Sunday, 14 September 2014

Weekend cookery

Today's lunch turned out so perfect I thought I'd share it with my readers. I'm a great fan of fresh prawns - true, they need peeling which is a bit of a faff, but they taste so much better compared to the ready-peeled sort. If you've not done it before, each one takes about 20-30 seconds to shell - remove the head (easy), then pull the tail off carefully so as not to leave any meat inside it; then, taking the legs and carapace off one side proceed round to the other in one swift, decisive action; the entire prawn minus shell then pops free. Finally, use your thumbnail to check if there's any carapace remaining around the prawn's spine. There! Then repeat around 25 times, which will produce a goodly portion for one person, and 25 times per person thereafter. Half a kilo is about 50 medium prawns (give or take a few). Auchan has a delivery of fresh seafood several times a week; sometimes the hypermarket is out of them.

Anyway, now you have your peeled prawns, we can begin...

First clarify a knob of butter on a medium to large-sized non-stick frying pan. Now, chop finely some garlic - one large or two small cloves per person - and cut a red hot chilli pepper (about half per person should do, though this may be fiery for some palates) into fine strips. Put garlic and chilli into the clarified butter, then add a generous splosh of dry white wine (any will do). Now, put in your prawns; keep stirring.

Then, transfer your talents to the tomatoes. Small cherry tomatoes (the best are from PGO, an organic tomato grower from Białystok, on the vine preferably) cut into quarters. About six tomatoes per person should yield 24 quarters, around a quarter of a cherry tomato per prawn.

Now, the couscous. Not only is it easier to prepare than rice, its texture goes together better with prawns, and the way it adheres to them gives a better visual impact.

To make couscous simply put about a quarter of a cupful into a... er... cup, and cover with freshly boiled water, and give a dash more for good measure. And just let it stand for five minutes! (Should there be no water visible on the surface after two minutes, add a dash more boiling water.)

Once the prawns have cooked through, put in the couscous and mix in. That's nearly it - warm it all through and just garnish at the last minute with freshly cut coriander (I love the stuff!) and serve.

Drink-wise, a super Portuguese dry white has just appeared in the local Biedronka (owned by Portuguese Jeronimo Martins Distribution), called Barbeitos. At last, five months after opening its store in Jeziorki, Biedronka offers a decent Portuguese wine. To go with this shellfish meal - excellent.

Click on the photo below, of the finished meal; bring your face close to your screen and smell it...

Note the way the couscous clings to the prawns - I used to make this meal with rice, but couscous is a far superior accompaniment, even compared to the fineft Basmati rice. Other than peeling the prawns, very quick to prepare and phenomenally tasty.

The Road - and the lack of it

Yeah. Early morning. Pull over to the side of the highway, Nowy Podolszyn, below, catch that feeling. CLICK! It's back - that split second when my soul recognises some other reality. Just across the brow of the hill - a diner? I once wrote about possessing this wonderful, fleeting, sensation being somewhat akin to an archeologist examining a shard of pottery from some long gone age - I was wrong. It's far less tangible than that. It's more like the work of a sub-atomic physicist; catching that evanescent moment when two particles collide, and recording the outcome. When that moment happens, as it frequently does, I mull it over in my mind - I try to capture its elusive quality - it is so familiar, yet not from this life.

Below: back to prosaic reality, on the border of Nowy Podolszyn and Zgorzała. The asphalt ends (ul. Złota, Nowy Podolszyn) and the dirt track (ul. Raszyńska, Zgorzała) starts. At this time of year passable (just); but when the autumn rains start to fall, this stretch becomes a morass that will find you axle-deep in mud. You'd think the new housing development over to the left would be a spur to laying down asphalt all the way through, linking the two villages. It really is high time.

Similarly, there's no asphalt south of Podolszyn linking it to Lesznowola. As a consequence, these villages, just south of the borders of Warsaw, are held back in their development.

This time five years ago:
I cycle to work along the cyclepath along ul. Rosoła

This time six years ago:
First apple (today, the same tree groans with fruit)

This time seven years ago:
Late summer spiders webs

Friday, 12 September 2014

Goodbye Premier Tusk, hello President Tusk

The selection of Donald Tusk, until yesterday Poland's prime minister, as president of the European Council was met with the same muted enthusiasm as the election of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as Poland's first post-war non-communist prime minister 25 years ago today.

A deal had been done, a result achieved. Poles felt a subdued sense of achievement then as they do now; the pride of being recognised as an Achiever Nation.

