Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Short Agenda

I am currently being harried, vilified and persecuted in certain sections of the media about the policy of my bed and breakfast establishment, Tall Towers, of not allowing short people to stay.

It's true there is a sign in the lobby that says You Must Be At Least This Tall To Stay Here and that no one under five foot ten is welcome. It's true that Tall Towers is registered as a business for tax and Health & Safety. But it is also my home. And in my own home, it is my right to follow my own deeply held beliefs. As my website states: I have few rules but please note that out of a deep regard for height, I prefer to let double accommodation to tall people only. I will not allow short people to share a bed under my roof in which they might procreate more short people.

Bleeding heart liberal Guardian-reading pinko commie nazis may try to make us believe that short people are normal but why should my beliefs be trampled on by their tiny feet? This is not the England my ancestors fought and died for. The obsession with equality has now reached ludicrous, as well as oppressive, proportions. I am not shortophobic, I am an honest, law-abiding person. I am just standing up for what I believe. Which is that short people are just plain wrong.

Some may question the wisdom of sinking my life savings into this establishment and then restricting who can stay here, especially in these hard times, but I am not in this for the money. I do it because I love meeting people and offering them hospitality. Tall people.

There have been incidences of short people wearing high heels, pretending to be tall in order to book a double room. This is persecution and publicity-seeking, pure and simple.

A tall MP has come to my defence. She said: "If Tessera ran a grocery shop which refused to serve short people then that would be discrimination but to refuse to facilitate their activity by providing a double bed is not. It is the once lawful exercise of conscience against particular deeds".

It gets worse. The attempt to foist the short agenda onto society has spread to education. In short geography, children will be forced to study Japan and regions of the world where pygmies live when they should be studying Holland, Scandinavia and the Rift Valley (home of the Maasai). In maths, they will be forced to study only short division instead of long division and in science they will learn about the evolution of the pygmy shrew, chihuahua and the bee hummingbird. Alas, this short curriculum is no laughing matter. Absurd as it sounds, this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the camouflage of education. It is an abuse of childhood.

And the other side of that particular coin, as we are now discovering, is that values which were once the moral basis for British society are now deemed to be beyond the pale. Tall values.

When qualified, accredited therapists offer out of the goodness of their hearts to cure people of being short, they are hounded and threatened with being struck off, and their witnesses are intimidated by the short mafia. In America, these cures have been made illegal but British bodies (bless them) are holding out.

As if this wasn't enough, now comes, apparently, short drugs policy. When the Government announced the appointment of GP Dr Lofty to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, he was targeted in an astonishing attack for his 'stringent views'. For he is also a member of the Lanky Community, which is dedicated to re-establishing tall values in society. Dr Lofty has often stayed at my B&B with his lovely tall wife and three fine tall children.

Short people have their place in society, which is reaching for things on low shelves. They are welcome to stay in their own B&Bs, to watch short films and to eat shortbread. They are not welcome in my B&B. My health is failing but I will defend my beliefs to my last, bankrupt breath.

All donations or complaints should be addressed to my lawyers, the Longshanks Legal Centre.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Death of Atheism?

Atheists are breeding themselves out of existence. Or rather, not breeding. The religious, meanwhile, have evolved to go forth and multiply - according to the media.

The first round of 'news' stories was based on a paper called The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation by Michael Blume. The story has now come back because of a paper by Robert Rowthorn: Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model

Blume says that religious people have evolved to produce more children than the non-religious, even in developed countries (he cites Switzerland as an example). He suggests that this is because belonging to a religious community provides more co-operation in child-rearing and that such communities particularly benefit women of reproductive age as religion promotes marriage and fidelity.

This got reported (for example in the Sunday Times) as 'over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, atheists had fewer children and the societies they belong to are likely to disappear'.

Evolutionary timescales are rather more than hundreds of years - unless you're a fruit fly. The reporting ignores many other key factors. For example, most atheists have religious parents, they don't just spontaneously generate. There are more openly atheist people now than there have ever been. Figures on church attendance, religious affiliation and belief in the UK, for example, showed a marked decline in younger people - who have yet to breed.

However, in many societies, it is still hard - even dangerous - to be openly atheist; social traditions that encourage and facilitate large families are likely to influence even non-believers who live (covertly) in them. The Atheist Doomsday scenario also ignores the fact that in third world countries, people have more children regardless of their religion because they are needed to work to support the family and because more children die young. The research looks only at birth rates, not long-term survival rates. While a country's religion may encourage this kind of breeding, there are many more factors than faith.

