Monday, 21 May 2018

Shopping crisis solved

Not content with shutting the shops in Poland on Pentecost Sunday back in 2007, the government has now gone a step further and shut shops on what seems an arbitrary number of Sundays each month (two? three?) with the result that the Saturdays before the closed Sundays have become Retail Hell.

Last Saturday week, I visited Auchan, enduring a solid traffic jam there and back, Puławska chockers like on a weekday evening, and an almost-full car park. But all the check-outs were working, so things went reasonably well - except that five items on my shopping list were sold out.

I drove on to Lidl. Here, the situation was worse. The car park was full to the point of overflowing.  Inside, I found three of the five missing items. I picked up a handful of other things, and found myself at the back of a queue nine people long. Yes, there were nine other weekend-shopping desperados ahead of me with their trolleys heaving with enough produce to last out a war. I endured, paid and left to go to Biedronka to finalise my shopping there.

Yes, the last two Has avocados were there; I had five items in my hand, and sought my place at one of the three open check-outs. I chose the middle one. Just as I arrived at the end of the queue (four trolleys and a couple of baskets), the check-out person decided to close the till, the people with the groaning trolley in front of me were to be her last customers. I put my handful of grocers down and left, swearing I'd never shop on a Saturday in Poland as long as this (or any future) government insists on shutting the supermarkets on Sunday.

So I opened an online account with AuchanDirect, and made my first-ever online grocery shop last Wednesday. At first, a bit of a disappointment. The first two things I was after (Muszynianka mineral water and Maluta Balkan yogurt) were both 'temporarily unavailable'. The cat food was hard to find. The mineral water that was available was not available in the bottle size I wanted. Choice was limited compared to what's in the shop. (Only one Roquefort, not five, for example). But I gamely carried on, and in the end got most of what it was I wanted. Around 130 złotys (which meant that delivery cost 19.90 złotys was relatively steep but cheap in terms of time saved). However, by increasing the value of my shop, the relative cost of delivery falls. (Or I can collect the whole lot outside Auchan for free. Worth investigating.)

I selected a delivery window of 16:00-18:00 on Thursday. The guy came an hour and half early (which was no problem on that particular day as I was off work with a thick cold), but it could have been a problem had I specially arranged to come home for 16:00 to find that the delivery had come and gone.

The produce was in three cardboard boxes (not reusable), the six-pack of large mineral water bottles separately, and some free gifts - sachets of spices and a packet of mints.

It will take a while to change habits, but shopping online is preferable to the unpleasantness of shopping on a Saturday.

Incidentally, it is worth knowing that the Lewiatan in Zamienie/Dawidy Bankowe is open on a Sunday.

This time two years ago:
Mszczonów - another railway junction

This time five years ago:
The Devil is in Doubt - short story, part I

This time six years ago:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time seven years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Coal line rarity

Sunday, 20 May 2018

This year's brood of black-necked grebes hatched

It's been black-necked grebe weekend on Jeziorki's ponds; birdwatchers have descended to snap the latest arrivals. Below: a pair of black-necked grebes on the middle pond... The male (in front) looks more bedraggled - there's a good reason for this.

It is only when mum turns around that you can see three (click to enlarge, then count!) chicks riding on her back (below). The black-necked grebe chicks hatched exactly the same time last year, by the way.

Dad is diving for food - damselfly larva - to feed the chicks. This is why he looks somewhat dishevelled. Below: he's got one. But which chick will get it?

Below: off he goes again, pond weed on his back, in search of more larvae for his brood. An endless job. But food is plentiful.

A different story with the other black-necked grebes, near the wooden walkway towards the north end of the middle pond. Below: yesterday I snapped this grebe with chick; the mother was trying to off-load the chick, which was scrambling to get back on board. "A bit selfish of the mother," I thought.

But today I could see why. This grebe doesn't have a mate. Below: she is rearing the solitary chick on her own; so the chick - rather than riding its mother's back, is in the water alone, while her mother is constantly diving for larvae to feed it. But it seems to be thriving nevertheless.

