Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Modernising the railway line

I am grateful to reader Paweł for pointing me to the plans for modernising the railway line that runs through Jeziorki (here (road crossings) and here (track alignment) - big files). This is PLK's Line No. 8, that runs from Warsaw, via Okęcie (where a new tunnel is being built to join it to the airport), through Dawidy, Jeziorki, Nowa Iwiczna, Piaseczno, Czachówek and on south, to Radom, Kielce and eventually Kraków.

By word of explanation; Polskie Linie Kolejowe (PLK) is the state-owned company responsible for the rail infrastructure in this country. The erstwhile monopolist Polskie Koleje Państwowe (PKP) has been split into various companies including PLK and train operators such as InterCity, Przewozy Regionalne, PKP Cargo and regional operators owned by individual provinces.

PLK, flush with EU structural funds, is engaged on a strategic programme of modernising Poland's railways (as I've pointed out, on many lines, scheduled journey times are longer than in pre-war, steam-hauled days). The EU needs Poland's railways to be fast - a country placed at the heart of the continent should not be a transport bottleneck. So things are happening - slowly.

Back to Jeziorki and neighbourhood. The line between Warsaw and Radom will be improved so that trains can travel at 160km/h (100mph). Currently, the line is theoretically good for 100-110km/h, though there are many speed restrictions in force due to the poor state of the track (as a quick look at the rotting wooden sleepers between Dawidy and Jeziorki will atest).

To allow trains to travel at higher speeds, the line needs the kinks ironed out of it. In particular the way the up line (northbound) bows round the island platforms that are a feature of the stations between Okęcie and Nowa Iwiczna.

Removing island platforms will be made difficult because of the coal line running parallel to the main line. So the solution proposed in the project documentation (relevant fragment below*) is to move the down platform (southbound) at W-wa Jeziorki across to the other side of ul. Karczunkowska, to the right of the line. The same solution is planned for Nowa Iwiczna station. (Click for enlargement)

Most radically for inhabitants of Jeziorki, a viaduct will be built over the railway line, replacing the current level crossing. The documentation is unclear as to whether a viaduct will carry ul. Baletowa across the line at W-wa Dawidy (it shown thus above), or whether the level crossing will be upgraded to one with lights and barriers. Similarly, the situation at Nowa Iwiczna station is unclear.

The documentation for the project to modernise Line No. 8 was finalised in August 2007, the rampa na kruszywa is still shown (work to demolish it began in May 2008). Additional halts on the line at Mysiadło (between W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna) and at Stara Iwiczna (between Nowa Iwiczna and Piaseczno) have not been mentioned.

When will this all happen? According to the PLK website, work will start next year and be completed in 2015. My own view? Right now, the road builders have got their act together. Between them the highways authority (GDDKiA), the construction companies, the local authorities and the legislature are working better than ever before in Poland's 20 year history as a new democracy. But the old PKP 'state-within-a-state', even after being split up, is still not functioning as it should. I very much doubt that a 160km/h Warsaw to Radom line will be operational by 2015. I hope to be proved wrong.
Worth following the thread on the modernisation of Line No. 8 on the Skyscraper City forum here (in Polish).

* Diagram from Modernizacja Linii Kolejowej Nr 8 Część 5, prepared by Scetauroute/Nexel Polska

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Repair or replace or leave to rot?

Cycling home last week, I noticed that the footbridge (kładka, pron. 'KWUDkuh') over ul. Puławska has been well and truly closed. I decided to investigate today. It transpires that a large chunk of it simply fell off on to the bus stop below. The bridge was instantly sealed off, according to an article in Życie Warszawy. Incidentally, the photo illustrating the story is not of this particular bridge!

The closure means huge inconvenience for those living on ul. Jagielska; coming home from town on the bus, they are unable to cross the six-lane highway. The alternative is walking one stop from either Karczunkowska or Kapeli. This is also a useful bus stop for the Las Kabacki forest, I wonder how many people were left stranded here this weekend.

Taking a closer look, one can see the enormity of what had happened (right). Imagine standing at the bus stop when all of a sudden a large slab of reinforced concrete falls on your head. Or crossing the road and suddenly plunging 20 ft onto the pavement below.

The bus stop has been moved several metres south; a mesh has been slung under the gaping hole to catch any falling debris.

The question now is - what next? Many of Warsaw's kładki of this era have been replaced (such as the ones along ul. Czerniakowska). The work went on for months and led to traffic misery. Rush hour traffic here is already miserable at the best of times. Will it be repaired? A structural engineer will have to answer that. Repairing it would still necessitate lane closure. The other alternative - just leave it. To the annoyance of locals and visitors to the forest. But there's a local election coming up in the autumn...

The classic Warsaw kładka such as this one was a nuisance for cyclists and parents with pushchairs or prams - for the wheelchair-bound, without a very strong person helping, getting up and down the steps was impossible. The iron ramps were too steep and too narrow. New kładki have wheelchair lifts at either end, or, as in the case of the super-kładka across Al. Niepodległości by the Pole Mokotowskie fields, a spiral ramp for cyclists to ascend and descend without having to dismount. Plus wheelchair lifts. I doubt if the city's budget would stretch to one of these.

I hope they don't demolish it. I've taken some good snaps from up there... like this one, and how it looked in the days when traffic jams had just ceased to be tolerable.

UPDATE 1 May: Temporary traffic lights have been installed on Puławska by the closed kładka. For you motorised, important, self-impatient wozidupki driving your big, black four wheel-drives with darkened rear windows stuck in the resultant jam, all I can say is that they were designed for muddy fields.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Jeziorki spring update

The terrible national tragedy that befell us two weeks ago eclipsed the perennial story of nature coming back to life after a long and snowy winter. Over those two weeks, leaves have appeared on trees, migratory birds have returned for the summer, the day has gained nearly an hour in length. It's time to sum up in photos how spring looks this year in Jeziorki.

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 threw up vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere, creating spectacular sunsets that were said to inspire the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Above: The sunset on 16 April, two days after the second Eyjafjallajökull eruption that caused the shut-down of aviation over much of Europe. The photo is entirely unretouched in Photoshop - it is shown as is. Compare to this photo taken the previous day. Can you see the 'volcanic lavendar'?

Above. No, not a volcano erupting in southern Warsaw - rather another rare occurence of mammatus clouds. Not as nice as these ones photographed three years ago, but an awe-inspiring sight nevertheless. These cloud formations appear in the wake of storm fronts that sweep over on warm spring evenings.

Below: Flying home to Warsaw on Tuesday 6 April, our plane passed over the end of ul. Trombity. The photo shows the extent of the flooding caused by the large volumes of melted snow. The road nearest the camera, ul. Dumki, is entirely submerged for much of its length in this picture.
Below: the wetlands, wetter than usual. The view is from the ul. Kórnicka side (the right-hand side of the photo above). The frogs, which had been croaking loudly last week, were strangely silent today. To put into perspective, compare the view with this map and post blogged over three years ago.

