Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Knackered Nokia

After two years and nine months, my Nokia N95 is getting flaky and unreliable.

Lately, the slider mechanism has broken so that if I slide the display out fully - it goes blank. In order to be able to use the keyboard, I have to extend it nearly all the way out - just enough to be able to read the '1', '2' and '3' keys. Another random error is that of its own volition the phone suddenly decided to go into 'camera standby mode'. No reason. A fix is a re-start, which is annoying. Overnight the phone went into camera standby mode by itself, and stood by all night long until the battery expired. And the battery cover itself is working loose. The phone has ceased alerting me to inbound SMSs; I need to work my way through a clunky menu (four clicks) to check whether or not I've got any messages. The chrome's coming off the most heavily-used keys.

This is a shame, because the Nokia N95 is the first mobile phone I've really liked. It can take decent photos and record little films and sound, play music, store lots of multi-media, has a large memory. If only it had been more robustly made! I'd like an Apple iPhone, but from what I hear from users, it's even more fragile.

Can anyone recommend a mobile phone that's built as solidly as my Nikon DSLRs, one with a built in 5MP+ camera and has lots of memory? E-mail reader not required.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Out on the perimeter

Less than seven kilometres (four and half miles) from the very centre of Warsaw, and you are right out in parts of the city so rural you'd think you were deep in the countryside. Below: Siekierki power station from the flood protection wall. Earlier last month, firemen fought desperately here to stop waters from seeping in under the wall. They succeeded. The sandbags (just out of sight) are still here today.

Below: rail crossing where the coal train makes its way to the power station. Pure Kentucky, is this not? The Vistula is to the left of the flood protection wall. A long way home, but on a day like today, I feel the need to get on my bike and ride and take photographs. No apologies for vibrance of colours; it's that polarising filter giving you an idea of how it looked to me wearing polarising sun glasses.

The railway line runs from Siekierki to Konstancin-Jeziorna sidings; from then on via Nowa Iwiczna and Jeziorki, to the sidings at Okęcie. Below: passing Kilometer 500 on the Vistula. The black sign (left) has the numerals cut out so that boatmen can read it clearly.

Below: I'm deliberately not showing the river. It hides behind high walls. Its presence is felt. Last month, the water was getting close to spilling over the top and trickling under the sodden foundations of the flood defence walls.

Below: I cycled along the banks of the Vistula. There's no tidy towpath, just a track along the top of the flood wall. Here and there you can catch sight of the river. Eventually, I get to Obórki, then I head inland through Okrzeszyn, Powsin, the Las Kabacki forest and home. A long ride, but every inch of it in the presense of the Sublime. Below: A field near Okrzeszyn, Kentucky?

Right: Powsin, Warsaw. Let's not forget where we are. It's just five days before the second round of the presidential elections. You have a choice. Use it to determine whether Poland will mark time or march backwards.
It's quiet and calm in this very rural part of Warsaw, though cyclists and motorbikers are drawn to its quiet byways on beautiful summer afternoons and evenings. Quite a contrast to the rush hour hubbub of Ursynów just three miles to the west of here, ul. Puławska jammed up solid with commuters.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Governance and politics

Yes, it does matter who you elect. Just look at the difference between Slovenia and Serbia, two countries to emerge from Yugoslavia in totally different ways. It's a clear example that governance makes all the difference when it comes to how wealthy and happy a nation is.

One thing I learnt after 16 years at the Confederation of British Industry is the importance of international competitiveness. It's, indeed, a competitive world. When one country stops to take a breather (putting up tariffs to protect domestic industry and labour), other countries muscle in. Global Darwinism. Argentina was the world's fourth-richest nation in 1900, today it's merely 'an emerging nation'; a long series of bad governments taking bad decisions wrecked what was once a great economy. Government does matter. Vote for a government that understands economics.

I don't understand people who are politically active but confess to be economically illiterate. Whenever you start talking about things you don't understand, you are either a knave or a fool. You are either lying or talking crap. I'm really not fussed about in vitro, the role of the church in society, punishing octogenarian communists or gay rights. I am, however, absolutely fussed about when (and at what rate) Poland joins the euro, what the government's industrial policy should be, the Central Bank's stance on monetary policy, what the government is doing to cut the budget deficit, how local authorities are tackling their obligations to protect the environment, and the provision of world-class transport infrastructure. These are the things that determine Poland's place in the world. The rest is white noise. Sadly, the rest is what 95% of the political debate is about in Poland.

Just say 'no' to Beton Jarka

The nation is the largest entity to which we can naturally, comfortably feel affinity to. (Agree or disagree?) I don't much care what happens in Greece or Romania or Iceland as long as the bad things that happen there don't impact Poland or the Polish economy.

National animosity is sad but understandable. "I don't like the French" or "I don't like the Welsh" is something the English might say just as naturally as Poles disliking Germans or Russians. Regional animosity is far rarer. That same degree of animosity as I've described above would be unlikely in a Mazovian, his heart full of atavistic hatred for the inhabitants of Świętokrzyskie or Podlaskie provinces, for example. Lancastrians have long since ceased hated Yorkists.

So caring about the competitiveness of one's country, then, is normal, instinctive. I want to feel proud for my country. I want to see Poland do well on the global stage. The only indicators that really count are social and economic. Progress, development, organisation. Good schools, universities, hospitals, roads, railways; efficient, well-run public services. We should all take natural, biological pride in these features of public life as they improve. But they don't improve by themselves. Left to their own devices, entrepreneurs, by dint of their innate courage, drive, vision and yes, greed, will create jobs and wealth. But they do need to be regulated. How much regulation do they need to stop them from creating cartels and enriching themselves unfairly, selling us shoddy goods and services at inflated prices? That, dear citizen-voter, is up to you.

