Saturday, 31 January 2015

Keeping warm in January

The last day of the first month, finally a bit of snow although the temperature today refused to dip below zero. Student SGH will correct me if I'm wrong, but on the basis of his comment here last week, this will have been the warmest January since 2007... While it's been warm, it's not been sunny. There's hardly been any sunshine for the past two weeks - dismal.

This has been the first day this winter that snow needed to be shovelled off the drive, though the snow was wet and thus heavy, the covering was thin. Two walks today, the first to Lidl to snap up the rest of the Roquefort (the last four packs, still at 4.99 złotys, or about 89p) and look for an elusive bottle of Neighbour-recommended Burgundy. Below: looking south from ul. Żmijewska (lit. 'Adder Street'), the unasphalted road that allows you to get from Lidl to Biedronka, avoiding the main road.

The second, a longer stroll around the manor - up to the tracks, along Kórnicka and back via Dumki, (below) which has been ploughed into a total mire by drivers who needlessly use this unasphalted thoroughfare.

So - with the month's end time to confront my New Year's Resolutions with reality - and to compare performance to last year. Walking - better. Daily average 10,605 paces (7,647 last year). Less alcohol consumed, with a weekly average of 14.2 units (15.1 last year), and 19 drink-free days (16 last year). More sit-ups (daily average 79 compared to 67 last year). This year, I'm counting my fresh fruit and vegetable intake (4.3 portions per day, less than the 5 recommended, but not bad).

Another tip to make the dark days of winter more palatable - follow our mammalian nature, and sleep in. I'm able to sleep for ten hours without a break at this time of year. Waking up at 05:45 - the dead of night in January - is not good for the organism. However, come May, June - I can get by on six hours' sleep without any problem.

All of this above healthyism has helped me reduce my girth. I have cast off three-quarters of an inch of useless, unhealthy fat from around my middle - from 40 inches to 39-and-a-quarter - or, if you prefer, two whole centimetres, from 101.6cm to 99.6cm. With a loss of bubber around the stomach comes weight-loss - down from 12 stone 0 lbs (76.2kg) to 11 stone 7lbs (73.4kg), my weight at university 35 years ago. This is very welcome.

Only thing that's down on last year, and that's blogging. A mere 12 posts this month compared to 21 last January. I need a return of inspiration.

This time last year:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

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?

Friday, 30 January 2015

Barefaced populism exposed

The date of the next Polish presidential elections will be announced on Wednesday; most likely the first (and only?) round will take place in mid-May. The winner will be the incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski. The outcome is so utterly certain that the opposition parties are fielding totally unknown candidates so as to save their big guns from humiliation.

Stalin-Lenin-Dno (SLD), the successor to the Polish communist party, PZPR, will not be fielding its hated leader, Leszek Millllller, the Moscow-educated, former Secretary of the Central Committee of the PZPR. Instead, SLD presents a Ms Marionetka Cucumber, a total unknown, who at least has a pretty face.

Polish peasants' party PSL has yet to announce its candidate - it's unlikely to be deputy prime minister Janusz Piechociński. One rumour is that PSL won't even bother putting a contender into the race.

Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, having lost the 2010 presidential election to Mr Komorowski 54.4% to 46.4%, does not wish to become a two-time loser. So Law and Justice is fielding... Andrzej Duda. OK, I so never heard of him before either (he's not to be confused with rabble-rousing Solidarność leader Piotr Duda).

I recently started following Law and Justice on Twitter. Travelling home from work this evening, I was reading my Twitter feed, and chanced upon choice excerpts from Andrzej Duda's speech to voters in Grodzisk Mazowiecki. I was shocked by what I read.

"Niska płaca nie uzdrowi polskiej gospodarki,ozdrowi ją popyt. A ten będzie tylko przy większych zarobkach" [Low pay will not heal the Polish economy, it will be healed by demand. And that will only grow through high earnings.] All well and good - but who is to pay for the higher earnings? Maybe the entrepreneur? The small business owner?

"Polska jest nieopresyjna tylko dla wybranych. Zwykli, mali przedsiębiorcy najlepiej to rozumieją." [Poland is unoppressive only to the chosen. Ordinary, small entrepreneurs understand this best." So while they are currently being oppressed, under President Duda, they'll have to be oppressed even more to find the extra cash for higher earnings for their employees - and to pay the additional taxes to ensure the public sector also gets higher earnings. Given that 52% of the Polish workforce is directly employed by Polish small entrepreneurs, I feel that this particular group of voters will not be casting its vote for Mr Duda.

"Obrót polską ziemią będzie uwolniony w maju 2016 r. Jest jeszcze szansa zatrzymania tego procederu. Musimy zabiegać o ochronę polskiej ziemi, nie możemy jej oddać w obce ręce." ["Buying and selling of Polish soil shall be fully liberalised in May 2016. There is still a chance to stop this racket. We must strive to protect the Polish land, we cannot give it up to foreign hands."] Purest demagoguery. Barefaced populism of the most shameless kind.

Surely Mr Duda realises that Poland is a member of the EU? And that in the Accession Treaty, Poland signed up to the liberalisation of sale of agricultural land after a 12-year transition period? And in return, the countries letting Poland into the EU signed up to allowing Polish workers access to their labour markets - in the case of most countries, after a seven-year transition period. Over 77% of Poles voted in the 2003 referendum to join to the EU. So what is Mr Duda proposing? To tear up the Accession Treaty? Plain nuts.

