[Guest post] A physical education for Liz Jones

Joel Snape is features editor of Men’s Fitness, and he think Liz Jones is wrong about sport

Firstly, let me say that I think Fatima Whitbread is awesome. Secondly: Liz Jones has written one of those Mail columns where she vacillates between self-pity, uninformed opinions, countrywide psychoanalysis and contradictory statements so fast that you finish reading it confused and vaguely angry. Normally the best thing to do in response to this sort of thing is snort and post something cynical on Twitter, but there were enough echoes of things that I’ve heard normal people say about exercise in it that I thought it was worth responding to properly. Continue reading

[Guest post] A fat tax won’t help the nation get thinner

Joel Snape is features editor of Men’s Fitness and he thinks you should eat more steak

David Cameron doesn’t want you to get fat, and he’s losing patience with you. At the start of his term as PM, he was all for “nudging” you to get in better shape with healthcare incentives, but now, with more than half of adult men and 40 percent of women predicted to be obese by 2030, he’s told 5 News that he’s not ruling out a “fat tax” which would increase the prices of foods considered unhealthy. Continue reading

[Guest post] Book review: The Greatest Show On Earth

This is a guest post by Joel Snape.

The Greatest Show On EarthI got in an argument with some creationists the other day. The usual story: I was on a food run, they were handing out leaflets, I absentmindedly took one, they said “‘Oh, do you think about Jesus much,” and I went “Wait, this is about Jesus? Have your leaflet back.” I would have walked away, but before I had the chance one of them told me he believed that everything in the Bible was literally true, and before I knew it I was late back with the butternut squash. My girlfriend was furious.

Anyway, of the fish-in-a-barrel fun I had over those thirty minutes*, this was my favourite exchange:

Christian: You know, I’ve studied evolution.

Me: Which books have you read?

Christian: Well, I actually did political science at university, but…

Me: So did I, that’s fine, I’m just asking which books on evolution you’ve read. I’ve read loads.

Christian: Well, I went to the same university as Richard Dawkins.

Me: I went to the same university as Victoria Wood, but I couldn’t [thinks desperately]… write a sitcom about dinner ladies to save my life.

Christian:

Me: [in my head, so as not to ruin the moment] ZING!

You know what? I wasn’t just being a dick: I have read loads of books on evolution. But these creationists were pretty well-informed – in the sense of knowing an awful lot of ‘facts’ that were actually convincing-sounding lies – and somewhere during the conversation, I realised that I’ve never read a book that contains simple, comprehensive proof of why evolution is definitely real, alongside easily-memorable ripostes to the ill-thought out arguments most creationists parrot.

The Greatest Show On Earth is exactly that book.

It’s also a bit of a return to form. The God Delusion is comprehensively structured and intimidatingly well-argued, but – perhaps because he’s used to delivering the same material to denialist buffoons – the tone can get a bit hectoring. By contrast, this is Dawkins at his most avuncular – the twinkle-eyed, tweed-jacketed professor you’d like to give a non-ironic apple. He’s talking about a subject that he genuinely loves, and you’d have to have visited an awful lot of Noah’s Ark-themed petting zoos not to be swept along by his enthusiasm.

Describing bacteriologist Richard Lenski’s experiments in evolution, for instance – a twenty-year exercise in tedium, repetition and very carefully moving things between jars – Dawkins is clearly in awe of what Ben Goldacre would probably call Proper Science, and it’s impossible not to feel the same. In other moments, Dawkins describes the elegance of evolution with a sense of wonder that doesn’t seem to have dimmed through the years, getting excited about obscure plants or interesting fossils in a way that makes you wish he’d taught you biology at school.

Meanwhile, he marshals his arguments like Tony Hart making the New York skyline out of scrap metal – a nudge here, a prod there, and suddenly you have a genuine understanding of radioactive clocks or the reasons for the Cambrian gap, along with easily memorised rejoinders to most of the typical creationist tropes. It’s not going to convince everyone – Dawkins can’t resist including a transcript of his chat with a particularly blinkered Concerned Woman Of America – but if nothing else, it should make sure I never have to bring up the fact that I shared a university with Chris Tarrant. I’m pretty sure I could do whatever his job is.