Regulate them too heavily, and they will pack up their businesses and take the jobs elsewhere. Regulate them too lightly, and they will eat your children. (Notice I've not talked about taxes. My chief gripe with the Polish tax system is not the tax rate, but the ease with which one pays taxes and the transparency of the system.)

A conservative sees the purpose of law as the preservation of individual liberty. Liberty to enrich oneself. The pursuit of happiness. I'm struck by (but understand why) notions of conservatism differ so much between Poland (social conservatives who are economic socialists) and the US (social conservatives who are economic liberals). The UK falls somewhere between, distinctions muddied by residual feudalism (Britain's class system).

My point being? Sunday's vote is between standing still and moving backwards when it comes to global competitiveness. I want an economically strong Poland. Beton Jarka has yet to convince me how PiS is to accomplish that task. So I will be voting on Sunday for 'Bore' Komorowski. 'Steady as she goes' rather than 'Full steam astern'.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

To Warsaw, from Yerevan

Above: not a scheduled visitor at Okęcie, but an aircraft that's been here before; Armavia's Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ200 (EK20014). If you click to enlarge, you'll see Armenian script on the lower front fuselage; exotica indeed (it says Արմավիա - Armavia). The airline has only recently launched its Yerevan-Warsaw service, which flies Mon-Tue-Sun and is usually served by an Airbus A319. So this sighting's a rarity.

Spotter's bonus: just before the Armenian plane's arrival, some Polish-registered general aviation over our garden (below). Beechcraft Super King Air SP-DSA coming in to land.

Today I started shooting RAW format photos (rather than JPEGs). These need to be processed in Lightroom before going to Photoshop for cropping and final processing as low-res JPEGs, but the difference in quality is appreciable. JPEGs of aircraft are too contrasty; detail is lost in the undersides. From a RAW (or 'NEF' as Nikon's proprietary version of the format is called), you can extract more shadow and highlight detail. Uses up more disk space, but I'm happier with the results. Aircraft photos will be shot in RAW henceforth.

Above: Polish Air Force PZL M-28TD. Below: KLM Cityhopper Embraer ERJ190-100 PH-EZL

Below: my favourite jet airliner flying daily into Okęcie - the Avro RJ85 (this one operated by Brussels Airlines). A reasonable fine-weather weekend's spotting without having to leave my garden.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Literature and biology

The last two books I've read and the last film I watched have one thing in common - they were recommended to me by my own daughter. A gratifying point to have reached in one's life when one's own flesh and blood can point out to me glaring gaps in my literary experience, but discovering that a) I like the books very much and b) they are edifying. Moni has been recommending books, films and music to me since last summer when she suggested I read Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

The books and latest film (I'll come on the titles later) have a common thread; the state of mind of the protagonist. Literary criticism of the second half of the 20th C. would often dip into psychology and psychoanalysis using Freudian tools to determine why the protagonist acted as he or she did.

Art describes life as the artist sees it; the science follows. And so looking at Albert Camus' L'Étranger in the light of current understanding of the human mind as well as advances in genetic science gives us new insights into how minds differ from one person to the next. The film, based on L'Étranger, is the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. I'm baffled as to why I've not seen it before, given my obsession with late '40s - early '50s USA and the fact I've seen every other Coen Brothers' film except the very latest one. An exquisitely filmed neo-noir movie, The Man Who Wasn't There is also about a man who kills yet is not a murderer yet is executed for murder. In both cases the protagonist/narrator is a deeply introverted man who ends up being the victim of keeping his thoughts to himself and demonstrates an extremely limited set of emotional responses to what's happening around him.

Putting the two into a clearly clinical context is Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Here, the protagonist/narrator is a 15 year old-boy with Asperger's Syndrome - an autism spectrum disorder. Because we know so much more today than we did in the 1940s, Haddon's protagonist has been diagnosed, and being highly intelligent, he understands the limitations of his own mind. Tomorrow's writers will be armed with the science that explains the behaviour. Shakespeare's protagonists have all been psychoanalysed. Soon we'll they'll have their genetic code unravelled. Will literary critics debate whether Lady Macbeth's obsessive behaviour was brought on by the codons in her mRNA being charged covalently with amino acids at their 3' terminal CCA ends?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

What do I want for Poland

I want a modern, normal country, of which I can be proud. When I took the decision in 1997 to move to Poland with my (then) young family, a colleague at work in London mocked me. "America, Canada, Australia - I can understand. But you are emigrating to Poland?!? POLAND! That's some kind of a JOKE country!"

That hurt. I was brought up as a Pole in the UK, and returning to my fatherland was a form of destiny shaped by my upbringing - Polish school on Saturday mornings, Polish scouts on Saturday afternoons, Polish church on Sunday. I am here by choice, not by default. I won't have the beton Jarka element label me as unpatriotic; I want what I see is best for my country.

A modern, normal country. One where decent citizens can go about their daily, law-abiding lives, working in fulfilling jobs, paying taxes, trusting one another, trusting the Polish state, trusting their neighbours, employers, tax authorities and police. A country with decent universities, turning out graduates that are equipped for the labour market of tomorrow. Graduates that don't have to flee to foreign universities to get decent research fellowships. A country when research and development spend per capita is as high as it is in Scandinavia, the US or Japan. A country not dependent on jobs on low-cost manufacturing, but on high-value added high-tech industries and professional services.

Poland does have the people. I never cease to be amazed at the quality of young people - hard working, intelligent, well-read, highly-motivated; yet the country - the state - can't seem to get itself organised in such a way as to harness that energy to the full. Too many talented Poles leave Poland to make a career in foreign universities, foreign companies in foreign countries.

