Thursday, 31 January 2013

Sten guns in Knightsbridge

On my way to the office along Al. Uzjazdowskie, I noticed that the Sejm (Polish parliament) building had been sealed off by a massive police cordon, hundreds of armed police everywhere, scores of police cars and vans on ul. Matejki, Wiejska and Piękna. Buses diverted. Something serious going on. I got back to the office, checked TVN Warszawa and Gazeta Stołeczna online - no news flashes... I can only guess that it was an exercise.

Seeing the anti-terrorist policemen (above), I was minded of the line from the Clash song 1977 - Sten guns in Knightsbridge - the palatial residences of Warsaw's embassy district as a backdrop to these guys armed to the teeth.

Does any reader have any information as to what it was all about? (Thursday 31 January, around 10:30am)

This time last year:
How much education for the nation?

This time two years ago:
To the Catch - short story

This time three years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time five years ago:
From the family archives

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Is this it? Is it all over?

I don't know. Well, last year it wasn't, nor two years ago. But for now, winter wonderland has disappeared as the temperature soars by 15C in less than 24 hours, to be replaced by damp clag, wet pavements and general awfulness. We have been here before - beauty may well return (see my favourite set of winter photos) before spring arrives, marked by dzień wagarowicza (Truants' Day, 21 March), and that miracle of life once again returns the sun to its rightful place in the heavens, and all the whole world is happy (well, the Northern Hemisphere anyway).

But before those glorious things come to pass, winter makes a gallant attempt to hang on in there, despite the rising temperatures. Below: ul. Marszałkowska, looking north towards Pl. Zbawiciela. It's around +2C; yet a sudden snowstorm still insists on making its presence felt.

Below: Looking west from Pl. Konstytucji along ul. Koszykowa. Giant snowflakes continue to tumble hard, cold and moist.

Night falls and the temperature continues to rise. It's now +3C. Below: Park Dreszera tram stop. Snow has turned to sleet, which is turning to rain. It is truly horrid. As today is the second day of ferie, the winter half-term holiday, there's noticeably fewer commuters. Those that are trudging home this evening are miserable, sopping wet in their snow-proof (rather than rain-proof) clothing.

A little digression. Although the bus stops and tram stops have been re-named Park Dreszera for some while, some of the older high-floor trams persist in giving the stop its old name - Ursynowska. This can be very confusing for someone not familiar with this part of Mokotów. Mr Leszek Ruta - please amend!

Below: two years ago, I wrongly foresaw the twilight of the Ikarus bus, stating that by last summer's football championships, these iconic clapped-out old-timers would be consigned to the scrapheap. Well, they're still here, rattly, draughty. It's a miserable evening. I believe it's raining all over the world.

I hope things will improve. This is indeed the darkest time of the year.

This time last year:
The other Jeziorki station

This time three years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time five years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Monday, 28 January 2013

Waiting for the thaw

I woke up this morning later than customary for a weekday, just before seven. And yet the online thermometer read still read a chilly -12.8C. As I begin writing this post, just before seven the same evening, the temperature has shot up to -1.1C. Right now, half past eight, as I finish, it's -0.5C. Tomorrow and Wednesday, the forecast is for temperatures above zero - and rain - heavy rain. Rain that will wash away all this winter gorgeousness and turn it into a melting grey muck. Odwilż - the thaw. Something one dreads.

Above: the last snowfall of the current snowy spell? Ul. Marszałkowska, by Trasa Łazienkowska. Snow is swirling about, giving a fresh coat of white to the piles of dirty snow piled up on the pavements.

Uwage sople! Beware, icicles! View outside the office window, Al. Szucha. These beasts are getting ever longer and heavier as melting snow off the rooftops drips down and re-freezes. Our ones are not particularly dangerous, as they would drop onto several parapets before eventually landing, fragmented, on the courtyard.

Above: the flutter of grey pigeons - tupot szarych gołębi- on a pavement recently dusted with snow. Note their footprints.

Right: dealing with rooftop snow and icicles, corner of Pl. Zbawiciela and ul. Nowowiejska. The job's being done safely. The guy on the roof is wearing a harness; the pavement's been roped off; another guy is on the ground warning the shoveller of impeding traffic. Worth remembering that today's the seventh anniversary of the Katowice Trade Hall disaster.
Above: clearing the muck from the steps of Metro Polityechnika. A mixture of snow, meltwater, salt, soil - filthy stuff indeed. Slippery and filthy. And when the snow starts properly melting, any hour now - then the streets of Warsaw will be awash with it and things will be truly horrid - Wellington weather!

