We realize you are almost certainly reading this article by candlelight and trying to digest a dinner of canned Vienna sausages and Velveeta-on-Pringles in the wake of the Y2K disaster, and we regret that our experiments with glow-in-the-dark newspaper ink have failed.
As you no doubt heard on the grapevine--and why grapevines were ever conducive to communication is something that remains a mystery--last week a SWAT team of editors wielding crowbars and blowtorches broke into the long-sealed Why Things Are bunker deep beneath The Washington Post.
There they found the cryogenically preserved Why staff, which long ago had produced a weekly column in the Style section. Thawing began immediately. Upon gaining consciousness, the Why staffers looked around, slapped themselves a few times and uttered a single, desperate question in unison: Had anyone yet figured out why Jerry Lewis was so popular in France? The editors responded in the negative.
They then explained why the Why staff had been awakened. The millennium was about to arrive and massive, ugly, hairy Why questions were stalking our streets and neighborhoods and terrorizing small children. People were talking about mind-boggling things like quantum teleportation, brain-scanning "nanobots," human immortality, "virtual sex" and something named Pokemon.
These were confusing times. It wasn't even clear that the arrival of the year 2000 truly signaled the start of a millennium; some argued that the millennium wouldn't come for another year. The Why staffers immediately interrupted to say that they did not do "When" questions, and attempted to go back to sleep. Bickering ensued.
Eventually the recalcitrant explainers agreed to file this emergency Why Things Are millennial report. Any errors or misapprehensions are due to flaws in the thawing process.
Q: Why do people with cell phones think it's acceptable to have loud, annoying conversations in public spaces?
A: If you were to start singing in a public place, you'd instantly be stared at as though you were a nut case. But people with cell phones think there is nothing strange or bizarre about conducting their private conversations at high volume in front of total strangers.
There's more to this than rudeness:
1. When you talk on the phone, you can't see the person you're speaking to--and thus fail to pick up any nonverbal clues that the communication is succeeding, says David Givens, an anthropologist with the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash. Givens says that, because you can't tell if the person on the other end of the phone is getting your message, you unconsciously speak louder. You talk as though you're shouting down a pipe. Worse, you inject more authority into your voice, in a vain attempt to intensify your communication. The result is that you sound bombastic, like a Southern congressman.
2. When talking on a cell phone you enter a kind of mental bubble. Your brain's speech centers are so large that, when operating, they drown out or blunt other mental operations. You don't really notice the people around you. You're in a phantom phone booth.
We should also note that cell phones haven't yet developed an etiquette. People still have to be told to turn off their ringers at, for example, funerals. Technology comes first, then manners. It's like when they invented the first crossbow--it wasn't a good time to be walking the streets at random.
Now, a bonus nonverbal communication item:
Q: Why is the signal for a touchdown two arms vertically raised?
A: The fact that it emulates the football goalposts, and is used to signal an accurate kick, is worth pondering. But let's go with the anthropological answer this time. Arms upraised is known as a Triumph Display. This is found in a great many animals. The Nonverbal Dictionary, written by the aforesaid David Givens, gives examples: "Doing a push-up makes living iguanas and lizards look 'bigger' than they appear with their bellies lowered to the ground. The Australian frilled lizard rears and erects its frill, while the cobra rears and spreads its hood."
This also helps explain why men's suit jackets have flared lapels, padded shoulders and hemlines that end at about the point where the fingertips hang--the whole construction is meant to exaggerate the size of the torso, or, as the Nonverbal Dictionary puts it, "visually enlarge the upper body to pongid (i.e., gorilla-like) proportions."
Q: Why are CDs wrapped in such infernal packaging?
A: Because the world hates you, is one possible answer. CD cases are typically shrink-wrapped so tightly that you end up spending 10 minutes picking at tiny seams in the plastic before finally giving up and resorting to a sharp knife, hacking away like Tony Perkins in the "Psycho" shower scene.
All this is purposeful.
"Theft," explains Bill Pflaum, executive director of the Institute of Packaging Professionals. He points out that CDs are easy targets for shoplifters. Manufacturers can put a magnetic anti-theft tag on the outer case, but not so easily on the disk itself. The package is tightly wrapped to prevent a thief from opening it and slipping the disk into a pocket.
Q: Why are Internet companies worth billions of dollars even though they never make a profit?
A: We had thought that people were just stupid and crazy. But then we posed the question to Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist. Here was her immediate response:
"People right now are delusional."