"Skąd mają wziąć się miejsca pracy dla młodych ludzi, skoro zajmują je ich dziadkowie?" [Where will workplaces for young people come from, if they are being occupied by their grandfathers?] Do you know any octogenerians in the workplace, blocking the recruitment of graduates and school-leavers? This smacks of blatant ageism.

And this: "Jak można wprowadzać system przedłużający pracę ludzi, nie dając im nic w zamian? [How can you introduce a system extending people's work, not giving them anything in return?] Mr Duda's populist attack on pension reforms ignores that YES THEY HAVE BEEN GIVEN SOMETHING IN RETURN. It's called A LONGER LIFE. The average Pole lives three years longer today than in 2000, and six years longer than in 1990. Thanks to (yes) improvements in the state-funded healthcare system, as well as other benefits that free-market democracy bestows upon its citizens. As the lifespan of Poles increases, it is economically essential that they spend some of that extended life at work earning money rather than simply withdrawing pensions from an ever-shrinking pot.

Populist politicians trotting out such twaddle are either totally ignorant of the realities of the economy and the way the world functions - and should not hold public office on account of their outright ignorance - or they know damn well how it all works but are shamelessly lying into the electorate's face. It's binary - it's one or the other. Mr Duda is either ignorant or a liar.

I feel inclined to vote in the first round for the attractive Ms Cucumber, in order to totally humiliate Mr Duda and the PiS strategists who decided this lightweight populist should represent their party in a futile one-horse race against a dead-cert. Incidentally, 'Duda' can be translated into English as 'Bagpipe'. Very fitting.

Social inequality, over-regulation of small business, imperfections in the working of the single European market and pensions reform are all important issues that need to be resolved incrementally, by the application of human intelligence, demanding nuanced solutions that take the long term into consideration. Not by a meaningless, impotent litany of 'musts'  and 'shoulds'.

This time last year:
Straż Ochrony Kolei explained

This time two years ago:
The end of winter? So early?

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

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

This time five years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
From the family archives

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Warsaw Spire - still getting higher

A visit to (near) the top of Rondo ONZ One offered me the opportunity to see from the city centre how Warsaw Spire - the 44-floor, 180m (220m with masts) skyscraper is coming on. According to a post on Skyscraper City last week, there are two more floors of offices and two technical floors to build yet, so it's still got a little bit to go.

Below: Warsaw Spire pierces the skyline of the western edge of the capital. When completed next year, it will draw the city's centre of gravity westwards towards Wola. The area between Al. Jana Pawła II and ul. Okopowa has seen increasing development in recent years, and the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro will link Wola to the city centre and Powiśle and Praga beyond. Photo taken from the 37th floor of Rondo ONZ One, the highest accessible floor to the public.

Below: view from the 28th floor, a wider angle shot taken one hour later. Photo tweaked with the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. HDR allows me to render the pic in a slightly surreal way. Note the (rotating) Mercedes-Benz logo on the Ilmet building in the left foreground. The building - 103m to the top of the logo with 22 floors, was only completed 18 years ago, and yet is now earmarked for demolition and replacement with a 188m-high tower, which will be higher than either Rondo ONZ One or Warsaw Spire.

The broad thoroughfare heading out west is ul. Prosta, the continuation of ul. Świętokrzyska. Both have recently been re-opened ahead of the second line of the Metro. Today I heard from a source very much in the know that there are some serious delays and it might yet be some time before the second line is finally opened (something to do with water leaks).

This time last year:
Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

This time two years ago:
Is this winter's end?

This time three years ago:
The other Jeziorki station

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

This time six years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
(For a while there it looked like the city authorities would provide us locals with a pavement so that we could safely walk to the station or bus stop with clean footwear. Six years on - not a bit of it. Still waiting. A Big Boo to Bufetowa)

This time seven years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The spread of craft beers - not just central Warsaw

A big thanks to Tim and Andrzej at RSK for suggesting a visit to Mam Ochotę, a klubokawiarnia in Ochota (which sounds like a suburb of Tokyo but in fact is Warsaw's Kensington). Not the very epicentre of the city, but a few bus stops to the south-west. Ochota literally means 'willingness' or 'desire'; mam ochotę literally means 'I want' or 'I fancy'. (A trendy Warsaw bar these days has to have a name with a double meaning - like PiwPaw or Same Krafty)

So, fancying a craft beer, we popped by for an ale or two. The revolution has spread beyond the city centre; although there was no artisan brew on tap, there was a fair selection of bottled ales from small regional breweries around Poland, many various brewing styles.

We plumped for two beers (above), Serce Dębu (literally 'oak heart') from Perun, brewed by the Zodiak brewery in Piaseczno, an American brown ale, 5.5% abv, a complex and multi-layered beer, a good mouthful with lingering aftertaste. Not as hoppy as an IPA, but richly rewarding. The second, Kujawskie, by the Krajan brewery from the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, was intriguing, not for any intrinsic reason other than its taste gave me an instant flashback to the Polish beers exported to the UK in the 1980s. Żywiec used to taste like this before Big Brewing got its corporate hands on the process. Malty rather than hoppy, strong too at 6.0% abv.

We debated whether the Polish word for malt, słód, formed the etymological origin of the adjective słodkie ('sweet') [Wiktionary suggests that this is indeed the case.] In the days before sugar (cane or beet) became readily available in Poland, malt - germinating cereal grains - for brewing would have been (besides honey and fruit) the sweetest taste commonly encountered.

