Friday, 22 June 2018

No, this will be the last summer before the S7...

Things take a little longer than expected... Three days ago, the consortium that won the tender to extend the S7 from Grójec to the airport submitted a request to the governor of Mazowsze for permission to go ahead and build. This should be a formality, and given the lack of political obstacles here, preparatory work should begin in time so that the construction can get under way next spring. So this summer will be the last, not last summer!

There are crops in the field right now, and the houses that will need to be demolished still have people living in them.

Below: looking across from ul Postępu in Zgorzała towards ul. Wróbelka. The inhabitants of those houses will endure three-four years of disruption before acoustic fences wall them off from the constant roar of the S7's traffic.

Below: looking down the footpath that connects Dawidy Bankowe with the railway track.

Below: looking towards Zamienie, the S7 will run parallel to the tracks before diverging south-west. This remote field is full of bird life, the song of the skylark, home also to marsh harriers and lapwings. I doubt they'll stay once the asphalt's buzzing with traffic.

Below: looking towards town; fields of oats, barns, the airport - and then the metropolis. Buildings in the middle distance will make way for the asphalt.

Below: repairing the power lines, Zamienie. Yesterday's storm was unusual in that it was heralded by a massive dust storm, some 90 minutes before the first rains. An intense wind; at first I thought I was being struck in the face by hailstones - it turned out they were real stones - much larger than grains of sand. I must say - in all my 60 years, I've never experienced such a climatic event.

Yes, the climate is changing and we must change our habits to slow down the negative effects of that change.

This time last year:
Nostalgia, ideology, aesthetics, emotions

This time three years ago:
Civilisation and barbarism - how the former deals with the latter

This time four years ago:
Ahead of the opening of Jeziorki's Biedronka

This time five years ago:
New views of Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time ten years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time 11 years ago: 
Little boxes, Mysiadło 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli - a review

Although the word 'brief' appears in the title of this book as it does in Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Carlo Rovelli's book wins hands down in the brevity stakes. Many people gave up on A Brief History of Time half way through; Seven Brief Lessons is just 81 pages long (including the preface, excluding the index), so 40 pages is not challenging.

It is the runaway success of this book (a million copies in 31 languages) that prompted Rovelli to write a longer book, The Order of Time, which I reviewed recently (in three parts, Pt 1, Pt 2 and Pt 3). Yet Seven Brief Lessons is the one that turned a theoretical physicist into a pop-science superstar of the same magnitude as Hawking. It is a slim volume, comparable to a collection of poems, which several reviewers have alluded to.

For like The Order of Time, it is a book that often strays from the strict confines of theoretical physics into a world of curiosity and wonder, a world where metaphor yields more enlightenment than equations. The key question for the lay reader is: Is this book accessible to me? It depends on how well versed you are in notions such as spacetime, quantum mechanics, the nature of elementary particles and black holes. If these are not new to you, you will undoubtedly gain new insights into how science currently sees matter, the universe, time and our place within these. If you understand space as being a big empty box in which stars are randomly distributed, and atoms consisting of just electrons whizzing around a nucleus consisting of neutrons and protons, you'll need to catch up.

Help is at hand. I cannot envisage reading any science book without a laptop or desktop PC (or even smartphone now) through which I can get at Wikipedia. More than any other thing on the internet, Wikipedia I cherish most. So much knowledge, well curated, well linked, so instructive. If only Wikipedia had been around when I was growing up...

Rovelli's great gift is to be able to link science with literature, with the poetic insights of the classics - written at a time before science, yet containing instinctive, intuitive appreciation for the structure of our world and the cosmos.

Can you heat up a gravitational field, he asks. We don't - as yet - know (nor what would happen if you did). If you diffuse heat to gravitational field, he posits, space and time should... vibrate. Here, in the fifth lesson, Rovelli is writing about quantum gravity, his principle area of research. We are nearer to understanding how gravity (the attraction of one body to another) squares with quantum mechanics (the discovery of gravity waves in 2016 was a significant step forward), but not there yet.

