Sunday December 21, 2008

The Tensor Explains It All, 2008

It's that time of year again!  Slate's Explainer column has put up its list of unanswered questions from this year.  As always, Explainer is asking readers to vote on which question should be answered, and as in previous years, I've decided to take up the slack by answering all the questions preemptively (a policy I refer to as "The Tensor Doctrine").

Q:  What is the most disloyal dog breed?

A:  I sort of understand what people mean when they say a dog breed is "loyal"—it comes when you call and stays by your side—but I'm not sure it makes sense to speak of a dog being "disloyal".  What would that mean?  It cheats on you with another master, or testifies against you in court, or doesn't back you up when the shit goes down?  It's just a dog.  If it's not throwing up its own poop on your rug, you're ahead of the game.

Q:  Why does some music make you want to shake your butt?

A:  This is a case where the way you're asking the question is preventing you from seeing the answer.  Instead of asking, "Why does some music make you want to shake your butt?" you should ask "What is it about me that makes me want to shake my butt to some music?"  See the difference?  (The answer is that you have the Devil inside you, by the way.)

Q:  Could you please explain why it is that squirrels are capable of such amazing athletic feats?  What is it about their brains and, to a lesser degree, their bodies that allows it?  I watch them at my house and have seen some amazing things.

A:  Your question contains so many false assumptions it's hard to answer.  Squirrels are capable of amazing athletic feats?  Then why don't we see any playing professional sports?  They have amazing brains?  Then why aren't there any squirrel Nobel prize winners?  You need to get out of your back yard more.

Q:  Why do women like soup?  Is it for perceived health benefits?  Is it because it's a quasi-comfort food?

A:  My friend, if you and I could figure out why women like or don't like the things they do or don't like, we'd be like the Kings of the World.  We could use the secret to make literally hundreds of dollars.  We'd be hundredaires!

Q:  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"?

A:  In most cases, it's because the rich, exotic culture of the country didn't originally include the concept of a "national anthem".  When asked to provide one, at the country's first Olympics, say, its representatives said, "A national what-now?", then had to scramble to have something suitably national-anthemy composed, using every other country's anthem as a model—hence the similarity.  As for your proposal for a "plinky" Chinese anthem and an "Arab-y" Iraqi anthem, would it help at all if I point out that you're a racist?

Q:  I am an 11-year-old boy and girls in my class harass me constantly and I want to file a restraining order against one of them.  Is that possible?

A:  It's possible, but it's a sad fact that 11-year-old girls couldn't give a rat's ass whether you have a restraining order or not.  I'm afraid you're just going to have to hunker down and make sure your cooties vaccinations are up to date.

Q:  It is a common baseball prank to give someone a cream pie in the face during a TV interview.  Where do these cream pies come from?  Do baseball teams keep cream pies in the dugout?

A:  Not just in the dugout!  Suppose the interview took place in the locker room or down on the field—there'd better be a cream pie stashed nearby!  In fact, every modern baseball stadium has many cream pies secreted throughout the facility.  Every base on the field, for example, has a fresh cream pie placed under it before each practice and each game, just in case.

Q:  Why don't humans have a mating season?

A:  Speak for yourself.  I'm in estrus right now.

Q:  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.

A:  If you can't be bothered to look up the spelling of Beijing, why do you expect me to go to the trouble to make up a silly answer?  Did you even try googling Peking?  These answers don't just grow on trees, you know, Mr. Lazy Pants.

Q:  My toaster identifies which of the two slots should be used for making a single slice of toast.  Why does it make a difference which slot I use?

A:  Good question!  Most modern toasters only actually apply heat to one of the two pieces of bread, relying on the principle of sympathetic magic to toast the other.  If you place a single piece of bread in the unheated "magic-only" side, it won't get toasted at all, and you may be surprised by a fountain of many-colored butterflies, rainbow game counters, chess pieces, laughing cutlery, tiny chairs and tables, and flying plates covered with exotic fruit.

Q:  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.

