Uncommon Knowledge

Sometimes high is sexy, sometimes low

When describing positions of relative status, people often use adjectives related to height, as in “top choice,” “up the food chain,” or “high end.” A recent study finds that this association even extends to judgments about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. Women rated pictures of men as more attractive when they were presented in the top half of a screen. Men, however, rated pictures of women as more attractive when they were presented in the bottom half of a screen. The authors see this as consistent with the evolutionary view that men prefer submissive mates, while women prefer dominant ones.

Meier, B. & Dionne, S., “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” Social Cognition (December 2009).

Dishonesty lurks in the shadows

It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this insight may apply to more than just the disclosure of information. In several experiments, researchers found that light levels influence selfish behavior. People who were placed in a dimly lit room were significantly more likely to cheat than people placed in a well-lit room. Likewise, people who were asked to wear sunglasses were less generous in a sharing game than people who were asked to wear clear glasses. This pattern appears to be the result of an increased sense of anonymity in lower light levels, even though light levels did not confer any actual increase in anonymity.

Zhong, C. et al., “A Good Lamp is the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Exercising self-control

Self-control IS a key trait associated with success in life, so the obvious question to ask is whether (and how easily) self-control can be improved. New research suggests that it might be easier than we think. People were randomly assigned to try doing one of four possible tasks – avoid eating sweets; squeeze a handgrip, twice a day, for as long as possible; solve simple math problems a few minutes a day; or keep a diary recording any acts of self-control – over a two-week period. The researchers also administered a standard test of self-control both before and after the two-week period. The results indicated that the first two tasks, which take self-control to perform, yielded a significant increase in self-control. There was no effect for the other two tasks. Self-control, then, is a muscle that can be strengthened.

Muraven, M., “Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When calorie counts help business

In some jurisdictions, chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on their menus. There’s an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of these regulations – especially in reducing the burden of obesity – outweigh the costs to business. Researchers at Stanford University were able to persuade Starbucks to hand over data on every transaction at their stores in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia around the time that New York City implemented its calorie-posting law. The researchers also obtained transaction data for a large sample of Starbucks cardholders during the same period and conducted in-store surveys in Seattle and elsewhere, around the time that Seattle implemented its own calorie-posting law. In New York City – as compared to Boston and Philadelphia where no such law went into effect – food purchases, but not beverage purchases, contained significantly fewer calories after the law went into effect, and even fewer calories for people who had previously consumed the most calories. The survey data found that customers had been overestimating calories in beverages and underestimating calories in food. Although one might expect the law to hurt business by reducing demand, the data showed no effect on Starbucks, and, in fact, Starbucks stores close to Dunkin’ Donuts actually gained some sales, perhaps because some customers of the latter were put off by the calorie content of doughnuts. Moreover, there was an increase in the average price per item purchased, suggesting that profitability increased, too.

Bollinger, B. et al., “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/01/31/sometimes_high_is_sexy_sometimes_low/


Heated debate

Why shouldn’t a temperature be ‘warm’?

When the weatherperson predicts “warmer temperatures,” do your usage antennae quiver? Mine either – but some people do have a problem with such expressions. It’s a rare peeve, but a couple of weeks ago it popped up again, like a dormant virus newly revived and ready to spread.

The complaint appeared in a Montreal Gazette language column by Mark Abley, who had opened the floor to readers that week. One of them objected to the practice of TV forecasters who “speak of ‘warm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘cold’ temperatures, rather than high, medium, and low ones.” Temperature is an index of heat or cold, he said, not something that can itself be “warm” or “cold.”

That’s not the only argument against “cooler temperatures” and the like. Bill Walsh addressed the point in his 2000 usage book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” under the entry slow-speed chase. “The O.J. Simpson freeway parade was a low-speed chase, not a slow-speed chase. The concept of speed is inherent in the words slow and fast, so something is either slow or low-speed, either fast or high-speed. Other examples of this kind of redundancy include delicious taste, hot temperatures, and beautiful-looking.”

All very logical – but neither line of reasoning has made a dent in our actual usage. The first argument falters because temperature is not a technical word being misapplied by weather folks; it’s a general word adopted to a specific purpose. In the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, temperature could mean the act of tempering something, or “a middle course, a compromise,” or a person’s disposition or “temperament” – among other things. Even as a weather word, its first sense was not “degree of heat” but the relative mildness – temperateness – of a climate.