This time last year:
At last - some winter gorgeousness

This time two years ago:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time three years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time four years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
[Hopes dashed. No, after four years - still no pavement]

This time five years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Snow seen into the sun

"Don't take photos directly into the sun" is something beginners to photography will often hear. With good reason - the exposure meter gets fooled, the subject ends up underexposed [correct me if I'm wrong here, Adthelad :)] and the result fails to please.

But if you know what you're doing and use a strong sun in a cloudless sky as part of your composition, and adjust exposure accordingly, you could be onto a winner. With fresh snow on the ground, back-lit by the sun's golden rays, you are shooting into fields of diamonds.

Today - for the first time in weeks, Warsaw enjoyed several hours of unbroken sunshine. It behoved me to drop everything, wrap up warm, take the cameras and head off for a 90 minute walk around Jeziorki.

Corner of ul. Achillesa and Nawłocka.

Looking down the line towards W-wa Jeziorki station

Ul. Dumki, with the Jeziorki wetlands - frozen over - to the right

The new retention pond between ul. Dumki and Trombity

Sunset at home. The day's now an hour longer than a month ago.
A gorgeous day to be out and about. I may have even returned with a suntan! Note how low the sun is in the sky - I set off just after midday.

All photos taken with Nikon D3200, ISO 100, 10-24mm zoom, polarising filter. The battery, which I charged last Saturday morning, packed up an hour into my walk (it has spent 15+ hours in sub-zero temperatures over the past week). I switched off the camera, popped the battery into my trouser pocket, and it returned to life within a few minutes, and was good for the rest of the journey. Nikon camera batteries are to be recommended. However, the battery meter on the D3200 is poor compared to the D80. The latter offers a five-bar graphic display as to battery life, along with detailed information in the menu as to the percentage of life left in it. The D3200 just has a three-bar graphic display and no detailed menu information. "What can you expect of an entry-level camera?" Nikon will reply. The cost of improving this is minimal, but the competitive edge it will offer compared to Canons and Sonys makes is worth implementing.

This time last year:
Warsaw - Ready For Winter

This time three years ago:
Łazienki park, glorious midwinter

This time four years ago:
At the Rampa - work stops

This time five years ago:
Polecamy MROŻONKI - old-school retail

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The more it snows

It's been snowing all week. The temperature's not got any warmer than -5C all week. And Warsaw's been moving smoothly all week. A proper Warsaw winter, in other words. As long as I'm properly dressed, such winters hold no fear, and Warsaw (unlike other capitals I can think of) is coping well. Traffic flows smoothly, public transport keeps working, and in the office, no one even mentions the weather outside.

This morning's locomotions between one office and another and the Embassy and back gave me a chance to walk through a very special part of Our City.

Park Ujazdowski, from the entrance on ul. Piękna
Park Ujazdowski - snow-covered benches, footpaths and trees
Park Ujazdowski - bridge over the ornamental stream
Ul. Agricola, looking to Pl. Na Rozdrożu. Statue of Jan III Sobieski on right.
Looking down the Vistula escarpment - ul. Agricola
Outside our office: cars snowed in on Al. Szucha
This time last year:
Conspiracy theorists in politics

This time two years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time three years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time four years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time five years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in bad weather

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

David Cameron, the EU and Conservatism

I listened watched David Cameron talking about Britain and the EU this morning and was most impressed. This will surely go down as a historically significant speech, one that will have far-reaching repercussions within the UK and indeed within Europe.

While fervently wanting the UK to remain firmly within the EU, I am nonplussed by its headlong drive towards Federalism and greater integration; despite the total lack of popular support by any of the peoples of Europe for this. There have been no protests in the streets of Rome, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Warsaw, London or indeed Brussels, calling for a United States of Europe Now. The European Project, which has kept the Continent from warring for many decades, has been driven from the centre, but where it's going today fills many of its citizens with anxiety - the least of which is the lack of consultation about it.

There is, however, a commonly-held view across the 27 (soon to be 28) Member States that being out on one's own in a globalising world is extremely risky, and that it is better to be in than out. But in what, precisely? I agree with Mr Cameron that the EU should be more of a network than a bloc.

