Thursday, 27 February 2014

Civilisation and a civil society

Once upon a time, the land was ruled by meanest, baddest bastard with the biggest fists, the foulest temper, the most cunning mind. His ambition to rule was greater than that of any of his rivals, who would often pay for their resistance to him with their lives.

As the centuries passed, men of learning would be co-opted by the large-fisted ruler to help him rule even greater territories; intelligent, calculating men. He reached an understanding with them: he would share his wealth with them, they would lend legitimacy to him. The ruler's sway extended, encompassing ever-greater territories until they became the kingdoms still recognisable today.

The men of learning devised the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. The ruler had become king not because he was larger-fisted and more brutally uncompromising in his quest for dominance over others - but because this was the will of God Almighty. Such a scheme worked well for a while, supported by the world's first global corporation, the Church of Rome. Absolute monarchs would slaughter their own subjects in vast numbers during wars fought for vanity or in avoidable famines. Came the Enlightenment, and men came to question the authority of God as vested in the infallible Church, and in turn, of their ruler.

Some rulers lost their head; others gave ground gracefully. In place of the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons (and sometimes even daughters) of the big-fisted bastard, a system began to emerge which set up checks and balances to ensure that no one human being or family ended up too dominant*. Parliaments were first elected by the powerful few; eventually universal suffrage gave every adult the chance to select their rulers.

But as the vote became accessible to the poor and the poorly educated, along came some clever, ambitious, big-fisted people got together around a new idea for gaining power and becoming rulers themselves, an idea that evolved symbiotically along with democracy. It's called populism. "Vote for us, and we'll legally take the rich man's money (through taxation) and we shall redistribute it to you poor people (in benefits). And because there are more of you poor people than of those rich people, the democratic system will ensure I get elected and remain in power".

This idea proved so popular that all political parties to one extent or another took to it. Without some measure of redistribution, maintaining power was impossible. Politics became a question of moving a slider up and down society, determining to whom should be given (and how much) and from whom should be taken away (and how much). Getting this balance right was now key to winning and maintaining power - not having large fists and an aggressive mien.

Democracy ensures that the people who rule over us are smart; the system keeps them in check. When it emerges that actually they are stupid, they stumble and fall. Victor Yanukovych certainly believed he could cling onto power balancing the interests of the Kremlin, his oligarchic cronies and the Ukrainian people. He has been exposed as a stupid and venal ruler - an one with stupendously bad taste too. (Read this excellent analysis of Yanukovych by ethicist Prof Peter Singer.)

Democracy is the least-bad system created by humans for ruling themselves. It is not perfect; trips to the ballot box are few and far between. If they were more frequent, institutional paralysis would set in. I'm sure that in future, a more participative system based on e-ballots or mobile voting on local issues will evolve.

What I'm writing about here applies not only to governments and states. More broadly, the march of civilisation (I admit to sharing the Whig view of history - that over time, things tend to get better) affects the economy too. Big businesses can get too big, too powerful; they can collude with one another to the detriment of the consumer and the economy. And here, in a democracy, a proper set of checks and balances is required to wisely regulate business in such a way as not to block the natural, healthy entrepreneurship of the ambitious, courageous and visionary people, but on the other hand not to allow big-fistedness of corporations to smash the interests of the consumer. From the late 19th Century, in America, home of 'capitalism', cartels of colluding businesses have attracted the attention of the well-run state.

The Russian model of governance is way behind the west, despite the sham show displayed on Russia Today. Money generates power, which generates more money, used in turn to buy more power and so on. The regulators are told what to do. The interests of the state and the interests of the big-fisted bastards are one and the same. The difference between Putin and Yanukovych is that the former is intensely clever (the kind of chap who'd have made a good mediaeval pope) while the latter was a dullard, unable to grasp the macro implications of the way he ran the show.

The Russian way, going back to the Mongol occupation, is that you fawn to your superiors while tyrannising your underlings. "I'm it, you're shit." Your underling must be kept in place, brutally if needs be. For one day, they will topple you. No concept of 'win-win' or mutual trust.

Civilisation will flow into Ukraine from the West; the process of nation-building must begin right now, based on the creation of strong institutions that enjoy the trust of the people. Regulators who regulate fairly and wisely, and block the emergence of any big-fisted thieving bastard. Ukrainians have paid a high price for ridding themselves of their bandit president; to ensure that further banditry and robbing of the state does not occur, a civil society must now arise bottom-up, supported by countries and institutions that offer models of good governance.

* North Korea is the exception that proves the rule.

This time last year:
Images of God

This time two years ago:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time three years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time six years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The new dupes of Moscow

When I was a student in the UK in the late '70s and early '80s, the Cold War was entering its decisive phase. The West, determined not to be cowed into submission by the Kremlin, was re-arming. Margaret Thatcher was buying a fleet of Trident nuclear missile submarines while Ronald Reagan was deploying Pershing II tactical nuclear missiles in Europe and reinstating production of neutron bombs to counter the threat of massed Soviet armoured formation thrusting westwards.

None of this was popular with the British (and Western European) Left, who, rather than being supremely thankful that this deterrence was keeping them out of Gulags, were protesting that the West should unilaterally disarm and lay down its nuclear shield.

I recall my friend Richard B. striding into a church hall in Royal Leamington Spa one Saturday lunchtime in early 1980 where the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was holding a fund-raising bring-and-buy sale. Richard walked to the middle of the room full of tea-cosy hatted feminists and waistcoated tin-whistle-blowing beardies and bellowed out "YOU ARE ALL DUPES OF MOSCOW!" Later, he was seen shaking a tin along the Parade, collecting money for Trident missiles with which to deter the Russians.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 brought an end to any youthful delusions I might have had as to the true nature of the Soviet Empire. My mother's experiences in a Soviet forced labour camp four decades earlier were also difficult to ignore. And those well-meaning, woolly-minded lefties that saw the USSR as being morally equivalent to the West were just plain wrong.

The Soviet Union, through its security services, saw fit to meddle in the affairs of other countries using stooges, sympathisers and fellow-travellers to muddy the waters.

And so, today, the USSR's successor state and the KGB's successor agency are engaged in disinformation practices. Rather than pumping cash into dull ideological rags like the Morning Star or weirdo leftie groups that few took seriously, the Kremlin's disinformation strategy today is more subtle, more modern.

Each day, an army of English-speaking commentators is scribbling away on the online comments pages of mainstream Western media. Nicknamed the '40-rouble army' (after the sum of money a Kremlin commentator gets paid per comment), you will see their handiwork on many websites from the Economist to the Daily Mail.

These people write to order about issues that affect the Kremlin directly or indirectly. They are recognisable by their tone; frequently provocative, insulting, attacking the author (or commentator) personally. They are persistent too, returning to a thread to ensure that they have the last word in any argument. They wield false facts and disinformation. They often use unorthodox English (in particular their misuse of definite and indefinite articles, a giveaway), dropping in the odd Latin word, and displaying a rather pompous style. In contrast to Ukippers, whose comments may well be full of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors - but whose writing at least has a natural, native English flow.

