Saturday, 31 October 2009

S2/POW work hinders local traffic

Driving to Platan Park on Friday, I observed that ul. Poloneza was closed. That's it - this road will be out of action (so I read on SkycraperCity's excellent Polish road infrastructure section) until December 2010. By then, a bridge should have been built over the railway line. Below: Roadsigns at the level crossing. The authorised diversion is via ul. Gawoty - useless for me, as it does not cross the tracks, which is where I need to go. Heading east is a three-wagon ballast train heading for the Warsaw Metro.

Below: Poloneza is closed from the north too. No crossing for pedestrians (which suggests that this stretch will soon become a building site with intensive work going on).

Further west, ul. Hołubcowa was meant to have been closed last week, but today there's no sign of road closure. It is inevitable that it will be closed sometime soon. This will leave just one level crossing between Jeziorki and Grabów; this is located on ul. Oberki, just visible to the right of the photo below. Here we see where the S2 will run. Amid the impassable mud are neat stacks of asbestos roofing, removed from the farmhouses that stood here until very recently. They are on pallets ready to be taken away.

A propos of local traffic, while I was in the UK, the roadworks on ul. Karczunkowska were completed. Karczunkowska was restored to two-way traffic, the buses came off their diversions, ul. Jeziorki was also restored to two-way traffic, speed humps returned there. Traffic lights at the junction between ul. Ludwinowska and ul. Puławska returned to their normal timings, causing traffic to flow more freely along Puławska. The rat-runners have returned to Trombity. But - a bonus. Though the Z-9 temporary bus route has disappeared, it has been replaced by a new hourly service, the 209, linking W-wa Jeziorki station with Ursynów Płn.

UPDATE OCTOBER 2011: Running nearly a year behind schedule. The bridge was partially completed in summer 2011, yet there's no asphalt, the road's not complete, traffic is diverted via Hołubcowa. Dreadful.

A touch of frost in the garden

Ah! What a beautiful start to the day. The temperature dipped below zero in the early hours, enough to cover the lawn and shrubberies with a light ground frost (szron as opposed to szadź, the latter being fog freezing onto trees.)

Bad bad news too. Number one - I opened my curtains to see a molehill on the lawn - the first since last winter. I have a patented method now for dealing with the critters - send an e-mail to me for more details! Number two - light though the frost was, it burst a pipe (or rather a joint between pipe and tap) in the outdoor watering system. Someone had forgotten to turn off the water going into the garden.

Above: the silver birches at the end of the garden this the morning, looking resplendent with their gold leaves against a clear blue sky (enhanced by polarising filter).

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Małopolska, from the train

The train makes its way from Kraków back to Warsaw. Late afternoon, 16:00 departure. As the sun declines in the west, it casts a delicate light on the autumnal colours of northern Małopolska.

Above: The town of SŁOMNIKI, the twin spires of the Church of Divine Mercy on the background as autumnal russets flash past, mists rising from the low-lying fields mix with smoke from the home fires.

The tracks between Kraków and Tunel are forever being upgraded. The journey from Warsaw to Kraków this morning was 40 minutes late, still what's new. North of Słomniki and the train pulls up once more at a red light, and waits, while in the wagon socjalny standing on the other track, railway workers dry their socks and watch TV. Below: Panorama of Małopolska from the train window.

Just like the old days

Here and there in Poland you can still find scenes redolent of the old days of communism. Above: The grain stores in Kraków, on ul. Mogilska. These drab brick warehouses put me in mind of childhood trips into Poland via Czechoslovakia. Nothing here has changed since the 1960s.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Autumn gold, Powiśle, Łazienki

The day began with blue skies and strong sunlight, ideal conditions for catching autumn at its finest. Top: Łazienki Park, near the Bagatela entrance. Sun streaming through the leaves, much greenery still in evidence. Below: As I hopped off the bus at Rozbrat, this wonderful riot of colour caught my eye.

The Śmigły-Rydz park (below) a mixture of trees in different stages of shedding their leaves. The one in the foreground is quite golden - but look how many leaves are already on the ground beneath it.

Below: The cycle path crossing Śmigły-Rydz park winding past red bushes, trees of yellow, amber and green, and neo-classical architecture. Above this scene, the skarpa - the Vistula escarpment, leading up to the Sejm (Polish parliament).

