Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 hellos

2012 was a good year for new things appearing that would significantly improve life in Warsaw and Jeziorki.

Hello to Lidl Jeziorki - despite my initial misgivings, the new store, opened in March has changed my shopping habits; hello to Most Północny, Warsaw's northern-most crossing of the Vistula, opened in March; hello to Google Street View for Poland; hello to Eurolot's new fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 NextGens (first deliveries in May); hello to the floral rainbow on Pl. Zbawiciela, unveiled in May and which survived a torching, and is likely to become as much a feature of Warsaw as the ten-year old palm tree on Rondo de Gaulle'a; hello to the A2 motorway extended from Stryków (north of Łódź) to Konotopa (south-western edge of Warsaw), opened in June; hello to Modlin Airport (currently closed for runway repairs and ILS installation), opened in July; hello to the Veturilo rent-a-bike system in Warsaw (1 August); hello to the Mars exploration vehicle Curiosity, sending us images from the surface the Red Planet since August; hello to the viaduct carrying ul. Poloneza over the (as yet unfinished) S2 Southern Warsaw bypass, opened in November after three years; hello to some great new works of street art that have appeared this year, commemorating Warsaw's local heros; completion of refurbishment at Warsaw's royal parks (Łazienki and Wilanów) in November; hello to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by LOT, first two deliveries in November and December.

Local hellos to pedestrian crossings on ul. Karczunkowska (by Sarabandy, at the Trombity bus stops and at ul. Nawłocka) and to the massive drainage works between ul. Trombity, Dumki and Kórnicka, started this autumn, and the ponds on ul. Pozytywki (Thanks to Paweł Osiński for reminding me!) Ah! and at last the new cycle- and wheelchair-friendly footbridge over Puławska opened in July. Yes, and the yellow speed camera on Puławska between Karczunkowska and Auchan, which meant that since November, motorists started taking the 50kmh sign by the LukOil garage very seriously.

Have I missed anything else?

Wish list for 2013: connection of ul. Trombity to the sewerage system, a pavement for ul. Karczunkowska. Eleven years we've waited - enough is enough, already!

Forecasts past and present

This time last year, I made some macroeconomic forecasts for 2012. On some, I was insufficiently pessimistic (I forecast Poland's GDP to grow by 2.0% in the year to Q3, it actually grew by a mere 1.4%), some over-pessimistic (unemployment in November was 12.9% compared to my forecast of 14.5%, while inflation at 2.8% in November was lower than the 4.0% I'd forecast). Similarly, the UK and the eurozone showed lower inflation and lower unemployment than I predicted. But I was overly pessimistic about GDP in both cases.

Note: Polish unemployment figures include a fair few who are economically active (in the grey economy) yet sign on to maintain state healthcare benefits. Eurostat's figures for Poland show unemployment running at 10.4% - which suggest that around one-fifth of Polish claimants are abusing the system.

While the zloty proved remarkably stable during the course of 2012, it ended the year stronger against both the pound (5.00 rather than 5.15 forecast) and against the zloty (4.10 rather than 4.20). I got the euro to the pound spot-on (1.22). Weather - I was right about the early snow, wrong about a white Christmas for Warsaw (just dirty left-over snow, but no fresh falls).

So then... my quick calls for 2013...

Key economic indicators: Poland

2012 (latest data) 2013 (same time this year)
GDP growth 1.4% (Q3)
0.8% (Q3)

Unemployment 12.9% (Nov)
13.8% (Nov)

Inflation 2.8% (Nov)
2.6% (Nov)

Key economic indicators: UK

2012 (latest data) 2013 (same time this year)
GDP growth 0.1% (Q3)
0.8% (Q3)

Unemployment 7.8% (Sep)
7.5% (Sep)

Inflation 2.7% (Nov)
2.5% (Nov)

Key economic indicators: Eurozone

2012 (latest data) 2013 (same time this year)
GDP growth -0.6% (Q3)
-0.1% (Q3)

Unemployment 11.7% (Oct)
11.9% (Oct)

Inflation 2.2% (Nov)
2.4% (Nov)

All in all, I do not share JP Morgan's prediction that 2013 will be 'the first post-crisis year'; I think the global economy will continue bumping along the bottom, and that Poland will have a harder time next year than either in 2012 or indeed 2014. Cheers!

I predict that the EU 2014-2020 budget will somehow be cobbled together in a messy compromise around February, and Poland will do well out of it, with €70 billion earmarked for structural and cohesion funds.

And currencies - on 31 December 2013, I predict 1 GBP will be 5.22 PLN, 1 EUR will be 4.32 PLN, and 1 GBP will be 1.25 EUR.

I will not bother predicting the weather - it's become way too unpredictable!

This time last year:
Economic predictions for 2012

This time two years ago:
Classic cars, West Ealing

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki 2009, another view

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki 2008, another view

This time five years ago:
Final thoughts for 2007

Year-end transportation changes

Another big thank you for Marcin Daniecki for tipping me off about the new signs that have appeared on the platform of W-wa Jeziorki station a few days ago. Below: Marcin's photo showing workmen putting in the new sign, which is parallel to the tracks rather than standing perpendicularly to it. I don't know which is easier to see from an approaching train... Note: each man in the photo is working!

Below: hail unto the New Sign! The old one has gone (what would I have paid to have it in my garage!) but its memory lives on at the foot of my blog. I'm not convinced as to the typeface (the serifs on the letter 'I' but not on other letters - a bit messy).

Something else that's disappeared as of the end of December - Warsaw's Konstal 13N trams will carry their last regular passengers on the last day of 2012. The majority will be scrapped, a few will be preserved for tourist specials. I remember these trams well from my visit to Warsaw as an eight year-old boy in the summer of 1966, for me they were the very epitome of modern design and sophisticated urban living.

