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The Explainer Paperback – March 9, 2004

4 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

If any regular column calls for a compilation, The Explainer is it. The Microsoft-funded online magazine Slate has been doling out answers to offbeat questions for years, becoming king of the information-rich deadpan response. How do you figure out the odds of an asteroid hitting the earth? How did the U.S. get a naval base in Cuba? Slate knows. And according to former editor Michael Kinsley (who pens the introduction), it's because its writers are willing to confess they don't know everything. "We don't like to admit, even to ourselves, that we often don't know what the hell others among us are talking about," Kinsley acknowledges. But "very little is beneath the dignity of Slate," and so they take on the obvious queries that everyone wants to ask, but nobody ever does. For this volume, questions are arranged by quirky subject (like "Guns and Ammo"), and there's a special richness to its Washington-related queries, perhaps due to Kinsley's background as a D.C. pundit and general policy wonk. And though a rotating cast of writers has been behind the column, they manage a consistent tone. Alas, instead of always playing the straight man to the natural comedy of the questions, the editors don't have much fun with their answers (e.g., they refrain from ripping into Hollywood's fad du jour when facing a question like, "Where does Kabbalah come from?"). But the book has its own relentless charm, and the utilitarian premise makes it a winner. Besides, who else is going to tell readers what happens to recalled meat?
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Here's another one of those books in which readers get answers to quirky questions: Is it possible to survive eating only lizard meat? Who decides when a country is in a recession? But this question-and-answer book is a little different. As usual, the questions come from readers (in this case, they were e-mailed to the online magazine Slate, where a column called "The Explainer" appears). The questions, however, aren't answered by appropriate experts; rather, they are answered by whichever Slate writer is the day's designated Explainer. And, whereas most columns like this one have a lead time of days or weeks, the Explainers only have a matter of hours to come up with a response to what are usually very tough questions. This somehow makes the book more interesting, perhaps even more impressive. It's also nice to know that we, too, could answer our own questions, if we had the proper resources available. That's the real message of this book: most of the time, in today's world, experts are unnecessary. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (March 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400034264
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400034260
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,387,922 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The Explainer is a regular feature of the online magazine, Slate. It answers questions you have about the current news, such as what is a spiderhole and how did it get its name? Or how do you pronounce Abu Ghraib? These questions and their answers aren't in the book, but you can find them in the archives of Slate.
The book compiles some of the more intriguing questions from the past few years, such as Could Bill Clinton become president again? (The short answer is yes, but don't hold your breath.) Who can be buried at Arlington Cemetery? What happens if you don't answer the census questionnaire?
Slate's reporters, in response to reader questions and often their own curiosity, find experts in the appropriate field and ask the question. They make the expert explain the answer until they understand it, then write a short column explaining the answer to their readers. In this way, we learn how to pronounce Niger, how to become a weapons inspector, and what is Ovaltine, anyway.
The Explainer is a compact book that is fun to read in small doses or all at once. The explanations are only about a page or two each and clustered into about two dozen short chapters such as Dining Out, Medicine, Flight, and Death. Although I usually read the Explainer online, I thought I'd catch a few that I'd missed. Either I missed a lot of these explanations or I have a really poor memory. Regardless, I enjoyed reading these Explainer columns and look forward to more Slate publications.
(My favorite Slate feature is Bushisms.)
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Format: Paperback
Do you have an annoying friend who claims to know everything? Pick up a copy of this book and I guarantee you'll stump Mr./Ms. Know It All.

It's a fun book that you can read all at once or flip through to sections that interest you. Either way, you'll probably learn something new. It even has a section of questions that you want to ask but are afraid to, and no they're not sex related.

Eg. Money Laundering: What is it and how it's done. That's something I've wanted to know about but it's not really a great conversation piece.

*What exactly is Ovaltine?

*Can you patent common features of the Internet?

*Is there cocain on your money?

*What happens to recalled meat?

*Does the president need a passport?

This book is full of useful and of course useless trivia. It would make a great gift for any trivia junkie.
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Format: Paperback
The premise of this book is great: The news (print, TV, magazine, and internet) puts out stories with assumed facts in there, yet most people don't know the basis for these facts, since there is just too much information out there for everyone to know. For example, one always hears about some great blizzard, and that 5 inches of snow was layed down. If you are like me, you have heard this, or something similar, many, many times, and you know what it means, but yet you have no idea exactly how they figured out that 12 inches of snow fell last night. Well, this book answers that question.
Another great example is the essay on how corking a bat helps a batter. One not only learns how a bat is corked and how it helps the batter's performance, but you also learn that a corked bat would probably DECREASE the distance of Sammy Sosa's hits. (This has to do with the physics equation p=mv, momentum = mass x velocity. Since a corked bat weighs less than an uncorked one, the momentum for a corked bat, assuming the same velocity for both, will be less than for an uncorked one.)
If you like trivia books, this is definitely a keeper; if you don't like the normal run-of-the-mill trivia books, you will probably like this one, since it isn't your standard question and answer book that lays out the facts without any cultural/political/real-life relevance. Who doesn't want to know what happens to your social security number when you die. Is it retired, or recycled? Read the book, and you'll find out.
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Format: Paperback
I read this all the way through, which I suppose is a statement about how well it's written and edited. It's a splendid example of how good writing, good editing and some excellent research can lead to a felicitous read. The people at Slate did themselves proud as they swam between the shallows of the sound byte and the depths of the essay. Let's say that what we have here--and what is increasingly seen in the print and Internet media (including this review)--is something we might call the mini-essay, between five hundred and a thousand words--that is, longer than the buzz on TV but shorter than an article from Harper's or The Atlantic Monthly.
Here's an example of the clear, effective writing with just a touch of panache that characterizes this modest volume. The writers are discussing how and why Supreme Court Justices recuse themselves (something Justice Scalia ought to do in the case before the court involving his good buddy Dick Chaney): "Since Supreme Court justices tend to be well off, and since lawyers often marry lawyers and beget more lawyers, money and family come up the most as reasons for recusal." (p. 172) In the next paragraph, we are given the probable reason that Scalia is not recusing himself: "In general justices are loath to recuse themselves from cases because it opens the way for a tie. When that happens, the lower court decision is affirmed by default." Hmm, maybe we can predict if a justice, leaning a certain way, is likely to recuse himself by looking at how the lower court ruled.
It is this kind of additional insight into the question at hand that lifts the people at Slate above some other "explainers" that I have read. Here's another nice example from the double-edged question, "How Does the US Mint Make Money?
Read more ›
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