In fact there's much we don't know, but what we do know is succinctly and poetically depicted. "Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth," writes Rovelli in the final chapter, which is about we human beings on our world, a "swarm of ephemeral quanta"- who are we? Having explored the furthest reaches of the cosmos, being at the birth and death of stars, peering deep into the core of the atom, he asks the most fundamental questions about us - conscious beings, curious, thirsting knowledge, mortal, fragile.

This is a book that every intelligent person should have. It is easy to dip into, to pick up new insights, to use as a framework for further investigations through Wikipedia. It provokes profound thoughts that we should never let go of in our mundane everyday existence.

Costing little more than a pint of beer in a London pub, it brings you a few steps closer towards understanding infinity and eternity, and our discreet, quantum-like place within them. Order online now, you'll not be disappointed.

This time last year:
Now it belongs to the ages - on Great Works of Art

This time two years ago:
More Brictorian Liverpool

This time three years ago:
Łódź - city of tenements
[Gosh! Three years since I bought a flat there!]

This time four years ago:
Liverpool reborn

This time five years ago:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?

This time seven years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time ten years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Karczunkowska viaduct - further delays likely

It's almost two months to the day ul. Karczunkowska was closed so that a viaduct could be built, taking it over the newly-modernised Warsaw-Radom railway line. Things have settled down a bit; the temporary level crossing, opened last spring, is doing its job. But while the viaduct itself is growing, there seem to be problems with the ramps at either side.

Below: the approach road is taking shape at the western end. The tight bend here is good - it will slow down traffic.

UPDATE: Friday, 22 June, and I can see more clearly what's going on here. This is actually the access road to ul. Kurantów and ul. Gogolińska, this suggests that there won't be another span of viaduct crossing Gogolińska at its junction with Karczunkowska.

Contractor PRKiI has announced that from 22:00 this Thursday, 21 June, until 20:00 on 21 August, Karczunkowska will be closed on the short stretch between Gogolińska and Kurantów for the construction of retention walls and mains sewers. They did this earlier this spring (from 27 April to 7 May). re-opening bang on time. Now, it's not ten days, it's 61 days. Lots of opportunities for things to go wrong... If you click to enlarge the photo below, you'll see ul. Gogolińska running off to the right at 90 degrees to Karczunkowska. To keep this road open, the viaduct will need a further set of pillars between the wall you see and the near side of Gogolińska, plus access to Kurantów. This is almost as big a job as throwing the bridge over the tracks.

UPDATE: Friday 22 June - the road will be closed at 22:00 hours tonight, 26 hours after the original date. How long will it stay closed?

In the meanwhile, as happened last time this stretch of road was closed, there are the eternally optimistic drivers who believe that the five no entry/road closed signs do not actually apply to them. They will carry on heading east along Karczunkowska, then seeing barriers and heavy construction equipment, they'll turn into Kurantów. Those equipped with Google Maps (below) may see that at the end of Kurantów, they can swing right and soon be on Gogolińska, and hop-skip-jump, they're across the tracks. Let me show them (in good time) that Google Maps is WRONG. Click to enlarge. I've marked the closed section in pink, and the highlight in pale green the bit of ul. Kurantów that is not actually a road, but a very narrow footpath running through an overgrown field.

Below: local residents, annoyed by these optimist drivers, have put up a sign. 'STOP! TURN AROUND THE ROAD ENDS IN 80 METRES'

Below: indeed it does. There is a footpath, between the wheelie bins and the post; it is wide enough for pedestrian, but waist-high in grass. You could do this on a mountain bike or enduro motorbike, but you'll spend half an hour extracting vegetation from the chain and spokes. In other words - don't bother. The alternative, however, is an 8km detour via Baletowa.

Meanwhile, across the tracks, this is how things are looking. But word is (and I've heard this from two local residents) that the ramp that will carry the roadway up to the viaduct has been badly planned, and will end on the wrong side of the turn-off for Biedronka (on one side of Karczunkowska) and ul. Nawłocka (on the other). The answer is to make it steeper, with the possibility of a roundabout at this junction to slow traffic down. One way or the other, the re-planning of the gradient of the on-ramp means further delays.