I must say I prefer my beers bitter and hoppy than malty and sweet, but the latter style is more prevalent in Polish brewing. Andrzej, who hails from Lower Silesia, made the connection between beer-drinking and coal-mining; a miner who'd spent a whole shift underground extracting coal would emerge dehydrated; drinking a litre and half of beer would always be preferable to the same amount of water or to a smaller amount of wine or spirits.

It is good that beer is experiencing a renaissance in Poland. Back in the late 1980s, in the dying days of the communist system, you'd go into a bar and ask naively for a beer - the inevitable answer from the sarky waitress was "we didn't have any beer, we don't have any beer, we won't have any beer". As soon as democracy was re-established the Polish Beer-Lovers' Party won 16 seats in the first parliamentary elections held in 1991. Small local breweries took off, beer drinking took hold in Poland. But the big, multinational brewing conglomerates had an eye on emerging markets like Poland with a large population, rapidly rising GDP and a lot of coal miners. So within 20 years, the Big Three (SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg) had a virtual monopoly of the Polish beer market, turning out beers like Tyskie, Lech, Żywiec, Warka Strong and Okocim that all tasted and looked the same, lacked character or conviction.

The revolution started a few years back - the big brewers were (and are) losing market share as regional breweries and craft brewers bounded back with interesting tastes, different styles, made by people with a passion rather than a focus on the bottom line and quarterly profits.

But step outside the metropolis, and you'll be hard-pressed to find this variety in a bar. Yesterday Śródmieście, today Ochota, tomorrow Piaseczno? And who knows - Jeziorki?

This time last year:
The Holocaust and the banality of evil

This time two years ago:
Snow scene into the sun

This time three years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Winter woes and a creativity crisis

First new post for a week - I'm slacking. I come home from work feeling I have nothing new to say or to write, museless; I postpone writing for another evening, then yet another one. This is not to say that I'm beset by depression or seasonal affective disorder, but I do feel spectacularly bereft of creative drive right now. Have I passed 'peak creativity'? Is it all downhill from here? No - as the Rabbi says, if you're having a bad patch, remember, there will be good times up ahead - but be aware when times are good, that bad patches loom. That's life.

So then, a rather pedestrian catch-up.

The weather. 

I'm surprised if this doesn't turn out to be the warmest January on record in Warsaw. The temperature has rarely dipped below freezing; since returning from London last week the sun has not ventured out. It is dull, damp and when the snow falls, it is wet and unpleasant and soon disappears. The constant rain, drizzle and wet snow have turned the unpavemented verges of Jeziorki's roads into a muddy morass; my footwear is perpetually filthy. Cars splash pedestrians with icy water from the edge-to-edge puddles on the poorly drained asphalt. My camera, always around my neck, rarely strays to my eye - there's little that attracts my eye.

It's difficult to do one's 10,000 paces a day when it's raining, so to catch up on below-average walking on Thursday and Friday, yesterday I walked from home to Zalesie Górne, a distance of about 15km, past Mysiadło, Nowa Iwiczna, Piaseczno and Żabieniec, parallel to the railway line. The weather was so miserably indifferent, I was not moved to take any photographs.


Do go to Lidl - the for-special-occasions Deluxe range, which offers delicatessen fare for a budget, has Christmas left-overs at amazing prices. Roquefort cheese, my favourite blue cheese (even beats Stilton say I), is on sale at 4.99 złotys for a 100gm pack (89p), down from the old price of 6.65 złotys (£1.19). Now, this is the real thing - PDO, DOC whatever, matured in caves, made of ewes' milk. Given that Auchan sells a Roquefort for 13.99 złotys (£2.49), this is an offer not to be sniffed at. But like all good things, there's a catch - the sell-by date is 22 February. Still, this is a cheese that does not go off; it matures even further.

The Lidl formula works just the same in Poland as it does in the UK, though with different marketing. In Britain, consumers are exhorted to 'join the Lidlers' and go Lidling with them, rooting out those amazing surprises that appear each week. In Poland, Lidl ads are just a forgettable list of commodity prices which go in one ear and come out the other. Obviously, Poland is considered to be at a 'different stage of development' by the admen; but people like surprises and bargains wherever they live.

Don't go to 5áSec, the French dry-cleaning chain. High and opaque pricing. My three pairs of trousers and a jacket, according to the price-list prominently displayed, should cost 95.96 złotys to clean (£17.29). When it came to paying (up-front, of course), I was asked for 129.96 złotys (£23.16), despite having turned down all attempts at up-selling me with 'fabric treatments' and other tosh. I asked why the price is different to the one advertised. "That is because we'll have to use a different process for these," said the lady at the counter. "And anyway, the trousers may return 'not fully clean', because they have muddy stains around the ankles". I said that if they weren't stained, I wouldn't be taking them to be dry-cleaned. I've used 5áSec before and was disappointed; if it wasn't for the fact that French dry-cleaners go hand in hand with French retailers (Auchan in this case), I wouldn't use this price-gouging bunch of rip-off artists ever again.


Polish railways are unlucky when it comes to taking on new rolling stock. On Thursday I boarded a Koleje Mazowieckie train bound for W-wa Jeziorki at W-wa Śródmieście. It looked new; it smelled new, it boasted that it had WiFi; it had features that I'd not seen on the commuter trains on the Radom line*. The seats were comfortable, there was a flip-down tray-table, like on planes, but made from real wood. Luxury! Except that after two stations, at W-wa Zachodnia, it broke down.