Year by year, Poland is moving away from joke-country status. Since we moved to Poland, it has become a member of NATO, the European Union, the OECD club of rich countries. Since 2004, Poland's GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity has risen from 54% of the EU average to 61%, and climbing fast. In 2003, Poland's economy was seven times smaller than the UK's. Today, it's only four-and-half times smaller. I want Poland to have a strong economy. For that to happen, the economy needs to be run by people who know about the economy. Here, I mistrust PO less than PiS. And that's what it boils down to.

I want a country of entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats. Poland does have one of the highest percentages of workforce employed in micro-businesses (employing one to nine employees) in the EU. That's basically one big ZUS dodge. The average Polish micro-business employs 1.3 people. The "entrepreneur" (read: 'self-employed person for tax reasons') and his wife doing the books one third full-time equivalent. Because it's too damned difficult for a sole trader to do it himself. The average British micro-business employs 3.7 people. That's healthier. Go up to the small firm level. Only 12% of the Polish workforce is employed in small businesses (10 to 49 employees). This is the lowest level in the EU. So medium- and large-size firms can go about their business without feeling the nip of competition at their heels - and can get away with charging higher prices and offering worse service than in the UK.

This needs reform.

In the UK, to be self-employed, you merely fill in two sides of a form (CWF-1) and send it to your local tax office. And you pay tax once a year. In Poland, you go through inordinately more bureaucracy to be able to call yourself a jednoosobowa działalność gospodarcza. In England, if you wish to tune pianos, trim decorative hedges, teach ballroom dancing or renovate classic cars, you just get on and do it and pay the taxman annually. In Poland, the citizen is not simply allowed to go out and earn his or her way - he or she must apply to the state for permission to do so, pay tax and ZUS and VAT monthly, and be subject to such rigorous supervision as to put off all but the hardiest souls. (In the UK, you are only obliged to pay VAT if your earnings exceed £70,000).

Put it another way; if Poland is to really take off as a country, it needs to make it much easier for people to start working for themselves, to employ other people; it must be easier to pay taxes.

Where's the political appetite for reform? Looking at the economic programme of the presidential candidates, I could only see real economic reformist zeal in Janusz Korwin-Mikke (slightly nutty party) and Andrzej Olechowski. Both marginal candidates without any significant party support.

As for two remaining candidates, the least-worst option is Bronisław Komorowski. Plodding and steady rather than an energetic driver for change, I feel he won't get in the way. I don't get that feeling about his opponent.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Not looking good for PO

Exit polls can get it right or wrong. Last night I chose Millward Brown SMG KRC's polls (as used on TVN) as opposed to TNS OBOP (as used on TVP). Now, TVP being the state-run station controlled by placemen of PiS and SLD, I thought, "well, here are polls that suit those who order them".

Yet the TNS OBOP poll (41.2% Komorowski, 35.8% Kaczyński, 13.5% Napieralski) now seem to be far more accurate. After all the votes have been counted, the actual results look like this: Komorowski 41.5%, Kaczyńśki 36.5%, Napieralski 13.7%.

This leaves a mere 5 percentage points between Komorowski and Kaczyński. Marginally more than the 3.2 percentage-point difference between Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczyński in the first round of the 2005 presidential elections, that Kaczyński won in the second round.

Question now is, how will Napieralski's electorate vote. Napieralski started with around 4% in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, so he did well. Who voted for him? Social liberals or economic socialists? The answer to this question will determine outcome of the second round. The former will not vote for Kaczyński. The latter are less likely to vote for Komorowski.

The next two weeks will now see a very heated and embittered campaign, aimed at the 21% of the electorate who voted for candidates other than Komorowski and Kaczyński.

While not the most charismatic of people, I shall be voting for Komorowski on the basis that if Poland is to press on with reform, it needs a president who does not block parliament with vetoes. Kaczyński - we've had this guy before as premier and he failed. He failed to rebuild social trust that communism had torn to the ground. He failed to understand that free enterprise builds the wealth of nations, not armies of bureaucrats. I don't want him back as president.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Second round of voting: what next?

The exit polls look like this: 45.7% Bronisław Komorowski (Civic Platform - PO), 33.2% Jarosław Kaczyński (Law and Justice - PiS), 13.4% Grzegorz Napieralski (ex-communists - SLD). Turnout was 52.3%. As no candidate secured more than half of the votes cast, there will be a second round of the presidential elections, in two weeks time, on 4 July.

What will happen? Let's look back at the last presidential election.

In 2005, Donald Tusk (Civic Platform) beat Lech Kaczyński (Law and Justice) in the first round by 36.3% to 33.1% on a 49.7% turnout. In the second round, Kaczyński beat Tusk by 54% t0 46% on a 51% turnout.

So what next? The margin of Komorowski's victory over Jarosław Kaczyński (12.5 percentage points - and remember, these are only exit polls) is far more convincing than Tusk's first round margin over Lech Kaczyński (3.2 percentage points).

Jarosław Kaczyński will be angling for that juicy ex-communist vote, Napieralski's useful 13.4% support, by pushing PiS's redistributive economic agenda (e.g. no private sector involvement in healthcare) and hiding the differences (abortion, gay rights, in vitro fertilisation, Euroscepticism). In this, he will have an easier task than Komorowski, who will find it harder, as a natural social conservative, to talk convincingly like a social liberal. My guess is that more of Napieralski's electorate will vote for Kaczyński than for Komorowski, for purely economic reasons. If you an ex-communist boss with a guilty conscience, however, you will not be voting for Kaczyński.

