Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Inverted September reflections

Another month hurries to an end, and with it late summer moves hurriedly into early autumn. Each day is four minutes shorter than the previous one; half an hour of daylight gone in a week. Dark when I get home from work - soon it will be dark when I leave work. Never mind, the world tilts as it spins around the sun; it will tilt back to give the Northern Hemisphere more light in six months time.

Two photos that didn't make it into the month's narrative - and a warm, sunny September it turned out to be. So - here they are - one from the centre of town where I work, the other taken eight miles (13km) away, on the edge of town where I live in semi-pastoral surroundings...

This time last year:
Observations from London's WC1
and Observations from the City of London

This time two years ago:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time four years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time six years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time seven years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Gas - why we should all try to use less of it.

It's that time of year when the evenings draw in; there's a chill in the air, and before long there will be frost (szron) on the lawns. The 'heating season', or sezon grzewczy, is almost upon us. Our house is heated by gas, supplied by PGNiG (lit. 'Polish Petroleum and Gas Mining'); the amount of gas we use depends to a great extent on the temperature outside. In a summer month, we may burn as little as 60 cubic metres of the stuff; in a harsh winter, it can be up to ten time that amount.

State-controlled PGNiG is changing the way it bills its customers for gas. Rather than charging per cubic metre as it has done from the outset, it will now charge per kilowatt hour, to make it comparable to electricity prices. So the 76 cubic metres we used in August becomes 840 kilowatt hours, at a conversion rate of 1 cubic metre = 11.18 kilowatt hours. Confused? Reading a gas bill is not simple (fixed and variable charges, meter readings, ever-changing billing periods), but you need to understand what they are charging you for. Since 2006, I've been noting these in a spreadsheet, to keep an eye on the billing. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Thatcherite convictions must be cast aside in the case of the Polish energy sector. It is better that PGNiG is controlled by the Polish state than by some other state; it might not be the best managed company in the world, but at least it's in the right hands.

There's clearly a need to keep an eye on gas consumption from an economic and environmental point of view. Our house is clad in six inches of expanded polystyrene stuck onto the outside of wide Porotherm air-bricks; and we have triple glazing. Despite that, we get winter gas bills of over 1,000 złotys (£180) a month. Remember, if you are reading this in England, winter temperatures in Warsaw can fall to -30C.

Now, in a normal world, one would bite the bullet on this one and get on with life. But PGNiG gets most of its gas from Gazprom, the commercial arm of Putin's foreign policy. Each rouble of profit that Gazprom makes can be converted into bombs, mortar shells, rockets and bullets that the Russian army uses in Ukraine. Putin's wealth does not come from clever software, reliable cars, tasty food or must-have consumer electronics - it comes solely from natural resources. Apart from killing Ukrainians, the money is spent on propaganda, lying to his own people and to the world. And of course enriching himself and his cronies.

When it comes to ethical consumption, buying gas from Putin is on a par with buying trainers made by enslaved children from the Far East or T-shirts sewn in death-trap sweatshops in Bangladesh.

Yet in the case of the latter, we have a choice. With gas, the Polish consumer has none.

So the logical answer is to save gas. Use less of the stuff this winter, and the next, and the one after that. Do yourself a favour - save money, reduce CO2 emissions - and put less money into Mr Putin's war chest.

As I write, the temperature is falling fast from a daytime high of 18C, and by daybreak it will be around 7C. Time to switch on the boiler? No. It's time to put on a warm sweatshirt. Shutters down, curtains closed. Extra insulation; time to close off the loft again with a couple of 3-inch polystyrene panels and an old mattress laid down on top of them.

If you use gas to heat your house or flat, to warm your water, to cook on - remember where it comes from and what political price there is to pay for its use.

This time last year:
Polish supermarket chain advertises on London buses

This time three years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time six years ago:
Well-shot pheasants

Friday, 26 September 2014

Between Equinox and Equilux

This wheel's on fire... rolling down the road... From Warsaw to Szczytno (22 September) and back (24 September). No commentary, just the captioned photographs, whacked-up to reflect what I saw and felt.

Somewhere on the Krajowa Siodemka, south of Nidzica
Lovely, vivid, full rainbow - and I left my 10-24mm lens at home!
The road to Szczytno between Nidzica and Jedwabne
The road back to Warsaw between Szczytno and Jedwabne
Re-entering Warsaw's atmosphere, south of Płońsk
Back in Jeziorki; dusk.
This time two years ago:
Heritage or high-rise?

This time last year:
Shopping notes

This time four years ago:
My grandfather

This time six years ago:
Surreal twilight, ul.Karczunkowska

This time seven years ago:
From Warsaw to Seville, via Munich and Madrid

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Thoughts occasioned by today being Equilux

Ever wondered why 'equinox' (which happened on Tuesday morning at 02:29 as the plane of the earth's equator passed the centre of the sun) does not mean exactly 12 hours of night and 12 hours of night?