Mr Cameron's speech was brilliantly targeted at three groups: at home, Labour (will they call for a referendum on the EU? If they say no, they will appear undemocratic) and UKIP (outflanked, they will lose support in the polls) and in Brussels (the thought of a British exit worries everyone save the French), as the threat should push other EU governments to steer a less integrationist path.

How did it go down? The bellwether of opinion on this one, I believe, is the Daily Telegraph, upmarket of the loathsome Daily Mail yet also the voice of Middle England. Its story on Mr Cameron's speech attracted well over 800 comments, the lion's share being eurosceptic, hostile to the prime minister, to the coalition government, to the Tory party - and these are not Labour voters.

These are people seeking an extra-dry Conservative Party, the equivalent to the Tea Party movement in the US, people hankering over a return to 1955.

Yet their language, their tone, is not deferential, not gentlemanly, but aggressively radical. The Death of Deference (what's that in Polish?) has led to a situation where the same small 'c' conservatives who are railing against modernity and all its flaws are using decidedly un-conservative language.

Mr Cameron position is a difficult one to explain and defend; a middle road between isolationist Little-Englandism and full-on Euro-integrationism. Which opens him to attacks from both sides. And this means having to construct clever, nuanced arguments to fend off one side without the other side turning it against him.

I predict that today's speech will have the following three effects: 1) a weakening in support for the Labour Party in the polls, 2) a weakening in support for UKIP in the polls, and 3) increased support for Britain's position on the EU from other Member States.

I shall certainly be actively campaigning for the UK to stay as one country and within the EU - a family of nations more competitive, less bureaucratic and more flexible than it is today.

And its politicians - more accountable. What's 'accountability' in Polish? Literally, it should be 'rozliczalność' - but there's no such word. Maybe because the Polish language lacks a word for 'accountability', its politicians often behave as though they are not!

David Cameron's historic speech coincides with Moni's 20th birthday (Happy Birthday, Darling Daughter!)

This time last year:
Citizen Action Against Rat Runners

This time two years ago:
Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

This time three years ago:
Building the S79 - Sasanki-Węzeł Lotnisko, midwinter

This time four years ago:
My return to skiing after an eight-year break

This time five years ago:
Moni's 15th birthday

Monday, 21 January 2013

Around town in the snow

Snow fell pretty much all day today, and it will continue to fall all night, all of tomorrow, and Wednesday, and into Thursday too. So - a lot of snow to be shifted by the city's roads authority (ZDM). Daytime high temperature -6C, a doddle. By the evening, -9C.

Poleczki Business Park, 7:50am; snow and steam.

Petrol station on ul. Dolna, evening.

Park Dreszera - tram number obscured by snow.

The Scottish restaurant, corner of Wałbrzyska and Puławska
Meanwhile, London is paralysed by half an inch of snow and -2C temperatures. Amber Alert!

This time last year:
Reference books are dead

This time two years ago:
A winter walk to work, and wet socks

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Late afternoon stroll around Jeziorki in the snow

To all my neighbours

With the sun now setting just after four pm in Warsaw (35 minutes later than a month ago), it behoves one to dress warmly and set off for a stroll after lunch. A crisp yet entirely tolerable -6C, no new overnight snow, good conditions to a short walk. The sky is darkening all the while, but my new D3200 with its auto ISO feature and VR lens (see previous post) can cope. On with the photos then...
Derelict house on ul. Dumki

Home-made skating rink on ul. Dumki - the ice is thick enough.

Another derelict house on ul. Dumki

The reed-beds between the newly-deepened retention ponds

Ul. Kórnicka after sunset, the street lights have just come on

A southbound Koleje Mazowieckie train rushes through Jeziorki
This time two years ago:
Winter's slight return

This time three years ago:

This time four years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time five years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

D3200 - first comparative test

Time to take an objective eye at my recent investment in a Nikon D3200, which replaces my D40 as lightweight, take-anywhere digital single lens reflex (DLSR) camera. The new camera, launched last April, boasts 24 megapixels, the D40 (which dates back to November 2006) a mere 6.1 MP. Both these cameras are 'DX' format, which means the sensor is not full-frame (for a sensor the size of an old 35mm film frame, choose a Nikon FX format camera, like the D800 or D4, which cost five and ten times more respectively).

The two photos below were taken on the D3200 and D40 respectively, perched atop of a tripod, both set at 200 ISO, in 'program' mode, with Picture Control set to 'vivid', colour balance to 'auto' and Image Quality set to 'JPEG fine'. The lenses used were both 18-55 zooms, the kit lens that came with the cameras, the D3200's lens having Vibration Reduction (VR) but otherwise identical optically.