Time after time, the mother dives and pops back up, never without food. The chick, in the meanwhile, is waiting for its mother, and every now and then, disappears under water, learning to dive and hunt.

The mother grebe is also coming up bedecked in weed; she's doing a great job.

On the southern pond, the great crested grebes are without young (last year they hatched in early July); and this year the great crested grebes have been more discrete about their nest location - not within a few metres of a footpath like last year!

Elsewhere on the pond, coot chicks have hatched; the swans, black-headed gulls and ducks haven't . And I saw a pair of common pochards on the the north pond.

This time last year:
To Warka in the sunshine

This time five years ago:
The descriptive vs. the prescriptive

This time six yeas ago: 

This time ten years ago:
Why Poland can no longer afford to keep the grosz

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 3 of 3)

[For Part 1 of the review, click here]

The final part of Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time pulls away from the physics and takes the human view of the phenomenon. "We inhabit time as fish live in water." The very source of time, suggests Rovelli, is our own perception. We see things emerge, unfold, become; the process runs forwards, never backwards. Evolution is a continuous and one-way process, as is entropy. "The entire difference between past and future may be attributed solely to the fact that the entropy of the universe was low in the past."

Rovelli asks us to imagine being on a high mountain, looking down into a valley covered by a sea of white clouds. The surface of the clouds gleams white, immaculate. We start walking down. The air becomes more humid, less clear, the sky no longer blue. Eventually, we find ourselves in a fog. What happened to that well-defined surface of the clouds? "It vanished. Its disappearance is gradual; there is no actual surface that separates the fog from the clear air above. Was it an illusion? No, it was a view from afar. It's like that with all surfaces. This marble table would look like a fog if I were shrunk to a small enough, atomic scale. Everything in the world becomes blurred when seen close up."

This is actually a huge insight, not only in terms of time and physics, but indeed economics and politics too - detail blurs perception. We tend to want our truths clear-cut; yet the more we drill down, the more complex it all becomes.

Back down at that atomic level, the glass of hot water left to cool on the kitchen table is abuzz with vibrating molecules shedding heat energy over time. It is the act of observing those blurry vibrations (always slower than before, never faster) that generates time. Rovelli speaks of 'thermal time' and 'quantum time', though this is not time as we experience it, rather it is the granular, discrete, packets of time, determined by the speed and position of a molecule. For it is down here, that the direction and evolution of time becomes a phenomenon of physics, and not a matter of human perception.

"It took us thousands of years, but in the end we managed to understand the revolving of the heavens: we understood that it is we who turn, not the universe..." furthermore "...perhaps the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe, but is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it." The entropy of the universe was low in the past, as the second law of thermodynamics demands, it is increasing. As it does so, "memories exist, traces are left - and there can be evolution, life and thought."

Yes. Rovelli moves into the human sphere; it is memory that allows our consciousness to perceive the passing of time. Marcel Proust's famous madeleine cake from À la recherche du temps perdu (those memory flashbacks prompted by long-forgotten smells and tastes) gets the status of chapter heading. "Proust could not have been more explicit writing... 'Reality is formed only by memory'. And memory is a collection of traces, an indirect product of the disordering of the world, of that small equation, ΔS ≥1." Here on earth, the human brain is the ultimate time keeper, storing across a network of many billions of brains, past, present and to come, the memories and the traces of lives measured down the millennia. "We are time. We are space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come."

The final chapter heading, The Sister of Sleep, looked familiar. Of course - it is also a chapter heading from Tischner/Żakowski, Death, our Sister. Tischner is quoting St Francis of Assisi; Rovelli is quoting Bach. Death marks the end of each individual human's time - then what? "We see just a tiny window of the vast electromagnetic spectrum. We do not see the atomic structure of matter, nor do we see the curvature of space." We are too limited in our understanding to comprehend. The nearest most of us can get is through music, he suggests. "Song, as St Augustine observed, is the awareness of time. It is time. In the Benedictus of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis the song of the violin is pure beauty, pure desperation, pure joy. We are suspended, holding our breath, feeling mysteriously that this must be the source of meaning. That this is the source of time. The song fades and ceases. The silver thread is broken... the earth returns to dust. We can close our eyes, rest. This all seems fair and beautiful to me. This is time."

