Ian Short


Christmas junk

George Monbiot’s article on trashing the planet for Christmas:

Christmas junk

Greg Rutherford victory parade

Greg Rutherford, the Olympic gold medalist in long jump, had a victory parade in Woburn Sands yesterday afternoon (he lives here, on our street). He travelled in an open top bus from Frost’s Garden Centre to Mowbray Green and back again. On top of the bus was Greg, some photographers, the mayor, and a few others, probably family. The streets were lined with flag wavers, a lot of them children from the local schools. Ellie, Isi, and I stood outside our house as the bus came past. We were in an empty patch for onlookers, as we live near Mowbray Green, where people were gathering instead. I held Is high in the air and she got a wave from Greg. E was cursing me for not standing in front of her so that she could get a photo of Greg with Is in the foreground.

Greg Rutherford

There was a small ceremony at Mowbray Green. Usually Mowbray Green, which is a small patch of grass with trees by a busy road, is occupied by a few teenagers. Instead it was filled with the people of Woburn Sands. The mayor thanked the garden centre, the guy who lent the open-top bus (who has an open-top bus?), and various others. Greg thanked everyone. There is now a plaque on the green (an 8.35 metres long thing) celebrating Greg’s achievement. People cheered, Isabel cried, and so we took our leave. Apparently Greg had to shoot off straight after to appear on Channel 4′s The million pound drop.

Tesco in Woburn Sands

Since January I’ve lived in Woburn Sands, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, on the boundary of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. An empty shop on the high street – previously a restaurant with the terrible name ‘Woburn Zens’ – has received the attention of Tesco, who have submitted a planning application to install one of their Metro stores there. Several of the other high street shops (including, off the top of my head, Co-op, a butcher, a baker, and another small food store) are involved in a campaign to dissuade Milton Keynes Council from allowing the plans to go ahead. Some local residents have also campaigned against the store.

I oppose the creation of a new Tesco store, so I wrote to the relevant Milton Keynes Planning Officer. Here’s my message, minus some pleasantries.

I recently moved to Woburn Sands with my family from another similar small town (Neston, Cheshire). We chose Woburn Sands precisely because of its strong sense of local community, supported by local businesses. A new Tesco would be a massive backwards step for the region. In our old town Neston, a new Sainsbury’s caused local food suppliers to close down. I’m worried that the same will happen in Woburn Sands. We absolutely don’t need a new small shop the same size as Co-op. It would be a tragedy if the Co-op came under threat: the Co-operative group is an organisation with a decent ethical base, in fitting with the community here. Tesco, on the other hand, focus on low prices and mass production, which causes harmful farming practices that reduce biodiversity and force small farms out of business.

People will no doubt shop in Tesco: it’s cheap, convenient, and they advertise a lot. And Tesco are large enough to weather competition with local businesses until the local businesses have to give way. Tesco will benefit from this application to an affluent area like Woburn Sands, but the community will not. Although we won’t move away from Woburn Sands once a Tesco opens, I will consider it a black mark on Woburn Sands when we look to buy a house within the next couple of years.

For this day and age, and particularly in comparison to Milton Keynes in general, Woburn Sands has a rich diversity of small, mostly independent shops. In some ways it is similar to my previous town, Neston. Both towns are of a similar size, and both benefit from proximity to universities (the Open University and Liverpool Veterinary School). Neston, however, has a Tesco Metro, an Aldi, and then a medium sized Sainsbury’s was introduced a couple of years ago. Sainsbury’s caused the local grocers and butchers to close down (who, in the face of competition from Tesco and Aldi, were only clinging on to existence anyway). Neston’s high street is pretty crap, and the new Sainsbury’s attracts visitors from local villages who bring traffic. I expect Tesco Metro in Woburn Sands will have a similar effect: local smaller shops will suffer, or close, and there will be more traffic.

Tesco will offer a slightly wider range of products than the local shops, and they will be cheaper. How broad a variety of products do we need in order to live happily? In my opinion, the Co-op and other smaller shops provide sufficient variety already, although a person who is used to larger supermarkets may disagree. In any case, if you are prepared to drive (and who isn’t in Milton Keynes?) then every UK shop you can think of is available within a few miles, in gargantuan size. Here’s an article in the Guardian on this kind of issue.

Tesco threatens the existing Co-op. The Co-operative group is a large democratic organisation owned by its members, which supports ethical trading. For these reasons I generally prefer to shop in Co-op than other supermarkets. Tesco is the third largest retailer in the world, and has a terrible environmental record. The most obvious reasons are that it uses large energy inefficient stores, which encourage people to travel by car, and which generate huge amounts of waste in packaging and food. The environmental effects of transportation to supermarkets are large compared to more locally based schemes. Most if not all of these criticisms could be levelled at all supermarkets, however, including Co-op.

