Saturday, 31 December 2011

Economic predictions for 2012

My quick calls for 2012...

Key economic indicators: Poland

2011 (latest data) 2012 (same time this year)
GDP growth 4.2% (Q3)
2.0% (Q3)

Unemployment 12.1% (Nov)
14.5% (Nov)

Inflation 4.8% (Nov)
4.0% (Nov)

Key economic indicators: UK

2011 (latest data) 2012 (same time this year)
GDP growth 0.6% (Q3, revised)
-0.3% (Q3)

Unemployment 8.3% (Oct for Q3)
10.5% (Oct for Q3)

Inflation 4.8% (Nov)
4.5% (Nov)

Key economic indicators: Eurozone

2011 (latest data) 2012 (same time this year)
GDP growth 1.4% (Q3)
-1.5% (Q3)

Unemployment 10.3% (Oct)
15.0% (Oct)

Inflation 3.0% (Nov)
3.8% (Nov)

I predict that the eurozone will somehow stick together; Greece will not be pushed out.

And currencies - on 31 December 2012, I predict 1 GBP will be 5.15 PLN, 1 EUR will be 4.20 PLN, and 1 GBP will be 1.22 EUR.

In Poland, 2012 will be drier and slightly hotter than 2011, with a snow-free winter; a long, dry spring (leading to some crop failures); intense rainfalls and winds in July and August; and a calm, long, dry golden autumn. Snow will come early in 2012; there will be a white Christmas.

This time last year:
Classic cars, West Ealing

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki 2009, another view

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki 2008, another view

This time four years ago:
Final thoughts for 2007

Friday, 30 December 2011

Random blogging thoughts at the end of the year

I've not posted for two days; a return to Warsaw - no sunshine, no snow, no major events, no inspiration... a good chance to share with you, then, some thoughts about blogging.

Localism, down-your-wayism - year on year, I'm building a picture of life in Jeziorki; the slow process of development of this semi-rural corner of Warsaw, the capital of the EU's sixth-largest member state. This year, as last year, and next year too, local life has been dominated by the slow progress of the construction of Warsaw's Southern Bypass (which will finally connect us to the Outside World by expressway). The new infrastructure minister's decision to abandon plans for a central Poland airport between Warsaw and Łódź means that for the foreseeable future, Okęcie will remain Warsaw's principle airport, and while we can expect more flights overhead, new developments in and around Jeziorki will be limited by zoning.

Looking a bit beyond Jeziorki, I write about Warsaw as a fast-growing city, getting wealthier, more sophisticated and civilised, a city that's working flat out to get ready to host the Euro 2012 football championships (though I must say I'll not be watching any of it). Over the years, Warsaw is visibly changing, getting smarter, more akin to western cities, though the growth private car use has outstripped the city's ability to deal with it. Commuting from Jeziorki could be better. I look forward to more frequent rail services in and out of town, more Park+Rides, an extension to the city centre parking zone and more bus lanes and cycle paths (especially along ul. Puławska).

The economy will feature heavily in next year's blogs - though some posts may end up here on the BPCC's newly-resurrected blog page (after eight months' hiatus). Watching the zloty slide by 12 grosze against the pound in the first six hours of trading today fills me with apprehension - the markets react too violently and in response to short-term stimuli. I must say, personally, I am in favour of a financial transaction tax, although it should be introduced globally. Raising badly needed revenue for sovereign budgets - but also taking the edginess off those pre-programmed transaction computers that can destabilise companies, currencies or countries all too easily.

Creative writing: I've currently got three short stories and a half-completed novel all gathering dust on my hard drive and no real urgency to complete. This past year, I've written around 12 short stories around the theme 'After the War was Over'. Whereas I feel a pressing drive to blog, to engage with my online readers in Poland and around the world, I can't claim to feel that same pressure to press on with my creative writing. I should do though - New Year's Resolution #1: write more.

Photography: Despite my urges when passing through Dixon's Travel to buy a new camera, I can't really justify it. My brace of Nikons (D40 and D80) are holding up fine, very reliable, and the D40 is light enough to go with me everywhere. One camera that really interests me is the Fuji Finepix X100, the spiritual successor to the Leica. But it still have teething problems (battery life, software, filter attachment); I'm sure - given that the camera is such a hit - Fuji will one day bring out an improved version. Once it gets a full-size sensor, focal-plane shutter and and interchangeable mount that takes Leica-M lenses - I'll have one. And should one or other of my Nikons pack up finally and irrevocably, I'll buy a D3100 or D5100. But at the end of the day, the means are not the ends. The end in my case is to edge ever closer to the realisation of the Sublime Aesthetic.

Ultimately, blogging is the act of offering a personal testimony. My consciousness is present in the here and now, my memory shaped by growing up in England* in the late 20th C and by living in Poland in the 21st C. I've witnessed England's slow (relative) decline and Poland's rapid rise. But my consciousness, as it moves upon the face of the earth, is getting older and wiser. There are so many secrets yet to be uncovered, chief among these for me is the nature of consciousness; the balance between human biology (so many unknowns - especially in the field of neuroscience) and spirituality. Science will shed light on many mysteries, not in dazzling ways, but in tiny increments. Another New Year's resolution - to dive deeper into New Scientist each week and keep up with the latest discoveries.

* Ten years ago, I'd have written 'Britain' here.