Sometimes your gut instinct is right! Check this out: Last week, Yahoo, the Internet portal, had a market value of $102 billion. Two days later it was up to $110 billion. That's twice the market value of General Motors, which is merely the largest manufacturer of cars in the world. We might note that Yahoo's price-to-earnings ratio was 1,673, meaning you'd have to pay $1,673 for the right to pick up $1 a year in Yahoo profits.
But then again, it's not truly irrational. The reason the stock price is so high is that there are people who will buy it at that allegedly insane price. And so the stock is "worth" it.
Moreover, Yahoo and similar companies are attracting lots of eyeballs. We've entered what's known as the Attention Economy. What's truly valuable in this age of information is the ability to make people pay attention to you. "The thing in short supply is attention," Dyson says.
One last thing. Some companies not only fail to turn a profit, they don't even have revenue. They just have the attention. They know that someone else, a company that actually has a business plan involving revenue, will buy them up.
Obviously there are those of us in the newspaper business who wonder where this is headed. We'd just like to point out that, unlike an Internet portal, a newspaper is readable and absorbent.
Q: Why haven't computers become conscious yet, like HAL in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"?
A: Everyone knows the scenario: The computers get smarter, become conscious, then develop an evil plan for world domination, posting error messages at random and routinely claiming File Not Found when it's right there, and so on, until humans are aggravated into submission.
For the most technophilic view of the future of artificial intelligence, we spoke with Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence." He estimates that in 20 years a computer with as much processing power as the human brain (20 million billion calculations per second) will cost only $1,000. Then, inevitably, the computers will soar past us. They'll take over the job of designing yet more intelligent computers.
Moreover, he predicts that human brains will merge with machines. If you believe that the "mind" is essentially a very complicated machine, then in theory you could carefully examine the precise structure and activity of the brain's neural network and then replicate it. Kurzweil believes that tiny probes, called nanobots, will someday scan brains by traveling through capillaries, the tiny blood vessels. They will then duplicate the neural network in silicon form.
"You'd have a new Ray Kurzweil," Kurzweil said. "You can create one; you can create a thousand of them. Each would claim to be Ray Kurzweil."
But which one, we asked, would get the Social Security check? Which one would be allowed to vote? Kurzweil said the lawyers will have to sort that out.
One possible problem: The brain-scanning nanobots might come under the control of bad guys, who'd use them as artificial viruses. He writes that governments, religious fanatics "or just a clever individual could put trillions of undetectable nanobots in the water or food supply of an individual or an entire population. These 'spy' nanobots could then monitor, influence, and even control our thoughts and actions."
(Mental note: Sometimes when we are typing on the computer, it feels like we are under the control of the Bad Nanobots.)
Now, let's calm down. All of this strikes us as not only far-fetched, but also a wee bit undesirable. We don't need a technology that would allow Donald Trump to replicate himself a million times.
And there's also a technological problem: Human brains don't actually work like machines. At least they aren't like any machine that any engineer would consciously design. Computers are, for the most part, linear devices. They won't possess anything like consciousness until they learn how to think in a sloppy, indirect, chaotic fashion. Humans take all kinds of mental short cuts. We actually benefit from our tendency to make mistakes.
"You don't think straight; you think in one way and you get stuck and you instantly switch to another way. You probably have a dozen ways of thinking," says M.I.T.'s Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence. "The ability to get confused is very important," he adds.
Confusion: Be proud of it.
Q: Why don't they put Teflon in clothes to keep them from getting stained?
A: They do! Someone has thought of everything. DuPont makes Teflon Fabric Protector. If you've bought a bowling jacket lately, you're probably protected by Teflon. It is literally melted on the individual fibers of a piece of clothing to make the article stain-resistant, among other things.
This is not the same Teflon that goes on frying pans. This is actually a similar substance that used to be marketed under the name Zepel. DuPont changed the name to take advantage of the wide familiarity with the brand name Teflon.
Surely you already know this, but we'll say it anyway: Teflon was discovered on April 6, 1938, by DuPont chemist Roy J. Plunkett (later inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame). He was using a frozen piece of tetrafluoroethylene--TFE--when he and his partners discovered that it had spontaneously polymerized, becoming white and waxy. This new stuff, polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, was the slipperiest stuff on Earth.
Oh, and we did ask Teflon chemist Melissa Sherman how they get Teflon to stick to the pan. "That's proprietary," she said.
Q: Why do Shriners wear fezzes and pretend to be Arabs?
A: In one of those thrills of a lifetime, we spoke directly to the Imperial Potentate of the Shrine of North America, Ralph Semb. He revealed that Shriners are Masons who are also members of something called the Scottish Rite or York Rite. These "rites" are like plays, and Shriners have to go through a process in which they learn their lines and perform their part, Semb said.
