Monday, 1 September 2014

Thoughts occasioned by the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II

This will not be a happy post. Today's grim anniversary is echoed by events taking place in eastern Ukraine. Just as Hitler used the Danzig Corridor as a pretext for a wider invasion of Poland, so Putin is seeking to form a corridor from the Russian border along the coast to Crimea, through Novoazovsk and Mariupol.

Above: the front page of the New York Times, 1 September 1939. On that day, my father was 16, my mother a few days short of her 12th birthday. Six million of their countrymen and women did not live to see the end of the next six wretched years.

One crucial difference between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was that Nazi Germany made little effort to pretend to non-Ayrians that it was anything but pure evil. The Nazis were evil and stupid. The Soviet Union was evil and ruthlessly cunning. The Soviet Union and its successor state totally understand the need for deception and subversion. The key to this was - and is Maskirovka.

Maskirovka as a strategic doctrine includes everything from covering up a gun emplacement with camouflage netting to getting your foreign minister to brazenly say tell the West that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. To deflect blame on a conflict you've created onto your enemy, Russia uses one set of arguments to convince those of a left-wing persuasion to its point of view, and another set of arguments to convince those of a right-wing persuasion of its point of view. So the Kiev 'regime' is both 'fascist' and 'Jewish' at the same time, depending on who's the intended audience. Eventually, people in the West get so confused they begin to believe that maybe there is some truth in what the Kremlin is saying. "They're corrupt, we're corrupt - it's all the same - no point of having a conflict over it."

MH17 is a classic example. The Ukrainians were trying to shoot down Putin's plane, and shot down the Malaysian airliner. They used a Su-25 ground-attack fighter. When it was pointed out that the Su-25 cannot reach the cruising altitude of a Boeing 777, Russian hackers altered the Wikipedia page about the Su-25 to state that in fact it could reach that altitude. (See editing history of this page after 17 July to see just how hard the Kremlin's propagandists tried to alter facts). To this day, the Kremlin continues to deny, obfuscate and deceive. Even to posit the ludicrous claim that Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 did not really disappear but was stuffed with corpses and flown over eastern Ukraine to be shot down so that Russia could be blamed.

Defending NATO territory will be an easier task than telling Russia where to draw the line in Ukraine. An attack on one NATO member is an attack on them all. But in Ukraine, Russia has all to play for when it comes to Western public opinion. "A far away country... of whom we know nothing", to quote the arch-appeaser Chamberlain. But for Russia, Ukrainians are both 'our brothers and sisters" and "fascist sub-humans" at the same time.

How should the West respond to the latest developments - the opening up of a new front along the southern coast, no longer plausibly by 'rebels', but by Russian armoured columns crossing over the border?

More sanctions? Putin, with his stratospheric approval rating among Russians can continue to lie to them and convince them to live on buckwheat, raw onion, beetroot and vodka in exchange for returning Russia its former glory. Some - the many who have little to lose - will buy that. "We may be old and poor and hungry, but we are still great."

However, the new middle class will start to feel the pinch. The Kremlin may boast of being able to replace the Windows operating system within two years and creating a Russian iPhone - but I doubt it. You can force people into factories to make tanks, but you can't force people to write good code. Russia has failed to build a native automotive industry; and much of its military and aviation industries' supply chains are located in eastern Ukraine (hence the Kremlin's desperation to get it back). For consumer goods, Russia will become dangerously dependent on China should sanctions tighten in forthcoming days.

I want to live in a society based on rule of law, sanctity of individual property, kindness and mutual trust, not one based on outright lies, thuggery and theft. And I guess most of Ukraine does as well.

As summer approaches an end, and darker days loom, I worry. (As does fellow-blogger down the road Student SGH). Let us hope that the current trajectory of events doesn't follow the one of 75 years ago or of 100 year ago. Hope and pray.

Over the weekend, I listened to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms and Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow; mood music for our troubled time.

This time last year:
A green light for consumer spending

This time two years ago:
Procrastination - is it the same as laziness?

