First surprise: Playboy centerfolds are tough, say two social psychologists who did a content analysis of the biographical text that runs with the photographs of Playboy's playmates.

Second surprise: There's text with those centerfold spreads?

For the record, your Unconventional Wiz is shocked, shocked! that women are still being objectified in skin magazines. He has not personally looked at a Playboy in more than 20 years, and then only to confirm the barroom claim of a Miami Herald colleague who said she had posed as a centerfold in her wild and crazee youth. (An exhaustive search through back issues confirmed that she had.) Anyway, I have moved on. And I had hoped the world had as well.

But apparently it has not. And that's one reason that James K. Beggan of the University of Louisville and Scott T. Allison of the University of Richmond decided to take a scholarly approach to the magazine's playmate prose. Even in this age of the Internet, with its easily accessible porn, Playboy claims more than 3 million subscribers, ranking it among the country's top-circulating magazines.

To ferret out Playboy's message to its, um, readers, Beggan began in 1998 to assemble a database that contained all the photos and text from the 204 Playboy Playmate pictorials that appeared in the magazine between 1985 and 2001. Much of it was distilled from a cache of Playboys he found gathering dust in a Louisville bookstore. (And, of course, in the interest of scholarship, he just had to rescue them from oblivion.)

Beggan and Allison, writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, found a pattern to the way that Playboy's wordsmiths described the women who graced the magazine's centerfold. They were typically strong, career-oriented, aggressive and, in a surprising number of instances, downright "tough." Adjectives suggesting vulnerability, submissiveness or passivity appeared less frequently.

But are these women really as they were described? Perhaps not, Beggan acknowledges. But it doesn't matter: "This is the image of them that is being presented to men. The Bible or Shakespeare teach important lessons; it doesn't matter who wrote them" or whether the story lines cleave tightly to historic fact.

Beggan, who's been a subscriber to Playboy for a decade, has enraged some feminists by arguing that Playboy doesn't treat women merely as sex objects and "is not really about men getting laid, but about teaching men how to be better men." Rather than poised Hefneresque swingers, he argues, Playboy targets "uncertain guys who are trying to learn" how to be more sensitive to women's needs.

After all, he says, the symbol of Playboy is a "furry bunny, not a tiger."

Notice how gas prices shot up virtually overnight after Hurricane Katrina -- but are falling much more slowly now?

We have only ourselves to blame, says an Ohio State University economist who studied how people shop for gasoline. Matthew Lewis found that the typical person hunts for the lowest possible prices when costs are rising -- but gets lazy and doesn't shop around when prices start to come down. As a consequence, gas station owners and other businesses have less incentive to lower prices when their wholesale costs drops.

For the study, Lewis used data on prices charged at about 420 service stations in the San Diego area from January 2000 to December 2001. The data were collected by the San Diego-based Utility Consumers' Action Network, which describes itself as a consumer watchdog group. Data on wholesale gas prices paid by the stations were obtained from the Energy Department, he writes in a working paper available on his Web site.

Ironically, consumer buying patterns put more money in the pockets of gas station owners when prices are falling than when they are rising. Lewis found that profit margins were highest when the wholesale price of gas was dropping and consumers stopped bargain-hunting. That eases the pressure on station owners, which in turn allows them to keep prices high, thereby increasing their profit margins.

Never mind about gas selling for $3 a gallon. It's when tomatoes top $2 a pound that we should really worry -- at least those of us who are concerned about the rate of obesity in children.

A new study by two Rand Corp. researchers found that young children who live in communities where fruits and vegetables are expensive are more likely to gain excessive weight than children who live in areas with less costly produce. That finding helps explain the growing incidence of obesity in children over the past 20 years, a time when the cost of fruits and vegetables has increased faster than other food prices as well as the cost of living, asserts Roland Sturm, a senior Rand economist and lead author of the study published in the journal Public Health.

The study by Sturm and economist Ashlesha Datar also was remarkable for what it didn't find. The researchers couldn't make any link between obese kids and the presence of many convenience stores, full-service restaurants, fast-food restaurants or grocery stores near their homes. Advocacy groups have suggested that such a link exists, they reported.

The research team examined excessive weight changes in 6,918 children in kindergarten to third grade from 59 metropolitan areas around the United States. The researchers then compared the weight gain figures with the relative price of fruits and vegetables in each of the areas studied. The data was collected by the federal government as part of its Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Where do fruits and vegetables cost the most, relative to the price of other food and necessities? The winner: Mobile, Ala., where children gained about 50 percent more excess weight as measured by body mass index (a ratio of weight to height) than children nationally, Sturm reported.

Fruits and vegetables were relative bargains in Visalia, Calif., where children's excess BMI gain was about half the national average.

morinr@washpost.com