A lot of questions; a lot of answers

Yesterday’s XKCD provided readers with a plethora of questions scavenged from Google auto-complete suggestions. Some of them are really good questions, others are pretty mind-boggling in their obtuseness or obscurity. Click the image for a full-size rendition:


Not content to leave things at that, redditor /u/GeeJo took it upon him/herself to answer every one of these, which was a massive undertaking and made for an enjoyable read. Starred answers indicate researched questions, non-starred answers are GeeJo-isms. My hat is off to this individual.

Block One

Why do whales jump*? No-one knows exactly, though it’s theorised that socialising is part of it, as its a far more common behaviour in pods than with lone whales.

Why are witches green? There are theories floating around tht it’s to link them with death/putrefaction or plants/herbs. Personally, I think it’s mostly because of the popularity of the film version of The Wizard of Oz, where the green skin was chosen partly to indicate she’s a bad guy in a kid’s fantasy world, and partly because it helped demonstrate their new Technicolour technology.

Why are there mirrors above beds? Ask your parents when you’re older. Or don’t, since you’ll probably work it out by yourself by then. If you mean on the wall behind beds, I’ve never really seen this as common, but mirrors help to give the impression that the room is larger than it actually is.

Lots, lots more after the jump.

Why do I say uh? This is a phenomenon called “speech dysfluency”. Again, no definitive answer but often explained as placeholders while you struggle to find the word you use next. If you mean “why uh as opposed to, say, quorpl”, different languages have different dysfluencies. You say uh/um because you speak English or another language that uses the same sound for this purpose.

Why is sea salt better? It’s not really, it just has a cachet to it these days as panning is a more labour-intensive process and the added expense means more exclusivity. Prior to industrialised salt-making, people wanted finer-grained salt. There’s a REALLY interesting book on the subject  by Mark Kurlansky, if you want to know more about the history of the stuff.

Why are there trees in the middle of fields? They provide shade for field-workers during breaks. Less relevant now with increasing mechanisation, so most are there these days because they’ve “always” been there, and getting rid of trees is a bitch of a job.

Why is there not a Pokemon MMO*? The creator wanted (and still wants) to encourage people to play games with one another face to face. MMOs don’t work like that.

Why is there laughing in TV shows? Because comedy shows with laugh tracks have historically outperformed those without them. People might bitch about them, the same way people bitch about trailers that give away too much of the story, but market research shows that you get more butts in seats regardless of the bitching, so that’s the way they do it. I believe that the data on laugh tracks is coming back differently these days, which is why they’re largely fading out.

Why are there doors on the freeway? Maintenance access. That or portals to alternate realities, depending on whether you’ve read 1Q84.

Why are there so many svchost.exe running? Failsafing. The svchost processes handle background services for the operating system. You have a lot of them because it means that if there’s an error with one service (and hence one svchost process) it doesn’t bring down the whole thing. There are other ways of handling this, but this is the way that Windows chose to go.

Why aren’t there any countries in Antarctica? The Antarctic Treaty of (let me look it up) 1961 disallowed signatories from taking permanent territorial sovereignty of the continent. This hasn’t stopped countries claimingchunks of land (including overlapping claims like the Argentine-British annoyance) but in practice access is shared for scientific research. Tat said, I expect that if it ever became economically worthwhile to actually start exploiting the resources in Antarctica, the Treaty would go up in a puff of smoke.

Why are there scary sounds in Minecraft? Because they add to a sense of danger, which gives a bit more of a thrill to players. It also gives another incentive to avoid Creepers, as the explosion scares the bejeezus out of me every time, even without the environmental damage.

Why is there kicking in my stomach? – you know those sticks you can buy that you pee on and get one line or two? You might want to go and get one of those. And then schedule an appointment with a doctor.

Why are there two slashes after http? Syntax – it separates the protocol being used (ftp being an alternative) from the address you’re looking for.

Block Two

Why are there celebrities? “Celebrity worship” is just another form of submission to authority. Organisms get more done in teams than as a bunch of individuals (specialisation and mutual dependency are very strong weapons if you can set up an environment where you can actually rely on them). This is true from the very simplest organisms (biofilms beat out lone bacteria in many conditions) right up to us humans. Once you have a team in place, those teams who agree to coordinate their efforts through a leader (however that leader is chosen) outperform those without any leaders. There are moral arguments against subjugation (read up on the philosophy of Anarchism for more) but evolutionarily it’s proven to be a winning formula, and submission to authority is deeply rooted in human psychology – see the Milgram experiment or Asch’s conformity experiments for backup. Celebrity worship is an outgrowth of this phenomenon. People attribute celebrities with strong personal or leadership qualities, and then seek to emulate them.

Why do snakes exist? Because they beat out all other competitors for their particular evolutionary niche. That’s not to say that they’re perfectly suited for what they do, they’ve just proven better than everything else other species have tried to uproot them.

Why do oysters have pearls? Pearls are essentially made from the equivalent of oyster mucus, which builds up around a small speck of dirt until its a nice big shiny ball. I have some tonsiliths if you’d prefer some of those.

Why are ducks called ducks*? “Duck” comes from the Old English word “dūce”, meaning “diver” or “someone who bends over”. Many ducks in England (and elsewhere) feed by briefly turning themselves upside-down in the water to grab at bugs etc, so it seemed a sensible enough thing to call them and the name stuck.