Neither candidate can count on much support from those who didn't bother voting this time round. At the last presidential elections, turnout for the second round of voting was only 1.1% higher than in the first.

My prediction is that Bronisław Komorowski will beat Jarosław Kaczyński on 4 July. Komorowski is more appealing to the older, more conservative (socially) voter than Donald Tusk was; he has a higher margin in the first round; Jarosław is (slightly) less sympathetic a character than his late twin. And in 2005, two other candidates gained significant votes in the first round - populist Andrzej Lepper (15.1%) and ex-communist Marek Borowski (10.3%). In other words, in 2005 there was a pool of over 25% of first-round voters with a redistributionist bent for whom the idea of Kaczyński was preferable to the more free-market oriented Tusk.

It will be tight. My message to those who want Poland to move ahead in a reformist way towards normality is to go and vote on 4 July - do not take anything for granted. Worth looking at my simple map of Polish politics, here.

Some political thoughts occasioned by Presidential Election Sunday

What kind of society do we wish to live in? Most voters would want to see one occupying the middle ground between the following two extremes. The Troughs-For-You Party distributes wealth so that everyone is equal (except those that do the distributing, who are more equal than most). It's rival, the I'm-All-Right-Jack Party, deems that the poor are essentially idle losers, and lets the rich hang onto to all their wealth - and devil take the hindmost.

We thankfully live in a democracy, where some kind of equilibrium between these two extremes is the usual outcome of elections. The Troughs-For-You Party tones down its rhetoric in the knowledge that "taxing the rich until the pips squeak" (to quote Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey) has the effect of disincentiving the entrepreneurial and hard working elements of society. The I'm-All-Right-Jack Party realises that some public money is required to keep the downtrodden from rising up and stringing up the rich from lamp-posts and so moderates its natural instincts to something more balanced.

Above: voting, today. Despite the rain.

There's no place for a Balance party though. Adopt the middle ground (which is where political power tends to end up anyway) and get kicked to death by TFY and IARJ. Troughists will accuse you of being a sanitised version of Genghis Khan, while All-Rightists will paint you as a crypto-communist.

Politics is nothing else than human biology (the only ideology!) at work. If you are, by dint of nature or nurture, well-off, the thought of the State helping itself to your hard-earned cash to enable society's slackers to enjoy a standard of living to which they are not entitled to is infuriating. If you are disadvantaged and have a lower level of education, poor health, low levels of drive and essentially you are not a coper, you will expect the better-off to dip into their pockets to help you out, and will vote for those who promise to do so.

The other night I was discussing with my fellow Anglo-Poles Marzena Richter and Alex Staniszewski (owners of auditing firm Staniszewski & Richter) the paradox of the Greek Cypriots. The stereotypical Greek Cypriot is hard-working and entrepreneurial whereas across the Eastern Med the rest of the Greeks are now seen as a lazy, something-for-nothing nation who burn tyres in the street when they're told that they live beyond their means. Greek Cypriots are ethnically Greek, yet culturally British. (This is something to take on board in the nature-or-nurture debate. I'm convinced that nations that have had it good for too long (usually at the expense of other nations) get their come-uppance. Empires wax and wane. I'm convinced that Poland's time is come; this century will see Poland gaining ground on America and Western Europe when it comes to wealth per capita. But it must be done with better-run institutions, higher levels of social trust and an elite that can take a long-term look at the good of the nation.

And so, to the ballot box. If you've not voted yet, do so. The higher the turnout, the less likely a nutty candidate is to get elected (compare the UK's last parliamentary election* with the last European election**.)

* Turnout 65%. Not one British National Party or UK Independence Party candidate elected
** Turnout 34%. UK Independence Party came second with 12 MEPs elected, beating Labour into third place. The BNP won two seats.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The ongoing problem of household waste

Earlier this year, the nearest waste recycling point to our house, at Nowy Podolszyn, was closed down. Usual reasons. The locals were complaining about the misuse of the facilities, with many brudasi dumping all their unsegregated rubbish (including rotting food waste) there - and the price of recycled materials so low that it's no longer worth the waste management firm's while driving out to leave the bins and bring them back when full.

I made enquiries as to where we could still take segregated household waste. Eko Standard has a waste segregation facility in Łubna (near Baniocha on the Piaseczno to Góra Kalwaria road), where sorted rubbish is gratefully accepted. To make the 18 mile/30km round trip worthwhile, we collect one car-full of segregated waste. Glass, paper/card, plastic. In total, 18 large (recyclable) supermarket carrier bags, full of yoghurt cartons, water bottles, newspapers, cardboard packaging and glass bottles from juice, beer and wine. A car-full of waste accumulated by our family of four in just five weeks (that's with Moni and Eddie both being away for a week on school trips to Norway and Lithuania respectively).

The alternative - throwing it all into two 120 litre wheelie bins would have cost us 40 złotys and the rubbish would have most probably just gone to landfill. Cost of petrol? My wonderful 17 year-old Nissan Micra is still returning 42.5 mpg (6.6 l/100km) in mainly urban driving; 30km would have used around two litres of petrol costing around nine zlotys. Still, therefore worth doing. And the satisfaction of doing good for the environment.

What happens to all that raw material? I suspect, given the large number of German-registered trucks at the waste segregation plant, it heads west, where the German economy is geared to using materials from recycling. Now that would be a waste; truckloads of Polish segregated rubbish being driven halfway across Europe because Poland's own businesses are unable to make use of the low-cost glass, plastic and paper they can pick up on their own backyard.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Standing stones

Work on the Elka ('L' shaped road formed by the S79 running south from ul. Marynarska and the S2 running east to ul. Puławska) is progressing, despite the long winter and wet spring. The viaducts that will take the roadways over asphalt and track are beginning to take shape.

