Monday, 2 May 2016

Politics - networks vs hierarchies (forget 'left' and 'right')

My brother e-mailed me after my recent post concerning the Brexit referendum, suggesting a new way to look at politics. Agree. Left and right might be convenient short-hand labels, but they are increasingly inadequate in today's complex world. My brother suggests another way; networks vs hierarchies.

Networks, based on teamwork, strive towards consensus.

Hierarchies place power in the hand of those higher up the pyramid, passing to its apex.

Do you want to be led? Or do you want to take an active part in the solution?

These are times of fear and loathing, anxiety and mounting mistrust. Part of society (UK, Poland, US, Russia, Turkey - anywhere) will look for a strong personality who can lead them to better days. The other part implicitly believes it's up to them to do it for themselves.

The hierarchy model is driven by a leader hungry for personal power. To obtain and maintain that personal power, there must be a hierarchy - or there will be chaos. The solutions proposed by the leader are varied - they can be nationalist, socialist - or both.

The network does not to be dominated by a powerful individual. The network has a rough idea of the goals - economic, social, geopolitical - and moves haltingly in that direction. Two steps forward, one step back, trial-and-error, muddle-through-somehow. This can be portrayed as ineffectual. But over the decades, it's proven to work better than when a strong leader leads people ineffably in the wrong direction.

In the post-war West, the network model took hold, with enlightened social democracies advancing progress, by and large - but always at a cost. Higher taxes, more regulation. Society was willing to accept this, and the work-in-progress nature of this model - as long as there was economic growth and geopolitical stability.

After 2008, things broke. Debt and stagnation, terrorism, migration, climate change are upon us.

Has the muddle-through-somehow approach failed totally? Dull committees, endlessly poring over the fine detail of policy position papers do not have the popular appeal of firebrand leaders giving simplistic courses of action needed to assuage voters' worries.

Trump, Kaczyński, Putin, Orban, Ergodan - these politicians have an instant response to problems. They take decisions, they define the course. But what if the course they take is ultimately wrong?

The network is like the internet. If one node breaks down, traffic is rerouted.

Networks, as my brother says, evolve to survive. Unfit parts drop away, tested solutions replicate and flourish.

Hierarchies are as good as their leaders. Who can lead them to hell (Berlin, 1945), or, indeed, as also happens, to more positive outcomes.

Networks are about checks and balances. Executive, legislature, judiciary.

Hierarchs tend to concentrate power in to their one hand.

Networks are short distance-to-power cultures (see Geert Hofstede). Western.

Hierarchies are long distance-to-power cultures. Oriental.

So why is the West turning its back on networks? Is it that they don't work? They have kept the world safe for 70 years, and have delivered prosperity and stability.

If America votes for Trump, and the UK votes to leave the EU, it will be in reaction of voters in two long-established democracies to the networked model of governance.

It is worth looking at politics and society through the prism of biology. My brother's suggestion about networks vs hierarchies prompted me to unearth research published in PLOS ONE in February 2013. This looks at the brains of American Democrat and Republican voters and shows a clear correlation to how they respond to risk. Indeed, there's a closer correlation to risk response than to parental socialisation. There are different cognitive processes at play when the two groups think about risk. The research results support evidence that Republicans show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.

"Help! We're under threat. Vote for the strongman!"

A short-term fix. Biology, history, economics are suggesting that a networked approach to dealing with risky situations.

Getting it slightly wrong is better than getting it totally wrong. Getting it slightly wrong and retreating can be done without too much loss of face by a network. Hierarchs, being by their own definition, never wrong, can keep charging up a blind alley, unable or unwilling to turn or to accept another way.

These are times for keeping a steady network of hands on the tiller, rather than allow individuals to take the power to make knee-jerk policy decisions that would be regretted later.

This time last year:
45 years under one roof

This time three years ago:
Pozytywki ponds after refurbishment

This time four years ago:
Mayday in the heat (don't exaggerate with the suncream!)

This time six years ago:
Bike ride across rural Poland

This time nine years ago:
Raszyn radio tower from the air 

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Semi-automatic (short story)

The desert wind fluttered his jacket, flapping the collars against his face. The sound of cloth flapping - jacket, trousers; he smiled; this was pleasurable. His hands were deep in his trouser pockets, he faced the bright sun wearing sunglasses. He could feel the wind tugging at the roots of his hair, blown straight back. The desert was welcoming him. "If it were not for the wind, it would be unbearably hot. If it were not for the sun, it would be unbearably cold", he thought, knowing the desert well in both states. His hat was safely stowed, he'd catch much sun today on his freckled skin.