Why the fez and Arab motif? That was just one guy's wacky idea. A Mason named William Florence, an actor, was on tour in Marseille, France, in 1870 when he was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The entertainment was a kind of musical comedy, at the end of which the guests became members of a secret society. Florence, enchanted, shared this notion with his friend Walter Fleming, a doctor. They decided to form the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Notice that AAONMS is an anagram for "a Mason."
Shriners today run hospitals for children. Semb said membership has shrunk from 940,000 in 1979 to about 540,000 members today.
He offered an unsettling theory: "Men don't want to be with other men anymore."
Q: Why are there no women running for president?
A: Isn't it about time we had a woman president? And shouldn't they also start taking out the garbage? Let's get moving, people.
We'd like to develop an answer based on evolutionary psychology. Look at the people who do run for president: Crazy, weird, egocentric, quixotic, and/or the eldest sons of political dynasties. You could argue that there is a type of dementia associated with the seeking of the presidency that is not typically found in the distaff sex.
But the real answer is probably just nuts-and-bolts politics. Women have barely assembled their "farm team," so to speak. Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a group that works to elect Democratic women, points out that the first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat in her own right, without being appointed first, was Barbara Mikulski in 1986. In 1988 there were still only 12 Democratic women in the House of Representatives. Now there are that many in California alone.
Hot tip: Both parties pick women as veep nominees this summer.
Q: Why can't we do time travel?
A: For the record, no way are we going back to 1999. Too much millennium mania. We are immensely pleased that we won't be assigned a Y10K story for nearly eight thousand years.
The best explanation for why you can't go back in time is still the causality objection. You could kill your grandfather and thus never exist, etc. Unfortunately this is still a philosophical objection rather than one rooted in physics. The equations in physics seem to work the same with time going forward or backward.
So why does it appear that time goes only forward? Because of entropy. Ice cubes melt in liquid water. A glass of cold water will never spontaneously form an ice cube. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says these things happen in only one direction. You can't fight it. You can't reverse time because you can't make things become more orderly rather than less orderly.
There's no absolute time in the universe but there are Things Going On, and "time" is a way we measure those events. The Earth goes around the Sun. When it comes back to its original spot we declare that a year has passed. That's how time works.
Q: Why are we here? (The correction)
A: We did this question when we killed off the Why column. We explained that we are here to explore, learn, have adventures, and so on, blah blah, one of those really philosophical answers designed to make you laugh and cry and then nod off entirely.
To illustrate the concept, we chose the tale of human migration to the Americas. We stuck to the textbook tale: In the last Ice Age, sea level dropped and a land bridge formed across the Bering Strait. Asian hunters chased big game from Siberia to Alaska, roamed south, and with incredible speed managed to disperse across North and South America.
But now the whole story has changed. Or at least it's up in the air. Scientists were certain that humans reached the area that is now New Mexico about 11,500 years ago, but since then they've found a site where people were living in southern Chile, way down in South America, about 12,500 years ago. And then they found more sites that may be even older, maybe even 30,000 years old. Moreover there is this new, powerful theory that humans didn't walk here at all--they came in boats. And they may have swarmed the place from multiple directions.
There is new genetic evidence linking humans in northeastern North America with people living about the same time in southern Europe and Northern Africa. Dennis Stanford, a Smithsonian anthropologist, says the tools used by those far-flung peoples also match. Humans, he said, could have made the journey across the North Atlantic during the Ice Ages by following the edge of the pack ice, which would have been teeming with fish and sea mammals--fabulous eats for the hungry traveler.
And there's more! Studies of bones in Brazil suggest that Africans may have arrived about 12,000 years ago. African boatmen could have ridden prevailing ocean currents. All of this is in addition to the multiple waves of Asians pouring over from Siberia. The most intriguing figure in recent years is the Kennewick man, who died about 9,000 years ago near the Columbia River. At first there were reports that he looked Caucasian. Now the scientists say he may be a descendant of fisher-folk who plied the Pacific Rim from southeast Asia all the way around to the Americas--and who eventually settled Polynesia.
Did you get all that? The point is, human history is a chaotic, dizzying mess. People have been zooming to and fro, mixing genes and cultures, far longer than we previously realized. Stanford says that North America "has been a melting pot forever."
So we still have a lot to learn about who we are and how we got here. The people of the past are just like the people of the future: full of surprises.
Editor's note: Why Things Are will henceforth appear millennially, except for the occasional Arbor Day Extravaganza.