Friday, 31 January 2014

If you can't measure it, you can't manage it

And January 2014 rolls round to a close, Lent is still a long way off (starting 5 March). But I kicked off the New Year with healthy resolutions; adhering to them until Lent should be easy. And logging them all as we go. If one has targets (or 'ambitions' as one has to learn to call them in these politically correct times), they become easier to reach if you enter them daily into a spreadsheet.

So then. This January, my average number of paces walked was 7,647 a day, just over three-quarters of the recommended daily average of 10,000. Still, for the first four days of this year I was thick with a cold and did not venture out. The pedometers (one in my pocket, one in my smartphone - the NoomWalk app) gave accurate readings, and logging each day motivates the beat the record. I bet February's average will be in excess of January's.

Sit-ups - average here is 67 a day across the month, though now I'm up to over 110 a day, so this number should improve into February.

I've stopped drinking coffee on 5 January, though will return to it at the start of Lent - for medicinal reasons - the clear link between coffee drinking and reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease in old age. But no more than one cup a day, in the morning. So I'm doing the 'denial of pleasure' bit now. Alcohol I will quit for the whole of Lent, as I've done every Lent for the past 22 years. This month, my alcohol intake has averaged at 2.1 units a day/15.1 units per week, with 16 days without any alcoholic drink. Entirely within safe drinking limits by a huge margin.

Sugar - this is an interesting one. This week's New Scientist leads with some shocking truths about the sweet stuff. Read the whole article (for the public good, it's not behind a paywall) here.

Here are some excerpts:
"Because hunger is no longer an important factor in most developed countries, what can make people eat more?" asks Serge Ahmed, a neuroscientist at the University of Bordeaux, France. "Food pleasure. And what creates food pleasure? Sugar." 
Unfortunately, it is a guilty pleasure. Not all scientists see eye to eye on the health effects of sugar but there is one point on which most agree: we don't actually need it. Luc Tappy, a physiologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, sums it up: "You cannot live without essential fats. You cannot live without protein. It's going to be difficult to have enough energy if you don't have some carbohydrate. But without sugar, there is no problem. It's an entirely dispensable food." 
"But some researchers see something more sinister going on. To them, sugar isn't just a source of excess calories: it is a poison. ... Another sinister claim against sugar is that it warps eating habits by altering brain chemistry to make us want more. For several years neuroscientists have found it useful to compare energy-dense foods to addictive substances such as cocaine... Foods high in fat and sugar – called "hyperpalatable" foods – are known to trigger our reward systems by boosting dopamine levels much as addictive drugs do." 
"Fructose is converted into energy, but ... unlike glucose breakdown, this produces lots of oxygen radicals, dangerously reactive chemicals that attack our bodies and cause ageing... eating lots of fructose has been shown in both animal and human studies to boost levels of triglycerides in the blood, which increase the risk of hardened arteries and heart disease." 
So there we are - a damning indictment of sugar - in particular High Fructose Corn Syrop (HFCS), which the food industry insists on putting into everything from ready meals to fruit drinks

What to do? Avoid it. Fresh fruit is OK, as it is a natural source. But cakes, biscuits, confectionery - we don't need it, it is bad for you, end of story. If you want to live long, don't touch that. If you don't want Nanny State to boss you around, help save the health service money in looking after you in old age by taking responsibility for your own diet and lifestyle. Drive less and walk more.

This time last year:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time three years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time four years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time five years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Protecting Poland's railways - or not

Regular travellers on Poland's railway network will have observed the railway guard - Straż Ochrony Kolei - a strange institution - neither police force nor military formation, and you may have wondered - what are these guys doing? Are they protecting the travelling public? Making the railways feel more secure?

I don't really know. To me, it's another Polish institution long overdue for reform, in need of real purpose, a jobs-for-the-boys machine. Trains should feel safe - in general they do (with one exception I'll return to). But I posit that they feel safe because of a general improvement in social trust since communist days, rather than because 3,100 SOKists hang around the network.


Are these guys here to prevent graffiti being sprayed on trains stabled overnight in depots? Or to prevent overhead power lines from being stolen? Or to prevent terrorist attacks on Polish railways? I don't rightly know. From SOK's website, it's hard to fathom what this body is all about.


Below: reminds me of the communist-era joke: why do milicjanci hang around in threes? One who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the dangerous intellectuals. Back in Cold War days, this force existed to protect the Red Army's railway supply routes safe from NATO paratroopers - and Polish saboteurs. Today, this threat has disappeared, yet these guys still act as though it were 1952. But in hi-vi vests.



Below: why is it that drinking and smoking is tolerated on Polish suburban lines? Each three-carriage unit has a guard's compartment at the front and rear. A six-carriage set will have four such compartments, three of which (not occupied by the guard) form a drinking club for Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek returning home from work in Warsaw (or other agglomeration) to Radom, Grodzisk Maz., Żyrardów or some other distant dormitory. In these compartments, smoking and drinking are de rigeur, despite clear notices to the contrary. Smoke wafts into ordinary passenger carriages, the atmosphere is often boisterously aggressive. Guards and ticket collectors rarely venture in. This is an everyday occurrence. Where are the SOKists?


The Polish parliament was all set to reform this outdated institution, reducing the number of its ranks and making it fit for purpose for today's needs. That was five years ago - since then - no change. I suspect another PSL sinecure. What's needed is a professional body that will genuinely assess risks to the network and to the traveller and act accordingly. Until the smoker and drinkers are removed from the no-smoking, no-drinking suburban trains (or else the law is amended to permit smoking and drinking in designated compartments), I will not take SOK seriously.

This time last year:
The end of winter? So early?

This time two years ago:
How much education for the nation?

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

This time four years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time six years ago:
From the family archives

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

Plac Zbawiciela lies near the southern end of Śródmieście Południowe, Warsaw's city centre south. Here lies the Church of the Holiest Saviour (Kościół Najświętszego Zbawiciela). Below: I've long been fascinated by this view - the juxtaposition of tram wires and neo-Baroque - the church itself being consecrated just 28 years before the opening of Disneyland.


A short walk from Trasa Łazienkowska which runs under ul. Marszałkowska and you're here - a convenient interchange if heading into town by tram. Pl. Zbawiciela is served by no fewer than five different lines. Be careful which you board - some go north up Marszałkowska, others swing west here, like the number 10 tram seen below.


Left: the steps of the Church of the Holiest Saviour are popular with beggars; whether it's the passing footfall, generous worshippers or a tolerant clergy within, I can't tell.

Below: Pl. Zbawiciela is more of a circus than a square; here's the south-west section. Click on 'Pl. Zbawiciela' label at the bottom of the post for more photos from here.

Pl. Zbawiciela is a busy tram junction, with the socialist-realist MDM (Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa - 'Marszałkowska Housing District') in the background.


Weatherwise, it's been tolerably cold (around -7C) with light dustings of snow to give the city a cleaner look. Road-salt ensures that snow on the roads turns to slush, which sprays out from under the tyres of passing cars.