* Bonus round 1: if you need a couple of single-sentence creationist-upsetters, try “What did the carnivores eat on the ark?” or “If god’s omnipotent, how can you say Jesus was his only son?”

Bonus round 2: here’s something I should have said to the creationists but didn’t, which I’m going to call the Last Biscuit argument:

Imagine I’ve got a packet of biscuits on my desk, but there’s only one left. One of my colleagues is hungry, so I give him the biscuit. That’s a pretty big sacrifice, especially if my colleague decides that instead of taking advantage of the biscuit properly he’s going to just crush it underfoot and then chuck the crumbs in my face. Now imagine that I know in advance what my colleague’s going to do to the biscuit and that I could make a new packet of biscuits appear out of thin air. Surely that’s stretching the meaning of sacrifice a bit?

Text © Joel Snape, 2009

The Greatest Show On EarthI got in an argument with some creationists the other day. The usual
story: I was on a food run, they were handing out leaflets, I
absentmindedly took one, they said ‘Oh, do you think about Jesus
much,’ and I went ‘Wait, this is about Jesus? Have your leaflet back.’
I would have walked away, but before I had the chance one of them told
me he believed that everything in the Bible was literally true, and
before I knew it I was late back with the butternut squash. My
girlfriend was *furious.*Anyway, of the fish-in-a-barrel fun I had over those thirty minutes*,
this was my favourite exchange:Christian: You know, I’ve studied evolution.

 

Me: Which books have you read?

Christian: Well, I actually did political science at university, but…

Me: So did I, that’s fine, I’m just asking which books on evolution
you’ve read. I’ve read loads.

Christian: Well, I went to the same university as Richard Dawkins.

Me: I went to the same university as Victoria Wood, but I couldn’t
[thinks desperately]…write a sitcom about dinner ladies to save my
life.

Christian: ….

Me: [in my head, so as not to ruin the moment] ZING!

You know what? I wasn’t just being a dick: I *have* read loads of
books on evolution. But these creationists were pretty well-informed –
in the sense of knowing an awful lot of ‘facts’ that were actually
convincing-sounding lies – and somewhere during the conversation, I
realised that I’ve never read a book that contains simple,
comprehensive proof of why evolution is definitely real, alongside
easily-memorable ripostes to the ill-thought out arguments most
creationists parrot.

The Greatest Show On Earth is exactly that book.

It’s also a bit of a return to form. The God Delusion is
comprehensively structured and intimidatingly well-argued, but –
perhaps because he’s used to delivering the same material to denialist
buffoons – the tone can get a bit hectoring. By contrast, this is
Dawkins at his most avuncular – the twinkle-eyed, tweed-jacketed
professor you’d like to give a non-ironic apple. He’s talking about a
subject that he genuinely loves, and you’d have to have visited an
awful lot of Noah’s Ark-themed petting zoos not to be swept along by
his enthusiasm. Describing bacteriologist Richard Lenski’s experiments
in evolution, for instance – a twenty-year exercise in tedium,
repetition and *very carefully* moving things between jars – Dawkins
is clearly in awe of what Ben Goldacre would probably call Proper
Science, and it’s impossible not to feel the same. In other moments,
Dawkins describes the elegance of evolution with a sense of wonder
that doesn’t seem to have dimmed through the years, getting excited
about obscure plants or interesting fossils in a way that makes you
wish he’d taught you biology at school. Meanwhile, he marshals his
arguments like Tony Hart making the New York skyline out of scrap
metal – a nudge here, a prod there, and suddenly you have a genuine
understanding of radioactive clocks or the reasons for the Cambrian
gap, along with easily memorised rejoinders to most of the typical
creationist tropes. It’s not going to convince everyone – Dawkins
can’t resist including a transcript of his chat with a particularly
blinkered Concerned Woman Of America – but if nothing else, it should
make sure I never have to bring up the fact that I shared a university
with Chris Tarrant. I’m pretty sure I *could* do whatever his job is.

