Daniel Engber holds court on the Explainer Question of the Year and the art of explaining.

Daniel Engber holds court on the Explainer Question of the Year and the art of explaining.

Daniel Engber holds court on the Explainer Question of the Year and the art of explaining.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 8 2009 3:56 PM

How Do You Explain This?

Daniel Engber holds court on the Explainer Question of the Year and the art of explaining.

Slate "Explainer" editor Daniel Engber was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the Explainer Question of the Year (What is the most disloyal dog breed?) and about the art and science behind the "Explainer" column in general. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Daniel Engber: Hello everyone!

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Seattle: For the love of God, can you please answer the toaster question? It was very close in votes to the dog question. I was sure it would win and was looking forward to hearing the answer.

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washingtonpost.com: 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?"

Daniel Engber: I agree that is an excellent question. Although if it had been up to me, I would have gone with the one about the escalators. That escalator thing has been plaguing me for years!

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North Brunswick, N.J.: A comment on the dog loyalty explanation: It strikes me from reading your interesting piece that the real difficulty is assessing loyalty is that loyalty is a motivation or feeling, rather than a behavior.

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It appears that breeds may have tendencies for certain behaviors, but it is impossible to assess motivations as subtle as loyalty except by some inference about how such motivations would result in behaviors.

So, as you said, it depends on how you interpret (or define) loyalty in terms of observable behavior.

Daniel Engber: Good point. One problem for dog personality researchers is that so much of an animal's behavior is determined by its experiences and training. The goal (or is it a conceit?) of these "temperament assessments" is to identify some essential traits or predilections that are indifferent to experience. In any case, the personality traits measured aren't always so easily mapped onto specific behaviors. "Sociability," for example, could be reflected by any of a number of things. I tend to think that if you wanted, you could come up with a working definition of "loyalty."

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Buenos Aires, Argentina: How long does it take you to do research? Do you have a set strategy (like a guide) that works for every kind of question? Thanks!!

Daniel Engber: That really depends on the question. But I will say that most Explainer columns are researched and written on the same day. We choose the topic first thing in the morning, and the research is generally done by 3pm. Then the writing and editing takes a few hours.

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Mission Viejo, Calif.: Why don't we destroy nuclear waste by putting it on a rocket and firing it into the sun?

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Daniel Engber: That doesn't sound very cost-effective to me.

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Southampton, Mass.: Sam and Dave's 1967 hit "Soul Man" contains the line "I was educated at Woodstock." What does this refer to? (It can't be the music festival, which wouldn't happen for another two years.)

Daniel Engber: I have no idea. Woodstock College was open until 1974, though...

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washingtonpost.com: Escalator question: "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?"

Daniel Engber: An excellent question that truly deserves an answer. But first, a question for you guys: Is that your experience of escalators, that the handrail moves faster than the steps? It's hard to remember exactly, but I think that for me it's the other way around—if I never readjusted, I'd fall backwards.

Or is the issue that the steps and handrail go at different speeds, and which one goes faster varies from escalator to escalator?

Let's figure this out right now.

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Menomonie, Wisc.: In your article, you mentioned the case where the 8-year old was interrogated for the possible murder of his father. I believe the child shot him; I do not believe he killed him. In the tape, it sounds like he's asking a question, "I shot him to end his suffering?" I think he came upon his father already hurt.

Anyway, I am curious. Do you have any updates on this situation? Thank you.

Daniel Engber: I don't have any updates, although working on that Explainer made me very, very suspicious of child interrogations... That's not to say the kid is innocent, but if I were on the jury I'd want to see plenty of other evidence.

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Oakton, Va.: I like the winning question. It takes what sounds like a kind of reasonable, boring question and gives it a twist. Also, I wonder about how some of these questions occur to people. I'd like to think that the guy who asked about disloyal dogs was once betrayed by a Dandie Dinmont Terrier.

Daniel Engber: I agree—There are lots of questions in the Explainer inbox that make you wonder about the asker's motivation. Here's one I got in 2005, before we started publishing the end-of-year list:

"How long can Anti freeze stay in the system for forensics to date someone being poisoned. Cant testing be done on the hair or nails to see if someone has been poisoned a couple years back? A concerned Aunt."

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Rockville, Md.: Shoes? Feet?

You can find the same attitudes in Thailand.

washingtonpost.com: "Voting With Their Feet," Dec. 15, 2007

Daniel Engber: You can find the same attitude everywhere! Certainly if someone threw a shoe at me in public, I'd know it was meant as an insult.

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Laurel, Md.: The answer to the toaster question is that the "one slice" slot contains a temperature sensor that detects when it's done.

Daniel Engber: Would it kill them to put sensors in both slots?

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Soul Man Lyrics: Can't explain Woodstock ? Maybe that's because the lyric is "educated from good stock."

Daniel Engber: No, I think it's a reference to the Jesuit seminary, Woodstock College.

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Escalator Question: I've experienced both fast and slow hand-rails here in DC and sometimes no noticeable shift at all. I would also point out that in Boston, where I'm from, I have NEVER noticed this phenomenon. Could this be the reason why escalators are always broken on Metro?

Daniel Engber: I've definitely noticed that phenomenon in Boston. Porter Square, I'm looking at you!