This time last year:
Waiting for the thaw

This time two years ago:
At last - some winter gorgeousness

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

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

This time five years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
[Hopes dashed. No, after five years - we're still waiting]

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

Monday, 27 January 2014

Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil, and the state of EU cinema

A worthy film, one that should be seen rather than one that wants to be seen. This EU-funded bio-pic of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt is interesting on many planes, but it does not in itself make for a good Hollywood-style cinema-going experience.

But see it you should, if you follow this blog. There are some deep questions at the very heart of it - which I won't go into immediately - they are not ladled out thick as they would be in Hollywood, they are left embedded within the film's structure for you to ponder on the day after, or the day after that.

Hannah Arendt, the Jewish student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party a few months after Hitler comes to power. She flees Nazi Germany for France, only to interned by the Vichy regime; she manages to escape and make it to America, where she has a glittering career as an academic philosopher. In 1962, after Adolf Eichmann is captured by Israeli special forces in Argentina and brought to Jerusalem for trial, she volunteers to cover the proceedings for New Yorker magazine.

What emerges (eventually) from her coverage of Eichmann's cross-examination proves to be sensational. Firstly, this Jewish woman who herself managed to escape the Holocaust, relates that Eichmann is not the incarnation of evil itself, rather a petty bureaucrat whose entire raison d'etre was to carry out orders; a small cog in a large machine who had subsumed himself into it because he had no mind of his own, a man who desperately needed to belong. Secondly, this Jewish woman dared suggest to the world that had the Jewish communities across Europe been less well organised, fewer Jews would have died, as the Judenrate collaborated with the Nazis to a certain extent, drawing up deportation lists for them.

These conclusions she reached watching the Eichmann trial, which the film shows us, cutting from colour to the original black and white footage of the actual event; the witnesses breaking down emotionally, and Eichmann's detached observation of his own trial that would lead to his inevitable death by hanging.

The film shows the shock that the publication of the serialisation of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil had stirred up in 1960s America. Ostracised by her fellow Jews, academics and intellectuals, she felt obliged to defend herself to her students, the penultimate scene in the film.

Today, Hannah Arendt's narrative of Eichmann and the Nazi genocide machine stands the test of time; it is the evil of an ideology based on hatred that managed to conquer a nation that turned small, weak men, followers, into mass-murderers on an industrial scale. They merely wanted to fit in, to be accepted, by following orders, even if it meant inhuman barbarity unprecedented in human history. The role of the Judenrate is still a contentious issue for Holocaust scholars.

The film toggles backward and forward between German and (American) English; the academic world of America in the 1960s, with cocktail parties where groups of Jews would converse with one another in German - not Yiddish nor Hebrew - is nicely shown, with shades of Mad Men. Hannah (who died aged 69 of a heart attack) was a heavy smoker, as were many of the other characters; her husband Heinrich Blucher, is shown smoking heavily and over-eating and having an aneurism.

Was Hannah Arendt a heartless, haughty intellectual, looking down at eastern European Jewry as being unsophisticated and disorganised? Or was she looking at the Holocaust from a different point of view altogether - that of a philosopher rather than as a survivor?

It is an interesting film that thinking people should see, and ponder upon and question. It is not entertainment in the Hollywood sense. It is something that the European Union would like people to see, and as such it has subsidised the production to a large extent. This is not something the USA believes in. Historical films that further the American narrative are financed by people who would like to make money out of it - be they Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon) or John Wayne (Green Berets, The Alamo)

Europe, however, has a darker and more complex narrative. And so the EU feels the need for it to be discoursed using public money. With public money comes looser scripting and direction. We see touches of it in Hannah Arendt - the three Princeton academics who persecute her after her articles are published - indeed many of the secondary actors are wooden and two-dimensional.

And indeed it was in Princeton, where Hannah Arendt lectured before her death in 1975, that a young Joel Coen studied philosophy; it is interesting to ponder whether he took classes with her (his senior thesis being about Wittgenstein). Worth noting that Arendt's last book, published posthumously, was entitled The Life of the Mind - recall the scene in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink where 'Madman' Mundt is running through the flaming hotel corridor repeating "I'll show you the life of the mind".

And there's Stanley Milgram, the American Jewish psychologist from Yale, who knew Hannah Arendt... Inspired by her account of Eichmann 'only following orders', he came up with the famous Milgram experiment, in which volunteer students were ordered to give massive electric shocks to fellow students - up to 450 volts - to see how much pain people could inflict on other people if they were told to do so. Milgram's name carries through to the Coen Brother's A Serious Man; Don Milgram, Larry's lawyer.

Somewhere between Hollywood and Europe lies the cinema of the Coen Brothers; intellectual, academic, yet entertaining; replete with the wisdom of life, funny, quotable.

Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is out any day now, so I'll be off to see that before too long.

This time last year:
Snow scene into the sun

This time two years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

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

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

This time five years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

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

Saturday, 25 January 2014

At last - wintry gorgeousness comes to Jeziorki

Sunshine since dawn, -17C outside; time then for a walk. On ice - as Jeziorki's ponds have frozen solid. Below: a dog steps out gingerly onto the ice. Is it safe? Just look at the 150-pound human. Yes, it's safe. Safe, indeed, for cyclists, ice-hockey players, ice-hole anglers, workers carrying chainsaws, and dozens of locals taking a stroll. This is the seventh consecutive day on which the temperature was below -5C, so the ice is rock hard.


Below: looking south along the shore of the main retention pond. Substitute snow for white sand in your imagination, and the scene could begin to look quite tropical.


Indeed - with eyes half closed, you could almost visualise the scene below as being a palm-fringed island in the South Pacific rather than the western shore of the retention pond.


Since the workmen returned to the retention pond project, some new canals have been dug through the wetlands to link the main pond to smaller ones adjacent to the northern end of ul. Trombity. Earth-movers have been crawling though the ice and the mud beneath, clearing channels for flood-waters to flow more easily between the reservoirs. Now it's iced over, I can investigate the new configuration. Below: a new opening onto the swan pond by ul. Trombity.


Below: path in the ice left by a digger making its way to deepen and widen the ponds by ul. Trombity. Chunks of broken ice visible in the digger's wake, frozen solid once again in subsequent days.


Below: until Hurricane Xaver (Orkan Ksawery) hit Jeziorki, there was a row of 16 poplars standing here; today there are ten left. The large dead white tree towards the end of ul. Trombity was another victim of the strong winds.


Two of the fallen poplars crashed onto an abandoned farm building. This looks like an uncompleted investment from the communist times. No harm done then.


Below: closer to home, the path between ul. Dumki and ul. Trombity. Still closed off at the Trombity end; no sign of any work done here since the autumn of 2012.


I walked some 4km today, most of that on ice, which was fun.

This time last year:
Warsaw - the more it snows

This time two years ago:
Get orf my lairnd!