It should do - and yet it's not. Because the sun is a disk and not a point of light, because of refraction of light through the atmosphere, the length of day in Warsaw on 23 September is over nine minutes longer than 12 hours. But today, the day is 12 hours, 1 minute and 18 seconds long. The closest it will be to Equilux - that moment when daylight and darkness are equal. Tomorrow the day in Warsaw will be 11 hours, 57 minutes and 16 seconds. That's it - night's closing in.

"And the days grow short when you reach September"

[It's worth visiting the excellent TimeandDate.com website, which answers the question about equinox not being exactly 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night in a very succinct way. It's also an excellent website for astronomical data - moonrises and so on, one to bookmark and visit daily.]

Six dark months, culminating in the winter solstice on 21 December. On that day - and on the next - the Warsaw day will be seven hours, 41 minutes and 57 seconds long. Between now and then, we'll lose over four hours and 20 minutes of daylight.

But hop on a plane to London tomorrow, transfer to one of the long-haul terminals, and fly to Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, Auckland or Adelaide, and you'll find that down in the Southern Hemisphere, winter's just coming to an end, and spring is about to burst forth.

We live on a lump of rock, spinning around its own axis every 24 hours, orbiting our star once a year. Our star the sun is one of 100 billion (or even 400 billion) stars in our galaxy, which we call the Milky Way. The Milky Way's one of 200 billion observable galaxies. The number of stars that we're aware of is between two and eight to the power of 22 (that's somewhere between 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 and 80,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).

How many of those stars are orbited by planets that host life? Sophisticated, intelligent, sapient life? Maybe just one in every trillion? Does that sound reasonable? If so, we can expect 20 billion stars out there to support life.

Doesn't this place our existence, and the problems caused by Mr Putin, jihadists, the Ebola virus, climate change even - into a wider perspective?

As autumn draws in, man's mind turns to the souls of the departed and the supernatural. It is time to ponder the Universe in its entirety and consider our lives in that context.

This time two years ago:
The magic of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region

This time four years ago:
Grandson of Poles elected to lead UK's Labour Party

This time six years ago:
Give me sunshine!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Scenarios for change in Russia

This month I have had the opportunity to listen to two democratic Russian voices speaking in Warsaw, one of which gave me hope that in the long term at least Russia has the potential to become a civilised, well-governed country with independent institutions and a civil society.

Last week, I attended a meeting at Warsaw University at which former Russian premier (2000-2004), Mikhail Kasyanov outlined scenarios for the fall of Putin. The previous week, I was at a business meeting focused on the Russian sanctions and counter-sanctions where the main speaker was the PR director of a Moscow-based consultancy.

Clearly neither man was a Kremlin stooge sent abroad to muddy the waters. This very fact offers ground for hope - people whose minds are beyond Putin's reach are still allowed to exist and travel freely. Russians' freedoms have been curtailed dramatically, independent institutions and media have been subsumed into the Kremlin machine, but things are not yet as bad as they were in the days of the USSR. But they are heading that way.

Mr Kasyanov (above) began his narrative in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union had fallen apart, the state could not pay pensions or salaries, there was no clear distinction in citizens' minds between public and private. Then along came Putin - for the first few years there was hope, a genuinely reformist government, a desire to integrate with the West. Yet after the 2003 Beslan school massacre, Putin started reining in freedoms, gathering powers for himself and his cronies. Since then - and culminating with the invasion of Crimea - this has intensified.

Putin's system relies on the concentration of power and wealth through all-pervasive propaganda and total corruption of the State, said Mr Kaslyanov, speaking in Russian. The system, however, is only efficient when oil and gas prices are high; should they fall, the entire economy stagnates. Mr Kasyanov believes that had it not been for the instant and massive popularity boost that Putin acquired by invading Crimea, his regime might have held together for two, three years, before the inevitable downward path of an economy buoyed solely by commodity prices starts to hit living standards.

The current sanctions will only serve to accelerate this process. However, Putin's propaganda spin is so strong that the bulk of the Russian population who cheered him on in Crimea may prove more resilient to life without Italian cheese, French wine and Polish apples, knowing that this is the work of the Fascist West rather than home-grown economic mismanagement.

Putin thus finds himself in the same boat at the Argentinian Junta did in 1983 when they invaded the Falkland Islands, said Mr Kaslyanov. Once the British retook the islands, the Junta crumbled from within. But Putin holds far greater sway over his people; he can spin his way out of setbacks. There is no real opposition party. He is the master liar. He can talk about peace, negotiate cease-fires, while his people continue to fight - a fact that he denies as he laughs at his accusers.