Below: view from the 'up' platform - the first set of steps are appearing. These will allow people to walk up to the viaduct from ul. Gogolińska.

Below: for the convenience of passengers from across the track travelling into town, now that the scaffolding has been removed from the viaduct, a new footpath has been laid alongside the coal train line, saving a detour of 120 metres.

All in all, progress is far slower than planned. Here's a quote from Piaseczno News from just three weeks ago:

– Jeśli chodzi o wiadukt, to ma być on gotowy na przełomie III i IV kwartału tego roku. Utrzymane jest tam dobre tempo prac – podkreśla Karol Jakubowski z biura prasowego PKP PLK.. Widać już konstrukcję budowli. W tej chwili wykonywane są podtrzymujące wiadukt filary. Cały czas trwają także prace przy budowie zjazdów.

"As far as the viaduct is concerned, it is to be ready at the turn of the third and fourth quarter of this year. A good pace of work is maintained there," emphasises Karol Jakubowski from the press office of PKP PLK... "The construction of the building is already visible. At the moment, the pillars supporting the flyover are being built. The construction of the congresses is also in progress all the time." [Translated with]

End of September? No. Way.

This time six years ago:
Russia's going home

This time 11 years ago:
Sun and zenith rising

Friday, 15 June 2018

Under the Sodium

Plato said: "it is to no purpose for a sober man to knock at the door of the muses,” and maybe he's right. For after two litres of Metropolis India Pale Ale (5.7% abv = 11.4 units), my journey home from W-wa Jeziorki station takes on mystical dimensions, immersed in the quantum reality of deserted suburban streets illuminated by sodium light that emit packets of orange photons.

Below: ul. Nawłocka looking towards ul. Trombity.

Below: ul. Nawłocka from the junction with ul. Karczunkowska

Below: ul. Trombity looking north towards the junction of ul. Dumki (in the distance)

Below: ul. Trombity looking south; fields to wheat to the left, beyond that, my window overlooking them. The digging up of the road for the new sewers have turned the road into a dusty, sandy track; the feel of 1930s America returns with a searing clarity.

Below: the deserted house on ul. Trombity. A letter from the local authorities suggests it may not be here very much longer...

Below: home, home again... outside, the night, the beating of insect wings.

Perhaps if I drank a bit more alcohol, I'd become more productive!

This time last year:
"Further progress? Hell yes!"

This time ten years ago:
The 1970s and the 2000s

Saturday, 9 June 2018


I live in Jeziorki, a stop on the Warsaw-Radom railway line just within Warsaw's administrative borders. My bedroom overlooks a functioning arable farm, growing rye or oats. My nearest station, W-wa Jeziorki, is 18km from W-wa Śródmieście, Warsaw's main station for suburban lines. Further south, at Kilometre 42 from W-wa Śródmieście lies Chynów, the nearest station for my działka in nearby Jakubowizna. Beyond Chynów is Warka, at Km 56; the line continues single-track over a bridge that crosses the Pilica river, then onward to Radom, 102km from Warsaw.

Radom (pop. 220,000), is a city that Progress has not smiled upon. Unlike any other Polish city I've visited, it has no charm, no character, no direction, no idea how it is to develop. Łódź, another city where communist-era industry vanished in just a couple of years, now has unemployment at half of Radom's level. Łódź knows where it's going - it has done wonders in attracting inward investment, it has made a name for itself as a creative centre, and the ongoing refurbishment of its centre make it a city that people want to visit. Graduates of its universities are increasingly opting to stay in Łódź to work there (as indeed has my daughter).

But Radom, which underwent a similar implosion as Kalashnikovs and typewriters became less sought-after items, failed to reinvent itself. As a result, one in eight adults in Radom are registered as jobless, whereas in Warsaw it's one in fifty. So people from Radom and surrounding districts travel to Warsaw to find work; they come in large numbers, taking the train. The fastest time for the journey is just over two hours; the slowest train takes nearly two and half. The early-morning trains (two an hour, starting at 03:35) are full of sleeping people heading for Warsaw's insatiable labour market.