After some ten minutes, the guard decided to inform the passengers - not via the public address system, which was evidently not working - but by walking down the train. It was going nowhere. Another train will be brought onto the adjacent platform, in the meantime, please remain seated, it's warm inside and snowing outside, large, heavy flakes of wet snow. So we all waited. Some 15 minutes later the relief train appeared, pulled into the track across the platform, we crossed over and boarded the empty train, waiting for something to happen. No announcements... But among the passengers were canny folk who knew that at 18:22 the next train for Piaseczno and Radom was due at W-wa Zachodnia. Duly the 18:22 arrived on the next platform. No announcement as to which would leave first. One by one at first, then in a massed rush, passengers left the train I was on and made their way, via the underpass, to Platform 4 to board the 18:22 train. It was already quite full by the time it rolled into Zachodnia, so by the time that three-quarters of the passengers from my train had boarded the other one, it was totally packed. But which one would leave first?

My one. YES! There was a short spontaneous cheer among those who, like me, had decided to stay rather than to risk boarding the 18:22. Lesson? Preserve a zen-like calm, and don't follow the masses.


This study into ageing and exercise gave me a reason to be cheerful. "A study of super-fit cyclists" aged over 55... What do you need to do to prove you are "super-fit"? Cycle 100km in six and half hours. I'm sure I can do that. If - back in 2010, at the age of 52, I managed 135km in seven and half hours, and last year, at the age of 56, I managed 84km in seven hours (including two half-hour breaks and a significant amount of walking a heavy, fat-tyred mountainbike over stretches of soft sand), it should not be too hard to crack 100km in six hours along roads. Roll on the spring! Roll on the re-birth of creativity!

So. That's it - this represents the sum total of what I've had to say all week. Boring, eh?

I just hope that my creativity will return...

This time last year:
At last! Wintry gorgeousness arrives in Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Warsaw - the more it snows

This time three years ago:
Get orf my lairnd!

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

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

This time six years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time seven years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in fog

Sunday, 18 January 2015

UK migration and the NHS

I was in London for much of last week, looking after my parents - on Wednesday, my father (91) had an eye operation, the following day I had to take my mother (87) to the clinic. And while I was round, lots of shopping - in West Ealing, Hanwell, Greenford and Pitshanger Lane.

The main media topic in the UK in the second half of last week was the state of the National Health Service, less than four months before the General Election. (The outcome of this election will be utterly crucial for the future of Britain and Europe, but that'll be covered in subsequent posts).

Key to measuring the performance of the NHS is the time patients are waiting to be seen in Accident & Emergency (A&E) wards up and down the country. Guidelines state that 95% of patients must be seen within four hours of arriving at the hospital. England, Wales and Northern Ireland were measured and found wanting. In England, 89.8% of patients are seen within four hours; the figures for Wales are 81.0%; Northern Ireland 76.7%; while in Scotland - which has a 98% target, 93.5% of patients are seen within four hours.

The NHS has set up a local hospital tracker (link here - you will need to type in a UK postcode to make this work) so every UK citizen can see how their hospital is rated for waiting times, weekly attendance at A&E, emergency admissions at A&E, operations cancelled, and beds blocked. Really useful for seeing which hospitals are overcrowded and which ones offer first-class healthcare.

Anyway, the NHS I saw last week worked above and beyond my expectations - my father's operation took a little over an hour - he had a new lens fitted into his left eye. Thirty minutes after leaving the operating theatre, we were outside the hospital, waiting for a taxi to take us home. The following day, when the eyepatch came off, my father's sight through what used to be his weak eye was actually better than my strong eye when it came to reading. Once he has the other eye operated on, his eyesight will be near perfect. Miraculous! The work of skilled surgeons - all female, and none native English. The lead surgeon was Hong Kong Chinese; she was assisted at the table by two Polish doctors. The nursing staff were from India, Hong Kong and Poland - and were all excellent.

The following day, mother was seen by her GP, from India, in a timely and efficient manner. The clinic was run like clockwork - all the horror stories about the NHS in the British media seem to be relating to a different world.

It occurred to me that the NHS - for all its faults - is dependent on immigrant staff, without which it would collapse. According to the Health & Social Care Information Centre, 26% of doctors working in the NHS were born abroad, while 22% of all nursing staff that joined the NHS in the year to September 2014 were non-British.

With migration and the health service likely to be among the top issues concerning voters ahead of the May election, the electorate needs to appreciate just how critical to the survival of the NHS is its ability to recruit the best doctors, nurses and care staff from outside the UK.

Why is the UK unable to fill its own healthcare system with native Brits? Could it be that for today's generation of young people studying to be a doctor, or working around those pesky patients is too much like hard work?

This time two years ago:
Miserable depths of winter

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

This time five years ago:
A month until Lent starts

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

This time seven years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Friday, 9 January 2015

On beer, consumer choice, and the Meaning of Life

Last night the boys from Błękitna Trójka (Third Polish Scout Troop from 1970s London) went for a beer or four at the PiwPaw on ul. Foksal, the splendid multi-tap bar boasting no fewer than 95 different beers on tap. This evening, a smaller delegation from the office visited the original PiwPaw on ul Parkingowa after work, which has a mere 50 different beers on tap.

These two bars are taking the multi-tap concept (as seen in Kufle i Kapsle on ul. Nowogrodzka and Cuda na kiju in the old communist party headquarters on Rondo de Palma) to new levels. Not 12 or 16 beers, but three times - eight times - more. Still, 12 different quality craft beers made by brewers passionate about making something memorable and excellent is a huge advance over what was the norm even three years ago. (Let us recall just how dire the beer was five years ago...)