The 40-rouble army is well versed in the arts of black propaganda. They latch on to populist movements and use divide-and-rule strategies and tactics. The EU and the US are regular targets, so they will attack (for example) the EU using similar rhetoric deployed by anti-EU populists.
They will wade into arguments supporting Ukippers who use terms like "EUSSR",  stirring up anti-EU sentiment for all its worth. All busy bashing Brussels. The reason is obvious - EU membership has changed the former captive nations of the Soviet bloc from poor dictatorships into rapidly-growing democracies. Putin doesn't want Russians to aspire to this.

Example (copy-pasted verbatim from a comment under a Daily Telegraph article)
"I am not sure that people are aware of how dangerous the current situation is. We are possibly heading towards a 'Cuban Misslile' crisis in intensity. They are rounding up judges, Senators - anyone with links to the genuine government and charging them with treason and other crimes. They have already imposed the new front central banker. However that is not the serious bit other than for the victims of the new lynch mobs. They are already fomenting strife in the Eastern Ukraine. Attack mobs. Particularly the Crimea. Russia cannot let its naval base go. It is essential to all its strategic defence and it is now clear that the EU/US axis (of pure evil) is planning some sort of confrontation that could lead to outright war. I suggest this is possibly the whole idea. Long in the planning. The west is desperate for war - its economy is in utter ruin from debt. They are warning Putin not to go in. But he has little choice if the East starts to crack. We are entering dangerous times indeed and just remember it was our corrupt and treasonous politicians in the thick of it. Quite happy to jeopardise this country and every person in it. To gamble with the lives of every living thing on the planet. For greed and power. The Russians have done nothing to provoke this crisis - it is Western in concept and so far in its illegal action."
This does not sound like the work of 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. This is coming at you from the corridors of the Kremlin. Yet the author claims (I have emphasised the words) to be British. Our corrupt and treasonous politicians..." "...this country..."

In the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, those of you who follow the comments on the online media, keep a close eye on who posts what - I'm certain that the Kremlin's 40-rouble army will make its presence felt. A little bit of low-risk, easily-deniable mischief that helps sow discord and discontent among the citizens of the EU. The Kremlin is ready to stoke it for all it's worth to weaken the EU by one large, strong member.

At the end of the day, for all its faults, and they are manifold, the EU has proved to be a great civilising influence - membership of the club has been a huge success for Poland. And anyone who says otherwise is a dupe of Moscow.

This time last year:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Lent and Recession - a nice parallel

This time six years ago:
Early intimations of spring (no such luck this year!)

Monday, 24 February 2014

On Governance, Institutions and Civilisation

Now that Yanukovych has fled - and good riddance to the thief - two huge question marks hang over Ukraine. The first is whether Russia will intervene - militarily or otherwise - to split Crimea and the Donbass away from the rest of the country. The second is whether Ukraine can lift itself (with the minimum of external support) out of its economic mire.

Regarding the second question mark, I'm minded of a 1989-era Polish joke: "There are only two ways in which Poland's economy will recover - the miraculous way and the normal way. In one, the Blessed Virgin Mary descends from heaven, raises up Her arms - and the economy comes right. In the miraculous way, Poles do it themselves. Twenty-five years on, the miraculous way has prevailed, albeit with some help from the EU and, well, let's face it, the miracle didn't work for everyone - especially the old and less-well educated.

For Ukraine to come right, a chicken-and-egg-at-the-same-time scenario is needed.

It is business that drives a nation's growth, not governments. Governments can spend taxes - wisely or otherwise - but the money has to be generated in the first place by businesses, making, selling, employing. Enterprising individuals, who can spot business opportunities, work hard, organise people and plan ahead properly, should be allowed by the state to get on with it. Without interference, controls, permissions - and an army of parasitical bureaucrats shamelessly poncing off their courage, vision and long hours. In return, entrepreneurs should behave ethically towards their suppliers, customers, employees and the state, paying promptly what is due, investing their profits in business growth rather than wasting it on gold statues of themselves, huge black SUVs and other show-off baubles.

At the same time, the state needs to rebuild institutions on the basis of trust and efficiency. A career in the public administration must not be about rent-seeking. And to minimise bureaucrats' opportunities to extract graft, regulations must be drafted by democratically elected law-makers which are clear, transparent, uniform across the country and simple in practice.

Ukrainian tax and business regulations are so Byzantine and contradictory, that it's impossible to do business 100% legally. This means that to secure that vital permission or official blessing, bribes needed to be paid, or your business gets closed down on a technicality. The entire Yanukovych model consisted of sitting at the top of the pyramid towards the top of which the stream of bribe money flowed.

I have two recollections to my first and to date only trip to Ukraine back in 2005. The first is the sight of mansions on the hillsides overlooking the Polish border. "Those are owned by the officers of the border guards and customs administration," said our guide. The second is of a huge black SUV with blackened windows front and rear - and windscreen too - on which was an official-looking p'yerepustka - or 'access-all-areas' pass. I asked our guide. "Government, mafia or business?" "All three," he replied, drawing a circle with his forefinger around three fingers of his other hand.

It is the disentanglement of business from the apparatus of state that's fundamental to the building of strong institutions. The Anglo-Saxon ideal of a young person choosing a career in business or in government, and keeping strictly on one side of that line, needs to be implemented to the east of the river Bug. At present in Ukraine (and Russia and Kazakhstan etc) if you have money, you have power. If you have power, you use that power to make more money, which you then convert into more power. The kick-backs have to go the other way too, to ensure the support of the security forces, media, and apparatus of coercion. And when, the Big Man at the top of the pyramid is not paying his thugs enough, they turn on him. This is the African model, where few post-colonial leaders have ever relinquished power voluntarily, and where many have left office in a box.

Ukrainians have rightly been demanding their right to live in a civilised state. The border between civilisation and the badlands has until now been Poland's eastern border. It is entirely in Poland's interest for that border to shift a thousand kilometres east, to have a civilised neighbour - well-governed, prosperous, stable and democratic - where young people can realise their dreams, be properly educated, and plan normal, stable lives.

For this to happen, Ukraine needs well-run institutions. Changing these will be incredibly difficult. Change has been happening in Poland at a pleasing pace, because of Erasmus students, EU-funded training, interchanges of administration staff, sharing of best-practice and European Directives impinging on Polish law. Without the benign influence of the EU washing over it, Ukraine will need to reconstruct its institutions for itself. A police force, not a militia, that neither asks for, nor expects bribes. An end to bribe-giving and bribe-taking by local authorities, hospitals and universities.

For the record, Ukraine is ranked 144th out of the 175 nations surveyed in Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perception Index. Just above it are less corrupt places like Uganda, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Nigeria. Corruption generally follows opaque regulation, excessive bureaucracy and unpredictable business environment. In the World Bank's Doing Business ranking for 2013, Ukraine found itself in 140th place in terms of how easy it was to run a business. As a result, Ukraine fares badly in the UN's Human Development Index, (in 78th place) with only Armenia and Moldova doing worse among European nations.

Kicking out the corrupt officials, ending the bribe-taking and bribe-giving culture is one part of the chicken-and-egg conundrum. The other is meticulously drafted legislation, based on global examples of best practice, designed to simplify and limit the interfering role of the state, making it easier for people of good will to engage in business. Ukrainian law-makers should seek foreign advisors from places like Scandinavia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore - exemplars of transparency and high human development.

Poland sincerely wishes Ukraine and its people well. Left: The Palace of Culture lit up in Ukraine's national colours - a symbol of the solidarity of the people of Warsaw with Ukraine. Even if it means greater competition for jobs (currently foreign investors have shunned Ukraine for its difficult business environment) and competition in terms of agricultural produce. Far more important is pushing back the geographical influence of the Kremlin.