Why do they call it “the clap”*? One early treatment to rid the urethra of the pus buildup from gonorrhea was to strike both sides of the penis at the same time with both hands – a “clap”. Since men will try almost anything if it means their dick will stop oozing fluids that it’s not supposed to, and “clapping” was more of a temporary relief than an actual cure, doctors eventually moved on to injecting mercury or silver nitrate, then onto antibiotics when they became available.

“Why are Cartman and Kyle friends?” Have you seen Cartman? He’s a scary motherfucker. I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him he can’t hang out any more. Honestly the others seem to more grudgingly tolerate him than treat him as an actual “friend”, which is probably the sensible way to go if you don’t want your parents ground into beef and fed to you.

“Why is there an arrow on Aang’s head?” Air Nomad tradition for marking Airbenders, I believe. All the other monks we see in the flashbacks have them, as does Tenzin. Korra was brought up in the Water Tribe, so she gets a pass, as do the other non-Air Nomad avatars in the past.

Why are text messages blue? Mine aren’t. But it’s probably so that you can tell them apart from hardware messages from the phone, as it’s kind of important to be able to differentiate those if you have asshole friends.

Why are there moustaches on clothes? It’s an emerging trend associated with the whole irony/hipster thing. Entirely (or at least mostly) separate from actually growing moustaches as facial hair. I suspect it’s partly because of the current fetishisation of the late Victorian aesthetic (all the “sir”ing you see here on Reddit, the take-off of Steampunk, etc etc), but that’s a guess on my part.

Why are there moustaches on cars? See above. Better moustaches than Truck Nuts, at least.

Why are there moustaches everywhere? Someone may have painted a moustache on the lenses of your spectacles.

Why are there so many birds in Ohio? Not many natural predators around, plenty of food.

Why is there so much rain in Ohio*? Weather patterns. Cold air from the prevailing winds coming down from the North mixing with the summer humidity from the Gulf make for a lot of thunderstorms in the area. Has it been particularly bad this year?

Why is Ohio weather so weird? Try the UK. We get four types of weather per day most days.

Block Three

Why are there male and female bikes? Whoops, I initially read this as “male and female bikers” and was thinking that it’s a bit of an odd question about a subculture. This makes more sense. Women in the past almost exclusively wore long dresses, and it’s awkward to try and ride (or even get on) a men’s bike while you’re wearing one of those because of the big strut in the way. On the other hand, the strut adds structural support, so there’s good reason to keep it in if you can, which is why we’re not all riding womens’ bikes.

Why are there tiny spiders in my house? There’s enough food for them to survive (spiders only need veryoccasional meals), it’s warm, dry, safe from predators and generally a nice place to live – that’s why you’re there too, after all. As to why tiny spiders, large spiders get noticed more quickly by humans and need more/larger prey, neither of which are useful survival traits in the environment of your home.

Why do spiders come inside? Because inside the house is a single, fairly unobservant predator. Outside, there are hundreds of beaked and toothed smaller predators all looking for a new meal. Food, safety, warmth, etc. as explained above.

Why are there huge spiders in my house? Unless you live in Australia or the Tropics, chances are that you’re overevaluating the size of the spiders you see – they’re really quite small in comparison to, say, an antelope. If one of those were in your bathtub, you would probably stop worrying about the spider. Humans have developed an aversion to spiders (evo-psych says it’s a fairly sensible precaution – lots of deadly spiders in the ancestral environment) which makes the times you do see one stick out in your mind.

Why are there spiders in my room? Know what’s warmer and has better access to moisture than your house? Your open mouth.

Why are there so many spiders in my room? They’re organising a surprise party. You keep ruining it by barging in on them so they put it off for tomorrow.

Why do spider bites itch? An immune response – we naturally release histamine in response to small skin breaks like bites. Histamine gets the local leucocytes moving to contain the damage from any gunk that might make its way into the break, whether it’s been injected during the bite or was just hanging around on your skin waiting for an opportunity. Histamine also causes itchiness.

Why is dying so scary? Lots of approaches to this question. Evo-psych might say that organisms that actively avoid death are more likely to survive to reproduce, and fear is an excellent motivational tool, which seems sensible. Buddhists would say that it is because you have not yet given up your attachment to the real. The more evangelical Christians would say that it’s because you know in your heart that you have sinned, and fear judgement. Death isscary and you should be scared of it, but not to the point where it heavily impacts on your quality of life. If you are consistently and unbearably anxious about your mortality, consider seeking therapy. It won’t make the reasons you have go away, as they’re generally fairly rational, but it can help with coping.

Why is there Hell if God forgives? A thorny theological question. My personal theory, if I were to subscribe to Christianity, is that Hell is not intended as punishment. Rather, it it God giving a person exactly what their actions have proven that they wanted – a world without Him. Hell is merely Earth without the presence of God to intervene. If you think about it like this, Hell-believers are actually just incredibly pessimistic about the nature of humanity, thinking that without a guiding hand we will all inevitably sink into depravity and endless, meaningless torture of one another.