The reporting also assumes that the current geo-political and religious status quo will hold for long enough into the future for evolution to have an effect and for atheists to be wiped out. Moreover, religion may apparently encourage fidelity but human nature is sneaky just like all animal nature. Believers were delighted with March of the Penguins as it appeared to show faithful penguin couples - except they're not. Just like many other animals, penguins have evolved to be opportunistic and will sneak off for some extra-conjugal mating whenever they get the chance. If the punishment for being caught is high (like stoning, say), this may deter some but will just increase ingenuity in others who will pass on the sneaky gene to their children...

Furthermore, how many atheists were there even 2000 years ago let alone 100,000? Without knowing this, we can't even begin to look at any possible evolutionary effects. There was no non-believing control group in the Iron Age.

The Telegraph version of Robert Rowthorn's paper is 'Believers' gene will spread religion, says academic'.

Except he doesn't. Rowthorn posits various possible scenarios. One is that religion becomes more widespread because religious people breed more so the genetic propensity to believe and breed spreads. He mentions the Blume study. But in that study, religiosity is measured by attendance. This may work in most current Western cultures but in some parts of the world, non-attendance is almost impossible because of social pressures. Similarly, in Elizabethan times, it was illegal not to go to church so by that measure, everyone was religious.

In addition, Rowthorn says that 'heritability studies suggest there is currently significant variation in genetic predisposition towards religion'. So not all religous people are equally religious although he does assume that 'all religious adults... have the same fertility irrespective of their genes', which is quite a big assumption.

Another scenario is that religions where people do not marry out will continue to breed at a much faster rate than the rest of the population - he cites the Amish and Haredi Jews as examples. However, Rowthorn points out that while they could vastly increase their numbers, as groups grow, the chances of defection increase as members are more likely to come into contact with outsiders and because it is harder to control larger groups. As people from third world countries move to the West, there will be economic restraints on having very large families to factor in.

He doesn't look at the problems of inbreeding in such groups, which may reduce survival fitness as harmful mutations spread.

Finally, he posits a scenario where defectors from religions take their religious genes with them. Presumably these are the weaker variants or people wouldn't be able to lose their religion in the first place. Going with his argument, these defectors will take their genes into the general population where they will manifest themselves in secular ways, for example as a respect for authority. He doesn't consider, for example, the fact that some defectors leave because they are gay and can live openly in mainstream society. The likelihood of them breeding is considerably reduced (although not eliminated).

Two rather over-simplified papers base their findings on very narrow parameters and assumptions, ignore complicating factors and other potential influences (culture, economics for example) even though genes never work in isolation but in tandem with the environment. They are reported as heralding the death of atheism.

It's true that some developed countries are producing fewer children. Just to muddy the waters, the birth rate in Italy and Ireland, strongly Catholic countries, is also falling as people ignore the priests and control their fertility.

While some religious groups in this country might be only too happy to see the death of the 'Dawkins' gene, they might also like to consider the scare stories about how Muslims will out-breed all other groups in Europe. Not so smug now, then.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Should you join a gym in January? No.

January is traditionally the time when we're supposed to make health-based resolutions - lose weight, drink less, quit smoking, get fit. Weight Watchers and their imitators ramp up their ad campaign and even Sainsbury's is selling rowing machines.

If your resolution is to join a gym - forget it.

Don't get me wrong, I love the gym. I'm there four mornings a week.

But there are lots of reasons why you shouldn't join a gym.

1. It's expensive. You're looking at around £500 a year for a decent gym. Some are cheaper if you pay for the whole year up front, others let you spread the payment with monthly direct debit. You may think that paying all in one go will make you commit. It won't. You'll end up having arguments with yourself about why you should go and why there are excellent reasons for not going and damn, I feel guilty and I'll really go next week, honestly, just shut up and let me eat this pizza in peace. Personality disorders will ensue.

Monthly payments might seem a safer option but many people don't get around to cancelling their DD and some gyms don't make it easy to quit once they've signed you up. And on top of the annual fee, you may well have to pay a joining fee which has no purpose other than gouging more money out of you to pay for the huge effort of putting a bit of data into a computer. Gyms rely on people joining in January but more than that, they rely on them not going more than a few times. Figures vary, but up to 60% of people drop out before six months. If everyone who joined a gym went and kept going, you wouldn't be able to get in the door. If you're part of that 60%, thank you for paying for my gym to get lots of new equipment that I can use in peace.

