Friday, 27 February 2015

How do we perceive good and evil?

This is where it gets tricky for me. Many questions, few convincing answers. So bear with me, this will not be a particularly coherent post! If you'd have asked me once what 'evil' means, I'd have said 'absence of God'. However, I'm now more likely to say that 'God is everywhere', and by that I mean at the subatomic level, throughout the Universe[s].

How would I define evil? Essentially, by intent, a lack of good will. An ill will, indeed. But bad things happen naturally; the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that claimed the lives of 230,000 people. Was this the work of Satan? Or just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Disease? How about the Holocaust? The work of one evil man, leveraging the incipient evil that resided within the dark heart of a nation?

Worth taking a look at this Wikipedia article on Theodicy, man's attempt to explain the existence of evil in a world governed by God. In its simplest form, the argument goes like this: Man is judged by God on the basis of whether or not he is good, or evil. Man is given freedom of choice. Man can choose to be good, or to be evil. If he has no free will, he cannot be judged. So evil is the result of man's freedom of choice, upon which he is ultimately judged by God. But why is this evil visited upon good people?

Let's go back into the cosmic realm again. Supermassive black holes, with a mass that's many thousands of times greater than our sun, are found in the centres of galaxies, sucking in matter, including entire solar systems, presumably along the civilisations that may be found on them. Imagine an advanced world being dragged inexorably towards an event horizon, beyond which nothing can escape; the only outcome, the destruction of everything. Where is God in all this?

I would like to return to the theme of consciousness, and in particular. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the concept of the philosophical zombie. Now, dear reader; if you - like me - consider yourself to be aware, conscious - do you think every human being has the same degree of awareness? The philosophical zombie thought-experiment posits that there are those among us who lack consciousness, but in every other way are, and behave like, humans. When I first came across this notion, I immediately thought of a corporate boss I worked for, insanely driven by the urge to make money, trampling rough-shod over the the lives of his underlings and demanding they they too flog their underlings harder to make him more money... a man I believe to be bereft of consciousness (though with a sharp intellect). I can see this type of man at work within Hitler's holocaust machine, like an Adolf Eichmann. The banality of evil? Maybe something that's merely alive, responding to stimuli, but lacking a consciousness.

When setting out to write this post, I was aware that it would be a mess - far more questions than answers. But one point I intended to make was this: there is no Satan stalking this world. No Devil, no equal-but-opposite to a Good God. People inclined to see Satan everywhere are the types more prone to believe in conspiracy theories and in general are not particularly successful in life.

As I wrote earlier, my personal view of God is not of an omnipotent Supreme Being, but rather of a tendency, a direction towards perfection, towards omniscience, total awareness of all. If the Universe is evolving spiritually towards perfection, it suggests that it is not, a yet, perfect; nor will it be perfect for many eons to come. But we can strive internally to distance ourselves from anger and violent emotions that are rooted in our biology; the reptilian part of the brain, instinctive.

The fight-or-flight reaction. Something tips a trigger, something in that primitive brain kicks off. Raised voice. Clenched fist. Anger that triggers anger; violence that triggers violence, lashing out mindlessly. Within the individual, this behaviour affects those in his or her immediate vicinity - family, workmates, people in the street. But the evil we saw in the Third Reich, the evil we see today in Islamic State and in Putin's Russia - is where an ideology is forced on people via indoctrination, propaganda, and hatred is inculcated until it can be turned into deadly violence. The Western World, Shi'ites, Christians, "Fascist Ukrainians". We need to be on guard against those who play to our base instincts, but also to guard against those who seek to play that game against us.

The Western World, for all its faults, is about tolerance, diversity, compromise, consensus; strong signals that hatred and hate-speech are no longer acceptable are positive drivers for a better society. But should the Western World tolerate intolerance? How should it respond to brutality?

I hope to return to some of the questions posed here, if not this Lent than in years to come, if not with answers, then maybe with a more nuanced attitude.

Previous post in this series: The infinitely long path from Zero to One

This time last year:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time three years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over
[Average temperature for that week was -9C. This week; +3C. Not once this winter did the wetlands freeze hard enough to walk across, let alone ride a motorbike over.]

This time five years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time six years ago:
Lenten reciples

This time seven years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The infinitely long path from Zero to One

In our childhood, the world around us consisted of shapeless blocks, vague monoliths, from which, with age and experience - and the chisel of thought - emerge statues of understanding. From out of crude lumps of unhewn observation they emerge, honed ever more finely, delicately nuanced, catalogued more precisely, with each passing year.