Block Four

Why are there bridesmaids? Bridesmaids as we have them today are from the Anglo Saxon tradition. Romans sometimes had equivalent attendants when they actually bothered having a ceremony, but I’m not sure whether you can trace that directly through the intervening years. This was back when the procession was a much bigger part of the ritual (it usually took a lot longer than the “marriage ceremony” itself). Bridesmaids would escort the groom to the church while groomsmen escorted the bride. Ostensibly this was to prevent last-minute backing-out, but I’m not sure how often that was actually a factor. The more attendants, the greater the social station of the couple. We’ve kept them through to the modern day because traditions are “sticky” and, besides, it’s a nice way to get friends and more distant relatives involved in the ceremony itself. I wrote an AskHistorians comment explaining Elizabethan wedding traditions a while back, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Why do dying people reach up*? I did try looking this up but I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. I expect it’s as simple as the dying wanting to physically touch the people around them, who are presumably important to them, or that they’re delirious and reaching for a hallucinatory figure. I don’t know. I don’t even know how you’d determine this with any authority.

Why aren’t there varicose arteries? I’m shaky on this one, but I’ll try an answer without looking it up. It comes down to structural differences between veins and arteries. Veins are dependent upon a system of valves and external muscles to keep blood flowing, and varicosity (is that a word?) is the result of a problem with the valves. Arteries have their own muscular wall to keep things moving along, as well as the push from the heart itself, and so doesn’t get the same problems. Time to look up the answer! (looks like I’m roughly correct, though others are welcome to chip in)

Why are old Klingons different? Gah, it’s been over a decade, but I vaguely recall an episode of Deep Space Nine where the crew were set back to the original era Enterprise, and the same question was asked of Worf – who responded a bit mysteriously about “genetic modifications” or some such. In practical terms, it’s because make-up and prosthetics have moved on significantly since the original run, and the creators probably wanted to differentiate such a prominent alien species (Worf being front and centre in TNG) from the human cast more strongly.

Why are there squirrels? See my earlier answer about snakes.

Why is programming so hard? It requires a particular approach to problem solving that you don’t find in many other fields, even in other STEM subjects. It does help, in my experience, to have a little familiarity with the structure of human language and grammar. The other reason it’s hard, for many people, is that they don’t sufficiently document their code as they go along – meaning that bug-finding is an exercise in frustration when they come back later.

Why is there a 0 ohm resistor*? I haven’t done any electronics since high school. Wikipedia is probably sufficient for this question, and has this to say: “Zero-ohm resistors allow for links between traces on a printed circuit board to be placed using the same automated equipment used to place other resistors, instead of requiring a separate machine to install a jumper or other wire.” Seems sensible enough.

Why do Americans hate soccer? I think hate is a bit strong, most just don’t care about it one way or the other. As to why that is the case – back in the 19th century association football, rugby and American football were all the same, fairly amorphic sport. It was this proto-football that was exported around the world, where it gradually evolved with different rules into the forms we see today. Without a strong tradition of using Association rules, there wasn’t enough of a body of players to form a league large and diverse enough to compete with the home-grown varieties. Plus, patriotism is huge in the U.S., and American-made sports are always going to have an advantage over “foreign imports”.

Why do rhymes sound good? Human’s love to recognise patterns. Have you ever seen the kids show “Teletubbies”? If you have, you probably noticed that after they do a segment, they often repeat the exact same thing all over again. This is because young children love it when they recognise something and can predict what happens next. Rhymes appeal to the same deep-seated psychological quirk.

Why do trees die? Generally, because something has killed it, whether that be fungus, insects, or human loggers. While tough, trees are not indestructible. Once enough damage has been caused that the damage-control and self-repair mechanisms of the organism can no longer keep up and maintain function, the system as a whole dies, even if individual parts are perfectly healthy.

Why is there no sound on CNN? the problem is either on their end or yours. If it’s on theirs, it’ll get cleared up soon enough (no sound = fewer viewers = less money). If its on your end, it could be a problem with your speakers, your cable/satellite box (or dish) or any of the connections between them. You’ll need to determine where the fault is by experimentation (or observation – is your satellite box emitting smoke and sparks?). Once you’ve found the problem item, you’ll need to read the manual for easy fixes, then contact technical support. If the issue can’t be resolved, either live with the problem (try switching to the BBC), return the defective part (you bought the extended warranty, right?) or buy a replacement. If none of the above seems applicable, the problem might be that have gone deaf. Additional evidence for this hypothesis would be if no-one seems to be answering the phone on the support line, and if interacting with your ex-wife has suddenly and inexplicably become more tolerable. You may wish to schedule an appointment with a doctor.

Why aren’t Pokemon real? Because, while there are similarities, Satoshi Tajiri is not a divine being, and so is incapable of transferring his ideas whole and intact from his imagination into the material plane.

Why aren’t bullets sharp? I don’t personally shoot (living in the UK), but here are my immediate thoughts: with the amount of force behind a bullet, razor-sharp vs blunt points don’t generally matter in terms of penetration of a fleshy target. But let’s pretend they did. Whether because you’re avoiding the possibility of collateral damage or whether you just want to get maximum damage/stopping power out of your ammunition, you rarely want a through-and-through penetration of the target.

Why do dreams seem so real? Because your brain is still active during dreaming, albeit in a different mode to waking. It’s still reacting to stimuli, even if they’re illusory, and while your higher cognition might recognise the difference, it’s usually suspended (exception: see lucid dreaming). Once you’re awake again, you’re able to recognise the difference (barring schizophrenia) and they no longer seem quite so real.