The days when going for a beer meant a meagre choice between a small handful of mass-produced beers - made by industrial breweries and tailored for an aggregated consumer, defined by focus groups, produced down to a price not up to a standard - are over.

'PiwPaw' needs to be explained to non-Polish speakers. 'Pif-paf' is the onomatopoeic equivalent of the playground 'bang-bang' suggesting gun fire. The pronunciation 'peev-puv' and 'peef-puf' are almost identical. But there's another meaning. 'Piw' is the genitive plural of piwo (beer) - 'of the beers', or beers'. 'Paw' means peacock. So Piw Paw can mean 'The Peacock of Beers' or 'The beers' peacock'. As we can see in the logo (below).

The PiwPaw on Foksal has a range of ciders and perries at one end of the bar, dark porters and stouts at the other, and a wide spectrum of top- and bottom-fermented lagers, light ales, India Pale Ales and bitters in between. The PiwPaw on Parkingowa has a smaller range, though still massive by any measure (plus many bottled beers, so should you be unable to find what you like). You may think that all these unpasteurised* beers with their short shelf life would go off before the barrel's drained - but these bars are so wildly popular even on weekdays that the turnover of stock is satisfactory. [In stark contrast to the multitaps are traditional city-centre watering holes offering Lech-Żywiec-Tyskie; such places are either half-empty or totally dead.]

Helping you get that particular flavour, there's the option of a 1zł (18p) taster, a shot-glass filled with a beer sample. Try several, then buy a half-litre of the one(s) you fancy. Below: Atak Chmielu, ('hop attack') by Pinta, is a favourite of mine (along with King of Hop by AleBrowar). On the bar at PiwPaw on Foksal; in the background you can see around one-quarter of all the beer taps of this establishment.

Choice is what it's all about. The bar staff have been well trained in the stock; if you are after an American IPA with a high IBU (International Bitterness Units), you will be informed what does the trick. The Invisible Hand of the Free Market, which over the years has been denying choice through increasingly oligopolistic practices, has suddenly flipped and said to the consumer - sorry, this has been an anomaly, it's time to redress the imbalance.

Standing at the bar with a half-litre of Ox Bile, a beer from brewers Haust in Zielona Góra with an extraordinarily high IBU of 104, and a taste of, well, ox bile, I pondered on what this is all about - adventure, exploration, reaching out to try something new, pushing the envelope, learning. It is not about swilling back yet another meaningless glass of Tyskie. Which tastes like the last glass of Tyskie, which tastes like Lech. Or Okocim or Warka or Żywiec. [Note to bar person: Ox Bile is pronounced 'oks bajl', not 'ox bee-leh']

And how different the Ox Bile was from our previous round - Dupek żołędny, a dark IPA flavoured with... acorns, from Warsaw brewery Bazyliszek. Trying out such varied ales, made by tiny brewers who really care about giving the consumer something extra-special, become an infinitely greater event than just sitting about soaking in whatever product the global corporation thinks is right for our market.

The Meaning of Life? I think I stumbled upon it half-way through the second beer, but by the time I got home, I'm afraid I'd forgotten it.

* Louis Pasteur must be the only scientist to be name-checked for a process he invented and also for a product that has not undergone the process he invented! 

This time last year:
What's Cameron got against us Poles?

The time three 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

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Has the UK economy overtaken France's already? YES!

It's bound to happen - the moribund French economy, the world's fifth-largest, will be overtaken by the UK, which has bounced back vigorously after a long recession. The only question is when.

Gross Domestic Product is measured in each country by its statistical office, calculated in local currency. Then, to be able to create an annual global ranking, the GDP is converted into US dollars at a exchange rate that reflects the average for that year.

If we take as a starting point the World Bank's GDP figures for 2013, released only last month, we have the nominal GDP for France standing at $2,806 billion. The UK's stood at $2,678 billion. Behind the UK in seventh place in the world we have Brazil ($2,245 billion) and Italy in eight ($2,149 billion). Both economies are currently shrinking, so neither have a chance of threatening the UK or France.

But the UK is powering ahead, with annualised GDP growth forecast at 3.2%. French GDP is forecast to grow at a mere 0.4%. And sterling is doing so much better against a strong dollar than the feeble euro.

So - let's take the World Bank 2013 data, convert into local currency. The UK's economic output in 2013 was worth £1,781 billion (at an exchange rate of 66.5p = $1, the average for that year). France's economic output was worth €2,197 billion (at an exchange rate of 78.3 eurocents = $1).

Last year, if the above forecasts - which are a aggregate of three quarters of actual growth plus one quarter's projected growth - are correct, the UK's output in sterling was worth £1,838 billion, while France's output was worth €2,206 billion.

Now - the pound fared much better against the dollar than the euro over the course of 2014. So when you calculate the above figures by the average exchange rate for both currencies as announced by the central banks (£1 = $1.6477; €1 = $1.3272), we get the following dollar-denominated figures for the two countries' GDP... UK $3,029 billion, France $2,928 billion.This would make the UK the world's fifth-largest economy, pushing France down to sixth place.

And the UK, having a slightly smaller population (64 million vs. 66 million), will also have leapfrogged France in terms of GDP per capita. All good news in the year that Britain celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (and indeed the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt).