The most significant problem with supermarkets perhaps (and this applies particularly to Tesco because of its size and philosophy) is the effect they have on farming. In order to sell cheap goods, supermarkets force farmers to compete for the lowest possible prices. This leads to budget farming: large-scale (small farms cannot compete), use of dangerous pesticides (supermarkets exploit poor countries with few regulations on pesticides), reduced biodiversity (crops of the same variety are produced, en masse), environmental destruction, huge carbon emissions (partly in transportation – again, it is cost rather than environmental impact that dictates farming practices), low wages, and poor working conditions. Essentially, the consumer may pay little, but the environment and farmer pick up the rest of the cost.

Responding to the mood in the UK, Tesco has made some efforts to improve its environmental credentials. On the other hand, the environmental movement is weaker in China, and, accordingly, Tesco has an awful environmental record over there.

The results of the planning application should be revealed within a couple of weeks, and I’ll post them here.


Isabel encountered her first butterfly today, a brimstone, round the corner from our house.

It wasn’t the first butterfly of the year for me – I saw a small tortoiseshell two weeks earlier.

Isabel West

Ellie’s and my daughter Isabel was born at 10.24 on Wednesday 29 February. Her birth weight was 3.14kg. She is now six days old, and asleep in a basket in our front room.

The Code

The three part BBC series The Code about maths begins next Wednesday. Presented by Marcus du Sautoy, and supported by the Open University. We have created some Open University hexagonal shaped cards to accompany the series. They are meant to be drinks mats (think beer mats). I’m worried they will be too thin to be convincing drinks mats. Hope I’m wrong.

There is a treasure hunt accompanying the series. Information on The Code website.

Nuclear reactors

I created this word cloud for a project on visualising uncertainty. The font size relates to certain properties of nuclear reactors in the United States. I won’t state what the data is, because I later discovered it was dodgy, and I don’t want to advertise it. So the word cloud looks good, but doesn’t represent anything meaningful. Here’s a debate between Monbiot and Caldicott on nuclear power.

TED Talks

TED is a group in the USA which organises lectures. Here’s a TED lecture about teaching maths: Dan Meyer.

Dan argues that you should ask practical maths questions in a bare form. For example, you could ask, “You chuck a 1kg rock upwards at 2 metres per second; how high does it go?” Dan suggests instead “How high does a rock travel if you chuck it upwards?” Then the student has to realise what are the important quantities needed to answer the problem. Makes the problem deeper and more attractive.

There’s something in this. Probably doesn’t apply as much to pure maths problems.

Other TED talks I like: Hans Rosling and Chris Jordan.

Short, Little, and Bent

E left a book, :59 Seconds – Think a little – Change a lot by Richard Wiseman, lying around which stated that people with surnames such as Short, Little, or Bent are especially likely to suffer feelings of social inferiority. (Wiseman referred to some paper or other for this fact.) I laughed, but the author’s surname… The book also suggested that men with positive initials (such as ACE, HUG, and JOY) live longer, and those with negative initials (PIG, BUM, and DIE) die younger. Sounds unlikely. I read the rest of the book, and it was pretty good. Here are some key points from certain chapters (not in order).

(1) It’s often thought that brainstorming is more productive than thinking alone. Not necessarily true, because of social loafing. Dominant person doing all the thinking. Guess that’s obvious.
(2) In solving a problem, a good strategy is to leave it for a while, and then return. Your subconscious will have a crack. Various experiments in book to justify this. Seems true. He even suggests that you occupy your conscious mind with a distraction from the problem, and this focussing on something else will help with the original problem.
(3) He has four tips for creativity. (i) Prime: think hard about problem, and then distract yourself. (ii) Perspective: how would X think about this problem? (iii) Play: take a break and have fun. (iv) Ask yourself challenging questions. That’s it. Exaggerated inaccurate summary: to solve a problem work on anything but the problem.
(4) Green things are good for solving problems! Plants. Or without plants paint your room green.
(5) More on priming: try looking at inspirational pictures. These can be great works of art (or listen to music), but a simpler inspirational image is as follows. Consider lots of arrows pointing downwards, and amongst them a single arrow pointing up. Look at this image! It helps you think differently. So the referenced experiments indicate.

(1) Rewards don’t necessarily work – rewards make people believe task must be unenjoyable.
(2) In interviews, likeability is often most important factor.
(3) In the TV programme The Weakest Link, the contestants near the middle win more often. How curious.
(4) To make yourself liked: (i) show interest in others, (ii) ask for favours, (iii) show fallibility, (iv) don’t gossip. All sounds believable.
(5) Here’s one I hadn’t thought of: if you want to get someone to agree to something, first ask them some basic questions they are likely to say ‘yes’ too. Then hit them with your request.
(6) In bargaining, humour helps.
(7) Bystander effect – I like this one. Example is of a guy who collapses in a street. When there is only one other person in the street, he or she offers to help the guy. When there are loads of people,  nobody helps. Reason is because people look to each other for indications of how to behave. So nobody brings themselves to do anything. Also some kind of social embarrassment or something involved.
(8) Reciprocity: help someone and they help you.
(9) Best way of getting a lost wallet returned: keep a photo of a baby in it.