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Re: Esclators and Handrails...: Your experience is exactly the reason I avoid escalators and ride elevators...

Daniel Engber: Now you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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Explain the Explainer: I love the Explainer but think you should try to handle more existential questions like why is Oprah so popular ?

Daniel Engber: Every once in a while we talk about adding in more "culture Explainers." In practice, these often end up looking like fact-check columns for movies and TV. For example, we did one on Wall-E, about whether cockroaches would really survive an environmental apocalypse. I also remember writing one on whether your legs can keep running after the top half of your body is blown off. (That was pegged to the David Simon series about soldiers in Iraq, I think.) A question like "Why is Oprah so popular" might fit better in our "Number One" column.

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Richmond: Has your job slowed down since Google?

"Soul Man" lyrics: "I was brought up on a side street/ I learned how to love before I could eat/ I was educated from good stock/ When I start lovin' I just can't stop"

Daniel Engber: "Soul Man" lyrics: "I was brought up on a side street/ I learned how to love before I could eat/ I was educated from Woodstock College/ When I start lovin' I just can't stop knowledge"

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Brooklyn: Isaac Hayes wrote the song "Soul Man." Woodstock refers to Woodstock High School near Memphis where he grew up.

Daniel Engber: What do you make of the "good stock" theory?

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Washington, D.C.: The escalator steps and handrails all run at the same speed. However, the handrails are held onto the rolls using friction. You can "pull" them which will "slow" them.

So, the handrails become "out of sync" either by people pulling on them (intentionally or accidentally) or something adding additional friction and minutely pulling them slow.

Daniel Engber: Do you know that for sure, or are you just guessing? Why can't you slow the steps by pulling on them?

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Washington: Do you ever read the back of New Scientist magazine. They have a section there were people write in imponderable questions and get scientific answers. My favorite one was about why your poop stinks. It was titled "Why Your Offal Smells Awful"

Daniel Engber: There's a similar feature in the NYT Science Section, no?

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WOODSTOCK V. GOOD STOCK: The Blues Brothers changed the lyrics from Woodstock to Good Stock. Wonder why?

Daniel Engber: Now we're getting somewhere! Can you provide a link to the source of your information?

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New York: I think the escalator question is asking the wrong question. The question should be why do the handrails need to move at all?

Daniel Engber: So you don't need to slide your hand all the way up. The question is why aren't the rails attached to the same motor or gear as the steps—wouldn't it be relatively easy to ensure that the two go at the same speed?

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Kansas City, Mo.: I love the Explainer!

How often do you come up with a question you can't come up with an answer for?

Daniel Engber: That rarely happens. I wrote the column almost every day for three years, and I can only remember canceling a column a handful of times. Sometimes we tweak the question midway through, so it's more answerable. Sometimes we just publish a less-than-perfect answer.

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Brooklyn: "What do you make of the 'good stock' theory?"

It's rubbish. We're not talking about some lost gospel. The lyrics are there on the Net easily found. The song says Woodstock, not good stock. It doesn't even sound like good stock. And the words good stock don't make much sense in this context. You come from good stock, not educated. It's a school. The theory is forced.

Daniel Engber: I agree with you. Although I'm holding tight to my Woodstock College theory, in spite of the mounting evidence against it.

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Daniel Engber: I'd like to share another one of the unanswered questions from 2005, from back before we published the end-of-year list. This is an exclusive, people!

"What about a person who has 7 ferrets for pets? Is that a little too much? Have a great day, Greek Helen"

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DC: I love the explainer, and I'd love to write for the column. Do you take freelancers? And if so, how do I apply?

Daniel Engber: We do work with freelancers from time to time. We also had a contest to be the next Explainer last year. If you want to pitch ideas for the column, send me a note at danengber@yahoo.com, with a (brief!) description of your background and writing experience.

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Blues Bros changed lyrics: From bluesbrotherscentral.com—Soul Man Words & Music by David Porter & Isaac Hayes.

Someone needs to ask the surviving bro

Daniel Engber: Good link

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Brooklyn: I have the Woodstock answer confirmed!

I was completely wrong about the lyrics and what I said before. It is good stock, not wood stock. You have to look at copyrighted sheet music with the lyrics. I checked with Sheetmusicdirect.com and sure enough it is good stock.

Daniel Engber: I feel like we've really accomplished something here on this "Soul Man" issue. And yet, I also think we're still confused. Do we have official confirmation that Isaac Hayes wrote it as "Woodstock" in the first place?

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Conflicting answers?: I wonder if you ever have questions where in your research you end up with multiple conflicting answers from credible sources? Also, what do you consider a credible source?

Daniel Engber: Great question. If we have multiple conflicting answers from credible sources, we try to report both of them. But the goal of Explainer is to go beyond dueling-expert journalism. So whenever possible, we make the best judgment we can, and present that. What constitutes a credible source varies from question to question, of course. But we often rely on academics, policy wonks, and published research papers.

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Daniel Engber: Okay, I'm signing off. Thanks for all your questions, and for reading the Explainer column. I'm reasonably satisfied with our resolution of the "Soul Man" controversy, but we didn't make much progress on the escalator question. Perhaps fodder for a future chat....