So when science adopted “temperature” as a measure of heat, in the 17th century, English speakers were already used to hearing the word in other senses as well. There was apparently no taboo against describing a temperature as hot, warm, or cold: A 1743 treatise on thermometers, quoted in the OED, writes of a system that “conceive[s] the middle temperature of the air as neither hot nor cold.”

Other scientists followed suit: A 1796 chemistry book says therapeutic water needs only to be “an hotter temperature than common water.” An 1841 medical journal speaks of the “cooler temperature of the human body.” And Charles Lyell, in “Principles of Geology” (1850 edition), writes of “a warmer temperature having prevailed in the eras of the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.”

The second charge, that “warmer temperatures” is redundant, is no easier to prosecute. Yes, “temperatures will be hot” is redundant in the sense Walsh points out: The word hot already implies “temperature.” But English has never banned such redundancy, especially in the spoken language. Taste and fashion may outlaw some such expressions, but many others are our daily companions.

We’ve all been alerted, for instance, to the redundancy of “ATM machine” and “PIN number” (though we still may find them useful). But who wants to ban “12 noon” and “12 midnight”? (You don’t really need the 12.) “Faster speeds” has the same problem, but surely it’s standard English. Should we ban hairstyles of longer lengths, children of younger ages, servings in medium sizes?

In the case of weather terms, in fact, limiting ourselves to the “precise” language of high, medium, and low temperatures would leave us knowing less. We have a wealth of temperature adjectives – frigid, chilly, cool, mild, balmy, sizzling – all attuned to our local climate and our expectations with a subtlety that a forecast of “medium-high temperatures” can’t match. Call such phrases unscientific, call them redundant, avoid them if you like – but don’t imagine that English has ever considered them sins against the spirit of the language.

. . .

WHICH FORK? David Devore e-mailed recently to ask about a quote in a New York Times story on early bird specials: “It’s a great way to try a new restaurant without forking over a lot of money.”

To Devore, forking over is what a robber demands: Fork over the cash! – and paying a bill should be forking out. But my dictionaries treat fork over, fork out, and fork up as synonyms, all meaning “to hand over”; there may be local or individual preferences, but officially it’s OK to fork over, out, or up.

Some commentators give fork over a rakish past, deriving it from the old thieves’ slang to fork (someone), meaning to pick a pocket using two stiff fingers. But the OED treats the fork over family as simple extensions of the usual verb: you fork up a garden, fork over a mutton chop, fork out the rent. The word implies reluctance on the part of the forker, for whatever reason, but not necessarily coercion or threat by the forkee.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/01/31/heated_debate/

The week ahead

Talk of a European bail-out for Greece

• JUDGMENT will be passed on the Greek government’s budget-cutting plans by the European Commission on Wednesday February 3rd. The country’s public finances are in a parlous state and fears that the markets may lose faith in Greece altogether were only partly allayed when it recently raised €8 billion ($11 billion) in the bond market. Amid fears that Greece may not present a credible plan for fiscal austerity, talk is circulating of a bail-out, perhaps through a big fund underwritten by the commission or France and Germany, that could offer loans, albeit at punitive rates, to see Greece past this tight spot. And Greece is not the only member of the euro-zone with wobbly public finances.

• AN EXTENDED period of belt-tightening is likely to be the theme when Barack Obama presents his fiscal budget for 2011 on Monday February 1st. To cope with a growing deficit the president is set to propose a three-year freeze on some domestic spending programmes, as he trues to save some $20 billion in 2011. Spending on national security, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be excluded from any freeze. Mr Obama is also poised to stop tax cuts for oil companies, investment-fund managers and anyone earning over $250,000 a year, although families earning less than that will have tax cuts extended. Mr Obama has threatened to veto spending that would increase the deficit.

• AS THE sci-fi spectacular, “Avatar”, sweeps all previous box-office records aside an indication of its artistic merit will come on Tuesday February 2nd when the Oscar nominations are announced. “Avatar” has already earned more than “Titanic”, also directed by James Cameron, after six weeks on the big screen. But adjusted for inflation it lags some way behind. And Hollywood seems less inclined to lavish it with nominations and Oscars. “Titanic” garnered 14 nods and 11 statuettes. “Avatar” may pick up less-prestigious awards for technical achievement but not the big acting or directing prizes.