There we have it - by my reckoning the UK economy will have overtaken France's last year by a margin of $101 billion. Admittedly, not a lot, lots of ins, lots of outs, and new stuff may come to light.

Is my methodology flawed? Certainly the exchange rate figures are both official and OK. The start-point can be debated (the International Monetary Fund agrees with the World Bank as to France's GDP for 2013, but gives the UK's GDP as being $155 billion smaller than the World Bank). And 2014 fourth-quarter growth may yet surprise us (but then even if the final-year outturn for France was doubled at 0.8% and the UK's not 3.2% but just 2.8%, the UK would still be ahead).

Am I wrong, Dude?

Good news for David Cameron and George Osborne - a vindication of their economic policy.

This time four years ago:
Ice in the Vistula

This time five years ago:
A consolation to my British readers

This time six years ago:
Winter in its finery

The time seven years ago:
Snow fences keep the trains running

Monday, 5 January 2015

Convenience and the economics of drinking water

When doing the weekly shop for the home, I buy a six-pack of 1.5l bottles of Cisowianka mineral water, and a 12-pack of 0.5l bottles of Cisowianka. The large bottles cost 1.73zł (31p) each, the small bottles - containing three times less water than the large ones - cost 1.28zł (24p) each. Even taking the cost of packaging into account - let's assume the large bottle costs only marginally more in materials and labour to produce than the small one - buying small bottles seems in economic terms terribly wasteful. So why do I continue, knowingly, to pay more than twice as much per litre of water in the smaller packaging?

And why do I buy bottled water at all, given that the water served to the tap by MPWiK (Miejskie Przedsiębiorstwo Wodociągów i Kanalizacji - literally, the Urban Enterprise of Water-Pullings and Canalisation) is absolutely fine to drink? It no longer reeks of chlorine, and costs less than half a grosz per litre (0.004.2zł  + 8% VAT).

Part of it is the minerals - 742mg per litre, including Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium, good for staving off muscle cramps in the legs which affect me especially in the summer. Cisowianka comes out of the ground at Nałęczów Zdrój, a spa, which is where Nałęczowianka mineral water also hails from but is cheaper, not being owned by Nestle. Also worth pointing out the difference between woda mineralna - mineral water, which can be categorised as low, medium or high in mineral content - the high content ones (over 1000mg per litre) tend to be slightly sulphurous in taste, and woda źródlana - water bottled at source, which is essentially tapwater.

Once upon a time, I used to drive up to ul. Buszycka to the artesian water well; here you can fill your containers brim-full for free, all paid for by the City of Warsaw. The reason I've stopped doing this is that a) this requires driving there, and using a car for such a purpose is hardly ecological or economical; b) once poured, the water needs to be drunk within 24 hours (they say) before the microorganisms residing in it start to flourish and become potentially hazardous to health; c) the best container for the artesian water is a plastic 5-litre bottle from - er, mineral water. Which should not be re-used to often, so you end up buying one every other top-up. And finally d) you have to lug a stonking great five litre bottle about the kitchen, tipping it gingerly as you pour yourself a glassful.

Whilst the large bottle of Cisowianka serves in the kitchen and is used to pour water into glasses, the small bottle can be taken on walks, left by the bedside, carried in the car. It cannot be, however, carried onto an aeroplane. You have to surrender all fluids over 100ml before security, and once air-side, you fall hostage to the oligopolistic practices than go on airports. Here, you have to pay not 1.28zł for a half-litre of mineral water, but 6.00zł. (Canny travellers of a conservative nature flying from the UK can pick up a 75cl bottle of Buxton or Evian totally free of charge of W.H.Smiths along with their Daily Telegraph).

Flying dehydrates the body, so water is a necessity rather than luxury; I'd be buying a Telegraph to read on the plane anyway, so a large bottle of Buxton (from beautiful Derbyshire, up the A6 from my brother's) is Most welcome. But paying Relay or one of those other shops at Okęcie 6 złotys is a bit much.

Still or sparkling? Coming from a generation when Thames tapwater was still fine, if I'm ordering water in a restaurant or bar (during Lent and only during Lent!), it will be sparkling, because the still stuff adds not enough value and is entirely ordinary. With ice and a slice or lemon - or preferably lime - and then I'm happy to part with six zlotys or even more.

Unlike less fortunate parts of the world, northern Europe is not short of water. Treating it to become drinkable - and disposing of dirty water in an environmentally friendly way - is not cheap. Even so, Warsaw water is very good value for money. And in the Warsaw supermarket, a litre-and-half bottle of mineral water is roughly half the price it is in a London supermarket. [Price comparison with 1.5l bottle of Buxton.]

This time last year:
Locally, it's the little things...

This time last two years ago:
Warsaw bids farewell to its old trams

This time seven years ago:
Five departures from Okęcie

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Scenarios for Russia

The sentences handed down to the Navalny brothers last week confirm many observers' fears about Russia - there is no opposition to speak of; in the absence of Vladimir Putin at the helm, there would be a vacuum of power. Mikhail Khodorkovsky's in Switzerland, Mikhail Kasyanov's keeping his head down, and, er... that's it. (Correct me if I'm wrong. I hope I am.)

The Navalny cases show clearly how the law is Putin's plaything. The message is clear - if you wish to go into business, the law is sufficiently opaque and contradictory, that should you put your foot out of line politically, there will always be some paragraph that will allow a pliant judiciary to nail yo' ass.