Yesterday, I took the 14:30 train from W-wa Śródmieście to Radom, alighting at Chynów to see how work on my działka is coming along. To my surprise, this mid-afternoon train was almost full as it left central Warsaw. By the time it stopped to pick up passengers at W-wa Służewiec ('Mordor Południowy'), the aisles and gangways were packed with people standing. I expected that much of this traffic would get off at Piaseczno, a dormitory suburb 23km south of W-wa Śródmieście. But I was wrong - more people got on the train than got off it (it was by now quarter past three). Piaseczno itself draws in labour from the south.

It was a jolly crowd. The weekend was here, the working week done. Many of my fellow passengers had come to Warsaw or Piaseczno to sell strawberries or cherries, and returning home with dozens of empty punnets; they were talking about prices, wholesale and retail, about the mushroom season. Others were office cleaners or canteen staff, working the early shift.

There was much cheerful banter, and because there was a mixture of women and men, the language  not too salty, nor did I see any drinking or smoking going on. This tends to occur in the back of the third and sixth carriages and front of the fourth carriage (of a six-car set, counting from the front), in the compartments for bicycles and oversized baggage. It is here that the inveterate smokers and drinkers congregate, to while away their two-hour plus journey home.

The drinking set tend to leave Warsaw later, mainly cash-in-hand builders from the many construction sites around the capital. Drinking on suburban electric trains puts me in mind of Venedikt Yerofeyev's 1970 prose-poem, Moscow-Petushki. However, the ready availability of vodka in małpi (100ml and 200ml bottles) and beers at 7%-9% abv means that Polish drunks do not have to make do with what Yerofeyev and his pals had to imbibe - cocktails of nail varnish, hair lacquer, brake fluid, insecticide and eau-de-cologne.

The time-honoured practice of the hard-drinking Radomites entering their compartment, shaking hands with all the other (male - for no females travel here) passengers - is coming to an end as the old EN57 rolling stock is being successively modernised. The refurbished EN57-AKM stock has no walls between that compartment and the rest of the carriage, which means that any smoke carries right through the train. CCTV cameras monitor passenger behaviour. The toilets are the only refuge for desperate smokers, but social pressure is slowly making this practice unacceptable.

Over the past six months or so, I have come to know the Radom line down as far as Chynów much better than before; the rhythm of life, the inexorable economic pull that Warsaw exerts beyond its outermost exurbs.

It's a hot afternoon, the train - an unmodernised EN57 set, has all its windows open in lieu of the air conditioning found on the newer EN57-AKM trains. It's pleasant. Less so in mid-winter, when the journey to town and home again takes place in darkness, passengers are carrying heavy coats and the temperature outside is well below zero.

A large woman, who had been dozing, asked whether we'd passed Warka yet, a landmark (half-way from Śródmieście to Radom). No, explained her neighbour, we're still half an hour from Warka. The journey is long.

Below: W-wa Wschodnia to Radom service calls at Chynów, 22 May 2018. Served by a six-car set, the front three being an early EN57 unit - the classic with three windows in front and the 'rippled' sides. There's still a handful of these on the Radom line, usually paired up with a newer units, like later, unmodernised EN57s with two windows in front and slab sides.

The lime-green, white and yellow livery looks resplendent against a cloudless sky.

This time three years ago:
Civilising Warsaw at the local level

This time four years ago:
Rustic retreat rained off

This time six years ago:
Thunderstorm over Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Getting lost on top of Łopień

This five nine years ago:
Regulatory absurdities in Poland

This time ten years ago:
Czachówek and Alignment

This time 11 years ago:
Joy, pain, sunshine, rain

Friday, 8 June 2018

Perfect weather week in Warsaw

Oh how wonderful - so much blue sky, clear and  fresh (on Tuesday and Wednesday). Perfect weather in Warsaw. Below: morning, Palace of Culture.

Below: dusk falls over Warsaw; the Palace of Culture seen from the south, looking up ul. Emilii Plater.