Below: heading off down ul. Puławska towards the loop at Wyścigi, a 13N (nicknamed Żmija - 'adder' or Parówka - 'frankfurter') on its last day in service - although this one was out of service on this particular trip.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

One millionth of a zloty

My children rifled through my father's small collection of old coins, which have now wandered back to Jeziorki. Among the more interesting was a trio of Polish grosz coins dating back to... 1949. Now, the current grosz is pretty insignificant, but bear in mind that the old zloty, prior to denominalisation on 1 January 1995 was one ten-thousandth of a new zloty (the PLN). This means the old grosz, a hundredth of an old zloty, was worth one millionth of a new zloty. The new grosz (one from 2009 compared) is itself now virtually worthless and should be taken out of circulation along with the 2-grosz coin; both cost more to mint than their face value.

Note the 1949 grosz still has Rzeczpospolita Polska (rather than Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa or Polish People's Republic); Poland would not get its communist-styled name until 1952, when the Stalinist constitution came into force (with emphasis on the word 'force'). The coins, though minted in 1949, did not enter circulation until 1954. Over 400 million were minted, some in Warsaw, some in Budapest (!). The communist-era one-grosz coin was never minted again, so you won't find them from any other year but 1949.

Most communist-era coins were made from aluminium. The 5-, 10- and 20-grosz coins could actually float on water (below).

Below them lying on the bottom of the cup are a 1-grosz, 1-zloty and 2-zloty coins, none of which possessed the same magical properties.

Well before the end of the communist era, metal coins disappeared from circulation. They were too valuable as washers or buttons to be used at their nominal value (old joke from that period: how do you double the value of the zloty? Drill a hole in it and sell it as a washer for two zlotys).

Compare then with this quartet of Victorian pennies, below.

The oldest one (top left) dates back one and half centuries, the youngest (bottom right) from 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. These would all have been coins I'd have had in my pockets as a schoolboy*. Unlike the rapidly-diminishing values of PRL coinage, these pennies served their country well, and were an indicator of stability and continuity, virtues which Poland has only recently started building up.

* More about pre-decimal British coins here.

This time last year:
Random year-end thoughts

This time two years ago:
Beery litter louts

This time three years ago:
Miserable grey London

This time four years ago:
Parrots in Ealing

This time five years ago:
Xmas lites, Jeziorki

Friday, 28 December 2012

End of year motoring thoughts

1. Don't own a car.
2. If you really must own a car, buy a small one.
3. If you really must have a larger one (many children), buy an economical one.
4. Drive it as little as you possibly can.
5. Invest the money you have saved by following the above precepts.

[Having the use of a company car gets round Point 1, and significantly upsets the delicate equilibrium of the market. A 'free' car, 'free' petrol and free office parking alters the way people consider car use.]

Considering car costs, you need to minimise them. Drive slowly and smoothly to save on fuel and on engine wear. (Plus it's safer.) How many drivers do you see accelerating towards red lights only to brake sharply? Coast towards the red, then accelerate smoothly and gently as it turns green.

Warsaw's public transport gets more expensive in the New Year, with the price of my quarterly travel card going up from 220zł to 250 zł (from £44 to £50). In the past two years, it's gone up by 26%, and is now some 50zł more expensive than tanking up a small car like a Toyota Yaris (a full tank's good for about two week's commuting). Still, as long as Warsaw's public transport continues getting better (which nobody can deny), the quarterly travel card remains excellent value.

This Christmas, once again, we've hired a car to get around England visiting family. Eddie, Moni and I with our three suitcases and ancillary baggage can fit into an A-segment city car, so again I hire a Hyundai i10, one size smaller than our Toyota Yaris, a B-segment supermini. No problem with comfort. The hired i10 comes with a 1.2 litre engine, which is perky, but less fuel efficient. A tiny 25 litre tankful lasts from Beaconsfield to Duffield via Manchester, a mere 255 miles.

My point is that we (Poles, Brits, North Americans) all tend to buy (or be sold) cars that are larger than we really need. Americans go to extremes, but then they've only recently become aware that fuel actually does cost money (even if it's still Mickey-Mouse prices). Corporate fleets will no doubt downsize over the next few years, with reps driving B-segment Fiesta or Corsa-sized cars rather D-segment Mondeos or Insignias. A lot of vain people feeling smug about how important they are as they sit in traffic jams in their over-sized cars will get their come-uppance, mark my words!

We'll all get out of this global recession having discovered something that my father taught me over a lifetime - the virtues of frugality.

This time last year:
Hurry up and wait

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Out and about in Duffield

With the children still sleeping and my brother's family down with colds, I step out into the morning sunlight to make the most of the weather. By the early afternoon it will be bucketing it down again.

I take my new D3200; it has a host of welcome advances over the old D40 and D80. It's as small and light as the D40 yet it has twice the number of megapixels as the heavier D80. Sitting comfortably in the hand, the D3200's controls are well-positioned for anyone having gotten used to Nikon DSLRs. The new camera's high dynamic range gives greater shadow and highlight detail than in my older ones, the 11-point autofocus is a huge advance over the three-point system in the D40. While there's no viewfinder grid option, there's in-camera software to straighten horizons, compensate for parallax and automatically override distortions in each (Nikkor) lens. And a nice landscape mode that makes blues and greens more vivid and gets as much of scene into focus as possible.

In the old days, one had to think hard about taking a technically good photo; now the camera does more and more of the thinking to ensure you don't take duff shots. Of course, it's good to have the technical ABCs of photography under one's belt, but it's better to concentrate on composition without having to worry too much about f-stops, shutter speeds, hyperfocal distance and ISO settings.

A Derbyshire lane wends its way over rolling countryside

Drainage ditch runs along the valley bottom, crossing the golf course

Boxing Day golfers. Everyone greeted me with a cheerful 'Good morning!'

Dampness and wet fields

Cycling is a popular pursuit in Derbyshire; many road bikes out today.

Christmas break

I've been offline for a few days over Christmas, mid-way through the annual pilgrimage to visit my parents in West London, mother-in-law in Cheadle, near Manchester, and my brother and his family in Derbyshire.

