Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cygnets up close

A month old, and the cygnets - all six of them - are thriving. I mentioned yesterday that I'd seen them - for the first time in three weeks - on the retention pond by ul. Trombity, but today the swan family was bolder and came right out to where the people are - by the new playground on ul. Kórnicka.

I've noticed that they only parade together with both parents present. Over the past three weeks, the male (distinguished by a larger knob over its beak) has been seen regularly on his own, but no sign of the rest of the family. On every occasion since the cygnets hatched, I've only seen them in the presence of mother and father. When father's off on his own, the cygnets and their mother hide out in the reedbeds.

Below: father and three cygnets

Below: both parents and all six cygnets, hatched one month ago (between 20 and 2 May). They've grown hugely since then.

Below: four cygnets in line astern following father.

Below: close-up of a cygnet. Swans' long necks have evolved so they can feed deeper into the water; grebes and coots have evolved the ability to dive to feed even deeper than swans.

Below: photo taken on Monday of the male swan, his identification rings clearly visible. '2KC1' on his right leg, a patriotic 'Poland' ring on his left. He's looking happier than the grey heron who appeared in the previous post! But then mute swans can live to over 25 years of age, the grey heron but five.

Meanwhile, the great crested grebe is still sitting on its egg(s); average incubation period for this species is 27-29 days; I first spotted an egg in the nest on 24 May, so today is Day 28 at the very least. Any time now...

Jeziorki's grey herons

One of the larger birds to be found in Jeziorki, along with the swan and the pheasant, the grey heron's habitat has been changed of late, what with the new park being built along the northern side of our ponds. This year, I've only seen the grey heron on the southern-most fringes of the southern-most pond, and here, on the pond by ul. Pozytywki. The grey heron is a predator and eats fish and small aquatic animals. Its face, in anthropomorphic, terms looks aggressive, annoyed, unhappy - unlike the placid, comical duck faces.

First shots of a heron taken with my Nikon CoolPix P900 - excellent for photographing birds.

Mr Heron - please raise your right leg... and now your left... thank you.

Most of the other birds on Jeziorki's ponds get on well together; the gulls, coots, ducks - and this year, grebes, pochards and scaups - but I've witnessed the herons getting chased away by mobs of gulls, or in the case below, by a large corvid.

Other bird news - as of yesterday, 20 June, the greater crested grebe is still incubating its egg(s) - it's over a month since the grebes constructed their nest; I photographed an egg on 24 May, so literally any day now... Plus - I saw the swans yesterday - all six cygnets, looking bigger, on the pond by ul. Trombity. I guess as a result of the new park and the greatly increased human activity here, the swans are bringing up their cygnets deep in the rushes, between the middle pond and Trombity, making an occasional foray into open waters. Yesterday there was much commotion on the street as a road-repair team was cutting into cracked asphalt and patching it up - noise and smell, so the swans would have moved away from it all.

Finally, to all my local readers in Jeziorki - you have until 30 June to vote for this year's projects in the Budżet partycypacyjny. Vote online (, just have your PESEL number with you. From our point of view, most important project here is a comprehensive system of traffic calming for 'Green Ursynów' (from Poleczki down to Warsaw's borders). Thirty km/h means exactly that. Drive slowly, respect the pedestrians, the old folk, the children, the mothers with prams, the cyclists, the walkers - we don't have pavements. You, sitting in your two-tonne SUV, are invulnerable. We, the pedestrians and cyclists, are. You are driving too fast. You are chatting on your mobile. You are writing SMSs. You are a danger. You must be calmed.

This time two years ago:
Midsummer's Day in Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Kittens at six weeks

This time six years ago:
And the Lord spake unto the tribe of Hipsters

This time seven years ago:
Exit polls can get it wrong

This time eight years ago:
In search of good Polish beer
[Situation's much improved, I'm delighted to say!]