Block Five

Why is there no GPS in laptops? There hasn’t proven to be enough of a consumer demand to justify the additional cost of adding a GPS system to personal laptops. You can get laptops with GPS if you really want to, it’s just rarely relevant to the everyday buyer.

Why do knees click? This is skirting very close to being a medical question that you should talk to a doctor about. I know that it can be caused by ligament problems or with the padding between the sections of the joint, and I’mseriously not qualified to comment on those. I have known people with clicking from “runner’s knee”, though – which is caused by the kneecap incorrectly scraping against the cartilage. If the clicking is continuous whenever you bend the leg, it’s probably wise to consult a doctor whether or not there’s any pain. If it’s just “cracking” every so often when you get up after a long sit down and is painless, it’s probably not an issue.

Why aren’t there “E” grades? There are, in some places. But I remember from a Reddit thread a few days ago that it comes down to preventing confusion between different and overlapping grading systems – some have an “E” rating standing for “Excellent”, meaning you probably don’t want to set up a system alongside it that has the same letter meaning the opposite.

Why is isolation bad? Humans are social creatures. Without feedback from others, psychological problems emerge and begin going into feedback loops. If you have other sources of stimulation – as with loner computer gamers – this manifests mostly in social awkwardness and eccentricity, since you’re mostly just suffering from having noone around to wear down the rough edges. If you don’t have access to other sources of stimulation, as in solitary confinement, the effects can be brutal and long-lasting, as the brain starts to make up stimuli to keep itself occupied and your sense of reality can become increasingly detached.

Why do boys like me? Because you’re an awesome, interesting, funny person, and people in general like to be around you. You just need a bit more confidence in yourself to recognise that that’s the case.

Why don’t boys like me? Didn’t we just go over why that’s not true?

Why is there always a Java update? Because Java has a lot of security holes, and there are a great many people out there with incentive to exploit them to access your machine and your data. Thankfully, Java developers actually care a bit about security, and keep providing patches to cover up the holes people keep poking in their framework. Seriously, download the updates.

Why are there red dots on my thighs? Another medical question – see a doctor if it concerns you. The internet is good at many things, including convincing people with any number of wide ranging symptoms that they’re about to die.

Why is lying good? I personally subscribe to the philosophy that direct lying is never a net good, though lies of omission are often necessary. Lies are, however, useful. They act as social lubricant, can protect the vulnerable from persecution, can convince people to act in ways that benefit you even if it does not necessarily benefit them.

Why is GPS free? Because it’s run by the U.S. Government who (if they allow access in the first place) are generally not allowed to charge more for the products of their projects than is required to cover costs. This is because of a decision made a while back that, since public taxes created the product, the public should have access to it, where there aren’t other issues that might prevent it. I believe that there have been attempts to establish rival systems that aren’t administered by the U.S. government for a variety of reasons, but they haven’t been adopted on a large scale by commercial users.

Why is sex important? From a biological perspective, sexual reproduction is an excellent method for species to recombine genetic material in novel ways while keeping enough from the previous generation to maintain stability. It allows for very rapid adaptation to changing circumstances. As to why it is important in humans, sex is very closely associated with establishing an intimate relationship with a partner. It’s not strictly required (/r/asexualityshoutout), but it makes things a lot easier. There are social, psychological and biological reasons for this that would be difficult to break down without writing a whole book on it (and there are plenty out there).

Why are there female Mr Mimes? Because “Mr Mime” is an English translation of the original Japanese which (I think) doesn’t have the same gender-specific connotations.

Block Six

Why do testicles move? This would be better phrased as “why does scrotal skin move”, as testicles themselves largely just chill there in their sacs. Scrotal skin “crawls” in response to changes in temperature, which is why you see it most often when you just come out of a hot shower or in from the cold. Or at least most men do. Mine is all scarred up and immobile thanks to all the hydroseals that keep popping up. What? You didn’t want personal information? Why are you asking about testicles on the internet, then?

Why are there psychics? Because if you’re good at something, you should never do it for free, and cold-reading is a nifty skill to learn. They meet a demand in the form of people desperate for answers “from the other side” or just looking for something supernatural to believe in. I’m sure some are genuinely altruistic and believe that what they do helps give people closure, and perhaps in some cases that’s true. But see my above opinion on direct lying. As toreal psychics, brain-to-brain communication is still in the ridiculously early stages of research. There have been some neat tricks done with rats, such as getting one to follow a maze learned by another, but we’re a long way off from functional human telepathy.

Why are hats so expensive? Because that price point has proven to be the highest that people are willing to pay for the product and the lowest that still nets an acceptable margin for the vendor. This is how capitalism works. I’m not aware of any particular Hat Monopoly or oligopoly conspiring to distort the price point, though I’m willing to change my mind if evidence is presented to the contrary. If you believe that you can put out a superior product for a lower cost and still make some profit on it, by all means enter the market!

Why is there caffeine in my shampoo*? I honestly didn’t know this was a thing, but apparently caffeine promotes hair growth (at least in vitro). And even in the low concentrations found in shampoo it can penetrate to the follicle. This is the first genuine “TIL” I’ve been interested in out of the batch for me (no, I’m not going bald, it’s just interesting).

