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.

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?

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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