Watch an infant's wide unfocused eyes play over an unfamiliar room, pulling together sense and structure from what is around him. Have they seen this all before. No...?

We edge slowly along from uncertainty towards certainty, from darkness to light - yet we are not even the tiniest fraction of the way along the infinitely long road from Zero to One. One life, one consciousness, one brief chance - is to be our only glimpse into this process?

I don't believe this is the case. The journey is long and much learning lies ahead. We must all learn to overcome the reptile in the brain, that dim, brutal and selfish animal within us, and allow in the angelic; this is spiritual evolution; willing yourself ever closer along that multi-billion year-long path towards God-ness, towards absolute understanding; total Universal unity and infinite consciousness.

We will all die, but the atoms that make us, those atoms maintaining formation within the molecules of our DNA, within our protein - those atoms will keep on spinning as they have done so for many billions of years. What will we have taught them? For when they return to the soil, they will spin on, bearing with them fragments of memory and will and consciousness.

And they return from the dark collective of that rich loam once more as individual and conscious life, they will be another tiny step closer to God. The following phrase popped unbidden into my mind one day: "There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes". We live, we learn, we die, we are reborn; it must happen many times.

The daughter of a famous Polish author, buried at Powązki cemetery in Warsaw, told me that each time she visits the grave, she finds objects left on it by his fans. One year, she noticed a plant growing by the headstone. She decided to leave it, and to let it grow. It grew into a plum tree. She realised that the fruit was nurtured by her father's body, and took some plums to her own garden, to let them grow into trees. This reminded me of a passage from Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything. And I quote:
"[Atoms] are fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed...)
So we are all reincarnations - though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf, or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms themselves, however, go on practically for ever."
Is this how consciousness flows from one living being to the next? I don't know. Nice as it would be to construct a theology around this, all I can only honestly say: "I don't know, but I want to know, and will continue to seek."

So - if you wish to hurry your atoms to get recycled quickly into another conscious human being soon after your death - is it better to be buried or cremated?

Again, I haven't a clue; it's futile trying to work it out. There are billions of years to go before our sun fades and dies and billions more before the Universe slows down before beginning to contract. Conjecture; one for cosmologists to work out. In the meantime, the spiritual drive, the quest for higher awareness, drives us onwards.

The Universe: what's out there, what our humanity means in the scale of our galaxy and all the other hundreds of billions of galaxies out there - this is an absolutely must-read piece.

Next: dealing with evil on the universal scale

Previous post in this series: a glimpse of the afterlife

This time two years ago:
Images of God

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A peek into the Afterlife

A quote often misattributed to the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell has the distinguished gent saying that he no more believes in life after death than life before birth.

Well - and here I intend to get controversial - I do have some reason to believe in life before birth. I have written snippets on this before on this blog; just snippets. Now I'd like to develop the theme further as part of this year's Lenten series of posts.

Strangely familiar, familiarly strange, well-known memories not attached to anything I've lived through... I've had these all my life, as early as I can remember, they are a part of me. What they are, I know not. How to categorise them - as a scientific or a spiritual phenomenon, remains beyond me.

Imagine a childhood summer's day on the beach, the sun glinting off the waves, the smell of suntan oil on damp towels; or a walk in a pine forest with your parents, or staring at a toyshop window just before Christmas, dusk, snow falling gently on the rushing shoppers. Can you feel those memories strongly? Can you conjure up your precise awareness of that moment? Do they match with what you felt then?

Sometimes, for no reason, a memory appears spontaneously within my consciousness. I've not been thinking about anything related to it; the memory may relate to something that happened a year ago, three years ago, ten years ago or in early childhood - but I've trained myself over the course of my life to identify them. Elthorne Park, Hanwell. The AA building, Teddington. Chiswick open-air swimming pool. The Thames at Sunbury. Gibbet Hill Road, Warwickshire. Denham, Buckinghamshire. PAFF! All of a sudden, for the briefest of moments, I am back there, my consciousness feeling exactly what it felt back there, back then - a strong surge of memory. I savour the moment; it evaporates quickly, leaving a vague but pleasant aftertaste.

But it was there, it was clear - and it was mine, of me. Spirit of place and me.

Here's one: PAFF! A flashback, unbidden. The Bath Road, near Turnham Green, West London. I am with my father, our way to the Polish church on Leysfield Road it is the mid-l960s - we pass a set of level crossing gates. (I google this, and indeed, between Abinger Road and Emlyn Road there were level crossing gates back then.)