• THE two front-runners for the presidency of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, compete in a run-off election on Sunday February 7th. Ukraine is divided between the industrialised, Russian-speaking east and south which backs Mr Yanukovich and the centre and west supporting Ms Tymoshenko. Mr Yanukovich won the most votes in the first round yet the wily and more appealing Ms Tymoshenko could yet snatch victory. Some fear that she seeks to maximise her power and may, if elected, not push through reforms that Ukraine desperately needs. The parlous state of the economy means that the winner will need to raise heavily subsidised gas prices and cut public spending with a vengeance.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/international/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15409574&source=features_box_main

Crash Blossoms

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once gave the poetry of her husband, Robert, a harsh assessment, criticizing his habit of excessively paring down his syntax with opaque results. “You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust,” she wrote him, “by sweeping away your little words.”

In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert Browning, inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities. Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the mythical) include “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,” “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” and “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.” The Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim” and “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”

For years, there was no good name for these double-take headlines. Last August, however, one emerged in the Testy Copy Editors online discussion forum. Mike O’Connell, an American editor based in Sapporo, Japan, spotted the headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms” and wondered, “What’s a crash blossom?” (The article, from the newspaper Japan Today, described the successful musical career of Diana Yukawa, whose father died in a 1985 Japan Airlines plane crash.) Another participant in the forum, Dan Bloom, suggested that “crash blossoms” could be used as a label for such infelicitous headlines that encourage alternate readings, and news of the neologism quickly spread.

After I mentioned the coinage of “crash blossoms” on the linguistics blog Language Log, having been alerted to it by the veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, new examples came flooding in. Linguists love this sort of thing, because the perils of ambiguity can reveal the limits of our ability to parse sentences correctly. Syntacticians often refer to the garden-path phenomenon, wherein a reader is led down one interpretive route before having to double back to the beginning of the sentence to get on the right track.

One of my favorite crash blossoms is this gem from the Associated Press, first noted by the Yale linguistics professor Stephen R. Anderson last September: “McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.” If you take “fries” as a verb instead of a noun, you’re left wondering why a fast-food chain is cooking up sacred vessels. Or consider this headline, spotted earlier this month by Rick Rubenstein on the Total Telecom Web site: “Google Fans Phone Expectations by Scheduling Android Event.” Here, if you read “fans” as a plural noun, then you might think “phone” is a verb, and you’ve been led down a path where Google devotees are calling in their hopes.

Nouns that can be misconstrued as verbs and vice versa are, in fact, the hallmarks of the crash blossom. Take this headline, often attributed to The Guardian: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.” In the correct reading, “left” is a noun and “waffles” is a verb, but it’s much more entertaining to reverse the two, conjuring the image of breakfast food hastily abandoned in the South Atlantic. Similarly, crossword enthusiasts laughed nervously at a May 2006 headline on AOL News, “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts.”

After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context. If that A.P. headline had read “McDonald’s Fries Are the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers,” there would have been no crash blossom for our enjoyment.

Headline writers have long been counseled to beware of ambiguity. “Ambiguous words often lead to ludicrous and puzzling headline statements,” Grant Milnor Hyde wrote in his 1915 manual, “Newspaper Editing.” “They can be avoided only by great care in the use of words with two meanings and especially words that may be used either as nouns or verbs.” More recently, in the 2003 book “Strategic Copy Editing,” the University of Oregon journalism professor John Russial offered this rule of thumb: “As the word count drops, the likelihood of ambiguity increases.” He advises copy editors to think twice about trimming the little words.

The potential for unintended humor in “compressed” English isn’t restricted to headline writing; it goes back to the days of the telegraph. One clever (though possibly apocryphal) example once appeared in the pages of Time magazine: Cary Grant received a telegram from an editor inquiring, “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?” — to which he responded: “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?” The omitted verb may have saved the sender a nickel, but the snappy comeback was worth far more.

The space limitations of telegrams are echoed now in the terse messages of texting and Twitter. News headlines, however, are not so constrained these days, since many of them appear in online outlets rather than in print. (And many print headlines are supplanted online by more elastic “e-heads.”) But even when they are unfettered by narrow newspaper columns, headline writers still sweep away those little words as a matter of journalistic style. As long as there is such a thing as headlinese, we can count on crash blossoms continuing to blossom.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of visualthesaurus.com.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/magazine/31FOB-onlanguage-t.html