Archive for 'Newspaper column'

The Lodger Who Watched Them Eat

Monday, February 18th, 2013
Mary Douglas, who supervised the man who watched people eat

Mary Douglas, who supervised the man who watched people eat

Confident that no one would notice what he was doing, Michael Nicod spent months in the homes of families he did not know, making detailed notes about everything they ate. Nicod was performing research for Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security in 1974. He and his colleague, University College London professor Mary Douglas, wrote a report called Taking the Biscuit: The Structure of British Meals.

Nicod and Douglas wanted to identify what typical British persons see as the essential parts of their typical meals. The pair drew on their training as anthropologists: “We imagined a dietician in an unknown Papuan or African tribe wondering how to introduce a new, reinforcing element into tribal diet. We assumed that the dietician’s first task would be to discover how the tribe ‘structured’ their food.”

Nicod lived as a lodger with “four working-class families where the head was engaged in unskilled manual labour”, in East Finchley, Durham, Birmingham and Coventry. He stayed in each place at least a month, “watching every mouthful and sharing whenever possible”….

—So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

The energetic pursuit of sloths

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

two-toed-slothsThe name of the sloth is synonymous with a certain style of sin. But scientists pursue them for other reasons, too. The animals move – something they do on occasion – in what can seem mysterious ways. They hang upside down from tree limbs, and sometimes amble that way there. On the ground, ambling right-side-up is their preferred way to get from here to slightly over there. They often snooze.

A study called Three-Dimensional Kinematic Analysis of the Pectoral Girdle During Upside-Down Locomotion of Two-Toed Sloths appeared two years ago in the journal Frontiers in Zoology. John Nyakatura and Martin Fischer of Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena, Germany, analysed the “suspensory quadrupedal locomotion” of two sloths. They concluded that an earlier biologist had exaggerated, but only slightly, in proclaiming that “of all mammals, the sloths have probably the strangest mode of progression”.

Others hesitated less to say more….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS: Maggie Koerth-Baker’s “Four Fun Facts About Sloths“, in BoingBoing

BONUS (conceivably related, in an immaculate fashion): Catholic Answers Magazine tells tales about “The Sin of Sloth

Wordplay proves a fruitful area for research

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Words, words, words are the bread, butter, salt, pepper, meat and potatoes of a small, US-based magazine called Word Ways that has been coming out four times a year since 1968. Dmitri Borgmann, the founding editor, described it as “the journal of recreational linguistics”. Its essence, in a word: wordplay.

Borgmann’s obituary, in a 1985 issue of Word Ways, says his greatest achievement was to “demonstrate that wordplay is an intellectual discipline in its own right”. Borgmann’s reputation was already such, says the obituary, that Standard Oil of New Jersey had hired him to devise a replacement for its antiquated brand name. ‘Twas Borgmann, they say, who spiffed and twisted old-fashioned “Esso” into modern “Exxon”. (Later issues of Word Ways say that the Esso-into-Exxon story may be rather more complicated.)

The first issue of Word Ways included Borgmann’s The Longest Word in English, in which he traipses along the length of “the 27-letter honorjficajhlitudinitatibus”, “the 28-letter antidisestablishmentarianism”…

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS (somewhat related): A claim to have built the world’s longest palindromic sentence

Why was Mrs Thatcher interrupted so often in interviews?

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher‘s masterful way of handling interruptions inspired one psychologist to study, intently, how she did it. As this scholar communicated his findings to the public, other scholars, with different views, interrupted him – and he them.

Geoffrey Beattie [pictured here] is now a professorial research fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. Or rather, was — he reportedly was sacked after I wrote this column but just before it was published.

In 1982, while at the University of Sheffield, Beattie published two studies about Thatcher….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

“Tables and chairs on the highway”

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

The phrase “Tables and chairs on the highway” has a uniformly accepted meaning in all of England and Wales. That meaning is legalistic, deriving, we are told, from part VIIA, section 115 (A to K) of the Highways Act 1980, a chunk of parliamentary prose that has the title Provision of Amenities on Certain Highways. In describing those amenities, though, it makes no mention – none at all – of chairs or tables or any other kind of common furniture. The phrase “Tables and chairs on the highway” appears nowhere – nowhere – in Highways Act 1980.

Nevertheless, many regional and local authorities proclaim that part VIIA, section 115 (A to K) of the Highways Act 1980 – devoid though it is of tables and chairs – gives them authority to regulate all aspects of civic life that are covered by the phrase “Tables and chairs on the highway”.

Regulate it they do.

Chelmsford borough council publishes a document called Guidelines for Placing Tables and Chairs on the Highway under Section 115 Part VIIA of the Highways Act 1980….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.