Above: view from southbound KM (Kansas & Missouri?) train at W-wa Służew. The supports will carry northbound traffic from the S79 onto ul. Marynarska. Below: supports in place to carry the viaduct that will take ul Poloneza over the S2 and the line to the Warsaw Metro (foreground). I cannot wait for this to be completed, as my morning journey to Platan Park is hideously disturbed by the interruption.

Will it all be ready in time for the Euro2012 football championships?

The photo above reminds me of another bit of road infrastructure (below) that was being built in central Poland against a tight deadline, to carry motorway traffic to an international sporting event - the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This was meant to be a viaduct carrying the Berlin to Moscow motorway so that sports-loving westerners could drive their Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs to Brezhnev's USSR and watch Socialist athletes demonstrate their prowess against the imperialists.

Click here for English and Polish description plus licencing rights and photographer's details.

Why this photo?

To demonstrate the difference, to those who should know better, between Brussels and Moscow. Of course, even if building work on the S79/S2 ceases tomorrow, and 30 years from now all that's left on the construction site are standing stones, there will still be a difference between the EU and the USSR. The forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles to labour camps and the murder of tens of thousands of Polish officers.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Działkaland floods north of Warsaw

Działka - is one of those hard-to-translate Polish concepts, but bear with me. It is something akin to the British allotment garden, though larger, with a summer house on it. The concept of the Russian dacha is similar. Many urban Poles who live in flats like to have a plot where they can put up a small house and grow fruit and veg, where they can get away from the city's noise and bustle.

Działki vary from a thirty square-metre wooden shack on a hundred square-metre plot right through to veritable palaces on large, forested plots that are hard to distinguish from normal houses. If there's one factor which distinguishes a działka from a proper house, it is that one does not commute into work each day of the week from a działka.

Large or small, działki are not inhabited the year round, typically during weekends and holidays from late spring through to early autumn. The idea is to get away from the noise and fumes of the city and relax in the countryside - where most Poles are from.

And what to do once you get there? A quote from a taxi driver who many years ago drove me to the airport one Saturday morning. After he drops me off, he says he's headed for his działka for 'browar, praska i grill' - beer, papers and barbecue.

Warsaw is surrounded by a broad belt of działkaland. It extends as far as one can reasonably travel on a Friday evening with all the necessities of weekend life - children and their playthings, dog, bicycles, boxes of provisions. In practice then, a 90 minute drive or train journey tops. This explains the traffic snarl-ups (and full commuter trains) coming into Warsaw on Sunday evenings in summer.

This weekend I took up Adam R's kind invitation to join him at his family's działka a little way north of Warsaw, I took my bike on the train as far as Pomiechówek, two stops beyond Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and cycled on from there. The area is quintessential Działkaland, out where the pines grow wild and tall, sandy soil, slightly hilly, and lots of well-built wooden działka houses. Two stories, proper kitchens and bathrooms, three or four bedrooms. Civilised conditions for weekend rural living. In every drive, a car on Warsaw plates.

Above: flooded działki of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. ND Maz is a dormatory town north of Warsaw, these modest działki belong to the locals (whose flats are visible in the background). When people lose their farms, livestock, livelihoods, when their principle houses are flooded, the media take notice. But działki under water is no story.

Below: The river Narew at Modlin, near the confluence of the river Wkra. These rivers join the Vistula some three kilometres downstream of here. The area between my vantage point and the far horizon is very prone to flooding.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Health and safety - a necessary debate

Natural air conditioning or gross negligence of basic health and safety rules? My train this morning (the 09:47 Koleje Mazowieckie service from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Wschodnia) was running with most of the doors open. Given that the temperature was already +28C by half past nine am, the open doors gave a pleasant cooling draught.

But is it right to take a train, with a couple of hundred of people on board, at speeds of up to 90 km/h (56 mph), with gaping apertures out of which human bodies can tumble?

But isn't this an exaggerated concern? After all, London Transport has been operating thousands of open-backed buses for decades (and continues to do so on tourist routes)?

The Smolensk disaster cockpit voice recorder tapes, which were published last week, are remarkable for the fact that there was no one present on the flight deck who piped up with the opinion: "This looks lethal. Let's divert to the nearest alternative airport that's not fog bound".

And consider this fact (provided by Richard Burleigh, head of Skanska S.A.'s Warsaw office): the number of fatal accidents on UK building sites per 10,000 man-years worked is three; in Poland it is 15. We may all mock Britain's obsession with 'Ealf an' safety', but the statistics show that the result is a significant reduction in human misery resulting from preventable accidents.

But isn't common sense enough?

It is in 99% of cases.

But is the restriction on liberties required to prevent that 1% of accidents too high a price to pay? All those notices, officious people telling you off, hours spent in training sessions?

There are places (building sites, aircraft, maritime transport, public transport, public roads) which are by their very nature more prone to catastrophic accidents where a small slip can lead to death - or indeed many deaths. People are more accepting of a stricter health and safety regime here. But there is a fine line in which the state can start rolling back civil liberties in the name of health and safety.

A public debate is needed as to where to draw lines - and how deep to draw them. Should the driver of my train this morning be censured for opening doors while the train was in motion (or indeed taking a defective train out of the depot)? If the train was indeed defective, was it better that it ran rather then being cancelled? (After all, no one fell out of it, and it ran more than 100km from Radom right across Warsaw). At the moment, there's a chaotic situation where in certain circumstances the very highest EU norms are applied (food hygiene being an example). In others, it's old-style nonchalance, niedbalstwo/bezmyślność or carelessness/thoughtlessness, which only comes to light after a major tragedy.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Lost and lamented link

I missed blogging about this. One 1 June, the new Koleje Mazowieckie train timetables came into force. Koleje Mazowieckie is the bit of PKP (Polish State Railways) that was split off, and along with other bits of Przewozy Regionalne, passed onto the provincial governments to run.