Happens to you too? It's like a 'memory hiccup'. Unbidden, spontaneous; real. Train yourself, and you can put your finger precisely on where and when it was. Driving out of Harrow towards the M1, Christmas Eve. Yes, the leafless trees, hedges, wet fields...

Now it's going to get strange. I also get, though less frequently, the same phenomenon, except it's clearly not from my life's experiences. Mine; familiar; repeated; but where is it from and what does it mean? Most often these anomalous memory flashbacks correspond to America in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. I've had these all my life, since early childhood (four, five years old). My friends from university will vouch for the fact that I'd be reporting the same experiences 35 years ago. Since then, I've been able to bring greater definition to what I feel, yet the experiences remain a mystery, a phenomenon beyond the comprehension of science today.

They are fragile yet intense - when they happen, I try to catch that moment of anomalous consciousness, dwell upon it before it evaporates; but it is ephemeral, fleeting.

Let me whittle it down some more. Thee anomalous flashbacks don't feel like the Far East or Africa. They are not of deserts or rainforests. They don't feel ancient or mediaeval. They feel mid-20th Century, USA or Scandinavia. A land of four separate seasons; single-storey houses with carports surrounded by neatly mown lawns, groves of tall pines and birch trees; modern office developments, low, long, white buildings amid snowy forests. Railway lines running through the plains, and big, open, blue skies.

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

As it fades, I feel a certain frustration; something beautiful in my grasp has slipped away. I want to know more; I want to discover what this is.

And then there are dreams too; and that precious time between sleep and wakefulness when the consciousness is running free. Most dreams are a concoction of half-completed daytime thoughts, but I have rare ones that relate to another time and place; these follow the classic Greek unities of time, place and action. WWII, but America. One I had the other night; it is the late-1930s, early '40s, USA; at the State Fair, there is a beauty pageant at the US Department of Agriculture stand. Detail and accuracy are the key features of this type of dream. The most amazing one I ever had related to a hotel called Zig Zag in an American town of Zig Zag. The hotel, built of wood, was located on a main road running through a wooded valley. Thanks to Google, I located it the following morning - exactly as I dreamt it. The Zig Zag Inn, Zig Zag, Oregon (below). To preclude any chance of deja vu, I looked through all my parents' old National Geographic magazines with articles about Oregon - no sign of Zig Zag!

What this is all about is still life's greatest mystery for me. Is this a common phenomenon, that many people experience yet fail to identify, brushing to one side as being too marginal or strange to contemplate? Or am I alone on this one?

There are religions based on the concept of reincarnation, but I eschew a religious (as opposed to spiritual) explanation. Religions are based on dogma; I seek an answer based on something more rational. I may be way ahead of the science, but still I seek.

I cannot will such a memory into being. Seeking them for their own end is futile and disappointing. There are places where they are more likely to happen (in the kitchen, in the chilled-food section at Auchan, on Dolina Służewiecka between ul. Nowoursynowska and Rodowicza), on ul.Puławska at the junction with Idzikowskiego, the footpath in Las Kabacki alongside the Metro depot; and, most often, when there are changes in the weather (the onset of spring, for example).

Over many years, I've trained myself to identify the time and the place that the flashback is linked to. But what causes these flashbacks that tug my awareness back to recall some distant moment with such precision, creating such a sense of pleasant familiarity of Past? Was there a trigger? Smell is a most potent memory trigger, and easy to identify. The smell of summer rain on dusty ground. Taste also - a childhood ice cream (such as a Lyons Maid Raspberry Mivvi). Other triggers are harder to pinpoint. It maybe a combination of light and colour on the retina, a particular word, spoken or read; the feeling of frosty wind on the face as I walk out of the office on a winter's night; a splash of water on the neck – and BAM! suddenly that memory bursts into the mind, for a split second crowding out other mundane trains of thought and bringing that exact flavour of that moment in the past. The strangest are the flashbacks that are not only unbidden, but untriggered - totally spontaneous.

Like an archeologist, I find myself analysing these fragments of memory as if they were shards of ancient pottery. No, a better metaphor. It is more like analysing a snowflake that's settled on your gloved palm before it melts.

The flashbacks that seem untriggered or unbidden are indeed puzzling. Do they happen for a reason? (I will be writing about chance, coincidence and meaning in a later post.)