A:  Dude!  Print out that email from the President-for-life of Nigeria and keep it somewhere safe.  I'm sure it'll be worth something after he's finished transferring his fortune into your bank account.

Q:  Does indoor tanning hurt your tits if you have had a breast silicone implant put in for over 30 years?

A:  My mind is reeling at the thought that it took over 30 years just to put in one silicone implant.  How did you survive a 30-year surgery?  Were you under the whole time?  You must be like Tits van Winkle!  Aren't you lopsided until the other one goes in?  Will that take another 30 years?  In any case, you don't have to worry about indoor tanning; it's impossible because there's no sun inside.  It's simple science.

Q:  Why do all of the deli guys and food cart guys call me "Boss" (well, me and everyone else)?

A:  I'm sure you're mistaken, Boss.

Q:  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?

A:  I can't make a joke here because I've noticed the same thing and I'm totally curious!  This is my vote for the question Explainer should answer.

Q:  If you were on a boat, what signs do sharks give if they are hungry and will attack versus if they just want to swim around the boat?

A:  The easiest way would be to throw something (like a side of beef or a small child) into the water and see if the sharks take any interest.  I have to ask, though: have you considered simply not boating in shark-infested waters?  I mean, I don't want to cramp your style, but...

Q:  How did early man deal with growing toe and fingernails?

A:  Early manicures.

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

A:  Well, since the DNA in chromosomes is copied pretty accurately from parent to child, and we're all descended from people who lived back in the Stone Age...  No, never mind, forget I said that.  The answer is: no, absolutely not normal, such person would be a freaky-primitive cave man!

Q:  I have been accused of assault in Ohio.  The woman fell over a box in the hall backward, and my brother opened the door, saw her lying there, and started hitting me.  I got him down and held him down.  It was all over a fight concerning my niece.  What do you think will happen?

A:  Well, if can't get your story any straighter than that, I think you're screwed.  Your brother hit you because a woman fell over backwards and also because of a fight concerning your niece?  I smell a conviction.

Q:  I wonder what's going on with Obama's eyes.  When he made his keynote address to the Democratic Convention in 2004, I noticed his eyes had a bit of a pretty eyes makeup look.  I concluded that it was just the makeup they put on him for the TV cameras.  But then yesterday on TV I saw some older footage of Obama and again his eyes had that same pretty look.  This was before he was nationally known.  I looked carefully and I think that look comes from having long eyelashes.  I mentioned this to some other people and they noticed it too.  But so then where did those long eyelashes go?  Maybe eyelashes get shorter with age.  Do they?  BUT also I'm wondering if Obama has had his eyelashes shortened.  If he has had them shortened, I think that's an excellent idea.  Because that long lashes pretty eyes look actually doesn't look so good on a man.  At least not if he's running for president.

A:  As a man burdened with long, pretty eyelashes, I've been on the receiving end of this kind of thing a thousand times.  You're just going to have to accept the fact that you've fallen deeply in love with the President-elect.  It's a harmless crush, and here's no shame it it, but try not to let it interfere with your other relationships.  (Though if my history's any guide, you'll be sighing wistfully at pictures of Obama for at least a year.  At least you'll be in good company.)

Q:  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?

A:  Yes, that's right.  In warmer climes, injured players are usually carried off the field on a stretcher, taken indoors, and treated with ice.  In cold weather, injured players are simply stacked like cordwood by the side of the field where the cold will preserve them until they can be taken to a vet.

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

A:  Hostile much?  Well, tough guy, I think if you're going to question Than Shwe's military record, you should man up and do it to his face.  I suggest you avoid phrases like "bullshit medals".  Good luck!

Q:  If there is so much oil in the Middle East, could one missile (such as the ones used to penetrate bunkers and caves) explode deep underground and hypothetically blow up a few countries?

A:  You have a vivid imagination, but I think we can safely conclude that if such a thing were possible, the Middle East would already be a smoking crater.  It's not like there's been any shortage of bombs and missles going off there in the last few decades.

