they first run for half an hour, then ALSO do five pressups (or push-ups, as we call them in the civilized world).

Q:  If mountains are measured from sea level, then the 12,000-foot peaks in Colorado are only about 7,000 feet above Denver since they lie on a 5,000-foot-high plain. That being so, a one-foot rock lying on the ground becomes a 5,001-foot-high mountain. Do we need to address this differently, if it really matters at all?

A:  I think you've answered your own question.

Q:  Is it possible in any way to prove that someone was on crack cocaine nine to 10 years ago?

A:  Don't worry, no test exists that can reveal your "friend"'s shameful dirty crackhead.

Q:  Why don't long-haired football players, many of them of Polynesian descent, get their tresses tugged during their gridiron clash?

A:  From the Official NFL Rulebook, chapter 9, section 3, sub-section B, paragraph 2, verse 16: "Tresses-tugging, especially of the tresses of long-haired players of Polynesian descent, shall at no time be permitted, especially during clashes taking place on a gridiron."

Q:  This may be a dumb question. Most people spell their names as first name, middle initial, and last name. But some people spell their name as initial, given name, and then last name. Is the initial before the given name their first name, and they go by their middle name? Or is the initial before the given name their middle initial? If it is their middle initial, why would you put it before your first name, because then it is not in the middle anymore? It seems like conservatives or Republicans are more likely to list their name starting with an initial.

A:  A convenience sample of people with names of that pattern (namely G. Gordon Liddy, J. Edgar Hoover, and F. Scott Fitzgerald) shows that exactly two thirds of such people are conservatives, while one third of them wrote The Great Gatsby.

Q:  What would happen to the rest of the planets and the sun if Jupiter were to explode, or somehow leave our galaxy altogether?

A:  Jeez, do you own research, Arthur C. Clarke.

Q:  Which is the best hearing aid? Why are there so many different ones, and are the ones that allow you to hear others' conversations across the room legal?

A:  The best hearing aid is probably the one that helps you keep your nose out of other people's business, Mr. Nosey Pants.

Q:  When a man lies to his lawyer to obtain a divorce from a wife of 47 years when she is ill and does not even know and cannot defend herself, is this legal, or perjury?

A:  Don't worry, bro, you're in the clear.  [high five!]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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You rule. There is nothing else to say.

Posted by: Bridget at Jan 10, 2008 5:20:18 PM

hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee etc.

Posted by: hh at Jan 10, 2008 5:33:39 PM

Hands off, Bridget, he's MINE!

Posted by: The Wife at Jan 10, 2008 5:48:46 PM

Um... however, if you want him for a party, I do rent him out at reasonable rates. Please email for more info.

Posted by: The Wife at Jan 10, 2008 5:50:36 PM

Ladies, please! There's plenty of me to go around.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 10, 2008 6:18:26 PM

I love your explanation for the antacids/scurvy question, but apparently an actual reference work ("Chambers's Encyclopædia", 1878) actually makes a connection. And if you can't trust 19th-century medical science, what *can* you trust?

"ANTACIDS are medicines which correct abnormal acidity of the stomach and intestinal canal by directly combining with the free acid that may be present. Their action is obviously merely temporary, as, unless combined with other medicines, they do not correct the morbid condition which causes the undue acidity ; and their too prolonged use must be carefully avoided, since, at all events, some of these medicines, as the alkalies and their carbonates, are liable to induce a state of general anaemia, morbid deposits in the urine, and a series of symptoms not unlike those of scurvy."

Posted by: Jonathan Badger at Jan 11, 2008 11:11:18 AM

That was hilarious. Not quite right about the Presidents, they don't seem to have a four year life cycle....

Posted by: Carrie K at Jan 11, 2008 2:39:46 PM

Oh if only there were hearing aids that let people hear clearly across a room. What a lot of misinformation there is.

Posted by: felicity at Jan 12, 2008 3:14:46 PM

I can actually think of a mechanism for your J. Edgar Hoover initials thing to be true (sad or what?)

In Scotland, it's common to abbreviate the first name and not the middle because sons are much more often given the same first name as their fathers than in England, though they're actually called by their middle name in everyday life.

So in the US, the habit might be a marker of WASPitude because of the Scots (or Scotch Irish) strain, or because would-be highfalutin families might be more likely to name sons after fathers than common folk

David (son of James) Eddyshaw

Posted by: David Eddyshaw at Jan 29, 2008 4:32:07 PM