He took a few steps forward, kicking at the light-green glassy fragments on the ground before him with the toes of his suede desert boots. In the distance, the mountain range spread out across the horizon, a day-and-half's walk away. Those peaks looked so close. It was still morning, the Piper that was to fly in and to pick him up with all his equipment was not due till one-thirty. What's to do? The experiment's all done, everything's packed... nothing to do but wait. Certainly not enough time to walk all the way into town and get back at the appointed hour for the rendezvous with the plane. But there was too much time for him to just waste time.

Jim looked at his watch. Damn. Two hours, fifty-five minutes. Time to just stand around, and contemplate. He'd spent the morning finishing his report and carefully stowing the geiger counter and the other kit back into the wooden crates - no, he had no duties that he could busy himself with. And he'd neglected to take a book with him; he'd read this week's Life magazine from cover to cover twice over. The last call over the radio, half an hour earlier, confirmed that his plane was on schedule, and there was nothing he needed to worry about.

Two hours and fifty-five minutes. Jim had slept well that night, he was rested and did not need a nap. There'd be plenty to keep busy with once he'd get back to base, but there was not a thing he could do now. The wind picked up, moving small pebbles and whipping the sand around his ankles. Best not sit down. Radioactivity. The boxes were secure; no danger to them. Jim had taken a semi-automatic carbine in case any mountain lions or coyotes came too close; he'd seen or heard none. His gun lay on one of the crates, wrapped in oilcloth to protect it from sand.

The sun was getting ever higher in the April sky; perfectly azure with a few wisps of white cirrus off to the west. This was among the most beautiful expressions of nature he'd ever experienced, rivalling Alaskan auroras, or crisp winter mornings of his Minnesota home, or the blindingly bright sea-sparkle of the Atlantic ocean, when holidaying in North Carolina as a child.

He pulled out his notebook, preparing to jot down his thoughts - how he felt at that moment. No cares, just the sense of wonderment at being a living, conscious, part of Eternity. He half-closed his eyes and tilted his head up at the sun - he could feel the wind tugging on his sunglasses - and a powerful feeling of being alive surged through him. Alive and at one with it all. Forgetting that sense of Jim the five-foot-five wise guy, he became just an observing consciousness a part of the desert, bereft of personality, breathing the wind, sensing the sun in the crystalline sky. He held his eyes open, unblinking for a minute or two. The mountains seemed to draw closer, sliding towards him as if on a myriad parallel railroad tracks, as the sky shrank and expanded at the same time.

Jim struggled to write his thoughts as they passed - swiftly, not caring about neatness, just making sure he was getting it all down. He'd not done this before, but the idea made sense. On impulse he looked down. His boots blended with the desert floor; stamp! a small cloud of dust rose up. He noted an ant scurrying for cover. Was that ant thinking anything? Or just reacting to the sudden disruption? Did it feel fear, as he once did when, as a child, he'd strayed into the neighbor's corn and the farmer fired his rifle from afar into the crop? Should he shout 'Don't shoot!' or stay silent? The ant couldn't make that decision... and yet that plea from bygone days resonated with him as though the ant were calling to him in his childhood voice. He scribbled that thought down as well.

Jim tried to put aside all thought of his situation. The plane would come. There's nothing in his power to hasten or delay that. It would touch down on the airstrip behind him, the pilot would help him load the gear, they'd get in and fly back to Tonopah. He'll have a shower, eat a steak, drink a cold beer - watch some TV in his motel room - nice, but trite. Jot that thought down? No. No future pleasures, no present worries - THIS is living, he told himself, THIS moment. The HERE and the NOW.

Something made him put away the notebook into his jacket pocket. Having done so, in a deliberate movement, he stretched out his arms to their fullest extent and tilted his palms to face the sun, framed in the gold rims of his glasses. The wind swept across the desert beating his face, and his arms; again he was aware of the flapping of cloth, of a sensation akin to riding a motorcycle, the sun and the wind together, the wind blowing that mountain range closer and closer - if he stood there for a million years, would the mountains have reached him by then? Jim concentrated on standing as still as he possibly could, intent on imaging what a geological age felt like. How did it feel to be a mountain? What does a day, a season, a year, feel like to a mountain?

All of a sudden he beamed in satisfaction at the thought that he'd not even stopped to check his watch. He was clueless as to how much time had passed. Blissful abandon had overtaken him; he felt tears welling up in his eyes and a feeling like being hugged from within. He responded with deep gratitude; to Creation, to the entire Universe.

He knew not how long he'd stood there in that state; the drone of an aircraft engine from the east returned him to the mundane.

Jim died of cancer in 1958, well short of his 40th birthday.

Before he died, he had time to assess those most meaningful moments in his unfulfilled life. It had been a beautiful life, though not long enough. He had much to be grateful for; he longed for more, for greater understanding; understanding through moments of unity with the Eternal.

"Gimme another shot, God!"

This time three years ago:
Jarosław Gowin quits as justice minister

This time four years ago:
So good to be back in Warsaw

This time five years ago:
At the President's

This time seven years ago:
Summer's here, and the time is right...

This time nine years ago:
Why I'm staying in Warsaw

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Cleveland Park; twilight moods

A northerly wind blew all day yesterday, making it easy to judge the weather. As the clouds raced by in the icy wind (there was snow on the ground on Scottish and Northern English hills), clear sky emerged and the setting sun slanted low and strong across Cleveland Park. The sun set, the twilight held; magic hour. To the south east, storm clouds emptied their bellies on Tulse Hill, Sydenham, Penge and Crystal Palace. But Ealing stayed dry.

Below: Scotch Common, the road dividing Pitshanger Park to the north from Cleveland Park to the south. Cleveland Park a grassy rectangle is on a hill, rising from 26m above sea level to 42m above sea level at its southern end, on Cleveland Road.

Below: looking south-east at the distant deluge. Just after I'd snapped this pic, a lightning flash lit up the sky; I could discern a tiny explosion half-way down the lightning's zigzag path. The lightning disappeared, but for a fraction of a second there was a small fire in the sky that fizzled out, as though the lightning had fried a bird in flight.

Below: looking north towards Cleveland Road, the trees on the park's eastern edge in blossom.

Below: mock-Tudor houses look out across the park. The views from the top floor windows must be outstanding - Horsenden Hill and Harrow beyond.

Below: quintessential Ealing - decent homes for London's commuters.

These moods will stay with me - qualia of consciousness - memories, ready to be taken onwards on the infinite journey from Zero to One.

This time three years ago:
Spring flooding in Jeziorki
[Interesting to compare last photo here with third photo in post above]

This time five years ago:
I need a new laptop. But which one?

This time seven years ago:
In search of the sublime aesthetic

This time eight year ago:
Ducks in Ogród Saski

This time nine years ago:
Should I stay or should I go?

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Brexit: heart v. head, migration v. economy

Economic growth in the UK slowed in the first quarter of this year - up 0.4% quarter-on-quarter, compared to 0.6% in the fourth quarter of last year. This slow-down in the growth of business activity was to be predicted. In the run-up to the referendum on continued EU membership, many investment decisions are on hold as businesses take a wait-and-see approach.

Apart from a handful of mavericks, hardly any economists or business organisations support Brexit. Most of the economic and financial calculations concerning the effects of Brexit point to a negative outcome. In particular, the debate about trade should be particularly convincing; outside the EU, the UK would have to renegotiate its trade agreements around the world. Countries - including Commonwealth members - will not be looking kindly at the prospect of having to sit round the negotiating table with Britain and haggle about issues that have already been settled (in trade agreements reached with the entire EU).

The question of whether a post-Brexit UK would be first or last in the queue to negotiate any future trade agreements seems spurious - when you're inside the shop, why rush to leave it so you can negotiate your way back in from the outside?

Trade means jobs, jobs are livelihoods for families. Trade also means investment. Many global corporations have invested in building factories in the UK to have a manufacturing base within the EU, with the benefits of a good business environment. Employers can see that. Economists can see that. It makes eminent economic sense for the UK to remain part of the world's richest trading bloc.

Norway and Switzerland have access to the EU single market, but without any say in determining the regulations that govern that market. The UK - a strong exporter of services - wants to complete (finally) the single European market in services. It is far less likely to do so outside the EU than within it.

Looking at the plethora of economic arguments around trade, investment, jobs and the economy, the Remain camp's warnings of the negative consequences of Brexit ring true.

Those in favour of Brexit are either comfortably well off - or indeed very wealthy. The mouthpieces for Brexit, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Times and the Sun are owned by people who are not domiciled in the UK for tax reasons. These high net-worth individuals are insulated by any negative economic aftershocks of Brexit. "The economy is only growing by half a percent? Investors are pulling out and businesses are shedding labour? Welcome the bracing global economy!" I feel a visceral dislike for those who blithely promote Brexit knowing full well they will not be touched by its economic consequences.

But maybe it's not just about the economy? Sovereignty, taking back control of our borders, migration, I no longer recognise the land where I was born... 


But back to the economy. Survey after survey has shown that the economic impact of EU migration to the UK is beneficial. EU migrants - and Poles are a significant part of that - generally come to the UK to work and pay taxes. [Once they find work here, they soon discover that generous tax-breaks - in-work benefits - mean they take home more than they expected, but that's another story.]

Non-EU migrants are more likely to be jobless, less likely to integrate with society at large. Non-EU migrants are not subject to EU rules, so if the UK wanted to 'take back control of its borders' - what's stopping it? Brexit will not make any difference.

Because EU migrants are a net contributor to the UK economy, any attempt to deny them access to the UK labour market will lead to a slow down in economic growth. The economy is not a zero-sum game; one job created here can create further, new, jobs elsewhere. Value added by a newcomer spreads around the economy.

Without access to a well-motivated and hard-working addition to the UK labour force, the economy will run out of steam. GDP growth will falter, and the UK will be increasingly hard-stretched to pay for its healthcare, social services, education and security.

The Brexiters are willing to accept that. For them, leaving the EU is the chance to embark on a Quixotic journey to seek the Lost Eldorado of a Golden Age, an age of politeness and deference, fair play and fair hair, a land where Everybody Knew Their Place. The Brexit campaign is led by the rich and privileged who would like to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven.

Scotland will no doubt secede from a post-Brexit United Kingdom, leaving a fragmented state drifting, friendless.

You cannot turn the clock back. The EU has proved amazingly successful at preventing war between its members. On the long march from barbarism to civilisation, the EU, an ongoing work in progress, has proved to be a step in the right direction. Stronger Together, Better In.

Finally, anyone comparing the EU to the USSR knows not what Katyń or Hlodomor or the Gulag mean.

This time last year:
Golf course update

This time three years ago:
Review of Krzysztof Osiejuk's latest book

This time four years ago:
The Shard changes London's skyline

This time five years ago:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time six years ago:
Plans for the railway line to Radom
[five and half years it took to go from plans to realisation]

Monday, 25 April 2016

Update on Radom Line works - and golf course

Since late last summer, modernisation work has been going on apace on the Warsaw-Radom railway line, which is having a major impact on how Jeziorki and its neighbourhood looks. I've posted about the wholesale cutting down of trackside trees; slowly the works are beginning to take shape.

Below: one day I'll be standing on this platform, waiting for a southbound train. This is the 'down' platform, built entirely from new, to the south of ul. Karczunkowska. The platform edge is in place, the paving will follow soon. Lamp posts are also in place. The new track will be laid to the left of the new platform, straight as a poker all the way from W-wa Okęcie to Nowa Iwiczna. Because the line won't have to swing around an island platform, trains will be able to travel much faster, cutting journey times.

Left: behind the new platform, an access road to the back of the houses fronting onto ul. Karczunkowska. Will this road be asphalted? Will there be a station car park here? Or will it be fenced off from the platform, denying residents access? (A case of tak źle, tak nie dobrze.) Or just pedestrian access for the locals?

Below: photo taken on ul. Gogolińska. No sign of work today, Sunday. Yesterday, there were men working here. To the right, the old island platform, which will disappear once the new 'down' line (and platform) are ready. Then single line working will switch from the 'up' line to the 'down' line, and the new 'up' platform will be built, parallel to the old island platform, between the new 'up' line and the coal-train line.

While the works are under way, and I suspect this will go on until well into next year, passengers are subject to random inconvenience. Usually during the evening rush hour. To ease the discomfort, Koleje Mazowieckie are taking unusual steps. One is to run longer trains, nine-car sets, which I've never seen before on the Radom line. Below: a Radom-bound all-stations service departs W-wa Jeziorki.

And the pospieszny (semi-fast) Radom train stops at intermediate stations between W-wa Służewiec and Nowa Iwiczna, although on Friday when I got this train home, it didn't stop at W-wa Okęcie. Below: unusual to have a double-decked calling at W-wa Dawidy. You can see work going on to the right where the new 'down' line is being built.

It's been exactly one year since I first mentioned the golf course project at Jeziorki, but it looks like something's stirring. A significant area of land between Mysiadło and the scrapyard by Biedronka has been fenced off. In the far distance, that corrugated-iron shed - will it serve as the clubhouse?

Follow that row of fence posts above right to the very end, and you'll get to the tracks. You can see how close the golfers will be to the trains. Below: a Newag-refurbished ST48 hauls a coal train from Okęcie sidings to Konstancin-Jeziorna sidings, en route for Siekierki power station. The coal comes from Bogdanka colliery in Lubelskie. Interestingly (or not) the refurbed ST48s can pull a full 40-wagon train unaided, while the original engines needed to be doubled up, sometimes even assisted by a third engine, to haul the same load.

Two screenshots from Google Earth, one from 2002 (below left) and one from 2014 (below right). The first shows the old rampa na kruszywa, demolished in 2008 to make way for housing. The area shaded green shows the approximate boundaries of the golf course. Much smaller than I'd originally envisaged, probably just enough area for a driving range and a pitch-and-putt.

Now it's fenced off, my unfettered rambling over these post-industrial hectares are over; detours will be needed for walks in the direction of Nowa Iwiczna.

This time last year:
The Nearness of Golf to Warsaw

[See Part Two here]

This time three years ago:
The selective economic memory of Prezes Kaczyński

This time four years ago:
The British electrical plug and socket reigns supreme

This time five years ago: This time last year:
Easter, and the end of Lent

This time six years ago:
That Icelandic volcano (anyone remember what it was called?)

This time seven years ago:
Views of Historic Toruń

This time eight years ago:
One swallow does not a summer make

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Tracks to Tarczyn

A narrow-gauge railway line used to run from Piaseczno down through Tarczyn and Grójec to Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą, a distance of over 72km. Today, the line has been cut short near Tarczyn, a mere 15km of track. On Sundays from March to October, tourist specials run between Piaseczno and Tarczyn. I went on one of these many years ago with Eddie when he was small, it was then - as it is today - diesel hauled, with a steam engine (a Px48) used on special occasions. Then, the tourist line would run just short of Grójec.

During the Cold War, cisterns of aviation fuel were taken to the airbase at Nowe Miasto. There used to be a trans-shipment terminal at Piaseczno where a spur ran north off the narrow-gauge line parallel to the main Warsaw-Radom line. Standard-gauge cistern trucks were loaded onto special narrow-gauge flat-bed wagons adapted for this purpose. I managed to photograph these back in the late-1990s.

Today I ventured to the end of the line at Tarczyn - it would be marvellous to extend it all the way, but I fear there's not the enthusiasm to do it (money's there - this is the kind of project the EU loves... tourism plus railways - ticks the boxes!).

The line heads south-west out of Piaseczno, through Gołków, Głosków and Złotokłos before terminating at a station called 'Tarczyn' but actually it's more than two and half kilometres away from the town of Tarczyn.

Below: much of the line looks like this - running through woodland with a path to one side. Somewhere between Złotokłos and Tarczyn

Below: Tarczyn narrow-gauge station. Tarczyn also has a standard-gauge railway station, a kilometre and half south of the town; like this one, it also no longer sees scheduled passenger trains calling there.

Below: bridge over which the Łuków-Skierniewice railway line crosses the narrow-gauge track. This shot is looking west in the direction of Tarczyn, through which the freight-only line passes on its way to the junction town of Skierniewice via Mszczonów.

Below: looking up at the Łuków-Skierniewice line as a train of oil cisterns heads west. I'm looking north along the narrow-gauge line. Just behind me, the narrow-gauge tracks come to an end. They've been lifted - probably by thieves after the scrap metal, as further up the rails are still there - albeit with trees growing between them.

If you are interested in having a go on the narrow-gauge train from Piaseczno to Tarczyn, check Kolejka Piaseczyńska's website. It's minimally laid out with little information, but you get the message - trains leave Piaseczno Wąskotorowa station (ul. Wojska Polskiego) at 11:00 on Sundays all spring and summer long.

Below: photo taken three years ago; Zalesie Dolne narrow-gauge station, a little over a kilometre away from the Piaseczno terminum. And in between, there's a station called Piaseczno Wiadukt, which is the interchange between the narrow-gauge line and the standard gauge station on the Warsaw to Radom line.

Interestingly, Google Earth still shows (nearly) all of the Piaseczno-Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą railway line, and with Panoramio switched on, you can see photos from 1980 as well as more current ones.

I hope the line resurrects, not just for tourism, but for commuters and freight use. Many disused railway lines in the UK are making a comeback...

This is a fascinating part of Mazowsze, full of little surprises here and there. Good Lord! A Model A Ford! This vehicle (a five-window coupe with an after-market pick-up back replacing the trunk) must have left the production line 85 years ago or so... You'll find it in the village of Łóś (pron. 'Wash'). Łoś, by the way, means, Elk. The shop is called Pod Łosiem - under the Elk.

This time last year:
Translation and cultural differences

This time three years ago:
The demand for Park + Ride keeps growing

This time four years ago:
Cycle-friendly London

This time five years ago:
The end of the Azure Week