Mr Tusk, Poland's longest-ruling premier since the downfall of communism, will have plenty of people willing to criticise him from the left and from the right - which means he pretty much got things right. He could have advanced further and faster, but the direction of travel was correct. He kept a coalition going for a full term, then got re-elected, the first government to do so since 1989. The knockers may knock, but the macroeconomic indicators and the international rankings - as well as the honour of being selected as one of the EU's three principal leaders - suggest that he must have been doing something right.

Let us hope that in Brussels Mr Tusk will give the EU some backbone when it comes to realising where the big threats are coming from - not only in the form of a resurgent, awkward, nationalistic Russia - but also in the form of threats to Europe's competitiveness, over-regulation, and petty national self-interest.

Let us also hope that Mr Tusk will provide Mr Cameron with the ammunition needed to shut up his UKIP critics - by pushing the EU on a reformist path based on economic goals rather than on top-down federalising ambitions. Let's see the transatlantic trade deal (TTIP) hammered out, let's see Europe's economy becoming more innovative and open. Let's see a Single European Market in goods, services and digital services (why can't I watch BBC programmes online in Poland?)

Let us hope that Mr Tusk has a good English teacher. Stories from his classmates that he used to bunk off English lessons disturb me slightly - bunking off Russian I can understand, but if you were offered the chance to learn English back in the 1970s, Donald, you should have grabbed it with both hands.

Let us hope, too, that Mr Tusk's energy levels, commitment and drive do not dissipate, and that he can be seen by Europe and the world as an effective champion of market-driven solutions and smart regulation. And that Mr Tusk will give the EU some firm backbone in the face of a nationalistic, bullying, cheating Russia.

Meanwhile, here in Poland, Ewa Kopacz has been nominated prime minister. Not my choice - I'd have gone for another woman, Elżbieta Bienkowska, but she's also off to Brussels to serve as commissioner for the internal market (big job to do here, especially in services and digital). Deputy Premier Bienkowska did a great job in regional development, and was doing well running an expanded ministry that also took in infrastructure (a job no man in Poland had ever achieved great results).

Ms Kopacz? Her greatest hour was as Poland's health minister during the swine-flu crisis (remember that, readers?) in 2009-2010. Unlike other European health ministries, who were panicked into buying huge stockpiles of vaccines than ended up unused, Ms Kopacz took the firm line that the threat was overplayed and that the health budget was better spent elsewhere. The opposition demanded her head, she kept cool and saved the Polish tax payer a shed-load of money.

Somewhat she seems lacklustre as a future Polish premier; her job is to keep the PO government going until the next parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2015.

Given the shambles that is Poland's opposition (both left and right), I wish her well and will support her in keeping the country on its current course. "Steady as she goes, Captain Kopacz."

This time last year:
Return from depressing Radom

This time two years ago:
Up up up with the Cosmopolitan

This time three years ago:
New urban toponyms: "P+R Al. Krakowska" = Okęcie

This time four years ago:
Politics - a change of gear

This time five years ago:
On preference and genetics

This time six years ago:

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Putin will not heal Russia's tortured soul

The tougher Putin plays with the West, the higher his popularity ratings soar. Why should ordinary Russians consider sacrificing their future prosperity in exchange for some intangible feelings of national greatness?

Is it that Russia desperately needs to believe in itself, beset as it is by so many intrinsic problems such as substance abuse, demographic implosion, low life expectancy, crumbling infrastructure, or a suicide rate among its young people that's two-and-half times the global average? Is it that ordinary Russians can see so many of their educated countrymen emigrating for good? And so many of their wealthy countrymen investing their wealth, pilfered at home, in property on the Cote d'Azure, Cyprus or London?

Russia is a nation tortured by its history. From the Mongol invasion, Ivan the Terrible, the Times of Troubles, the Black Hundreds, the Okhrana, Lenin, Stalin - Russians have been brutally held down by aggressive forces for centuries. This is a nation whose soul was shaped by serfdom, Siberian exile, by the Gulags, by prison gang hierarchies. And today, Russia's intelligentsia is, to quote author Victor Erofeyev, marginalised, brushed out of the way, made to feel an alien, enemy element.

It's worth noting that when serfdom was abolished in 1861, 38% of Russia's population belonged to their landowner. By comparison, at its high-point just before the Civil War, 14% of the population of the USA were slaves. And it was Russians who enslaved one another, rather than people of another race, captured on another continent. Communism then came along, played to the masses, promised them paradise on earth as the inhuman system decimated Russia's intelligentsia and crushed any tradition of independent thought.