By the time we're back at Heathrow to return the hire car, I'll have driven well over 500 miles (800km). As I write, the weather is showing a temporary respite, but generally it has been and will continue to be wet. Driving north, we could see hundreds of flooded fields along the way.

Photos from the road:

Stokenchurch cutting, between Junctions 5 and 6 on the M40. Photo: Moni
Approaching Belper on the A6. Photo: Eddie

The A6 in the High Peaks between Bakewell and Matlock. Photo: Eddie

One little insight from England: Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, frequently points to the lack of mixer taps and double glazing in English houses. [Penultimate paragraph in this coverage of his Blenheim Palace speech, for example.] This is a demonstration of snobbism; what Sikorski is saying is "Old Money in England doesn't have mixer taps or double glazing". The corollary is that New Money does (peek in any Executive Home). Having spent three nights in three English houses without either, I can attest to the usefulness and desirability of both inventions. Poles can bask smugly in the knowledge that possessing mixer taps and double (or indeed even triple) glazing will not have anyone looking down their noses at them. There is no such thing as Old Money in Poland.

And weather for the next three days...?

"Miserable grey little island! I cannot live without sun or servants!"

This time last year:
Boxing Day walk in Derbyshire

This time three years ago
This time four years ago:
This time five years ago:

Sunday, 23 December 2012

That bloody fruit

From October to December, the fruit and veg departments of supermarkets across Europe will have pomegranates on sale. A superbly delicious fruit, sweet and tart, and (if you buy a large, red-skinned one), incredibly juicy. Not a fruit common in households in England or Poland, however. And I can see why. The fruit, though rich in antioxidants and considered to be useful in lowering blood pressure, fighting viral infections etc, breaks two Western taboos. Eating with your hands, and spitting at the table. And the juice is the colour of blood and spurts all over the place, and stains... (try getting it off matt white paint on a kitchen wall!)

Eddie was watching me tucking in with relish to the deep red fruit, but disdained my way of eating it. His attempts to eat in a more civilised manner, with a spoon, from a plate, made him look like he'd just finished a particularly busy shift in a slaughterhouse. And wearing a shirt that had been just washed and ironed too.

Don't wish us smacznego, wish us czystego!
Soon, three plates were filled with the skin and spat-out pips of the single fruit, while my hands required two washes to remove all traces of the juice, while the table looked like I had just finished eviscerating a very large mammal upon it.

I love carefully removing the pith from the fruit, revealing glistening red clusters of ripe, juicy seed casings, or arils. Sinking one's teeth into such a cluster is deeply satisfying!

I've bought bottled pomegranate juice at Auchan before, indeed, it's becoming a regular fixture on the shelves at upmarket supermarkets such as Alma, in organic or regular varieties. At around 16zł a 750ml bottle, it's not cheap, but it's more convenient to ingest than the fruit, which requires much cleaning-up afterwards. And I'm not convinced that bottled pomegranate juice maintains the same health-giving properties of the whole fruit once its been subject to processing. The long shelf-life suggests pasteurisation, and no doubt this reduces the efficacy of the juice's active ingredients.

Pomegranates were not available in my West London grey-jumper'd childhood. The first time I heard of them was in my third year in junior school at Oaklands Road primary, when we did Greek myths and legends and we acted out the one about Persephone and her mother Demeter and Hades. The fruit made its way into British shops around the time the UK joined the European common market; I remember being introduced to it by Michael Stanley from my class at Gunnersbury Grammar school, whose mum was Portuguese. We bought two pomegranates at the greengrocer's on Northfields Avenue and left a trail of pips all the way up towards the Odeon.

Two months ago, the Economist, my window on the world, has launched a new blog/column, named Pomegranate, after "the fruit-bearing shrub that grows throughout the region". Tucking into a pomegranate, I ponder upon the cultural differences between the Middle East and northern Europe and to what extent they can be ascribed to the widespread consumption of a fruit that leaves a bloody mess in its aftermath...

FOLLOW-UP: 3 January 2013. I tried squeezing juice out of the pomegranate on an electric citrus squeezer. Not bad! May be useful to pass the resulting fluid through a strainer before drinking.

This time two years ago:
Yuletide break

This time three years ago:
Washing the snow away (temperature rises by 14C in 12 hours)

Friday, 21 December 2012

Time for a new camera

The world didn't end today, but my 18-200mm Nikkor finally packed up. While snapping traffic on Marszałkowska this lunchtime, the zoom mechanism failed; it would not zoom back all the way to 18mm. I could push it back in, but that's not the point. This lens is now approaching its sixth birthday, and it has every right to fail, being plastic rather than metal, having been built down to a price and weight. After a couple of years, the rubber zooming ring came off, and more recently, the zooming mechanism has been getting stiffer and stiffer at the long end.

Today, at -11C, something inside finally decided to snap (I can hear it rattling around inside the lens). Should I repair it? Worth a try, but not right now. I bought my 18-200mm Nikkor in March 2007 for 3,000 zlotys (today, the newer VRII version of the 18-200mm Nikkor with zoom lock can be bought for 2,699 zlotys).

What do I need more, I thought to myself as I made my way to the Nikon dealer at Promenada, a new lens or a new body? For 1,959 zlotys* I treated myself instead to a new Nikon D3200 with 18-55mm VR lens. The specifications on this camera are mind-blowing. It boasts 24 megapixels (compared to 12 on my D80 and six on my D40). It can shoot movies in high definition, it has a larger screen on the back and a wider range of ISO settings. Most importantly, the sensor's high dynamic range gives more detail in the shadows and more detail in the highlights.

The D3200 is a direct descendant of my old D40 (bought second hand three and half years ago). The D40 was replaced by the D40X, the D40X by the D60, the D60 by the D3000, the D3000 by the D3100, and, earlier this year, the D3100 by the D3200.

Other than the huge jump in megapixels and the high dynamic range, it is VR (vibration reduction) that makes this camera such a noticeable advance over the D40. In dark conditions, I can hand-hold the D3200 to take a shake-free shot at quarter of a second; the old non-VR version of the 18-55mm would require a 30th of a second to get the same sharpness in low light.