Given the fact that the settings were identical, my first surprise is that the metering systems of the two cameras differed by two-thirds of a stop (the D40 metered the scene at 1/250th sec at f8, while the D3200 opted for 1/320th sec at f9). So before comparing the two photos, I altered the exposure of the D40 by minus one-third of a stop, and of the D3200 by plus one-third of a stop.

Above: the D3200's rendition of the scene, below, ditto from the D40. The image from the D3200 is visibly cleaner, crisper, even when shown at a small size (though feel free to click to enlarge). The tinted section within the yellow boxes will be enlarged, to show that difference in pixel count does matter.

Below: close-ups taken from both cameras, the D3200's is top. This is a 130% enlargement from the original size frame.

Below: the smaller number of pixels means the frame from the D40 needs to be blown up by more than 300% to get the same size image as that above.

This now, is Most visible (especially if you click to enlarge). Compare the little tree in the foreground, or the row of windows on the roof of the building.

Let us now move on to Vibration Reduction. This is, in my opinion, the greatest advance in lens design in recent years. The ability to take acceptably sharp shots on slow lenses (ie. one with a small hole letting in light) makes a huge difference. Before VR, the rule-of-thumb was that to hand-hold a sharp shot, the longest exposure you could get away with was the reciprocal of the focal length (ie. 1/50th of a second for a 50mm lens, 1/25th of a second for a 24mm lens etc). VR (or IS in Canon language) lets you hand-hold at three to four stops longer (ie. 1/6th of a second for a 50mm lens, 1/3rd of a second for a 24mm lens).

So then - below are two whole-frame images hand held at f4 with the lens set at 24mm; the top one with VR switched off (1/4th of a second), the bottom one with VR switched on (1/3rd of a second).

The difference is clearly visible - and I made a real effort to hold as still as possible while taking both photos. I'm not entirely satisfied with the sharpness of the lower photo (with VR on), so a slightly shorter exposure (say 1/5th of a second) should be acceptable with the lens set at 24mm (equivalent to 35mm on a full-frame DSLR or 35mm film camera).

All in all, I'm delighted with the technological progress that six years have brought in terms of digital imaging, and very happy to have bought the Nikon D3200, a camera I can whole-heartedly recommend to anyone (except camera snobs and professionals shooting images for billboards).

This time last year:
Miserable depths of winter (no snow)

This time two years ago:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time three years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time four years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time five years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Friday, 18 January 2013

The quest for long life leads to Ikaria

To my parents, Bohdan (89) and Marysia (85)

Two weeks ago, the BBC's website ran a story about a Greek island, Ikaria, on which longevity was far more prevalent than in the developed world. Two days later, a friend e-mailed me with the same story covered in greater depth three months earlier by the New York Times. The Island Where People Forget to Die is worth reading from end to end.

Essentially, the chances of an Ikarian man of living to 90 are four times higher than in the US. The lifespan of Ikarians is significantly higher than that of the average for Greece. The human lifespan on the neighbouring island of Samos, just 8 miles away, is no greater than the Greek average. Why? In the 17th Century, when Jan III Sobieski was ruling Poland and King Charles I was losing his head, the Bishop of Ikaria mentioned that it was 'ordinary' to see people 100 years of age on the island. This was at a time when the average lifespan was far shorter than it is today.

Scientists have identified Ikaria (along with the Nuoro Valley in Sardinia, Okinawa off Japan, a Seventh-day Adventist population in Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica) as one of five places where abnormally large proportions of the population live to an abnormally old age. They want to know why. The results of scientific studies appeared in the article...

Factors identified on Ikaria:

Diet: Low on meat (five times a month), fish twice a week, plenty of goat's milk, local beans and pulses, greens, local herbs, honey, stone-ground, sour-dough bread, olives, olive oil - and two to three-and-half glasses of wine a day. No herbicides or pesticides. And coffee. What don't they eat? Processed foods, white sugar, white flour.

Exercise: Not the gym - but working in the vineyard and olive groves, growing and harvesting your own food, walking up steep hills.

Sleep: Waking up when you feel like it, napping during the day ("occasional napping was associated with a 12% reduction in the risk of heart disease, while regular napping - at least three days weekly - was associated with a 37% reduction") and staying up late into the night with friends.