Why do your boobs hurt? By far the most likely culprit is an ill-fitting bra. Try out /r/abrathatfits, whose subscribers are supremely helpful and welcoming. If this is not the case, again, consult a physician if the pain persists.

Why are trees tall? Two reasons. Firstly, not being made of lignin, the leaves are the easiest source of nutrients a browser looking at a tree can get hold of – the farther off the ground you keep your leaves, the less likely they are to get eaten, forcing you to spend energy to replace them. The second reason is competition with other trees for light. If you can get your leaves above those of your neighbours, you “drink their milkshake”, stealing the portion of sunlight that they were going to get and putting it to use in your own photosynthesis. Eventually a given forest system will reach an equilibrium where maintaining growth at a greater height isn’t worth the extra effort compared to sticking at roughly the level of the canopy. Any trees that can’t get to that canopy level are screwed, though – there’s a huge “dead zone” between canopy and forest floor.

Why do iguanas die? See my answer on “Why do trees die?”, above.

Block Seven

Why are there slaves in the bible? Because the Bible is an astoundingly useful historical document once you discard the mysticism, and many laymen would be surprised just how often it is referred to by professional historians. The Bible reflects the period it was written in, and slaves were a central pillar of life during antiquity. Though, as an institution, it bore little resemblance to the American system that most are more familiar with. There are a lot of texts available if you’d like to know more, or you’re welcome to ask specific questions for experts on /r/AskHistorians(it’s a little outside my personal bailiwick).

Why do twins have different fingerprints? Fraternal twins have radically different fingerprints for the simple reason that they share no more genetic material than the average pair of siblings. Identical twins have similar, but not identical, fingerprints because of epigenetic factors. Basically, while they start out in the same place thanks to identical DNA, environmental factors smudge up the fingerprints even within the shared womb.

Why are Americans scared of dragons? I read a theory a while back that dragon-like monsters are common across many cultures because they represent an amalgam of shared fears – snakes, huge monsters, fire, claws and fangs, etc. It’s an interesting idea but one that’s difficult to prove. I don’t think there are many Americans out there who live their lives in perpetual fear that they’re going to come home to find a dragon sitting on their couch eating their Doritos, though.

Why is YKK on all zippers*? The Japanese-owned YKK Group is one of the largest manufacturers of zippers in the world, supplying zippers to manufacturers and consumers in 71 countries.

Why is https crossed out in red? I take it you’re using Chrome? Basically, the site is telling Chrome that it has an SSL certificate, but Chrome is picking up some anomalies or potentially unsecure content and is letting the user know to be careful.

Why is there a line through https? Because the correct answer was C: a blancmange. Are you sure you’re in the right class?

Why is there a red line through https in Facebook? It’s not a line, it’s a lightsaber.

Why is https important? It adds a layer of security to your internet browsing, protecting you against man-in-the-middle attacks that could potentially siphon off your password data or personal details that you’re providing to the website you’re visiting. It’s not a bad idea to use httpseverywhere (there’s a Chrome extension here), though even if you do it’s not an excuse to get lazy about your browsing and security habits.

Why aren’t my arms growing? Human growth is controlled through a complex mix of genetic, hormonal, dietary and environmental factors. Your arms have stopped growing because one of the above has put an upper limit on just how long your arms can get, and you’ve bumped up against it. This is often a good thing, as knuckle-dragging is not an attractive trait amongst modern twenty-somethings.

Why are there weeks? Because it’s a handy unit of time, longer than a day and smaller than a lunar cycle. They haven’t always been 7 days long – Romans had an eight-day cycle (called a nundinum) punctuated by market days, the French Revolutionaries tried to implement a ten-day week. I’m not sure on other cultures’ systems, but week-like chunks seem to be very very common throughout all periods of history and geographical locations.

Why do I feel dizzy? Have you been drinking? Taking any other intoxicants or drugs? Spinning round in an office-chair? On a merry-go-round or roller-coaster? Doing cartwheels? If not, and if the feeling is persistent, it may be an ear infection or something similar. See a doctor. Why are so many people asking random internetters for advice on vague symptoms?

Why are there swarms of gnats? Because you’ve just interrupted an insect orgy. Seriously, swarming is a mating behaviour for gnats. At least that’s what I’ve been told – let me check. Yep, internet confirms.

Why is there phlegm? Ah, a deep, philosophical question for the ages. But seriously, phlegm (and mucous in general) traps microbes and particulate matter before it can cause any damage to the membranes beneath or to your body farther down the orifice in question. I used to cough up a serious quantity of the stuff working in a geotechnical lab, even using the paper masks given out.

Block Eight

Why are there so many crows in Rochester, MN*? This seemed to be a ridiculously specific question, so I checked online. I was completely unaware that it was a problem, but apparently it is – loads of news articles on the issue and how the local government is trying to deal with it. They’ve tried hawks, bullhorns, netting them and shipping them off to  Worthington, fricking laser beams, everything. It’s hilarious! As to why, I have no idea beyond the basic “few predators, good food, suitable environment” answer I gave to the bird question earlier.

Why is Psychic weak to Bug? This seems to be the most commonly answered question on the panel – the theory is that Psychic type weaknesses are all related to basic human fears – darkness, bugs, ghosts. Not sure if that was intentional by the creators or just a happy coincidence of underused Pokemon types, though.

