Sunday, 27 September 2009

Order from chaos

I decided to rationalise the contents of our garage - too much junk. But before throwing out old bicycle frames, wheels, bits and bobs, I did something I'd been thinking about for a couple of weeks, namely building a fixed-gear bicycle (result below).

The frame and forks were from an old Trek 800. The wheels from an old Raleigh roadster (with a fixed-gear rear hub). The front brake, handlebars, stem and seatpost came from my old Klein Pinnacle (I loved that bike! Cracked head tube put the frame out of action), and the saddle was the one from my Cannondale Caffeine F2 that I replaced with a classic Brooks B66.

Fixed-gear riding is a philosophy in itself; you'll see urban bicycle couriers adopting this type of mount. It is the lightest, simplest of bikes; there's no freewheel at the back, when the wheels turn, the pedals turn and vice-versa. You develop supple legs. You truly become one with your bike. Fixed-gear bicycles are traditionally used for winter training by cyclists; there's no gear mechanisms for the road grime to get into. When you see a cyclist riding one of these around town, you will see a cyclist with attitude and commitment.

Putting the bike together put me into a reflective state of mind; there's something about mechanical engineering that is deeply satisfying to the human soul. Working with tools. I still have a vast box of bicycle-oriented tools, bottom-bracket extractors, chain-link separators, axle spanners, etc however, I was missing a flat 10mm spanner, which I needed to adjust the brake.

I bought one at the supermarket. Less than one zloty. Big mistake. Uh... too small. Buy an 11mm spanner. Ah! Too big. But the nut is 10mm. Being from a Shimano XT brake, it is 10mm. That cheapo spanner's the wrong size. Moral: NEVER SAVE ON CHEAP TOOLS.

Today's consumerist world is about production, not craftsmanship. Churn out a much as possible, as cheaply as possible. So that repair, by a skilled craftsman is not economically viable. The craftsman is a dying breed. The watchsmith, cobbler (as opposed to 5-minute heel bar operator), locksmith, and indeed bicycle repair man, are driven from the market by goods which cost less to replace than to fix.

Here I blame Adam Smith and Henry Ford. In his famous treatise about pin manufacturers, Smith notes economic benefit of the division of labour (with workers doing separate tasks involved rather the creation of the pin, than craftsmen crafting entire pins themselves). Ford took this notion to its logical conclusion - the assembly line.

But where is the human satisfaction from stretching wire or tightening the same nut all day long? Hundreds of millions of people do this, for the money, so that billions more can enjoy a cheaper washing machine, television or car.

Yesterday, though, I had immense satisfaction from building a working bicycle out of, well, junk, and having a clean garage to show for it.

For the record, it has a 36-tooth chainring and 16-tooth sprocket, giving it a 60 inch gear (i.e. for every one revolution of the cranks, the bike moves forward 60 inches, just over a metre and half.) The combination of 27" wheels and small off-road frame alters the geometry. The rear tyre has to be deflated in order to get the wheel to fit in the rear triangle, clearances are small. But ground clearance on the cranks is greater (essential, as you cannot hold the pedals in horizontal position when going around a tight bend as you can with a freewheel hub).

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Lieutenant-Commander Tadeusz Lesisz

My father-in-law died in hospital this morning, aged 91. He was one of the the world’s last surviving WWII veterans to have served as an officer from the very first day of the conflict until its last. As gunnery officer, he sailed on Polish vessels under the command of the Royal Navy, participating in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Arctic Convoys, Operation Torch and at D-Day. He was in command of the anti-aircraft guns on a Polish destroyer, the ORP Błyskawica, berthed in Cowes on the night of 4/5 May 1942; the ship’s formidable barrage prevented more widespread destruction of the Isle of Wight port during a German air raid. Above: Lieutenant Lesisz on board the Błyskawica, spring 1942.

Remaining in Britain after the war, he studied architecture, eventually establishing himself as a partner in a Bolton architectural practice, Greenhalgh & Williams, where he worked for nearly 35 years. As chairman of the Manchester branch of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, he dedicated much of his spare time to serving the Polish community which had settled in North West England after WW2.

Tadeusz Lesisz was born in Kozienice, 100 km south of Warsaw, on 10 February 1918, ten months before the re-establishment of a Polish Republic, Tadeusz Lesisz was the youngest of nine surviving children born to Franciszek, a local merchant, and Wiktoria.

Following his three brothers, he was enrolled in cadet school, where he would receive an education with the armed forced of the nascent Polish state. He joined the cadet corps at 13, graduating five years later. Like his brothers, Edward, Feliks and Edmund, who were to join the army, he also chose to stay in the military, though choosing to continue his studies in the Naval Officers’ School in Toruń, then Gdynia. He learned to sail on tall ships and had the chance to visit distant and exotic shores. His naval upbringing instilled in him a strong sense of self-discipline and life-long orderliness and, to his last days he dressed formally with jacket and tie or cravat. He graduated just weeks before the outbreak of the War. His choice of the navy proved fortuitous: none of his brothers were to survive the war; Edmund was murdered by the Gestapo in Murnau, Edward and Feliks by the Soviets in Katyń.

The outbreak of war found Tadeusz Lesisz serving as a newly-commissioned second lieutenant on the ORP Burza (‘Storm’). The day before German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Polish fleet sailed secretly to Britain from where, as part of the Royal Navy, it was to continue the fight against the Third Reich. After Royal Navy courses in anti-submarine warfare and naval gunnery he found himself, in July 1940, second-in-command of S3, one of several motor gun boats assigned to Polish crews. Based at Fowey in Cornwall, the Polish-crewed boats were charged with protecting shipping in the Channel and reconnoitring the approaches to the French ports. Duels with German E-boats were frequent, although S3’s career came to an end when she hit a German mine on the approaches to Fowey harbour. (More info on S3 and Polish MGBs here and here. Both articles feature photos of Tadeusz Lesisz.)