Stress: Take it easy, man! No one on Ikaria has a watch, there is little pressure, little stress. That killer hormone cortisol has little reason to course the veins of Ikarians.

Social: Plenty of social interaction - drinking with friends, dominos, dancing, gossiping, laughter. Loneliness is indeed a killer. Contagion by positive examples - the more active, optimistic friends you have, the more active and optimistic you are.

A reason to live: Retirement is only the beginning. The Japanese word 'Ikigai', or "the reason for which you wake up in the morning", a purpose to life, is all important.

Environmental factors: The quality of the air and water is the reasons Ikarians give for their longer lives. Bright sunshine, blue skies, sparkling waves, high air pressure; little of the grey dampness that so often besieges the British Isles... (niskie ciśnienie, Panie...)

Genetics are not mentioned in this piece. But they must be an incredibly important factor (my mother is the youngest of three sisters - all three are alive, aged 85, 88 and 91). I'm sure if the DNA samples of the nonagenerians studied on Ikaria and the other clusters were to be compared, there'd be some interesting results.

Not one of these factors listed above is the single reason they live longer - all these factors, taken together, reinforcing one another, do the trick.

Would you want to live to old age in Ikaria? Or would you find it boring - bereft of the scintillating glamour of city life?

This time last year:
My thoughts on copyright

This time two years ago:
Waiting for the sun

This time three years ago:
From suburban to inter-city

This time four years ago:
Into the trees

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Where's Britain going to be in Europe?

David Cameron's speech in Amsterdam on the Britain's future in Europe will be listened to with great interest around the world. Is Britain preparing to leave the EU? Unlikely. So what's going on then, with a majority of Brits wanting out?

Follow any mainstream British media outlet and read its forums and comments. There is a clear loathing of Brussels, money wasted, uncompetitiveness, immigration from new EU member states, unelected officials.

John Bull astride his Island Realm, the John Bull who fought two world wars to restore democracy to the peoples of Europe, has woken up to find the Continent run by a clique of jumped-up unelected little Napoleons, foisting their unreasonable Directives on his freedom-loving nation. Now John Bull wants to live on his own.

The EU is far from perfect. There is way too much waste, way too much money being spent on ways that fail to increase the EU's global competitiveness.

Britain has many of the answers - free trade, a complete single market in goods, services, energy, digital content, greater personal freedom - but currently lacks the balls and the muscle to FIGHT for them WITHIN Brussels. Like a tubby, whingeing child losing the football match, out of breath, wanting to leave the pitch. Rather than shape up and fight for what it believes in.

The EU needs MORE of Britain, more of that tough spirit and determination that saw off Hitler, created a massive global empire, invented industry,

Reading the comments on the Daily Telegraph's pages, I get the feeling I'm listening to rants from the retirement homes of England, people with no interest in the nation's future, just a frustrated longing for the England of their birth, a country of fair play, fair hair, common sense, no ID cards, unarmed policemen and a gentleman's word, which has sadly evaporated. It has evaporated because of globalisation. The EU is a part of that process, but it can also be part of the solution. Except that Little Englanders' vision is too limited to see that.

The United Kingdom is one of five EU member states not to have experienced occupation during WWII. The other four were all neutral (Sweden, Ireland, Spain and Portugal). The remaining 23 all knew what it was to have foreign troops on their soil. Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK therefore feels no great need to huddle together for comfort and security into a strong entity that can see off external threats.

The threat to the United Kingdom is internal.

It is entirely feasible that Scotland will pull out of the United Kingdom following a referendum to be held next year. Once-Great Britain, without Scotland, outside the EU, will become a global backwater, increasingly ignored politically and economically. Hundreds or large multinational corporations that established manufacturing operations in the UK to be within the EU will pull out, decimating Britain's industrial base. London will desperately try to negotiate a free trade agreement with Brussels on favourable terms but will have very little leverage with which to do so. [I spoke today with a Polish manager of a Japanese firm with its European HQ in London. "Will it remain there if the UK quits the EU?" I asked. "I very much doubt it," he replied.]

Within five years, we can see an EU which includes Scotland and who knows - even Wales - but excludes a geographical oddity called England, out on its own. Plus an even greater oddity, Northern Ireland. A Moldova or even Transdniestria of the West, embroiled in civil war between those who want to be part of Ireland (and Europe) and those who want to be part of a political entity that's just fallen apart. England, bereft of foreign investment (which it has been exceedingly successful at attracting - ten times more than Poland over the last 20 years ), will find itself in a permanent state of recession, with no real engines of growth (what will it have left to trade? Minis, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys built with German capital? Hondas Nissans and Toyotas built with Japanese capital? Jaguars and Land Rovers with Indian capital?).