This time last year:
Beery litter louts

This time two years ago:
Miserable grey London

This time three years ago:
Parrots in Ealing

This time four years ago:
Xmas lites, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Hurry up and wait

WizzAir has this little trick to get its passengers to come to the airport three hours before departure and spend more time and money at Luton's departure lounge. You get an SMS a day before your departure with the following text: "Due to congestion at Luton Airport we strongly advise you to arrive at least 3hrs before departure to avoid missing the flight. Check-in opens accordingly." What does 'check-in opens accordingly' mean? That it opens three hours before departure? Now, having read Scatts's post about this proceder, Eddie and I were expecting this.

We arrive in good time to drop off our rented car (Ford Fiesta from Hertz), got the bus to the airport... formed an orderly queue of two at the WizzAir check-in desks, and waited about half an hour. Lo and behold, check-in did actually open three hours before take-off. Great! We were first to check in, through security - then two and three-quarter hours of waiting air-side. A pint of Guinness, some Pret a Manger sandwiches, a look at what's on offer at Dixon's (Fujifilm X100 for £740? Thanks, I'll wait...), sit and read the papers, browse magazines at WH Smiths... then w learn our flight will be delayed by 25 minutes... Hurry up and wait.

Above: at least I got a nice sunset shot of the control tower at Luton.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Everybody's out on the road today

Driving from Derbyshire to London in our hired Ford Fiesta (a car of truly hideous external appearance - the result of design me-tooism, not a shred of originality) made me appreciate that transport infrastructure is not a given and should not be taken for granted.

I had read just before Christmas that 17 million Britons were expected to travel to spend the holidays elsewhere than where they live. And having travelled there, they will have to travel back. And so, onto the Road. The M1 was thick with traffic, jamming up totally around Junctions 24(multi-car pile-up) and 18 (roadworks). Even a minor rear-end shunt at Junction 25 brought traffic to a crawl (above, photo by Eddie). The junction with the M6 was similarly treacle-like.

Once we'd reached the South, I took a decision to swing west along the A43 towards Oxford and the M40, in the hope that this approach to London would be easier - it was not. Once again, long queues, especially around High Wycombe at Junction 4, where three lanes become two under the junction bridge, to widen back to three after the junction.

And so a journey that normally takes around two hours took three hours today. Bah humbug.

This time last year:

Monday, 26 December 2011

Boxing Day walk, Derbyshire

Around Christmas, walking between meals is a necessity. So after a fantastic Christmas lunch prepared by Ciocia Jane, crowned by the best Christmas pudding I've ever eaten, mountains of crackers and exquisite English cheeses washed down with fineft alef and a bottle of Mogen David (to see what Sy Ableman was on about in A Serious Man) - a walk was in order.

Duffield in Derbyshire where my brother lives is a fine place for kicking off walks, as the countryside is minutes away on foot.

So - less blabbing from me, bring on the photographs.

Above: view looking across the Chevin golf course, the sun setting in the south-west.

Above: hilltop stone farmhouse overlooking Belper. Reminds me of Crow Crag from Withnail and I, does it not, fellow Withnail fans?

Above: the lights of Belper.

Above: the lights of Duffield. Personally, I dislike the orange light cast by British street lamps (sodium vapour bulbs); I prefer the whitish glow of mercury vapour lighting that's more commonplace in Poland and the USA.

This time last year:
This time three years ago:
This time four years ago:

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Manchester for Wigilia

Eddie, Moni and I flew into Manchester airport late last night, picked up a hire car and drove to Babcia Wanda's. Temperature +9C, it has stopped raining (my wife said it rained every day last week, my brother said it was +15C in Derby on Thursday). Shops crowded with last-minute shoppers - the prices at John Lewis hard to believe (expensive) what with the pound costing 5.30 zlotys (compared to 4.70 last December).

Papers in England talking about men being habitual last-minute gift buyers, with 80% waiting for Christmas Eve before buying presents. This phenomenon has been named the 'man dash' by the media. Canny retailers change their shop window displays to cater for the change in gender of the predominant customer group.

To my surprise, the car park outside John Lewis and Sainsbury's in Cheadle was almost as full of black SUVs with darkened rear windows, so it seem a broader socio-cultural phenomena than just the bad-taste merchants of Warsaw. Lack of imagination seems to have no borders.

And now, time to sit down to śledź, barszcz and the other accoutrements of Polish wigilia. Fortunately, no carp (hello taste - where are you?). I can't say this is my favourite time of year.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Work in progress

This year has been one of maximum traffic disruption in Warsaw. The building of the second Metro line (which will not be ready in time for the football in June), the National Stadium and the infrastructure around it (which will be ready), a new bridge spanning the Vistula to the north of the city, the work to connect the western world to Warsaw via a motorway - all these have made themselves felt to Warsaw's inhabitants and commuters.

If there's one project above all that's created transport headaches it's the construction work on the second (east-west) Metro line.

Above: looking north along Al. Jana Pawła II at what used to be a very busy roundabout (Rondo ONZ) - with ul. Prosta running off west towards Wola (to the left of the pic) and Świętokrzyska running east towards the Vistula (to the right). Note the remnants of the tram tracks in the roadway. Sometime towards the end of 2013 (if all goes to schedule) this will be the site of Rondo ONZ Metro station. What will happen with ul. Świętokrzyska - will it be pedestrianised? I do hope so.