In January 1941, he joined the Polish destroyer Błyskawica, (Lightning). When launched, it was the world’s fastest warship. Built by J. Samuel White in Cowes in 1935, she was capable of nearly 40 knots. Lt. Lesisz saw action in the icy North Atlantic, protecting Allied convoys on the North-western approaches.

In spring 1942, Błyskawica was being repaired and having her main guns upgraded, in dry dock in Cowes, when the port suffered a series of air raids, the most intense, involving 160 bombers, on the night of 4/5 May. The Błyskawica was the only vessel in port, but with her anti-aircraft guns glowing red, she managed to put up such a dense barrage and smokescreen that the town and dock were spared heavier destruction, although over 70 died in the bombing. Sailors not needed to man the ships gun’s fought fires in Cowes and brought first aid to the wounded. In gratitude, the Błyskawica was given freedom of the town; the main square of Cowes was later named for the vessel’s captain, Wojciech Francki.

In October 1942, Błyskawica was escorting the liner Queen Mary as she carried American troops to Britain, and witnessed the tragedy that befell another escort, HMS Curacoa, cut in half when she inadvertently sailed in front of the Queen Mary; only 90 of the 420 on board survived. A month later, Błyskawica, which had been assigned to Force ‘H’, took part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, escorting landing craft and troopships. The ship was bombed by German aircraft in the Algerian harbour of Bougie; a near-miss killed three and injured a fifth of Błyskawica’s crew. The ship's hull and superstructure was penetrated in over 200 places.

In July 1943, Lt Lesisz was re-assigned to ORP Dragon, (a WW1-vintage cruiser given to the Poles by the Royal Navy), where he was second gunnery officer. After artillery training at Scapa Flow, the Dragon was attached to an Arctic convoy to Murmansk. In March 1944, the Dragon was assigned to the naval forces that would take part in the invasion of Europe. More training followed, at Portland and at Scapa Flow.

On D-Day, ORP Dragon was responsible for shelling German positions behind Sword Beach. Dragon’s third salvo destroyed a German battery at Colleville-sur-Orne and at Trouville from a distance of four kilometres. A near miss by a German 105 mm shore battery gun wounded three sailors. In the evening of D-Day, Dragon moved to Juno Beach sector, to support the advancing Allied troops. The following day, the ship shelled German positions in and around Caen. On 8 June she opened fire against the German 21st Panzer Division near Varaville. On 9 June, she took part in an artillery duel with a shore battery at Houlougatte, after which she returned to Portsmouth for refuelling and supplies. Between 12 June and 17 June she again shelled German positions around Caen. On 8 July, as the Dragon was preparing to support the Allied assault on Falaise, the cruiser was sunk by a torpedo from a German Neger miniature submarine that had managed to break through the Allied cordon.

Lt Lesisz returned to the Blyskawica as gunnery officer. In September 1944, the ship was sent to patrol the coast of south-west France, liaising with Résistance units on shore. She continued until the last weeks of the war to patrol the Bay of Biscay and the approaches to the Gironde estuary, which was still heavily mined and where German shore batteries were still active.

After Germany’s capitulation, Błyskawica, was assigned to Operation Deadlight. Along with the destroyer HMS Onslow, she was charged with accepting the surrender of U-Boat forces to the north-west of Scotland. The 110 German submarines were towed out into the Atlantic and scuttled using explosive charges or with artillery fire. The Błyskawica later escorted a flotilla of smaller Kriegsmarine vessels from Norway and Denmark to Kiel in German waters. The ship returned to Rosyth on 18 February 1946, where Lt. Lesisz was demobilised. The Błyskawica sailed back to Poland in July 1947, where she remained in service with the Polish People’s Navy until 1975. Today she is a floating museum in Gdynia.

Like his shipmates, Tadeusz Lesisz was torn between the desire to return home and fear of going back to a country that had exchanged a German occupant for a Soviet one. Stalinist repression of ex-servicemen returning from the West was already underway; there were many arrests, especially of officers, usually on trumped-up espionage charges. Together with around 160,000 other Poles who found themselves in Britain after the war, he chose to stay.

In March 1947, Tadeusz Lesisz rejoined in the Royal Navy as Fleet Maintenance Officer with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, supervising the mothballing of Landing Ships (Tank) and Landing Craft (Tank) at Rosneath in Scotland. Inspired by Penguin paperbacks on architecture that he read off duty, he decided to become an architect. He was offered a scholarship at the Oxford School of Architecture by the Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain. Before the first academic term began in October 1948, he served briefly with the Merchant Navy as second mate on an elderly steamer, SS Arion, carrying sugar cane from Cuba to refineries in the Thames Estuary.

The five-year course in Oxford culminated in an RIBA silver medal. In 1954 he started work for a Bolton practice, Greenhalgh & Williams, becoming a partner in 1963. He remained with the firm until 1988, when he retired at the age of 70. A successful architect, he specialised in schools, churches and local authority housing, and designing primary and secondary schools across the North-West and Midlands, an epilepsy centre in Much Hadham, Herts, and churches in Failsworth and Levenshulme, and the Salesian Chapel in Bolton.

During all this time living and working in Manchester, he continued to be actively engaged in the Polish community in North-West England. He visited Poland regularly from the mid-1960s right up until his death.

Tadeusz Lesisz oversaw the re-working of the church which the Polish community bought from Welsh Baptists in 1958. The church, on Lloyd Street North, is his greatest legacy to Polish life in Manchester. He designed the interior as well as most of the stained glass windows. Inside the church are urns containing soil from the Polish and European battlefields in which parishioners fought during WW2.

For many years he was the leader of the Polish community in Manchester, at that time, Britain’s second-largest after Ealing, West London. He chaired the Manchester branch of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain (FPGB) from 1982, supervising many activities and commemorations that held the community together, passing on traditions to a new generation born on British soil. In 1989, Poland regained its freedom after 45 years of communist rule. He was vice-chairman, then chairman from 1991 to 1993, of the FPGB’s council, supervising the change of the Federation’s statute and role to reflect Poland’s new-found freedom.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Katyń massacres, he initiated and designed a monument that was unveiled in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on 29 April 1990. The ceremony – attended by six British MPs, senior British military officers and defence attachés from three other NATO member states – was one of the first occasions that HM Government publicly acknowledged that Katyń was a Soviet, rather than Nazi, war atrocity.