Left: the Palace of Culture across ul. Świętokrzyska, photo taken from the pavement outside my office. Below: view from my office window looking down over ul. Świętokrzyska and Marszałkowska. Note the construction site just behind the top of the neighbouring building; this will be 22-storey Central Point tower, also known as CBD One (Central Business District). It will be the same height as the building on the opposite corner of the crossroads, the one over McDonald's. Note too the newly-opened Sezam building next to it facing Marszałkowska. The black dome further along Świętokrzyska belongs to the Polish post office; before the war by grandfather Tomasz Dembiński worked in the post office savings bank (PKO) in that very building.

Below: Sezam on the day before its somewhat low-key opening. A very nice piece of neo-modernist architecture, light and airy. It's just under four years ago that the old Sezam (see post about it here) closed for the last time and the old building was demolished.

Below: some balloons - and a new neon just like the old one. The store is open - nothing in the windows, no one inside. No doubt it will soon take off. Will visit.

Below: an former icon of the Warsaw retailing scene about to re-emerge after a major remont - though not as a shop - is the former Dom Handlowy Smyk (before that Centralny Dom Towarowy). The original 1951 modernist facade has been preserved, though the insides are all new. It will be office space when reopened.

Below: Is this Rome? Are we in the Eternal City? No, this is the church of St Antony of Padua (the patron saint of lost things) on ul. Senatorska. Under this sky, we could indeed be in Padua.

And out in the countryside, the same Mediterranean klimat prevails. Below: Jakobowizna, a new house nears completion between the orchards

Below: Jakubowizna, where fruit seems to be exploding out of the earth. This will be a year of bumper crops, cheap produce and complaining farmers.

Weather set to continue sunny on Saturday, then storms will brew up on Sunday. Rain is needed after a hot, dry week.

This time two years ago:
Street art, Piotrków Trybunalski

This time five years ago:
Quality engineering from half a century ago

This time six years ago:
Fans fly in to Warsaw for Euro 2012

This time seven years ago:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time eight years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time nine years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40

The time ten years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time 11 years ago:
Poppy profusion

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Memory and Me

You are your memory. Nothing shapes your being like what it is that you remember. That memory which plays tricks on us - and which becomes increasingly flaky as we age. Imagine this thought experiment; you wake up in a featureless room with no mirrors - and you have no recollection of how you got there or anything about your past. You know nothing about yourself - who you are, how you look. All you have is your powers of observation and your awareness of being conscious.

Do you exist? Of course you do. But are you... you? This makes you realise just to what extent you have been shaped by memory of past events - events receding away from you at an accelerating pace. At the age of ten, a year represents 10% of the total span of your life experience. At 50, a year's but 2%. If you're lucky enough to reach 100, that year will have reduced to just 1%. How much of any given year in your past will you have held on to?

The other day on Facebook, I read a post about the visit of Pope John Paul II to London, and a mass held in Crystal Palace in 1982 for Poles living in the UK. Was I there? Well, I remember remembering being there... but I have no actual recollection of any qualia from the day... I remember telling people, "Yeah, I was also there..." Was I? Like Schrodinger's cat, I'm currently in the situation of "yes I was there"/"no I wasn't there" until a conscious observer opens the box. [If you recall being there with me, please let me know!]

Today I discussed an event with my father that I clearly remember but he doesn't; the starter motor of my first car, a Morris Minor van, packed up; he helped me remove it from the car, take off the housing, pull out the armature windings, locate a broken copper wire and wind on new one. He does not remember the event. I remember the qualia; the feel of the weight of the starter motor, pulling back the housing to reveal the armatures, sitting in the garage on an old green revolving metal office chair, patiently winding the copper wire back onto the armatures, then replacing the housing and screwing the whole starter motor assembly back into the engine bay - and the immense satisfaction of it working.

Last summer, in Sopot I met Raymond, my best friend from primary school, and his wife Madeline. Ray and I talked for hours about our memories from half a century ago - it would make an interesting Venn diagram to show those events that both of us recalled, the ones he remembered and I didn't, and the ones that I remembered but he didn't. There was a fair amount of overlap (I remember) but also those odd ones where either he said "Wow! Really? Did that happen?" or where I said those same words.