This time nine years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Building and the human living space

Every space we've inhabited is a man-made enclosure of space that was once a part of nature. Where you are sitting, right now, reading these words, was once a field, a meadow, a forest - then man came along, levelled the ground, laid foundations, and erected four walls with a roof over them. Building is but the first stage of that magic act of habitation.

As our house was being built, from 1999 to 2002, we'd come over from the house we were renting (it lay less than a kilometre in a straight line from the plot); we'd observing the progress phase by phase, walking into walled-off spaces that would soon become the rooms in which we would be living. An upstairs emerged, accessible at first only by a ladder. And then an attic, under a roof that took shape as the rafters were installed.

This is a process happening all over Poland, sometimes at a faster rate, sometimes pausing for a breather. Big developers, small developers, individual families. And not only houses - offices, shops, warehouses, factories, roads and bridges too. And when finished, when people move in, buildings literally encapsulate the human spirit. The drama that goes on inside, the joy, the pain, the day-to-day activities - as we go about our lives, we slough off dead skin, bacteria; we breathe in and we breathe out, - atoms of us, that were once in us, part of us, mingle with the wallpaper, the carpets, the floor. A shell of brick and wood absorbs us - who knows - our thoughts maybe, and becomes our abode. It's a bit far to go the whole supernatural thing with ghosts and that, but I believe that our houses absorb our personalities, the longer we live there, the stronger the effect gets.

Below: new houses in Jeziorki. It will be a while before they are finished, before families move in. Who will they be? How will the environment shape their lives? How will they shape Jeziorki?

Below: ten years ago - June 2007, across the tracks from the old rampa na kruszywa, new houses going up in Zgorzała. Now inhabited, a dormitory estate with one shop and little by way of character.

Below: ten years ago - June 2007, soon after take-off from Okęcie, the viaduct carrying ul. Poleczki is under construction; no sign of the S79 expressway nor of Poleczki Business Park. Ten years later, those who witnessed the construction have got so used to the way it is now that we've largely forgotten how it once was. Those who moved in, never seeing it being built, have no frame of reference.

Back to the rampa na kruszywa - you can see it in this shot from June 2007, below, at the end of ul. Nawłocka (then still unpaved). Today a large Biedronka sign in the car park is what you'd see if you stood here.

Below: more change in the built environment round these parts: ten years ago, ul. Puławska was being widened between Warsaw's boundary and Piaseczno. While this was happening, traffic was being diverted through the abandoned PGR Mysiadło. Today, Puławska's as busy as ever, these buildings remain abandoned.

Sitting here in my study, looking across at a mature garden, I can still remember when this 45 cubic metres of space that constitute the room I currently occupy, was the outdoors. A field. I can step out, walk around to the side of the house, over the fence - and I'm back in a field. But the bit of field that was once here has lost its field-like quality.

Where we live shapes our worldview.  It helps determine whether or not we're happy. Spirit of place is so important. Choosing exactly where you set down your roots should be determined by your soul, not by a pushy estate agent.

Now it belongs to the ages

What is art? What makes a great work of art - be it a painting, a film, a play, a piece of music? What is the journey that a work of art must make to achieve greatness?

Creating a great work of art (GWA) is a like launching a satellite; it requires a great deal of effort to escape the clutches of gravity and enter earth's orbit; but once up there, it can (though not always forever) stay in orbit. A work of art has to withstand the test of time and be critic-proof.

Getting into orbit is the tricky bit. Your work can achieve it by being ground-breaking; having something entirely new to say, or to proclaim a timeless truth in a new way. Great art can make it into orbit by being technically perfect, when no critic can point to any flaw. But 'ground-breaking' for the sake of being there first - probably not. Example: early video art. The Shock of the New. Take at look at the cover of that great album, Remain in Light by Talking Heads (1980).The music stands the test of time (The Library of Congress deemed it "culturally, historically, or artistically significant", selecting it for preservation in its National Recording Registry). The album cover merely reflects an early attempt at playing around with digital images.Ground-breaking at the time, but not one of rock's great album covers.