After the collapse of communism, rather than embrace tolerance, good-will and openness, Russia carried on along the same trajectory as before. Communism's fall led not to the rise a civil society, but to that of a plundering oligopoly, a kleptocracy of ex-KGB spooks well-versed in the techniques of deception; hungry for wealth as well as power. And the wealth was converted to power, the power back to wealth and so on.

Their Russia remains a deeply suspicious, untrusting nation. Much of the distrust that ordinary Russians bear towards the West stems from the propaganda they've been fed for the past 96 years. Propaganda bought by oligarchs' billions for pliant media owners.

Rule of law, balance of powers, respect for private property, distinction between private and public property, distinction between power and wealth, tolerance, fair play - the founding stones of Anglo-Saxon polity - are all nebulous concepts in the Russian mind.

Back in the 1990s, when I worked in a multinational publishing corporation, I met the country manager of its Russian operation, who happened also to be professor of printing at a Moscow university. With access to the its presses, paper and ink, he quickly came to dominate a lucrative publishing niche, before selling his business to foreign capital. Speaking to him after many fine French wines, I found myself staring into the dark, dark soul of a man who clearly believed in a hundred and one cranky conspiracy theories, a man who had total disregard for his fellow man, and thought everything meaningless because the world was going to end in seven years time in a cosmic cataclysm and everyone would die.

So how should the West see Russia? How should the West respond to Putin?

The solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma offers a powerful algorithm that sets out how we ought to behave toward our fellow man (or indeed nation) for the optimal outcome.

If our fellow man gets along with us just fine, we should never do anything against him. Co-existing with him in honest cooperation, we will both flourish. Yet what happens when he turns nasty on us? The answer is to punish him - instantly and robustly - and to continue to do so until the moment he asks for mercy, and decides to return to a policy of cooperation. And then cooperate with him, continuing to do so - unless there's a further transgression.

The Prisoner's Dilemma has been played out millions of times in computer simulations, using millions of different responses to 'cooperate' and 'defect'. Which strategy is most effective in this game? The scenario that consistently proves to be most beneficial in the long term is to cooperate with the other fellow until he defects, then defect back on him until he relents, then switch back to 'cooperate' mode.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article linked above, these are the conditions necessary for the strategy to be successful:
The most important condition is that the strategy must be 'nice', that is, it will not defect before its opponent does... A purely selfish strategy will not 'cheat' on its opponent, for purely self-interested reasons first.
However [...] the successful strategy must not be blindly optimistic. It must retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as 'nasty' strategies will ruthlessly exploit such players*.
Successful strategies must also be forgiving. Though players will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximising points. 
The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent.

This strategy worked well for the Western Allies at the end of WWII; West Germany and Japan were created out of two nations that were crushed decidedly; they demonstrated genuine contrition and became close partners of the Western Allies. Note the 'non-envious' quality; within four decades of the ending of the war, Germany and Japan were economically more successful than America or Britain.

The end of the Cold War was rather like the end of WWI. The loser failed to show contrition for its past behaviour (be it invading Belgium or enslaving Central and Eastern Europe). Feeling itself unjustly punished, indeed persecuted, out of a sense of injustice visited upon it, the former loser rebuilt itself as the world's major trouble-maker.

What will heal eventually Russia's tortured soul is a genuine civil society; but this will only emerge after a generation or two has successfully built up and passed on wealth to its children, who will have a stake in preserving it from upheavals - wars or revolutions. Charitable organisations, cultural activities, a vibrant, tolerant, free media; but above all an end to a paranoid vision in which the world's largest nation in terms of land mass feels that it is about to get invaded again.

It is not. NATO leaders realise (even intuitively, if they are unfamiliar with the Prisoner's Dilemma) that 'Nice', 'Forgiving' and 'Non-envious' are the right strategies to deploy towards a non-hostile Russia. They should also realise that 'Retaliating' is the right strategy to deploy towards a belligerent, threatening, bullying Russia.

And Russia, like the educationally challenged classroom bully that, not knowing what to do to find popularity, instead seeks to instill fear into its neighbours, mistaking that with 'respect'.

* Non-retaliating strategies are a bad choice as 'nasty' strategies will ruthlessly exploit those who use them. A lesson for the EU and Barack Obama - being soft on Putin is mathematically, logically, strategically, doomed to failure.

This time last year:
A post from Opole

This time two years ago:
Raise a glass to Powiśle

This time four years ago:
Mud, rain and local elections (Mrs G-W gets a thumbs down)

This time six years ago:
There must be a better way (commuting woes, again)

Monday, 8 September 2014

Scotland alone - catastrophic for all

Yesterday's news that a YouGov poll of 1,084 Scottish voters showed the 'Yes' vote slightly ahead for the first time has provoked a fevered response across the UK - as well it should. I'm amazed reading about how low-key and unemotional the debate in Scotland is. Online as well as in real life.