Tadeusz Lesisz was awarded the (Polish) Order of Polonia Restituta (IVth and Vth class), Valour Cross, Gold Cross of Merit and numerous British campaign medals. He also received the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great and Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

The 11th century Persian philosopher, Avicenna, on being told at the age of 57 that he was soon to die, said "it is better to lead a life that is short, but broad, that one that is long, but narrow". Tadeusz Lesisz managed to lead one that was both marvellously long and wonderfully broad.


More information about Tadeusz Lesisz in Polish (website of Polish Navy)
The Times has published an obit. Read it here.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A day without cars

Today is the European Car Free Day.

Yes? Ewa in the office had to drive her daughter (with cello) to school. She observed more cars on Warsaw's roads than usual. A 30 minute journey took her five minutes longer today. Mariola, who came in by bus, said that the journey was longer, the roads busier.

Why? Game theory. Commuters reason that because the city authorities have kindly allowed anyone who presents their car registration document (Polish equivalent of V5C) can travel on the Metro for free today, the roads would be empty today. So they drove. And the roads were packed.

This initiative is entirely laudable. But I'd say that sticks are more effective than carrots at getting the short distance, one-per-car, commuter to give up the convenience of kerb-to-kerb journeying to work. The alternative is there. But, as in my case, it took the introduction of parking meters to wean me off the car. Winter will be coming, the bicycle will soon become impractical. But on days when its warm enough, dry enough and light enough - and you don't have to drag anything heavy or bulky in to the office - there's NO EXCUSE NOT TO CYCLE. You'll physically feel so much better after cycling to work and back three times a week.

Worried about accidents? Heart attack from inactivity is twenty times more likely.

But in winter, I'm sure the car will come back into use, from time to time. The train from Jeziorki to Powiśle (which I took today!) is fine, a fold-up bike at both ends would be useful. I have an old Brompton from London, but Moni broke the plastic chain tensioner. I used this bike in London for years, cycling from home in Perivale to Ealing Broadway station, folding it up and taking it on the train to Paddington, then cycling from Paddington to my office on Tottenham Court Road. Total round trip - nine miles (14 km). Now that Warsaw is more civilised and cycle-friendly, I may well resurrect the Brompton for winter bike-train-bike commuting.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Catching the klimat

Another gorgeous day, the eighth in a row. I must use the bicycle on every possible occasion before the weather breaks and six months of gloom, damp and grey misery descend (punctuated, of course, by those wondrous days of blue skies and sharp frosts).

Left: The south end of ul. Wirażowa has all but disappeared. In its place are numerous tracks, some bisected by huge puddles. It's easy to get lost on this stretch between ul. Karnawał and Okęcie's cargo terminal. This morning I turned left too early and ended up cycling along this alley of birch trees. The airport's runway 15/33 is just to the left of this shot. In the distance, the viaduct linking ul. Wirażowa to Ursynów.

Below: Half an hour later, I've negotiated Wirażowa to the end, crossed ul. Sasanki, and have pedalled along ul. Żwirki i Wigury as far as Pole Mokotowskie (wrongly translated by the city authorities as 'Mokotowskie Grounds Park'; it should of course be 'Mokotowskie Fields Park'). Just before turning left into the park, I come across this magnificent Chevy Stepside pickup, advertising Jeff's Bar & Grill, and American diner themed restaurant.

Below: I've not been here, but it looks authentico. Apart from the Heineken. Cycling home this way, I note that at around six pm, the place is packed. A good sign.

One day before autumnal equinox, 2009. It's 27 minutes past six. The sun sets and rises at half past six. (Funnily enough, at the vernal equinox, it sets and rises at quarter past six. Can anyone explain that?) Right: Sunset across the tracks, just south of W-wa Dawidy station. Is there a village in Yorkshire called T'Davids?

Above: An interesting train at the level crossing at ul. Baletowa, approaching W-wa Dawidy station. A returning permanent way train, the last three flat cars now without rails. The first two wagons after the engine are the wagony socjalne ('social wagons'), where the workmen can rest, eat, wash their undies, drink coffee.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Nikon D40 - ideal digital SLR for everyday use

Earlier this year, I felt the need to acquire a second Nikon digital single lens reflex (SLR) camera, mainly so that I would not have to keep swapping lenses on my main body (a Nikon D80). A researched the question, and found, as ever, the website of Ken Rockwell, extremely useful.

It was Ken's review of the D40 that led me to seek one, rather than one of its newer, better featured and more mega-pixelated replacements, the D40x, D60 or D3000.

The D40 ceased production at the end of July this year, having outseen two of its replacements. It is being replaced by a new entry-level Nikon DSLR, the D3000.

But the D40 will remain, second hand, a sought after camera. Its main attributes are that it is light, robust, versatile and quick. It has become my camera of choice for toting with me every day; it does not weigh heavily around my neck as the D80 with 18-200mm zoom does. With 18-55mm lens it weighs just over half a kilo, while the D80 with the big zoom weighs over twice as much (1.1kg). On a long walk or cycle ride, that's quite a difference.

Right: The D40 in tricky exposure situation; strong contrasts; where to expose for? One shot, got it. Unretouched. (Our house today.) For general shooting, the 18-55mm covers most situations that don't require telephoto. The range of exposure modes (auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual), are exactly the same as in the D80. And, like the D80, the D40 accepts old Nikkor manual-focus lenses; in practice, this means my stunningly crisp 55mm f3.5 macro lens. The light meter does not work with the old lenses, which just means a bit of trial-and-error shooting and looking at the results on the LCD, which for macro work, is no problem at all. The EN-EL9 lithium battery is incompatable with the EN-EL3 that powers the D80, but it's an excellent battery that lasts for weeks at a go in daily use.