*Bonus round: If you need a couple of single-sentence
creationist-upsetters, try ‘What did the carnivores eat on the ark?’
or ‘If god’s omnipotent, how can you say Jesus was his only son?’

Bonus round: here’s something I should have said to the creationists
but didn’t, which I’m going to call the Last Biscuit argument.

Imagine I’ve got a packet of biscuits on my desk, but there’s only one
left. One of my colleagues is hungry, so I give him the biscuit.
That’s a pretty big sacrifice, especially if my colleague decides that
instead of taking advantage of the biscuit properly he’s going to just
crush it underfoot and then chuck the crumbs in my face. But it’s not
*that* massive, because after all I could just go and buy another
packet of biscuits.

Guest review: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (Penguin, £9.99)

Here Comes Everybody

With Chris Anderson’s Free! coming under fire for being a) heavily cribbed from wikipedia and b) mostly wrong, it feels like a dangerous time to be writing a speculative book about how technology’s going to change everything we understand about economics and society. Fortunately, Clay Shirky hasn’t done that – he happily admits that he isn’t sure what’s going to happen next. Here Comes Everybody is a book about how technology has already changed society in irrevocable ways, and why you need to recognise that – whether you’re a TV critic unwilling to admit that his job’s worthless, a dictator who needs to start worrying about Twitter or, say, a 30-year old journalist who really should be thinking about getting a new job.

In itself, this choice of subject matter that you probably regularly use – you’ve probably had a go on Twitter, Flickr and Meetup, even if you aren’t cool enough to know about Dodgeball yet – makes for an interesting read. Books like Outliers or Freakanomics are at their best when they take what you ‘know’ about something – why the Beatles were so good or whether Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policy actually worked, for instance – and tip it on its head. This usually takes hard statistics or at least some extra facts, and HCE is a bit different from that. A lot of it is information that it feels like you more or less already know, but haven’t properly articulated in your head yet. In fact, there’s a sense that with enough patience, you could sit down for ages with a load of tea and biscuits and work it all out starting from scratch. Now that it’s actually happened, for instance, it seems obvious why a user-contributed encyclopaedia with very few editing restrictions works when a properly peer-reviewed one doesn’t, or that newspapers as we know them are dead. The trick, of course, is that nobody predicted this sort of thing at the time, and a lot of people – most employees of the newspaper industry, say – are still in denial about it. By the end, you’ll be convinced that they should all be updating their CVs, and amazed that they didn’t all do it five years ago.

Crowd(Photo by Dieter Drescher, used under Creative Commons license.)

Thankfully there’s no temptation to shoot the messenger, simply because of how likeable Shirky is. He cheerfully explains why traditional media’s doomed like a friendly, patient teacher, with a handful of diagrams and plenty of anecdotes to keep things memorable. He draws interesting parallels between flashmobs and Blitzkreig, and helpfully outlines how what you probably think about both is wrong. He tosses in a reference to In Praise Of Scribes – a fifteenth-century tribute to the art of rewriting manuscripts by hand which was printed on a press – just in case anybody hit by the huge shift in the media landscape is feeling especially sorry for themselves. He even explains why you shouldn’t look down on self-indulgent bloggers or people who don’t use proper grammar on their Tweets – although you’ll probably ignore that, because you need to have some fun. And he does it all charmingly.

Anderson’s book, oddly considering that he’s the editor of Wired, is hamstrung by the limitations of old media – with a rapidly changing social landscape, the six months or so it takes to get a book on the shelves is just about long enough for your economic model to be proven horribly wrong. Shirky’s, by contrast, plays to the strength of his medium – in a world where information is superabundant and easy to come by, what you really need is someone to sort through what’s already there, decide which bits are important and present them to you in an interesting, digestible format. In doing that, Shirky’s also done something that not many people can manage these days – he’s made a thing out of paper that can make you feel smarter and happier on the ten-minute tube journey to work. Hopefully he isn’t working on a sequel about how books are dead. Not yet, anyway.

Joel Snape is a journalist. He enjoys getting punched in the face and choking people out.

© Joel Snape 2009.