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

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

This time five years ago:
Dobra and the road

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

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Polish railways in winter, 2014

On my way to work yesterday, I saw a story on the CityINFO screens on the Metro that a train had reached its destination 1,200 minutes late. Checking this in Gazeta Wyborcza, it turned out that indeed two trains had arrived a full 20 hours late - one from Gdynia to Wrocław, the other from Warsaw to Jelenia Góra. Twenty hours delay on journeys that normally take 13 hours and 14 hours respectively.

Yesterday, at the conference we were organising, the keynote speaker arrived 55 minutes into the event, having been delayed on a train (not so dramatically) from Kraków. Delegates from Katowice also arrived late (one phoning that his train was still standing on the platform at Katowice 45 minutes after it was due to depart). At this icy time of year, it's a risky business organising national conferences. On Friday, I'm due to speak at a breakfast meeting in Poznań, necessitating a 05:11 departure from Jeziorki. I am worried that I too may not make it on time.

Polish railways and winter together produce a binary outcome, zero or one. The 'one' is that everything runs on time and Poles are proud that unlike the UK where an inch of snow brings the infrastructure to a standstill, here its business as usual. The 'zero' is that everything goes wrong. This week, the latter has tended to predominate. Below: my train last Friday, 17 January. It's an EN57 electric multiple unit, the oldest of which have seen over half a century of service. As it began pulling out of Okęcie station, something went wrong and it came to a halt. The guard walked up and down the length of the train, trying to work out what was up, opened some valve, tapped something with a hammer - and after 12 minutes standing, we moved on.


The old stock breaks down often but it can often be fixed with a man wielding a hammer. New trains break down infrequently, but when they do, they are immobilised until a new thyristor unit can be flown in from Switzerland. Unless, as has been happening this week, the whole network collapses, as a result of freezing rain (see yesterday's post) brings down power lines.

The recently-appointed 'superminister' responsible for infrastructure and regional development, Elżbieta Biekówska was asked by journalist Kamil Durczok what she had to say to passengers of the train from Przemyśł to Szczecin that arrived 410 minutes late. Her reply would become an internet meme within hours. "Sorry, taki mamy klimat" ("Sorry, that's the climate we have"). PKP announced that across all of Poland yesterday, out of 4,000 services, 82 ('only 82'? or 'as many as 82') arrived more than an hour late. How many arrived up to 59 minutes late, we weren't told.

Below: screenshot of online timetable of services between W-wa Jeziorki and the city centre. Note the green ticks on the first two services. This means they're running to time. This is a huge advance over the old days. Especially when you have this timetable on your smartphone in the form of the Bilcom app. Standing on the platform, I can see exactly where the train is. But while the first two trains are punctually arriving at all stations towards their destinations, the next three services are shown with an exclamation mark within a red circle. The key at the bottom of the page explains that because of freezing snow across six voivodships, trains can be delayed by up to 120 minutes.


Yesterday, this pink panel at the bottom of the page read '... up to 300 minutes delay', with ten voivodships affected. Things are looking up.

This time last year:
Around Warsaw, in the snow

This time two years ago:
Music of the Trees

This time three years ago:
Studniówka - a hundred days before the exams

This time four years ago:
It's all in the mind - but where's that?

This time five years ago:
Roztopy - the big melt-down

This time six years ago:
The year's most depressing day

Monday, 20 January 2014

Rain on a freezing day

A most unusual phenomenon. It is -7C this morning; it is damp (93% humidity) and windy (gusting to 40 kmh). As a result the perceivable temperature (temperatura odczuwalna or wind-chill factor - erroneously so, as it doesn't include the effect of humidity) feels like -12C.

I'm walking along ul. Poleczki; it feels very cold; my gloved hands are buried deep in the pockets of my M-65 parka. And yet - rain, not snow, is falling on my face. Which makes me think that it shouldn't feel like -12C, but rather +2C. Weird! This rain has been falling since yesterday morning, settling on the earlier snow and instantly turning to ice. Walking over grass covered with snow and then such an icy crust is unsettling - a 'slip-crunch' with every footstep as the foot goes through the ice.

Thanks to Martin Earle for pointing out via Twitter that this phenomenon is called (unsurprisingly) freezing rain - there's a very good Wikipedia article about it - particularly interesting is the way this occurs. Snow falling from a cold air mass passes through a warmer air layer, where it turns to rain, which does not have the chance to re-freeze as it enters a colder layer before finally hitting the ground in liquid form - and only then freezing.

The pavements would have been dreadfully slippery, but for the efforts of the urban roads department, which ensured that most of Warsaw's thoroughfares were treated with road salt, the pavements with sand too. So I walked a kilometre and half from Poleczki Business Park to ul. Puławska without any skids or slips (below).


Today of course was Blue Monday, a bit of pop-science that's struck a chord with the media and the general public as the most depressing day of the year, the Monday of the last full week in January. It is when Christmas has been long forgotten, and yet when spring is still a long way off. Leaden skies, howling winds, pervasive dampness and bitter cold have helped lower spirits, but my take is - we're over the worst. Spring may be two months away (or more - we had snow in Warsaw at Easter last year) but the days are getting longer. But there's more cold on the way - Thursday morning promises to be -18C (perceivable -24C).

This time last year:
Jeziorki in the snow (a much nicer day than today)

This time two years ago:
Winter's slight return

This time three years ago:
Unacceptable

This time four years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time five years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

Sunday, 19 January 2014

City living healthier than suburbia

It's good to be vindicated by science. Back in April 2011, I wrote: "If you live in distant exurbia, your dependence on the automobile leaves you vulnerable to obesity in middle age. Now's the time to leave that car and shed some fat. If you can't cycle all the way into work, cycle to the station or nearest bus loop." [See whole post here.]

I wrote that post on the basis of observation and anecdotal evidence - Baysian inference, indeed. Many people that I know who live out beyond the borders of Warsaw and have few public transport options become dependent on the car. They will flop into the big, black SUV to go even short distances, because that's the default no-thinking, no-strain option. The result is weight gain and long-term health issues.

Now a group of researchers from Toronto have plotted the city's geography, breaking it down by residential density and walkability to destinations, against the incidence of obesity or diabetes. The results are clear: "Individuals in less walkable areas were up to one-third more likely to be obese or to have diabetes." [See the whole survey here]

Wow. That's a very clear confirmation of what I've long suspected; not only are cars the least efficient form of transport - they're also bad for their owners' health.

Walking and cycling are healthy, sitting in a car is not. Walking from home to the bus stop or station, from the bus stop to the station to work and back again, using walking and public transport to get between meetings during the working day, gives those who eschew the car in daily use the chance to get fit. We are encouraged (by the Surgeon General in the USA, by the NHS in the UK and by the World Health Organization) to walk 10,000 paces a day (around 8km/5miles), five days a week. This recommendation has been around for over a decade.

The developed world has passed 'peak car'; car ownership is no longer the priority and status symbol it once was (at least in sophisticated western cities). There are fewer cars per 1,000 citizens in Berlin than in Warsaw. The chic urban lifestyle has little car for an automobile as an accessory - if at all a small one - think Mini, Fiat 500, Smart or Toyota iQ.