I return to my first question mark. As I write, other than some empty rhetoric from Medvedev, there's been no official Russian reaction to Yanukovich's ignominious departure from Kiev. There are reports of hundreds of oppositionists being arrested in Russia, of a large public demonstration in Moscow, of militia roadblocks searching vehicles for tyres...

Tense times, I'm so glad that Poland is safely in the EU, safely in NATO. Poland needs to offer a helping hand to Ukrainians in terms of nation building.

A final note. Many commentators have compared the situation in Ukraine today with that experienced by Poland in 1989, and the collapse of communism. I say it's more than that - Ukraine is experiencing what Poland experienced between Martial Law in December 1981 and the Round Table Election of 1989 - in the space of one week rather than seven and half years.

This time last year:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time three years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time five years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time six years ago:
Over the fence

Friday, 21 February 2014

Poland's universal panacea

One of the things that puzzled me moving to Poland 17 years ago was the entirely different composition of the typical home first-aid cabinet. Conspicuous by their absence in Polish medicine chests are disinfectants such as TCP, Dettol, Savlon or Germolene. None of these British household-name products are seen stocking the parapharmaceutical shelves of hypermarkets or pharmacies in Poland. Amol liquid

Instead, the medicinal compound most efficacious in every case here is Amol - and it is just as unknown in the UK as TCP is in Poland. But so much more pleasant than TCP - in smell as well as taste. Rather than the phenolic stench of TCP, Amol possesses a fresh, mentholated scent; it contains cinnamon, peppermint, clove, citronella, melissa and lemon oil mixed with 67% alcohol. The alcohol content alone is good for knocking out viruses and bacteria, making this an effective hand santiser. And one that smells nice!

Example: sore throats can be viral or bacterial in cause. I advise pouring about 10ml of Amol in a cup and gargling the stuff undiluted. Do not swallow, unless you wish to get mildly intoxicated. Works well!

The smell of Amol makes me feel good - so much better than TCP's wretched chemical odours! In this lies Amol's efficacy - there's that placebo effect. You believe it will make you better - and that gives a good chance of it making you better (if clinical trials against placebos are anything to go against). The alcohol should kill off all but the hardiest of bacteria and viruses? Plus - you'll feel better and happier.

[Am I healthy because I’m happy? Or am I happy because I am healthy? Is my positive approach to life a result of the fact that I’m happy and healthy – or does the fact that I’m happy and healthy stem from my positive approach to life? Those who like to think of themselves as scientists, rationalists, would stick to the first answer. Yet many of us would instinctively say “well, there’s something to be said for the second”. Indeed, but is there a deeper, scientifically determinable mechanism at work? Am I really able to think myself into a state of healthiness and happiness? Research into the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect) suggests that this may indeed be the case. Again, let’s take the question a stage further. Belief in the power of belief. If you don’t believe that a positive outlook can improve your health or slow down disease – then the likelihood is it won’t. If you do believe in belief, then it will.]

The German term for Amol is Heilkräutergeist or spirit of medicinal herbs; it is meant to have been devised by Carmelite monks centuries ago - indeed some tell of it being used on the Crusades.

Amol cures everything from colds, headaches, muscle pains, insect bites, bloating and dyspepsia. And online, you'll find that it can be used to cure dozens of other maladies. Every babcia swears by it - Amol is the nearest thing you can get to a universal panacea.

I use it in the sauna; 15 to 20 drops onto the heated rocks; each one sizzles on contact evaporating instantly. Breathing in the vapour is very pleasant as it penetrates your respiratory system. [Avoid spilling it onto the electrical elements - it's flammable!] Getting a lungful of Amolated air feels great - invigorating - and as you sweat, all those bugs are hurrying for the nearest exit ie. pore.

After 17 years, I too have ceased to see the sense of TCP and prefer Amol for all petty ailments. Interestingly enough, this medicinal compound of German origin is now manufactured by a Japanese pharmaceutical company in Poland - Takeda Pharma (which acquired the previous manufacturer, Nycomed). Worth taking a look at the website, which has some amusing ads in English, German and Polish going back to 1907.

Above: by appointment to His Holiness, Pope Pius X. Pre-WWI ad (Pius X died in 1914, the price is quoted in pfennigs) Then as now, universal panaceas have always sold well. Priced at 29.95 złotys for a 250ml bottle.

This time last year:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time two years ago:
Lent starts again

This time three years ago:
Art Quiz

This time four years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time five years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Who needs a Noctilux when you've got VR?

If you feel like taking nocturnal landscapes using available light, you can buy a Leitz Noctilux ASPH ($11,000, 37,500 złotys). This lens has an aperture of f0.95 (wider than f1 - the aperture is wider than the focal length). A mighty piece of glass. Let me explain it to you.

The progression of apertures goes like this: f1, f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22, f32. The amount of light passing through a lens at a given aperture is double the amount passing through it at the next aperture (so a lens set at f5.6 allows through it twice as much light compared to f8). So the lower the f-number, the greater the lens's light gathering ability. Most standard zoom lenses that you'll find on a consumer-level camera have apertures between f3.5 and f5.6. f3.5 falls half way between f2.8 and f4. So they gather a lot less light than the Noctilux.

But these days, most lenses are fitted with some form of image stabilisation or vibration reduction (VR) technology, which allows the user to take sharp photos without risk of camera shake. The VR on my standard kit zoom (18-55mm f3.5-f5.6) offers an extra three to four stops of shutter speed before camera shake becomes visible. And so, in terms of being able to hand-hold a camera so as to produce a blur-free image, f3.5 becomes the new f1. (For landscapes at least; VR does not prevent motion blur of, say, a person running)

So enough of the theory - onto the photos below: ul. Pozytywki and the pond, still covered with ice despite two weeks of temperatures above zero. Photos hand-held at around 1/6th of a second exposure with an f3.5 aperture. With a Noctilux, I'd have been comfortably shooting 1/75th of a second at f0.95. Would you be able to see the difference?

This time last year:
Fides quaerens intellectum

This time three years ago: This time two years ago:
To the Devil with it all! - short story, Part II

This time three years ago:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time four years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Ukraine: long-term chaos likely outcome

The Syrian civil war has dragged on for nearly three years with no end in sight. The Geneva talks could be seen at the outset as going nowhere. The West is split between doing something and doing nothing. Plenty of arguments for the latter - unpleasant types on both sides, not in our interests to see either dominant.

I fear Ukraine might go the same way. Yanukovych and his gang are a bunch of bandits that have seized an entire country - a large one at that - and are milking it for all its worth, syphoning off the proceeds to the safety of the West.

Ukraine might be torn between its Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking parts, but it is united in its loathing of Yanukovych. Since the beginning of the Maidan demonstrations in November, the protesters have been calling for the EU and US to prevent Yanukovych, his family and cronies from entering their territory and freezing their assets (bank accounts and real estate). These calls have largely gone unheeded until now.

Only after the deaths of some 30 people has the leadership of the Western world started seriously deliberating how to hit these bandits where it hurts most - deny them access to the money they've plundered and the lifestyle they buy with it. Sanctions against Yanukovych are needed not to get him to change course - he won't - but to claw back some of his loot.

