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Lectures for a New Year: Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of iconic books including Blink and The Tipping Point. He has a formula for most of his work: find a core assumption about the world that everyone assumes is correct, then prove that the opposite is actually correct. (For example, in Blink one assumption was that rigorous, detailed study of something like a work of art would lead to the best determination of whether it was a forgery; but it turns out that the best forgery detectors in the world actually operate on gut instinct that happens in a flash...or do they? You see how this works.) This Gladwell Inversion makes for really interesting reading (I thought Blink was terrific), and when he tells anecdotes, it's riveting stuff -- the man is a veritable Teachable Moment Machine, full of stories that lead to lessons. To wrap up our week of TED Talks, here's my favorite Gladwell TED presentation.

In this talk from 2004, Gladwell talks about food. Yeah. Food. And it's frickin' amazing. Here is a 17-minute lecture crammed full of stories about the development of various foods (primarily spaghetti sauces, coffees, and mustards) and what that process of food design tells us about ourselves, our diversity as people, and what actually makes us happy. It's all about the work of Howard Moskowitz, a Psychophysicist who worked on tons of important mass-market foods.

Topics: Howard Moskowitz, looking for the perfect Diet Pepsi(s), zesty pickles, the relative merits of Ragu and Prego, a Dead Tomato's Society, the three classes of spaghetti sauces Americans like, the super-diversity of modern sauce, "the mind knows not what the tongue wants," Grey Poupon as an aspirational mustard, and how coffee clusters can make us happier.

For: everyone. Especially people who eat food.

Further Reading

This one's easy: Gladwell published an essay on this topic called The Ketchup Conundrum and it's online for free (as are lots of his articles -- his website is basically its own Long Reads treasure trove). And of course, there's the Gladwell Trifecta: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Outliers: The Story of Success. If you're really into Gladwell, check out Malcolm Gladwell: Collected.

Transcript

TED provides an interactive transcript as well as subtitles, downloads with subtitles, and so on.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we'll check it out!

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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iStock

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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