It's so much easier to monitor these days with simple pedometers becoming increasingly available. Indeed, most smartphones can be turned into pedometers by download one of any number of apps which show you how many paces you've carried your device. So much easier than measuring your journey on Google Earth, which is what I've been doing up to now. And in days gone by, an opisometer and an Ordnance Survey map.

Since New Year's Day, I've been logging my activity each day on a spreadsheet, with pleasing results. Last week, I walked 46,414 paces, an average of 6,631 paces day. Now, the interesting thing is that this was during a week of bad weather, and none of this walking was recreational - it was purely functional, getting from a to b.

And I'm back at the sit-ups, well before the start of Lent. I reckon if I have one primary physical exercise goal, it's to lose inches from my circumference. I'm up to 40 twice a day, three times at the weekend; it will be interesting to see how much slimmer I can get before Lent even kicks off.

This time last year:
Ikaria - the island where people forget to die
[Guess what - this Greek isle is not a place for drivers]

This time two years ago
Miserable depths of winter

This time three years ago:
This time last year:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time four years ago:
A month until Lent starts

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

This time six years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Thinking big or thinking small

I lost my favourite ball-point pen yesterday, a fat Parker, worn down to the brass over the years, with the donor's name MORRISON UTILITIES barely visible on the barrel. Did it fall out of my shirt pocket when I pulled out my smartphone? Did I leave it in a meeting room in Poleczki Business Park? Or at lunch at the Saffron Indian & Thai on Pl. Konstytucji?

Does it matter in the scheme of things? OK, it's been with me for a good few years now, every day, I liked its weight and reliability and that worn look... but losing a favourite pen (especially one I got as a corporate gift) is no big deal in the overall scheme of things. It's a small thing, I shouldn't cry over spilt milk. Besides, on my desk I have a lovely green lacquered ballpoint pen with Parker insert, a corporate gift from law firm K&L GATES, the 'Gates' here being Microsoft Bill's dad.

Bill Gates was meant to follow in his father's footsteps, but dropped out of Harvard law school to do something bigger - pursuing the dream that every household should have its own computer. That was in 1975. Today, when many households have several, one can see what an amazingly big dream it was.

But Microsoft today is a dinosaur that's outlived its usefulness - I use OpenOffice (free) rather than Microsoft Office (several hundred zlotys and lots of silly icons replacing the File Edit Window Tools Help style menu). I'm happy with MS Windows 7, and Windows XP (still on my desktop computer). But Microsoft Fista was a disaster and Windows 8 is appy-clappy and not all popular.

The company that replaced Microsoft's IT supremacy of course is Google. These guys (Larry Page and Sergei Brin) think big. Their mathematical understanding of how the Internet (big 'I' in those days) worked - and would go on working into the future - was the basis of a business whose shares have risen from $85 at IPO in August 2004 to $1,156 today. Google today is not just a search engine; it is Google Earth; Blogger (through which you are reading this blog), Android - the operating system on my smartphone; YouTube, which has replaced watching TV for many including me; there's Google Glass around the corner plus cars that can drive themselves.

All products of Thinking Big. America is home to Thinking Big. Somehow Europe, the Old Continent, is not so good at getting its citizens to think big and then to turn that dream into reality. Thinking Big is about Changing the Game; bringing about revolutionary change. Getting jet engines to replace propeller-power on aircraft is one thing - using them to build a plane that can carry 450 passengers and thus revolutionise accessibility to long-haul air travel - is another. Next month, the Boeing 747 will be celebrating 45 years since its first flight - 9 February 1969. Another 36 years would have to pass before the European Airbus A380 took to the skies.

But my, the British were good at thinking big back in the 19th Century. Look at all those magnificent engineering projects that are still holding strong to this day. Consider, for instance, Manchester's Ardwick Viaduct - all 108 arches of it. Who are the big thinking nations of today? America? China? Anyone else? What's stopping Poland (for instance) from thinking big?

And in our lives - are we thinking Big - or Small? Too bogged down with the minutiae of life and all the petty slights it can throw our way; merely content with how things are; or looking for that big leap that will make a huge difference? Big leaps are often big gambles. Migration. Setting up a business. Quitting a job to go back to college in the hope of a better job. Risks taken can sometimes end up in failure.

If we look at the IT industry, the companies that dictate the game are not those bringing incremental change to market - they are those that think at the meta-level and can change the game. Scale up, scale up, scale up. Don't just invent an app for a smart meter than meters gas for one company. Do it for gas, electricity and water. That will work for every utility company around the world.

Will 3D printers change the game? Some seem to think so. A 3D printer in every household? Most have a 2D printer... Right now, I don't think 3D printers will extend beyond the hobbyist market, people making action figures and costume jewellery - unless there's a 'killer app' for it like word processing was for the home computer. That will require someone to think very big indeed.

Linked to the idea of Thinking Big is the Can Do Attitude. The growth of information technology as an industry was accompanied by a new optimism that you can change things for the better by applying brain-power at them. No, we've not cured cancer yet, but look at the vast amount of things that have improved thanks to the application of zeros and ones through silicon chips.

Something to ponder on. How can individuals, firms, political parties and indeed countries, think the big thoughts - and realise them effectively for growth, realising potential for the benefit of all?

This time last year:
Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

This time two years ago:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The simple, useful, beauty of Gov.uk

A journalist rang today asking me to take him through the basics of the UK pension system. To get myself up to speed, I clicked on www.gov.uk, which is a shining example of how a government should interface with its citizens. Within minutes I had the answers, the journalist briefed. Behold and see the stunning Google-like clarity of the home page. [Click to enlarge.]


The page is divided up not by individual ministries (or Departments of State as they are known in the UK), but by categories of information that citizens need. What a revolutionary idea! Before you say "this could never happen in Poland", please note that Gov.uk did not appear overnight, but is an extention of the previous UK Government portal. Directgov.uk, launched back in 2004. While - unlike its successor - Directgov.uk never won prizes for design, it did make a start on bringing all government services under one umbrella.

Polish ministries are so disjointed that there's no link between, say, the foreign affairs ministry (MSZ) to the ministry of the economy (MG) or to the Premier's Chancellery. 'Silosowość' (silo mentality) is still all-pervasive, with ministries squabbling among themselves - typically the 'spór kompetencyjny', either 'pozytywny' or 'negatywny' - "No, this is not that ministry's business, it's our ministry's", or else - "it's not our ministry's business - it's that ministry that decides."

To get to Gov.uk, heads had to be bashed together, monstrous egos soothed, obstacles removed from way - but more importantly there needed to be the top-down will to get the job done.

Another example of British online public service excellence is the National Health Service's check your symptom website. Rather than bung up the Accident & Emergency wards of hospitals up and down the land with people worried that they might be suffering from chronic thromatoid phlebosis, you click onto this excellent service. It will talk you through your symptoms in easy-to-understand English ,and diagnose quickly whether you need to take an aspirin and go to bed early or to phone immediately for an ambulance.


