Reader Request Week 2004 Wrapup

Well, I think that once again we’ve had a pretty successful Reader Request Week around these here parts. Credit for this, of course, goes to the Whatever readers; you guys set up the questions, I just knock them down.

Let me also take a moment to remind folks that although I designated last week as Reader Request Week, the fact is that you can send me an e-mail requesting a topic any time you like; I usually enjoy answering reader questions, and as previously mentioned, someone else suggesting a topic saves me the effort of having to think up one for myself. This is a good thing.

I’ll wrap up the week by quickly answering some of the questions I didn’t have a chance to get to this time around:

1. How does humor work? What makes things funny?

2. When you hear a conservative saying that they just don’t find liberal humorists funny, or liberals saying the same thing about conservative humorists, what do you think?

The saying is that dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog — you learn something but the subject tends to die in the process. It’s true. But since you asked: I think ultimately humor is a response things that are surprising and unexpected but won’t actually kill you. It’s your body’s way of letting you know you won’t have to run and/or fight. The same pathways are used for unexpected and surprising verbal associations (i.e., jokes and such), but I think it’s ultimately physical. Which is why we find slapstick so damn amusing. I’m sure someone can build on this from here; I’m equally sure someone else has noted this before. But in case they haven’t, this is Scalzi’s Law of Humor: What doesn’t kill me makes me laugh.

This also explains why some people don’t find people of opposing political viewpoints amusing: They see them as permanently threatening, which shuts off the humor response. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this works across the board: If you want to know what someone truly fears, find out what they don’t laugh at.

As a fourth-year about to graduate from the University of Chicago, I am curious as to how you feel about college, your college experience, the usefulness of a college education (Yes, I realize you can’t get a decent job without it, but does that need to be the case?), etc. now (x) years removed and with a daughter who’ll be a college student in another (x) years.

Interestingly, at this very moment “x” is equal in both cases: 13 years.

Yes, you need to go to college to get a decent job. Not because now you have a better set of skills, but because somewhere along the way employers decided to use a degree as a weeding process to shut the door on people without a college education. There are millions of entry-level jobs in the US whose tasks do not require anything close to the specialized knowledge of a BA, but whose listing nevertheless require them. I figure this is probably as much a commentary on the perceived value of a high school diploma as it is anything else.

I would also suggest there’s something oddly Socially Darwinian about it; the young person who can expend “energy” on costly exhibitions of fitness (i.e., the cost of college and grad school, the lost income opportunity cost of unpaid internships, etc) is perceived to be more “fit” for certain sorts of jobs than others. To put it more bluntly, I expect it’s a way to weed out people who aren’t already well off and/or resourceful enough to get through their early adult lives without any useful amount of money. If you think this is not true, ask yourself how many jobs that used to require a bachelor’s now prefer an advanced degree or some sort of significant intern experience.

Independent of this entirely cynical view of the uses of a college education, I do sincerely believe that college can be a place to “learn to learn,” but that is of course entirely up to the student. Although the friends who actually lived with me through college may disagree, I like to think that the primary thrust of my college education was to explore topics that interested me without regard to the job they would get me later (this was partly because I knew early on I wanted to be a writer and was working in it practically — through the school newspaper and other outlets — independent of my education). As I’ve mentioned over and over, doing this has been immensely helpful in my post-college career; a wide expanse of college-gained knowledge allows me to make associations other people miss, which gives me a creative and business advantage. And of course if you know how to learn to you have an advantage over the schmucks who just went to college to frat themselves out and pick up a business marketing degree on the way out the door.

Where do you think Arnold S. will go after governing California? I know he wants to be president but that’s never going to happen–hope someone’s broken the news to him by now. However, he seems very much to fashion himself a second Reagan or something like. So, where can he go after this?

I think Arnold is likely to become a Senator, don’t you? A socially moderate-to-liberal Republican who still has a core of fiscal conservatism is the kind of Republican I wish more Republicans could be, as opposed to the current bunch in the White House, who are socially sphincter-puckered and think a good fiscal policy is to drill a nice, deep hole in our children’s financial futures. I don’t imagine people will actually get around to passing an amendment to let Arnold become president, but if they did I think he’d very likely be president at some point.

Speaking of microraptors and such, how alarmed are you at the current Age of Extinction? How would you rank it alongside previous deathblows?

Well, it ain’t a comet from space, if that’s what you’re asking.

I think humans need to be mindful of their impact on animal species, primarily because we don’t well understand nature’s cycles, and it’s what you don’t know that wipes you out. And I think biodiversity is an immensely desirable thing in a planet with life. I do sometimes wonder if some of the more rabid environmentalists are under the delusion that the Earth is in stasis — that every species on the planet today is meant to survive in perpetuity. This is of course not true: Species die all the time on earth without the intervention of a comet, and new species arise. What I think would be interesting and useful to know is what is the mean rate of extinction on the planet (throwing out planetary impacts and the like, which are undoubtedly unrepresentative) and where the current extinction rate falls above or below that mean. Perhaps someone’s done it and I don’t know about it.

In a very large sense I’m not especially worried about humans wiping out life; life is tenacious and whatever humans do to screw up the planet, it’s very likely life will survive in one form or another. It’s highly debatable whether humans will be part of that bit that survives. But if evolution can make elephants, tigers, whales and humans from the tiny mammals around 65 million years ago, it’ll do just fine working with whatever’s left over.

However, if we’d still like to be around for a while longer, we should probably pull our heads out, and figure out what we’re doing.

Will the United States abandon the electoral college in favor of a popular vote for presidential elections in the next century?

No. Why would the states do anything to lessen their already diminished power vis-a-vis the national government? This is a federal system, after all. There’s supposed to be a division of power between states and the national government. If you think 37 state legislatures would ratify an amendment doing away with the college, you are, shall we say, optimistic.

What is possible is that more states will allow their electoral votes to split in order to better reflect the popular vote in that state (I believe one state does this already), but the institution of the electoral college will endure. The only thing I see that would kill the college would be if electors in the college reneged against their promise to vote for a particular candidate and chose someone else instead, thus exposing just how fundamentally not directly democratic the presidential elections system is in the United States.

I’ve been shocked to notice that there are only two references to Australia on your site. This is wrong and must be addressed straight away.

I love Australia as much as it is possible to love a country I’ve never been to and have no family ties with. It is, after all, the country that produced Strictly Ballroom. I should like to visit there (and New Zealand, although probably not on the same trip) and maybe I’ll do that once Athena’s grown big enough to tolerate a 16-hour plane flight. And no doubt Australia will be pleased to know that should I ever decide that I need to leave the US for unspecified reasons, it is in the top three of countries I would flee to (the other two being the aforementioned New Zealand, and also Belize). So good on ya, Australia!

Does Athena owe her name to a relative or was it chosen because you didn’t want her to be sitting in between 2 other “Kayla’s” every year until she graduated high school? And what about those poor misguided souls that give their children a common/popular name but change the spelling just to be different?

We chose it mostly because it was the first girl’s name the two of us could agree upon. Given my educational and cultural biases I’m pleased that it’s the name we chose. If Athena chooses to use her namesake as a role model, I would hardly be disappointed (Athena does actually know about the goddess Athena, although, at five, her comprehension of the august personage is somewhat sketchy). We weren’t specifically looking for a name that no other girl would have, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing not to have more than one kid look up when her name is called.

I don’t get the whole “change the spelling” trend; the only entity in my home whose name spelling is untraditional is Ghlaghghee the cat, and that’s mostly for my amusement; it’s not like I get upset that our vet puts “Fluffy” on her patient sheet. I think the unusual spelling thing is cheap individuality, since “Cindy,” “Syndie” and “Sindyee” will still all look up when one of their names are called. I think it shows lack of effort on the creative front.

Will things like iTunes destroy the way we used to allow songs to “grow” on us, as we tilt toward buying songs that are immediately pleasing? And will the fact that apparently the individual song is increasingly the atomic entity with respect to music distribution, will this kill the idea of the album? And what place classical music in the grand world of downloading, when the paradigm of “Hey, bands, just record your music in your basement!” doesn’t really scale to symphony orchestras?

Well, it’s not like orchestras ever fit into basements. Didn’t stop hundreds of years of symphonies from being written. And when you have the capability of being able to replicate an entire orchestra from a synth, what’s to stop some ambitious person from composing a symphonic score?

Yes, I think iTunes et al will change how we approach music, but it’ll change it back to what it was, say, in 1903, when most music was sold as songs (through sheet music). Albums are a fairly late development in terms of being the accepted basic unit of musical currency. Also, I think we’ve all always tilted toward songs — it’s why even in the era of albums bands always released singles. I’ve mentioned before that I do think the idea of an album meaning “a set number of songs determined by the physical limitations of the recording media” is going out the door, but I think musically ambitious bands will always release suites of thematically-linked songs. Would it be so bad to live in a world where Radiohead or Wilco could release album-length works and Britney and Justin simply released singles? Digital distribution allows for both.

I’ve heard that Californians as a group aren’t held in very high regard in the rest of the U.S. Have you seen much evidence of that since you left? How has your perspective on California changed since moving away? What do you miss about L.A. specifically and/or California in general? (I miss Mexican food.) What are you glad to be away from? Etc.

I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about California or being from California to my face; there is sometimes puzzlement as to why I would leave the vaunted perfect climate and such, but that’s it. I of course love California, and I don’t know that my perspective has changed too much, since whenever I go back I feel very comfortable. I am glad I don’t have to buy real estate there; I can’t even begin to imagine what my four bedroom house on five acres would cost anywhere in California where I’d want to be except to say that I know I wouldn’t be able to afford it. The thing I miss most is In-N-Out Burger. God knew what he was doing when he created the Double-Double with Grilled Onions, Animal Style.

I would be very interesting to hear your thoughts on the European Union. We’re soon going to expand again soon This time taking in a whole bunch of Former Soviet Bloc countries. I have no idea of the American perspective on “the World’s first Democratic Empire” and would very much like to know what the average intelligent American in the (Ohio) field has to say about it.

There is no American perspective on a United Europe; I suspect most Americans aren’t aware of it outside the curiosity of the Euro. And I wouldn’t count on the average American knowing much about the Euro either. This is not an indication of disregard for Europe, just that it’s so outside the realm of America’s day-to-day life as to be irrelevant. We know France. We know Germany. We know England. Can’t we get credit for that?

I’m interested to see how the whole EU thing turns out, personally. I think to some extent you’re reliving the same issues that the soon-to be US dealt with early on, when there was tension between “small” (low population) states and the larger ones. For your part you have tensions between the industrialized richer Western nations, and the less-well-off but probably more ambitious Eastern states. I also believe that (as with the US) to make the EU work you’re going to need a strong “national” government, but unlike the US you’ve got a couple millennia of existing national identities to deal with, which is going to make your life a real pain in the ass.

Also, as I understand it, your constitution is large enough to kill a yak if it were to fall on one. You can print our constitution on a single pane of newsprint — and yet, look how many lawyers we have! If I were you I’d make sure my children became lawyers. They will never go hungry with your proposed constitution.

Okay, now I have to go to work. Thanks again, everyone. Let’s do this again soon.

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