On his Wikipedia page, it says that Rovelli sees the conflict between science and religion as unsolvable because most religions demand the acceptance of some unquestionable truths, while science is based on the continuous questioning of any truth. Yet it is clear from this book - as it is from Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe - that the author's position on their being some greater, mystical power at work is far removed from that of Richard Dawkins. We are far more than meat robots in an accidental universe!

This book is relatively accessible to the general reader (if you made it through Hawking's A Brief History of Time you'll find this easier and - dare I say - more artistic). Every science writer has their strengths; Rovelli's for me has been his understanding of the role of entropy in the universe. Here and there, he argues in favour of his loop quantum gravity theory; but then you'd have to understand string theory to get this. Shortcomings? I'd like to have read what Rovelli makes of dark matter and dark energy (and how a universe that's expanding at an accelerating rate sits with second law of thermodynamics). And also about quantum entanglement, superluminary transfer of quantum information (which in effect suggest that there is such as thing as 'instantaneous', by inference positing the theoretical possibility of universal time).

Above all, how the idea that atoms seem to defy entropy; electrons in position around their neutrons for ever. Are they only defying entropy - or are they defying time itself?

I like the small hardback format, the paper stock, the clear 12/14pt type and page layout; physically the book is a nice object to have in your hand.

Many thanks to my father for getting me the book; now I look forward to reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics; look out for my review on this blog in early June.

This time last year:
The year's most beautiful day

This time four years ago:
W-wa Wola became W-wa Zachodnia Platform 8 two years ago today 

This time five years ago:
From yellow to white - dandelions go to seed

This time six years ago:
The good topiarist

This time eight years ago:
Wettest. May. Ever.

This time ten years ago:

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 2 of 3)

[For Part 1 of the review, click here]

The past is fixed; the future is open. The present, suggests Rovelli, that fleeting intersection between what was and what will be, doesn't exist. "Nothing is. Things happen, they don't exist." Impermanence is ubiquitous. Just as things can be disassembled into their ever and ever smaller components, down to subatomic particles, so events can be taken apart. "A war is not a thing, it's a series of event. A storm is not a thing, it's a collection of occurrences... Things are, in themselves, events that for a while are monotonous"; for example, a large rock or mountain that is constantly shedding molecules under the influence of atmospheric phenomena. At our level, it seems permanent, a thing. Yet at the molecular level, its surface is undergoing continuous change.

A human being? "It's a complex process which food, information, light, words and so on enter and exit... A knot of knots in a network of social relations, a network of emotions exchanged..."

Understanding the world, the universe, on the basis of things rather than events means that you end up ignoring change. Change happens across time; here I feel that Hawking explains the temporal aspects of Big Bang better than Rovelli, who's better at the level of planet Earth than the expansion of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

The notion that the past, present and future are all equally really, and that the passing of time is merely an illusion is called eternalism; Einstein wrote "People who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion". Eternalists have devised the concept of the 'block universe', a single block; all equally real; only the passage of time from its beginning to its end is illusory.

Prof Rovelli is not, however, an eternalist; like Stuart A. Kauffman, he sees the future as being something that isn't predestined; it is unfolding, becoming (both men use these two words to describe the future). Kauffman has the advantage of being an evolutionary biologist. Not a single, set block of time encompassing the entire universe from its beginning to its end, rather something that in itself is creative.

Our languages are inadequate, says Rovelli, to discuss time. When we observe an event upon the face of the sun, we see something that occurred eight minutes and 20 seconds ago, yet we describe it in the present tense. There's no tense that captures the phenomenon of time stretching over distance. Earlier today, the BBC ran a story about the discovery of oxygen in a distant galaxy as it was just 500 million years after the Big Bang (in other words 13.3 billion years ago). The oxygen, the oldest ever found, itself was the result of an even earlier galaxy that existed some 250 million years after Big Bang. And yet it was only just spotted recently; mankind lived in its ignorance until now. Is that oxygen still out there today? We can have no idea. Watch this space for 13.3 billion years!