For most Ukrainians the issue of a long-term roadmap to EU membership is of secondary concern - what they want above all is for the Yanukovych clan to be ousted. This is their one demand, a unifying demand. The current visit of EU foreign ministers to talk to Yanukovych is a waste of time - they won't persuade him to go; that's what Ukraine wants.

After the Sochi games end, Putin will be faced with the choice of propping up Yanukovich - and risk the serious opprobrium of the civilised world - or to go in and dump his erstwhile ally. But that would leave a vacuum that may well be filled by someone more pro-Western. If that happens, Putin himself will find himself on shaky ground. It was after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004/5 that Putin started really tightening the screws on the slightest signs of opposition to his rule.

Putin has painted himself into a corner - the unsustainability of his compact with the Russian people based on the premise that the prices of commodities would continue rising indefinitely is becoming apparent.

We here living in the civilised world can no longer envisage ourselves living in a totalitarian system that brutally suppresses its citizens in a bid to maintain power. And yet that scenario may be about to happen just across our border.

Intractable conflicts can drag on. Israel and Palestine have been at loggerheads since 1948, with no sign of peace in the air. The Soviet Union, with the Gulag system at its very heart, existed for 73 years.

I am not optimistic regarding a positive outcome for Ukraine. It will now take much wisdom and much moral and intellectual strength to recover the nation from the thuggery and corruption in which it has been mired for most of its post-Soviet past. Are there the cadres for nation-building from within? The people with the know-how to create strong, well-governed institutions? I'm sure that Poland and other post-communist neighbours would be willing to help - but would this be seen as interfering by foreign agents?

Lack of simple answers to questions like these help keep the Putins and Yanukovychs in power. As long as the alternative to them is seen to be totally unpalatable - a protracted civil war - a passive population will not rise up against them. But when once there is no alternative to protracted civil war - I dread to think.

Will eastern Poland fill up with refugee camps like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are with Syrian refugees? Or will the scenario be like Hungary in 1956, with Russian and loyalist troops clamping down and establishing a totalitarian dictatorship?

Right now, the situation looks very worrying.

This time last year:
Wrocław's new airport terminal

This time two years ago:
A study in symmetry: Kabaty Metro station

This time three years ago:
To the Devil with it all - a short story

This time four years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time six years ago:
Flat tyre

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Design, Build, Finance, Maintain, Operate

Looking at the state of Polish public infrastructure, one can often witness the result of short term thinking when it comes to procurement. "Buy the cheapest to avoid accusations of bribery" has been the mantra of procuring parties over the past decade. The cheapest advisors, the cheapest architects, the cheapest consulting engineers, the cheapest general contractors - these usually lead to massive bills for years to come as poor planning and shoddy workmanship result in continual repairs.

The notion that infrastructure should be built well to last decades has not yet been grasped. Spend a bit more getting it right from the very start, and avoid expensive mistakes further down the line. And planning high standards of energy efficiency from the start saves fortunes in utility bills over the decades.

Two recent lessons - the stretch of the A2 motorway construction awarded to Chinese contractor Covec in advance of the Euro 2012 football finals, and the runway at "Warsaw" Modlin Airport should give Poland's public procurement specialists some case studies in why cheapest is more expensive in the long run. Modlin airport was out of action for ten months last year.

Any plan to build infrastructure - be it roads, airports, water treatment plants, law courts, prisons, schools etc - should be costed over the lifetime of the project, and operating and maintenance costs put into the budget model. To often, this is not of interest to the ministries or the local authorities, operating on a one-election time horizon.

Best practice when procuring public infrastructure centres around obtaining best value for taxpayers' money over the long term. This is a lesson not only for procuring parties, but also for that alphabet soup of supervisory and regulatory authorities who control them - NIK (the supreme audit office), UZP (the office of public procurement), and CBA (the central anti-corruption bureau). Not forgetting RIO, KIO, GUS and UOKiK. The watchdogs need to know what's in the public interest (good design, solid workmanship, built-in energy efficiency) and what's not (no cost left uncut at the outset - and then an expensive mess to be cleared up later).

This sounds basic, and yet it's a long hard slog to persuade the decision makers to ditch 'lowest cost' for 'best whole-life value for taxpayers' money'. Part of the journey towards improved public institutions must centre around increasing the professionalism of those people who procure Poland's infrastructure. Only then will taxpayers trust that their money is being wisely spent. Enhanced civic trust is crucial to living in a happy country.

UPDATE 19.02.2014
To my shock, a report by my old employer, the CBI, is saying exactly the same thing... about British public procurement! Good Lord! In comparison, the UK is a shining exemplar! As the boss of any UK company out here in Poland how he/she compares bidding for tenders here with the process in the UK... Anyway, here's the link to the CBI report...  Key finding... "67% [of survey respondents] say lowest cost is still driving most contracting decisions, with only 2% saying contracts are decided on whole-life costs... "

This time last year:
Wait to spend or save lives now? An infrastructure quandry

This time five years ago:
It's not rich countries that build roads, its roads that build rich countries

This time six years ago:
Snow that was doomed to melt

Sunday, 16 February 2014

North-east of Warsaw West revisited

I was here back in September, promising to return. The fate of this fascinatingly ignored part of Warsaw, just three tram stops from the city's epicentre, needs to be documented. One day, this will be offices, shops and apartments. The land north of the main east-west railway line, between W-wa Zachodnia and the defunct (since 1997) W-wa Główna Osobowa station, is ripe for development. Last summer, Cushman & Wakefield announced that it would be PKP's advisor for the sale of this site.

So then - here are today's photos.

Below: redundant tracks between the passenger platforms and ul. Tunelowa are being lifted. I could see literally kilometres of track here. What will happen to it? With these concrete sleepers, this track is in much better condition than the wooden sleepered tracks on the Radom line running through Jeziorki.

Below: a huge collection of clips used to fasten the rails to the sleepers. Tons of the stuff. In the background, modern office and residential developments along Al. Jerozolimskie.

Below: construction equipment parked alongside the tracks. Note piles of lifted rails to the left, the old gasworks on ul. Prądzyńskiego to the right.

Below: looking east from ul. Tunelowa. A mass of abandoned track continues for hundreds of metres in the direction of ul. Towarowa. A good view of Warsaw's skyline, the Palace of Culture being obscured by a tall bush in this photo.

Left: I follow the middle track, forcing my way through bushes which have grown up around and between the rails. They have not been used for at least a decade.

This is prime property, a ten-hectare site surrounded by the western edge of Warsaw's city centre. At last it is going to be developed, but one does wonder why it took PKP so long to get around to selling the site.

I press on eastwards, towards the city centre, along long-abandoned tracks. After a few hundred metres, I come across this building, below, a warehouse alongside the goods sidings. Let's have a closer look, shall we?

Below: abandonment on this scale could be expected in Łódź or Białystok, but not in the heart of Warsaw. A superb klimat for urban hunters of industrial ruins. Lots of evidence of rough sleepers and outdoor drinking dens around here, but for now, in mid-February, deserted.

Below: turning back towards W-wa Zachodnia station, I glimpse through the trees and bushes a new office development on Al. Jerozolimskie catching the last rays of the setting sun. There's much construction work on both sides of the tracks - in Ochota to the south and Wola to the north - but so far nothing in between.