It will be interesting to return to these pictures in a few years time and see how things have changed. In the meanwhile, Google Earth users - cut and paste these coordinates into the 'Fly to' box (52°13'59.32"N, 20°59'53.93"E) to see how Rondo ONZ looked before the work started (current satellite pic from April 2009).

Above: looking east along ul. Świętokrzyska, towards the Vistula. Below: the same view, in Google Earth with 3D buildings switched on. Crowdsourcing works! (the skyscraper on ul. Tamka is missing, however... anyone care to model it?)

Ah - and work at Dworzec Centralny is now pretty much finished - all four platforms and the three passageways connecting them are all open. The shops in the commercial passages are starting to fill up with new and smart retailers - no cooking allowed, so none of that atrocious smell of burnt casein that used to permeate the north and south passages.

Extreme fixie

It's been over eight weeks since the clocks went back; since then I've ridden my bike to work two or three times, so respect to those who cycle all the year round. Since an ill-fated bike ride in the Las Kabacki forest in early 2002, I do not mix cycling with snow on the ground.

Cycle couriers who want to earn money in the busy run-up to the festive season (I read once that 40% of all the work done in the Northern Hemisphere happens between early September and the middle of December) keep on pedalling.

I caught this extremist fixie outside the Deloitte building on Al. Jana Pawła II; absence of any kind of braking mechanism is par for the course, but look at those handlebars! Barely an inch of metal between the stem and the index fingers! I ask whether this makes sense - the idea of shortened handlebars means it's easier to nip in between stationary or slow-moving traffic - but surely the widest part of a bicycle is the rider's hips and shoulders - there's little sense in having handlebars any narrower... Extend your arms directly ahead of you so they are parallel to one another. That's the optimal width for narrow bars. Anything narrower is a pure pose (or in Polish - lans).

This time two years ago:
Poland's worst railway station
(and it's no better two years on. Just two years shabbier.)

This time three years ago:
Last Christmas before the Recession?
(as it happened - no. This one unlikely to be either - in Poland anyway)

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

First snow - but proper snow?

So here we are - 21 December - the Darkest Day - Stalin's Birthday - Winter Solstice - and Warsaw wakes up to the merest dusting of light snow. Nothing outside that even prompts my eye towards my camera's viewfinder. Grey skies, sunshine later, and tiny amounts of snow. Enough, however, for England to grind to a halt, but here, in the office, for instance, no one even mentioned it.

Still, for the record, the first snow of this winter (which can properly be called that) fell on the night of 20/21 December. In the city centre, thermometers registered +2C, out in Jeziorki, it was 0C.

I confess to driving to the office today. I have an excuse - I met Moni off the Łódź train, and together we dragged her things to the car (including her pet rat, Rat Boy - ironically named, as it's a female - in its large cage), plus I had some heavy stuff to take home from the kaletnik. (There's a craft skill you don't get in the UK!)

Driving into and out of the city centre is not a pleasant occupation. If only the Metro ran closer to our house. The Metro is far and away the optimal method of getting into central Warsaw. Sadly, there's only one line running north-south; in a few years there will be an east-west line too.

Looking at the economics, sociology and ergonomics (and did you know that the term 'ergonomics' was first coined by a Polish biologist, Wojciech Jastrzębski in 1857?) of commuting, I find driving to work tiresome, costly and promoting selfish and asocial (if not antisocial) behaviour. I recall in a previous job, one of my workmates remarking (her car broke down that day) 'że musiała się wozić do pracy z narodem' (lit. she had to 'carry herself to work with the nation'). It was meant to be humorous, but driving to work cuts you off from society - from your customers and your voters.

This time last year:
Dense, wet, rush hour snow

This time two years ago:
Evening photography, Powiśle

This time three years ago:
The shortest day of the year

This time four years ago:
Bye bye borders - Poland joins Schengen

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Oh, the humanity! Oh, the bureaucracy!

A man fell under my train home this evening, the 18:20 from W-wa Centralna all stations to Skarzysko Kamienna. He slipped on the platform at W-wa Rakowiec. From what I could see, and from what other passengers were saying, he was neither drunk nor old; he had slipped off the platform edge and under the middle carriages of the train. The temperature had remained below zero for much of today, and despite the platform edge's knobbly surface, there was a certain slipperiness underfoot.

As he fell, he must have banged his head hard; there was blood and he appeared unconscious. He was quickly pulled free by fellow passengers and placed on a bench. The train crew acted admirably. An ambulance was called and medics were on the scene within minutes. I was impressed by everybody's helpfulness and concern. "Has he dropped anything?" The man's glasses were seen under the train. The guard slid down between the platform and the train to pick them off the tracks. Several men gave the medics a hand taking the stretcher up to the ambulance. Solidarity in action. It was good to see; basic human decency - a desire to help one's fellow man in trouble.

The ambulance departed as swiftly as it came, and I have little doubt that the man would be well looked after. Assuming he has somewhere about his pockets his employer's details, his ZUS account number, proof that he hasn't any ZUS payment arrears.