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

A few years ago, while out walking, I coined the phrase 'congruent consciousness' for this phenomenon of the consciousness. Just as triangles of a different size but with exactly the same angles can be defined as congruent, so these flashbacks are a identical short-lived replica of my consciousness at another time and place. They vary in strength (vividness) and duration, and when they happen, I've taught myself to catch them and reflect upon them. Projected for an instant into my consciousness, before fizzling away, they leave a summonable aftertaste, like the memory of a vivid dream. These anomalous memory events leave me grasping for metaphors - 'echo' is one; I am picking up an echo of consciousness, a feeling that once was, a perfect replica of a state of mind, that has returned for a brief instant from... the past? Is there such as thing as the past in the mind?

The river of consciousness (there's a neat metaphor) means that you can track back to the thoughts you've just had, but running your mind in reverse, although possible, is as difficult as swimming upstream. When your mind is freewheeling, try going back through the chain of thoughts you've just had - it's not easy! Similarly, when a *paff!* moment occurs, before the smoke's blown away, I analyse it on the spot, so as not to lose that feeling. Once gone, it's difficult to get back. How does it feel? What's it associated with? What might have triggered it?

My search for a better understanding of this phenomenon will take many years, and though I'm sure I'll get closer, I doubt if I, or indeed neuroscience, will get anywhere near it.

Sceptics say that it's misfiring neurons in my brain. Prove it. Science has yet to even work out where the seat of consciousness resides within us humans, so I dismiss this. I challenge any neuroscientist to convince me that this is nothing but a random firing of synapses in the hippocampus, or a flow of dopamine through the brain. It's too regular, too familiar; there's a pattern here that's clearly not random, a phenomenon that's above chance.

Over the years, those *PAFF* moments multiply - I've been here before, yet not in this lifetime. I savour them as they happen, like holding my breath, keeping that feeling like the waking aftertaste of a dream. Days like this I never experienced in childhood, and yet they feel like they were experienced in childhood - yet as an adult. These experiences are regular, commonplace and familiar - and yet entirely inexplicable.

Does this prove that our souls live on after the deaths of our bodies in new bodies, acquiring consciousness with each successive incarnation? Is this my consciousness picking up signals from some other consciousness from another time and another place? Or from different universes, realities concurrent? Another question is whether these anomalous flashbacks are also "I", "me", the same individual. Is there a succession of lives behind and ahead of us, a continuity of our own personality -- or is each one different; destined to merge into one consciousness?

Maybe. Don't know. But I do want to get a little bit closer to the truth.

The wind's blowing the snow in my face, such a pleasant sensation coming out of the warm office. I'm getting those old familiar flashbacks to somewhere other than my childhood, Minnesota in the 1950s? Scandinavia in the 1950s?  Consciousness. Patient, expanding consciousness, growing in awareness from day to day. Sometimes growing slower, sometimes faster - when a sudden event or inspiration generates a qualitative jump in one's understanding, bringing about a quantum leap to another meta-level. Whatever the pace, the direction is always the same; from Zero towards One. Should I seek answers, or just let things lie? I'm for seeking answers. It's a life's task.

I think this phenomenon is more common among mankind than is generally accepted. We ignore, deny, explain away. If we were all more open to it, maybe we could move ahead out of the straightjacket rationalist-reductionist worldview to a more spiritually open-minded one. Dozens (but not hundreds or thousands) of people I've talked to have admitted to such possibilities. Deeply held interest in Ancient Greece or 17th Century Sweden; a fondness for India 'long ago'; China in the 1920s; colonial East Africa; post-war USSR. We need to be open to the possibility that we are in tune with a continuum of consciousness spanning human lives.

Hang on a bit - the title of this post is A peek into the Afterlife...? Indeed. I would argue that sometime after my physical demise, a child will be born with strange flashbacks to the second half of the 20th Century in Britain, and to the first half of the 21st Century in Poland. Maybe more frequently than I get my "past-life" flashbacks, maybe learning more from them; these flashes could be what's commonly referred to as an afterlife? Certainly not an eternity of sitting on clouds with harps.

A final thought - maybe I am currently living an afterlife - though not my own.

Next: more about our path from Zero to One.

This time last year:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time two years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

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

This time seven years ago:
Early intimations of spring

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Consciousness, the Soul, Eternity

I have mentioned in previous essays here that you and I are made up of atoms that have been around for billions of years. Indeed, since an event called Recombination, some 378,000 years after the Big Bang, when the Universe became cool enough for electrons to attach to protons. And indeed, it is posited, that most of the helium in the Universe was created within three minutes of the Big Bang. And there are those same helium atoms today, filling children's balloons.