Having visited Scotland three times this year, I witnessed no raised voices or threatening tones. A measured, indeed too-polite discussion on the niceties of a currency split, on tax-raising and -spending powers being transferred in their entirety to Edinburgh, on the pros and cons of Schengen, on NATO membership and the future of Trident submarine bases.

On the one hand, the 'No' camp (aka 'Better Together') is a coalition of the hated Tories, heirs to the butchers of Culloden, Labour (remember when the UK's premier and finance minister were both Scots) and Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, the Scottish Nationalists, who could muster only 28% support for independence just 11 years ago.  Using a cocktail of emotional appeal and populist rozdawnictwo promises, an independent Scotland will be, the Scots Nats claim, a paradise of free, limitless healthcare, free university education, expanded social housing, no nuclear weapons etc etc.

Who will pay for this? North Sea Oil, which somehow has failed to run out as predicted 20 years ago. And taxation - despite pledges to lower corporate tax rates to among the lowest in Europe. In what currency will all this be paid for? A pound, in which the Bank of England promises to be lender of last resort, propping up Scottish government spending? Or a pound unsupported by the Bank of England - more likely. Or a Scottish currency (like the Irish pound or punt from 1928 to 2002). Or - a long shot - the euro. How much of Scotland's financial and manufacturing sectors stay put, how much would move out, and how  big would the job losses be? Below: Union flag at half mast next Friday week? The Lloyds Bank building, Edinburgh.

The emotional pain inflicted on the rest of the United Kingdom would be tremendous. Worse than losing the American colonies in 1776, says Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, who's doing sterling work in promoting the 'no' position through the social media. Above all, for non-Scottish citizens of the United Kingdom, all 58 million of them - including myself - who have no say in the matter, it would mean the end of the country in which they were born.

No one has yet coined a suitable name for what would remain of the UK after Scotland left. 'Little Britain' or the unfortunately acronymed 'Former United Kingdom' are gallows-humour suggestions. Indeed, the presence of the province of Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea, and therefore not Britain, rules out the first epithet. 'Rest of the UK' would not work as a United Kingdom needs to be composed of at least two kingdoms. One kingdom, one principality and one province is not a UK. We are a little more than a week away from the UK becoming a country with no name other than one that reflects a past state of being (like Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Come next Friday morning, it is possible that the country in which I was born, the country whose passport I proudly bear - will be no more.

And the flag - the Union Jack - the second-most iconic flag in the world after the Stars and Stripes - worn on T-shirts and handbags globally - what will the flag of the Former United Kingdom look like without the blue of the Scottish saltire?

Tribalism in Northern Ireland will prevent it from being absorbed into the South, while in Wales only those areas where Arawych Nawr comes before "Slow Down" on road signs feel strongly enough to want to break away from England. So, awkwardly, the Former UK will limp into injured irrelevance.

Scots may wake up next Friday week in celebratory mood, but in the coming months the awfulness of what they did will begin to dawn on them; regular runs on the Scottish pound; inflation caused by increased transaction costs of goods imported from across the border; protracted negotiations regarding Scotland's re-entry into the EU and NATO. And there's the prospect that the hated Tories will rule England for ever more now that 41 Labour MPs from north of the border will cease to have a say in Westminster. English politics would shift dramatically to the right - and UKIP, waiting in the wings, may end up being the main opposition party in Former UK by the end of this decade. So the English Left has just as much skin in the game as the Conservatives have to keep Scotland in the UK.

And yet no one other than the 4.5 million Scots over the age of 16 and resident in Scotland will have a say in the matter.

I can only hope that reason triumphs over emotions. Living here in Poland, I do understand how Scots must feel with the prospect of a return to nationhood. But there's no folk memory of Scotland pre-1707, like there was when Poland regained independence in 1918.

From the Polish perspective, with an unpleasant bully for a neighbour, it is far better that the UK remain united and strong, and remain a powerful influence within the European Union. Poles too should watch the last week and half of the referendum with some sense of trepidation.

Finally, happy 87th birthday to my mother, Maria Dembińska - Sto lat!

This time two years ago:
Happy 85th Birthday, Babcia Marysia!

This time three years ago:
Summer comes crashing to a halt

This time five years ago:
The atmosphere of impending autumn - Mono no aware

This time six years ago:
Time to recycle.

This time seven years ago:
Coal train running