Did the train depart swiftly? It did not. No doubt there was also much form-filling that needed to be done. The driver and guard needed to be interviewed... Meanwhile, a trainload of people were getting increasingly impatient. Half an hour later, another train turned up, also heading south, on the 'up' platform. Where was it going to? Góra Kalwaria? Radom? Piaseczno? No one knew. But lemming-like, everyone in the back half of the train leapt off the platform, on to the track, across the other one, scrambling up onto the opposite platform, and onto the train that had just arrived.

As we finally pulled out of W-wa Rakowiec, some 35 minutes after arriving, we passed two north-bound trains that were stopped at intermediate stations waiting for a clear line into town.

The accident was sorted out quickly and efficiently. The bureaucratic cleaning up took a whole lot longer, and affected at least five train-loads of people, anxious to get home.

When will the public sector acquire the skills (and technologies) to speed up its procedures to an acceptable level?

This time last year:
Kidnapped by Koleje Mazowieckie

This time two years ago:
Google Earth updates Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
Out and about with two foot of glass

Monday, 19 December 2011

A word about Juche in the modern world

The Dear Leader has passed on. Father of the People, Sun of the Communist Future, Guiding Sun Ray, Wise Leader, Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, Sun of Socialism, World Leader of the 21st Century, the Amazing Politician, Glorious General Who Descended from Heaven, Mastermind of the Revolution, Leader of the Party and the People, Great Man Who Is A Man of Deeds, and indeed, The Bright Sun of Juche.

If you're unclear as to what Juche (as an ideology) actually is, immerse yourselves in the madness here, here and here. (And read this Wikipedia article here.)

My point being? That economic nationalism is madness. Cutting a nation off from the rest of the global economy (autarky) leads to the extreme deviation we witnessed today - that phony grief brought on by the death of a man who kept his nation imprisoned and wretchedly poor for the past 17 years (and whose father did so for half a century before that).

The famine of 1994 to 1998, which left between a million and three and half million dead, was the result of economic mismanagement - stopping the unseen hand of the market from doing its work, replacing it with central planning with an ideological imperative.

When the nutty end of Polish politics talks about quitting the EU - I ask - and how is the Polish economy to function then? It's all well and good complaining that one doesn't want to be a German satrapy, but given that Germany buys 26% of Poland's exports and is where Poland buys 22% of its imports, were the German market be cut off from Poland, millions of Poles would go hungry. The EU accounts for 59% of Poland's exports; the eurozone 46% of Poland's imports.

I'd offer clear warning to anyone wanting to get involved in politics without having a grasp of basic economics: don't.

Just look at what's happening in Vik Tor Or-ban's Hungary.

This time last year:
Global warming or climate change?

This time two years ago:
Progress along the S79

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Art, design and modernity

When did the world start looking and sounding more or less as it does today?

Click on the embedded YouTube link to hear the Miles Davis nonet playing Rocker, a Gerry Mulligan composition. Recorded in March 1950. Fresh, isn't it?

Go back three years - and have a listen to Charlie Parker's Crazeology (click on YouTube link below). Such a complex and yet catchy melody

Now look at the aircraft below: Have a guess when it first took to the air? It's a shape not unfamiliar in today's skies...

This is the Boeing B-47, which first flew on 17 December 1947 - 64 years ago yesterday! Its design foreshadowed the B-52, which first flew in April 1952 - and is scheduled to remain in service with the USAF until 2045 - a staggering 93 years after its first flight!

The Big Leap Forward was the swept wing planform and the multiple jets slung under the wings in pods. Big fat turbofans have replaced the slender, polluting turbojets, but otherwise, the configuration of modern passenger jets is little changed.

Now, on to automotive. The last major innovation in terms of the car was the Kamm tail, applying downward force on the rear wheels at speed. Before that - it was the fared-in mudguards. These had been separate until the second world war - then smoothed into an integral unit with the bodywork. If I'm not mistaken - the first mass-produced car with smooth sides... was the Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda - which entered production in 1946, at the same time as American cars were still sporting vestigial mudguards. It was two years later that the USA would catch up with the USSR in car design! Technically, it was not the world's most advanced car in 1946, but its design would show the way forward.

Above: a 1952 Hudson Wasp. Today's Opel/Vauxhall Insignia (Buick Regal across the water) is but slightly sleeker at the front and has that aerodynamic back - but essentially, we have the same design concept. Launched in 2008 it has many improvements over the Hudson from 56 years earlier - yet design-wise, the man-on-the-street in 1952 would not be overwhelmed.

Clothes - fashions - certainly for men, wearing something today that would be entirely normal in 1950 - two-piece suit, jeans or chinos, sweatshirt, leather shoes or canvas sneakers - would even look fashionably hipster retro. (Imagine walking about in 1950 wearing clothes from the 1890s!) For women - well, there's a greater tolerance range when it comes to fashion.

Railways - streamlining was present in the zenith of the Age of Steam; by 1964, the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train linked Tokyo and Osaka (515km, 320 miles) in four hours (top speed 210kmh /130mph).

Architecture - moderne has been with us since before WW2. I was recently looking for Scandinavian architecture that has stood the test of time - that has inspired architects to this day. Look at this - Jorma Järvi's design at Pakila primary school in Helsinki from 1954. The stairs, the sunlight, the scale - such a huge leap from the Education Board (architectural style) primary school I attended with its high, thin windows, overbearing brickwork and long, dark corridors.