Why do children get cancer? Children are growing quickly, and whenever you have rapid cell division there’s always vulnerability to carcinogens and damage to the DNA. As to the philosophical/theological question, I really don’t feel qualified to comment.

Why is Poseidon angry with Odysseus? The Greek Gods were not neutral observers of human events, they took sides and pushed things along whenever they felt bored or slighted. The Trojan War started in the first place because of Paris’ judgment of a beauty contest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Once the war got going, Poseidon favoured the Trojans and was righteously pissed off when the Greeks (who Odysseus was fighting for) breached the walls and sacked the city. Odysseus did not exactly make things better when he blinded Poseidon’s son, the cyclops whose name temporarily escapes me (Internet says Polyphemus).

Why is there ice in space? Because, insofar as space can be said to have a temperature, it’s cold. Water will radiate away more heat than it takes in under most circumstances out there. And without enough energy in the system to keep in liquid phase, water will form a solid crystal – ice.

Why are there ants in my laptop? Did you flip a box of donuts into the air? Seriously? Do you want ants? Because that’s how you get ants. As a non-Archer answer – quit eating food when you’re using a keyboard. Crumbs and other orts will inevitably end up falling between the keys and the ants will move in to feast. Also, occasionally clean the thing out, they get disgusting.

Why is there lava? Because the centre of the Earth is warm. Very warm. It is warm largely because of the continuing decay of radioactive elements picked up while the planet was forming. We’d be in trouble if they ever ran out, but thankfully they’re due to last until after the Sun decides to pay us a more personal visit, I believe. In either case, it’s a long way off.

Why aren’t economists rich? You ever hear the yarn about how, when other teachers have to update their tests with new questions every year, economics teachers have to update theirs with new answers? There’s more than a grain of truth there. The global economy is a chaotic system and we’re still trying to put together models of how it functions. Then there’s the fact that not every economist is focused on the stock market or short-term trends – it’s a wide field out there and not very much of what is being studied is very applicable to getting rich quick. But I suppose that doesn’t display enough cynicism to be funny :/

Why do Americans call it soccer? Because there’s already another game that’s popular over there called football, and referring to both that way would be unnecessarily confusing. As to why “soccer” rather than any other name, association football has been called soccer by many others for a long time. I think it was us Brits who came up with the name – it certainly sounds like something we’d say (Internet confirms).

Why are my ears ringing? “Doctor, Doctor, my ears keep ringing!” “Don’t answer them!”. I’m not answering medical questions. I’m just not.

Why are there so many Avengers? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQEVgbMqq7o&t=5

Why are the Avengers fighting the X-Men*? I don’t really follow Marvel comic-books beyond hearing vague synopses of stuff like the Civil War saga. Apparently the 2012 crossover event pits the Avengers against the X-Men over a disagreement on how to deal with the Phoenix Force, a particularly powerful entity that has a close connection with several X-Men characters.

Block Nine

Why is the Earth tilted*? Okay, I have a guess but I’m not certain about it. I’ll type it out and then check what the Internet has to say. My guess is: The effects of the forming-Sun’s gravity upon the clump of dirt that eventually became the Earth skewed the rotation slightly off the direction of travel and, once it got going, there wasn’t really much to stop it (barring the theorised collision that caused the Moon to break off).

Internet check: Hmm, I can’t seem to get a consistent answer. Some sites say it’s just because there’s no reason to privilege any one axis over another and we just got what we got. Others appeal to the anthropic principle which is a shitty explanation akin to “God did it” if you’ve got nothing backing it up. Others state tidal forces dragging it off-kilter. None agree with me, so I’m probably way off base. This is the first in the whole batch of these queries I’ve not been able to find even a widely-accepted opinion on. Any astrophysicists care to clarify the situation?

Why is space black? Excellent question, and one with wide implications. You see, if the universe were infinitely old with an infinite number of stars in it, the sky would be a uniform white, as light in every wavelength would be entering the atmosphere from every direction. That it isn’t is evidence that one or more of those assumptions is incorrect. I forget which astronomer first put that down (I think I came across the question first in a Stephen Baxter novel). The truth is that with a finite amount of stars in a finite amount of time, there are gaps. And even where there shouldn’t be gaps (if you could look forever in a straight line), a huge portion of the light from stars that actually reaches us has been shifted outside of the spectrum that we can perceive with our eyes as the space between us expands.

Why is outer space so cold? Well, it’s not, really. Space can’t be said to have a temperature, as that’s a property of materials, and space isn’t a material (though luminiferous aether was a pretty cool theory). In interstellar space you have some high-energy particles, some low-energy particles, and a whole lot of nothing between them. The reason you don’t have enough photons shooting through a given area of space to qualify it as “warm” (in that any material you stick in there will get warm) is much the same as the reason for space being black that I gave above.

Why are there pyramids on the moon? The Nazis needed somewhere to keep their gold while they worked on rebuilding to conquer the Earth. In reality, apophenia is a hell of a thing.

Why is NASA shutting down? …it’s not? Funding has been a bit tight since the 2008 financial crisis, but I predict it’ll go back up again sooner or later. Not as much as most here on Reddit would like, but a bit, anyway.