NHS Direct is saving the UK Government millions - each month 1.5 million people come here to see whether or not their symptoms are indeed serious. I've used this service here in Poland for family and friends, and it has saved the Polish national health fund (NFZ) several hundred zlotys in unnecessary visits to the doctors being forestalled. (Food poisoning or allergic reaction? The latter. Forget the ambulance.) But just compare the above page with the NFZ's home page:


Oh dear how dreadful. Do not even consider clicking on this page (full of important administrative communiques) if you are feeling unwell. You, the patient, know that you're simply not wanted here.

Poland's e-government initiatives are going nowhere fast. Minister Michał Boni, who was meant to bring about a great revolution in the way government delivers services online, was relinquished of his post as Minister of Administration and Digitalisation in November. Whether his successor Rafał Trzaskowski will manage to drag the Polish government into the 21st Century remains to be seen - I can but wish him all the very best. I'd love to see Polish public services delivered online with the same clarity and usefulness as the UK ones are.

This time last year:
My brother at 50 - and as a child

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

Monday, 13 January 2014

Limbering up for Lent, two months early

Boy did I feel fat coming home after a jolly Xmas in England - my girth has hit a record 40 inches - this old stuff - aha - has got to go. Weight - for the record - currently 12 stone 1 pound (169 pounds/77kg). And the fact that Easter is late this year (20 April), with Lent being still a long way off, I decided to start Lent early with some 'soft' resolutions to get me to quote Bob Marley, "iron like a lion in Zion" by Ash Wednesday (5 March).

Alcohol is the easy one - the Xmas season is over so occasions to drink socially have suddenly become few and far between. Two consecutive alcohol-free days as recommended by the UK government? I'm doing three or four dry days, and limiting myself to three or four units max per social occasion.

Caffeine - the coffee ran out on 5 January, so that's it, I'm not buying any more - just tea (strong for now, three mugs a day), but that will reduce in the run-up to Lent. Only the tiniest hint of headache around lunchtime, nothing too bad. Caffeine is very hard to give up altogether; studies show that moderate coffee intake staves off senile dementia. One strong coffee a day in the morning, nothing after midday (an afternoon coffee leaves me unable to go back to sleep in the middle of the night).

Less food - and far less processed food (including processed meats - salamis, kabanos, ham etc). Far fewer hamburgers (just one so far this year), sugary drinks, confectionary. Salt snacks have gone from my diet, and a bigger breakfast, later lunch, and just healthy snacks in the evening (fruit, nuts etc).

Exercise - sit-ups are back; I did 75 yesterday. And walking - I now have a pedometer (krokomierz), inspired by students at the pharmaceutical company where I teach, where all staff have been issued with one. The target for a healthy lifestyle is 10,000 steps (8km) a day; I'm looking at my pedometer now, it reads 9,691, so not far off today.

And more sleep. Less of the staying up to 11:30 or midnight knowing I've got my alarm set for 05:45.

So - I'm using the long run-up to Lent this year to get into moderately good shape before the real thing kicks off, and by late April, that'll be almost a third of the year gone. And by then, I'll be foolish to spoil all the hard work by reverting to a less disciplined lifestyle!

This time four years ago:
More Warsaw winter gorgeousness

This time five years ago:
Optimal way to town
[apart from the lack of pavement to the station...]

This time six year ago:
The highest point in Jeziorki
[now sadly gone, the rampa na kruszywa]


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Karczunkowska - sad truth about our pavement

After my posting last week about local residents having to wade through mud to get to the main road or to the train station due to a lack of pavement along ul. Karczunkowska, an anonymous tip-off arrives in the form of correspondence between Ursynów district hall and Warsaw city hall.

The two letters (displayed below) tell a dismal tale of bureaucratic ineptitude.

In June 2013, the local authorities in Ursynów, mindful of the fact that there isn't the budget to turn ul. Karczunkowska into a full-width droga o kategorii powiatowej with pavement, cyclepath, storm drains, acoustic screens*, service stations*, electronic toll-collection gates* etc etc, then the next best thing is simply to lay a pavement down one side of the busy road so pedestrians can walk from one end of the street safely and with dry feet.

This sensible request was turned down by the authorities at the city hall because - such a pavement would not be pursuant to building regulations... as it does not allow wheelchair users from using it.

Let's look at the logic of this answer. The entire 2km stretch can be built to a width of two metres, except for two stretches - one, a 20m long-choke point around ul. Trombity, where there's only enough space by the side of the road for a metre-wide pavement, the second, a stretch of 40m between ul. Sarabandy and ul. Puławska, where the space is between 1.25m and 44cm. And it is this short bit, which is 44cm wide, that the city authorities say isn't wide enough for a wheelchair, thus scuppering the pavement along the rest of the road.

This is absolutely absurd, and I'm sure that wheelchair users, or parents with children in prams or buggies, would be the first to argue that their statutory right to a pavement of adequate width should not be used as an argument to stop making the whole road safer. I can't see wheelchair users feeling happy that the City has deprived of the use of 98% of Karczunkowska just because 2% of it is too narrow.

It's a phoney, bureaucratic, backside-covering excuse for inaction. It shows the very worst side of Polish local authorities - not wishing to do something that's sorely needed, because their interpretation of the letter of the law stops them from doing so. This is symptomatic of a deep illness in the mentality of people who are paid to be public servants.

A pavement along Karczunkowska is an absolute must. Children walking to the primary school on ul. Sarabandy in winter, in the dark, must either trek through snow or mud or face oncoming traffic that's racing at speeds well above the mandatory 60kmh limit. The city authorities, who are responsible for road safety must not use bzdura arguments to do nothing.

Enough already. This road is dangerous and dirty and it is high time that local people can walk it without fear of getting run over or splattering themselves in mud.

* Exaggeration for the sake of effect

Below: the letter from Ursynów district to the city hall, asking that a modest pavement be built rather than an all-singing, all-dancing road improvement, for which there's no money anyway... (click to enlarge)





Below: the reply from city hall - "no can do, there's a few metres of pavement that would be too narrow for a wheelchair, so przykro mi, carry on risking life and limb and getting muddy feet, citizens of Jeziorki. ."



This time two years ago:
About Warsaw's kebab restaurants
[interestingly, in 2012, a king-size lamb kebab in pitta bread at Egipt cost 13zł, today it's 16zł]

This time three years ago:
The day I found a million zlotys

This time four years ago:
Making the most of winter

This time three years ago:
Progress along Ballay Street

This time five years ago:
Shortest, mildest, winter?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Where's the snow?

I cannot recall a winter in Warsaw which has been so bereft of frost and snow. Good news of course when paying the gas bills... but I can't help thinking there's something unnatural about such a long stretch of December and January with positive temperatures and pavement visible.