2. Guilt/punishment. A woman in my gym said to me 'When I'm as slim as you, I can stop coming'. This is a common attitude - exercise as penance or punishment. I pointed out to her that the only reason I stay in shape is that I keep going. She wasn't happy. A lot of women (and it is mostly women) see exercise as something to be endured to achieve a goal - generally weight loss. They hate every moment. Exercise speeds up weight loss but it's still going to take time. I've seen women weighing themselves after every session as if they might magically have dropped five kilos just by flogging themselves half to death on the step machine for 40 minutes.

Exercise burns calories but not very many. It works by perking up your metabolism so you burn more calories even when resting. So a weekend of beer and pizza cannot be atoned for in the gym on Monday morning. If you weigh around 155 pounds, an hour of vigorous aerobics or weight training could burn around 490 calories. One slice of pepperoni pizza has around 350 calories. That's one slice. You need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose one pound. So if you ran really really fast for over seven hours and ate nothing, you might lose a pound. Or die.

3. It's hard. If exercise was easy, everyone would do it and we'd all look like athletes. It takes time. Muscles do not just ping out overnight. That's why so many competitive body builders use steroids. I worked in a gym for a few years while I was researching my PhD and taught weight training circuits. I watched sane, sensitive men become a competitive, grunting mass of testosterone as soon as they got near the big muscly men. They'd try to lift the heaviest weights they could find, get disheartened that they didn't turn into Mr Universe and give up. Or do themselves a mischief.

4. It's time consuming. If you're going to be in the gym three or four times a week, it has to become part of your life. You have to get up early or make time in the evenings and weekends. You'll also have to lug a heavy bag full of stinky clothes around with you.

5. The gym isn't for everyone. Weight training, cardio work or classes don't suit everyone. Some people find it hard to work out alone, others don't like doing it with other people. And not everyone can cope with the changing rooms. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but some women are so painfully unhappy with their bodies that they writhe around under a towel to get changed and won't shower in the communal showers if the individual cubicles are busy. I can't speak for men as I've never been in a men's changing room (damn it) but I'm told there are man-type pressures too, mostly around eye contact while naked and getting your nob out in front of other men. You will have to get naked in front of others at some point, if only for a moment. You will also go bright red, get all sweaty and your hair will look terrible. Gyms are full of mirrors so you will see yourself looking like crap from every angle. This can be hard to take if there's a cute guy/girl working out next to you but if you're more interested in pulling than pumping, go to the pub.

Obviously, some people do join a gym, love it and stick with it. I did. It's part of my life and I don't have to think about it, I just do it - and enjoy it. This doesn't make me a Good Person, it makes me someone who suits the gym.

6. It's January. It's horrible outside, especially early in the morning when it's cold, dark and probably wet as you head to the gym. And cold, dark and probably wet when you leave work. Setting yourself tough targets at this time of year can be pretty unrealistic, a triumph of faith over reason. Give yourself a break. Start with something you may actually achieve. Go for a fast walk for half an hour three or four times a week for three months. If you can't manage that, there's no point doing anything more demanding (or expensive). Your credit card is already weeping after Christmas. If you can manage it, do you still want to join a gym? There are lots of other ways to exercise that may suit you better.

7. Suck it and see. A lot of private gyms do free tasters, a one day or sometimes three day pass. Just going to a gym, looking around and getting the sales pitch isn’t enough. You need to go at the time you are planning to go to see how crowded it is, who else is in there (big scary men hogging the Smith machine or women hogging the step machines, for example) and whether what’s on offer really suits you. Council-run gyms don’t tend to do this; for health and safety reasons they won’t let you loose on your own without doing an induction course. This applies even if you’re a regular gym user so it’s not so much about making sure you don’t injure yourself as getting more money out of you.

Chat to the staff while you’re there. Do they know their stuff? Do they look you up and down and raise an eyebrow? Do they give a toss? Do they speak something approaching English?

Then sniff the changing room. If it smells like something died in there, walk away.

8. Don't say to me 'I really should join a gym' or 'I've been to the gym three times now' or even 'Can you design me an exercise programme to do at home?' You may be the exception to the rule but I can pretty much guarantee that if I spend time and effort designing a workout for you and teaching you how to do it, you'll do it for a week. Or maybe two. And then make excuses every time you see me. And then hate me because I make you feel guilty. I really don't need it.

9. If you ignore everything I've said and join a gym - hoorah! If you're still going regularly in a year's time, let me know and we'll have a really big cake. Because gym + cake = balanced lifestyle. It works for me.