From Wikipedia: "Most of the atoms that make up the Earth and its inhabitants were present in their current form in the nebula that collapsed out of a molecular cloud to form the Solar System. The rest are the result of radioactive decay, and their relative proportion can be used to determine the age of the Earth."

This is mind-boggling stuff. We are used to matter decaying, energy running out, but here is the very fabric of everything around us, made out of these tiny atoms made out of electrons whizzing round the nuclei for ever. Certainly from one Big Bang to the next. What these atoms consist of is something that science is slowly unravelling. At school, we were taught that an atom is no more than a nucleus made up of protons (which have a positive electrical charge) and neutrons (which have no charge), and the nucleus exists within a shell or shells of electrons (which have a negative electrical charge).

Today, however, the structure of subatomic particles is known to be far more complex. This is how particle physicists currently see the contents of the nucleus:


[Source: Wikipedia]

I cannot begin to comprehend this world of neutrinos and gauge bosons, quarks and gluons. The more physicists seem to dig into the inner workings of the atom, the more they find. What properties are associated with these particles, other than positive and negative electrical charge?

Could atoms contain... memory, for instance? Will? Could they be carriers of distributed consciousness? They last for ever, after all...

A huge leap into the unknown, flaky science I know, but not an impossibility. As I wrote two posts ago, science has yet to discover the source of human consciousness; reading the Wikipedia articles about neuroscience and subatomic science, I can see the vast disconnect between the two, and yet our world functions as a whole under one joined-up set of laws.

Now, if one accepts the Monist view that the Universe is one system (rather than the Dualist view that the material and spiritual are two entirely separate worlds), the notion of consciousness being the result of atoms at work is entirely reasonable.

Is it possible that in some way, our consciousness could be distributed within us to the atomic level, and echoes of our thoughts, our experiences - our memories - could reside within the atoms that we are made of? That our level of consciousness is at a higher level today than it was within our ancestors thousands of years ago, because we have somehow absorbed millennia of additional experience and awareness? Purely theoretical, blue-sky thinking on my part. But an attempt to seek a rational explanation for a spiritual quest for answers that's been with me since childhood.

An answer to those anomalous memory events I've had all my life, as far back as I can remember. A quest that gives meaning - spiritual meaning indeed - to life.

More to Lent than just giving up a few things!

This time last year:
On Governance, Institutions and Civilisation

This time four years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on
(For the record, the LCD monitor died last year, it still takes photos)

This time six years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time seven years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on
Eight years ago today I bought my first digital camera!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Will your Soul exist for eternity?

Here's the deal: you avoid doing these bad things (listed in points one through ten), and when you die, you go to heaven. For ever more. For an eternity. For an infinitely long time.

Want to know what infinity looks like? It's not a million billion zillion. Imagine, if you will, an infinite number of parallel universes. There's one just like this one, according to a gag on the BBC's 1980s comedy show Not The Nine O'Clock News, where everything is exactly the same as in this universe, except the Mini Metro had a slightly shorter gear stick. Now, come up with every possible tiny variant you can think of - a universe identical to this one, but one in which you drank one millilitre more coffee than you did today. Or you had a grapefruit juice in place of that orange juice. Or that the third ant from the left picks up this grain of sand rather than that one. Or that clover has five leaves.Let your imagination run wild on this one, and soon you will begin to understand just what the real gist of infinity and eternity.

The universe, by contrast is said to be a mere 13.8 billion years old - an infinitessimally small fraction of eternity, a finite number of years that have elapsed since everything kicked off with the Big Bang. And before? We don't know, we can only guess.

But back to the notion of heaven. You get to live for eternity in heaven, because you spent your life span in the here-and-now being good? This rather jars with me. I very much doubt it. Isn't the professed reward disproportionately vast in comparison to the ask? Where's the learning process? Where are the challenges? Where's the acquisition of spiritual wisdom? Isn't it just too huge a leap -from avoid doing bad in this life to living for ever more in the next? Isn't there far more to life, the Universe and everything, than just those sto lat we all aspire to?

Whilst I do believe in the notion that we are moving towards the ideal, the perfection, the wisdom, the will, of God - it is not something to be achieved in one lifetime. The leap from ordinary human to angelic being. No, it will take billions of generations to acquire that omniscience - total awareness of everything. Think of the billions of generations of evolution that it too you to become you.