Q:  How can personal coaches justify coaching athletes who are much better than they ever were?  If they know so much about how to win, why aren't they competing?

A:  You are absolutely right, every cocky jackass in his first season in the NFL or NBA.  Feel free to ignore your coach.

Q:  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?

A:  Activia yogurt is equally healthy for both women and men in khakis.  You'll experience all the internal regulatory effects that a woman does, as I can personally testify.  Why else do you think I'm in heat right now?

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

A:  Seriously, don't they have lawyers where you people are from?  You really want to get your legal advice from some pseudonymous goofball on the Internets?  And what's a "forged instrument", anyway?  Like a wrought iron saxophone?

Q:  Is the stomach normally full of air like a balloon, or is it squeezed flat by the other organs, like a balloon with no air that spreads open as food and water come in?  Are the other organs squeezed and compressed like a squeezed sponge, or are they like a sponge not being squeezed?  What about the intestines?  Are they squeezed flat normally, or are they open like one of those long balloons that magicians make animals out of?  I'm trying to get a picture in my mind what the inside of the body normally looks like.

A:  Do not try to picture in your mind what the inside of the body looks like.  No merely human mind can contain such dangerous, disturbing knowledge and remain sane.

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

A:  I'm not doing your homework for you.  If you want to know the true facts about the Bermuda Triangle, you'll have to watch In Search Of like everybody else.

Q:  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?

A:  That's a self-serving myth spread by the shirt industry, also known as Big Shirt.  You can wear shirts for as many days as you like.  You don't even need to wash them—that's another lie spread by the detergent cartel, a.k.a. Big Soap.

Q:  I live in Chicago, where taxi drivers are constantly talking on their phones.  To whom are they talking?

A:  You might expect me to say "each other" here, but that's clearly impossible.  Why would one cabby talk to another?  What would they say?  "Hey, I'm driving this super-charismatic passenger around, but he's got such pretty eyelashes that I'm too intimidated to try to strike up a coversation!"  "Me too!  Tee-hee!"  No, that can't be right.  They must be receiving orders from Skynet or something.  I'll look into it further and let you know.

Q:  Why do cockroaches flip over on their backsides when they die?  I sprayed RAID into a hole in my wall the other day, and by the next morning I found six cockroaches laid out on my floor, all flipped over and all very dead!

A:  Again, I am not your lawyer, and these questions are not covered by attorney-client privilege.  If you want to confess to ethnically cleansing all the cockroaches in your house, call your local police department.

Q:  Why do the women gymnasts walk around between events with that goofy arm-swing gait?

A:  You know that trick where you stand in a doorway trying to spread your arms out for 30 seconds, then when you stand away your arms sort of magically lift out to the sides?  Well, gymnasts during a meet have been similarly straining their arm muscles, only times like a million, so they can't help waving them about goofily.

Q:  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?

A:  So you're 79 and you've never heard of a library?  I call bullshit.  The Tensor wasn't born yesterday.  What's your real game?

Q:  Why are pandas names doubled?  Ling Ling, Tuan Tuan, Yuan Yuan.

A:  This is a process known as "reduplication".  In some languages, you can double a word to change its meaning.  So Ling Ling doubles the root ling meaning 'language', producing a reduplicated word meaning 'linguistics'.  (It's true!)  Similarly, Yuan Yuan means 'a lot of Chinese currency', and Tuan Tuan of course means 'a two-legged horned bipedal animal native to the ice planet Hoth'.

Q:  Are the frequently used "jaws of life" really necessary or just big-boy toys for rescuers?

A:  Congratulations, you've seen through the charade.  First responders are always wasting public funds on such frivolous items as their so-called "helmets", "bandages", and "fire hoses".  What's that supposed to be, a hose that shoots fire?  How dumb do you think we are?

Q:  How long can humans live when they are caught on fire?  For example, when a car crashes and explodes turns into a gulf of flames, but humans are alive.