The money markets will move on; New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Frankfurt will attract funds away from London; English will cease to be the de facto language of the EU, being replaced by French - or worse, American English (they're both itching to take over all those English language schools), England's influence will dwindle.

It does not have to be this way. The EU needs a shake-up from the complacency and torpor from which not even the PIIGS crisis has shifted it.

A slimmed down Brussels bureaucracy focused on getting the EU globally competitive, lean and fit, innovative, inventive, fast, with truly world-class infrastructure (including here in Poland!) and transparent, predictable legal framework.

I hope Cameron comes at the EU with all guns blazing. "We're going to shake this place up," he should say. "We're firmly in. We're taking over, we're taking the lead; move over Merkel, move over Holland (you sad little shoshalisht) we're going to shape up the EU into a dynamic family of European nations, confident of our place in the world."

We need a strong UK giving direction to a strong EU.

One alternative - Britain on the outside - would be disastrous both for Britain and for Europe. And indeed for Poland.

The other alternative - more likely - more fudge and muddle - more of the same old same old and Europe and Britain slowly losing ground to more ruthless competitors.

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki under water

This time three years ago:
In a nutshell - the best science book I've ever read

This time four years ago:
Flashback to communist times

This time five years ago:
Pre-dawn Ursynów

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Tramming it

Since moving offices from ul. Nowogrodzka to Al. Szucha in November, my geography of Warsaw has been unsettled to a greater extent than it was by the previous move from ul. Fabryczna to ul. Nowogrodzka. Warsaw's geography is determined by its principle travel axes; I'm no longer on the railway line from Jeziorki to Śródmieście or Powiśle; the Metro is two tram stops away.

Yes, the tram now defines the way I move around town. The 4, 10 and 35 from my office to Al. Lotników where I can change to a 715 bus all the way home to Trombity; the 35 from my office to Eddie's school for parents' evenings, a whole string of members arrayed along the 14 and 35 routes, and the 18 which goes to Pl. Zamkowy before crossing the river. Yes, trams are good.

Today's trammery - off to Radio PiN to appear on an hour-long programme to talk about David Cameron and Britain's strange relationship with the European Union. I catch a 35 to Pl. Bankowy, then a 15 to Pl. Inwalidów. Afterwards a 6 to Pl. Wilsona, and Metro home towards Ursynau.

So - photo time...

Ul. Marszałkowska between Królewska and Pl. Bankowy. Fixie races BMW.

Ul. Marszałkowska between Królewska and Pl. Bankowy. Passing trams
Pl. Bankowy, Juliusz Słowacki monument outside Warsaw's City Hall

Ul. Andersa, near Świętojerska

Pl. Inwalidów, rush hour snow

A single-wagon number 6 tram approaches Pl. Wilsona

Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

The economic aphorism 'a rising tide lifts all boats' posits that when times are good, everyone benefits, from the richest to the poorest. Wealth trickles down through society as oligarchs and plutocrats spend their billions on yachts, and yacht manufacturers spend their profits on new mansions, and mansion builders' bricklayers spend their earnings on haircuts, restaurant meals and consumer durables, thus passing money on to hairdressers, waiters and shop assistants. And haircare product manufacturers, cattle farmers and truck drivers. And so the whole economy turns, and growth begets growth.

But when growth stutters to a halt - for whatever reason, a bubble bursts, easy money runs out, greed turns to fear - what then? Does a receding tide lower all boats?

This question was prompted by an e-mail I received last week from a reader referring to an article about Łódź which appearing in British tabloid The Sun. (Moni said that this piece did the rounds of students Łódź film school too.)

Now, Łódź is an outlier among larger Polish cities in that its unemployment rate is about double that of the rest (November registered jobless rate in Łódź 12%; Warsaw and Poznań 4%, Katowice 5%; Kraków, Tri-City and Wrocław all 6%). Yet even so, I was shocked to read in the e-mail that the author's uncle, a security guard, was earning two years ago 7.50 złotys an hour, then had his contract changed to 5.60 złotys an hour, and it has now been cut to 5.30 złotys an hour. That's £1.05, UK readers! How can one survive on such money?