It's robust enough not to be carried round in a bag, it goes everywhere with me around my neck. No (n)ever-ready case required. Switched 'on' all the time (the battery doesn't drain), I'm always ready to point-and-shoot. Reaction time is miliseconds, compared to the long warm-up needed on digital compacts. And what you see though the lens is what you'll get. The SLR design is more responsive and photographer-friendly than a camera where you depend on the image on the LCD to show you what you are actually seeing.

Drawbacks? The D40 does not have dioptre adjustment in the viewfinder; as I wear +2.25 reading glasses, this means the viewfinder image is not as crisp as in the D80. The viewfinder also lacks a grid option. In my D80, the viewfinder grid is there full time, so I can align horizons and verticals correctly. I miss this feature in the D40. ISO sensitivity - only goes down to 200 ISO (as opposed to 100 on the D80), and the increments are full stops - 200/400/800/1600 ISO, whereas in the D80, you can select one-third of a stop increments all of the way. There's no autofocus motor in the body, which means my 80-400mm lens will only work as manual focus (no problem here - if I need this lens, I take it on the D80 body). The metering and autofocus system is not as sophisticated as on the D80; I need to bracket exposures more often than on the D80 because at first shot they've come out too dark or too light. But with the LCD screen on the back, you see what you've got and immediately correct.

And while the battery is decent, the battery power indicator offers insufficient information. The D80 goes from five bars (full) to one bar (prepare for imminent power failure) and is backed up by 'battery info' from the 'tools' menu on the rear panel, which tells you in percentage terms how much power's left. The D40 goes from only three bars to one, and there's no battery info available on the menu, so you never really know once you're on two bars how long you've got.

The difference between the 6 megapixels of the D40 and the 10.2 mp of the D80 is not noticeable on a 17" computer monitor, nor on 6x8" prints.

All in all, the D40 is a perfect all-round digital camera for everyday usage. And, now it's been discontinued, second-hand prices will fall. I bought mine second hand in May for 1,050 zlotys (around 200 quid at the exchange rate at that time). I thoroughly recommend as a take-everywhere digital image notebook.

Friday, 18 September 2009

More views along the S2/S79

Weatherwise, this week in mid-September takes some beating. Apart from some early mist and low cloud yesterday, the sun shone, it was still one-layer hot, and it stayed so today. Not to have cycled to work would have been to waste God's beneficence. Before setting off this morning, I discovered on Google Earth that the route I'd taken from work on Wednesday evening was actually a whole km shorter than my usual one through Ursynów. This entails a ride across Pole Mokotowskie, down ul. Żwirki i Wigury, across Sasanki, then parallel to the railway line all the way to Jeziorki. 16km. So I tried the same route back to the office (and indeed home again), and it brought much in the way of spiritual satisfaction. Quieter, more rural, and a chance to see how the Elka roadbuilding is coming on.
Above: View looking east from ul. Karnawał towards the railway line. The S2/S79 was cleared by spring, since then, water has gathered in huge ponds here and there along the route. The S2 will run along this stretch, from Węzeł Lotnisko to the west, to Węzeł Puławska in the east.
Above: Past the level crossing keeper's house on ul. Wirażowa, and looking north along what will be the S79. In the distance, the viaduct over the railway lines. Below: approaching the viaduct. Okęcie cargo terminal is to the left, just out of shot.

Below: Past PKP Okęcie station, looking north along the S79 corridor towards ul. Sasanki. Soon, this empty desert will be covered with asphalt and thousands of cars and hour will be streaming south out of Warsaw this way. Between this point and ul. Sasanki in the distance runs the single railway line connecting Okęcie airport's avgas terminus with the rail network. The road will flyover the tracks, as well as the new line linking the airport to the passenger rail network.

Below: cycling home this evening, signs that work is indeed underway. Piledrivers on the stretch of the S79 between ul. Wirażowa and the railway line, caught in low sunlight.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Invaders or liberators?

America has its December 7th. Pearl Harbor. "A day that will go down in infamy". The Soviet Union had its June 22nd, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. France, Belgium and Holland, have their May 10th, when Hitler invaded them.

Poland has its September 1st, when Hitler attacked it from the west, and its September 17th, when Stalin attacked it from the east.

Crafty Stalin, so much more intelligent than Hitler, so much better at camouflaging evil intent, got his man to sign a treaty with Hitler's man to carve up Europe (so it would never be remembered as the Stalin-Hitler Pact), then gave Hitler 17 days to ensure Poland was well and truly down before stabbing it in the back. The Soviet Union ended up with 51% of the territory of pre-war Poland. But today no one outside of Poland remembers the USSR as the aggressor.

So September 17th is important to Poland and to the world. We need this day to make the equation clear - Nazis bad, Soviets bad. End of story. None of this flabby, fatuous rhetoric about 'anti-fascist coalitions'. Where's the difference between Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag? Where's the difference between extermination of human beings in the name of race hatred and class hatred?

There are several memorials to the Soviet war dead in Warsaw. On September 1st, Putin mentioned the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the (questionable word) 'liberation' of Poland in 1944-45. Yes, they did repulse the murderous, barbaric Nazi occupant (who killed six million Polish citizens during WWII). But the memory of 17 September 1939 (and of August 1920) puts a different slant on affairs. Twice in the space of the preceding 25 years did the Soviets invade Poland with an eye not to liberating it from foreign occupants, but to extending westwards the borders of the Soviet Empire. (Above and below: statues at the Soviet war memorial on ul Żwirki i Wigury)

Many years ago, shortly after arriving in Warsaw, I was cycling to work when I passed this monument. So incensed was I at seeing this monstrousness, I picked up a stone and threw at at one of the statues. It resounded with a hollow 'brdink!' Standing there alone that autumn morning with these four giant figures, I felt silly and ashamed at doing so. For suddenly I saw not Soviet 'heroes', but victims of Soviet oppression; for why were these Russians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks herded ever westwards, into the face of Nazi machine guns and cannon, over landmines and barbed wire, NKVD rifles pointed at their backs? Not to free Poles from Hitler's oppression - but to gain territory for Stalin.