A:  Wait, you're planning to crash your car into the Gulf of Flames?  Are you the same guy who asked the question about lighting the Middle East's oil on fire?  In any case, the upper limit limit on the life expectancy of burning humans is not known, though it's at least twenty-four years.  That's how long it's been since Bruce Springsteen memorably cried out, "Oh, oh, oh, I'm on fire", and he's still alive today, more or less.

Q:  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?

A:  Anna, don't be scared!  The black hole the scientists are making is way down in the Bermuda Triangle, so there's no way it could hurt you in...oh, you live in Miami?  Wow, that's not good.  Miami's going to have a front row seat when the Big Mistake goes down.  Seriously, it's gonna be Ground Zero for the apocalypse.  So I take it back—go ahead and panic.  Also, FYI, I looked it up and there's no such thing as "too young to die".  Hope this helps!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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The British national anthem doesn't sound like marching band music. It's in 3/4 time and rather slow-paced.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Dec 22, 2008 2:28:18 AM

Re: escalator handrails: as an engineer I can offer an explanation for this, although not, probably, a particularly satisfactory one.

The hand rail of the escalator DOES go at the same speed as the steps... more or less. On short escalators the difference, if there is one, is little enough not to matter. It only becomes noticeable on the really long ones (like the one at the Angel Islington Tube Station in London, the longest escalator in Europe and probably the driest, bumpiest and most metallic ski slope in Europe, too...

In answer to the question posed "why can't the companies make them sync" the answer is they could, but the incremental cost of taking from where they are (near enough) to where they'd need to be (perfect) isn't worth it. The engineering tolerances of the mechanism would have to be too fine, and in all probability the elastomers used in the handrails can't be manufactured to those tolerances anyhow.

Posted by: Simon Blake at Dec 22, 2008 3:50:58 AM

well, I was all expecting Mr. Blake's answer to actually include an explanation, but it doesn't, so I'll throw in a speculative answer to the same question:

both the steps and the handrail are giant loops, guided over rail. But the underside loop of the step is closer to the top side than the underside loop of the hand-rail (which must run under foot-level. Thus the handrail ribbon is actually traversing a longer track than the step ribbon, by roughly twice the height of the hand-rail.

If you make the handrail run slightly faster, the handrail loop and the stair loop would do a total cycle in close to the same amount of time.

Of course, my hypothesis lacks a critical lemma: I can't think of a reason why you'd *want* the handrail and stair loops to have the same cycle time, or even why it would be easier that way. But if you can come up with that lemma, I'll stand by the rest of my wild-ass guess.

Posted by: Trochee at Dec 22, 2008 9:46:37 PM


Yeah, it seems to me that the loop the steps travel is probably shorter in "circumference" than the loop the handrail travels. If they were coupled together underneath, you'd expect them to travel at the same speed, but with the handrail losing ground by some set amount (the difference in circumferences) on each cycle. As you say, you could have the two travel at a different speed to keep them synced, but that would have the handrail traveling slightly faster. But even that doesn't explain what the original questioner and I have observed, which is that the handrail seems to travel slower.

Maybe it's because the steps are metal, discrete, and directly driven by the mechanism of the motor, while the handrail is rubber and continuous and so "slips" a bit against a wheel that pushes it along.

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 23, 2008 12:24:27 AM

Tensor: that's not how I read "prostrate": I read it as a synonym for "prone", which is face-down, which would have the handrail moving *faster*. OTOH, I don't ride escalators much, but my memory suggests the same as you, which is "handrail slower", so I have no further questions, your honor.

Posted by: Trochee at Dec 23, 2008 1:00:02 AM

Hmm, good point. I guess I was overlaying my experience over what the original questioner wrote. (I reject your reality and substitute my own.)

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 23, 2008 1:36:04 AM

Wow. Now I am ready to face 2009 and any new questions that should arise out of that year.

Posted by: Qov at Dec 23, 2008 11:15:51 AM

Q: How did early man deal with growing toe and fingernails?

A: Men have been able to grow nails since their emergence from the sea. Women, on the other hand, need to use fake nails because they have a chromosomal Barr body that men lack. This phenomenon explains why only women are found in nail salons.

Posted by: willyum at Dec 24, 2008 8:13:01 PM

I'm going to be the belle of the ball at my New Year's Eve parties, now that I know that 'estrous' is an alternate spelling for 'estrus'. I'm sure I can work that easily into practically any conversation.

Posted by: T at Dec 24, 2008 8:15:13 PM

T, I suspect you were deploying sarcasm, but in case you weren't: estrus is a noun while estrous is its adjectival form. They are, inconveniently, homophonous. I've fixed this in the body of the post.

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 26, 2008 1:56:48 AM

OK, here's the problem with the escalator theories posed above: if you put your hand on the railing of a moving walkway of the very long sort they have in airports—say, one like the walkway I just used in Charlotte—you don't end up prone or supine. On this walkway, and it seems that on other such walkways in my memory, the railing moves at exactly the same speed as the part you stand on. And a walkway is basically just a flat escalator, with all the same qualities as listed above: really long (this one is comparable in length to those at Porter Square in Cambridge, MA, where the ending-up-flattened observation holds), longer in circumference than the standing part, made of rubber...

So the fact that this happens on escalators but not walkways is still, I think, mysterious and badly in need of an explanation. (The analogy to "sideways movement" vs. "moving up the tree", and Kayne's argument that due to antisymmetry a single escalator will inevitably move up and not down, should be obvious.)

Posted by: Lance at Dec 27, 2008 2:10:41 PM

Dukes of Stratosphear!

Posted by: goofy at Dec 30, 2008 2:55:29 PM

I was pretty sure that you did indeed mean estrus rather than estrous, although I wasn't being sarcastic. Or, at least, only slightly. Cursory googling seemed to indicate that were not only homophonous but in fact also synonymous, so now I won't be the belle of the ball after all.

Now I'm wondering what other English words, if any, have that formation.

Posted by: T at Dec 30, 2008 7:34:28 PM

Dukes of Stratosphear!


Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 31, 2008 12:53:47 AM

Darn you goofy! I was hoping to be the first to get that reference.

Posted by: Rob at Dec 31, 2008 2:04:36 PM

re: Panda names. I just heard recently that given names are often doubled to form nicknames in Chinese.

Posted by: mike at Jan 2, 2009 3:18:43 AM

I believe that the escalators in Heathrow and Schiphol go at exactly the same speed for both stairs and railing. I was sort of paying attention to it because I read this weblog entry prior. And I don't mean that the difference was really small... unless it was like 2mm. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't even 1cm. However, I do know the phenomenon of the railing both going fast and going slow (primarily slow). I came across it in department stores frequently back in the 90s.

Posted by: Frenzie at Jan 9, 2009 7:33:59 AM

Whoever said there is no such thing as a stupid question should be disinterred and shot.

Posted by: Gilbert Wesley Purdy at Jan 22, 2009 7:31:44 PM

Re: the last question, is that actually how 11-year-old girls write, and what they worry about (it isn't on the news much?)? Or is that just what Walter L. Wagner thinks an 11-year-old girl should be worrying about?

Posted by: Mitch at Mar 1, 2009 9:25:57 AM

I LOVE the disloyal dog question. Perfectly answered.

Posted by: railing system at Dec 4, 2009 1:25:30 PM

Will you be answering the 2009 questions!?!

Also, why can't I find the Dukes of Stratosphear reference?

Posted by: Mole from the Ministry at Dec 21, 2009 1:10:53 PM


Posted by: Mole from the Ministry at Dec 21, 2009 3:09:42 PM

They're not "moving walkways." They're "slidewalks," per Robert Heinlein, who also gave us "waldo," "grok," and lots of other techie words I'm too lazy to look up.

Posted by: AlexTheSeal at Feb 18, 2010 8:41:56 PM

AlexTheSeal, you're a man (or possibly an aquatic mammal) after my own heart -- for evidence, please see the footnote at the bottom of this post.

Posted by: The Tensor at Feb 19, 2010 8:46:36 PM