Going into business is risky enough; you can expect to be shaken down legally (by a grasping public administration, on the take with blessings from the top) and illegally (by local mafias operating with the connivance of the authorities). This discourages all but the bravest from trying to make a living from free enterprise. So the bulk of Russians work for someone else - either for Western corporations - as in the case of Alexei Navalny's brother Oleg - or for native private-sector firms (which represent a smaller percentage of employers than in the EU or US) - or in the public sector. The latter is the career choice of most Russians; keep your nose clean, stay politically loyal to your paymaster - and you'll manage OK.

Manage OK as long as the state can afford to pay you. With so many Russian citizens living as clients of the state, the predicted implosion of the rouble economy (contracting GDP, double-digit inflation, Western disinvestment) will mean that once Russia's not-inconsiderable cash reserves have run out, there will be massive discontent from a massive public sector. [Some good background here.]

It is easy to portray Russia as a country where 15% of the population live a Western lifestyle, travel abroad, eat fancy food and drive BMWs while the remaining 85% survive on buckwheat, beetroot and vodka. A small minority of the 15% can see the writing on the wall; if pushed, they will march to protest against the imprisonment of opposition leaders, Ukrainian incursions - or falling living standards. The 85%, fed a constant diet of propaganda on the state-directed media, is prepared to tighten its collective belt for the Glory of a Greater Russia. As long as Putin can call on the 85%, his future is secure.

In this regard, Russia is quite different to Poland in 1989. In Poland, there was an entire cadre of opposition leaders, toughened by imprisonment or internment during Martial Law; there was an underground media; no one believed the official 'news' put out on state television or in the Party-run newspapers.

Back to the Russian economy. Because it is so difficult to set up and run a business in Russia, the Russian economy has failed to diversify. Putin is aware of this, making some vague promises in his annual speech to the Duma and in his annual press conference to make life easier for entrepreneurs. Too little too late. By the time the Russia runs out of cash (in about two years at the current rate), there will not be a brand-new, globally competitive Mittelstand of Russian medium-sized, family-owned businesses manufacturing agricultural machinery, food packaging, fork-lift trucks, building materials or motorcycles. Not to mention computers, smartphones, operating systems or broadband routers.

In other words, Russia is entirely dependent on the global economy for the things it needs to remain modern. Cut off from the Western world, Russia can survive but will not return to growth. Russians will become introspective, sullenly defiant and loyal to their leader until the penny drops - quit interfering in Ukraine and the good old days will return. But certainly not under Putin. Politically, the strains will grow. Putin will not quit of his own accord - he and his buddies have too much to lose. He cannot forget the fate of Ceausescu or Gaddafi.  He has nowhere to run, unlike Yanukovych. There will be no chance of him living out his remaining years in a villa in a pretty part of the capital, like General Jaruzelski did. For Putin it's all or nothing.

Faced with a scenario of power loss, Putin will turn the screws tighter. The economy will get worse. The ordinary Russian (unaccustomed to Mercedes-Benzes and Mozzarella cheese) is already noticing the rising prices of buckwheat and other staples. Putin's adventure in Ukraine has bagged one great prize - Crimea - but the rest is not going well. Despite boasting that his armies can be in Warsaw in two days, eight months has not been enough to capture Donetsk airport.

Putin's popularity will wane, but his regime is vastly more popular than the old Communist Party was in the dying days of the USSR. In this context, it is important to recall just how the Soviet Union fell - it was not brought down by oppositionists, fed up with 70 years of slaughter and economic mismanagement - the change happened from within the ruling elite.

Putin is running his elite with the same tight fist that Stalin once did (though with the bullet in the back of the head replaced by prison or exile). There is no chance of a Khrushchev scenario, in which Putin is deposed by rivals from within his inner circle. Khrushchev was only in power for six years, Putin has run Russia for 15. And Putin's KGB background gives him an acute sensibility to potential threats.

Yet there are inconsistencies within his coterie; notice the hysterical braying from some of his supporters to remove the head of the central bank after the rouble plunged to 79 to the dollar. Should Putin follow a pragmatic economic course - or an ideologically driven one? He has advisers urging him in both directions. Impose foreign exchange controls, causing panic in the short term and deeper, self-imposed isolation in the longer term? Hunt down speculators of foreign currencies and food staples? Or continue to let the market work things out? As the economy worsens, the temptation to take a controlling hand over it, Venezuela-style, will grow. Watch out for sackings of economic liberals in key ministries and in the central bank.

It is the contradictions inherent in Putinism that will lead to his downfall. He will be faced with increasingly difficult choices between laissez-faire and micro-management.

Politically, dealing with individual oppositionists will be easy - trump up charges and imprison them. But facing large protests involving tens or hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens will be more difficult. Of course Putin's propaganda organs will bray that these traitorous Quislings are paid-for agents working for the US State Department. The question is, at what stage will Putin resort to violence to disperse such gatherings and discourage more from forming. And if he does so, the Russian people will slowly cease believing what their televisions tell them. This may be a long way off. A Russian commentator recently wrote that Russians will vote Communist, Fascist, Liberal - whoever holds control of the TV stations for two months before the elections.

Sadly, I cannot see change happening quickly. For the foreseeable future, the West has to gird itself for living with an intransigent, sullen, introspective, paranoid Russia, with a frozen conflict in Ukraine hurting that country and slowing its longed-for progress towards the stable prosperity offered by Western Europe.