Below: approaching ul. Tunelowa again. If this area is to gain in prestige (which it should thanks to its central location), it will require careful landscaping to take it up market. Right now, the whole area between Tunelowa, Kolejowa and Prądzyńskiego feels depressingly shabby.

Below: the area slated for redevelopment highlighted in yellow on a Google Earth map of Warsaw. Ul. Towarowa is to the right, Al. Jerozolimskie below it, ul. Kasprzaka is top left. The map has been rotated clockwise slightly to fit the page better.

Definitely worth another visit, next time starting from the W-wa Główna Osobowa end (current home of the railway museum - read the latest news about its move here). And exploration of Ul. Kolejowa, the northern border of the redevelopment zone.

This time last year:
Looking for answers

This time two years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time four years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time six years ago:
Okęcie dusk

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Curry for lunch - in downtown Warsaw

Being born and raised in Britain, where Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish, it is evident that I would have a taste for curry. And the Taste of Raj being cosmopolitan, it is right and fitting that Indian food should make its way to Warsaw. Poland's capital has several Indian restaurants, some of which like the Arti (Moni's birthday meal venue of choice) or the Ganesh are excellent.

But today I'd like to focus on the institution of the city centre Indian business lunch, which offers Varsovians with a taste for the exotic the chance to eat an excellent Indian meal cheaply during the working day.

The idea of the business lunch is simple: the menu is short (two items - one being vegetarian, the other featuring chicken); the service is swift, the pricing is affordable. For the restaurant, where a full dinner can cost several times more than the lunch, the idea is to fill tables during what would otherwise be a quiet time.

A good vegetarian lunch should consist of a cheese dish (paneer - my favourite is with spinach or sag) and a dish with pulses (chick peas - chana - or lentils - dal), rice, bread and yogurt.

So then - on to my top three lunchtime picks...

The Tandoor Palace is an institution, set up many moons ago by the legendary Charanjit, a Sikh originally from Singapore. It is located on Al. Armii Krajowej, just off Marszałkowska. For years a second home for expats pining for a suburban Indian restaurant 'just like they have in Solihull'; now catering to a far wider clientele. A recent refit has seen the decor changing from flock wallpaper to a more modern, cosmopolitan appearance. A large screen TV shows top Bollywood song-n-dance sequences (though out of sync with the music being played from behind the bar). One that is amazing is shot on the roof of a moving steam train chugging across precipices in the Nilgiri hills - incredibly dangerous!

Anyway, onto the menu. For 25 złotys (just under £5) you get two main dishes (veg or chicken), a portion of rice, two naan breads, plain raita (yogurt) and mineral water or Pepsi.  The food is fresh, nicely spiced, not too garlicky (an important factor in the middle of the working day) and filling, served on one steel tray, thali style (raita separately in a small bowl). Although the vegetarian version does not give you the fuel needed if you cycle long distances into the city centre.

Rain by India Curry on Żurawia currently my nearest Indian lunch venue (the Tandoor Palace being three tram stops away). For the same 25 złotys, you get the same meal deal (two curries, rice, naan and raita, but without the drink. The portions are slightly larger, the food - dare I say it - a tad tastier, the naan bread is glazed with butter, there's fresh coriander sprinkled on the curry. Decor, after last summer's tasteful makeover, is upmarket (which reflects the normal evening pricing). One downside is the music; not properly Indian but some computer-generated New Age stuff, tediously repetitive and played a bit too loud for lunchtime.

The cheapest of the three is Buddha Indian Restaurant on the corner of Poznańska and Wilcza [update: closed spring 2014]; a lunch here is only 20zł (just under £4), though you get either chapati bread or rice, not both, so it's nowhere near as filling. There's something not quite right about the Buddha - the name for instance - less than 1% of the population of India are Buddhist - it's a bit like calling a restaurant purportedly serving English food 'Thor' or 'Jehovah'. And not an Indian to be seen among the staff. But what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in price and speedy service. I suspect that the Buddha is not owned and run by people from the Subcontinent, but I won't hold that against the place.

Following a tip in the comments (below), I visited the Mandala (ul. Emilii Plater 9/11) for lunch (21zl). Like with Buddha, you either get bread or rice not both; I paid extra for a wholemeal naan, which was a bit of an exaggeration - too much carbohydrate. If two of you go, order one rice and one naan and share. What I liked - the vegetable curry sauce, fresh ginger grated into it; very tasty. But there was only one veg curry dish (albeit put into two dishes to make it look like, er, two dishes) for which the waitress apologised. The raita was runny, more milky than yogurty. Good music - classic Indian raaga, all sitar and tabla, rather than contemporary Bollywood. Atmosphere more of a cafe than a restaurant.

A place not to go for an Indian business lunch is the Saffron Spices on Pl. Konstytucji; no proper lunch deal. I chose a prawn noodle soup, what I got was a handful of tiny frozen shrimps thrown into a packet noodle soup. For 20zł not good value compared to the the Buddha. Advertised as an Indian and Thai restaurant it is neither. And while the Namaste India on ul. Nowogrodzka is a good place to eat a proper Indian meal, it does not do lunches. Coming here at lunchtime means over-ordering and getting just two meal elements (a curry and a rice or bread) and paying 35zł and eating far too much.

Does anyone know of any other Indian restaurants in Warsaw that do a proper business lunch for 20-30zł? I'd be keen to try some more!

This time last year:
Elliot Erwitt exhibition in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
The first heavy snow of winter

This time three years ago:
God's Dwelling Place - a short story

This time four years ago:
Beat this for a snowy winter!

This time five years ago:
Poland's most popular male outer-garment

This time six years ago:
The Frost Gods return

Thursday, 13 February 2014

When trams break down

There's no ideal, 100% foolproof way of getting around town, other than walking. This, however, requires lots of time to cover kilometres. Cars and buses grind to a halt in traffic jams, and bicycles can get punctures. Urban rail - whether underground trains or trams - is much more reliable than road-bound public transport (though bus lanes make a huge difference). London's underground strikes show what chaos ensues when the Tube ceases to run normally. Other than crashes, the greatest fear of tram users is a tram jam - when one breaks down, and a whole parade of trams thereafter grinds to a complete halt, remaining paralysed until the offending tram is fixed. And  until that happens, more and more trams are joining the back of the queue. The most I've ever seen is 12, stretching from Rondo de Palma all the way back across Most Poniatowskiego to Rondo Wosh.

Today I got caught in a developing tram jam. A northbound 18 arrived at Pl. Zbawiciela tram stop so full of passengers that only a hardy few could squeeze on; fortunately there was a 35 right behind,which I boarded. Scarcely had this tram got going, when, a little north of Pl. Konstytucji, the driver opened the doors and ordered everyone off. He'd done so because the 18 up ahead of him had broken down, disgorging scores of disgruntled passengers into the rush-hour roadway.

(Below) the driver made no announcement (I'm sure the modern Swing trams have public address systems fitted). No 'please leave the tram in an orderly fashion', or 'beware of the traffic'.

Below: the next tram also lets the passengers out. At the Pl. Konstytucji tram stop beyond, yet another tram awaits. Soon, ul. Marszałkowska will grow a long stationary queue of trams going nowhere.

Mercifully, it's all quickly cleared up this time. The broken down 18 is soon fixed, without external assistance. One hour later, Marszałkowska's tram lines are working normally again (below).