Headlines from around the world tell of more anomalies - record frosts in America (though with their nutty Fahrenheit system, it's not immediately apparent just how cold it's been there), Britain lashed with gales and sodden with rainwater, Argentina baking in record 44C heat, 50C heatwave taking a toll on Australian wildlife... Most unsettling.

At least in Poland this anomaly is a temperate one. I've been going to work in my jesionka, literally autumn coat, rather than my M-65 parka with fur-trapper hat.

Below: Pl. Powstańców Warszawy, shortly before sunrise, on Thursday morning. In the past week, on Sunday 5th, Tuesday 7th, Wednesday 8th and Thursday 9th January, the daytime high exceeded +9C.


Below: Pasaż Wiecha, the rising sun reflecting from the Novotel. In the foreground the backs of  Marks and Spencers, Reserved and C&A. Weedy-looking Christmas lighting confirms the time of year.


Below: after sunset, the previous day, Wednesday 7th January. WOŚP banner on side of the Palace of Culture identifies the photo as being taken in January - yet where is the snow?


Weather forecast suggests that Monday will be frosty, dipping below zero, but with no snow. Sub-zero temperatures (just) for the time being then.

This time two years off:
Two drink-free days a week, British MPs urge

This time three years ago:
Depopulating Polish cities?

This time four years ago:
Powiśle on a winter's morning

This time five years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Eddie's giant soap bubble

Friday, 10 January 2014

In which I go Twitter

Paddy talked me into it before Christmas, and getting a smartofon helped too. I now have a Twitter account (Policies4Poland) and the Twitter feed is now in the panel on the right of this page (scroll down). It will be a while before this Twitter thing gains traction with me. I've been doing it for just over a month and I can't say that "I'm having a passionate conversation with my followers" using this medium - yet.

Looking at my blog stats since I started Tweeting, I can say that eight out of 2,119 visits referred to this blog have come from Twitter. So why bother? It's a good, real-time, direct news feed; following key politicians, news sources (FT, Economist, BBC, TVN24 and Gazeta Wyborcza until I hit the paywall) I'm kept up-to-date while using public transport, or just having it on in the background of my laptop as I do my daily office work.

It will take months before I become a proficient user of Twitter; it is a learning curve with a steep slope at this stage. In the meanwhile, my blog will remain my main medium - there's room for nuance, photos, debate - I've been blogging for the best part of seven years and I have become attached to it, doing it mainly as a way of recording for the future Poland's progress as it accelerates towards becoming a normal country.

I am beginning to see that Twitter is changing the way the political and business elites communicate with those who care to follow; I need to be convinced that this can become a dialogue. When it does so, the benefits for democracy could be significant. Will we be lost in a snowstorm of half-baked opinion, rumour, soundbite and truncated reporting? 400 million tweets a day last September compared to 100 million tweets per quarter in 2008. What is being said? Is anyone listening? What's the noise to signal ratio? How much is entertainment, and how much is in earnest?

I confess to kicking off in Twitter by following a handful of the Daily Telegraph's list of the Top 20 Funniest Tweeters. Most are still in my 'following' list, principally because I like a laugh every now and then.

So for those of you who have a Twitter account, and use it regularly, do click to follow me if you want more regular doses of what's on my mind - and I'll reciprocate if you have something interesting to say.

Twitter has its dangers. I much prefer reading carefully considered and crafted blog posts by commentators such as Charles Crawford than being deluged by 140-character-long blasts about football or feminism. The downside of going Twitter is neglecting one's blog; blogs are something for posterity, a three-course meal with wine; tweets are the online equivalent of potato crisps. But Twitter's instant character can be useful too as it complements blogging usefully.

In a year's time, I shall review how useful it all is. After all, I originally intended to blog about Jeziorki for one year - and that was back in 2007. The internet is a wonderful thing.

This time last year:
London Underground is 150 years old

This time two years ago:
My enemy's enemy is my...?

This time three years ago:
Some thoughts upon the Nature of Warfare

This time four years ago:
Snow so deep it needs a plough

This time five years ago:
A fieldfare in midwinter

Thursday, 9 January 2014

What lies behind Cameron's 'anti-Polish' stance

To understand the hubbub revolving around David Cameron's call for a change to EU treaties to allow the limiting of child benefit from EU migrants working in the UK, it's worth looking at the politics behind the rhetoric.

The Conservative Party risks being electorally outflanked on the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in May's elections to the European Parliament. It is entirely likely that UKIP will win more seats than the Tories, who may well end up in third place behind Labour and UKIP.

There are two reasons why UKIP will do extremely well in the Euro-elections and yet to fail to win a single seat in Westminster come May 2015.

The first is to do with the electoral system used in the UK for the European Parliament; it is a single transferable vote system, with 73 Members of European Parliaments (MEPs) representing the nine English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With between three and ten MEPs per constituency, the multiple-deputy system means that smaller parties with no chance of winning seats in Westminster can be represented in Brussels. Britain's Green Party (who?) actually has two MEPs ever since 1999; the British Nationalist Party won two seats in the 2009 elections.

The second is to do with the fact that the Euro-elections are generally seen as meaningless, little more than a mid-term opportunity to give the party ruling the UK a bloody nose.

It will look quite different come May 2015 and the General Election. This is taken seriously, with much consideration given to tactical voting, with many voters in constituencies with a rock-solid Tory or Labour majority casting their vote not so much for their preferred candidate but for the one most likely to unseat the incumbent party. And in marginal seats, if for instance you are a Tory with strong views on immigration, voting UKIP will give Labour a chance of getting in. In other words, despite the migration issue, voting UKIP is likely to be seen as a wasted vote.

And Labour have not promised an EU referendum should they win next year's General Election.

Reading the comments section of any article published in the mainstream British media, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail will give you the impression that UKIP is a powerful force and that the majority of Brits are fed up to their back teeth with EU membership.

I don't believe this to be the case. When push comes to shove, middle England will vote with their pockets first. Hence UKIP leader Nigel Farrage's admission that EU migration may well have benefited the UK economically, but it's not about the money. And UKIP lacks a well-run, well-funded party machine.

So David Cameron, who's rather left-wing as Tories go, is cranking up the anti-migration rhetoric and is likely to continue doing so (maybe in a more nuanced way than finger-pointing at Poles who are working and paying taxes in the UK and have children in Poland) until the May Euro-elections.

But in the background, England still demands its migration debate. Part of it is indeed about Poles coming over to the UK in vast numbers in a relatively short space of time and upsetting (in a time of economic crisis) the delicate equilibrium in the labour market. But the other part is about non-Europeans with diametrically different cultures (female genital mutilation, Sharia law, religious intolerance, non-integration) who are coming the UK in even larger numbers than Poles and placing a far greater strain on the budgets as far fewer are employed and paying tax. The simple truth is that the latter is a no-go area as far as mainstream politics go; the former is fair game. [Excellent article here.]

And the Poles are in the UK in large numbers because of the EU. So in order to restrict the numbers of Poles and other central and eastern Europeans migrating to Britain, the UK can either a) quit the EU or b) renegotiate the terms of its EU membership. Neither of which sorts out the problems caused by mass migration of those non-Europeans who are perceived as the greater of the two migration issues.