Returning via the Łazienki park, the sun had gone in, so a bit of fill-in flash was required for portraits of the park's most famous fauna - the peacock and the red squirrel (left). The squirrels are getting quite aggressive - one darted up to me then climbed up my trouser leg, before jumping off, clearly annoyed that I had no food for it.

Imagine being just eight inches tall and getting into a fight with the fellow. Look at those powerful forepaws that can dig a trench in seconds. Those powerful shoulders and strong hind legs, that steely determination in those eyes. You wouldn't stand a chance. As an eight-inch human.

The peacocks can get quite stroppy too - crossing the park one morning last summer I had my way barred by a gaggle of five or more large males, tail feathers extended and sounding aggressive. But this guy (right) was more interesting in posing for the photographers (everyone in the park today seemed to be wielding a camera!) I managed to get eight shots at different exposures and flash settings before a child running past caused the peacock to move. As you will have noticed, the peacock has moulted; no goregous tail feathers to display. Behind the peacock, the Palace on the Water.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Clocks go back - but when to set them forward?

At 03:00 this morning the clocks went back for winter. An end to Daylight Saving Time. For the next five months.

We revert to winter time (CET in Poland, GMT in the UK) just two months (more or less) before winter solstice. Summer time (CEST in Poland, BST in the UK) returns three months after winter solstice (late March). Why the assymmetry?

So I say - let's set the clocks forward for summertime not at the end of March, but at the end of February. Let's have winter time for four months of the year, not five.

There are three very good reasons.

One is energy saving. The extra hour of daylight represents a huge saving when the entire northern hemisphere is taken into account. A 2007 study estimated that winter daylight saving would prevent a 2% increase in average daily electricity consumption in Great Britain, which is at similar latitudes to Poland. Now that's for five months - I'm talking here about one month as there are advantages in waking up later in mid-winter. So if five months would be a 2% saving, one month would be a 0.4% saving - 240,000 tonnes of CO2 just for the UK alone.

Two is road safety. By late February, the sun rises early enough for children to go to school in daylight even with the clocks set forward an hour. But the extra hour of daylight in the evening ensures that the evening rush hour takes place before the onset of darkness. This would save lives.

Three - perhaps most important - is psychological. By late February, the body is yearning for the longer day and for spring. The sun rises at around half past six in the morning and sets just after five in Warsaw. I'm sure we could live with a sudden jump to a half past seven sunrise to balance out a six pm sunset. This would lift the moods of millions in the northern hemisphere, not just those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. This affects some 8%-9% of populations living in our latitudes.

By late February, the day is three hours longer in Warsaw than it is on 22 December (winter solstice), but it's still a hour and half shorter than at vernal equinox (22 March).

This academic group wants GMT+1 imposed in the UK (ie the same time as Central Europe has in winter and the UK has in the summer) all the year round. This has the drawback that the UK will be out of step with Continental Europe for seven months of the year.

I'm offering a sensible compromise - all of Europe still changes clocks on the same day, but let's move that day one month forward - to the last Sunday of February - across the whole of the EU.

What'd you say?

Edinburgh (III): Scotland's capital

South of the railway line that bisects the city the atmosphere scrubs off a hundred years or so. Magickal. The very essence of Victorian urban Britain.

South Bridge - not so much a bridge, as a road south of the bridge. On the corner, another beautiful Victorian pile, the Carlton Hotel.

Not forgetting that Scottish soldiers were fighting and dying for the British Empire since the early 18th Century.

The wearing of over-sized socks on one's head in Edinburgh is as popular among the local youth as it is 400 miles to the south. And a propos of independence - each visit north of the border suggests that Scots are happier to wrestle free of England (while ruling the place themselves!). Some fascinating thoughts on devolution, what it means to the English, and what is meant by 'Britain', here and here.

I'm particularly struck by this equation (from the second of the two links above):

Britain: republicanism; secularism; multi-culturalism; liberalism
England: monarchy; Christianity; ‘ethnic’-English culture; conservatism.

Edinburgh (II): on two wheels

Edinburgh - like London - is becoming a cyclists' city. More cycle lanes are appearing, and they are being used, though, I suspect, like Oxford and Cambridge, it's the city's student population that provides the bulk of the two-wheeled, human-powered traffic.