Block Ten

Why is there an owl in my back garden? It’s looking for something to eat – a tasty mouse or a small rabbit. If you are either of those, or any other small furry creature for that matter, you probably don’t want to go outside for a bit.

Why is there an owl outside my window? Because it’s cold and you won’t let it in, you jackass. Unless you’re a mouse, in which case you obviously aren’t a jackass. Because you’re a mouse.

Why is there an owl on the dollar bill*? Never having seen a one-dollar bill in person, I’d guess that it’s because an owl is a sign of wisdom (being associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom). I’ll check. Ah, apparently thereisn’t an owl on the dollar bill, people just imagine they can see one. Fair enough. It wouldn’t be massively out of place though, given the host of other symbolic imagery you can find there.

Why are AK47s so expensive? In the U.S.? Because of “assault weapon bans” (which are largely toothless, but drive up demand and hence price). Outside of the U.S. – they’re kind of not. You can buy one in exchange for a few cattle or goats in many parts of rural sub-saharan Africa – the Liberian pipeline opened up by Charles Taylor flooded the market for years, and the constant boil of civil conflict has kept stockpiles high in the continent. If you really want one, you can generally get hold of one.

Why are there helicopters circling my house? The RIAA are seriously cracking down on copyright infringers, and have purchased a small fleet of obsoleted Black Hawks for intimidation purposes.

Why is life so boring? Because you haven’t been taking advantages of the opportunities that have been presented to you. Take up a hobby! Start studying something! Go to the gym! Talk to people!

Why are my boobs itchy? Try showering – when dead skin and sebum starts to build up, it can cause itchiness and irritation. If the unusual level of itchiness persists with and without a bra, think about consulting a doctor.

Why are cigarettes legal? The cynical answer is: it’s too profitable to keep taxing them and as a bonus for countries with nationalised health-care systems, smokers die early and don’t cost as much over the long term. A less cynical answer would be that banning them is an infringement on civil liberties, and Prohibition did not prove particularly popular (even if it was reasonably efficacious in cutting down drinking). A historical answer would be that as a fairly mild stimulant without an obvious associated health risk until the mid 20th century, there wasn’t a significant push to get it banned. And by the time the health implications were discovered, it was ubiquitous enough that passing legislation would be incredibly unpopular.

Why are there ducks in my pool? They’re looking for water snails and aquatic insects to eat. If they’re migrating, they could just be resting before moving on elsewhere.

Why is Jesus white? Because you live in a historically-white region, most likely. It’s fairly common practice for artists to give icons of Christ local physical attributes, though thanks to European/American hegemony over developing regions, white is often the “default”.

Why is there liquid in my ear*? Assuming you’re not referring to water that got trapped during your latest visit to the swimming pool, the stuff you’re talking about is called perilymph – basically cerebrospinal fluid. Fluids are handy for pressure-based systems like hearing because they’re incompressible, so any vibrations that are picked up by the outer ear can be transferred reasonably losslessly to the inner ear, where the perilymph pushes membranes around a bit to generate an electrical impulse to be interpreted by your brain as sound.

Why do Q tips feel good? seriously, don’t jam Q-tips in to get rid of earwax. They’re one of the most common reasons for an ER trip – someone jams one in too far and ends up dizzy with a blinding pain after they pierce an ear drum. The inside of your ear is supposed to be waxy – it prevents infections. At the same time, you can get a big clog of it from compacting it by improper Q-tip use. Just swish them around a bit on the outside if you have to do it at all. As to why they feel good, the ear is very sensitive and you don’t (or shouldn’t be) touching those surfaces very often, making for a strong sensation. As an aside, if you’re reading this and wondering why people need to wipe their earwax up, chances are you’ve got some East Asian blood in you and have grey flaky earwax rather than the wet brown earwax us caucasians are stuck with. Be thankful, even if you do find the occasional flake on your clothes.

Why do good people die? Because there is nothing that physically sets good people apart from bad ones. People die, they wear out. They shouldn’t, but they do. We’re working on that.

Why aren’t there any guns in Harry Potter? Out-of-universe – it’s a children’s story set in Britain, which is two strikes against guns appearing. Rowling’s ambiguous religiousness and moral leanings potentially represent a third. In-universe, the Wizarding World is incredibly out of sync with the Muggle World, and they tend to look down on any innovations made by non-Wizards, regarding them as toys or cute little mysteries (see Arthur Weasley for case in point). A wizard trying to use an early gun would have laughed it off as a poor one-off wand only capable of shooting a Reducto. Wands in the hand of a skilled magic-user are simply more versatile and more powerful than single-action and probably even semi-automatics, and I’m not sure they’ve updated their knowledge base to include automatic weapons yet.