If Britain quits the EU it will be bad for Poland, bad for the EU but an economic catastrophe for Britain. In order for the UK to feel comfortable about staying in, some accommodation must be made on the EU migration issue. Most likely this will revolve around benefits. Some give, some take from London and from Brussels (and indeed even from Warsaw) will be needed. But whatever happens, Britain should not leave the EU.

Poles should bear this all in mind before criticising Cameron too harshly.

This time two years ago:
Anyone still remember the Przybyl case?

This time three years ago:
Wetlands midwinter meltdown

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time five years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Locally, it's the little things...

Out of curiosity I did a little detour on my way home from the supermarket - has my request via the Capital City of Warsaw's 19115 service to fix the road-sign ahead of the pedestrian crossing been heeded? Yes it has. Marvellous! I notified the authorities on 18 December, and at some stage between 20 December and yesterday, the sign had been fixed.

Out of three my interventions to 19115, this being one, tidying the mess on ul. Kórnicka being the second and a pavement for ul. Karczunkowska being the third, two have been fixed. The pavement issue is a big ask, involving the purchase of land contiguous to the road. But even so, the 'call 19115 fix-my-street' initiative seems to be working.

One of those little things that puts me in an optimistic state of mind when it comes to the way I look at Poland - improving, slowly, in so many different areas.

Fallen: the way it was, just before the Christmas break.
Reasons to be cheerful, indeed.

Staying on matters local, near-neighbour Marcin Daniecki informs me of a new housing development that's received planning permission on ul. Kurantów, just across the railway tracks. No details of how many, just to say that they will be detached and semi-detached houses.

The plot of land prepared for development by the tracks on ul. Gogolińska (see this story from May 2011) lies undeveloped to this day; the developers are facing hard times even though the rest of the Polish economy has emerged from the global crisis in fairly robust shape. But these plots have much going for them - they are inside Warsaw's city limits and well-located for public transport. We shall see.

And the Biedronka store is coming on nicely - turn right on the corner of the top photo (and indeed behind and to the left of the lower photo, thanks Neighbour) - I'm looking forward to a nice selection of Portuguese wines becoming available after the end of Lent.

And talking of Lent - it's a late one this year - Easter Sunday falling on 20 April, with Lent kicking off 46 days earlier on Ash Wednesday, 5 March. I'm slowly starting to get ready...

This time last year:
Warsaw bids farewell to its old trams

This time five years ago:
This charming man: Aleksander Kosterski at nine months old

This time six years ago:
Five departures from Okęcie

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Is Conservatism rural in its nature?

Chatting to TokFM's Adam Ozga about the UK political scene, I pointed out that the political map of England was essentially a sea of blue (mainly rural constituencies represented by Conservative MPs) dotted with red islands - (mainly urban constituencies represented by Labour MPs). He pointed to a similar picture in Polish politics - in the second round of the 2011 presidential election , 63% the urban population voted for Bronisław Komorowski, while 58% of the rural population voted for Jarosław Kaczyński.

I have written before about the differences between Polish and British conservatism (here and here), but one thing intrigued us - the tendency for rural voters to be more conservative - while urban voters tend to be more progressive in their views. Is this really the case? Let's step back into history...

Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal never experienced fascist regimes. Franco and Salazar were deeply conservative, traditionalists, religious nationalists. Fascism was a 20th Century concept, born in Italy of Futurism. I would posit that the main reason that true fascism never took hold in Iberia was that it lacked the urban, industrialised base necessary to mould the masses into a movement that - in the pre-war Italy and Germany was heavily influenced by an aesthetic that glorified industrialised progress. Communism did this too - and Spain's industrial cities were the last bastions of the leftist Spanish Republic before they fell to Franco's troops.

While cities yield to progress, to new ideas good and bad, the countryside views them with suspicion, clinging on to old certainties. The core of the word 'Conservatism' is the verb 'to conserve'. The question is - what should one conserve? What's worth conserving? (or preserving?) Rural England is like a repository of national values; well-kept villages, courtesy, community. In a way, rural England is a civilisational advance over urban England. The opposite is true in Poland. The driving forces behind Poland's resurgence after more than a century of partition were urban intellectuals, the AK (Home Army) was a largely urban-based movement (Wołyń being a notable exception).

As I've written before, the English countryside is what one aspires to; you make your career in the city then move to an agreeable village away far from the madding crowd. In Poland, the countryside is where young people want to escape from - to move to the cities where there are job prospects and excitement.

In can see a certain equilibrium descending across Europe in the future; the countryside is where children are raised, to increasingly prosperous parents; they are schooled locally but move to the cities to study and to make their careers - once they are wealthy enough, they'll move back to the countryside to raise a family. And so on. Entrenching the rural = conservative, urban = progressive split. And my guess is that redistribution of wealth, that old Anglo-Saxon definer of left vs. right will find a balance, driven by pragmatic economically argued factors rather than by ideology.

What will be left to swing elections will be social liberalism vs. social conservatism. And the bastion of the former will be the cities, the bastion of the latter, the villages. Mankind is increasingly concentrating in cities. Hence, with a note of sadness, I foresee a long-term diminishing role for conservatism in the UK. And in America, where as MSNBC's Adam Serwer points out, the conservatives have lost two elections to a guy who wears mom jeans. Sadness because I see an ebbing away of the spirit of self-reliance.

However Polish conservatism is not about the virtues of self-reliance or about conserving the legacy of many generations' hard work. It is defined by an introverted sense of belonging and tradition that blocks any dialogue concerning social progress. A healthy process of modernisation will weaken Polish neo-Francoism. Perhaps - I hope - it will evolve into something more Cameronian. In the meanwhile, a new generation of urban-dwelling nation-builders is slowly but inexorably, on many fronts, making Poland a better place to live.

This time last year:
Poland's roads get slightly less deadly

This time two years ago:
It's expensive being rich in Warsaw

This time four years:
Winter commuting in colour and black & white

This time five years ago:
Zamienie in winter

This time six years ago:
Really cold (-12C at night)



Friday, 3 January 2014

Another year of improved road safety in Poland

Hard to believe after all the high-profile alcohol-related road carnage of the past week, but 2013 proved to be another year in which the number of Poles killed in traffic accidents fell. The number - 3,291 - represents a drop of 7.8% compared to the 3,571 who were killed in 2012.

As I wrote this time last year, the slaughter on Polish roads is abating, but it's happening at all too slow a pace.

From 7,900 killed in 1991 (when the number of cars in Poland was around three times lower than it is today) the number of victims has more than halved, but this still remains a catastrophe of national proportions. There are three thousand people alive in Poland today who - if past years' stats are anything to go by - will not make it through to the end of the year because they will have been involved in a fatal road accident

Tuesday's massacre at Kamień Pomorski in which a drunken 26 year-old driving a BMW crashed into a group of pedestrians killing six people has forced some much-needed introspection and soul-searching among Poles. The main message from the media to the nation after this event has been that there should be an end to przyzwolenie (somewhere between 'tacit consent' and 'acquiescence') for driving under the influence. The female passenger of the BMW will always have on her conscience the fact that she could have done more to stop the driver from sitting behind the steering wheel in his condition (ten times over the Polish drink-drive limit).