Moving from language to physics, Rovelli is keen to promote his own field of expertise, namely quantum gravity (where there are several competing theories). Rovelli champions loop quantum gravity (based around something at the Plank-length scale named 'spin-foam'). The other main theory is string theory. Both (and other less well-established ones) aim to unify Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (which places gravity into the context of spacetime) and the other three fundamental forces (electromagnetism and strong- and weak atomic forces). Suffice to say, I am entirely out of my depth when trying to really understand either loop- or string theory, even by way of metaphor. However, the idea that gravity can be quantised - broken down into discreet particles at the Planck level - I grasp. One way or another, the problem of time is central to an understanding of gravity, which is why Rovelli is so fascinated by it.

Equations without time, is what Rovelli is angling at here. "Time and space are no longer containers [of the universe]. They are only approximations of a quantum dynamic that knows neither time nor space. There are only events and relations [between events].

In Part III, Rovelli returns to the human scale, to our understanding of the passage of time, and gets metaphysical.

This time last year:
The fossil-fuel powered car is dead

This time three years ago:
With Blood and Scars by B.E. Andre - book review

This time four years ago:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we? 

This time five years ago:
Ethereal and transient

This time six years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time seven years ago: 
By tram to Boernerowo

This time nine years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop; rural USA or Poland

This time 11 years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 1 of 3)

Having read Stuart A. Kauffman's magnificent Humanity in a Creative Universe, and the late Steven Hawking's best-selling A Brief History of Time, I am thankful to my father for buying me another excellent pop-science book, Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time. For those to whom the name is unfamiliar, Prof Rovelli is the author is the Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (a million copies sold, translated into 41 languages); my father is reading this right now (so I look forward to reviewing it next month).

Compared to Prof Hawking's book about the same subject, The Order of Time has two advantages. One is it was written 30 years later, and science has advanced somewhat. The second is that the author, being a historian and philosopher of science as well as a purely theoretical physicist, places the science into a broader context of human wisdom.

Divided into three parts, Prof Rovelli strips away our perceptions of time as something that flows uniformly from the past, through the present and into the future at a regular rate. Einstein proved, over a century ago, that time contracts and stretches, being affected by mass and velocity. Time passes more slowly the nearer one is to a massive object than further away; time passes more slowly the faster one is travelling. Today for a few thousand dollars, says Rovelli, you can buy a timepiece accurate enough to show the difference in time between sea level and mountain peaks, and between a stationary observer and one flying at supersonic speed. So there is no objective 'universal' time; spacetime is stretchable. The reason that we don't notice this is down to scale. We see the sun as it was over eight minutes ago, the moon as it was 1.3 seconds ago. It doesn't make any difference to our lives unlike international time zones, an artificial construct.

Rovelli doesn't mention (as it is as yet inconclusive) the notion of information being passed between entangled particles instantly - faster than the speed of light, stuff that Kauffman touched upon. A large-scale experiment conducted this month seems to confirm Einstein's worries about 'spooky action at a distance'. If confirmed, it suggests that information can travel at superluminary speed - question can that happen at interstellar distances?

Entropy, the key to understanding time

Rovelli brings to our attention the idea that Rudolf Clausius's equation for entropy change (ΔS ≥1) is "the only equation of fundamental physics that knows any difference between past and future. The only one that speaks of the flowing of time." Indeed, ΔS ≥1 is the only equation in the book's main text (much like the only equation in Hawking's book is E=mc². ). This is because it is significant in the age of quantum mechanics; other equations are reversible, whereas if you leave a glass of hot water in a cold room, the water will only tend to get cold. It is here we can witness the passage of time. But again, there's a notable gap - like Hawking (who at least mentions it), the role of dark energy pushing our universe apart at an accelerating speed - isn't mentioned by Rovelli.