Block Eleven

Why are there Gods? Probably one of the biggest anthropology questions out there, and everyone has an opinion on it. If you’re a believer in a particular religious system, the answer can either be provided through scripture/tradition or just left as ineffable. If you regard Gods as a purely human phenomenon, the answer is likely to be found in psychology and sociology. On an individual level, people prefer to have something to believe in that’s greater than themselves, and Gods fill that niche. On a wider level, they provide for a strong common bond within a culture, and societies with Gods are going to out-compete those without (though the only ones I’ve heard about with no Gods whatsoever are the Piraha). For the more cynical readers, Gods provide an easy social control mechanism, allowing charismatic individuals to tighten control over their followers by converting their proclamations from their own rules to “rules of nature”. Once established, indoctrination of younger generations by older ones keeps the cycle going. For a better answer, try /r/askanthropology

Why are there two Spocks? SPOILERS AHEAD for the rebooted Star Trek universe: Time travel is relatively easy in the Star Trek universe – it appears in every single series and several of the films, often multiple times. The latest Star Trek reboot has the Spock of a previous (now overwritten) timeline making his way to the new one through an artificial black hole. The new timeline is not so radically different that he was never born or killed off early, so you have both the “Old Spock” (Leonard Nimoy) and “New Spock” (Zachary Quinto) running around in the same universe. They tend to avoid one another so that the latter can develop “more naturally”, which seems a bit silly to me, but there you go.

Why is Mt Vesuvius there? There is a tectonic boundary underneath Italy, with one plate getting shoved under the other (The Internet tells me it’s the African getting subducted under the Eurasian). This leaves a gap for magma to seep through from the mantle to the surface, where it occasionally erupts. There’s a whole chain of volcanoes in that region called….something (Internet: The Campanian volcanic arc), though Vesuvius is the most famous.

Why to they say T-Minus*? I know T- stands for time, obviously. I’m not sure what the original and exact reason for using that terminology was – I’ll check the internet.

Internet says: Phhhhrrrpppptt. No idea. Also, the T doesn’t necessarily stand for Time, apparently.

Why are there obelisks? It dates from the Ancient Egyptians. I remember reading in a pop-history book on the legacy of Osiris that they were meant to represent a sun-beam, the Sun being a fairly central object of worship in the mythology of the region. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that, though.

Why are wrestlers always wet? For professional wrestling – people like to see the stars sweating. It makes the whole thing seem like a more serious exertion of their abilities within the scripted storyline. In greco-roman wrestling, they’re oiled rather than wet. I’m not sure if this is because it lets them slip out of holds more easily (seems a bit cheaty to me) or for the same reason body-builders do it – because it highlights the muscles for the viewers. Internet backs me up, though it seems to come down on the side of “to get out of holds more easily” rather than the aesthetics of the thing.

Why are oceans becoming more acidic? Increased CO2 production. CO2 is slightly soluble in water, forming carbonic acid. More CO2 means more acid means more acidic oceans.

Why is Arwen dying? For half-elves (there was some interbreeding going on between the Numenoreans and the Elves), mortality is a choice. Elrond chose to favour his immortal heritage, a decision I thoroughly support. Arwen chose to follow her mortal blood, and once the Valar decided that Galadriel’s leaving would lift the “Grace of the Elves” from any who lingered, she slowly began to fade away. I’m sure a Tolkein expert will correct me here, but that’s about what I took from the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.

Why aren’t my quail laying eggs? …I really have no idea.

Why aren’t my quail eggs hatching? They’re probably not fertilised. As an aside, I knew a guy in secondary school who used to make a chunk of change every year buying fertilised chicken eggs from a local farm, warming them til hatching using lamps, and selling the chicks when they were cute and fluffy around Easter. I’m not sure I want to think about how those chicks ended up after they left their “cute” phase and entered into their retarded-feathered-lizard phase.

Why aren’t there any foreign military bases in the United States? Because no foreign military has any particular political concerns in the region, and they’re perfectly happy to continue letting the U.S. foot the bill for military exercises held on U.S. soil. And ones held in their own countries, for that matter.

Why are dogs afraid of fireworks? Attempts to train dogs in the production of gunpowder have largely been unsuccessful. Primarily because they’re dogs and don’t understand anything more complicated than licking their genitalia after a particularly nice nap. Loud noises are scary when you don’t understand where they’re coming from – it could be a predator, or an indication that the tree you’re sheltering under is about to snap and fall on you. Whywouldn’t you be scared of repeated bangs like that?

Why is there no king in England. Husbands of British/English queens are known as prince-consorts so as not to imply that they have sovereignty. Queen Victoria had Prince Albert, Elizabeth has Prince Philip. Ostensibly you’re supposed to refer to the wives of kings as queen-consorts rather than queens, but in practice it’s rarely bothered with.

Why are there ghosts? Getting very tired now, so I’ll just say to combine one of my earlier answers on human pattern-recognition/apophenia with one on the human propensity to believe in easy but supernatural explanations over hard but realistic ones.

Why are ultrasounds important? They can help detect abnormalities in fetal development, giving doctors more information on required treatments for mother or child, or in the worst case letting all parites know that abortion is the best option for the safety of the mother.

Why are ultrasound machines expensive*? Healthcare is an expensive field in general and there’s not atremendous amount of competition going on among manufacturers. High demand, middling supply, no expectation of low costs all combine to make for an expensive machine.

Why is stealing wrong? This comes back to the “Golden Rule” that most non-theistic approaches to moral systems fall back on. Stealing is wrong if you believe that ownership confers rights and expectations, and that no person should be more privileged than another (tempted to ramble off into a discussion of Rawl’s veil of ignorance/original position theory, which is probably a good sign that I’ve been sat down doing this for too long.)

This is truly a gold-star post. GeeJo admits freely that everything here, even the researched answers, can be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s an honest effort, and I thought it worth sharing.

The Old Wolf has spoken (but GeeJo has spoken a lot better.)


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