This e-mail has haunted me all week. Inequality has always been with mankind and will remain so as long as we remain mammals. "There's only winners and losers/Don't want to get caught on the wrong side of that line," sang Bruce Springsteen in Atlantic City (from his utterly excellent album Nebraska, which belongs to the ages). "Poor man wants to be rich/Rich man wants to be king/ And a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything," sang Bruce Springsteen in Badlands, staking his claim to understand human nature as well as Shakespeare himself.

Take a peek at John Steenbeck's Grapes of Wrath, an earlier, far deeper, economic crisis - at times like this the Top Dog will growl more fiercely to exploit the exploitable. There is another aphorism in business: "Why does a dog lick its testicles? Because it can."

I remember the campaign against a national minimum wage in the UK - it failed. Society, through its elected representatives, decided to draw a line on how little man can pay fellow man. The dog no longer could.

Is inequality a measure of a lack of civilisation? Some ten years ago, I was talking to the boss of a Finnish company based in Poland. He'd just arrived here from Moscow. "In Helsinki, I was earning four times more than my office cleaner. In Poland, I'm earning 40 times more. In Moscow, I was earning 400 times more."

And here's a slight flaw in my argument; we nice Europeans can enact Directives to determine the limits of man's exploitation of fellow man, but in other less enlightened parts of the globe, it is the Directive of the Jungle that determines wage rates.

Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover have all enjoyed record sales last year. "Kryzys, Panie! It's the crisis, mister! We have to cut costs! Tighten belts! More for me, less for you." This, then, is the nature of man, an intelligent mammal, but a mammal nonetheless.

We need to understand our nature, and rise above it.

This time last year:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

This time three years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time four years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time five years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A warm blanket of snow

I consider temperatures down to -8C to be eminently bearable - wrap up warm (M65 parka, Rossignol skiing gloves, fur-trapper hat, Biedronka boots and my new grey scarf, maybe a thin sweater under my Vistula suit - no vest or t-shirt, heavens forfend!) and such temperatures hold no dread. Minus 15C is a different matter; this limits my enjoyment of being outdoors - unless the sun's shining.

Last night it snowed hard, but this morning the temperature was a mere -1C which, after the -10C we had on Sunday, is a doddle. There was much snow. But - dare I say - pleasantly warm. Much more pleasant than +2C with rain and wind. So then - a few snaps from this morning. 
Skwer Olgi i Andrzeja Małkowskiego, Mokotów.  Silent morning park.

A view of Sielce from the top of the Vistula escarpment

Ul. Gagarina, looking east towards ul. Czerniakowska

Outside my office, Al. Szucha. Cars parked overnight are hidden by snow

This time last year:
Tinker, Tailor - the allure of film-going

This time five years ago:
Trundling Tamara

Monday, 14 January 2013

Happy semi-centenary, Marek!

Now it can be revealed what I've been up to this past week - scanning scores of black & white 35mm negatives ahead of my brother Marek's 50th birthday, which occurs today. The photos will then go into a book (using publication software available from, with a print run of three (one for Marek and his family, one for our parents, and one to remain with me). Print-on-demand is a great technology; it allows ordinary people to put together their own books to a high standard of professionalism.

And what will be in this magnificent tome, a pictorial summary of Marek's early years, captured on film by our father, Bohdan Dembinski, using a Praktica IVB camera? Shots like these, below...

Above: Marek in the back garden of our house on Croft Gardens, Hanwell, West London, summer 1965. In his hand, a frogman figurine, diving off a wooden brick.

Above: boy with, and without, ice cream. Sandy Lane, Oxshott, May 1964, Below: one of the earliest photos in existence of Marek, taken late March- early April 1963. He is already sitting up!

Marek was born in the middle of the coldest month of the 20th Century in England, so it is fitting that today he should also see snow in Derbyshire. Below: Croft Gardens, 50 years ago. [For more photos and reminiscences from my youngest days, please visit Grey Jumper'd Childhood, my occasional blog that celebrates the 1960s, as captured in my memory.]

So then - Marek, sto lat (and then some more!). Of all the men I've met in my life, you are the one I admire most.

This time last year:
First snow in the Old Town

This time two years ago:
Blood on the tracks, again

This time three years ago:
Views from Książęca footbridge - winter and summer

This time four years ago:
The Most Poniatowskiego

This time five years ago:
[What was once] The highest point in Jeziorki