The quanta of time attract Rovelli's attention. Just as light is both particles and waves, so time is fluid and yet granular. The shortest unit of time is Planck time; a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second (That's ten to the minus 44th, but Blogger's font format tools don't do superscripts that size). In other words, you cannot have 'half a Planck time'; Plank Time is indivisible. Similarly, out there at the subatomic end of spacetime, Planck length ("the minimum distance below which the notion of length becomes meaningless") is a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimetre. Down at this level, electrons have no precise position, everything is a blur - until observed by the conscious observer.

Essentially, Rovelli is tearing down everything we instinctively feel about time and its passing. He asks us to imagine the moment Copernicus watched the sun set and having the insight that it is not the sun descending below the horizon, but rather him sitting on a planet that's spinning backwards as it orbits a stationary star. What this paradigm shift means for science - and for philosophy - I will cover tomorrow in Part 2 of this three-part review.

This time two years ago:
Brexit and Trump - a political fiction

This time six years ago:
The law of diminishing returns disappears up its own fundament

This time seven years ago:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time nine years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events

Monday, 14 May 2018

Zamienie and Nowa Wola - unplanned exurbs

It's been a while since I last walked around these exurbs across the tracks - I went for a walk with Moni on Sunday to see how the largely unplanned development is sprawling. Below: the cranes are visible from ul. Dawidowska; this is a brand new estate of flats going up in the grounds of the former vaccine plant in Zamienie. Address - ul. Waniliowa (lit. Vanilla Street). Moni asks what the point is of moving to the very edge of town to live in a flat rather than house with garden. Indeed.

Outside the old Zamienie complex, in fields, is the estate called Osiedle wśród pól (lit. Estate amid Fields), complete with that phantom bus stop that appeared a year ago, and is still not served by any Warsaw bus route. From this point it is two an half kilometre walk (or 3km drive) to W-wa Jeziorki station. When the S7 extension is built, these new estates will effectively find themselves cut off from Jeziorki by a major expressway juntion, Węzeł Zamienie.

Below: this is ul. Polna, Nowa Wola. No asphalt, a dirt track that's dusty in summer, muddy in late winter/early spring and in late autumn. And yet the car is literally the only way out of this place. We are 3.5km by foot/4km by car from W-wa Jeziorki station. But the architecture I like, it puts me in mind of Taos, New Mexico.

Below: this neoclassical effort at the southern (asphalted) end of ul. Polna will pass without comment.

Below: an access road in what was the old Zamienie vaccine plant; bit by bit the old character is disappearing. Before long, the S7 will be roaring past, just a couple of hundred metres from here.

Warsaw's outward sprawl continues. Despite the availability of derelict land for building (post-industrial developments are happening close to the city centre), there's still an appetite among developers and buyers for facility-free estates in featureless fields just outside Warsaw's borders, where there are no zoning plans.

"Build it, and they will come?" Probably.

This time last year:
Long-term memory, awareness and identity

This time two years ago:
Language and politics

This time three years ago:
Trafalgar Square, then and now

This time five years ago:
GM's city car for Europe fails to wow me

This time six years ago:
A biblical sky

This time eight years ago:
The parable of the Iron-Filings Factory

This time 11 years ago:
Got to get ourselves back to the Garden

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Retracing my grandfather's footsteps

Yesterday I was speaking at a conference at the Społeczna Akademia Nauk on ul. Łucka 11, right across the street from where stood the tenement in which lived my father's family when he was born in 1923. On his baptismal certificate, the address was 'ul. Łucka number one thousand one hundred and fifty five', which for many years I assumed was a mistake. I assumed that it could not have been Łucka 11, flat 55, because between the wars, Łucka 11 was the Ostrowski brothers' coach-building factory; neither could it have been Łucka 1, flat 155, because Łucka 1 then - as today - standing on the corner of ul. Żelazna, could not have been divided into 155 flats.

But then last summer, the mystery was solved; reader Alojzy (thank you, Sir!) pointed out that Łucka 1155 was the numer hipoteczny, or mortgage number of the flat, which corresponds to an apartment within the tenement on Łucka 16. Today, that building is no longer there, replaced in the 1990s by a nondescript development of flats. But a little further east, the derelict apartment building at Łucka 10 is still there, awaiting demolition. Online, I cannot find any pictures of Łucka 16 before the war (there are photos of Łucka 12 and 14 on Wczoraj i Dzis blog, taken eight years ago).

My father's family moved in 1926 to a new apartment building for employees of PKO (which has its very own Wikipedia page).

This is Łucka 10 today, the last reminder of the architecture that would have been familiar to my grandparents before their move to posh Ochota. My father, being three at the time of the move, has no recollections from Łucka.

Below: view from across the street.

Below: view of the back from the eastern side...

Below: view of the back from the western side...

Below: photo taken from the Społeczna Akademia Nauk, looking east towards central Warsaw. In the foreground, the Norblin factory redevelopment is under way. A neat and tidy Skanska building site! In the middle distance, the cranes rising above Mennica Legacy Tower (a long way to go there).

I looked up the word 'oficyna' which for many years I took to be some kind of office (because of the association with oficyna wydawnicza = publishing house). It actually means 'annex' or 'outbuilding'.

After the conference, I walked back to my office along the same pavements that my grandfather would have walked on his way to his office on ul. Świętokrzyska, just a few hundred metres further than mine.

This time last year:
Keep-fit park opens in Jeziorki

Saturday, 5 May 2018

God, an Englishman, orders His Eden thus

If God is an Englishman - a notion which in today's sublime weather felt theologically possible - then this is how He would order His Eden... Below: bowls in Pitshanger Park.

Left: St Mary's Church, Perivale, stands on the footpath linking Perivale Lane with Pitshanger Park, running across Ealing Golf Club. The church itself dates back to the 13th century (possibly 12th), though the tower is from the 16th century with weatherboarding added much later. Unused as a church since 1972, it is now used as a venue for classical music recitals.

Below: the 297 bus route, served by double deckers, makes its way up Castlebar Road. Upstairs, front seat, best view. And the weather... such a crystalline blue sky, I haven't seen it like this since last time I was here.

It is time to visit the Brentham estate (or Brentham Garden Suburb), which I last wrote about in November 2015. Since then, I have acquired a book by Aileen Reid (Brentham, published in 2000 by the Brentham Heritage Society) on the subject; today I set ofp to track down the photo used on the front cover. And I found it - on Fowler's Walk. The architecture here is wonderful; classic British Arts & Crafts of the early 20th century.

Below: the corner of Ludlow Road and Ruskin Gardens, complete with Edwardian post-box.

Below: corner of Neville Road and Brunswick Road. Under such a Mediterranean sky, the vernacular style seems particularly sublime.

Below: Fowler's Walk again, the lower end. It's a gorgeous Bank Holiday weekend, so many residents have gone away taking their cars with them, thus affording car-free vistas of the architecture.

Below: Holyoake House on Holyoake Walk, a small block of flats, in a human scale, quite in keeping with the houses that surround it.

Below: lower end of Ludlow Road. Perfectly trimmed hedges are a hallmark of Brentham.

When blessed with such weather, I feel I should be spending every minute of sunlight outdoors, but too much sun can be dangerous; a two-hour long walk in the afternoon was quite sufficient for health.

This time two years ago:
W-wa Okęcie modernisation nears the end

This time three years ago:
I buy a Nikon Coolpix A
[An excellent buy. I await a Nikon FX mirrorless camera!] 

This time four years ago:
More about the Ladder of Authority

This time five years ago:
By bike, south of Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
Functionalist architecture in Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
What's the Polish for 'to bully'?

This time nine years ago:
Making plans

This time tent years ago:
The setting sun stirs my soul

This time 11 years ago:
Rain ends the drought