Well that all seemed devious somehow. I’ll move on to…

(1) Once reach certain modest level of wealth, happiness independent of money. Believable.
(2) Attempting to suppress thoughts makes them come up more regularly.
(3) After traumatic event, writing about it helps (getting things down in an orderly fashion). Talking may not help though: the orderly part is usually missing. So write!
(4) Writing positive things (in all kinds of contexts) helps you out. Be positive! Wiseman is forgiven for the Short thing. I’ll embrace my surname and ridiculous initials.
(5) If you are happy you smile. Converse holds partly too. Smile and you’ll be happier. Have good posture and use positive language too.

(1) The ‘play hard to get’ adage is wrong. Should be ‘play hard to get but at the same time be enthusiastic about the other person’.
(2) Touch a person’s upper arm to be friendly. I won’t be doing that one.
(3) Mimic a person to be agreeable. (What if they catch you?)
(4) Apparently women look for bravery in men and risk taking. Rock climbing number one pursuit for men attracting women. Golf bottom. Aerobics number one pursuit for women attracting men. Body building bottom – ha!
(5) When in love your heart beats faster. Converse holds a bit too. Similar thing with intimate conversations.
(6) Reflected glory: if guy sees girl with guy then guy thinks more of girl than if girl alone.

Decision making
(1) People in groups take more risks. Their views become polarized.
(2) To persuade people, get your foot in the door. Isn’t this in the wrong chapter?
(3) Don’t spend long on big decisions. Let your subconscious work on them. People regret more if they dwell on decisions for a long time.
(4) To detect liars, ignore tension or nervousness; instead look for slow answers, evasiveness, and lack of detail.

(1) (i) Plan. (ii) Tell others about plan. (iii) Think about good things that come from achieving goal. (iv) Reward yourself for progress. (v) Record progress.
(2) A familiar phenomenon: once you start a task, your mind wants to finish it, and is agitated until it’s done. Once it’s done, mind wipes it and you can’t remember it so well. (Example, waiter who forgets order once it’s paid.)
(3) Employ Orwellian doublethink: optimism and realism simultaneously.

(1) Punching and screaming doesn’t help. Instead search for the positive side of things.
(2) Praying for others helps you. Altruism is good for you.
(3) Laugh more. Go outside in the sun. (To alleviate stress.)
(4) Own a dog. (And pass stress on to your neighbours.)

(1) Apparently its well known that some canny psychologists once went through the dictionary and extracted all the words relating to personality. They then classified those words into five categories, namely openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A personality can be well approximated by describing these five attributes.

Didn’t read this one.

Nor this one.

Tony Benn – Letters to my grandchildren

I recently found the book Letters to my grandchildren, by Tony Benn, in my local library. It consists of a series of short letters written by Tony Benn to his grandchildren, on different political themes.  I like Benn and I like the book. Here are four small parts.

On power and control

Letter 4 is about mechanisms by which leaders control their people. Benn mentions (but does not endorse) the quote ‘democracy inevitably leads to Marxism’ from Mein Kamp. The idea behind this quote is that, in a democracy, the wealthy are a minority, and so everyone else would do well to vote for an even distribution of wealth.

On ignorance

Benn reports that he has told students at ceremonies: ‘When you leave this university you will know far less that there is to be known than when you arrived.’ Benn wasn’t referring to the effects of alcohol; he meant that we cannot keep up with the growth of human knowledge.

On New Labour

Of course there is loads on the Labour Party and New Labour. Benn reports that Margaret Thatcher claimed New Labour was her greatest achievement. (In the sense that, with New Labour, traditional Labour Party values were replaced with Conservative policies.)

On nuclear weapons

Benn is against developing Trident. He describes how our nuclear weapons are dependent on the USA (because we use their technology). So we don’t have an independent nuclear deterrent. He questions whether nuclear weapons work as a deterrent for war anyway, and cites the Falklands war and various other wars. He also mentions money spent on Trident, and the disaster of a nuclear war, as you’d expect.  He says that a person with good sense would not sanction the use of nuclear weapons, and he refers to some wartime officer or other to back him up. In response to this, a prime minister who supports nuclear weapons would have to reassure everyone that he or she would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. That is, the prime minister would be reassuring us that he or she is prepared to approve the killing of millions of people.

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