From amoeba to plankton to jellyfish to simple vertebrate to fish to lobefin to reptile to primate, life has been about the gathering of ever-higher states of consciousness along the way, spiritual evolution, if you like, a snowball of growing awareness. Accretion, accumulation of consciousness.

Continue this way towards God - everything merged into one consciousness, into which we will all be united. Literally all, if you hold with the theory of a Universe continually expanding away from a Big Bang, expanding until the forces that power it run out of puff, and then contracting in upon itself (a process that astronomers can view today within a black hole), with black hole swallowing black hole, everything contracting back upon itself until all matter - the atoms that make you up, me, them, everybody - and the furthest visible galaxy too -  collapsing back into one singularity.

But will you feel yourself within that singularity? Will you know that that is you, knowing?

My second objection to the traditional view of heaven - aside from the time-span issue - is that it promises you that you will remain you for ever more. Not joined with your loved ones, not merged into being a part of an eternal, celestial whole, but staying an individual - you, for ever more.

This I find scientifically, spiritually, and even socially, awkward. It does show off the fact that organised religions form a kind of social control - "believe that this is as it should be, and your reward will be in the Hereafter."

Will [your] consciousness, rather than your soul exist for eternity - this, I believe, is the right question to be asking, and if so, in what form? Something for next time.

This time four years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time five years ago
A week into Lent

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

This time seven years ago:
Over the fence

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Are you aware of your consciousness?

What is consciousness? Unlike intellect (the ability to work out that eight times seven is 56) or memory (the ability to remember that eight times seven is 56), neuroscience has yet to discover the seat of consciousness in the brain. So what is it if science cannot define it?

The sense of self, self-awareness. A metal detector can detect metal buried underground because it has been created to do so. But it is not aware that it has detected metal - it merely informs its operator. A smoke alarm does not have an appreciation of the smell of smoke, nor the awareness that smoke is present - it's merely been created to sound in the presence of smoke. But we are aware of the fact that we see, smell, hear, touch and feel.

I recommend this useful article on Wikipedia as a convenient starting point in any deliberations of consciousness. It reminds us of how much science does not know about our inner workings. I was about to write 'mental workings' - but that suggests that the seat of consciousness is the mind - not proven.

I became aware of my consciousness as a small child, piling up memory upon memory, some learned and stored - the words 'my first day at school', for example, prompt a memory of the smells of floor polish and Magic Marker ink. The smell of a hardware store - timber and paraffin. Over the decades, my brain has become immensely more sophisticated in terms of knowledge and experience, but that sense of 'I-ness' is the same. You can feel it in your dreams - in mine, I am ageless, an actor moving through sets and scenes that are both familiar and unfamiliar (and familiarly unfamiliar) - but the dream 'I' is the same consciousness as the waking 'I'.

Is this the soul?

Dualists would say no. I remember catechism classes at St Joseph's Catholic Church in Hanwell; the notion of the soul residing invisibly (it is not the creation of this world) within my torso, and a little dark patch appearing on it every time I sinned which only confession and Holy Communion could clear. No, the traditional teachings of the Church would have us believe that our immortal soul is heavenly, entirely disconnected from the physical universe.

And here I'd beg to differ. I would argue that consciousness is of this, our tangible, physical universe, yet something beyond the understanding of contemporary science - it is the very seat of what makes the State of Being so very special.

Does a cat have consciousness (as opposed to simple instinct and memory)? A sense of self? Very much so. A rat? Also. A prawn, an amoeba, a bacterium? Is a bacterium aware of its own existence? No? Yes? In which case, at what point in the evolution of our planet did life acquire consciousness?

I think of Michelangelo's painting The Creation of Adam as an anthropomorphic depiction of that moment - 12 billion years or so after the Big Bang, sometime after the emergence of life on Earth - when consciousness first appeared. Or was it always there?

And given that we don't know a) where consciousness resides and b) what's conscious and what isn't (how are we to know that an oak tree is bereft of a sense of its own existence?) we are clueless as to when in the Universe consciousness first appeared.

Perhaps it resides down at atomic level? Perhaps consciousness is so distributed across our being that it is the sum of all those atoms of which we are made? But then it is believed that there is no molecule in our body that's been there more than nine years (or so), then memory must be forwarded on from molecules that are due to pass through us to the ones that have just joined us.