This time five years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WWII

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Changes to Polish road traffic law as of tomorrow

More people died on Poland's roads last year than have so far died in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. More than three times as many Poles die on Poland's roads per million citizens (87) than Brits (29) or Swedes (28). A nation is trying to wipe itself out using the motorcar. Within the EU, only Romania (92) is doing so more efficiently than Poland.

As I wrote earlier this year, things are getting better, but one way or another, 65 human lives are lost needlessly on Poland's roads each week. Nine human beings, who were alive yesterday morning, were killed on Poland's roads by the end of the day.

Below: a giant road-safety poster, five storeys high, on the side of a building on ul. Waryńskiego. The campaign, sponsored by insurer PZU, is a message to curtail social acceptance of reckless driving. "If you love (someone), say STOP to road lunatics/madmen/idiots/fools/nutters".

Speed is the main killer. This is an unpalatable fact to many, proud of their shiny new motor-cars with their powerful engines. Yet human life is far more precious than the right to charge along public highways regardless of speed limits.

More speed cameras please!

 The UK experience is that the proportion of fatal road accidents in which excessive speed was a contributory factor has fallen from 25% to 12% over the past decade. In Poland, in 45% of fatal accidents, excessive speed was a contributory factor. Nearly four times as much. In the UK, speed cameras have played a significant part in changing the mentality of drivers; blasting along the highways at illegal speeds is no longer socially acceptable.

The other main killer of course is alcohol, in particular in rural Poland. Just yesterday, 280 drivers were caught drink-driving. Just think how many others reached their destinations without being stopped. A hundred times more than that? 30,000 - 50,000 journeys made yesterday under the influence of alcohol?

From tomorrow, another one of Poland's trio of major contributory factors to industrial-scale road slaughter will be addressed. Pedestrians moving about rural roads in the dark. It's happened to every driver in Poland. You are driving sensibly, soberly, with total regard for speed limit. You are driving along an unlit stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly you realise you've just missed hitting a pedestrian or cyclist by inches. Cyclists already have a duty to have their bicycles lit at night - a white light in front, a red one in the rear, augmented by a red reflector.

Yet from tomorrow, pedestrians using public roads after dark, outside of built-up areas, will have to wear some item of reflective material about their clothing, be it a badge, arm-band or sticker.

From the government's website (
The revised rule requires all pedestrians (regardless of age) to use reflective elements when they walk along roads after dusk other than in built-up areas. This does not apply only in cases where the pedestrian is walking along a pavement... Pedestrians not wearing reflective elements may get fined from 20 zlotys up to 500 złotys.
Ironically, inhabitants of Jeziorki can happily stroll up and down ul. Karczunkowska without any reflective element, wearing pitch-black jackets, darkest trousers and hats, without fear of incurring such a penalty. Because our pavement-free road lies within a built-up area.

Let's hope the new rules, which do infringe one's liberty, are followed. And finally - motorists - please stick to the speed limit.

This time three years ago:
Teasers in the Polish-English linguistic space

This time four years ago:
Summer slipping away

This time five years ago:
To the airport by bike

This time six years ago:
My translation of Tuwim's Lokomotywa

Friday, 29 August 2014

Płynie Wisła płynie from 6,500m

My 2,000th blog post, and to mark the occasion some aerial photography. Yesterday I flew to Rzeszów and back, a 38-minute hop covering a distance that would have taken at least five and half hours by train (and there's only two direct services a day from Warsaw). The flight in both directions followed the path of the Vistula, and the weather was good for photography. So then.

I flew port out, port home (A-seats on the plane's left side). On the way out, the sun was in the east, on the way back, on the west, so I was shooting into sun on both flights. Below: the two bridges at Góra Kalwaria, the first Vistula crossings south of Warsaw. I was here a few weeks ago by bike, crossing the road bridge.

Left: view from seat 17A. The plane is a 78-seat Eurolot Bombardier Q400 twin turboprop, a huge advance in terms of smoothness compared to the ATR42s and 72s it replaced. There's no discernable difference between this and a jet. The old ATRs (especially the oldest ones with four-blade props) would grind their way through the skies like a tractor with a broken gearbox.