Hitler murdered six million Polish citizens (three million of whom were Jewish). Stalin murdered half a million. But then the Nazis occupied Poland for much more of WWII than the Soviets did. And Soviet murders must be put into the broader perspective of Stalin's persecutions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Karelians, Moldovans, as well as of Soviet citizens within the pre-1939 borders - victims of the Gulag, or forced resettlement during and after the war.

Poland must never let the world forget September 17th 1939. But Poland should keep its own suffering at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen in the perspective of the suffering endured by scores of other nations from the Elbe to the Pacific. Including, of course, Russia.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Elka: Work starts today.

I cycled home via Żwirki i Wigury and ul. Sasanki, so that I could see the route of the S79/S2 'Elka' on the day that work officially got underway. This 7km-stretch of expressway, from Sasanki to Puławska via Węzeł Lotnisko, is 'L' shaped, hence 'Elka'. Above: Looking east from the top end of ul. Wirażowa, just south of Sasanki. In the distance, PKP W-wa Służewiec railway station.

One fine day, a long, long time from now, Węzeł (junction) Lotnisko will be connected to Węzeł Konotopa on Warsaw's western outskirts, and from there the A2 motorway will take you to Łódź, Poznań and Berlin. And, further into the future, you will be able to go on beyond Węzeł Puławska and head east across the Vistula, and on to Terespol, Belarus and on to Moscow, via the A2.

There are signs like this (right) on ul. Puławska as well, announcing the lucky winner of the public tender to build the Elka - an Austrian company (come on Brits! Where are you?).

The north-south stretch of the Elka is the S79 coming out of Warsaw, which one day will connect with the S7 expressway heading south to Radom, Kielce, Kraków and on to Budapest.

Below: South of the viaduct, ul. Wirażowa is a broad swathe of land awaiting four lanes of asphalt. By 2012. View looking south. To the left, the Warsaw-Radom railway line; to the right, Okęcie airport.

Left: Further south. This is ul. Wirażowa, once a not insignificant unasphalted tract leading from Okęcie's Cargo Terminal to the level crossing at ul. Karnawał. Today, the southern end of it has almost totally disappeared, hidden by earthen ramps, transsected by giant puddles. It will be replaced by the north-south S8, but until then, it's only crossable by mountainbike, off-road motorbike or on foot. Too narrow for all but the smallest SUV. The Elka will be to the right of this shot, on the other side of the earth ramp. Click on label 'WĘZEŁ LOTNISKO' below to see how work on this stretch of road had proceeded since January 2009. (Frantic pace January to April, nothing until now.) The work was also well documented by Marcin Danecki (see his Panoramio photos on Google Earth).

Incidentally, daytime high yesterday +26.1C , stong sunshine. Not bad for the second half of September!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Who are these people?

Above: Corner of ul. Sikorskiego and Sobieskiego. Cycling past this, which must be Warsaw's largest billboard (the fence along the bottom is nearly two metres high, and the billboard goes round both corners), I realise how out of touch with Polish TV culture I am. I cannot name a single one of the people advertising TVN's autumn schedule, headed by dreary talent shows. Come on Poland! Don't spend your weekends comatose in front of the box! Read a book! Go for a walk! Spend time talking to your children!

I do miss quality British TV though. Decent documentaries, comedies, current affairs, BBC2, Channel 4...

The reason that Polish TV is of poor quality compared to that in the UK is directly linked to the hybrid status of state broadcaster TVP. On the one hand, like the BBC, TVP receives a licence fee from viewers. On the other, like the ITV, it takes in advertising. This bizarre system means that the 'true cost of broadcasting' is unknown; TVP can sell ads to make up for shortfalls in licence revenues (paying the fee is not universal, as it is in the UK, many Poles don't bother). But licence revenue shortfalls can be made up for by selling airtime at low, low prices. This means that private TV stations, like TVN and Polsat - and indeed the press - have to compete with a subsidised broadcaster that charges arbitrary prices for advertising. Reaching 1,000 consumers is cheaper via TV than via the press! This means that quality suffers.

Poland needs to adopt either the British model - state broadcaster, no advertising, everyone paying a highish licence fee, but in return for unbiased broadcasting excellence - or the American model - no licence fees, no state broadcasters. I must say I favour the latter; Poland still lacks the political maturity to do the former. The current hybrid model (which the French and Italians have - hardly paragons of quality viewing) hurts and distorts the entire Polish media market.

And TVP is as political as can be. Currently run by a former neo-fascist called Farfala, it's 'public mission' is God knows what. Whenever there's a change of government, the entire management board of public TV and radio is changed. Out go 'their people', in come 'our people'. (Can you imagine the BBC's Board of Governors, Chairman and Director General, as well as the board of OFCOM, all being changed when the nice David Cameron becomes PM?)

Poland's previous government was a coalition of Law and Justice (PiS - reasonably sensible party), with two silly parties - Samoobrona (populist potato-throwers) and LPR - the League of Polish Families (Oi!). Part of PiS's coalition deal was to hand LPR and Samoobrona control of the public media. Which is why an LPR chappy with a very dodgy past is now running TVP. It's in PO's interests to leave him there - the situation is so messy, so political, that many Poles say - "To hell with public (read: party) TV and radio - I'm not paying my licence fee."

And this is why TV (public and private) is mediocre in comparison with Britain. In any case, TV is a medium in decline; Moni and Eddie and their contemporaries at school rather consider TV as something watched by dziady (a Polish word implying both poverty and old age).