In the case of Mazowsze, Koleje Mazowieckie was evidently the Warsaw agglomeration commuter railway network, running out to the borders of Poland's largest province (Mazowsze), with Warsaw its hub.

Mazowsze is a strange province. At its epicentre, glamorous, shining, modern, cosmopolitan, PO-voting, go-ahead, rich, Warsaw. Around it lie dormatory towns like Piaseczno (aka Sandbag City), Pruszków, Ożarów, Łomianki, Legionowo, Marki, Sulejówek, Otwock, Konstancin. These places and the villages in between are part of the Warsaw economy, and generally well-off. But go further out and you enter a twilight world of rural deprivation, poverty, one-horse towns, one-industry towns where that industry has gone bust - and the Four Big Towns of Mazowsze Other Than Warsaw. Radom to the south. Płock to the north-west. Ciechanów to the north-east. And Siedlce to the east. These places stand in stark contrast to that shining beacon of wealth and modernity that is our fair capital. Compare the unemployment in the sub-regions: Warsaw: 3.5%. Ciechanów-Płock: 15.7%. Siedlce-Ostrołęka: 14.3%. Radom: 22.3%.

And yet Mazowsze is the richest province of Poland by far. And as such, the Rich must give to the Poor, so the hypothecated tax revenues for local spending that Mazowieckie gets has to be shared with the really poor provinces of Poland - the so-called 'Janosikowe' (Janosik being a kind of Polish highland Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor). Now Mazowsze (Warsaw, handicapped by outlying districts like Szydłowieckie - 33.8% unemployment) has to give around a third of the money it gets from central government to other provinces. Upshot is, Mazowsze has not enough money for itself. Result - budget cuts - and because Koleje Mazowieckie is run by Mazowieckie province - cut cut cut those less-than-profitable lines.

One such service cut as of 1 June was the passenger line between Góra Kalwaria (to the south of Warsaw) to Pilawa (across the Vistula). This service was opened on 1 June 2009, and I went on it to check it out, and very nice tourism it was too. But after a mere 12 months, the service is gone. Use it or lose it. Sadly, Warszówka, Osieck and Jaźwiny, the three settlements served by the line, have lost their rail connections to Warsaw after getting them back briefly.

I have a modest proposal for the Polish government to solve Mazowsze's debt and deficit problem. Chop it up. Create a new province (voivodship) - Warsaw Agglomeration (like Greater London, which is an English region). Warsaw plus its nine adjoining districts (poviats). The per capita wealth of this province would be much closer to that of western Europe than to that of Ciechanów or Radom. The poorer Mazowsze region (without Warsaw) would then be elligible for Warsaw Province's handouts. You know it makes sense.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Lessons for our local policy makers.

The waters after last Thursday's storm recede. But the land is still waterlogged. More storms are on the way. July's the wettest month. November sees local government elections in Poland.

So then - lessons for our local policy makers.

Be more careful when granting building permits. At present, the system is entirely haphazard. Either you wait in limbo, with some urzędnik (untranslatable word - surely not 'Civil Servant'?) deciding not to decide and telling you your application was made in the wrong font, or that some spurious attachment is missing - or else planning permission is given all too readily without the necessary due diligence being carried out.

Part of that due dilligence must be 'what happens if there's a flood of the century/flood of the millennium?" Building on inadequately protected flood plains must cease.

In our case, in Jeziorki, located on table-top flat land like central Mazowsze, the issue is "where will water go if there is 20 litres of rainfall per square metre in the space of two hours?"

Are the drainage ditches clear, or has some anti-social neighbour, through whose land they run, blocked them up? Are there enough drainage ditches to conduct the rain from the fields to the lowest lying land in a given neighbourhood? And should houses be allowed to be built in that lowest lying land?

And should houses in low-lying areas be allowed to build underground garages and cellars? And should not insurers and their actuaries better assess the risk and build it into premiums, which would clearly communicate that risk to householders?

Is there an emergency plan prepared, lying in City Hall, ready to be put into action should there be a repeat of these floods? What is the division of roles between the fire service, urban waterworks company (Miejskie Przedsiębiorstwo Wodociągów i Kanalizacji - lit. the Urban Enterprise of Waterpullings and Canalisation), the military and the police?

Among all the human misery witnessed these last few wet weeks, perhaps the most preventable has been in the Wrocław district of Kozanów, hit hard in the floods of 1997. The worst affected areas of Kozanów consisted of housing built... after 1997.

One of those missing word issues that Polish has is that the word for 'policy' and 'politics' is one and the same - polityka. Reading many Polish political blogs, I can see that this leads to the former being ignored in favour of the latter. Rather than solving problems with policy (flood prevention, waste water treatment, transport infrastructure provision, healthcare, primary, secondary and tertiary education, reforming the pension system, the tax system, etc. etc. etc., Poles worry endlessly about politics. Who gets to decide all the above is key (policy). What they intend to do (policy) is irrelevant. That's all spin. It's getting hold of power, and hanging onto power that matters. Policy tends to go by the board, as people who admit to not knowing much about economics get terribly worked up about the appointment of the president of the National Bank of Poland. For political, not policy, reasons.