So many questions - and yet my instinct is that higher spiritual understanding will come from asking questions and testing the assumptions, rather than from accepting that which we have been told. Wisdom is there to be passed down from generation to generation, but it needs an empirical framework on which to sit. "Don't eat pork", wrote Leviticus, divinely inspired. On indeed prawns. Well, at least until mankind invents the refrigerator.

Next: the immortality of the soul.

This time two years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time three years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This four years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time six years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time seven years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Saturday, 21 February 2015

My first ride on PKP's new Pendolino service

Since the first Pendolino trains started running on Poland's main railway lines on 14 December, I've not yet had a chance to travel on one, so a half-day conference in Wrocław followed by two business meetings gave me the ideal chance to try it.

Until now, getting to Wrocław has been hard work: PKP InterCity ran a couple of services a day, the fastest taking 5hrs 11mins to cover the 405km (250 miles); alternatively TLK could get you there in just under seven hours. takes 5hrs or 5hrs 50 minutes and is very cheap. Flying is dreadfully expensive (over 800 złotys) unless you book early. So my preferred option was to take the night train from Warsaw; I'd get a good night's sleep and wake up in Wrocław early in the morning.

But the Pendolino (see post about maiden voyage on the Behind The Water Tower blog) changes everything. Suddenly, nearly two hours have been shaved off the best previous journey time. Well, that's the theory. What's in like in practice?

I wake up at 04:45, leave home at 05:30, walking to W-wa Jeziorki station. I checked on the Bilkom app on my mobile that the 05:45 service to town is on time - it is. It gets me to W-wa Zachodnia at 06:09, 15 minutes before the Wrocław-bound Pendolino InterCity Premium service pulls in. I have ample time to buy a paper. At 06:24 the Pendolino arrives, to the minute (below). Now to get to Wrocław...

I board the train and find I'm sitting next to fellow-blogger Paddisław Wędrowniczek. Thankfully, he is not a fellow of wide girth as the seats are narrower than in normal PKP carriages. I'm in the window seat; it's a chilly day, about +2C leaving Warsaw. The heating is on, overheating my right leg, while my right arm muscles are chilled to the bone by the proximity to the cold metal surrounding the window. But there's a reading light, an electrical socket for each passenger (ideal for charging mobile devices and laptops), an ample fold-down table; there's complimentary tea/coffee/water/fruit juice, and the toilets are as clean as on an airliner. The train is nearly full.

WiFi? Forget about it. When PKP was specifying the rolling stock, smartphones and tablets were still science fiction. Pendolinos have no wifi. Retrofit the trains? What and drill holes everywhere, into carriages with a long manufacturer's warranty?

And another thing - for those travellers with a phobia about the gap between platform edge and the door - Pendolino carriages have an even bigger gap. So mind it.

According to the timetable, the train to Wrocław calls at Częstochowa Stradom (2hrs 9mins after leaving W-wa Centralna), then Opole (3hrs 2mins), arriving at Wrocław Główny station in 3hrs 42mins, an average speed of 110kmh.

Now let's put this into perspective: a few years ago, I travelled from Madrid to Seville on the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) train. The train covered the 470 km from the Spanish capital to Seville in 2hrs 20 mins, averaging 200kmh. And even in the UK, the 250 miles (400km) from London to Lancaster takes 2hrs 34mins, averaging 160kmh. So while the Pendolino looks, feels and smells brand new, its performance in terms of covering ground is antiquated (remember Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains have been running for more than half a century! In 1965, the Shinkansen was linking Tokyo and Osaka - a distance of 515 km - in 3hrs 10mins; average speed 162kmh).

By the time our Pendolino is approaching Opole, I'm hungry, so I visit the dining car (below). I order a smoked salmon salad, an orange juice and a black coffee - the bill is 34.50 złotys (£6.15). The service is prompt, the tables clean, nothing to complain about at all.

Below: I take a peek into the first-class carriage at the front of the train, where the seats are wider and spaced 1+2 rather than 2+2 as in second. Otherwise, I discern little difference between the two classes. Having said that, I prefer the old-style compartments, especially on the newer InterCity trains (the generation before Pendolino) that offer six seats to a second-class compartment.

The aisles in both classes are wide enough to accommodate a standard-width wheelchair (this is an EU requirement for co-financing the purchase of the Pendolinos); the old-style PKP corridors were wide enough to accommodate a standard-width Warsaw Pact stretcher (so that in the event of an invasion of Western Europe, wounded troops could be transported back east in PKP trains).