Putin is dangerous because this nuclear-armed leader is whipping up Russian chauvinism, 'the virus of post-imperial syndrome - the world should fear us because we exist'. Putin's hold over Russian media is almost total - the internet is closing down, independent media are being closed down, TV - the main source of information for most Russians, is almost totally run by Putin's people - and, said Mr Kaslyanov, mentioning also the corrosive self-censorship among journalists, "who have mouths to feed". The result of this 'group-think' is more dangerous than in the USSR. Soviet citizens were always aware that they were being lied to. Unconstrained by the intellectual straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, Putin's propaganda is far more agile; perniciously sophisticated, it appeals to base instincts and higher principles at the same time ('Ukrainians are sub-humans' and 'Ukrainians are our brother Slavs'). Russia's corrupt? So's the West. And what about Slavery, Red Indians, Iraq and Egypt?

Change from a Putin-led Russia to a post-Putin Russia can come sooner or later - Mr Kaslyanov claims it will come sooner. Yet Mr Kaslyanov's own political party cannot act. Its candidate for Mayor of Moscow, Alexander Navalny, continues to languish under house arrest. The only parties other than Putin's One Russia are ones that are allowed by Putin to co-exist with his party - rather like in communist Poland where the compliant SD and ZSL parties alongside the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) to present a false picture of democratic choice. Mr Kaslyanov admits that there's no credible alternative leader to Putin - they've all been emasculated or exiled.

Will the challenge to Putin come from abroad? Mikhail Chodorkovsky is now talking about entering Russian politics - something he promised not to do when Putin let him out of the Gulag ahead of the Sochi Olympics. But hey - lying to a liar is OK, is it not? Especially when peace is at stake. In London, exiled oligarchs meet one another asking "When will Putin die? When will someone kill him?". Being abroad means you can plot in relative safety (relative safety - don't forget Alexander Litvinenko).

At home, oligarchs must be worried by the house arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov - a Putin loyalist who evidently stepped on the wrong toes and is now in the process of having his billions expropriated from him.

Putin's personal paranoia is approaching Stalin's levels - no one knows where he sleeps or when and where he will appear in public. He must be living in increasing fear that people who surround him, who've lost billions of dollars of personal wealth since the start of this year, can see him as a problem. Yet Putin is a secret-service man, schooled in deception and self-preservation inside enemy territory. He is far less likely to make a false move than other despots who met a sticky end (Gaddafi's death, pulled out of a sewer pipe in which he was hiding, then beaten to death by ordinary Libyan people, must weigh heavily on his mind).

All in all, Mr Kaslyanov tried to paint a hopeful picture for Russia, but questioned by the audience (mainly academics with an interest in the country), he admitted that as a politician it was his duty to uphold an optimistic view of the future, one in which change would come soon.

In contrast, the Russian PR man who visited Warsaw the week before last stayed firmly off politics. But his economic analysis was accurate and incisive. His English was excellent. His generation, tainted only marginally by memories of early childhood in the USSR, well-travelled, can see with its own eyes the difference between the West (and here I firmly include Poland) and Russia.

Young Russians are aware that all the luxury goods, the trappings of success at home, are manufactured in the West - the same West that is pilloried in daily TV new rants. The next generation of ambitious Russians are likely to emigrate to the West and return only when it their fatherland becomes a safe place to make and save money. Currently, one-fifth of Russian graduates express a desire to leave Russia. But like the Polish diaspora returning to post-communist Poland to nation-build, I'm sure that patriotic stirrings will have the same effect. Who knows - Russia in 2045 an EU member state? Not impossible.

One scenario is that there will not be much change in Russia for the foreseeable future. Putin will continue along of course of authoritarianism at home, baiting the West in Ukraine and in the Baltics, as his country becomes increasingly marginalised in the global economy. China will extract ever-greater concessions from Putin for not ganging up on him alongside the West. Those concessions - based on cheap natural resources - will also help drag Russia down economically. Without new Western investment, growth in Russia will slow, and the new middle class will grumble. Will they take to the streets? Will the buckwheat-beetroot-and-vodka class turn against these pampered, spoilt, traitors? How will demographics pan out - as those recalling the USSR with nostalgia die off? Average male life expectancy in Russia is currently 65.1 years - Putin will be 62 next month. But the guy's rich enough to live into his 90s.

I'm pessimistic on the possibility of change happening any time soon in Russia. For the West, this means a long decade of heightened vigilance (at a time of other global threats), greater defence spending, and above all showing far more resolve in the face of a nasty, belligerent man for whom foreign aggression is the key to retaining power at home. It is time the West - in particular NATO members - upped their guard and prepared to face down a particularly aggressive Kremlin. Once again.

This time last year:
A new bus for Jeziorki - the 809 to Bobrowiec

This time three years ago:
Bunker in Powiśle

This time four years ago:
Sunshine brings out the best in everything

This time six years ago:
There must be a better way (3)