Yes, information technology has had a profound influence on the way we live and work and entertain ourselves; the change over the past 20 years has been radical. But from the the point of view of the way the world looks and sounds, the last fifty years have brought us little in the way of revolutionary progress. Just small increments, recyclings of what's been, reiterations in a more contemporary key.

The study door is open. The TV's on. There's an ad for Krakus hams and smoked meats. The music - a straight lift from Philip Glass's score for the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer here).

We're not living in a breakthrough era for art, design and music. When will see signs that things are starting to change dramatically once again? Maybe not in the immediate future - when the global economy's in recession, there's less appetite for risk, for design innovation (unless it can be proven to have a direct effect on measurable things like productivity or fuel consumption).

What were the drivers of modernity in the middle of the 20th Century? In one word - war. It was war that got us from the Wright Brothers to the B-52 in less than fifty years. It was reaction to war that stood behind Jackson Pollock.

Wars have been great catalysts for those leapfrogs of human progress - but let's not wish for one now.

This time last year:
Happy ever after

This time two years ago:
Road and rail let me down again

This time three years ago:
Alignment and synchronicity

This time four years ago:
Retro shop, ul. Fabryczna

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Ul. Trombity: a step closer to dry feet?

All morning, there's been a shuttle of heavy dumper lorries driving down ul. Trombity, so I thought it's worth seeing what's going on. It looks like that spur off our road, known as 'Trombity A-to-N' (below) is finally going to get a decent surface. The inhabitants of this stretch have often been under water whenever it floods a bit. And even modest precipitation turns this low-lying stretch of road into a muddy bog.

Above: looking east along ul. Trombity 24 A to N; amazing that this 280m long no-through-road does not have its own name. There are 14 houses on it at present and several vacant plots.

Above: looking south along ul. Trombity; one dumper pulls out, while three more wait in turn (below) to drop their loads on to Trombity 24 A to N.

Things look no better on the spur off ul. Trombity towards ul. Dumki. Again, the houses at the end have been cut off from the outside world whenever there have been heavy rains. Some building materials by the side of the 'road' suggest that an upgrade can be expected here too.

The real answer - apart from laying down proper asphalt - is extensive drainage of this area so that excess rainwater can run down to the Vistula instead of threatening residential real estate around these parts.

This time last year:
Matters of style

This time two years ago:
Real winter hits Warsaw

This time three years ago:
This is not Mazowsze, no?

Friday, 16 December 2011

New platform at W-wa Służewiec

The new timetables, introduced last Sunday have (as far as I can see) produced one major change for Jeziorki's rail-using classes: Koleje Mazowieckie's double-decker trains no longer stop there. So to avoid being carted off to Nowa Iwiczna (and outside Warsaw's fare zone), I changed trains at W-wa Służewiec and waited 15 minutes for an all-stations to Skarzysko Kamienna service.

While waiting, I noticed that the station is still restricted to one working platform for both up- and down- services, though it's now the new line that's operational (to the west of the old one), while the old line and platform are both being refurbished (below).

Overhead, the ongoing roadworks at the Węzeł Marynarska, with the sliproad from the airport joining ul. Marynska crossing above the tracks.

Once the 'down' platform is completed, trains running and and out of Warsaw will have their own tracks, and a significant bottleneck on the Radom line will have been eased.

A little bit of sunny Kraks in December

Always a pleasure to get down to Kraków - even if business means there's only time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Market Square. Below: the north side of the square. Look at the gorgeous sunshine - it was +7C; positively hot for mid-December.

Below: we passed through the square as the trumpeter played the Hejnał Mariacki at 11 o'clock. You can just see the brass bell of the trumpet in the upper-middle window.

Below: the Sukiennice (cloth hall) seen from the east...

...and from the west (below). It's been recently refurbished, and there's much to see below ground level (though not this time).

Inside the Sukiennice, everything's as it was (wooden and woollen touristy artefacts) though a bit more Christmassy.

And so farewell, Kraków. It's good to know you are there, and that you can be reached from Warsaw for a mere 54 złotys by train (TLK - the InterCity's second class costs 119.50 złotys). Below: vue generale of the north side of Sukiennice and the Marian church in the background.

"F" for Franco

I got pulled up by Toyah and AdTheLad for being too easy in my use of the 'F'-word - fascist. In my youth, when, as a student I could do anything I wanted, anyone who tried to prevent me from exercising my will was immediately branded a 'fascist'. Of course, having studied inter-war history and politics, I should have known that fascism was - and still is - an ideology that needs to be correctly defined, and should not be loosely bandied about, as a kind of political insult.

The best definition that can bring clarity to the debate here and now in Poland about fascism is that it is anti-liberal, anti-communist... and anti-conservative.

There was a good piece in Gazeta Wyborcza some months ago delving into Poland's (truly) fascist fringe; the author distinguishes this tiny minority from other ultra-nationalist groupings as being pagan rather than Catholic. The Hitler-loving Polish fascists, incidentally, should follow their dear Fuhrer's precepts and gas themselves, thus ridding the world of some Slavic untermensch thereby leaving more lebensraum for the herrenvolk that they so lovingly admire.

So then. Let's not lump the tiny truly fascist extreme in together with Poland's more mainstream nationalist tendencies. For them, Hitler is definitely not the role model.

I'd suggest instead Francisco Franco. Here was a man, deeply conservative, deeply religious, deeply nationalist; an implacable enemy of modernity, cosmopolitanism and liberalism (both social and economic).

So here's my answer to the conundrum - why British Conservatives and American Republicans can't see eye-to-eye with Jarosław Kaczyński's PiS - because he's far nearer in ideology to El Caudillo than he is to Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. It's worth reading about Francisco Franco - the parallels with Kaczyński are indeed interesting. And indeed, about Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, the Portuguese leader for 36 years, same time as Franco. (Like Kaczyński, he never married.) Salazar's Estado Novo was a similar construct to Franco's Spain; deeply conservative and traditionalist.

The barbarism of the Spanish Civil War should act as a warning for all those who love Poland. And so, from now on, I pledge not to use the "F"(for fascism) word in regard to anyone in the Kaczynski-ite camp.

I'll leave the last word to Walter Sobczak (played by John Goodman) from the Coen Brothers' excellent film, The Big Lebowski:

...say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.
This time three years ago:
Christmas lights: all in the best possible taste

This time four years ago:
Letter from Russia

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The euro crisis: What would Jesus do?

This one's been around for a long time in the USA; I was reminded of it in a recent BBC News article.

Faced with the current euro crisis, would Jesus:
  • Insist that bad debtors - including countries - face immediate bankruptcy (with all the attendant woes - pensioners not getting their state pensions, public sector workers not getting paid, mass unemployment)?
  • Sanction the printing of more money, keeping the economy afloat while allowing inflation to erode the value of prudent savers' cash assets and pensioners' fixed incomes? And by doing so, tell mankind that actually, it's OK to spend more than you earn?
  • Or would He insist that all debts are paid back, in full, at their proper value? And by doing so - by insisting on a general tightening of belts - would He be content to stifle demand, stamp out prospects of growth, while keeping unemployment high?
Well? Or would He end up doing what Europe's policy-makers are doing - dabbling between the three options in the hope that things will turn out OK in the end?
  • Or would He (as PiS supporters would like) order the break-up of the single currency and the EU, allowing Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain to suffer massive currency depreciation, runaway inflation and unemployment unseen in Biblical times, while the EU's more prudent lender countries would see their currencies soar to uncompetitive levels killing off their exports and also bringing about mass unemployment?
What message would Jesus send to the world's financial markets (other than short-circuiting the computers in the money-changers' dealing rooms)?

How you see your God is how you see the way out of our current global economic mess.

As a financially prudent person, I believe in paying off debt rather than printing money or allowing debtors to slip away from their obligations by declaring bankruptcy.

But maybe that's a bit Old Testament of me. Maybe Jesus would be more forgiving of the household that overspent on luxury cars, exotic holidays and fashionable clothes, or of bankers that invested in dodgy instruments, or in governments that consistently spent more than they raised in taxes.

[And incidentally, would Jesus insist on bringing back the death-penalty, as PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński would like?]

What do you think, dear readers?

This time last year:
Orders of magnitude

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time three years ago:
Better news on the commuting front

This time four years ago:
I no longer recognise the land where I was born

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Warszawa H&M

Gazeta Stołeczna has recently got all exercised about the fact that Dworzec Centralny - Warsaw's central station - which is getting towards the end of a serious remont (refurbishment) - has been plastered with giant ads for a clothes shop.

Above: the west elevation of Arseniusz Romanowicz's greatest work: defaced or beautified by ads for eight-quid shirts and blouses? Incidentally - that's 66 year-old Bryan Ferry and his former girlfriend, the 55 year-old Jerry Hall showing off the clothes. And one of Mick Jagger's daughters is up there, too.

Above: The huge mural continues on the front (southern) elevation of the building. I must say that I've never been into an H&M in my life, and I couldn't even tell you where it is in Warsaw. I guess by the choice of models that I'm (almost) in their target age demographic, though somehow the message is lost on me.

Inside the ticket hall, now completely remonted, there's more of Mr Ferry, Ms Hall and their eight-quid shirts and blouses, though displayed more discretely.

Above: and at platform level; the traveller cannot get away from them. "I give in," the traveller will say. "I'll just have to miss my train home to Rzeszów and pop into H&M (wherever it is, for the ads don't say) and stock up on eight-quid shirts."

An issue or non-issue? The ads will come down, people will soon forget about them. As they do with most advertising.

Anyone give a stuff?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

History what-iffery

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (or, if you prefer, Chou En-Lai), when asked what how he thought the French Revolution had affected world history, famously replied "it's too soon to tell".

This was my first thought when David Cameron (Britain's first prime minister to be younger than me) pulled out of the EU's stability pact last Friday. Since then, I've been on Polish TV and radio half a dozen times explaining Britain's semi-detached relationship with the European Union.

Was it a historical moment, akin to Chamberlain's return from Munich? Or will it all blow over? Too early to say. Was Cameron right to walk away from an EU-wide deal? Depends. Will Britain survive economically whilst the eurozone founders? Don't know. Will the eurozone survive whilst Britain flounders? Haven't a clue. For an answer - be prepared to wait a long time.

We really don't know. Too soon to tell.

Let's look at the reality. From the outset, the eurozone project was extremely naive to couple so many disparate economies in a currency union without any thought to fiscal and budgetary convergence. MAYBE it was a German plot to stop the deutchmark from becoming uncompetitively strong, by shackling it to deadbeat currencies like the drachma and the lira. Set the Greeks and other chronic debtors adrift and the northern European remnants of the eurozone will see their currency soar in value like another Swiss franc.

So if the Germans (until very recently the world's No. 1 exporter) want to go on selling their BMWs to America and their machine tools to China, maintaining the easy-living South within the eurozone makes some kind of sense - as long as the cost of doing so doesn't outweigh the advantage of an artificially weaker currency.

So where does Britain fit in all this? Some voices critical of Cameron says he's pandering to the City. OK - it provides employment for a million people and brings in £40 billion in tax revenues. Now, any meaningful pact to shore up the euro should, logically, involve steps to converge the eurozone's taxes. And this is more than likely to involve a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). Which the City of London fears dreadfully. Given that 75% of all financial transactions in the EU take place in the UK, a tax on them would have the effect of shifting much of the footloose global business to New York or Singapore.

I must say, personally I'm in favour of a FTT. It would introduce a measure of stability to the markets; dealers would have to think twice (shock!) before pressing the 'sell' or 'buy' buttons. And the software behind automated dealing would also have consider this tax in its algorithms. This would moderate the wild swings that affects the global markets from time to time.

An FTT, then, would both smooth out wild vicissitudes and bring in much-needed tax revenues to national exchequers. (As long as they could be trusted to spend them wisely!)

An FTT is one of those Good Ideas In Theory - good in practice only if were to be adopted by the USA and every other market on this planet as well. A level playing field indeed.

The City of London, yes, it's a million jobs - but the UK's manufacturing sector is two and half million jobs (and for the knockers - the UK is still the world's sixth largest manufacturing nation). With around 45% of the UK's exports going to to the eurozone, it's critical to the survival of UK manufacturing that the eurozone does not collapse (or else only the Germans and Dutch will be able to afford things Made in England).

So - anyway, on Cameron, the EU and the eurozone - too soon to tell.

But what about Martial Law, imposed upon Poland 30 years ago today? Too soon to tell?

Well, yes. There are two schools of thought on the day Polish army tanks put an end to the dreams of Solidarity.

1) Had General Jaruzelski not imposed Martial Law, Mr Brezhnev from over the way would have inflicted something far nastier upon Poland (think Hungary 1956 or Czechoslovakia 1968).

2) Brezhnev was washed-up (he'd be dead in 11 months anyway) and his system would implode. One shove - the Polish communist party going for wide-sweeping economic and political reforms - and the Soviet bloc would have crumbled a whole eight years sooner than it did.

I've heard cogent arguments in favour of both scenarios. Intercepts of Soviet signals by NSA purportedly suggesting that a) the Red Army was ready to move in and b) it was not. That the People's United Workers' Party could have a) introduced market liberalisation a la Balcerowicz - and b) that it couldn't. The truth is a messy amalgam of strands of so many factors that it will indeed take 200 years before historians can reach a consensus as to the słuszność (rightness, justness, legitimacy) of General Wojciech Jaruzelski's coup d'etat.

Fewer Poles today believe that Martial Law was 'necessary' to spare Poland from a Soviet invasion than was the case several years ago; as time goes by the spectre of that threat diminishes. Generations who experienced Martial Law - and indeed their children and grandchildren - will have to pass before a clear-headed appraisal can finally be made. My take on Martial Law - Jaruzelski was first and foremost a soldier, conditioned to carry out orders. He had not an inkling of the power that could be unleashed from a society once the shackles of central planning were removed. He had not the vision to do anything other than send in the tanks. He could have done nothing, of course. That would have been an interesting variant - but do please recall that Poland in 1981 was in the throes of the fifth deepest economic depression experienced by any country in the 20th Century.

In the meanwhile, yesterday and today, supporters of Jarosław Kaczyński together with assorted neo-fascists will march up and down chanting "Byłeś w ZOMO, byłeś w ORMO, dzisiaj stoisz za Platformą." In English, so you can appreciate the infantile crassness of this slogan: "You, [Jaruzelski and your communist buddies] were in the Motorised Reserves of the People's Militia, you were in the Voluntary Reserves of the People's Militia, today you stand behind Civic Platform (the majority partner in the ruling government coalition)".

Civic Platform can be accused of lack of boldness when it comes to enacting necessary reforms of public finances, but the party is certainly not the creature of Wojciech Jaruzelski and his cronies. That would in fact be SLD ('Stalin Lenin Dno') - the successor party to PZPR; however it polled but 8% in this autumn's parliamentary elections. Poland today and Poland 30 years ago - what a difference. Let's be thankful for it.

This time last year:
Life without a computer

This time two years ago:
Cheaper by taxi

This time three years ago:
The closest we'll get to the moon for nine years

This time four years ago:
Going underground

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Take Me Back To Tulsa

A house on ul. Karczunkowska, just around the corner from ours, has been abandoned and put up for sale with planning permission to use the plot for a warehouse or similar. The old-school Americana look of this building has given me an excuse to use Pixlr-o-matic, a software tool (available free and online here) that allows you to give your pics no end of nostalgic photo effects.

Above: looking like a 6x9cm transparency from my old Zeiss Ikon Ikonta C... (a great landscape camera with a 105mm f3.5 Tessar lens). Now I can do this with a Nikon D40 - anyone want to buy the Ikonta?

Above: looking like an Kodak Ektacolor 35mm print developed somewhere in the mid-1950s.

I have a feeling I shall be revisiting again to give a dab of nostalgia to those pics from Jeziorki and district that give that makes me think "this is not America - No?"

The interesting thing about the plot of land offered for sale is its dimensions: 16.5m (53 ft) wide street frontage by 235m (775 ft) deep. [See it here on Google Earth: 52° 6'38.30"N 21° 0'34.78"E] Typical of the strip-farms in Mazowsze, this is result of not having primogeniture enshrined in Polish law. Rather than passing the entire estate to the oldest son, British-style, Poles would pare down their landholdings into ever thinner strips so that each son could get a fair share. The result can be seen from the air; rather than a patchwork of regular, rectangular fields that is most of western Europe, Poland has thin strips running across the landscape (see this post here).

This time two years ago:
Another book launch

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki in the 16th Century

This time four years ago:
Rotten weather, literally

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Classic glass

One of the main reasons I bought into Nikon's DSLR [digital single lens reflex] system was because I already had a Nikon SLR (an old-school manual-mechanical FM2) and the nice Nikkor lenses that went with it would work with the latest digital Nikons.

Today I went for a stroll with my 28mm f2.8 Nikkor replacing the standard 18-55 zoom that usually accompanies my faithful D40.

Here are two results (below). First up, ul. Trombity on a dour December afternoon. A bit of 'fill light' in Photoshop Lightroom, and some desaturation on the red roof in the middle of the frame.

Below: W-wa Dawidy station, again some desaturation of the image for a more realistic feel. Less ghosting, less distortion than on Nikon's zoom lenses.

Taking pics in manual mode is no problem; you set camera to 'M' for manual, dial in the appropriate shutter speed, and set the aperture on the lens ring. And being a digital camera, you can see the results instantly; should the image be over- or under-exposed - adjust accordingly and shoot another frame.

Nikon's DX format sensors cover an area about two-thirds of a 35mm film frame. This means that when used on DX cameras, Nikon lenses made for 35mm cameras give a narrower field of view than originally intended.

My 28mm lens, when used on the DX, gives a field of view equivalent to a 42mm lens on a 35mm camera. So no longer is it a wide-angle lens, rather something slightly wider than standard. Fully glass and metal, it feels like a professional piece of kit.

After spending an afternoon with it and taking a close look at the results, I can see little point in using it day to day. The kit lens that Nikon offer on their entry-level DSLRs, the 18-55mm f3.5-f5.6 zoom is a great everyday workhorse, light, and with vibration reduction, you can hand-hold at longer exposures than the old lens. Still, it's fun to play around with old Nikkor lenses and know you can still use them on today's Nikons.

Above: my D40 fitted with 28mm f2.8 Nikkor. Looks better than with the plasticky zoom - and yet that standard Nikon zoom lens is a quality optic, is lighter and only half a stop slower when set to wide. The VR version of the 18-55mm zoom is even better for when the light gets low.

This time last year:
What's the Polish for 'pattern'?

This time four years ago:
"Rorate caeli de super nubes pluant justum..."

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ronald Reagan remembered

Unveiled by Lech Wałęsa less than three weeks ago, across Al. Ujazdowskie from the American Embassy - a new statue to grace Warsaw; that of President Ronald Reagan. A man who contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The Evil Empire, as he put it. "My idea of the Cold War," he said, "is that we win, they lose."

By forcing the Soviet Union into an arms race they could ill afford to take part in, he helped bankrupt the system. Poland has much to be grateful to a president who stood up firmly to Brezhnev and his associates, successors to that criminal gang that seized control of Russia in 1917 and used genocidal methods to gain control of most of Central Europe.

The scale of this statue is human. It's so good to see a counterpoint to the gigantism of the communist era - see posts here and here (scroll down a bit) . Isn't that what makes Warsaw brilliant? So much meaning at every turn!

Every time I pass the Reagan statue, I'm struck by the avuncular decency and strength of the man - captured so brilliantly by the sculptor.

Once upon a recent time, voices on the city council expressed a desire to rename Plac Konstytucji (named after the Stalinist constitution of 1952) Plac Ronalda Reagana. This was an excellent idea - after all, Warsaw has squares named after American presidents Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover. I'm not generally in favour of re-naming places for the sake of it (I like Rondo Babka, Okęcie Airport), but Ronald Reagan needs to be immortalised on Warsaw's street map.

This time last year:
Accident of birth

This time two years ago:
Under the Liberator

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki on old maps

Thursday, 8 December 2011


Boring. Black SUV, with darkened rear windows. Huge auto for dragging lazy torso into the city centre, to proclaim - "BEHOLD, I AM SOMEONE, LOOK AT ME AND BE IMPRESSED AT MY STATUS!." Trouble is, every other bugger has the same idea.






Deathly boring.



Boring. What is this place? Moscow?!?


Boring. Get out of town!


Boring. Zzzzzzz.


Yaaaaawn. Totalny brak wyobrażni. If you need to take the hay bales down to the lower paddock or drive piglets to the market, and you have a muddy lane from your farm to the main road to cross, then yes - you need one of these. If you live in  Ursynów and simply want to drive each day to your central Warsaw office, then you are as anti-social as a farting smoker in a crowded lift.

This time last year:

This time four years ago:
Where I'm from, and why