An essential of a GWA is that is has to speak to the truth of the human condition, to reach into the consciousness of the reader/listener/viewer who says - yes. "This is how it is". It could be a new realisation, it could be an eternal truth retold in a way that adds new insights, builds on what we've hitherto understood - a flash of light through a facet of the diamond.

Not all great artists are acknowledged in their lifetimes - Vincent Van Gogh being the prime example. Other works are discovered - but the discoverer is important. John Kennedy Toole created a literary masterpiece in the comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, before he committed suicide. It was only thanks to the determination of his mother to see her son's book published, eleven years after his death, that A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day.

Photographer Vivian Maier also went to her grave unrecognised. An obsessive-compulsive, she left boxes and boxes of negatives that only ensured her posthumous greatness because the right person, John Maloof, bought them at an auction and instinctively knew what to do, taking the time and trouble to have prints made, and exhibited and published.

To be up there in orbit, to belong to the ages, an artist must stand behind a body of work. A painter cannot reach the pantheon of greatness without numerous canvasses, a poet cannot do it on the strength of but one short poem; a film-maker can rarely achieve greatness with one. Artists that burn brightly but briefly tend to be remembered in footnotes rather than in book titles.

At the height of Beatlemania [note: word not underlined by Google's spellchecker], my parents and their generation were mainly of the opinion that this was a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon. They were wrong. Though I never was a Beatles fan, by the time the band released Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was certain - as a nine year-old - that this wasn't something ephemeral.

The role of the critic, be it an academic who deems a piece of art worthy of study and deserving of study, or a media critic to bring it to popular awareness and acclaim is vitally important. The greater the number of academic papers, the greater the likelihood that their subject will still be considered a GWA in the distant future.

Better to be liked by a select group cognoscenti down the centuries than to be like by the crowds and then forgotten in the next generation. The right mix of popular and critical acclaim should veer towards the latter.

The emperor's new clothes effect sees some once highly-regarded works tumbling out of orbit. Fashions change. Political views change. But great art speaks to each successive generations, in different ways - ways in which the artists had not even contemplated. And THIS is the most important quality of a GWA - transcendence. It transcends its creator's intent, it conveys a depth and range of meanings that will continue to resonate.

[The title of this post is a line from one of the great Simpsons episodes Brush with Greatness (Series 2 Episode 18). Professor Lombardo, inspecting one of his student's paintings says "Not another stroke! - Now it belongs to the ages."]

This time last year:
More Brictorian Liverpool

This time two years ago:
Łódź - city of tenements

This time three years ago:
Liverpool reborn

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 June 2017

"Further progress? Hell yes!"

After dinner was over, we moved out side into the cool evening air  to continue our conversation over cocktails. Everyone was feeling happy after our huge barbecued steak dinner. We were in a self-congratulatory mood, with plenty of affable back-slapping; stocks were riding high and the middle of the 20th century was all ours.

As we made our way out, Clarence said that he wanted to carry on about with his main theme of the day's conference. "Let's go back, my friends, to the America of our childhoods, and just think about the progress that our generation has gifted to humanity." We sat ourselves down in the sunloungers around the pool and waved to the boy to wheel out the drinks trolley. Clarence continued: "Look at it this way. The atom will soon be giving us unlimited, free, energy. Mass production brings all sorts of devices, from the vacuum cleaner to the Frigidaire, into the financial reach of consumers in markets around the world. It will do more and more, until everyone has everything he needs. We can fly at the speed of sound. Passenger flights from coast to coast are now commonplace. Television will soon replace radio, like the jet plane will replace the steam train. The workforce at my plant are more prosperous than any employees of any employer ever. Why, most of my guys drive to work in their own autos! And just think back to the horseless buggies that our fathers drove! That is progress! Ignorance and disease will soon pass into history. If you think that progress of the past half-century has been fabulous - and it has - just wait to see what the future brings. Our grandchildren will be conquering space."

Self-satisfaction settled upon us all. Yup - we were sure this is how it would be. No dissenting voices. "Let's just make sure no commies get in our way!" said Earl, waving his beer glass.

I felt it was time to say a few words. "Fellows - I'm sure that like me, you can remember that day, nearly half a century ago, when you first heard about powered heavier-than-air flight. As a child, the exploits of the Wright Brothers gave me the sense that the world was ours to conquer. And the automobile. When I got back from France in 1918, first thing I did was to go out and buy a Model T.

"The Wright Brothers flew the length of a football field. Just 45 years later, Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. Aircraft can fly faster, further, carrying ever-heavier loads; jets replace propellers. Imagine the same pace of change brought forward another half-century or so." I went on: "If we could build a time-machine, and could bring a man born just a century before us to today, he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he could see, wherever he looked. Imagine packing such a man, born in the 1790s, onto the American Airlines flight from Roanoke to New York, then showing him the skyscrapers, the stock exchange, the Subway..."

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of bourbon on the rocks. In the distance, I could hear the comforting muffled roar of trucks and autos on the newly-built state highway. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2051! How will our world look then? Nuclear-powered space liners taking us to our holidays on Mars? Cars that can travel at 250 miles per hour? Miniature televisions that we can wear on the wrist?"

Clarence took a puff on a Havana cigar, sitting forward, elbows on his knees. "Gentlemen - the pace of change is accelerating. Can we even begin to imagine life in fifty, a hundred years time? We're unable to catch that. Our minds are just... too dull, too tied down to the everyday to catch just a sliver of a sense of what it will be like."

I realised that sat by the pool was this Red Indian guy, around the same age as us, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki slacks. Had he been there all along, except that I'd failed to notice him? Who was he? Had he been invited, or was he a worker here - or even a guest? Don't know.

Anyway, he stood up and said: "White man - you have created the jet plane and the V-8 motor - but you have lost within yourselves that which is of the spirit. For what end are you devising these inventions? You think you are clever - you think they are bring happiness - but you're spoiling our world - and the saddest thing is - you don't... even know it." Having said these words, he left.

The awkward silence that fell upon our company was replaced by laughter that felt in equal measure aggressive, and defensive.

And so ended a most insightful evening.

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

Monday, 12 June 2017

Jeziorki update

Back after a few days in London, very busy with work (apologies for emails unanswered etc), but time for a quick pictorial catch-up.

Let's start with the grebes... The black-necked grebes had their young early, and the chicks no longer ride around on their parent's backs. Below: keeping up with mum,

Below: dad surfaces with a fish. If you click to enlarge, you'll see the scales. But what are those strands around the grebe's head and neck and back? I hope they're not anglers' fishing lines...

Below: the great crested grebe on the southern pond is still patiently sitting it out.

...But by the northern retention pond, the other pair of great crested grebes has come into the family way, with a quartet of chicks (if you look closely), one riding on mum's back.

Below: male common pochard.

Below: a  male scaup. But which - greater? (ogorzałka zwyczajna) lesser? (ogorzałka mała) Or indeed could it be ring-necked duck (czernica), given its black upper wings?

Below: young gulls go for it. Immature black-headed gulls; as chicks they've stayed hidden, remaining close to their nests in the reeds. Now fledged, they make forays onto the main ponds.

Below: photo taken on 28 May, cygnets six. Since then, I've not seen them, only the adult male. I hope all is well with them.

The path around the pond is taking shape, with little needed to complete the park. The children's playground is complete, and the fitness area with six bits of equipment. Tables, benches and barbeque pits have appeared, as has, sadly, rubbish - cigarette packets and energy drink tins in the water. Below: both walkways going across the pond await final decking.

And finally, I can note the timely completion of trackworks between W-wa Okęcie and Piaseczno station. Once again the 'down' line is being used for 'down' trains. For the record, here's one of the last Radom-bound trains heading down the 'up' line - photo taken Saturday evening. The next day, normal working was restored. Both platforms at W-wa Okęcie are now operational, even the footbridge has been officially opened (one year and two months after completion). And Nowa Iwiczna's new 'down' platform is now functioning. Photo taken from Ballast Mountain, which looks like it's being excavated from the south. How much longer will my favourite local vantage point survive?

As of Sunday, the new summer timetable is now operational. Now that both lines are ready, travel times between Jeziorki and W-wa Śródmieście have been cut by three minutes, from 31 to 28 minutes, a small but (from the property value point of view) psychologically significant difference.

Indeed, I was quite surprised on Sunday to see trains whizzing up and down the tracks faster than ever before, at speeds that I associate with the Poznań or Gdańsk lines.

This time two years ago:
Inside Okęcie airport's new old terminal

This time six years ago:
Thirty-One and Sixty-Three (short story about 19th century Polish uprisings)

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki to Jeziorki - the big rail loop

This time nine years ago:
Automotive miscellany

This time nine years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Saturday, 10 June 2017

"Further progress is unimaginable"

After dinner was over, we retired to the drawing room to continue our conversation over some brandy. An air of contentment spread across the company after a most splendid meal of pheasant followed by Armagnac sorbet; cigar smoke hung thick was in the air. All around, the oak panels, the portraits of our chairman's predecessors gazing down upon us.

As we made our way across, Sir Alfred made it clear that he wanted to continue to discourse upon the main topic of his after-dinner speech. "Let us return, gentlemen, to the England of our childhoods, and consider the progress that our generation has bestowed upon Mankind." We took our places and beckoned the waiter to bring some fine whiskies. Sir Alfred continued: "No more are we isolated in the villages of our birth - within two or three hours, we can be here, in Central London, from any point in the Home Counties, thanks to the magnificent network of railways that we have constructed. Furthermore - thanks to the telegraph, we can send telegrams to any point of the Empire! Gas lighting illuminates our homes and our factories! Printing presses bring us fresh news each day and the great works of literature are accessible in our bookshops! Our people are healthier, better educated and better housed, better clothed than at any time in history! Such, gentlemen, is the progress that we have bequeathed to the next generations! Will they be able to better us?" he bellowed.

A self-satisfied glow befell the retinue, there were some misplaced tipsy mumblings of "hear, hear" - but the answer to Sir Alfred's question was surely 'no".

But I took upon myself the onus of reply. "Chairman, gentlemen; may I cast back reminiscences to my own childhood; that balmy day in the summer of 1851 when my father, Lord _____, took me, nine years old at the time, along with him, at my insistence, to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Half a century has elapsed since that day, and yet my memories of it are sharp and clear; I was overwhelmed with a strong sense of pride - of being English, of being a young Victorian gentleman, with this vast panoply of technological advance that would be accompanying me into my adulthood. Technologies that had just begun to make themselves felt on the everyday life of our countrymen, let alone the denizens of further parts would change the world into which I'd grow up.

"Since then - the steam engine has become ubiquitous; we think nothing of catching the eight-fifteen up to town each morning - I've been doing so for two-thirds of my life! The telegram allows me to make contact with my youngest son working in the Indian Civil Service, currently stationed in Cawnpore. Photographs of my family adorn my Bedford Park home, which is modern in every conceivable way - airy, spacious, uncluttered," I boasted. And then as if to deflect that thought, I went on: "If, with the aid of a time-machine, we were able to drag a man born a mere century earlier than ourselves to this day and age, I dare say he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he would behold wherever he gazed. Imagine, packing such a man, born in the 1740s, onto the 8.16 from Rugby Central to London Marylebone, then alighting from the train to behold the marvels of our capital!

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of whisky and soda. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2001! How will our dear old London town appear to us then? What wonders would we witness? Flying machines in the skies above? Horseless carriages in the streets? Cinemas on every corner?"

Sir Alfred stood up and intoned: "I cannot imagine anything more than incremental improvements over what we ourselves have wrought these past few decades. It would be folly to consider that progress could continue at the same pace that it had done over the past century; it was an epoch of great men - great inventors, engineers, manufacturers - mankind cannot hope to be blessed with such a munificence of talent in every century! The Renaissance was the last time that Providence had blessed us so generously with talented creators. Mankind will not see such progress as has befallen us in our lifetime for several hundred years! We have been unusually fortunate as a generation!"

A small fellow, short and thin of face - one I'd not met before - waved his hand impatiently, and Sir Alfred, looking irritated, grudgingly allowed him to speak. The man rose and "We speak of progress as though it goes but in one direction. Industry has brought mankind many benefits, but it can be used to bring harm to a great many in ways that we've not ever considered. Imagine, if we may, the flying machines that the Honourable _____ mentions being used to drop explosive devices, killing civilians by the tens of thousands. Progress is not necessarily desirable," he said as he sat down.

My sanguine hopes for the new century looked too bright - I had not considered the possibility of technological progress being harnessed for bringing harm. Sir Alfred pulled out his pocket watch, squinted at it, and announced: "Gentlemen, fascinating as this evening has been, I must now depart for St Pancras to catch the last train of the evening to my country seat. Tomorrow I will oversee the delivery of a steam tractor which will revolutionise work on my farm."

And so ended a most insightful evening.

This time last year:
Baletowa reopens as rail works move on

This time four years ago:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time seven years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time nine years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time ten years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Friday, 2 June 2017

Sticks, Carrots and Nudge - a Proposal

The British government's so-called 'Nudge Unit' is well-known among policy makers. The idea that giving citizens a slight nudge in the right direction rather than using proscriptive laws or behaviour-changing taxes - has taken hold in many governments.

I'd like to propose an idea that came to me as I hurried through St Pancras station this morning on my way to a meeting. I walk a lot - since 1 January 2014, my daily average has been 10,491 paces. How do I know this? At first, a pedometer, now replaced with an accurate health app in my phone, logged on a spreadsheet.

Walking is good for us, says the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Surgeon-General of the USA. All set a target 10,000 paces (around 8km) a day. Now, I'm doing this. Thus reducing the costs of my long-term healthcare costs. And yet, paying into a healthcare system remains a one-payment-fits-all model. Now, I'm all in favour of those with healthy genes to subsidise the healthcare of those not so favourably born. But surely governments should be able to differentiate those who actively take care of their health, and those that neglect it?

To what extent could a carrot be offered to those prudent with their health?

Long-term research clearly shows the benefits of regular exercise. So how about - on a voluntary basis - offering a discount on monthly payments (National Insurance in the UK, ZUS in Poland) for people who agree to have their activity monitored?

I'd happily share data from my phone with the state to prove that I indeed walk my 10,000 paces a day. Connect my smartphone to a government server, and let it see my daily walking.

Furthermore - how about an incentive not to drive your car into town? My health app verifies my walking, but the GPS in my phone also shows that I travel to work exclusively by public transport. If a city can calculate the true cost of a commuter driving to town each working day, in terms of congestion, pollution and the opportunity cost of the real estate on which the car rests for eight working hours, then it can share some of that cost with citizens who forego the car.

All of this can be worked out these days by GPS, by ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition), by your health app in your phone or watch, by public transport revenue-collection equipment such as Metro gates. The technology is easy.

As well as penalising those who insist on driving with a congestion charge, paying the rest of us a decongestion reward would be beneficial in the drive to unclog our cities.

More and more commentators and futurologists are talking about taxing the robots and artificial intelligence systems that will take over so many jobs in our economy over the next 20-30 years. From those taxes, a basic citizen's income (already under discussion in countries like Switzerland and Norway) can be paid. And this tax can be tweaked by the value that a citizen adds to their economy.

Behavioural value - leading a healthy lifestyle, polluting less, recycling more, activities that are useful to society and to the environment should not go unrewarded. Behaviour can be monitored, and - provided this is done with the citizen's consent - good behaviour should be turned into monetary reward.

How does that sound?

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