Now that the teething troubles of the new, low-floor PESA Swing trams have been sorted, it tends to be the older 1980s vintage Konstal 105Na trams that break down the most often. With the Ikarus bus and the 13N tram having now left Warsaw's streets for good, the 105N trams are currently the last form of public transport that are not low-floor, where access and egress is via three steep steps from the platform to the interior.

This time last year:
Capax Dei - the first of the Tischner-Żakowski discussions

This time two years ago:
Who are the thickies of Europe?

This time three years ago:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time four years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

On sustainability and the feminisation of business

Management fads come and go. Twenty years ago or so, the big business fad was Business Process Reengineering. "Don't automate, obliterate" was the slogan. Men with butch names like Mike Hammer set to work downsizing and outsourcing, slashing the fat from corporations to make them lean, trim and butch. Other business movements such as Total Quality Management or Six Sigma, set out to minimise variability in business processes, were equally masculine in the left-hemisphere way they focused on rigid, mathematical goals.

Yesterday, I was chairing a seminar on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) - or as some management thinkers would like it to be renamed - Embedded Sustainability. After a while, I realised that I was one of just four men in a roomful of women; the three main speakers were all female.

The core of CSR/Embedded Sustainability is the notion that a company can only survive and thrive if it addresses environmental and social concerns, as well financial goals. And what a case study we had in Warsaw yesterday - Adnams Brewery from Suffolk, a company that has survived 142 years in business. Back in 2000, threatened on one side by the globalisation of the big brewers and an explosion of microbreweries on the other, Adnams started a journey (a popular buzzword) in the direction of CSR. Environmentally-friendly measures saved vast amounts of energy, charitable initiatives within the local community were well received, staff became more involved in the way the business was run - and things started to look rosy again.

I must say, I was convinced by the three presenters that this is a way forward - but - and it's a big one - in countries with well-developed institutions, high levels of personal wealth, and well-developed social and environmental awareness. A British supermarket has aisles and aisles of Fair Trade products. In Poland, you mention Fair Trade and the response is "Handel futrami?" And, as I've written here before - the very word 'sustainable' has been badly translated into Polish as 'zrównoważony', which actually only means 'balanced'.

It will take a while for CSR/Embedded Sustainability to seep onto Polish boardroom agendas. But it will. Driven by a new generation of smarter, globally aware young women who impress me for their wisdom as well as for their drive and intelligence.

CSR/Embedded Sustainability is about nurturing a business for the long-term; like bringing up a child, it's not a quick-bang-for-your-bucks operation to slash headcount and boost next quarter's net profits. As an investor looking for a secure, long-term return on investment, I'd be keen to plump my savings with a socially responsible company that's conscious of its environmental responsibilities as well as its need to stay in business. However, I'm aware that there are many investors who simply want to get rich quick, and many consumers who want to buy cheap and not worry too much about where their product came from, or how.

Something tells me that as management fads go, CSR/Embedded Sustainability is built to last. As long as it's not touchy-feely PR greenwash attempting to hide disdain for consumers, employees, suppliers and the environment.

This time last year:
Lent kicks off (somewhat earlier than this year)

This time two years ago:
Feeling at home on the ice

This time five years ago:
Wetlands in (a milder) winter

This time six years ago:
Railway miscellany

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

You want me to complain? I complain!

A new poster campaign in Warsaw to back up the 19115 fix-my-street hotline has appeared. Below: a billboard on ul. Marszałkowska, not far from my office.

The text is lovely - and a welcome change from what one expects from Poland's public administration. NARZEKAJ Zmieńmy Warszawę. Razem - "COMPLAIN Let's change Warsaw. Together." We, the citizens, are being asked to complain.

So let me complain about the lack of pavement on ul. Karczunkowska. Apart from the fact that at this time of year my trouser-legs and boots are caked in mud, it's the fact that I have to dice with death walking to the station or main road along a street with no pavement.

If the city authorities can't afford a pavement, at least can they put up a) clear speed limit signs on this road - the legal speed limit is 60kmh, but 50kmh would be nice; double white lines along all those sections where there's no pavement and pedestrians are forced to share asphalt with traffic, speed cameras and signs warning motorists of pedestrians (Piesi).

It is absolutely unacceptable to hurtle along this street, overtaking cars which in any case are exceeding the speed limit.

This time last year:
Czachówek's wild woods in winter

This time two years ago:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time four year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter
[light snowfall, temperature above zero]

This time six years ago:
A week into Lent

Monday, 10 February 2014

More evidence of 'peak car' - in W. Europe at least

A piece in today's Financial Times, Carmakers face difficulty attracting young buyers, raises an interesting question about young consumers today. First - some shocking statistics. The average age of a new car buyer in German is 52.2 years. WOW! Only 27% of all new car buyers in Germany were under 45. WOW!!!

What's happening in the home of the automobile? This is what the car industry is desperately trying to work out. Is it simply that young people can't afford new cars? Battered by economic woes, precariously eking out a living between one zero-hours contract and the next, Germany's youth cannot even finance the cost of a new VW up!? Or is it that nearly-new cars - the definition today stretching even to vehicles between five and ten years old - have become so reliable that covering the massive costs of early-stage depreciation makes no financial sense? Is is simple demographics? Fewer young consumers?

Or is it something more worrying - that young Germans today are less interested in physical mobility than they are in smartphones, iPads, laptops, and assorted gadgetry of the connected world? To quote from the article: "urban-dwelling young people no longer prioritise owning a car and are choosing to spend their disposable income on other items, such as consumer electronics."

What is das autoindustrie doing to attract fewer young people with less money in their pockets and less desire to proclaim their individuality by car-ownership? It is making ever-bigger cars, it is focusing on performance not on economy, it is still locked into 1960s consumer mentality.

The new, new third-generation Mini (built in Britain by BMW) will be longer, wider and taller than the preceding model - and more expensive. Ludicrous. It should have been made shorter, narrower and lower. And less pricey, while maintaining high build quality, reliability and cool. Today's VW Polo is 20cm longer and 210kg heavier than the original 1975 VW Golf - a car one class up from the Polo. Maybe the motor industry's obsession with size is resulting in young buyers shunning its bloated products.

Two related stories from last Thursday's Daily Telegraph: Poor struggle to run a car - "The poorest car-owning households spend at least 31% of their disposable income on buying and running a car, up from 27% in 2012... the poorest families had a maximum weekly expenditure of £167, of which £51.40 went on a car. This included £16.40 on fuel, £9.50 on insurance and £6.10 for repairs and servicing," the article says, quoting the Office for National Statistics. This is followed by the usual bleating from the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, a car-users lobby, suggesting that fuel duty and VAT should be lowered. Rather than saying that the poor can become significantly less poor by abandoning the car altogether.

The second piece, by Harry Mount, compares obesity rates across the UK and rather unsurprisingly, finds they mirror the Toronto study I wrote about last month - cities built for and around the car are fatter. Take Milton Keynes, a new town, where 72.5% of all its citizens are overweight or obese. "When the master plan for Milton Keynes was drawn up in 1969, we were still in an age that worshipped the car - the biggest waist-expander in human history." Mr Mount assails the urban planners for what they did to England's towns and cities, "permanently scarred by worship of the combustion engine". He concludes: "It's easy to lose weight: flog your car today and move to a pretty place that avoided the evil attentions of Sixties town planners."

