Archive for 'Newspaper column'

The rat-catcher's art

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

England’s professional rat-catching community produced at least two instructive books during the Victorian years.
Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C Barclay, went on sale in London in 1896. Avowedly educational, it’s also a rambling entertainment that finishes up with this jolly sentiment: “I have heard from half a dozen head-masters of schools that they find the art of rat-catching is so distasteful to their scholars, and so much above their intellect, and so fatiguing an exercise to the youthful mind, that they feel obliged to abandon the study of it and replace it once more by those easier and pleasanter subjects, Latin and Greek”. Two years later, Ike Matthews, in Manchester, published his Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher after 25 Years’ Experience….

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

Early strokes of genius

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Psychologists still grind away (sometimes at each other) at explaining what genius is, and where it comes from. The effort, now weary and tendentious, was exciting in its earlier days. In 1920, Lewis Terman and Jessie Chase of Stanford University published a report called The Psychology, Biology and Pedagogy of Genius, summarising all the important new literature on the subject. Read the rest of this entry »

Studying affects grades, maybe

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Does studying affect grades? Ralph and Todd Stinebrickner published what they say is the first persuasive evidence that it does. In their words, there is a “causal effect of studying on grade performance”….
People assume blithely that studying affects grades. The Stinebrickners say that there was never any real proof. They tell how others had sought – and failed – to find some…. “Our key finding,” they write, “is that whether a student’s roommate brings a video game to school has a strong causal effect on the student’s grade performance”….

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

It's hard: To be a bat

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

A new study helps to answer the question raised in Thomas Nagel‘s 1974 philosophy essay What Is It Like to Be a Bat? A team of Chinese and British researchers focuses on an aspect of bat-ness that Nagel ignored: fellatio.
Nagel, a professor then at Princeton University, now at New York University, published his batty – batty in the truest, best sense – musings in a scholarly journal called Philosophical Review. Read the rest of this entry »

The criminal life: Fat chance?

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Fat people are more likely to become criminals, and their very fatness may help shape their criminality. That’s the conclusion reached by Professor Gregory N Price in a study called Obesity and Crime: Is There a Relationship? published in the journal Economics Letters.
Price, an economist at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, bases his calculation on cold economic numbers. His findings, he points out, accord with a wide body of earlier economics research:
“There is evidence that for individuals, being obese lowers wages, reduces labour-force participation, constrains occupational attainment, and inhibits the formation of human capital that is important for labour-market success. To the extent these labour-market effects of obesity reduce the incentives an individual has for engaging in legitimate labour-market activities, it is plausible obesity could increase individual incentives for engaging in illegitimate activities such as crime – an idea which we explore empirically.”
Using that traditional academic-royal “we”, Price explains: “Our data consists of offenders with last names starting with the letter A incarcerated in the state of Mississippi as of 20 August 2005.” …

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

Cryptic crosswords threaten justice

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Crossword puzzles are a threat to the criminal justice system. Indeed, they may have been doing damage for decades, causing guilty persons to be set free and innocent ones to become enmeshed in hellish entanglements with the courts and jails. A study by Michael B Lewis, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, published in 2006 in the journal Perception, reveals that the danger comes mostly from one variety of crossword puzzle.
Lewis has no qualms identifying the culprit. Beware, he warns, of the so-called cryptic crossword puzzle. Accordingly, the study is called Eye-witnesses Should Not Do Cryptic Crosswords Prior to Identity Parades.
Once you know what to look for, cryptic crosswords are easy to recognise. The regular, or “literal” crossword, Lewis writes, “is a task where words must be filled within a grid where the clues to these words are literal definitions”. Cryptic crosswords “use a similar grid but the clues involve double meanings and sometimes involve anagrams or uncommon ways of thinking about words”.
Cryptic crosswords enter the picture in seemingly innocuous ways….

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

The handwriting off the wall

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

In 1992 a professor named T Steuart Watson discovered a completely effective way to prevent people writing on public toilet walls.
Watson published a report in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, describing both his method and the relentless manner in which he tested it.
Watson, then at Mississippi State University, is now a professor at Miami University of Ohio. He carried out the experiment in three men’s toilets. Each chamber had a history writ large, and small, in many different hands. The study says that “during the preceding months, each of the walls had been repainted numerous times due to the proliferation of graffiti”.
Each day, Watson and his minions meticulously counted how many marks were on each wall. They tallied each letter, number, or piece of punctuation. Other shapes called for special assessment. The study describes one typically difficult example: “A drawing of a happy face was counted as five marks (one for each eye, one for the nose, one for the mouth, and one for the circle depicting the head).”
The investigators employed professional stealth….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.
BONUS: The Guardian assembled a gallery of toilet graffiti (of which one image is displayed here,at right).

The 100-trillion-dollar book

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Gideon Gono, author of the new book Zimbabwe’s Casino Economy – Extraordinary Measures for Extraordinary Challenges, displays a rare, perhaps unique, kind of scholarly reserve. He is a scholar with a PhD from Atlantic International University. The US-based institution, which has mostly distance-learning courses, proclaims on its website: “Atlantic international university is not accredited by an accrediting agency recognised by the United States secretary of education.” And he has reserve, or rather Reserve, with a capital “R”. Since December 2003, Gono has been the governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank.
Two weeks ago, Gono was awarded the 2009 Ig Nobel prize in mathematics. The Ig Nobel citation lauds him for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers – from very small to very big – by having his bank print banknotes with denominations ranging from one cent to 100 trillion dollars….

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

Check the marijuana in your muffins

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

If a friend or, alternatively, a police undercover agent, gives you a tempting marijuana muffin, how can you know whether it’s made with real marijuana?
A report called Identification of Cannabinoids in Baked Goods by UHPLC/MS tells how to do it easily and directly – or as the professionals say, with “minimal sample preparation, and no chemical derivatisation”.
The two professionals who say this, Guifeng Jiang and Jason R Stenzel, cooked up the report for Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc, of San Jose, California. Jiang works for the company. Stenzel is part of Washington State Patrol’s Crime Laboratory Division in the remote town of Cheney.
By “minimal sample preparation”, Jiang and Stenzel mean minimal compared to the traditional method for testing the genuineness of leaf marijuana, hashish, hash oil, and what they lovingly call “residue collected from smoking paraphernalia”.
Their traditional method may not be your traditional method….

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

Sleight of Food (frog? bird? both?)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

The French will swallow almost anything, so long as it’s surprising to see and delightful to taste. Jennifer J Davis explains why in a study called Masters of Disguise: French Cooks Between Art and Nature, 1651–1793. The 14-page report, replete with old drawings and few new photographs, is published in the journal Gastronomica.
“Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” Davis writes, “cooks engaged in a multitude of games in which one food masqueraded as another. Such games often played along the fault lines of alimentary taboos, as the cooked imitated the raw, the dead masqueraded as the living, and the injunctions of Catholic fasts were followed to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.”
Religious fast days, especially, became opportunities for cooks to strut their ingeniously stuffed stuff. All things seemingly became possible….

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

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