Below: the wetlands looking south-west from ul. Dumki towards Kórnicka. The land is extremely waterlogged, despite low rainfall this month, the water levels have not receded much. Still, I was able to do something today I couldn't do a week ago - wade in my wellies along flooded ul. Dumki.

Below: corner of ul. Karczunkowska and ul. Buszycka this morning. I've just been for water at the studnia oligoceńska, and I catch a train-load of empty coal wagons heading back to Okęcie sidings from the Siekierki power station. A classic view of Jeziorki, I think.

Right: Later in the day, walking alongside the track, I catch sight of the Palace of Culture, eight miles (13km) from here as the crow flies. The foreshortening effect of the Nikkor 80-400mm lens makes the density of farm buildings in Jeziorki seem greater than it really is.

Below: Spring in Jeziorki, ul. Nawłocka. The narrow field running alongside the road, ploughed and ready for new crop; trees in blossom, blue sky. A view that never fails to bring on those flashback moments. Another timeless classic view of Jeziorki.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Missing words

Working every day in the linguistic space between Polish and English, I always find it interesting to winkle out those blank spots in either language. Having spent all of my life inhabiting that space, I am sure they say so much about the difference between the two nations and cultures.

And today's word is: 'grumpy'.

Getionary gives the best Polish word for 'grumpy' as zrzędliwy, which the Oxford PWN dictionary confirms. I must say, I've never heard this word in Polish - ever!

My Polish colleagues suggested marudny - which Oxford PWN indeed gives as 'grumpy', but grumpiness is rather a passive state of mind, and not the more active marudzić, which I'd rather translate as 'moaning' or 'whinging'.

Could this be that the English are less able or willing to externalise their woes than Poles? Is one nation more emotionally open than the other?

Interestingly, Grumpy* of the Seven Dwarfs in Polish becomes... Gburek. Gburek is the diminutive of gbur, which means 'a boor,' with overtones of surliness.

We had been discussing the stereotypical phlegmatic nature of the English, in reference to Rudyard Kipling's If... The Brits (especially Victorian ones), were expected to keep their emotions under control. Poles, on the other hand, are prone to dramatic gestures, such as this one.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis made the link between language and thought (you cannot communicate a thought if your language lacks the words that express it). The corollary to the hypothesis is that if your language lacks certain words, you cannot even think that thought, leading to differences in behaviour between speakers of different languages.

This, then, is why languages introduce loanwords. It is the epitome of revanchist schadenfreude**.

*Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey become Mędrek , Gburek, Wesołek, Śpioszek, Nieśmiałek, Apsik, Gapcio respectively.

** There's chutzpah for you.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The answer to urban commuting

It's back on the road - my daily commuting bike from the days when I rode to work in London every day in the mid '90s. My Brompton has a new chain tensioner and handlebar grips, and works like a dream.

The genius in the Brompton is how it folds and unfolds. Around 15 seconds each way, leaving people gawping in amazement. I can zoom up to a bus stop as a bus pulls in, fold the bike and hop on before the doors close.

To prove just how useful a commuting tool it is as part of a multi-mode transport solution - take a look at my travelling day today.

Home - station by bike. Train into town, station to office by bike, then on by bike, jump on bus for three stops to get past an unpleasant stretch of roadworks, cycle a bit, train again, bike again to lesson, then bike to the Central Station to meet Moni off a train from Poznań, then taxi home with bike and suitcase in the boot.

As a full-size bike, it handles well enough around town, accelerating away briskly from traffic lights, yet the small wheels don't like Warsaw's pot-holes and it's best on runs of up to 10km (6 miles) although I once rode this bike 160km (100 miles) from West London to Bath.

No worries either about having to padlock it outside shops - just fold it up and take it in.

The Brompton is becoming as iconic a part of London's transport as the red bus and the black cab. Wear a dark suit and tie, a helmet, a fluorescent Sam Browne belt and you're looking as London as can be.

You can now buy Bromptons in Poland.

The Brompton comes in several flavours - there are options to do with gears (from one to six), dynamo lighting and luggage rack, and titanium components to save weight. For unhilly Warsaw, a lightweight single-speed Brompton would do the trick admirably - mine has three (hub) gears and a rear rack. I bought my Brompton (Serial Number 2892) from Andrew Ritchie, the company's founder, back in 1991 when I reviewed it for Bicycle Magazine. I liked it so much I bought it.

UPDATE: This very day, Brompton won the Queen's Award for Enterprise - for International Trade (for the second time, the first being in 1995), and for Innovation. The Queen's Award for Enterprise is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a British company).

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Making sense of Polish politics

In case my British and American readers have been puzzling over the recent descriptions in their media of the late President Kaczyński as being 'right wing', here's a simple graph above that I prepared ahead of the 2005 elections to show that the Anglo-Saxon concepts of 'left' and 'right' don't make too much sense in the context of Polish politics.

You need to operate in two axes. A social one, where 'right' means traditional, conservative, patriotic, religious, espousing traditional family values; while 'left' means modern, secular, tolerant, cosmopolitan, liberal. And an economic one, where 'right' means the free market, privatisation, laissez-faire, small government, low taxes, while 'left' means statism, dirigisme, big government, redistribution of wealth; tax and spend. You can argue about where exactly one should plot the position of the given parties on the graph, but essentially, the point is to put the parties into one of four quarters.

In the above graph, you will see the two biggest parties in Polish politics occupying quarters that neither of the main British or American parties occupy. Hence the problems with understanding Polish politics. Supporters of Poland's Law & Justice (PiS) might see eye-to-eye with American Republicans on Christianity, patriotic duty, abortion and gay rights, but would disagree on the primacy of free enterprise over the state.

The word 'liberal' in the US (and in the UK to a lesser degree) means 'social liberal'. In Poland, it means both economic and social liberal.

If anyone would occupy the same quarter as PiS, it would be - further to the right - Generalissimo Franco (God-fearing, patriotic, anti-communist, syndicalist, suspicious of enterprise) and, more moderately, the French Gaullists.

The forthcoming Polish presidential elections will be fought over an entirely different battleground than the UK parliamentary elections. What the respective media of both countries will make of the elections in the other will no doubt be sprinkled with much misunderstanding.

The post-communist Polish 'left' (the SLD) is more free market than PiS and more socially liberal than PO; but it is increasingly marginalised. Its place in the nation's debate is becoming irrelevant. A comparison with Irish politics (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) is apt; two parties that you'd be hard pressed to tell apart (one is Christian Democrat Centrist, the other Conservative Centrist). The fault line between the two is which side their grandfathers fought on in the Irish Civil War - the Pro-Treaty side, ready to accept the compromise that left the Six Counties British, or the Republican side, that would not give up the struggle to unify Ireland. 87 years ago.

The parallel with Poland is clear. PO is seen as the successor party to the wing of Solidarity that accepted the Round Table compromise which left the communists unpersecuted in return for giving up power, while PiS is the successor to the harder-line anti-communists that insisted on the heirs to the PZPR being brought to book for their crimes against the nation.

The Smolensk tragedy may lead to a mould being broken, a destiny to follow the Irish path for decades to come may not come to pass.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Okęcie before the funerals

Volcanic ash has totally halted passenger air travel over Poland and much of Europe. Yet with the state funeral in Kraków tomorrow of President Lech Kaczyński and his wife, there has been much military activity over Okęcie airport today.

Above: A PZL W3S Sokół helicopter, from the 36th Special Aviation Regiment. Tactical number 0916.

Below: A Yakovlev Yak-40 (NATO reporting name: Codling), from the 36th Special Aviation Regiment. Short- and medium-range VIP transport. Tactical number 045.

Below: CASA 295M, one of four landings I saw today. Like the other 19 CASAs in service with the Polish air force (one crashed at Mirosławiec in January 2008), this one - tactical number 014 - belongs to the 13th Air Transport Squadron based at Kraków-Balice airport. One of these brought the body of President Kaczyński back from Russia last Sunday; I guess that one will be flying the coffin from Warsaw to Kraków tomorrow morning.

He kept the faith

When we were growing up in England, the Polish Government-in-Exile struck us teenagers as a bit of an oddity. We lived then in a bi-polar world in which a free-market, democratic Atlanticist bloc glared across the Iron Curtain in a nuclear standoff with an equally-powerful Soviet bloc, a dictatorship of captive nations, one of which was Poland. Thus it was when we were born, thus, many thought, would it ever be. Yet at 43 Eaton Place, London, the spirit and legal legitimacy of pre-war Poland endured, though diplomatically shunned by the governments of the west since the summer of 1945. And for the next 45 years, the Polish Government-in-Exile would soldier on, maintaining the continuity of the Polish state. For us, children born to Poles exiled in the UK after the war, that continuity was an integral and defining part of our lives, especially at weekends.

We spent our Saturday mornings at Polish school learning Polish grammar, history and geography; Saturday afternoon we spent at Polish scouts, learning military drill, fieldcraft, national traditions and patriotic songs; on Sundays we went to mass in the Polish church. Poland might have been under the yoke of the Soviet Union, but in our heart we were keeping alive the true spirit of Poland. Ojczyznę wolną/Racz nam wrócić Panie ('Let us return, O Lord, to a free fatherland") we'd sing at the end of mass, every Sunday.

If there was a tipping point when things started to be different, it was 1980. The Solidarity movement suddenly gave us hope that Poland could pull itself free of the Soviet orbit and become a independent country once more. Then came Martial Law; a cold dark hand fell over the Polish nation. In the mid-1980s, it looked once again like the east-west split was indeed a permanent feature of the world in which we lived. But the Government-in-Exile kept the faith.

I personally had a lot of time for Kazimierz Sabbat, the penultimate President-in-Exile, who actively encouraged support for the Polish opposition. This was a time of political meetings with activists from Poland, immersion in Polish history and long, long discussions into the night about how Poland could look as an independent state. Tragically, President Sabbat died months before Poland regained its freedom. He was succeeded by Ryszard Kaczorowski, prominent in the Polish scouting movement in the UK. And so it fell to President Kaczorowski to fly to Warsaw, and on 22 December 1990, to hand over to Lech Wałęsa, who'd just been democratically elected President of the new Third Republic, the insignia of state that had left Poland with President Ignacy Mościcki on 17 September 1939.

Since then, Ryszard Kaczorowski had remained a powerful symbol of the survival and continuity of the Polish nation and the Polish state. It is somehow tragically fitting that he should be among the victims of last Saturday's crash at Smolensk. His presence on the aircraft is highly symbolic, lifting into the great history book of the Polish people the role of the Government-in-Exile, and its role when many had all but given up hope. His fate could have been similar to the 22,000 Poles murdered at Katyń. He too was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to death. He was fortunate, however, to have had it commuted to a ten-year stretch in the GULAG. He made his way out of the Soviet Union with Anders' army after the Nazi attack on the USSR, like so many other Poles, including my mother.

Ryszard Kaczorowski was a personal friend of my parents-in-law. My wife was at yesterday's requiem mass for President Kaczorowski at the Church of the Holy Cross (her photo above).

Looking at the photo: Isn't it a damned shame that the ceremonial weapon used in such occasions is still the AK-47 Kalashnikov? Wouldn't a Lee-Enfield rifle be more appropriate? The weapon used by Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino, where Ryszard Kaczorowski also fought?

Friday, 16 April 2010

The fault-lines in Polish society

Lech Kaczyński was a divisive president, but his death unified a shocked nation. For a while. Until the decision to bury him in the Wawel Castle* was announced. Then things kicked off.

Depending on your point of view, burying Lech Kaczyński in Wawel is akin to placing James Callaghan (a decent but ultimately mediocre premier) alongside Elizabeth I, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey - or giving Poland's greatest post-independence president his rightful resting place in the pantheon of the Polish nation.

The fault lines are clearly defined. To generalise, to peddle stereotypes: on the one hand, TVN-watching, Gazeta Wyborcza-reading, cosmopolitan, secular, modern, tolerant, young, urban Poles; on the other, TVP-watching, Rzeczpospolita-reading, patriotic, Catholic, traditionalist, older, rural Poles.

I confess to tend towards the first group. Yet I must say that the Kaczyński twins left Poland two great legacies.

The first was knocking corruption on the head. From 1996, when Poland was first included in Transparency International's global Corruption Perception Index (CPI), to 2005, each successive government was perceived as being more crooked than the last. Post communist, post-Solidarity, post communist - things got worse and worse, reaching an apogee with the government of Leszek Millllllller and his SLD ('Stalin-Lenin-Dno' to quote graffiti of the era) cronies. The Kaczyński twins were swept to power on a mandate to stop corruption large and small. They succeeded, in that since PiS (Law and Justice) took office, Poland has been consistently moving in the right direction in the CPI. (The downside of the Kaczyńskis' 'trust no one' approach is that today, Polish bureaucrats would rather do nothing than take a decision that could remotely be construed as resulting from a backhander.)

The second was in sucking the venom out of the populist left and populist right wing tendencies in Polish society. Poland today is one of the very few EU member states not to have any nutty nationalists or wacko communists in the European Parliament. The UK has more UKIP and BNP MEPs than ones from the ruling Labour party. By bringing into a government coalition members from Samoobrona (Self Defence) and the LPR (League of Polish Families Oi!) and then letting them destroy themselves, by accident or design the Kaczynskis brought on the total destruction of the embarrassing element of Polish politics. By marrying social conservatism with economic soft-socialism, they took the wind right out of the sails of the post-communists. My hope now is that the garbage element of the political extremes does not come crawling out of the sewers to fill the vacuum left by the decimation of PiS's senior ranks.

Say what you like about Law and Justice, but they are (as individuals) decent, principled, intelligent, well-mannered. Quite a different breed of people from the boorish, self-interested, old Moscow-educated meatheads from SLD or the boorish potato-chucking nest-feathering philanderers of Samoobrona. And as for the ultranationalist element of the LPR/Radio Has-a-Snout/Gnash Dziennik crowd... I was in Powązki cemetary with my good friend and Poland's best political blogger Krzysztof (of Toyah fame) last August to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw uprising. Leaving Powązki, we saw a sad-looking band of pamphleteers peddling some twaddle about the Lisbon Treaty being the work of the Anti-Christ. Krzysztof said - and quite rightly - that we have the Kaczyńskis to thank for these people being pushed out to the very margins of Polish political life.

As a counter-weight to PO (Civic Platform), PiS is the optimal opposition. The fault line is longer 'post-communist' vs 'post-Solidarity' - the post-communists have (I hope) been knocked out of contention for good as a governing party, largely through the skilful politics of Jarosław and Lech Kaczynski. I hope that PiS can re-group after this tragedy and return to being a conservative counterbalance and conscience to PO.

* He should be buried there. Lech Kaczyński himself is not worthy of Wawel. But I go along with Jarosław Gowin in that we're not just burying President Kaczyński - we are burying along with him the legacy of Katyń. In his death, he will symbolise to the ages the continuity between the massacre and today's independent Poland. Also, logistically, Powązki cemetery is, well, too narrow. I can't really see the world's leaders tip-toeing their way through the narrow corridors between the graves of Warsaw's fallen insurgents. Wawel will focus the world on Poland, volcanic ash permitting. For these reasons, I opt for - Wawel. To quote Lech Wałęsa: "The Holy Spirit hath spoken. Debate not."

Volcano shuts down aviation over NW Europe

As I write, there are only four aircraft over Polish airspace. FlightRadar24.com, an excellent source of real-time aviation information, shows absolutely nothing across of broad swathe of Europe from Portual, the UK, Scandinavia and Russia. Blue crosses are airports, yellow symbols are aircraft (click on map to enlarge).

This is the flight ban resulting from the plume of volcanic ash from the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull* in Iceland (under the FlightRadar24 logo, top left).

Look at Turkey - that's the normal air traffic density you'd get over the whole continent of a weekday morning. Many of the aircraft in the air right now are long-haul passenger jets making it back to Europe from places like South Africa or Singapore. I can also see planes being diverted.

Sitting here under the approach to Runway 33 at Warsaw's Okęcie airport, at this time of day - it's weird - usually there's a stream of take-offs or landings. Normally, we can expect 40 aircraft movements from 06:00 to 07:00. The airport's website reports 12 cancelled arrivals (four landed/two more expected in from southern Europe, Wrocław and Kraków). Nothing's due to take off.

Will this bizarre situation clear up before Sunday's state funeral in Kraków?

* Where is the BBC's Pronunciation Unit when it's needed?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Strange days indeed

An unreal, uneasy dreamlike atmosphere has settled over Warsaw. Helicopters overhead, tank transporters in the streets, soldiers on the platforms of the stations, sirens of police cars and ambulances; people all dressed in dark grey and black - the odd red jacket or yellow coat an anomaly; and those newspapers, black and white like the 1960s, and TV screens on the trains and in the metro, black and white pictures of Lech and Maria, in perpetual slow motion...

We're waiting for a sign, anxiety in the air; people quieter than usual, hushed tones at the bus stop. Chopin in place of hip-hop, flags, flags everywhere, red and white or faded pink and grey, black ribbons fluttering on aerials, on trains.

Superstitions, prophesies... "my hairdresser had a terrible dream the night before it happened." A volcano is erupting. Symbols. Symbols. The End of Days. "The sedge is wither'd from the lake/And no bird sings". "One for sorrow..." a solitary magpie sits on my lawn.

"What's going to happen?""What will happen to my country? To my family?" weeps a distraught woman to camera. Ostensible stability; sensible, measured behaviour. Nothing's changed - or has it? Princess Di, John Paul II - but this is deeper; not melodrama, not rubbernecking, not an expected passing. This is History unfolding. This is Mass Psychology, this is a nation experiencing traumatic tension, the unease is palpable; I'm in the crowd yet alone. What is going to happen? Will the great and good manage to fly to the Funeral? Portents in the sky. God's displeasure?

A morbid, tense, angry election is in the offing. There will be 22 funerals on Monday, another 16 on Tuesday.

May I never live to see such accursed days as these ever again.

Here's the video version of this post - courtesy of Nick Morris.

high-definition version is here (slightly longer download time).

UPDATE: 22:21 FlightRadar24.com is down. Strange planes are coming in to land in Warsaw, driven south by volcanic ash.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Twenty years, ten months, six days

The following thought struck me this afternoon in the office. So I found a website to help me with the calculation.

From Poland regaining independence at the end of World War I to the Poland's invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union - 7,615 days.

That's from 11 November 1918 to 17 September 1939, when President Ignacy Mościcki crossed the border into Romania, taking with him the insignia of state, the day of Stalin's invasion of eastern Poland. The formal length of the Second Republic of Poland.

From Poland regaining democracy to the Smolensk air crash - 7,615 days.

That's from 4 June 1989, when Poles were able to vote in a partially-free election which led to the formation of a non-communist government, to 10 April 2010.

Spooky, eh, readers? Something for the numerologically inclined conspiracy theorists to get their teeth into! (Check data here)

Let's see how viral I can make this... translate into Polish please...

Od momentu odzyskania niepodległości Polski do najazdu naszej ojczyzny przez Hitlera i Stalina, i przekroczenie granicy Rumuńskiej przez Prezydenta Mościckiego upłynęło 7615 dni.

Od odzyskania demokracji przez Polskę do tragicznego wypadku w Smoleńsku upłnęło... 7615 dni.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Someone had blunder'd

I know this post will be controversial. I find my state of mind concerning Saturday's crash shifting from grief to anger. Anger that so many people have died, so many influential Poles that have had - and could have had - a signficant say in how our country develops. Blogging is a personal matter; I'm expressing my personal views, strongly held though they be.

While Warsaw continues to be in a profound state of mourning (everyone in our office today was dressed in black, men with black ties, flags everywhere), questions regarding the circumstances of the crash are focused on why a decision to land in such treacherous conditions was taken.

Work on recovering data from the flight data recorders and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is going ahead smoothly, with the chief prosecutor of the Polish Army, Krzysztof Parulski, describing cooperation with the Russians as 'exemplary'.

Did anyone from the official entourage order, recommend, suggest or politely ask Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk to make one more attempt to land? There seems to be unity from the Polish media as of this evening that there was no such order or request; the CVR will reveal all. Someone, at the end of the day, took a decision to land. A decision to have flown on to an alternative airport would have saved 96 lives.

I find it quite inconceivable that an RAF pilot flying a Queen's Flight aircraft, or the pilot of Air Force One, would even contemplate such a risky landing.

There is a big cultural gulf when it comes to risk assessment and attitudes to health and safety between Poland and Britain, something that my fellow British-born Poles here in Warsaw are conscious of. Consider the numbers of fatalities in both countries in road accidents (2,538 UK vs 5,437 Poland in 2008). This is despite the fact that there are 31 million cars on the road in the UK, a mere 19 million in Poland. Fatalities on Polish building sites are six times higher per 100,000 man-days than in the UK. Health and Safety may be overzealously policed by Nanny State, but the result is far fewer human tragedies. It is salutary to look at what happened when the Prince of Wales landed the Queen's Flight BAe 146 too fast at Islay airfield in 1994.

"Better safe than sorry"; "more haste, less speed"; "don't keep all your eggs in one basket" - these are things drummed into my head at Oaklands Road Primary School many years ago.

The adage that Polak potrafi ('a Pole can'/'a Pole is able to') is only right 99 times out of a hundred. Consider the case of Polish Olympic medallist Otylia Jędrzejczak. An inexperienced driver, she drove her powerful car into a tree at 160kmh killing her brother. Instead of her remorseful face being used to warn Poles not to drive like lunatics, after her recovery she became the poster girl for drinking milk. "Drink milk, be big" Like me. There's nothing big about driving into a tree at high speed.

Now a personal confession. Last November I had a car crash while driving to Dobra. After four hours at the wheel without a break, as light was fading, with less than half an hour to my destination, my right-hand wheels came off the road and on to a ploughed field. I was unable to get the car back onto the asphalt; I'd have come off OK (I was driving at 70kmh) had it not been for a ditch running perpendicular to the road. My Toyota Yaris was a total write-off, the airbags saved me from anything worse than two stitches above my eyebrow and some bruised ribs. I could have gone on about the lack of rest facilities along the road from Radom to Kraków, the lack of Tiredness kills: take a break signs every few kilometres or the lack of hardened verges on the road between Muchówka and Żegocina. But I don't - it was my own foolish decision to press on to my destination despite everything. My fault.

If there is one Great Big Lesson that should be learned by the Polish nation from this terrible tragedy, it is this. Treat risk seriously. Consider the consequences of impatience and rash decisions. May this be a wake-up call to my countrymen. I shall end this post with my mother's favourite Latin saying (from Ovid), which carries so much wisdom:

Quidquid agis, prudenter agas, et respice finem

Whatever you do, do it prudently, and consider the outcome

Cokolwiek czynisz, czyń rozważnie i myśl o wyniku

Someone had blunder'd

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Fertile ground for conspiracy theorists

Princess Di: murdered by the Royal Family. NASA on the moon: an ingenious fabrication. 9/11: devised by the Bush regime for its own ends. JFK: assassinated by the Military-Industrial Complex, Cuban guerillas, LBJ, the Mob and the KGB all working together.

It is clear that conspiracy theories will circulate around yesterday's tragedy at Smolensk for decades to come. The sense of shock and disbelief will turn into rumour and searches for dark motives and guilty conspirators. Here we go!
The death of General Sikorski at Gibraltar strongly parallels Smolensk; both resulted in the deaths of the nation's head of state and military leader (along with President Kaczynski and many senior politicians, the chiefs of Poland's army, navy and air force and the chief of general staff all perished yesterday). To me and to a great many Poles, Gibraltar was sabotage. It will take mountains of historical evidence to convince me that the crash was simply an accident. Previous attempts on his life also involving his aircraft and the presence of Soviet spy Kim Philby all lead the rational mind conclude that it was murder at Stalin's behest.

Removing a large number of the nation's elite at a stroke, yesterday's crash immediately revives the ghost of Gibraltar. I must confess my very first thought on hearing confirmation of the news was 'this was deliberate'.

In my professional career I was always taught never to speculate, yet speculation based on unfounded information will circulate, plots will be devised, shady characters uncovered, entire underground cottage industries will inevitably develop, each firmly wedded to their own theory of who, why and how managed to wipe out such a significant number of the people who run Poland.

To the elderly man or woman in the Grochów tram, the motives of any putative plotters would have been clear - remove the conservative right from Polish politics, the staunch defenders of Polishness against godless liberalism at home and Bruxello-Muscovite machinations abroad (no doubt aided and abetted by Jews, Masons and Cyclists).

It's too early to offer a true explanation of how this latest Polish tragedy came to pass. As I wrote yesterday, an entirely transparent air crash investigation is an absolute must - not the minutest detail can be hidden or brushed aside by either Russia or Poland. The world's media need to have total access to all information concerning the crash.

After 24 hours of media examination, my current thinking is as follows. In thick fog, the crew of the Tu-154 made three attempts to land. The control tower is reported to have recommended flying to another airport. The captain (who takes ultimate responsibility for the aircraft and its passengers) took the decision to make a fourth attempt. I feel that there may well have been an element of mistrust between tower and flightdeck (as in 'those Russians don't want us at Katyń so they're trying to put us off). The cockpit voice recorder will tell us whether the pilot was pressured by someone into making another attempt to land. Whether or not this was the case, whoever ultimately took the decision to land made a fatal error of judgment. It was also the sheerest folly to pack so many VIPs on one flight, akin to Princess Di failing to put on a seatbelt as she set off at high speed from the Ritz.

A pilot who makes it down safely through thick fog is praised for his skill. Several years ago, flying back from Christmas in England, our LOT flight was unable to land at Okęcie because of fog. As we circled over Poland, waiting for a decision whether to make for an alternative airport (Berlin? Katowice?), we could see the Tatras and even the Świętokrzyskie hills (600m) sticking out through a uniform white blanket covering the entire country. After several circuits, we were told to prepare for landing. From our position, I could work out that we were going for Warsaw. As we neared the top of the cloud, the undercarriage was lowered. I've never seen that before - wheels out, and not only could we not see the ground, but we were still above the clouds in a blue sky! We dipped into the dense cloud, I could not even see the wingtips. Then suddenly, the wheels were on the ground. One attempt, a perfect landing. Skill or luck, Kapitan Śmietana*? Later on the TV news we learned that only one plane had managed to land at Okęcie that day.

But then Okęcie has Category II instrument landing system. Smolensk has no ILS, just a rudimentary glide slope indicator. The element of risk in trying to put down a plane as large as a Tu-154 in such weather conditions with so many VIPs on board was shockingly high.

I'm mindful of the Mirosławiec disaster in January 2008, where 16 senior air force officers were killed when their CASA-295M crashed in bad weather on a repeated approach to a military airport in north-west Poland. Lessons just don't seem to have been learned. The Polish media and blogosphere is also talking about the flight of five presidents to Georgia in 2008, where Lech Kaczyński insisted that the pilot of the Tu-154M land in Georgia despite adverse conditions. The pilot, whose passengers also included the presidents of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia disobeyed the order, flying on instead to Azerbaidjan.

* Could it be this Kapitan Śmietana?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Why did this happen

A Tu-154M as pictured above flying over our house, crashed this morning 1.5km from Smolensk military airport, killing all 96 people on board including President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, the last Polish President in Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, the President of the National Bank of Poland, Sławomir Skrzypek, and many other politicians, military leaders and VIPs.

Emotionally, the shock of the news felt to me like a gigantic, numbing, punch in the chest, the more so when the full list of passengers on board was revealed. I'd met several of them. We will be mourning for a long time. The enormity of the implications are beginning to sink in.

No doubt there will be criticism of the fact that Poland's leaders still fly around in elderly Soviet-era aircraft, the planes of the 36th Special Aviation Regiment are of the same mid-'80s vintage as those used to fly Britain's royalty and politicians. The Polish VIP fleet is well-maintained, despite difficulties with spares and avionics.

It's worth remembering the crash in December 2003 involving the Polish premier of the time, Leszek Miller, in a 36th Special Aviation Regiment Mil Mi-8 helicopter. At that time, nearly six and half years ago, there was a renewed public debate about the urgent need to replace the elderly Soviet aircraft used to fly Poland's leaders. An inquiry concluded that the accident was due to pilot error (the pilot had not switched on the engines' de-icing heater). More recent talk about using chartered commercial airliners to transport Poland's VIPs remained just talk.

No doubt some voices will immediatly be talking of a 'second Gibraltar'; a full and transparent inquiry will be needed to ascertain why the Tu-154M hit trees in fog a whole 1.5km from the end of the runway at Smolensk. At first sight it looks like pilot error - after circling the airport three times, it clipped trees as it made its approach. There must be full openness, no obfuscation or official foot-dragging; why did the pilot not take up the offer to land at an alternative airport?

Poland's head of state is now Bronisław Komorowski, speaker of the parliament (and Civic Platform's presidential candidate). The presidential elections, due for November, will be brought forward.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Television - the drug of the nation*

Since returning from England on Tuesday evening, the television in our house has not been turned on. Not once. Not for a single news bulletin. Books have been read. Blogposts written. Conversations held with children. Drawings drawn. Tasty meals prepared. Bicycles ridden. But not a second of TV has been watched.

In stark contrast to our six days in England. We soaked it in. British television is so good in comparison to Polish TV (I explain why here); hours of excellent comedy and drama and of course BBC News (what could be more gripping than the Prime Minister setting off to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for the Dissolution for Parliament?).

As I sat back enjoying post-Lenten beer and cheese while glued to the set at my brother's house, it occurs to me that I could comfortably watch two hours of TV a day when it is so compelling. But two hours a day... over twelve years... that's ONE WHOLE YEAR I'd have spent watching telly had we stayed in England! Let me run this past you again. We've lived in Poland for over 12 years. During that time I've watched hardly any television at all. Had we stayed in England over that same period, I'd have been watching quality drama, documentaries, news and comedy, lots of it and regularly. And why not? Polish TV is simply not good.

So is my life richer or poorer as a result? To borrow a quote from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End ("If I had all the money I'd spent on drink... I'd spend it on drink"), if I had all the time I'd spent laughing at TV comedy, I'd spend it on laughing at TV comedy. The rest, I think, I'm better off doing something more productive. Laughter is wonderful, one of the great reasons to be alive. Humour is an indicator trait of intelligence.

This was brought home to me at lunch today, with a fellow Anglo-Pole also living in Warsaw for many years... but one who benefits from the surreptitious use of a Sky satellite dish to receive a wide range of quality British viewing. His conversation was sprinkled with witticisms that I recognised from British TV comedy. Does regular exposure to witty programmes such as Have I Got News For You, Mock the Week and QI raise viewer's intelligence (he says returning to the theme of a recent post)?

Now - over the past 12 years - have I missed any truly funny Polish TV comedy? During the communist era, Polish political cabaret was not only funny - it was dangerous, intelligent and subversive. Since 1989, has Poland come up with any comedy worthy of the name?

Watch this. This is considered funny by Poles. It is depressing, pathetic, unfunny. It angers me. It pains me to hear my fellow countrymen laughing at this garbage.

* Title of this post - a reference to a song by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Katyń: genocide?

Yesterday's ceremony which saw premiers Putin and Tusk marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre is a significant step forward in the improvement of relations between Russia and Poland. The showing of the Andrzej Wajda film Katyń on Russian TV and the lack of denial stories in the mainstream Russian media in the run-up to yesterday's event suggests a welcome shift in the mood in Moscow.

Putin did not apologise, nor was there talk about compensating the heirs of the victims nor of punishing any surviving murderers. But there was regret and clarity that Stalin's Soviet Union was responsible for the massacres, thus nailing down the lie that the Nazis did it.

The biggest dispute within Poland about the historical truth about the murder of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyń in April 1940 is about whether it can be defined as 'genocide'.

I would argue that Katyn was not genocide. The essence of Soviet communism was class hatred - not race hatred. Katyń was not about wiping the Polish people off the face of the earth. It was about removing, in a calculated and barbaric way, as much of Poland's elite as Stalin possibly could, leaving the Polish workers and peasants (deemed as malleable by Soviet ideology), to inhabit a Soviet-led People's Poland.

Stalin, the very epitome of evil in human form, cared not a jot whether the peoples he was murdering wholesale were Poles, kulaks, Ukrainians, the bourgeoisie, Georgians, Cossacks, the intelligentia, Belorussians, Balts, philatelists, the Orthdox clergy, Esperantists, 'rootless cosmopolitans' or Tatars. Or indeed Russians - the single largest national group among his victims. Any person, any group, deemed to be standing in Stalin's way could be put to death. The Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Zinovievite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc. They all had to die. Stalin was pure evil - but this was not genocide. Just as Hitler was pure evil but no class warrior.

The Gulag, the Purges, the shtrafbatallions had no regard for nationality - none*. Some Poles, convinced of the unique nature of our nation's martyrdom, insist that Poland was singled out for special treatment. Indeed, many Polish families were touched by what happened at Katyń**. Yet a look at the Black Book of Communism, Crimes, Terror and Repression edited by Stéphane Courtois suggests that wherever communism dictatorship appeared, mass murder, starvation and widespread repression were bound to follow - from Cambodia and North Korea to Cuba and Nicaragua. You did not have to be Polish to be hurt by communism.

Accusing Russia of genocide at Katyn is only forcing the Russian people ever deeper into a laager mentality. What happened at Katyń yesterday is certainly a step forward, a vindication of a wiser and more grown-up foreign policy than the one pursued by the previous Polish government.

My own take on 20th Century Russian history is as follows: In 1917, a terrorist gang, in the right place at the right time, armed with a bizarre ideology designed to play to the masses, happened to seize power and capture a severely weakened Russian state. (There was no Marixst 'historical inevitability' about this. It happened like a virus overrunning a immunologically weakened body.) This gang then ruthlessly proceeded, through inhuman brutality and systematic terror to take over the Russian empire, claiming to do so in the name of workers and peasants. Clever marketing, given the relative size of Imperial Russia's proletariat and the vacuous, venal nature of its ruling classes. The heirs to this gang held onto Russia and its empire for 72 years, until the whole charade imploded through the internal contradictions of its economic ideology.

Russia at least has the excuse that 'no one voted for Stalin'. Unlike Germany. My appeal to Russians - come to terms with your past. Face it, your country was hijacked by evil people with a warped ideology, evil things were done to your country, and to your neighbours. The problem lies in the Russian people's rather warped sense of patriotism. Stalin who drove out the fascist invaders and captured Berlin; Stalin made the Soviet Union an atomic power, Stalin created the infrastructure to get ahead in the Space Race - the Russian narod was great. But would it not have been infinitely greater had it become a free-market democracy in 1917?

An equally significant toxic legacy of communism is the low level of social trust in Russia. The system dismantled trust in Russian society, on purpose. Neighbours mistrusting one another, family members mistrusting one another; the Party usurping and monopolising the roles of all civic institutions. Mistrust is corrosive. Without trust, societies do not run, they limp. And Russia needs to take a less paranoid view of the other countries with whom it shares the planet. Russia must learn to trust again; foreigners crying 'genocide' only exacerbate Russia's deep post-communist complexes.

Take a look at Poleconomy for an excellent and wide-ranging piece about the geopolitical implications of what happened yesterday at Katyń.

* I'm undecided about the Hlodomor - Stalin's artificially-created famine that was applied primarily in the Ukrainian SSR. Six to ten million died between 1932 and '33. There are few who would deny this. The issue is interpretation. Was Stalin's intention to destroy the Ukrainian people, or to force collectivisation onto all forms of agriculture right across the entire USSR?

** Although my own family was not affected by the Katyń massacres, my mother-in-law lost her father at Katyń, my late father-in-law two of his brothers.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Wealth and (social) mobility

My brother Marek kept hold of the Guardian for 27 January this year, which published key findings from a survey on wealth, earnings and inequality in the UK - the Hills Report. This formed a double-page spread - fascinating read for those interested in society and economics. The graphs also offer a useful yardstick for UK readers to find their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.

The first part, on wealth, is here.

The second part, on earnings, is here.

An article about rising inequality is here.

Moving from the UK to Poland in the 1990s was a smart thing to do in socio-economic terms. I don't know what our joint family income would have been had we stayed in London to this day; I can only guess. Housing and school fees would probably have eaten up 75% of what we earned. On the basis of that guess, I estimate that we'd have found ourselves somewhere between the 60th and 65th centile in terms of earns and wealth. Here in Poland, we fall into the top rate tax bracket, along with 0.7% of taxpayers.

Poland is socially much more fluid than the UK, where rigid class distinction still prevents those 'with the wrong accent' from becoming too rich or too powerful. Exceptions, as always, prove the rule. If communism did Poland one service, it was to ensure that today the sons and daughters of lowly peasants can rise through education, good fortune and sheer hard work to run banks, universities, media empires or manufacturing industry. Simply being a scion of an old magnat family by itself gets you nowhere in today's Poland - you have to compete against very determined and talented young people; there's none of the infrastructure of privilege that effortlessly propels Britain's equivalents of the Radziwiłłowie, Czartoryscy, Potoccy or Sapiehowie to the very top and keeps them there. Poland is classless. There is no accent barrier (vocabulary yes; accent no). Meeting someone called Ziutosław Krowa* who turns out to be the go-getting 39 year-old president of a group of IT companies listed on the Warsaw and New York stock exchanges comes as no surprise. Pan prezes Krowa is neither patronised nor marginalised by the old aristocracy or descendents of Poland's pre-war upper-middle classes.

But like Britain after the Thatcher revolution that turned around the post-war trend of egalitarianism (a revolution wholeheartedly continued by Blair and Brown), Poland has become less equal. In 1976, the richest 1% of Brits enjoyed 4.2% of the nation's total income. By 2000 it had shot up to 10%. In 1989, Poland, along with Japan, was the most equal country on earth in terms of disparity of wealth between highest and lowest quintiles of society. Today (please guide me to any stats!) I'd say that Marxist egalitarianism has all but vanished. Lecturers and doctors are still relatively poor compared to their British counterparts though.

In Russia and the rest of the former USSR, the rich-poor gulf is an order of magnitude greater than in Poland. Russia has 37 billionaires in the Forbes list of the world's 1,000 wealthiest people, Poland (population four times smaller) has only four. The UK (stability, inherited wealth, population two and half times smaller than Russia's) has 29.

The Hills Report also makes a stark correlation between religion and wealth in Britain (something the Guardian's online article only alludes to in a politically-correct way). Sikhs and Hindus, for example, are several times wealthier than Muslims. Britain's richest religious group are the Jews: white Christians being twice as wealthy than those without religious affiliation.

It will be interesting to repeat the Hills report in 2054, half a century after the beginning of the greatest migration that the UK has ever experienced. Will Poles repeat the success of their Jewish and Indian predecessors? Or languish like the descendents of Caribbean or Bangladeshi migrants? Will they make the most of the opportunities that the UK's entrepreneur-friendly business environment offers them, or will they rue missing out on the economic boom that Poland experienced in the 2010s and '20s?

Economics is a complex science. Three laws of physics can describe 99% of all physical phenomena while 99 laws of economics manage to describe just 3% of all economic phenomena. This is because each one of the 6.8 billion humans on this planet is not entirely rational when it comes to his or her behaviour in the market place. One thing that is (almost) certain is that most people will trade money for social status. Would you rather be earning $1,000,000 a year in a country where the average salary was $1,500,000, or $100,000 a year where the average salary was a mere $10,000? I'll let you be the judge.

* A fictitious name; the equivalent of a Fred Snutt, son of a retired phlegm-collector from Bermondsey.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Are we really getting any more intelligent?

This post is going to be stuffed full of questions. I'd be grateful for comments which could shed some light on them!

Are human beings today more intelligent (across the whole of the population) than they were 100 years ago? 1,000 years ago? 1,000,000 years ago? If you could return to Shakespeare's times, would you be surprised by a) how foolish and ignorant your your interlocutor in the Boar's Head tavern was, or b) how smart and knowledgable he was?

IQ as a measure of human intelligence works on the basis that average value is 100, with equal distribution below and above that mark. But is today's IQ 100 higher - or lower - than that of Elizabethan England or Jagiellionian Poland? The spread of education and the written word has raised levels of learning - but in terms of innate ability to reason, to intuit, to be aware - is there any qualitative increase in intelligence over the millennia since homo sapiens emerged as a species? (The Wikipedia article on the Flynn effect is interesting but inconclusive). Are we smarter as well as brighter? Wiser or just better able to solve problems? Is intelligence a cumulative result of generations of increasingly better educated parents?

One would guess, by Darwinian deduction, that intelligence being a trait that confers biological advantage on its possessor, just as a bigger more colourful tail would suggest that its peacock owner would be biologically more fit.

My next set of questions are tougher. Is there a link between levels of consciousness (or awareness) and intelligence? In other words, the quality of one's reactions to moments, lost in wonder, gazing at a marvellous painting or landscape, listening to a beautiful piece of music or pondering a poignant thought that connects one to the Eternal? Is it possible to have a high IQ and yet be hollow, vapid, lacking in human qualities?

Specialist or generalist - who's more intelligent? The single-mindedly focused, or the gifted all-rounder who excels in no one field?

Intelligence and the story-telling gene - as I tell my pupils, your knowledge is useless if you can't communicate it. Is the ability to get your point of view across more, or less, or equally important as having a point of view worth communicating? Which leads me swiftly onto emotional intelligence, is it a more human measure than sheer number-crunching IQ? Mankind's greatest scientists were generally people lacking social skills, suggesting low EI, but their restricted, repetitive behaviours and interests have led to the scientific advances that bestow on us today a standard of living (and lifespan) undreamt of a millennium ago.

Should we be looking therefore at a larger number of spectrums defining intelligence? Now were getting somewhere. But, as we can see from this article, science still has a long way to go before a theory of multiple intelligences becomes mainstream.

I believe we're at a fascinating time in human history - akin to the Enlightenment, when alchemy gave way to scientific method. Advances in genetics, neuroscience and subatomic physics will give mankind a clearer understanding of what we can know and what lies beyond our ken. The single most complex thing that man has discovered so far is the human brain.

And yet... Question on BBC 1's The Weakest Link (same format as TVN's Najsłabsze Ogniwo):

Question: What word beginning with the letter C describes snakes like the python, boa and anaconda that crush their prey?

Answer: Arachnophobic?

Some excellent articles from the New Scientist about the human brain and intelligence here.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Lent's over; a summing up

All over for another year - or is it? At midnight Polish time (23:00 in Derbyshire), I celebrated the end of Lent with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (why can no other wine-producing nation make a Sauvignon Blanc that comes anywhere close to New Zealand's). And then another glass, and then some. Excellent British cheeses. A slight hangover in the morning; 75 sit-ups and 20 press-ups (how long will that go on for?); and time for coffee.

I overdo it. Three heaped scoops into the cafetiere, two large mugs. An hour later, I'm overcome by anxiety, like waiting for a job interview or for an artillery barrage to begin. At lunch (first meat in over 46 days!) I decline a drink. I can see that for me, caffeine more profoundly affects my metabolism than alcohol. I have no adverse effects from giving up drink, while caffeine withdrawal is much harder, I have to wean myself off gradually, doing it suddenly gives me bad headaches. Indeed, as I write, more than six hours after those coffees, I can still feel their effect.

Overdoing the coffee aside, I feel excellent on completing my 19th consecutive Lent. I am stronger, fitter, healthier than when I started in winter. It is now spring, a natural time for continuing exercise. On return to Warsaw I shall get back to cycling to work. Interestingly, despite the daily sit-ups, I failed in my goal to reduce my girth around the middle from 99cm/39 inches to 91.5cm /36 inches. Despite the self-denial and twice-daily working out and all that happened was a reduction to 98cm / 38.5 inches.

At the end of Lent, I'm always full of good intentions - will I be able to keep them going longer than usual?
Easter 2010, for the record. 1 April -> 06:00 Fly Okęcie - Doncaster; train to Stockport. 3 April -> TransPeak bus from Stockport to Duffield. 5 April -> Driven from Duffield to Ealing. 6 April -> Driven from Ealing to Luton; fly to Okęcie.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Warsaw's favourite weekend destination

Judging from the destination signs on the fronts of many Warsaw buses and trams at weekends, Varsovians love to spend their leisure time strolling up and down the Trasa Zmieniona.

Running parallel to the Trasa Łazienkowska, Trasa W-Z and Trasa Toruńska, the Trasa Zmieniona is bordered by broad swathes of woodland, cycle paths and the Royal Canal. It leads (across the river) to what once was the village of Zmienion, but is today part of the FSO car factory. Above: A painting of the Trasa Zmieniona in the mid-1840s. The two towers have survived to this day, and serve as masts for mobile phone antennae.

The stately thoroughfare was named after Wolfgang Zmienion, who became very rich by breeding frogs for the French dinner table back in the 1820s. He fell on the idea when his ponds were denuded of frogs by starving soldiers returning from Moscow with Napoleon in 1812. Zmienion extended his ponds and cultivated his tasty green amphibians, fattening them up and transporting them west, where Parisian connoisseurs rated Warsaw frogs as the best they'd ever eaten.
Today, the Trasa Zmieniona is being restored to its former glory (hopefully) in time for the Euro 2012 football championships. Previous Warsaw mayor, Lech Kaczyński, had plans for giant statues of historical Polish heroes to line the thoroughfare from one end to the other, but his successor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz fell back on a more modest redevelopment plan for budget reasons. Rows of chandeliers will instead light the way for pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists heading across the city on this historic route.
So, if you're at a loose end this Saturday, why not jump on to any bus or tram (the metro does not go there) that says 'Trasa Zmieniona' on the front. There's lots of them.
"We're going to Zmieniona
We're on Zmieniona Way,
We're going to Zmieniona
We're on Zmieniona Way!"