And if you cut back on your expenditure by 30%, you can afford the extra mortgage repayments, live in a nicer area, walk everywhere, be fitter, healthier and happier.

What should the car industry be doing now? Taking note of the fact that a major shift is occurring in Western society. We communicate by e-mail, SMS and dirt-cheap telephony; we increasingly shop on-line; physical distance is less of a barrier than ever.

Car rental, car sharing, chauffeur services, taxis, public transport, high-speed trains, urban light rail, cycle-friendly cities,pedestrian-friendly city centres - these are the future, not ever larger, every flashier cars offering ever-greater performance which can't be used legally or safely. Car ownership is a concept that's on the wane. In Western Europe, at least. Here, the notion that "you ain't no one unless you've got a BMW or SUV" will take a few more generations to work through.

For me the car of the future is the Volkswagen XL1 (below). Hybrid engine, 313 miles to one gallon (0.9l per 100km). To rent when going on holiday - but not to own.

This time last year:
Pavement for Karczunkowska NOW!
[We still don't have one... time for action.]

This time two years ago:
Until the Vistula freezes over

This time three year:
Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

This time six years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90

Sunday, 9 February 2014

It was fifty years ago today...

The Beatles arrive at JFK Airport, New York, to play on the Ed Sullivan Show. The date - 9 February 1964. This event of transatlantic import evidently moved me greatly (aged six years and four months), inspiring me to draw the picture below. My father date-stamped the picture 12 February 1964 (bottom left) before archiving it.

Looking at photographs taken of the Beatles' arrival, I'm amazed at the detail that I remembered; there's left-handed Paul McCartney; the colours of the Pan-Am Boeing 707 are accurate (the registration not quite - it was actually N-704PA), the Esso tanker truck, the stairs leading up to the front fuselage, the US flag...

Here are some photos taken that day, 50 years ago... (go back another 50 and it would have been 1914).The half-century from 1914 to 1964 saw far greater change than the half-century from 1964 to today. In terms of technology and socially accepted standards of behaviour.

(all photos courtesy of

A good piece about the Beatles in the USA here, on BBC Culture.

Quite an amazing memory from a little Polish boy in West London...!

Yet for me, the best thing I'll remember the Beatles for is... the infinitely greater Rutles. Without the Beatles, the magical humour of the Rutland-based parodists would have been lost for ever.Yes, the Rutles brought more mirth to the world than all the Beatles put together.

This time last year:
Adventures in the Screen Trade - the truth about Hollywood

This time two years ago:
Drifting home

This time four years ago:
Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

This time six years ago:
First intimations of spring

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Europe's peripheral worries

I'm worried about Europe - worried about Ukraine, worried about the UK. Worried that Russia's government will drag Ukraine inextricably into its structures, depriving Poland of a buffer zone between the safety of the EU. Worried that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom, and that the resultant Little England will leave the EU.

Yet knowing the way things function - the model of 'muddling through somehow'- the latter worries seem less real. Scottish voters will vote thinking of the economic uncertainties of going solo (ever tried changing a Scottish ten-pound note at a Polish kantor?) and English voters will likewise realise that leaving the EU will not solve the problem of non-European immigration. But Ukraine... big uncertainty.

What will Europe look like in five, ten years time?

The next weeks will prove crucial for Europe's history. They will either mark the start of Cold War II, or else see Putin's world view irrevocably damaged. Once the Sochi games have got under way, will Putin push Yanukovych to spill blood on a massive scale in order to retain Moscow's influence in Ukraine? Or will the Ukrainian nation wrest itself free of the greedy gang that has plundered it into poverty these past two decades?

In the meanwhile, there's little media attention being directed these days at Greece or Spain - it seems that muddling through somehow has triumphed. Voices suggesting that the eurozone is bound to break up, which were strident two years ago, have piped down. The media always like to play up potential conflict and geopolitical cataclysms - it's what drives sales, page-views. The outcome is usually nothing of the kind. Compromise, fudge, a reasonable middle way is the default; nothing bad really happens. In civilised Europe, anyway.

But Syria? Not something that affects us. Egypt? Ditto. Excitable peoples, different culture. A long way from where we live. But Ukraine? It's on our doorstep. A Syrian-style civil war next door to us is unthinkable. Or is it? Yet what's the resolution? Is it binary - Russia or Europe? Or is there any possibility of a middle way - of a Cold War style neutrality, like Finland or Austria, acceptable to Moscow and the West?

We just don't know. The situation is fluid, unsettling. The outcome is far from certain; the muddle-through-somehow option is unlikely this time round. A nation of 46 million people, mired in corruption, without proper governance or institutions, will require trillions of euros and decades of externally steered nation-building to put right. Can the EU afford it? Can it afford not to? The alternative is that Putin extends the borders of his fiefdom to within a few score miles of Rzeszów, Lublin and Bialystok. Not comfortable for Poland. Does this bother the average Frenchman, Spaniard or Eurosceptic Englishman?

It should do. A repeat of 1939-45 is unlikely today. But Syria shows what kind of scenarios are possible. Millions of refugees fleeing across the border into Poland, escaping a vicious civil war. An entrenched kleptocracy fighting for survival against a people that recognise that they have been cheated of the prospects of a decent life by a bandits who've stolen the ultimate loot - an entire state.

Putin's on a knife-edge too. All this is happening as his showcase Olympics unfold to general online hilarity caused by poor execution and corruption. If Ukraine falls to the forces of democracy, Russia could be next. Putin's vision of restoring the USSR requires Ukraine to be with him and not sliding towards the EU.

The EU is fully aware of the costs and dangers of supporting Ukraine's move away from Russia towards European values. But equally, Europe's leaders should be aware of the costs of letting Ukraine slip away into the dark, cold, nightmare of being subsumed into Putin's dream of a Eurasian Union.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the next few weeks will be crucial to Europe's future. Putin is the decisive figure. He'll either force a bloody resolution to the crisis, or lose Ukraine. Whatever happens, Yanukovych will be gone, to replaced by someone that Putin finds more decisive in carrying out his will.

Let's not let the Sochi games distract our attention from Maidan - and let's hope the Ukrainian people can find leaders that will lead them towards a better life based on the rule of law, strong institutions, and decent governance. That's not easy - it will require external help. Not just from the EU or NATO members - but from Australia, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Japan... developed countries with relatively low levels of corruption and strong economies.

This time last year:
Winter returns to Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Babcia vs. Roma action, Centrum
[A classic bit of photo-reportage, if you don't mind me boasting]

This time three years ago:
Reasons to be cheerful

This time four years ago:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time five years ago:
What's to be done about Warsaw's unmade roads?
[answer after five years: 'too little']

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki in the fog
[some lovely photos]

Friday, 7 February 2014

A to Z of my online world

I've seen this somewhere, can't remember where, but an interesting idea - worth trying.

Type into Google just one letter, and your most oft-browsed page comes up first. Here are mine from my desktop computer at home...

A: Best online secondhand bookshop, linking tens of thousands of secondhand bookshops around the world. Ideal for finding that 1967 edition of Observer's Book of Commercial Vehicles. My number one source of world news, with a UK focus.

C. My number two source of world news. Oh dear how embarrassing.

E. Source of all knowledge, one of the wonders of the modern age, a tribute to the generosity of spirit of all those knowledgable people who contribute. The English page.