Memory is selective. And yet it shapes who we are. We have a tendency to exaggerate, to story-tell, to create a bigger narrative around an event than it really merited - or talk down our own negative behaviour - on the basis of events dimly remembered, or worse - forgotten.

Memory of things that interested us in our childhood is the strongest. Ask me about British motor cars of the 1960s and '70s. How did the engine capacity of the BMC Mini grow over the years? 848cc, 998cc, 1098cc, 1275cc. Off the top of my head. No need to consult Wikipedia. Name the brands of Rootes Group cars in the1960s. Easy: Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Humber. These days if I want to remember something for good, it's a much bigger effort involving mnemonics. In my childhood, facts just tripped into the head and stayed there. Today memory requires effort, like doing press-ups.

Memory defines who we are. What we know defines who we are. Going back to that thought experiment I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if you are in that memory-free state and you learn that you are going to die within the next two hours - would that fact bother you, given that you have no frame of reference as to what your life was - or would you still want to postpone your death given that you have conscious awareness, your ability to observe the here-and-now, even though there was no past?

Cherish your memories. Especially those ones that come to you unbidden - those flashbacks to qualia - to those moments of absolute understanding and deep awareness. The texture of reality; the smell of diesel and sea salt on the deck of a ferry, the sound of its horn; the urgent ringing of a bell at a level crossing; snow crunching underfoot on a blue-sky frosty winter's morning; the smell of a fresh newspaper opened with a small espresso waiting on a copper table; the twinkling of stars seen from a mountainside on clear summer's night. Not so much events - when we pushed Steve T______ into the swimming pool on the biology field-trip or my hat coming off in a windy gust on ul. Puławska and ending up on a building site - but moments of pure awareness.

The collected memories of such moments makes us who we are. Rather than memories of events. And these profound memories link us to other humans, who have also felt them - not pleasure nor suffering - but moments of intense consciousness.

This time last year:
Sticks, carrots and nudge - a proposal

This time three years ago:
London vs. Warsaw pt 2: the demographic aspects

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Great crested grebes and swans hatched

Last week it was the black-necked grebes, this week it's the turn of the great crested grebes to show off their newly-hatched young. Much to my surprise. Firstly - much early than last year (one pairs' eggs hatched around 10 June, the other pairs' hatched on 1 July). Secondly - a large brood - five chicks (last year it was four and three respectively).

Below: mother and chicks - not sitting on mum's back - but then carrying five is a big task. As soon as they're ready, they're off and in the water, parents close at hand to feed and protect them.

Below: both parents and three little ones, the rest following on out of shot.

Below: mother gathers them all in...

Below: father surfaces with a morsel for one of the five... these are testing times for evolutionary biology. Can the female find a mate fit enough to keep coming up with the food needed to keep the entire brood alive? Which of the chicks will fight hard enough to get more than its fair share of the food being provided.

Below: further on towards the north end of the ponds, I catch my first sight of this year's clutch of cygnets, a day or two old, following their mother out of the rushes, in which lies the nest where they were hatched.

Below: a better view of the flotilla. Seven today - seven last year. But of last year's seven, only four survived. Which ones won't survive this year? Let's hope they all do well.

Below: dad identifies himself as 2KC1, back again. This couple have been coming here each year since they were juveniles. He doesn't feed the young (unlike the flesh-eating grebes, where the young aren't yet smart enough to catch small fish or larvae, the cygnets eat vegetation, and have litte trouble feeding themselves as soon as they are hatched). Nor does he swim in close formation to the brood; he's happy sunning himself, watching his family from a distance.

This time last year:
The year of the grebe
[the black-necked grebe chicks hatched a week earlier this year]

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki birds in the late May sunshine

This time three years ago:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda's win

This time four years ago:
Call it what it is: Okęcie

This time five years ago:
Three stations in need of repair

This time six years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time seven years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time nine years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time ten years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time