UPDATE: October 2009. Frafala and his Populist-Nationalist mateys have been expelled from state TV and replaced by a bizarre alliance of people with links to the ex-communists and the Catholic-conservative Law and Justice party. In sweeping out the old order, financial irregularities were discovered, TV funds going to cronies and cronies' foundations etc.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A new way to work

I had an e-mail from Marcin, who lives in Kabaty (after four years in the UK), who suggested that I try the cyclepath along ul. Rosoła. My initial reaction was - it's a whole lot longer than the Al. KEN path. But I tried it, for the sake of variety (someone once said that jazz was like taking a different route to work every day). In the end, it this route is a mere 150 metres longer (18km door-to-door). And nicer! (Compare to Friday's post.)

Ul. Rosoła runs parallel to Al. KEN, though further east. There's less traffic, fewer pedestrians, no metro stations, fewer traffic lights. While the weather is holding up well, the sun is noticeably earlier in its setting, ten minutes earlier than on Friday.

Home again. Crossing ul. Puławska, I catch this sunset with a plane taking off against two vapour trails. It will not be too long now before the sun sets at six and I'm forced to leave the office at five pm sharp like some clock-watching government employee. Back on the bike to cycle to work tomorrow - the daytime high is forecast to be +25C!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Spidery autumn

The garden is full of spiders. Between every shrub or tree, there's a spider's web. And at the centre of these webs are garden spiders of all sizes. I notice an interesting thing - that the smaller and medium sized spiders are entirely OK about a human wandering up to them with a tripod and zooming a long black lens in on them. On the other hand, the largest spiders - the really impressive ones - take immediate fright and leg it back into the cover of the bushes. So the spiders I offer are merely the medium-sized ones. Why do the large ones run off? Are they conditioned to know that their very bulk makes them tasty morsels to birds? Which rather implies a degree of self-consiousness... "I'm big enough to be considered food by that large mammal with that black three-legged thing over there - RUN!"

Another thing of interest is the variations in how neat and symmetrical a spider makes its web. Is the web neat because the spider possesses the neatness gene? Or because the wind wasn't blowing so hard? Is there a evolutionary advantage to spinning neat, symmetrical webs? Above: Spider on the left's a bit of an untidy specimen compared to the one on the right. Biology or environment?

I bring out the 55mm Macro-Nikkor, bounce some sunlight onto the subject with a table mirror, and - what a beast! Worth clicking to see the portrait of a spider, shot from its underside, in its full glory.

I wonder what it's thinking, other than sensing a threat in my (close) presence with macro lens. Do spiders have consciousness as in self-awareness?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

On preference and genetics

Current advances in genetic science are unravelling many of the mysteries surrounding what it is to be human. Traits that were once held to have be learned are now known to be the result of a variant in a single gene. Scientists have uncovered genes responsible for a person's propensity for being religious, a good dancer, faithful in relationships, which suggest that whether you are a good dancer is as genetically determined as your height or your eye colour.

Being a good dancer is, apparently, dependent on serotonin transporter (SLC6A4) and the arginine vasopressin receptor 1a (AVPR1a). As is fidelity, apparently. Being religious is, apparently, dependent on VMAT2 gene. Whether you're an early riser or someone who can work on late into the night is determined by a mutation in the hPer2 gene. With each passing week, it seems that science is inching towards nature and away from nurture (although I still agree with my sister-in-law, Jane, who says it's 100% of both).

But what of preference? Preference for music, art, film, food, clothes, places ... how much of individual taste is determined by genes, how much by environmental factors - and how much by the soul?

Is preference genetic? Moni has much the same tastes in music and film as her father, Eddie as his mother. But to what extent has that taste been acquired, and to what extent has it been learnt?

What makes people respond emotionally in certain ways to a landscape, to a period in history, to a piece of music, to the thoughts conveyed in a poem? And why do some respond differently to others?

Reading a plethora of pop-science articles on the subject of the human mind and human consciousness, I reach the conclusion that mankind's knowledge in this area is very shallow, and often driven by ideology - political correctness, religious views or dogmatic reductionism. Mankind's knowledge of self, of the human mind, is as primitive today as his knowledge of chemistry in the days when alchemy was the dominant model used to explain differences between elements.

Again, if we are to make the fundamental split between beliefs, it is between monism and dualism. Either everything in this universe (our consciousness, dreams, imaginings) is the product of one reality composed of atoms - or there is a more than one reality - a physical and a spiritual world.

As far as I'm concerned, as of today, I am convinced that our artistic preferences are proof that there is something more than atoms and genes.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Last of the summer rides?

The week has been beautiful, today still entirely warm enough for one-layer cycling. From the time I left home after 9am to the time I got back just after 7pm, the air temperature was over +20C (Daytime high, by the way, +25C). For mid-September, this is wonderful. And having experienced the unpleasantness of being stuck in a crowded bus in a traffic jam from Jeziorki all the way to Wilanowska yesterday morning, being able to ride briskly past endless queues of near-stationary traffic is extremely liberating.

The days are rapidly getting shorter at this time of year. We're going to lose a whole hour of daylight in the next 11 days! Today was 13 hours long. Equinox this year is on 22nd September; day and night are both 12 hours long. I don't fancy riding home in the dark (even with lights); the journey takes around an hour, with sunset at 18:30 as it will soon be, I must leave the office soon after five - difficult to do in practice.

Riding through Ursynów is pleasant on evenings like this. The cycle path that runs all the way from Ursynów metro station in the north to the Las Kabacki forest in the south. It is well planned and safe, and (although the pics don't show it) still quite well frequented by local cyclists. Al. KEN itself is filling up with new developments of flats; as such population density is rising. I hope this will stop soon, as the area, which is now quite civilised, may lose much of its charm if a new block is shoved into every available patch of spare land.