A Russia without Putin could turn out to be like any one of those Arab countries where the evil dictator was deposed and the outcome was total chaos. Should the Russian army depose Putin, the outcome would be militarist fascism, revanchism, bloodshed and eventual global war. The chances of the Russian people creating a state with independent, strong, well-functioning institutions, a thriving civil society, a wisely-regulated free market with respect for the rule of law and private property are currently small, but - unlike the Arab world - they are not zero. That's the spark of hope.

I forecast that the next two years will be grim for Russia. After that - really grim.

This time last year:
The benefits of extending the human lifespan

This time three years ago:
Light show at the Presidential Palace

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 January 2015

2014 - a year in numbers

Big data on a small scale - using numbers can help motivate you to a healthier lifestyle, by keeping track of the factors that play a part in promoting longevity.

The acquisition of a pedometer has proved to be of great value to my health, as I have been logging my paces for the whole of last year. Entering the data daily into a spreadsheet, I can now see that over the past year, I have walked 3,528,516 paces - a daily average of 9,669. At the start of last year, I measured my average stride - it is 80cm. Multiplying those three-and-half million paces by 0.8, I can work out that I've walked 2,868km, or 1,775 miles during the course of 2014.

This is something I shall continue with this year. My Tanita 3-axis pedometer is now on its third battery, it's proved reliable and easy to use with no drawbacks. A good pedometer is more accurate than the downloadable apps for smartphones; it's a good investment in motivating oneself into regular walking, a healthier and less risky way of keeping fit than running.

The World Health Organisation, Britain's National Health Service and the Surgeon-General of the USA all recommend a daily target of 10,000 paces, which is around 8km/5 miles or about one hour and 20 minutes of reasonably paced walking. So my annualised daily average of 9,669 (counting days spent at home due to colds or heavy rain) is not at all bad. 10,000 paces a day is also a target for 2015. It sounds a lot, especially when you're trying to fit it into a busy working life; unless you ditch the car, it is awfully hard to do. Walking plus public transport - the ten thousand becomes much easier. Walking to the shop before breakfast at the weekend - et voila! there's 3,500 paces done.

I kicked the year off well today with a 10,000-pace walk around Jeziorki, discovering a footpath I've never walked along during my 17 years living in this area - leading from ul. Karczunkowska to ul. Kórnicka.

My spreadsheet also allows me to keep track of other health-related data - exercises and diet. Looking over last year, I can see when I overdid the exercise, sprained muscles which led to breaks in the regime. I can now see how much is too much. It's also good motivation to keep going.

Weight at the beginning of this year: 12 stone 0 pounds (76.2kg). More worryingly, my girth (circumference as measured at the navel) has gone up to 40 inches (101.6cm), that's one-and-a-quarter inches or 3cm more than at the end of of Lent last year. Back to sit-ups!

The good thing about maintaining a health and fitness (or more accurately, a fitness-for-health) spreadsheet, is that after one year, keeping fit becomes competitive. All of a sudden, as of 1 January 2015, I'm competing with someone - myself, though a year younger. It will be interesting to see whether this year I walk more paces, do more sit-ups, drink less alcohol, than I did last year.

Alcohol - last year I tracked every unit drunk, it came to a weekly average of 33.1 units, slightly over the old NHS guidelines of 28 units but more than half as much again as the current guidelines of 21 units - which seem to be - ahem - unreasonably low. Still, if you can't measure it you can't manage it - I shall endeavour during the course of 2015 to drink less alcohol than I did last year. I must say, my alcohol consumption in the weeks leading up to Christmas was massive!

Five portions of fresh fruit and veg a day is a tough target, if you bear in mind that three small Clementine oranges constitute but one portion, and the NHS advice is to eat more veg than fruit. Just how much raw carrot can one eat? Still, I have to go for the target, and entering my daily consumption in a spreadsheet will provide useful information.

On the diet front, last year was notable for the news that sugar is bloody dangerous stuff. It is addictive, harmful in many ways - and the body doesn't need it. (In evolutionary terms, its purpose is to make pleasurable the consumption of Vitamin C). The discovery that sugar plays a greater role in high blood pressure than salt is significant. We should all try to avoid sugar - especially processed sugar. Confectionary, cakes, biscuits - they should be cut out of our diets to nearly zero.

Lent starts on 18 February, Easter this year falls on 5 April, earlier than last year, so as in past years the weeks between New Year's Day and Ash Wednesday will be spent slowly preparing for the Big Fast.

A final New Year's Resolution note to myself - write more.

Jeziorki welcomes 2015

It is a tradition now in Jeziorki that the Vietnamese people living across the way stage a monumental fireworks celebration to see in the Polish New Year, and I salute them for it.

This year's barrage lasted a full 25 minutes, augmented by more modest displays all around, from Piaseczno to Raszyn, from Ursynów to Mokotów. The longer the barrage, the better the economy (back in 2008, the fireworks lasted 15 minutes before the skyline fell back into darkness and silence).

All photos at 100 ISO, f11, shutter set to Bulb, closed when I felt enough explosions had been registered on the camera's sensor. Tripod mounted, manual focus (at infinity). 10-24mm lens set to 10mm, perspective correction done in Photoshop (Brightness -4, Contrast +6, Saturation +6) The one problem is the in-camera Noise Reduction software, which takes many seconds to clear out the blocky artifacts that would otherwise appear in the pictures.

Time to wish all my regular readers a peaceful and prosperous New Year, full of happiness and learning moments, health and the joy of life.

This time last year:
Jeziorki welcomes 2014

This time two years ago:
LOT's second Dreamliner over Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
New Year's coal train

This time seven years ago:
Winter train