Down below, the Vistula threads its way through the landscape, between Magnuszew and Ryczywół (lit. "Bellows the ox"). We have reached cruising altitude - 6,500m. The 07:30 flight is airborne at 07:55 and we've disembarked at Rzeszów Jasionka airport at 08:35.

Below: On the way back somewhere between Tarnobank and Sandometer - a numinous sensation. "HAVE - YOU - SEEN - THE - LIGHT?" The westering sun glances off the Vistula, under threatening clouds

Below: a massive rainstorm engulfs Warka and the Pilica valley. Again a short flight; no sooner has the captain announced that we are at cruising altitude, then he announces the start of the descent into Warsaw.

Turning in towards Warsaw, crossing the Vistula looking south, we see the river snaking its way across the plains, with numerous islands along the way.

The Polish landscape is unique and instantly recognisable from the air by its narrow ribbons of fields. From here, the plane heads west towards Czachówek, then aligns itself with the final approach over Piaseczno and Jeziorki.

An hour after flying over my house, I've passed through Frederic Okęcie airport, taken a train from the airport to W-wa Służewiec station, and from there another train to W-wa Jeziorki, and thence a 1km walk home.

This time three years ago:
Bad car day

This time four years ago:
Dragonfly summer

This time six years ago:
"What do we want?" "Early retirement!"

This time seven years ago:
Greenhouse sunset

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A state built on lies

Today four Moscow McDonalds restaurants in Moscow have been told to shut on spurious public health grounds. Have any Muscovites fallen ill as a result of eating dodgy hamburgers? Sorry - that's not the issue. Russia is drawing itself into a new cold war with the West; there's no greater icon of American culinary hegemony than McDonalds - so the Kremlin tells Russia's pliant food hygiene watchdog Rospgniepritrebgosvneshgnobnadzor to shut them down forthwith. "Round up the usual suspects". "Right away, Mr Putin."

I'm having trouble imagining Britain's Food Standards Agency being told by No.10 to close down Russian-owned restaurants in London in retaliation for Moscow's intransigence vis-a-vis the integrity of Ukrainian borders. But that's because the Food Standards Agency is not a marionette controlled by Mr Cameron, nor is it a tool to be wielded in the furtherance of foreign policy.

I'm having similar trouble imagining Poland's Sanepid closing down Babuszka restaurant on ul. Krucza (which serves excellent Siberian mutton pelmeni with cream) for sanitary reasons as an expression of Poland's solidarity with its Ukrainian neighbours. Sanepid can make up its own mind as to what constitutes a risk to public health - it does not take instructions from Mr Tusk.

Russian trucks bearing 'humanitarian aid' for the beleaguered cities of Eastern Ukraine were found by Western journalists to be army trucks hurriedly painted white. When asked why the trucks were half-empty, the Russian authorities brazenly said it was because the trucks were new, and could not carry full loads while they were running-in. The trucks then returned full of machinery from factories that Russia wants to see on its side of the border.

Russia has been claiming that the soldiers fighting against the Ukrainian army are 'separatists' armed with whatever they could find in the local military depots they had seized; they are not being supplied by Russia - despite large numbers of detailed reports from Western media documenting convoys of armoured fighting vehicles and troop transporters moving across the border into Ukraine from Russia. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov dismisses such reports as 'delusions' and 'fabrications'. He is lying into your face. And he knows it. And you know it. And his usefulness as a diplomat furthering Russia's foreign policy aims has been totally compromised.

Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces 20km inside Ukraine claim they blundered into the country by accident - they were on exercises in Russia - shurely shome mishtake. Imagine Polish paratroopers on manoeuvres in south-west Poland stumbling on foot as far as Česká Lípa, passing Nový Bor on the way, without thinking that something is a teeny-weeny bit amiss. We, the Western world, are expected to believe those lies (piled on top of all the other lies, such as 'no Russian army units took part in the annexation of Crimea' and 'Ukrainian fascists crucify Russian babies').

At least 400 Russian soldiers have died in the fighting, according to the association representing their families. Their bodies are being buried in secret, their families are told they died in mysterious circumstances while on duty in Russia. Journalists covering this story are being threatened with beatings and worse. The Kremlin should complete the lie by saying that the soldiers ate poisoned hamburgers.

Lies and camouflage are part of the same Soviet military thinking. Red Army soldiers cover themselves with patterned material to deceive the enemy; their leaders lie to deceive the enemy. The lies end up deceiving their own people until they can be made to believe that black is white.

The Soviet Union was a state built on a lie. "Comrade - is the report true that on Red Square in Moscow, they are giving away cars?" "Well, nearly right, comrade - it's Leningrad, not Moscow; on Palace Square not Red Square - and it's bicycles rather than cars, and they're not giving them away, rather they are stealing them." Vladimir Putin, born and raised a true son of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, learned how to lie blatantly and use falsehood as a policy instrument.

Unfortunately, strong states are built on high levels of social trust, and blatant falsehoods eventually contradict themselves. Lavrov ends up looking a fool; the West no longer treats him seriously; Putin will end up the same laughing-stock among his own citizens that Brezhnev did towards the end of his reign.

"Comrade - could communism work in the Sahara?" "Yes comrade - but after a year, sand would be rationed, and after two years, it would only be available to Party members and their families."

This time last year:
Asphalt for ul. Poloneza (to Krasnowolska at least)

This time two years ago:
A welcome splash of colour to a drab car park

This time three years ago:
To Hel and back in 36 hours

This time five years ago:
Honing the Art of the Written Word

This time six years ago:
Of castles, dams and brass bands

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Short diet is over - what have I gained?

An interesting experiment - never have I given up bread, potatoes, rice or pasta before. It is difficult sticking to a fish, fruit, veg (including pulses) and nut diet - no meat nor dairy products - but I did, for two weeks and two days. No alcohol either. The main purpose was to purify my body after 12 days in the UK, where the temptation offered by a galactic variety of salt snacks was too much to resist.

In terms of weight, I've shed less than a kilo (two pounds), surprisingly little given that I ate no bulking carbohydrates other than those found in chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils. And surprising because for much of the past two weeks and two days, I felt hunger gnawing away inside of me. Today's lunch, for example, a salad consisting of raw spinach leaves, tomatoes, chickpeas and grilled courgettes did not fill a hungry man, four hours after breakfast consisting of smoked wild Pacific salmon and kidney beans. Supper was a tuna and sweetcorn salad. Plus plenty of fruit throughout the day. And snacking on nothing more than surimi ('crab sticks' - the piscine equivalent of MRM bound with egg white) and walnuts.

Do I feel healthier, more alert, livelier? Not really.

The good news is that I have no dairy or gluten allergy that was hiding in the background; staying off these products has not had any noticeable effect. I do notice that quitting the sodium diacetate present in salt snack flavourings has had a beneficial psychological effect.

All in all my background health level, outside of any dietary regime, is good.

So tomorrow it's back to a usual Polish diet - quality foods, no salt snacks, no sugar (other than in fruit), no added salt, moderate alcohol intake (averaging around the 21 units a week as per NHS recommendation) and one cup of espresso coffee first thing in the morning.

Walking - I've noticed paradoxically that in summer I've been walking slightly less than in winter and spring - around 8,500 paces a day on average as opposed to 10,000 a day in the first half of the year.

And sit-ups - I overdid it on Day One and Day Two of the diet, straining my stomach muscles painfully, so I quit. FAIL. I should try to get back into it...

That's it then until Lent 2015, which starts at midnight on Wednesday, 18 February.

This time last year:
More photos from Radom Air Show

This time two years ago:
Twilight on ul. Karczunkowska

This time five years ago:
First hints of autumn in the air

This time six years ago:
Slovakia - we were not impressed

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki - late August cultivation