With such good cycling infrastructure and the Park+Ride at Stokłosy metro station, I find it puzzling why so many Ursynauers still chose to drive to work. "Because they can" is the correct answer. Since Warsaw's city authorities have installed parking meters around Powiśle where I work two and half months ago, I've driven to the office but twice, in both cases because I was bringing something in or taking something home. Discussing this with colleagues at the office, I see that the meters do work at discouraging car commuting. Dorota, Ewa and Mariola, also former car users, have all bought quarterly city transport cards (196zł for 90 days) This works out at just over £41 or £13 a month (a four-zone TfL monthly Travelcard, covering roughly the same radius of London as Warsaw's strefa miejska, costs £141.40. More than ten times more.)

Will the weather be clement enough next week for some more rides to work? Although it's a long hack (35km round trip), the health benefits of cycling in two or three times a week are huge. Nearly two hours a day of useful exercise. I shall miss cycling to work when bright, summery one-layer days finally give way to autumnal gloom.

Above: We've had the Galeria Mokotów joke in the previous post. Here is the Galeria Ursynów. So if it's ursyny or indeed mokoty that you want, you now know where you can get them.

This time last year:
Late summer sun
Looking for a better way of commuting

This time two years ago:
Here come the planes
Roadworks and detours, ul. Puławska
Objets trouves on the line
Zgorzała contrasts
Take the coal train
ul. Kórnicka gets paved

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Late summer scenes, Warsaw

If it's still warm enough to leave home at half past eight in the morning without having to put a jacket over my shirt - it's still summer. A rule of thumb when riding a bike is that if you feel comfortable during your first kilometre or two, you are overdressed. Below: the cycle path parallel to ul. Rozbrat, Solec.

Right: Al. Ujazdowskie: The new cycle path between ul. Bagatela and ul. Agricola is now complete. The final touches: stencilled bicycle symbols on the tarmac. This stretch of road has been criticised by Gazeta Wyborcza as not being 'artistic' enough - designed by road engineers, not urban architects. For me, as a cyclist, it's OK as it is. Bikes are kept away from cars, pedestrians from bikes.

I took a tram to a meeting today, and snapped this pic as the tram turned off ul. Wołoska onto ul. Rzymowskiego. It took a long time to redevelop this part of Warsaw, but now it's done, it's something to be proud of. The the left, out of shot, Galeria Mokotów. Where you can look at, and indeed even buy, mokoty* Straight on for Terespol and the Polish-Belarusian border.

Below: A tram track grinding/polishing machine on Al. Niepodległości. In the distance, the Rondo ONZ 1 tower.

Below: cycling home alongside the horse-racing track at Służewiec, the juxtaposition of the yellow Shell tanker truck and the blue sky caught my eye, enhanced with a polarising filter.

Below: Home again, our own bus stop. Note that the 715 and 809 buses do not stop here currently (while the sewerage tunnel under the railway line further up ul. Karczunkowska is being built). But there is the replacement service, the Z-9.

* Joke courtesy of Zosia, daughter of blogger Toyah aka my good friend Krzysztof .

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Autumnal notes

My thanks to my brother Marek, who many years ago told me about the Japanese notion of mono no aware, the awareness of the transience of things, the bittersweet sadness at their passing. And to my parents, who early this summer told me (entirely independent of my brother) about the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, the aesthetic of transience.

It is at this time of year, as summer slowly passes into autumn, that the aesthetic of transience becomes most acutely felt. This morning, the sun rising over the misty fields, highlightling the dew-covered cobwebs of the large garden spiders, engendered just such a klimat.

Before long though it was warm enough to leave home without a jacket and cycle into work, enjoying the September sunshine. As I cycled in, my thoughts strayed to similar mornings in the London I grew up in. I am very grateful to Jonathan Wood, who archived this e-mail from me (9 September 2003) and sent it back last week:

It's that time of year again. The Japanese claim that the feeling of the earliest intimations of the onset of autumn is the most profound and beautiful that a human can experience. The sense of mortality, of summer fading away, passing by like life itself, manhood, glory... On a day when the sun shines in the morning, but it's getting colder outside; there's dew on the lawn and the leaves on the trees are just starting to lose their green, you can feel it.

The past four days in Warsaw have been just so. Cloudless skies, warm days, cool mornings and evenings, the clear skies letting go the warmth of the earth as soon as sun sets.

Back in London I had my own ritual for the early days of September, which I have observed since the age of 15, when some unknown calling prompted me to take the day off school and board a 112 bus from Ealing Broadway heading anti-clockwise around the North Circular until the bus reached its last stop, by a pub (The Tally Ho!? The Cock, at Palmers Green? The Manor Cottage Tavern?) For some reason, the feeling of the onset of autumn, I reasoned, is best felt in north-west London. From Willesden to High Barnet, from Stonebridge Park to Hendon on a sunny day before September becomes too unambiguously autumnal, the sense of Mono No Aware was there; strong and absolute. Year after year I'd go, wandering by bus to Cricklewood, by tube to Finchley Central or Southgate to Cockfosters thence by foot onto Trent Park. Returning to London after four years of Midlands studenthood, I renewed my habit of pilgrimage. Bunking off work for a day, or taking the opportunity to visit a client or supplier with a London NW address, I would never miss the chance to experience Mono No Aware in this particular part of London.

Chance would play an important part in these ramblings; the unexpected secondhand bookshop, a welcoming pub, a quiet park set back from the noisy main road, an interesting architectural elevation. There was no sense of taking a map; planning the trip would kill any prospect of serendipitous happenings. Taking a camera was also taboo; these were atmospheres that no 35mm SLR could possibly capture; the late warmth of the sun on my face, smells of diesel exhaust on the North Circular, taste of Watney's barley wine, Ponder's End. Thirty years on from the first such excursion, I look back with unabashed nostalgia at London North-West. London the Great, London the Big Onion where layer on top of historical layer exists to be peeled back and explored, away from the business of the outer skin. Today I feel like going somewhere - but where? Warsaw's outskirts are too rural or too post-communist to draw me from my desk...

Since 2003, I've located plenty of magickal places in and around Warsaw where the feeling of the onset of Autumn can be felt, loud and clear... (click label Autumn below).

Time to listen to Ralph Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which captures the essence of autumn coming unto England.

The River Thames between Henley and Marlow is also replete with autumnal atmosphere when the sun shines onto riverside trees, their leaves turning red. Another place I'd love to travel out to at this time of year. "Soon, it will be autumn in Buckinghamshire..." There's Vaughn Williams working his spell!

Another rare visitor to Okęcie

Given that the Boeing 747 jumbo jet first flew 40 (yes! February 1969) years ago, it's easy to get blasé about the sight of such a magnificent aircraft. Especially if you live near to an airport where the 747 is a common sight. Yet here at Okęcie, where large four-engined jets are a rarity, the sight of a jumbo coming into land, flaps down, gear out is quite something. So I was excited to see the on-line radar on my desktop announcing that El-Al's 747-400 4X-ELD is approaching Warsaw. Unfortunately the pics were taken into the sun, but still, quite a sight to behold. It's been almost two and half years since I last saw an El-Al jumbo over Jeziorki.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Rare visitor to Okęcie

The distant sound of an approaching helicopter coming in to land at Okęcie attracted my attention - something rather large was on the horizon! Time to grab the camera and snap away. This is a Mil Mi-26T belonging to Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS). The largest and heaviest helicopter to have gone into production, and here it is flying over Jeziorki.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

When does summer become autumn?

Astronomically, on or around 22/23 September - autumn equinox (this year: 22 September, at 23:18 Warsaw time). This is when the sun crosses the equator, and in the Northern Hemisphere the day begins to become shorter than the night. But that's not the answer that most people would feel. There might still be summery days ahead, but summer's over. Above: Cabbage field, ul. Dawidowska. Below: ul. Nawłocka looking west. Foliage still late-summery.

Though the astronomers set the dates for the changing of the seasons to those of the equinoxes and solstices, to the mind of the lay person, summer ends with the return to school. In Britain, there's the Summer Bank Holiday - the last Monday of August, a day off work - after which it's flat out to Christmas. In the USA, there's Labor Day (first Monday of September).

Britain tends to go for calendar seasons rather than astronomical seasons, the norm in Poland. So in the UK, autumn runs from 1 September to 30 November, winter from 1 December to 28/29 February, spring from 1 March to 31 May, and summer from 1 June to 31 August. In Poland, seasons run from solstice to equinox, equinox to solstice and back again. This is because with the continental climate, it takes longer for the processes of warming and cooling to begin than in Britain's Atlantic climate.

For me, whether in London or Warsaw, summer ends when I can no longer go out in but one layer of clothing. Any sunny morning in August when I'd choose to cycle to work, I'd not need to put anything over my shirt. Last week (September 1 and 2) I still managed to get away with it. So - still summer. This morning though, gloomy, the wind bringing in dark clouds and dampness from the west. Below: ul. Achilesa, looking east.

The passing of summer and onset of autumn is like living with chronic disease, or just aging. Some days are better, others are worse.

Looking at my blog posts for Septembers past, I can see summer sliding into autumn in different ways; last year there was a two-week period from 11 to 24 September of cold, gloomy and damp weather, after which some welcome autumnal sun reappeared.

Today has been dull but with some sunny outbreaks and on the whole not too cold. Above: View from our front porch. Note new house to the left, about to get a roof.

Time to start adjusting the mindset; putting on that extra layer when going out in the morning and getting used to the evenings getting shorter and shorter until that ghastly Sunday in late-October when we lose a whole hour in one go. In just 15 weeks time it will be dark at three-thirty.

This time last year:
Lots of small planes, up close

This time two years ago:
Burnt by the Sun

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Jeziorki roadworks

It's been a little remiss of me not to mention current developments in Jeziorki. The sewer running along ul. Karczunkowska (WHICH IS STILL NOT CONNECTED TO UL. TROMBITY!) is being extended westwards, underneath the railway tracks. Two wells have been dug, one on either side of the rails, and a tunnel is being dug to join the two sides. Below: looking west towards the excavations and the tracks from our side of ul. Karczunkowska.

To facilitate the work, the eastbound carriageway of ul. Karczunkowska has been closed to traffic. HURRAH! It has all been diverted via Zamienie and Dawidy Bankowe to ul. Baletowa. Eastbound 715 and 809 buses have been diverted this way. The buses go down ul. Baletowa, turn left into ul. Jeziorki, then, via ul. Ludwinowska they emerge onto ul. Puławska, nearly two and half kilometres closer to town than usual.

Above: half of the width of Karczunkowska is taken up with the tunnel shaft. Only west-bound traffic can use the stretch of road from Zamienie to ul. Buszczyka.

The bus diversions meant that Jeziorki residents living around ul. Karczunkowska were deprived of town-bound buses (other than the 319 which runs from W-wa Jeziorki to Wilanowska for two hours in the morning and the N83 night bus). The 319 is useless for school and work anyway - the first scheduled service passes our stop at 08:06 - way too late.

So bus operator ZTM, under pressure from local inhabitants, has brought in a replacement bus service, the Z-9. Which runs all day, although only as far as Ursynów Zachodni, by the Real hypermarket. But again the bus is badly timed for school and work. There's one at 06:49 (too early), next one's at 07:39 (too late).

Below: The short and temporary route of the Z-9. The bus will continue to run, and the 715 and 809 will continue to be diverted, until the sewer construction is done. In the meantime, a bit of inconvenience leavened with some variety.

I should also mention that a new bus route was launched this week - the 739, which runs from Metro Wilanowska, along ul. Puławska to Julianów. This is good, as it increases the number of buses heading our way by another two-three an hour. Between 17:00 and 18:00, there's now a total of 17 buses leaving Metro Wilanowska for ul. Karczunkowska. Not bad! Now all that's needed is to put a bus lane along ul. Puławska so that these buses can run faster.
Incidentally, tagging this post with 'development', I've noticed just how little development has been going on around Jeziorki these past months. Apart from scattered starts of new-build detatched housing, there's no big projects underway around here. And a good thing too!