Cycle lanes are mainly a painted-on afterthought which can be parked on by cars with ease (left).

The city is home to the Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative - a radical - and successful - business model for our cash-strapped, environmentally aware times.

Below: A cycle courier takes a break from competing with Royal Mail by reading a few pages of Freddie Ayer. Note: No derailleur gear, but a three-speed hub and a rear brake, so no fixed wheeler. Edinburgh's generally too hilly for fixed gear bikes. (Walking the half-mile from London's Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road, I counted no fewer than eight of them!)

Left: At the other end of the trendiness spectrum is the youth fashion for little BMX bikes with the saddle dropped down into the frame; the British hoodies' wheels of choice for hanging around shopping centres. This bike is less for transportation than for doing stunts. (But you won't get it nicked at school because you can always hide it in your pencil case.)

Friday, 23 October 2009

Edinburgh (I): city of grandeur

A city of grand architecture set in grand country, yet on a human, walking scale. It is always a delight to visit Edinburgh, and as our morning event in Glasgow was cancelled, I had a few hours to stroll around the Scottish capital, camera in hand. The weather was mild and autumnal, dry and calm - ideal conditions for seeking out the city's essential klimat.

Edinburgh surprises with its vistas which can reveal the city's setting to the south of the Firth of Forth or to the west of Arthur's Seat - stunning landscapes.

It's a hilly city; like San Francisco, streets rise up to a ridge, then plunge away on the other side. Maybe not quite as extreme as San Francisco, but the effect is similar (below).

Who's that greenish geezer atop the pedestal?

Let's take a closer look. Why, it's George Augustus Frederick, son of George of Hanover and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a.k.a King George IV. Given the chap's obesity, the statue seems remarkably flattering. (Click to enlarge.)

And that architecture - largely unspoiled by Luftwaffe bombs, insensitive developers or venal town planners, the city is crammed with beautiful buildings. Over 4,500 are listed as being of special architectural, historical or cultural significance. Below: the Balmoral Hotel, looking across from the North Bridge.

Edinburgh's splendid castle (below), dominating the city, is currently cut off from the north side by the roadworks on Princes Street, where a new tramway is being built (53 years after the old one was ripped out).

Below: Fragment of the Scott Monument, and tenements beyond. Edinburgh was recently polled the UK city that most people would chose to live and work in.

Recommended place to stay? The Elder York guest house, close to the very heart of Edinburgh, reasonably priced, friendly owners, beautiful, atmospheric old building, outstanding full Scottish breakfast. Only slight downside is that it's at the top of five flights of stairs, no lift.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Going up north the quick way

Living in Poland where anywhere seems to be five hours from anywhere else by train, it is encouraging to see that a country with a really antiquated railway infrastructure can be linked by fast services. On Wednesday morning I travelled up from London Euston to Warrington Bank Quay for a seminar we were organising. The 182 mile (292 km) journey took 1hr 43mins - a blistering speed - just under three kilometers a minute average speed (over 170 kmh).

How is this done on a railway network soon to enter its third century? This is not new purpose-built high-speed track, French- or Spanish style.

The answer is tilting trains. Disconcerting at first to go rifling through curves at such high speeds (below). The train operator did what it promised - the train left on time and arrived on time.

London to Warrington Bank Quay in 1 minute 29 secs (and on to Glasgow in a further three and half minutes).

Sunday, 18 October 2009

In search of the sublime aesthetic at 36,000 ft

Window seat or aisle? "Window seat or you'll what?" I'm reminded of that Harry Enfield gag each time I board a plane. For me, if the journey's not made during entirely at night, it's window seat, every time. Which means, when flying low-cost, to manouevre myself into Seat 2A or 2F (not the very front row, seated here, my camera bag would have to go in overhead locker, making aerial photography difficult). Any further back than row 5 and the engines and wings start getting in the way.

Normally flying to the UK on a morning flight from Warsaw and an afternoon flight back, I'll go Starboard Out, Port Home. Making me SOPH rather than POSH. This way, I'm not shooting into the sun, but have objects correctly illuminated on the way out. And flying home, I get the chance to snap our house should the plane be landing on Runway 33 (it usually does, into a prevailing wind). But yesterday I flew Port Out, to catch the setting sun at 36,000ft (11km).

I pick up the Sublime Aesthetic over Europe. This is the oceanic feeling, total connection with the rhythms of the planet as it spins on its journey around the sun, the edge of night, the plane racing west slowing down the sunset. The two-hour flight covers 20 degrees or one-eighteenth of the world's circumference. In other words, the plane is flying at three-quarters of the speed of the spinning globe.

Below: We cross the contrails of several aircraft along the way, picked out in red by the rays of the setting sun. On the ground, it's already dark. But 11km up, the sun's light has not yet disappeared.

As we get further west, so air traffic becomes denser. Left: a four-engined airliner on a north-easterly course, probably on an Arctic air-route to the Far East. The horizon is tinged with orange, the clouds below catching the magenta light.
Below: I've blown this pic up but can't make out what's crossing over us. Probably a 'vanilla' 737 or A320, but it's not clear. To me, this is a USAF F-84G in arctic colours (silver with dayglo orange nose, tail and wingtips), from the early 1950s.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

First snow 2009 - how ghastly!

Oh dear. I can't remember first snow this early in the year! We're only three weeks into autumn! Usually the snow comes in the second half of November. Still, it won't linger. It's +1.6C right now, a north wind's gusting at 47kph.

Absolutely horrible outside. I shudder to think what my journey to work will be like! I leave in five minutes for Platan Park, driving down the awful ul. Poloneza; then park'n'ride into town from Stokłosy. Puławska will be blocked up solid. The thought that it can be like this for the next six months fills me with dread. (Latest snowy day in Poland that I've experienced was 13 April, back in 1997).

And here we are - ul. Poloneza. I could feel the Nissan's vulnerable electrics getting sodden; windscreen wipers and heater fan would slow noticeably after splashing into a deep puddle. The snow fell all day. Warsaw's snow ploughs were caught on the hop - we've never had snow before the clocks go back for winter! Temperature hovered between +0.8C and +1.2C, so the snow was melting as the new snow fell.

What's strange is that trees are still very much in leaf - why, there's still a fair amount of greenery around! Above: Photo taken from bus window returning from meeting, lunchtime today. Ul. Czerniakowska.

Above: Trudging back from lunch, I was ankle-deep in slush, the uncleared pavements were treacherous. The air was damp, the wind harsh, feet wet with icy water - in all - thoroughly miserable weatherwise. Yet somehow, a most Scandinavian klimat.

Above: Imielin, dusk. Notice how the leafed trees form snow shades; a phenomenon you'd only get with settling snow before November. Less than a week ago, it was +24C!
First snow 2008 (22 November)
First snow 2007 (14 November)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The most dangerous word in English

Whatever. Pronounced 'wha[']evah' and uttered by surly youths with an attitude of studied indifference. The word 'whatever' is symptomatic - indeed emblematic - of Britain's decline and fall. And America's, while I'm at it.

Past generations of youth would rebel - with or without a cause; today's youth has neither a cause nor a clue, nor the drive to rebel. Gormless hoodies idling around shopping centres on their little BMXs, media studies students from St Woteva's Urban Trust Academy wearing oversized socks on their heads, listless, dull, lacking direction or dynamism. Wotevas are not deemed the threat to society that Marlon Brando's biker gang was in The Wild One (the 1953 film now rated 12 but banned in the UK until 1968). Or that snarling anarchy with which Johnny Rotten* and Joe Strummer** or Iggy Pop*** brought the 1970s to life. Wotevas do not threaten the status quo, have no real opinion about things (at their age, it's better to have a deeply-held wrong opinion than to have no opinion at all).

It's about biology. The UK is winding down; energy levels of subsequent generations are getting lower and lower. (The result of being materially sated? Or something more invidious...?)

I don't see this in Poland. Here, I see get-up-and-go; indeed many young Poles have got up and gone - to the UK. And British employers like this. It's why recruitment companies and the firms they work for think that someone prepared to travel 1,500 miles to find a job will work more effectively than someone who just has to roll out of bed and cross the road.

I'm deliberately trading in stereotypes, but there's a point here.

One word I hope I will never hear in Poland from its young people is 'cokolwiek'.

* John Lydon advertises Country Life butter
** Joe Strummer has a Class 47 diesel locomotive named after him
*** Iggy Pop advertises car insurance

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Fixed Wheeling around Jeziorki

My garage special was taken for a spin locally today. It is a singlespeed; this bike runs fixed wheel (Polish: ostre koło). There's no freewheel - if the bike's moving, your legs are turning with the wheels. You cannot coast*. Quite something. I lowered the saddle and let Eddie have a go. He was scared by the experience - it's unsettling at first.

Not a bike to take into heavy traffic without experience; it requires a long shake-down to get used to what you can - and can't do on it. It is light (9.5kg - no gear mechs or shifters, no rear brakes) therefore responsive. Once it gets going, the momentum propels you along. You become as one with the bike; to slow your cadence, you need to work against the wheel's motion. A front brake helps (riding brakeless is for the truly hardcore section of the fixie cycling community!). It's also a bike for these times, a counter-blast to the capitalist consumption model.

Fixed-wheel is cycling at its purest. It is addictive; after one ride, I had to go for another, and another, ignoring my expensive and well-featured Cannondale Caffeine. Man and machine in harmony with nature, rushing onwards with the wind. But as the road gently inclined, and the headwind strengthened, my right thumb instinctively reached for the shifter; it was not there. I simply had to pedal harder.

The simplicity of fixed-wheel is attractive in this age of 'features', 'convenience' and 'novelties' - all of which come at a price. (This bike was put together from bits lying around in the garage.) Since building it, I've been reading more, much more, about fixed-wheel cycling. From Beijing via Amsterdam to San Francisco (yes!), it's becoming a craze, a counter-culture hipster fad. Trendy bike manufacturers are cashing in, building bikes like this costing upwards of $1,000 that lack gears. BUT THIS IS NOT THE POINT. The point is making it yourself, making it from the clutter left over from a passed era of consumerist excess.

If you think about what a bicycle is, you marvel. If it's not moving, it falls over (unless it's propped up). A bicycle needs forward momentum to fulfil its destiny, without motion, it's lying on the floor. It was made to move. Without movement, it collapses. Unlike a car. (Hence, philosophically, a kickstand denies a bicycle its essential bicycleness.)

*You cannot coast. A useful metaphor for life.

Intercontinental jets, dawn

The sun is rising later and later. This morning, the dawn was cloudless; in the distance the contrails of the passing airliners at 30,000+ ft, backlit by the rising sun, created dramatic images against a still-dark sky.

Above: Singapore International Airways Boeing 777

Above: Thai 747-400, en route to London Heathrow, from Bangkok.

Above: Qantas Boeing 747 on its way to Heathrow.

To identify these planes as they flew over Polish airspace, I visited Flygplan över Skandinavia and scrolled down on the map to central Poland.

Below: Nine am and it's a lovely morning. They clear-ish sky is criss-crossed with contrails (I can count at least seven). This is still the age of mass air travel. For how long though?

This time two years ago:

Ireland, autumn, dampness

Friday, 9 October 2009

Friday, Warsaw, October

Parking and riding from Jeziorki today. In the distance, you can see that the roadworks connected with extending the city's sewerage system are still going on; as a result traffic cannot turn into ul. Karczunkowska, so the parkers and riders at W-wa Jeziorki station are far fewer than before the roadworks started in June. Despite the sunshine, much cooler than yesterday (+12C rather than that weird +24C we had).

Economic hard times means that we get to business meetings by bus (free with my day ticket)and not taxi (40 zł+ return). Above: Waiting for a city centre-bound 171 on ul. Rozbrat on Powiśle. Autumn colours still to reach their finest.

Meeting over, back to the office, along ul. Nowogrodzka. Suddenly the Palace of Culture rears out along ul. Jana Pankiewicza (right). Its vistas like this that its creators intended - the stamp of Soviet dominance visible from near and far. Today the building is not as threatening as it once was, but still; it is a strong echo of an age of repression.

And onto ul. Marszałkowska to await a bus back to the office. The sight of the autumn sun streaming through the leaves as they turn from green to gold prompts this photo (left).

Homeward bound at the end of the working day. It is a kilometre and half from the office to W-wa Powiśle (just under a mile); 15 minute's walk or two stops on the 162 bus. From here, there are two conveniently timed trains back to Jeziorki, one at ten to six, one at 11 past six. Both are scheduled to take just 30 minutes. Below: first stop after Powiśle is W-wa Śródmieście, a station, that like Earls Court underground station in London, seems to be eternally in a state of refurbishment.