But while alcohol is certainly a major contributing factor when it comes to fatal road accidents in Poland, a greater one - which no pundit mentioned - was speed. The contrast between driving around the UK (which I had been for much of the previous week) and Poland is glaring. In Britain, drivers generally respect speed limits and drive more sensibly. I noted only one case of idiotic driving in over 420 miles (675 km) - a guy in a Saab convertible tailgating then dodging and weaving across all three lanes of the M62 near Manchester - something I see daily on ul. Puławska.

Poles - drivers, passengers, pedestrians alike should start treating drivers that flout speed limits as potential killers and not as romantic heirs to the Polish lancers at Somosierra. Impatience is as much a killer as impaired judgment due to alcohol - and even more common. I'd also like to see social opprobrium fall upon those drivers who think it OK to send SMSs while maneuvering their cars in traffic. Just before Christmas I saw a driver of a white Opel Astra texting as he turned right off Marszałkowska into Żurawia - looking at the screen of his mobile rather than at the stream of pedestrians crossing Żurawia.

Let's be thankful that the overall trend continues to be in the right direction, but there's a long way to go before Poland's roads are as safe as those in the UK. Though we don't have figures for 2013, the year before last in the UK saw the lowest number of road accident fatalities since records began back in 1926 - and that is despite a 10% year-on-year rise in the number of cyclists. But even so, 1,754 people died on the roads of Britain in 2012. The number should be zero.


Below: a classic case. You will see Izabella Ch. driving her black Mercedes CLS northbound across Al. Jerozolimskie, running a red light, hitting a white car then crashing into the entrance of Centrum Metro station. This happened at 02:30 on Wednesday 18 December. The 31 year-old woman was five times over the drink-drive limit and has had previous run-ins with the police when drunk in charge of a car. I would sincerely hope that after due process of law, this woman is never allowed back behind the driving wheel. Ever.



 Below: the consequences of running a red light - one of dozens of aftermaths of car smashes I've witnessed over my years in Poland.


From the
website of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, some official advice from the British government:
Driving on Polish roads can be hazardous. Local driving standards are poor: speed limits, traffic lights and road signs are often ignored and drivers rarely indicate before manoeuvring. 
In 2012 there were 3,571 road deaths in Poland (source: DfT). This equates to 9.3 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2012.
WSTYD!!! Polish drivers are three point three times more lethal than British ones. Enough already. Trzeba się opanować za kierownicą!

If Poland's roads are to be blanketed with speed cameras - so be it. They save lives.

This time last year:
Light show at the Presidential Palace

This time four years ago:
About juice - and empty supermarket shelves

This time five years ago:
That's what I call Winter Vol. 12

This time six years ago:
When the days start getting a little longer...

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The benefits of extending the human life-span

Student SGH's blog post from last month about longevity has stayed with me for a while, I've been mulling over the concept in my mind... With current advances in medical science, it is not impossible that a child born today could attain the age of 300. Towards the end of this century, medical knowledge would be such that the human lifespan could stretch to 150, and by the middle of the 22nd Century this could be extended well beyond that.

Science is unravelling the genetics of aging; one experiment (on a small group of subject admittedly) has shown that it is actually possible to reverse the aging process (meditation has a part to play as well as diet and exercise). We now know the role of telomeres in aging (did you know lobsters don't die of old age?) The possibility of engineering or bioengineering human organs as replacement parts is also getting tantalisingly closer. Obviously, the brain needs to be in good shape - there's little point of artificially extending the life of a person with irreversible senile dementia.

But let's assume then, that in the year 2314, a child born this very day will be celebrating their three hundredth birthday.

What will have been the point?

We tend to be born - and then raised - as either generalists or specialists. As young people, they will tend to scorn one another. "Jack of all trades, master of none" says the specialist of the generalist. "Restricted and boring" says the generalist of the specialist.

But with age, the knowledge of the generalist deepens, while the knowledge of the specialist widens. Specialists learns how to place their area of focused expertise into a broader context - social, historical, artistic, while generalists gains deeper insights across the spectrum of their interests. And respect for Truth in its truest sense. As I get older, I find I'm always trying to nuance what I'm saying, to move away from bold generalisation to a statement with more finesse, more accuracy, on the way to a truer synthesis, based on experience and wisdom. I reject inflammatory statements, the idea of winning an argument for the its own sake.

Genius often manifests itself in youth - from Mozart to Orson Welles, while wisdom required from a great political or legal mind takes many decades of scrupulous observation of mankind.

Critical to the growth of both types of mind is self-awareness, being able to think, to reason on the meta-level - to think about how you think, what you think and why you think it. An active mind, constantly thinking things over yet not obsessively so, is forming new neural connections, new ideas flowing along newly created pathways...

I often found as a young man that I could perfectly assess a given situation, though I found great difficulty in articulating my assessment to anywhere outside my brain. I lacked the tools of expression, verbal or written, to synthesise my thoughts. Over the years, these skills have grown within me, mainly because I wanted them to grow within me. And practice.

Now - assuming the human brain can continue to function properly into extreme old age with the help of advances in medical science - imagine how wiser mankind could become if healthy super-centenarians became the norm. The key thing obviously is extending the healthy portion of human life, when one can function unaided and still enjoy life fully. Which is why healthy life expectancy is a more important indicator than life expectancy.

Imagine Albert Einstein - born 1879 - still alive today, aged 134, his mind as sharp as it was at his peak, getting to grips with Higgs bosons and baryonic dark matter, contributing to modern cosmology and - maybe - coming up with a unified field theory that held together.

I believe the greatest benefit of extending human lifespan is the incremental knowledge and wisdom that could be within the grasp of mankind. It is worth noting that aging populations are less prone to war; older people less inclined towards criminality or reckless behaviour that puts others at risk.

It's easier sending a 20 year-old to war if, on the basis of his observation, he can only expect another 20 years of healthy life ahead him, than if he could envisage, say, another 100 years of healthy (and happy) life in the future.

Living longer would also give humans a greater stake in environmental protection. The thought that one's great-grandchildren could still be alive towards the middle of this millennium - makes one pause and think before burning fossil fuel.

Humans used to live 40-50 years. Today life expectancy at birth is nudging 80-90 years in advanced societies. The benefits are clear. As our technology advances, so our lifespan extends, so our technology will advance - not because I expect super-centenarians to dream up new inventions, but because innovators will have a greater personal stake in the improved society their inventions will bring.

This time three years ago:
New Year's stocktaking

This time last four years ago:
A walk in the wild winter woods

This time five years ago:
Now that's what I call winter vol. 12

This time six years ago:
When the day starts getting longer