I blame Tusk for not stopping the rain and health minister Ewa Kopacz for failing to ensure that every Pole lives to 110.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Still struggling with the flood waters

As predicted, today was a day of intense road traffic chaos in and around Jeziorki. At half past nine this morning, ul. Karczunkowska was jammed up solid at least as far as the railway line (and I suspect much further up too). Ul. Trombity is closed, as is ul. Nawłocka (for regular roadworks - they're having sewers installed lucky them) and of course ul. Starzyńskiego in Dawidy Bankowe. Result - all that traffic coming into town from Lesznowola, Magdalenka, Nadarzyn and beyond gets hopelessly stuck onto one narrow road with no rat-running options available. Below: ul. Gogolińska still flooded, but the waters are now low enough for passenger cars to wade through.

Today I did took the bike-train-bike option. Cycled to W-wa Jeziorki, took the first post-rush hour train (which in any case was very full - there were three other bikes in my compartment). This way of getting in is optimal although tomorrow I have to be in early and the rush hour trains are so packed with commuters at normal times that taking a bike on board is impossible.
Cycling home from W-wa Dawidy, I rode down ul. Kórnicka and Trombity. The streets are now officially declared no through roads, yet still people try to drive down them, only to be turned back by the authorities. Below: Residents of ul. Trombity 24 A to S preparing sandbag barrier to close their 280 metre long cul-de-sac running off from the street (to the left of this pic). There's a storm predicted for Wednesday. Water has nowhere to go but down this stretch.
The problem is with topography. The point from where this photo was taken is 101 metres above sea level. Our estate, 200m further up the road, is at 104 metres. If you go 200m in the other direction, behind me, the road again rises to 104 metres. So water from the fields will naturally run off towards this point.

The fire service cannot do much; pumping water away from here, it will only flow back down. Syphoning it away in water tankers makes sense but despite the scores of journeys of ten-tonne (or even greater capacity) cisterns yesterday, the water level (as you can see) is still only slightly lower.

I sympathise with neighbours living along this stretch of our road; many here have had their ground floor rooms flooded and are still without electricity. I felt I should go home, get my wellies and shovel and help fill sandbags - but then I remembered my recuperating shoulder. An hour's shovelling sand would not have helped my recovery.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Pumps and film crews

Today, private initiative (using hired pumps to pump water off your land onto someone elses) was replaced by public sector intervention. All day long, tanker trucks from Wodociągi (quite literally, 'water-pullers') were driving up ul. Trombity, vacuuming the water into the tanks. As one would leave, another two would turn up to replace it. Trouble is, by the evening, the water level had only fallen marginally. Still they come.

The TV crews are still popping along to film this phenomenon - houses under water that are miles from the river, within the city limits of the capital of the sixth largest member of the world's richest trading bloc. Compare with pics from yesterday. Video here.

As I mentioned, tomorrow's commute from Warsaw's southern suburbs and exurbs will be hell. With ul. Starzyńskiego (between Zamienie, Dawidy Bankowe and Dawidy) closed because of the bridge down, ul. Karczunkowska will be getting twice as much traffic. And while the water-pullers have done their bit by the railway crossing (below), there are other problems...

...this sinkhole of almost Guatemalan proportions has opened up on Karczunkowska (below)between the tracks and Zamienie and Zgorzała. This will take days to fix. Leave the car and take the train instead.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Jeziorki's Flood of Floods: today's happenings

If there's one sound that will remind me of the floods, it's that of pumps working overtime to get water out of cellars, garages, gardens and fields. Trouble is, as one man pours it out of his, the stuff invariably goes into someone else's. Below: Trombity 24 (in effect a street with one house number, houses are numbered A through to S). Warszawa powódż Ursynów zielony

Below: The media take interest. TVN Warszawa crew turn up to interview neighbours on ul. Trombity. Beyond the camera, the journalist and a gaggle of locals, the most seriously flooded stretch of our road. Water is flowing from the fields and houses to the right to those on the left.

Below: ul. Kórnicka, looking towards the junction with ul. Trombity. Note the portable toilets on the left, and the sandbags to the right. Fighting a losing battle with water still pouring in from fields on this side of the railway tracks.

Below: Yesterday evening's work by the firemen aided by the railway has had some effect. The sandbags are holding back the bulk of water in the fields to the west of the tracks, but it is still seeping through and flooding ul. Kórnicka. My fixed-wheel bike, mechanical simplicity itself, is proving itself the best possible form of locomotion around flooded Jeziorki.

Below: Cross the fields in the above photo and you'll get to ul. Starzynskiego in Dawidy Bankowe. The road is closed to traffic, because the bridge over the stream has a big hole in it. Buses are being diverted down ul. Baletowa (so no 715s or 809s for Jeziorki for the foreseeable future). There will be MASSIVE traffic jams along Karczunkowska on Monday!

Back to ul. Pozytywki, where the water level has subsided somewhat. Below: I've marked in yellow Thursday night's high water mark. This time, we manage to do a complete lap of the pond through the floodwaters without having to get off our bikes.

Below: The pond, to the right. The water level in the fields to the left beginning to subside. We could not have cycled this way yesterday morning. Puławska is dry. We got electricity back at ten o'clock this morning, 36 hours after it went off.

Life without leccie*

Well, not quite life, but 36 hours. From 21:50 on Thursday, to 09:50 on Saturday. No electricity. So on Thursday night, everyone just went to sleep hoping the morning would bring some relief - not a bit of it. As is evident from previous posts, when the substation and local transformer are both under water, it will take more than a guy with a screwdriver to fix it.

Matches. We need matches. To light candles to illuminate the house. To light the gas to cook food. Fortunately, we have some in the house. Here's the box -

Above and below: Polish-made Black Cat matches. I cannot tell from its website whether Częstochowskie Zakłady Przemysłu Zapalczanego S.A. is state-owned or not, but I strongly suspect so. Look at the groovy website! "Knowing needs of the market we product different types of advertising matches."

What works around the house without mains electricity? Gas cooker (but hot water heater - dependent on electricity). Flushing toilet (fortunately, our septic tank was not flooded). Typewriter and piano. Books. Newspapers. (Fortunately, the days are long and the nights are short.) Cars. Bicycles.

My mobile phone runs out of battery and dies. A wretched nuisance. No possibility of blogging or of uploading photos from my digital cameras - I'm taking so many photos I'm running out of memory. On the street, neighbours are chatting. An unusual sight.

As we enter the 36th hour, the burglar alarm plips back to life, and we have Power.

"Eddie, would you like some breakfast? "

"Not yet thanks - I'd like to enjoy... electricity."

Lot of blogging to do. I've re-ordered the posts in chronological order, as they would have appeared had there been no interruption to the power supply.

* leccie - English working-class slang for electricity. Or 'prond'.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Jeziorki's Flood of Floods - further on down the road; ul. Trombity and ul. Kórnicka

Although the rain ceased long ago, the water level further down our road continues to rise.

Above: The middle section of ul. Trombity, where ul. Nawłocka meets ul. Dumki, is seriously under water. Below: View looking down from the railway embankment towards the junction of ul. Kórnicka and Trombity.Warszawa powódż Ursynów zielony

Below: the source of the ever-rising water. The drainage tunnel under the railway line, letting in vast volumes from the flooded fields on the other side. Water in the ditch in the foregound was surging forward, heading for the wetlands behind me, the lowest point in Jeziorki.

Below: across the tracks, on the Dawidy Bankowe side. The fields are under water as is the track from ul. Baletowa. The guy in the hi-vi jacket is a railway track inspector.

Below: The water washed off the fields, across ul. Kórnicka and rushed on towards the wetland (to Eddie's left). Water will find its own level; block it off here, it will run around a different way.

Below: Just after sunset, a combined team of firemen and railway workers had dammed the tunnel under the railway line. It had been allowing vast amounts of water off the fields on the other side to rush through onto the Trombity side. A decision had been taken to leave the fields across the tracks under water and save the houses on this side from further flooding. Each house on ul. Kórnicka had its own portable toilet placed outside it, as the septic tanks had overflown.

Jeziorki's Flood of Floods: ul. Sarabandy and ul. Karczunkowska

The flooding was widespread across Jeziorki; here's W-wa Jeziorki station (below) and the junction of ul. Gogolińska running off to the left and ul. Karczunkowska. No chance of Park+Ride from here today, the trains were (from what I could see) running normally.

Below: ul. Sarabandy, where the footpath to ul. Trombity (to the left) crosses to meet the one running off to ul. Klarnecistów. The Mercedes Benz Vito has broken down in the thigh-deep water. The driver, having taken left his trousers inside, climbed out of the window with a tow-rope, to be attached to a large baggage taxi he called out as his rescue vehicle. Meanwhile, a śmiałek in a Toyota SUV makes the crossing without a hitch. Very risky; water up the exhaust-pipe kills the engine.

The Iveco baggage taxi hauled the Vito out in seconds. On the shore, the next challenge would be to get its engine restarted. Eddie and I filled our wellies here; we had to take the footpath back home and it was way too deep even for our decent Barbours.

Right: Back home, we need to dry our footwear! About three litres of water in each boot. It's a good thing that Friday afternoon and all of Saturday were sunny; it is as if Dame Nature is trying to atone

We were very lucky; many in Jeziorki still have flooded cellars, fields, gardens; only a few houses (on ul. Kórnicka) had flooded ground floors.Warszawa powódż Ursynów zielony

Jeziorki's Flood of Floods: ul. Puławska and the pond on ul. Pozytywki

On the morning after the Corpus Christi storm, we woke up - still no electricity (it would be off for another 24 hours). Our neighbours inform us that ul. Puławska is impassable; Trombity itself was still open. Time to set off on the first of several expeditions to see the extent of the damage.

Below: A 709 bus heading for Piaseczno. The passengers cannot believe what they are seeing. It has taken this bus well over 90 minutes to get this far (usually this is a 25 minute journey from Wilanowska). On the corner of ul. Karczunkowska was a reporter for TVN Warszawa, who posted this report.

The reason why Puławska was under water was the bursting of the banks of the pond on ul. Pozytywki ('music box street'), just south of ul. Karczunkowska. The pond's normal banks are marked by the row of grass and the tree in the middle of the pic. Looking at the area in Google Earth (with the Terrain box checked), you can see that the pond's elevation is 102m above sea level, while Puławska to the east is a mere 101m. The fields to the east of the pond at at 103m plus. So the water draining off the fields pours into the pond, which overflows, and the water floods down to Puławska.

Below: To give you an idea of the scale of the flooding. Ul. Pozytywki, eight am. This is my fixed wheel bike (incidentally, the very best form of bicycle for such conditions). It has 28" wheels, probably some eight inches showing. So 20 inches (50cm) of water covering the road. I also noticed on a nearby wall that the water had actually fallen by some 4" (10cm) from its highest level, which would have peaked at 60cm (24" or two feet).

Below: 400 metres to the east; Puławska is wall-to-wall with water. The north (city) bound traffic is reduced to one lane, but it is moving. Southbound, things look trickier.Warszawa powódż Ursynów zielony

Left: The retail and office complex close to the corner of Puławska and Karczun-kowska. Note the guard box in the foreground that's just floated away. Further away, just under the Dierre sign is a white box which is the electrical substation for this area. It was submerged to a depth of at least a metre. Below: Pozytywki again, from the Karczunkowska side. The base of the electrical transformer is under water.