F. Find out what that passenger plane is overhead, when my plane's due, what's happening at the airport - in real time. A boon to frequent fliers and plane spotters alike.

G. What else? The world changing search technology that's now become a verb.

H. Nothing immediate - Heathrow Airport comes up first, but it's not a site I visit regularly.

I. My online bank. Excellent interface, much better than UK banks. Thanks to this, I've not had to venture into a physical bank to make transfers for the past eight years.

J. Well someone has to put this page together! Welcome (especially to my regular readers)

K. Nothing regular comes up, a couple of Polish cider sites come up first here

L.'s Polish language forum about the comings and goings at Warsaw's Okęcie airport. One for the spotters. What was that large, noisy, military plane that took just now? Here you'll find the answer.

M. The most accurate weather forecast you'll get for Poland - good for 60 hours ahead. The 84-hour forecast somewhat less accurate.

N. Nothing regular here - last visited was for the mobile app that tells you how far you've walked.

O. The source of all UK statistics, which I follow with interest, in particular the macroeconomic and trade indicators.

P. Wikipedia in Polish. Only six global languages have more pages than the Polish version.

R. Polish railway timetables - also available in English. Hugely valuable to regular rail travellers and commuters.

S. Website of the Polish statistical office. Again, I'm frequently here looking for macroeconomic and demographic data.

T. Decent, right-thinking British newspaper that's not behind a paywall. British government's trade and investment arm, with whom I closely cooperate

V. Nothing here at all!

W. Low-cost carrier of choice between Warsaw Okęcie and much of Europe. No need to go via Modlin.

X. Another blank. Google helpfully suggests 'xbox'. No thanks.

Y. - Access to film, music, humour... one reason I've stopped watching television. The other being that Polish TV is terrible.

Z. - Warsaw's bus, tram, Metro timetables by route, by stop, minute-by-minute. Essential.

This time two years ago:
Life and Death in the Shadow of the El - A short story, part I

This time four years ago:
Transwersalka in midwinter

This time five years ago:
Work starts on the S79/S2 (completed autumn 2013)

This time six years ago:
Crazy customised Skoda

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz

I rose this morning to several SMSs informing me of the death of Tadeusz Mosz, the Polish radio and TV journalist, economic commentator and presenter. He was a great populariser of economics; his daily show Ekonomia, Kapitał, Gospodarka (EKG - also the Polish initials for 'electrocardiogram') on Radio TokFM had a large following.

Tadeusz Mosz, 1954-2014
Mr Mosz campaigned against all forms of economic populism, lambasting politicians promoting uncosted ideas or ones with unintended negative consequences for the economy. He was also strongly in favour of the rule of law across the economy; against all manifestations of the grey sector. He supported the introduction of kasy fiskalne ('fiscal cash registers') in taxis and kiosks to ensure that VAT was paid in full by consumers and passed on to the state.

Above all, through his continual work of explaining how the economy functions in simple-to-understand terms, he helped his listeners appreciate the challenges facing business, the state and the consumer as Poland transformed itself from central planning to a free market.

Mr Mosz's programme would always include two questions: "Czy jesteśmy biedniejsi czy bogatsi?" ('are we richer or poorer') and "Co mnie dziwi" ('what surprises me'); the first would give studio guests the chance to explain the major macroeconomic movements of the day in terms of the average listener's wallet, the second a chance for guests to point out some absurdity in Poland's economic functioning. And given the number of online interventions from ministers and administrators, one knew his programme was listened to by highly influential people too.

Over the past five years, I have appeared over 40 times on his radio show and another seven times on his (long-since axed) TV programme, Plus Minus on TVP. He was a jovial, intelligent character, into skiing and the country life. The off-air warm-ups to his programmes would involve good-natured alpha-male bantering with this guests.

His voice will be missed by many Poles; it would be fitting for him to be commemorated in some way - not least with streets named after him.

This time last year:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time six years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Hotel room with a railway view

Imagine staying in a hotel overlooking the platforms at Warszawa Centralna station - the continual racket of muffled announcements of train departures and delayed arrivals penetrating your room. Can't imagine it? The Grand Central Hotel, overlooking Glasgow Central station gives you just this experience.

I've stayed here before, back in the early 1980s, staying here for a conference. If not the same room, then one with the same general view. There is a charm associated with the place; one can imagine it during the era of steam trains.

Below: looking at the hotel rooms from the station concourse. My room is on the top row, second from left. The double glazing and thick roller blinds do little to cut out the sound of the station's loudspeakers.

Below: view from my room, looking down on to the concourse. One for the connoisseur - I for one can appreciate the ambience, but would prefer total sound-proofing. As I write, around half-past eight in the evening, the announcements are no longer constant as they were in the late afternoon, but even between 21:00 and 22:00 this evening, there will be 35 departures from this station.

Below: it's a very special station, architecturally. Look at the girders, and the wooden fronted shops. This is a Grade I listed building, as is the hotel (notable for the fact that the very first long-distance television signal was received here in 1927).

I hope I'll be able to get to sleep and have an undisturbed night.

Postscript, Wednesday morning: the station announcements begin at 07:00; until then, the station operates in silence.

Weatherwise, it's such a lovely day!

The perfect day for taking off from Warsaw's Okęcie airport and looking at Mazowsze from the air. I'm off to Glasgow for three days. Everything goes smoothly - buses arrive on time to get me from home to the airport, I get through security without a pat-down, I get a good seat (3A), the plane departs on time - and here's a bonus - WizzAir no longer flies to "Glasgow" Prestwick, but to actual Glasgow Glasgow Airport, a mere 20 minutes by bus from the city centre.

So a perfect day for some aerial photography - good weather, good seat. Cloudless skies over a snow-covered Poland.

Below: Kabaty, the southern-most part of Warsaw's Ursynów district. In the bottom right, the Las Kabacki forest; in the top left, the houses and apartment blocks of Kabaty, and in between the Metro depot. In the distance, the Vistula escarpment and the floodplains beyond.

The plane swings around Warsaw, making a 270-degree loop before taking a bearing for Glasgow. Below: the Vistula, looking pretty frozen, with Zawady in the foreground, the Siekierki power station's chimneys in the middle-left of the photo. Trasa Siekierkowska, with the Siekierki bridge run east-west, with the district of Gocław lying on beyond the river.

Below: having taken off at midday, seven minutes later, we're back over the airport. The oval in the left foreground is the smaller of the two horse tracks at Wyścigi. Beyond the S2 expressway lies Raszyn ("fools Raszyn where angels fear to tread") - home of the legendary Fashion from Raszyn website. The town is to Warsaw what Slough is to London.

Below: Węzeł Salomea, the most recently opened junction on the S2. As is the case with Węzeł Warszawa Południe, the southern arm of the junction goes nowhere and stops dead in a field, awaiting the cash needed to extend it to join the S7 expressway running south out of Warsaw.

Left: cruising altitude reached. The plane's heading in a north-westerly direction, rather than flying due west for London. The darkish band crossing the photo from left to right in the middle distance is the Vistula river valley. Ground temperature is -3C. A dazzlingly beautiful day to be flying at 30,000 feet over Poland. As you can see, Mazowsze is as flat as a steamrollered pancake.

This time two years ago:
Temporary home of the National Film Library

This time three years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time six years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready