Friday, 20 April 2018

Polarized into existence

Spring. An April like no other I can remember in terms of hours of sunshine and temperatures.
I go to Chynów by train to inspect how work's going on my country retreat (below). Having first clapped eyes on this place in late October and bought it in late November, seeing it as spring explodes is a real treat. The kitchen and front room floors have been dug through, the soil beneath is being extracted to be replaced by insulating material before the (heated) flooring goes on.

Plenty of time before the Warsaw-bound train pulls into Chynów, so I explore the rural byways between Jakubowizna and the station. The journey from town took 52 minutes on the Radomiak limited-stop service, which doesn't stop at W-wa Jeziorki, but does stop at Chynów.

Below: Chynów station awaits redevelopment as the Warsaw-Radom line modernisation work moves southwards. The second set of signals is for a freight siding that will no doubt be removed.

Below: earlier today, around 08:20, ul. Świętokrzyska under a perfectly crystalline sky

Below: back in Jeziorki, the low evening sunshine and the fresh greenery puts me in mind of another time and another place... the Sublime Aesthetic.

Below: cherry blossom in my garden.

This time four years ago:
The Road to Biedronka

This time five years ago:
Lighter, longer lens

This time eight years ago:
Making sense of Polish politics

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Approaching a Circular Economy

A faddy business trend, or a sharper focus for the sustainability agenda? The notion of a circular economy lies in opposition to a linear economy (extract-make-use-dispose). It is a regenerative approach that seeks further use for items we no longer need. This means that industry needs to extract from our planet fewer resources to make new things.

The current clamp-down on single-use plastics is a good, though extreme example, with the UK government pledging to ban plastic straws and cotton-wool ear buds next year. Free-of-charge single-use plastic bags have disappeared from shops across the EU. There is still much more to do.

On Tuesday I chaired a small meeting of representatives of business and ecological groups on this subject, and the more one looks into the subject, the more complex and interconnected it all is.

Three groups of players are in this game; consumers, who want things, businesses, who satisfy those wants, and the regulator, who imposes the rules on the game. And, this being circular, the regulator is doing the bidding of the voter, who is the same person as the consumer.

As voters we want a clean planet, clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean food. Yet as consumers, we want convenience. I was talking to a producer of food packaging who said that something like a packet of sliced cheese may consist of ten or more components; the plastic packet itself, a pull-off seal made from a different type of plastic, held to the packet with a special glue; the paper label on that pull-off seal with the product information printed in different inks - the label being attached with a different form of glue, waterproof foil over the paper, sheets of thin plastic separating the cheese slices. The resulting package is impossible to recycle and is fit only for incineration.

We may find (as consumers) that our lives become more beset by inconvenience as we (as voters) tell our regulators to clamp down on the plastics that are despoiling our oceans and our land. It may be a return to older days. Take the cheese, for example. I've swapped my regular brand of Roquefort cheese, packaged in a plastic tray with a plastic foil seal and further plastic inside for cheese cut from the round, with aluminium foil on the outside, and simply shrink-wrapped in clingfilm. To be honest, this works out cheaper (around 63zł/kg compared to 85zł/kg for the packet cheese). But I can only guess the environmental impact of the foil/clingfilm packaging to be much lower than the plastic packet. How is it for health though? All those phthalates and plasticisers and other chemicals are known to be no good for us, and leach into our food.

Cheese predates plastic by a few millennia, so can't we go back to storing it under porcelain in cool, dark larders? And can't we go back to buying it from the block, cut and weighed for us, and wrapped in paper?

As consumer-voters, we should take a more active interest in how our food - and indeed other products we use - is packaged and sold. Food we can't really buy less of, below a biological threshold, but other things we have more control over.

Cars - I set out my precepts regarding car ownership back in 2012:

1. Don't own a car. Go on two wheels, public transport, hire or ride-share instead.
2. If you really must own a car, buy a small car.
3. If you really must have a larger car (large family), buy an economical large car.
4. Whatever you have, drive as little as you possibly can.
5. Invest the money you have saved by following the above precepts.

The automotive industry must change; consumers will force that change. The regulator will not be far behind; a Extended Producer Responsibility Directive will force car-makers (and other manufacturers) to take final responsibility for their product - taking it away and breaking it down for recycling. This is expected within a few years.

Clothes. For the past few years, other than new suits for the office, most of my casual clothing I buy from the Children's Society charity shop on Pitshanger Lane in Ealing, jackets, shirts, trousers. Shoes I wear for a long time and then get re-soled. I am loyal to one brand, a family business around for 138 years that uses traditional materials and methods.

In the presentation at our meeting on Tuesday there was a brilliant slide (by Sarah Lazarovich), entitled the Buyerarchy of Needs.

Based on Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, this makes the point that before buying something, we should first consider the options. Note for non-North American readers - 'thrift' = 'charity shop'; neither really exist in Poland (other than the Sue Ryder Foundation shop on ul. Bagatela in Warsaw - anyone know of any others?).

We discussed the current trend for decluttering, the antidote to stuffocation. Participants in the debate were concerned that after a solid bout of decluttering, the natural tendency of consumers (bombarded as they are by the blandishments of business) is to once again fill those gaps with new stuff. STOP!

The circular economy is about much more than buying less. It is about making more use of what there is (sharing power tools, rather than each household owning a drill that's used for nine minutes in its lifetime), about recycling as much as possible. Business needs to become less short-term profit focused, trying to get people to spend money they don't really have buying things they don't really need.

So where's economic growth going to come from?


What's the outcome of that going to be?

Some of us will end up living extremely long. On a cleaner planet.

This time last year:
Ralph Vaughan-Williams - two song cycles

This time nine years ago:
Spring scenes in Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Modernist wheels

This time 11 years ago:
Mammatus clouds over Jeziorki

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Blossoms and pylons

This is the season; oh that it would stay like this, at the start of blossom time, transient yet transcendent, my local walk transformed, mouth gaping wide with wonder.

The great state of Mississippi, 1930s, transported to the edge of Warsaw.

Below: the pond on ul. Pozytywki, corner of ul. Cymbalistów.

Below: the garden suddenly starts to look good.

Below: further along ul. Trombity

Below: how did that get up there? An excavator on a hill of sandy soil, between Biedronka and the railway tracks.

Below: taken from the top of another hill of soil made by builders, this year's Ballast Mountain, a good vantage point to see the coal trains.

Below: blossoms outside my office, the PASTa building to the right.

This time year:
Weather bad, mood SAD

This time five years ago:
Bicycle shake-down day

This time six years ago:
40 years on - Roxy Music's first two albums

This time eight years ago:
Twenty years, ten months, six days

This time ten years ago:
Swans still in Jeziorki

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Klimat change

As spring begins to explode around us, the sunshine's warming rays transform my life. After six months in which greyness and damp have dominated, strong sunshine and a cloudless blue sky affect the way I see the world. Shape comes alive, vivid colours emerge from the depth of field in sharp focus, and I take greatly more pleasure in the converging rays of light that make it to my brain.

Sights that were commonplace, that I walked by, suddenly demand my attention; visions become timeless and transcendent. Ealing's different under a crystal blue sky.

Ealing, the Old Country, my home where I am from. On the Sunny Side of the Street.

My favourite time of year - whenever the sun is out, it behoves us to make the most of it, to drink in its rays. It's different in high summer, but right now I feel that the sunlight is precious, and does us good physically, psychologically and spiritually.

It'll be a short while before trees are fully in leaf; the week after the Ice Saints is the most beautiful of the year; cherish this time. The spring is still quite fragile, late frosts are still a possibility; a greater likelihood is, however, a return to dullness, damp and overcast days.

This time four years ago:
Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel

This time five years ago:
Warsaw 1935: a 3D depiction of a city that's no longer with us

This time six years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time eight years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time nine years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Monday, 9 April 2018

Work proceeding across Jeziorki

It's all go - on the railway viaduct, the water mains, the bus stops - but further plans are also ongoing. The city hall has just published its zoning plan for the Trombity/Sarabandy bit of Jeziorki, a plan that entails building a dense network of roads where currently are only fields and gardens (including a slice of our garden). Given how long it takes things to get built, this may or may not happen (compare this development plan from 2008 to the actual state of Mysiadło today).

In the meanwhile, there's so much going on... this is the peak of the building boom but there are major constraints on the construction sector - material prices and wages are increasing at an unsustainable rate. Below: new blocks of flats going up in Zamienie.

Below: another crane between ul. Sarabandy and Puławska

Below: cement being poured into the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line.

Below: view along the coal line under the new viaduct. The line is used as a footpath by rail passengers from west of the tracks heading into town. The 'safe' way is a 120m detour.

Below: water mains being laid along ul. Trombity. It's Sunday, so there's no work going on; during the week, the road's shut.

How many years before these latest plans for Jeziorki realised - if at all?

This time last year:
Karczunkowska reopens to traffic

This time six years ago:
Goodness gracious!

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years ago:
Cycling and recycling

This time nine years ago:
Winter clings on to the forest

This time ten years ago:
Toyota launches the iQ

This time eleven years ago:
Old school Łódź

Friday, 6 April 2018

Łódź is a film set

Back from London, four hours' sleep, and off to Łódź for a conference. And to see Moni after work, to show me the sights of city she now calls home.

"Take me back, carry back, down to Instagram Alley where I started from." This is weird. This is Pasaż Róży (lit. 'Passage of the Rose'), where the buildings have been stuccoed with shards of mirror. We were there at exactly the right time - the westering sun was shining right down the alley against a perfectly cloudless sky. Tourists and locals alike were in for a treat.

Łódź - an up and coming city, stranger and more intriguing that most Polish cities. Willed out of the despair that overtook it in the 1990s, it is sprouting new appendages - such as Brama Miasta (lit. 'city gates' - right in the middle of the city), which will be rising skywards right by the new Łódź Fabryczna station.

Is this Liverpool? Are we by a ventilating tower of the Birkinhead Tunnel? No, this is a fragment of the facade of the old telephone exchange on  ul. Tadeusza Kościuszki.

Is this a Punjabi palace? Are we in Guadalajara? No, this is ul. Piotrkowska, Europe's longest shopping thoroughfare, pedestrianised for the main part. One by one, the industrialists' Art Nouveau palaces that line the street are being renovated to their original state.

A kiss at the corner - the weather creates a Mediterranean atmosphere, the strong sunlight pulls the contrast from the stone, the architecture a theatrical set.

Łódź. One big film set. Literally. This is the cinema from Wojciech Marczewski's Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990).

There's shabbiness, there's flash but above all a sense of a city with many faces which know where it's going.

We ate at Laxmi Indian restaurant (excellent) and imbibed at Piwoteka (excellent, but the Delirium Tremens on tap was off). Łódź impresses me more and more with each subsequent visit.

This time last year:
Contemplative imagery, Ealing and Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Baffled: my first visit to Jeziorki's Lidl 

This seven years ago:
In vino veritas?

This eight two years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This nine three years ago:
Lenten recipe: tuna, chickpea and pesto salad

This time ten years ago:
Coal train sidings, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time 11 years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

Thursday, 5 April 2018

My father at 95

What a blessing it is to reach such an age, to have lived through so much change, to have survived and triumphed. My father is 95 today. The Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the Uprising, prisoner-of-war camps, exiled refugee, who built a new life in a new land, contributing to his host country as a civil engineer. Bohdan Dembiński, born in Warsaw on 5 April 1923, grew up in Ochota, in the very building on ul. Filtrowa where General Antoni Chruściel 'Monter' took the decision to launch the Warsaw Uprising. When asked by journalists whether he knew that the Home Army's HQ was in the building in which he lived, he answered that he didn't know that his brothers were both in the Home Army, nor did neither of them know he was in it, such was the discipline of conspiracy.

Like the Queen, my father has two birthdays, an official one (5 March) and the real one (5 April). The family story is that at his christening, the guests were not entirely sober and the wrong month was entered on the birth certificate.

I wrote about my father's wartime experiences (here and here), but it's worth pointing out some of the work he did as a civil engineer in post-war Britain. He worked for almost his entire career for one company - West's Piling, one of the UK's leading specialists in foundations. In 1961, we lived briefly in South Wales, where my father was engaged in designing the foundations for the mighty Llanwern steelworks (below).

 And towards the end of his career (my father worked until he was a few months short of his 70th birthday), he designed the pilings under Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

In exceptionally good health for his age, my greatest hope for my father is that he will be strong enough to visit Poland for the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in August 2019.

[My father's biogram at the website of the Warsaw Uprising Museum]

Sto lat, Dziadzio Bohdan - and then some more!

This time last year:
Happy 94th to my father...

This time two years ago:
HOT! 24C in Warsaw 

This time three years ago:
COLD! Snowy Easter Sunday in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Happy 91st to my father!

This time five years ago: 
My father at 90

This time six years ago:
An independent Scotland - what if?

Monday, 2 April 2018

On Learning and Living

I came to the conclusion that I'm a slow learner relatively late in life, but I am a persistent learner and when I do learn something - through those insight moments when the penny drops - I tend to learn it well. Lifelong learning is the vocation of a curious and observant mind, a mind that cannot rest. But the speed at which one learns is predicated by native intelligence, determination and focus.

My learning is random; it tends to be driven by coincidences and multifarious paths that converge, diverge and are generally messy. But, just as a jumble of tangled wood shavings and fibres of different lengths and at different angles when compressed and glued form structurally solid fibreboard, so  my haphazard approach to learning has consolidated over the years into something useful. But had I applied myself more to learning, many of the insights I've gained in recent years I could have picked up decades earlier.

Learning is like compound interest, you build on that which has been accumulated before.

Set yourself five tasks for the day, accomplish but three, put two off to the next day; three new ones join them, put two off to the next day and so on - at the end of the week you've done 21 things rather than 35; you've learnt from those 21 things, not from the 35, so procrastination is the reason some of us learn slower than the more focused, self-disciplined one among us.

The advantages of learning are incremental, you stand ever higher on the pile of learning you have accumulated, your horizons ever broader. Do this quickly, methodically, you see further, faster. But if, like me, you put stuff off till the next day, that accumulated learning effect still happens, but the benefits come to you when you're over 50, rather than when you're over 30 and still have time to affect major outcomes.

Breadth vs depth

Learning is like building with bricks. You can use them to build a long wall or you can use them to build a tall chimney. Consider the bricks to be 'learning moments', insights that consolidate facts that we've learnt. These insights come about from our practical experience, from learning from others' experiences, by listening, by reading. Some of us gather them faster than others. Some of us use pile insight bricks in a closed circle, piling new layers onto existing ones, the chimney stack quickly grows higher and higher. Others place the bricks randomly at first, then a line emerges, not necessarily joined up, then the beginnings of a low wall emerge, growing higher but very slowly.

How high should your wall be? Several years ago I was talking to a Polish lawyer, who said that a good lawyer, with good social skills, should be able to engage in a meaningful conversation on any subject for eight minutes. Whatever the subject - speed-skating, photosynthesis, the works of Racine, Javanese gamelan music - literally whatever - using their existing knowledge of neighbouring  subject matter, a person with good general knowledge should be able to hold their own at small talk.

I have written before about breadth vs. depth and advancing age; the generalist's wide range of interests deepen, while the specialist's narrow field of expertise broadens. Why we become generalists or specialists has, I feel, a genetic as well as environmental factors. Our attention span - to what extent is this limited by willpower (or lack thereof)? Ability to concentrate on one subject for more than 20 minutes at one time (said to be the upper limit of the average human attention span) is of great competitive advantage. Ease of understanding, quality of learning material - quality of teacher or mentor - an important factor for the self-taught... but most of all, curiosity.

Then there's RRBI - repetitive and restrictive behaviours and interests - that limit some minds, focusing them intensively and allowing for depth of knowledge in a narrow specialisation very quickly. Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Adam Smith and Isaac Newton are examples. On the other hand, there are polymaths such as Leibniz - said to have been the last human being alive about whom it was said that they know 'everything'.

Jumping about from one subject to another, unable to drill down too deeply in one go is certainly a failing of mine - or so I used to think. Then I found that returning to something that I had once looked at before, though in a superficial way, it became more accessible. Armed with insights from completely different areas of learning, I reach a new levels of cross-disciplinary understanding. It's not that deep in any absolute terms, but deeper than it was, and across a wide spectrum of subjects.

My intellectual self-confidence rises and falls like a wave. When on the high, I consider myself intellectually superior to those around me. When it falls, I realise the big gaps in my knowledge. It is in the dips of my intellectual self-confidence that my learning accelerates; new insights pile onto existing ones, I feel brighter, sharper, smarter - until once more I am confronted with people who are smarter than I. And then the competitive need to self-improve kicks in again. A non-stop cycle.

As human existence becomes exponentially more complex, considering the infinite number of permutations of our scientific, commercial and artistic endeavours, our approach to the acquisition of knowledge and insight is taking on new forms. Finishing to learn the moment one completes one's formal education is no longer an option; it leads to social and economic exclusion. One's success or failure thereafter is down to one's own attitude to learning. The complexity of society - and the complexity of the policy issues that the governments we vote for - mean we all have a huge obligation to keep up with change, and its implications.

This time two years ago:
Goats and hares

This time three years ago:
Białystok the Dull

This time ten years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams

This time eleven years ago:
My second Jeziorki blog post, also from this day