My old D80 with 18-200mm lens weighs in on the kitchen scales at 1,300g, while the new D3200 with 18-55mm lens is just 800g (both with strap, battery, UV filter and memory card). That's half a kilo less to lug around my neck. (The old D40 weighs 780g).

The D80 will be consigned to long lens duty (wildlife and aircraft), serving now as the permanent body for the 80-400mm Nikkor (a lens that needs a body-mounted autofocus motor, that the entry-level D40 and D3200 both lack).

A lot more about the new D3200 anon. It's a magnificent camera that puts professional ones from a few years back to shame. If you're not a photo-snob and can live with the epithets 'entry-level', 'consumer', 'DX sensor', 'polycarbonate body' etc, this is a camera that will not disappoint.

* That's 1,959 zlotys complete with a 16GB SanDisk memory card and a Tiffen Haze -1 filter. Cheapest price of these two items online totals 85 zlotys, so camera price is 1,874 złotys.

The world didn't end

In Ukraine, people are reportedly stockpiling food, bottled water, batteries, candles and matches in case the advertised end of the world manifests itself today. The so-called end of the Mayan Long Calendar (which somehow didn't coincide with the end of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindi, Christian or Jewish calendars) will come and go, and another eschatological date will slip into forgottenness.(Remember 2000?) Worth looking back at some other dates on which the world was to have ended, as well as some future ones...

Truly world-ending phenomena would signal their impending arrival; a solar flare that could knock out all electrical function around the globe, a supervolcano such as the Yellowstone Caldera or an asteroid heading our way would have given notice of themselves by now.

In any case, I'm of the opinion that bad things happen when they're not expected. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of  2004, which killed 230,000 people, was one of those events. It had not been foreseen by any religion or cult or fortune teller. Nor was 1 September 1939 mentioned in the Scriptures. And similarly on the personal scale, bad things strike one out of the blue.

Today is the year's Darkest Day, with the sun rising in Warsaw at 07:43 and setting at 15:25, giving us seven hours and 52 minutes of daylight, 16 hours and eight minutes of darkness. By Christmas Day, it will once again be evident that the day is indeed getting longer once again; the darkness will be retreating (well, in the Northern Hemisphere at least!) as it always has done, something for which we should all show gratitude.

[Revisiting this post six years on, December 2018, I can see it in a different light... 2012 was probably the best year of my life. Everything was going so well. Ukraine and Russia were at peace. Trump was a marginal joke figure. The word 'Brexit' was only being used by political scientists. Though I watched none of the Euro2012 football championships, the atmosphere around the games (with the exception of those involving Russia) was hospitable. Since the end of 2012, things have gone sour. Not in any apocalyptic sense, but Putin's militaristic adventures, Brexit and Trump are not good things. So maybe there was something in the 2012 phenomenon after all...]

This time last year:
First snow - but proper snow?

The time two years ago:
Dense, wet, rush hour snow

This time three years ago:
Evening photography, Powiśle

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

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

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Biała gorączka by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Once again my daughter Moni put me onto a winner; books that she suggests I read always turn out to be good ones. Jacek Hugo-Bader is a name I know from the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza; his reportage engenders in me respect for his sheer courage. He writes from tight spots, often surrounded by dangerous and unpredictable people from society's lower depths. Comparisons with Ryszard Kapuściński often come up when discussing Hugo-Bader. More on this later.

Biała gorączka ('White Fever') is a lower-depths travelogue across the former USSR and comes in two parts; the first is an account of his 2007 journey by road across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok in 55 days, while the second is a collection of shorter reportages from Ukraine, Moldova, Transdniestria, Siberia and Moscow. The latter were written between 2004 and 2009.

Essentially, its about a world gone wrong, a world that went wrong centuries ago, so badly broken, that though it's not as bad as it was, is so exhausted by the wrong that it has become too indifferent to fix it. The book dives into a world of alcohol, drugs, prostitution, HIV, sale of human organs, of human bodies, entrenched corruption - a wretched catalogue of woes visited on Russia and upon the lands it touched.

Hugo-Bader sets off to cross Russia overland. In a four-wheel drive. He turns down the offer of a fully-loaded Audi Q7 from Polish billionaire Jan Kulczyk in favour of a 12 year-old UAZ-469 on Moscow plates, which would render him less conspicuous on the asphalt-free Siberian roads. The vehicle is suitably kitted out for a 13,000 km trans-Siberian voyage in mid-winter. And his guidebook for the journey is the 1957 popular-science text, Reportage from the 21st Century, in which Soviet scientists proclaim the fantastic country which the USSR will have become by 2007. Hugo-Bader contrasts the glowing visions of the future - electric vehicles gliding over ice-free roads, metre-long carrots, a nuclear sun lighting the dark Siberian winter, cancer a terrible memory of the past - with the current state of Russia.

Along the way, he describes the people he meets and the sheer awfulness of their lives. One exception is a religious commune he visits. "There are six people currently claiming to be Christ," he writes, "three of them live in Russia." The cooperative, alcohol- and drug-free villages inhabited by the disciples of Vissarion, the reincarnation of Christ, is in part strange, part uplifting (here there is no crime or other social evils that plague Russia) but ultimately depressing (yet another control-freak imposing his will on weak people), and yes, they believe that Jews control the world etc etc.

Hugo-Bader's heart of darkness lies in Siberia. He visits the Evenk people, an indigenous race being slowly wiped out by alcohol. Like Native Americans, the Evenk's diet of meat, fish, mushrooms and berries has left their bodies incapable of metabolising alcohol normally, so they get drunk very quickly. They will binge-drink for days, after which they get white fever, and when it takes them, they will do wild and life-threatening things, such as run naked in the snow for tens of kilometres.

He visits the village of Bamnak in the Amur region, and catalogues the deaths of 21 reindeer shepherds from a collective farm. Pretty much all of them. And all alcohol-related.

Like Ryszard Kapuściński in Africa, Jacek Hugo-Bader has some close shaves himself. This is a dangerous land. He is forced to drive hundreds of kilometres over icy roads in Siberia with no brakes, he witnesses a murder by car-thieves, his UAZ-469 crashes at night, it's -40C outside, no one will stop to help him...

Russia is a pitiless land, and fast becoming a trendy holiday destination for thrill-seekers who want to go somewhere 'authentic' so they can impress their friends at dinner parties in the rich world. Biała gorączka will show just how bestial a nation can get after centuries of a boot stamping down on its face.

Other reportages include accounts of life in a Ukrainian coal mining community, touched by frequent disasters; Yalta, where a corrupt elite is brazenly helping itself to Tsarist-era buildings, destroying them and building awful monuments to bad taste; Moldova - what people will do to quickly make a few hundred bucks - and the price they pay for it; Transdniestria - how a bunch of Soviet army officers managed to make off with a whole country; Tyumen - what became of the Soviet elite; and back to Moscow to spend a few days with homeless alcoholics.

Not a chink of hope, not a ray of sunlight. A country that's bad, bad, bad. Well, I won't be visiting in a hurry. Maybe when Russia joins the EU!

Why is Jacek Hugo-Bader not the Ryszard Kapuściński de nos jours? In a word, the internet. It has made any part of the world accessible, via Google Earth, Wikipedia and Panoramio - want to see what Ethopia or Iran or Guatemala or indeed Transdniestria or Yakutia look like - you don't need to spend more than a few minutes assuaging your curiosity. It's all there; a few taps on the keyboard are all that's necessary. Had Kapuściński been writing today, he'd have found his voice much harder to be heard. Having said that, White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia has appeared in English, and was indeed shortlisted for the Dolman Best Travel Book award 2012.

This time last year:
The world mourns the death of Kim Jong Il

This time two years ago:
Global warming or climate change?

This time three years ago:
Progress along the S79

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Warsaw in today's snow

Coming home last night it started to snow heavily; clearly, the forecast thaw was not going to happen. Indeed, in the morning, there was a 20cm / six-inch covering of snow on the ground.

Above: looking north along the tram tracks at the top end of ul. Marszałkowska as it crosses Królewska. The trees of Ogród Saski (Saxon Garden) dressed in snow give a fairy-tale appearance to the scene. Traffic's heavy, though it's lunchtime. Below: the southern end of Marszałkowska, looking towards Pl. Unii Lubelskiej.

Left: the temperature's just below zero, though salt melts the snow, creating large puddles. This one's not too deep; even so sandal-wearing's not to be encouraged. We're on the corner of Świętokrzyska and Marszałkowska, where the second line of the Metro will cut under the first line. This junction's still a dreadful mess even for pedestrians, forced to take long detours. Work on the second Metro line is scheduled to be completed by October 2013, claimed Jerzy Lejk, president of the Warsaw Metro two months ago.

Above: a line of trees on the path from ul. Grzybowska to Al. Piotra Drzewieckiego. Below: Rainbow Repaired - or is it? The burnt sections of the rainbow on Pl. Zbawiciela have been replaced by new artificial flowers - but look at the colour mismatch between the new ones and the undamaged original ones, faded by the summer sun. Looks awful. The artists should replace the lot regularly, otherwise the effect will be washed out. (The photo's a bit soft, taken through the grimy window of a moving tram.)

Right: on Krakowskie Przedmieście, between Świętokrzyska and Traugutta, Holy Cross church (Kościół Świętego Krzyża), a Baroque building finished in 1792. It took 110 years to complete (so perhaps we shouldn't complain too much about how long it's taking to build the Warsaw Metro).

Below: socialist-realist architecture on ul Gagarina, built in the late 1950s; named after the Soviet cosmonaut in 1961.

Left: photo kindly sent in by Marcin Daniecki showing unconventional, though practical, approach to dealing with 20cm of snow on the steps to Imielin Metro station - pile it up on the middle of the staircase. The real test will happen in the evening, when commuters are all rushng off one train and piling home up these stairs - one hopes everyone will be sensible about it!

This time last year:
Art, design and modernity

This time two years ago:
Happy ever after

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

This time four years ago:
Alignment and synchronicity

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

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Welcome to the machine, Mr Kaczyński

The other day I was listening to Pink Floyd's album Wish You Were Here (1975), looking to see if there were any musical influences from it (in particular from the first track, Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part I) that crept into Edward Artemiev's soundtrack to Andrei Tarkovsky's film, Stalker (1979). I shall let you be the judge of that (links to both below).


(Pink Floyd)

Now. while ruminating over the similarities (which I think are clearly audible, plus this Pink Floyd album would have been well-known to Moscow's artsy intelligentsia), I stumbled up the track Welcome to the Machine. I remember this album from adolescence, I had it on a mono C90 cassette and no access to the lyrics. The bleak apocalyptic atmosphere - what was it about? The Holocaust? Armageddon?

No, it turns out the song about Roger Water's sudden epiphany (and this coming from a man who'd by this time already released eight studio albums) that the record industry was about making money rather than artistic expression. Wow.

I find rich rock stars bleating about their woes in this dramatic fashion rather tedious. And politicians trying to tell us that we're victims of a machine or a system that's trying to do us all in. Hello Mr Kaczyński. Who was not interned during martial law, unlike many of his current political bogey-men of today, President Bronisław Komorowski or Gazeta Wyborcza editor Adam Michnik.

And yet he and his supporters are happy to suggest that Poland is as undemocratic today as it was 31 years ago. How very tiresome.

This time last year:
'F' for Franco

This time fouryears ago:
Christmas lights: all in the best possible taste

This time five years ago:
Letter from Russia

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Draining Jeziorki - then and now

Jeziorki, being as flat as Lincolnshire and of poor soil quality, has been subject to localised flooding whenever the water table has risen above the surface after heavy rains. Crops are vulnerable, and as Warsaw began spreading out into the surrounding fields, with new houses beginning to appear, they too were liable to flooding.

So from the early post-war years, a system of retention ponds (zbiorniki retencyjne) were built, absorbing water fed into them by a network of drainage ditches. The largest the one between ul. Trombity, Kórnicka and Dumki (see map below). This map is from 1993, but the shape of the pond is unchanged from the 1958 map. What happened over the years, what the maps didn't show, was that the pond shrank, as reeds took over and soil washed into its basin from the drainage ditches raised the level of its bottom. And landowners blocked the drainage ditches, into which domestic rubbish was also dumped, leaving  them unfit for purpose and increasing the incidence of local flooding (podtopienie).

Until the major work on the reclaiming the ponds began earlier this autumn, the outline of the pond looked nothing like on this map. Not shown on the map is the drainage ditch that acts as the southern border of Warsaw, running along the dotted black line at the bottom of the map. Let's follow it from west (as it crosses ul. Gogolińska and the Warsaw-Radom railway line) to ul. Puławska.

Above: between the railway line and the old Rampa na kruszywa. The border of the ditch is secured by fascines woven from willow branches. Below: the channel (przepust) under the old trackbed of the Rampa escarpment. Note the dumped household waste; apparently some brudasi still consider this a good place to dispose of their old kitchen furniture. And note the weeds taking hold. If left unchecked, this state of affairs will lead to a blockage of the channel, and the flooding on ul. Gogolińska will get worse.

Walking the length of this ditch, I can imagine the work that went into it, after the war, precious little heavy plant on hand (all was needed for the rebuilding of Warsaw); hard physical labour which had real sense - saving one's neighbours' fields from regular flooding. For many young men across what was then the Warsaw Voivodship (now Mazovian), this would have been their first paid work after six years of war (forced labour or fighting with the underground); the joy of a pay-packet mingled with the fear of new repressions from a new occupant.

Left: the ditch runs on, to the left, Mysiadło, to the right, Warsaw. When work on this drainage system commenced, Warsaw extended south only as far as Służewiec and the horse-racing track. Ursynów was incorporated into the City of Warsaw's boundaries in 1951; this ditch has marked its southern border for the past six decades. An unsung piece of civil engineering gets a long-overdue hat-tip.

Above: a lateral channel ( 52° 6'13.42"N,  21° 0'53.80"E) running into the ditch from ul. Pozytywki. Below: a sluice gate slightly further along.

Below: the ditch reaches ul. Puławska, immediately behind me as I take the photo. Note the metal grating under the footbridge, in front of which lies washed-up vegetation. This needs to be removed periodically if the channel is not to be blocked.

Below: the course of the drainage ditch is marked in blue on this Google Earth image, dated 1 May 2012.

There are many other drainage ditches in Jeziorki. After 60 years, the field drainage system is currently being subject to a massive refurbishment, starting with the main retention ponds. The six-million zloty investment should ensure that for the foreseeable future, we'll not be threatened with flooding.

This time last year:
The Eurocrisis - what would Jesus do?

This time three years ago:
Orders of magnitude

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

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

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

Monday, 10 December 2012

And Still They Come

A change in the weather - snow, a decent frost, and PAF! PAF! PAF! those anomalous memories pile up upon one another, as they do when the seasons change. The strangely familiar, the familiarly strange, that well-known memory which is not attached to anything I've lived through. I've had these all my life, as early as I can remember, they are a part of me. What they are, I know not. How to categorise them - a scientific or spiritual phenomena, is still beyond me.

Over the years, I've got to recognise these anomalous memories, that feel like memories that come across one unbidden, yet are clearly not from my life's experiences. They are mine, they are familiar; but where are they from and what do they mean?

Let's whittle them down. They don't feel like the Far East or Africa. They don't feel ancient or mediaeval. They feel mid-20th Century, USA or Scandinavia. A land of four separate seasons, as Poland has (but England doesn't); low-rise houses with car ports surrounded by groves of pine and birch, moderne office developments amid snowy forests.

Scene which triggered that PAF! moment on my way home from work

Memories that feel as real as anything that resonates with my 1960s British childhood, yet are not of it. There are other ones; Edwardian England, fin-de-siecle France, the Pripyat marshes, Merrie England, 17th C. Less strong, less frequent, yet also present in unbidden memories; pleasant memories, and ones I can reach for and experience should I wish to.

What this is all about is still life's greatest mystery for me. Is this a common phenomenon, that many people experience yet fail to identify? Or am I alone on this one? (I've met a tiny handful of people in my life that have experienced similar sensations affecting their consciousness)

These days I'm more inclined to look for a scientific explanation rather than to seek for religious meaning in these anomalous memory events. They are not strong - when they happen, I try to catch the feeling, catch the moment, dwell upon it before it evaporates (PAF! There's another one...) but they are ephemeral, fleeting. And yet real, and yet really familiar.

I cannot will such a memory into being, but I can get myself into a mood where they are more likely to happen (though seeking them for their own end tends to be futile and disappointing). There are places where they are more likely to happen (in the kitchen, in the chilled-food section at Auchan, on Dolina Służewiecka between ul. Nowoursynowska and Rodowicza), and, as I mentioned, when there are changes in the weather (the onset of spring, for example).

The human brain is the most complex structure known to man. We have scarcely begun to unravel its secrets. Is this a brain thing or something else? My brain tuning into thought waves once projected from human brains once alive? Atoms within me that were once within some other human being, some while back? Tosh! you may say. Would that I could do so with any degree of certainty. All I know is that this phenomenon is very real, has always been with me, continues to feel familiar, and continues to intrigue me and pique my curiosity.

The recent Economist article I mentioned a few days ago regarding health and happiness mentions meditation as something of proven benefits to physical health. It is certainly something I shall delve into, with an aim of seeing if I can get nearer the root of it.

PAF! A present life flashback, again entirely unbidden - the Bath Road, near Turnham Green, driving with my father to the Polish church on Leysfield Road in the l960s - a set of level cross gates between Abinger Road and Emlyn Road (the internet's a wonderful thing - the flashback is confirmed...) An impressive demonstration, if I say so myself - but it would be a miraculous validation to be able to flash back with such a degree of detail to a life's experience beyond my own.

Should I seek answers, or let things lie? I'm for seeking answers.

This time last year:
Classic glass

This time six years ago:
What's the Polish for 'pattern'?

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

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Wrocław, City of Neon

While in Wrocław last week I was struck by the return of the city's most memorable neons, shining brightly in a city that's had a thorough facelift for the Euro 2012 football championships (now a faded memory...). Although Wrocław Głowny station's remont is still not 100% complete, it is now a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing place. I remember coming here in 2001 on a business trip and sending a colleague to take a look at the city map in a dark corner just off the main concourse. He was struggling not to retch from the stench of urine and vomit. How different the place is today. Arriving at half past six in the morning after a comfortable journey on the night train, I'm greeted by the neons, below, at the western end of the platforms.

Below: the station's façade, built as Breslau Hauptbahnhoff in 1857, now beautifully restored and illuminated, topped off with a working neon. Sadly, across the main road (ie. directly behind me as I took this photo), the legendary neon 'Dobry wieczór we Wrocławie' is only partly working, with several of the letters unlit.

Below: back inside the station, there's more classic neon, mid-century moderne typeface at odds with the mid-19th century architecture, but a joy to behold anyhow. I remember this neon from 1976, queuing up to buy a ticket for a steam train to Kłodzko.

Below: another one of Wrocław's landmark neons - 'ubezpiecz mieszkanie w PZU' - the four burglars, on Pl. Tadeusza Kościuszki. 'Insure your flat with PZU' is the slogan, with a sequentially-illuminated series of masked and flat-capped burglars creeping from right to left, key in hand, ready to break in.

Other PRL-era neons that still light up Wrocław by night include this one advertising a hairdresser's salon, on ul. Tęczowa, below.

Below: another 'fryzier' neon, this one on Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego, opposite the Scandic Hotel where I was staying - a place I can very much recommend for service and value for money. Fryzier, by the way, is a loan word from the French friseur. Looking at Google Street View, I can see that this neon has only recently been restored and replaced. All of the neons in the post were around in the late '90s, when I first snapped them.

I'm very pleased that as in Warsaw, there's an appreciation in Wrocław for its old neons and that many have been preserved and still bring light and joy to the city.

This time last year:
Ronald Reagan remembered

This time two years ago:
Accident of birth

This time three years ago:
Under the Liberator

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki on old maps

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Why the Happy are Healthy

I wrote a while back about the link between health and happiness being related to the link between happiness and health; a virtuous spiral. Now a pair of American scientists seem to have moved one crucial step forward in finding a causal link between the two. This week's Economist carries a Most significant article about thinking yourself better. "...[R]espectable research has demonstrated that those who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. They have fewer heart attacks, for example, and fewer colds too."

The link discovered by Dr Barbara Fredrickson and Dr Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina (and this warrants more research) is to do with the vagal tone index.

Apparently, there are subtle differences between the pulse rate when breathing in (faster) and breathing out (slower). If the heart beats at exactly the same rate when you're inhaling as when you're exhaling, your vagal tone index is One. Obviously, to measure this you need sophisticated, ultra-sensitive instruments to measure your heartbeat down to small fractions per second. Then, you need to link this data to information about how happy (or unhappy) you are - what emotions, positive or negative - you have experienced. The result? "[P]eople with high [vagal tone] tone are better than those with low at stopping bad feelings getting overblown. They also show more positive emotions in general. This may provide the missing link between emotional well-being and physical health."

OK - so if you let your bad feelings get control of you - does that condemn you to ill health? The article mentions meditation as an effective therapy, but it tends to improve the vagal tone index of those who already have a good vagal tone index. Meditation is of little benefit to those with low vagal tone index.

Are there other factors at work here? I just wrote about the link between higher educational attainment and longevity. Maybe IQ has something to do with this? More intelligent people can apply logical thought to their lifestyle, diet and habits, and are better able to control emotions (for example, through cognitive behavioural therapy). But then happy, intelligent people also succumb to deadly ailments. But less often.

And the biggest known unknown in all this is genes - until we have cheap gene mapping ($100 or less) that can unravel our DNA and tell us with total precision which variants of which genes we possess, we'll still be significantly in the dark. But will we want this knowledge? Will we want to know if there's some dark disease that will slay us in the near future? One day, of course, science will arm our doctors with a gene therapy tool-kit that will let us mend any faulty gene. This, coupled with greater understanding of how our brains work, may well lead to a future in which a child born today could (with luck and intelligence) live to the age of 300, picking up on healthcare developments along the way that we cannot even imagine today.

Along the way to this uplifting vision of the future is an intermediary stage, in which we can unravel and understand the gene map, but don't yet have the tools to fix all known genetically transmitted diseases. Here, the spectre of a genetic underclass looms; people whose DNA tests reveal variants of genes that portend life-threatening conditions that no insurer would wish to underwrite. At present, it's hit or miss. Signing up for (private) healthcare insurance, you answer questions about disease in your family history. Ethical questions will raise big issues for society and its legislators. We are on the verge of an immense healthcare revolution.

In the meanwhile, as we wait for advances, we are one step forward at least - in knowing that thinking positively about life does indeed lead to better health.

This time last year:
The black SUV, the black SUV... (with the darkened rear windows)

This time two years ago:

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

Friday, 7 December 2012

Swans on ice

On my wintry walk to work this morning, I espied swans still here, on Jezioro Grabowskie. This small colony has evidently not taken the trouble to fly to warmer climes. It's just gone half past seven, around sunrise.

Above: view from the makeshift jetty (made from wooden pallets). My earlier attempt to get close to the water's edge (below) resulted in my foot going through the ice and catching a shoe-full of icy, smelly pond water. But I caught sight of this swan...

Among the five swans, a pair of moorhens. I believe this is the same group of swans that spent three summers living in the pond on ul. Trombity until the year before last.

It will be interesting to see whether the swans remain here for the entire winter, or whether the frosts will get too much for them, prompting them to fly south.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
What's the English for kombinować?

This time three years ago:
The demographics of jazz

This time four years ago:
A day in Poznań

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Poland's progress towards transparency

Ever since I read about the first Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index back in 1996, I've been tracking the results each year, with a particular interest in how Poland is faring. Each year for the last five or six, I've been collecting Transparency International (TI)'s findings. And it gives me great pleasure to see Poland being ranked as less and less corrupt with each successive survey.

In this year's Corruption Perception Index, Poland is given a score of 58 out of 100, an advance on last year's 5.5 out of 10 (TI has changed to a 100-point scale this year). Poland comes 41st out of 174 countries surveyed - a huge advance on the nadir year of 2005, when it came 70th out of 158 countries. (Click on the graphs below to enlarge.)

To what extent was it the civilising influence of EU membership, and to what extent was it the role of successive Polish governments that led to this systematic improvement? Both. The election of Law and Justice (PiS) in 2007 was a popular reaction against the sleaze of Leszek Miller's administration. But the implementation of EU Directives into Polish law, and the myriad training sessions organised and part-paid for from EU money have also had an effect.

Compare the 16 countries in the graph below, all of them post-communist. Note how those in the EU score dramatically better than ones outside. One outlier, not listed below, is Georgia, with a score of 52, so better than the Czech Republic and three other EU post-communist member states (and Croatia which joins next year). But then there's Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (ranked equal 170th out of 174 countries). And Russia's 133rd, and Ukraine is 144th.

For Poland, EU membership has been a boon with pretty much upside all the way - EU structural and cohesion funds, Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers, plus the ongoing civilising process that's driving corruption down with each successive year. A Poland that would have voted to stay out of the EU in 2003 would have been a poorer and less happy place than it is today.

This time five years ago:
A day in Poznań

Monday, 3 December 2012

Men's health, Polish-style

Today's Gazeta Wyborcza carried a story based on Eurostat data looking at the life expectancy of men and women in different countries around the EU. The data is not new (2007 and 2008) but even so, it makes an interesting comparison between men and women in the old EU member states and in the post-communist accession countries, and between different education levels.

The figures are shocking. Whereas in countries like Sweden or Italy, the life expectancy of a 30 year-old man with higher education is around six years more than one with only basic education, that difference in Poland is over 12 years. A similar picture exists in Hungary the Czech Republic (both over 13 years difference). Significantly, a well-educated Czech men can expect to live almost as long as Swedish ones (only six months' difference), but a Swede who left school young will outlive a Czech man with basic education by a whole ten years.

Evidently diet, exercise and nicotine and alcohol abuse have a part to play in explaining why educated men outlive their less bookish compatriots. Awareness of these factors, and the strength of will required to live a healthier life, is key. And yet, the differences in life expectancy between women of different education status are much less pronounced (less than five years in the case of Poland, less than three in Italy). Women are less prone to taking risks with their lives (site safety on Polish building sites, for example, is generally appalling) and women raising children acquire some practical knowledge of hygiene.

But why the huge difference between life expectancy in less well-educated men in post-communist Europe and those from the old member states? Is it simply down to cigarettes, vodka and fatty diets? Or is there something else at play - a lack of something to live for? Ghosts of a communist past, or Slavic fatalism? Is there something on the curriculum at Polish universities regarding how to live longer that's not taught to boys at school?

The life expectancy by country data has been known for a long time. Mediterranean people live longer than northern Europeans (sunshine, seafood, a more laid-back attitude to life). And people from post-communist countries live shorter lives (effects of pollution, poor health-and-safety at work, smaller GDPs from which to fund healthcare), so when it comes to life expectancy at birth, Italians and Spaniards come top, while Latvians and Lithuanians come bottom. (And then there's Glasgow...)

But how do we account for those glaring life expectancy differences between life expectancy for men in post-communist countries on the basis of their education?

This time five years ago:
Son Eddie is 12 today
[Goodness! How time flies...]

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pozytywki pond - deeper, wider, longer

Driving back from the weekly shop at Auchan last Saturday, I noticed work in progress on the pond on ul. Pozytywki, with workmen pumping water out of it. I was without my camera at the time, so a big thanks to near-neighbour Marcin Daniecki for sending me a batch of pics from the works. Marcin also linked me to the official public tender website, which shows that the work to improve the functioning of drainage around this part of southern Jeziorki will happen in lightning tempo. The work here and on nearby Wąsal pond on ul. Katarynki is happening in parallel with the larger-scale re-cultivation of the wetlands between ul. Trombity, Dumki and Kórnicka that I've been covering in past weeks, and is intended to prevent a repeat of the disastrous flooding that we experienced in June 2010.

Above: eight-wheeler dump trucks await the soil, dug out from the bottom of the drained pond. Much of this soil will go to local fields, to raise their level as well as their quality - the mud from the pond is high-quality stuff! Most of the fields around Jeziorki right now can be seen sporting mounds of pond mud, which is being levelled by bulldozers.

Above: tree felling is under way. The area is losing some of its charm. The terms of the public tender are ambiguous: on the one hand, trees and bushes are to be cut down (wycinka drzew i krzewów), on the other hand, as well as serving as retention ponds, they must also serve the landscape and nature, maintaining the diversity of flora and fauna.

Below: according to the terms of the tender, the work has to be completed by 10 December. So Sunday working has been the norm. Today, I observed men with brooms sweeping mud and dust off the road surface on Pozytywki, Karczunkowska and Cymbalistów.

Left: what will remain, once the diggers and cutters have gone? What will be achieved - the security of local homes and fields from future flooding.

The ducks and herons will, I hope, return; a deepened, widened pond should mean more fish. And no doubt before too very long, the bushes and trees will grow back.

All the photos above are by Marcin Daniecki, many thanks once again for sending them to me, Marcin!

Below: the way it was, back in May this year. A lovely place, when the midges are not too troublesome. Balancing the needs of suburban man and nature will always be tricky.

Below: also from May 2012, the view looking west across the pond, from the old sluice gate.