Here's a nice touch - having clambered through mud to get from home to W-wa Jeziorki, it's good to find a set of rotating shoe-cleaning brushes in the front of the second carriage (below). There are also separated four-person compartments for passengers with small children and pregnant women in this carriage. On the way back, one of these compartments was occupied by a mixed group of eight students, having a sing-song.

Below: The Pendolino Express InterCity Premium service pulls into Wrocław Główny station on time. Great! Frankly, any modern train set could have done at this pace; the purchase of the Pendolino rolling stock has not created a true Shinkansen-style revolution on Polish rails. It is the rail network that needs the massive investment, not so much the trains that run on it.

Though it's clearly a big and belated leap forward, the biggest problem of getting from Warsaw to Wrocław has not been solved - namely the lack of a direct rail route between the two cities. To get to Wrocław from Warsaw, one either has to go via Poznań (which is further west than Wrocław) or via Częstochowa (which is further south).

This is for historical reasons - Wrocław's rail network was part of the historically German one, while Warsaw's was Russian. During the 70 years that Wrocław has been back within Polish borders, no government has managed to sew up the two legacy rail networks to meet the needs of the modern state and its economy. A quick look at any map  shows what's needed - just 50km of new track between Wieruszów (part of the Wrocław rail network) and Sieradź (part of the Łódż rail network).

Below: the current route, via Częstochowa and Opole, swinging down far further south than Wrocław (click to enlarge).

Below: my proposal - build a new line, around 50km long (marked in red), to link Wrocław to Łódź and Warsaw. The route is nearly 100km (22%) shorter. This line would run through sparsely populated countryside. Toggle back and forth between the two to see the contrast.

The working day is over, I return to Wrocław Główny to await the Pendolino back to Warsaw. In the station, you can see German and Czech trains as well as Polish ones, an interesting place for train-spotters. And since its remont in 2012, the station is extremely attractive, its original architecture tastefully restored (below).

Below: here it is - my train home, scheduled to leave Wrocław Gł. at 18:50. It arrived at W-wa Zachodnia 11 minutes early, at 22:15. So it's now possible to do a day's work in Wrocław and be there and back by train. Again, the train was nearly full. There are two Pendolino services a day in each direction. Of course, there are other direct train services between the two cities. The TLK and InterRegio services each take well over six hours.

One thing to bear in mind about the Pendolino - you have to have a valid ticket before boarding. Failure to do so will result in a 650-złoty (£115) surcharge. But you can now book and pay online, it's easy. My ticket, bought three weeks in advance, cost 59 złotys (£10.50).

Yesterday was another day when Poland worked. All my trains were on time, taxis showed up promptly when called, lunch (at Pod Papugami) was excellent, and the sun shone. Nothing to complain about at all.

This time last year:
Poland's universal panacea

This time two years ago:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time three years ago:
Lent starts again

This time four years ago:
Art Quiz

This time five years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

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

Friday, 20 February 2015

How do we see God?

Many people believe in God in the way that they were taught by the religion they were born into. Many people do not believe in God at all. Then there are people with a strong sense of the spiritual, who actively seek deeper sense in the meaning of the Universe than simply a collection of rocks orbiting constellations of stars. In the first two groups, you will find fundamentalists wishing to foist their orthodoxy – as the only valid one – onto others. Not wishing to argue with adherents of one ontological view or the other, I would however, wish to engage in a purposeful dialogue with those who seek.

I see God as a purpose, a direction, a sense of purpose within the Universe. I'd argue that God is not omniscient, but rather is a tendency towards omniscience – a total awareness of all things, in which all creation will ultimately share. I do see God as omnipresent – present within every atom in the Universe.

So to me, the notion of a Supreme Being, who has chosen to reveal Himself to the sentient beings on Planet Earth by sending His Only Son, the Lord Jesus, down to Judea two thousand years ago becomes a little far-fetched when one considers the scale of the known Universe.

We currently estimate that the Universe consists of somewhere in the order of a hundred billion-plus galaxies, each consisting of a hundred billion or more stars. Are we alone in this mind-bogglingly huge cosmos? The chances are slim. It has been recently postulated that we may well be the most advanced form of life (at least in our near-neighbourhood). Many, however, believe that we are being regularly visited by beings from other worlds, who quite reasonably are keeping their presence here quiet.

The state of the Universe is entirely relevant to our understanding of God. Either the Universe is expanding, from a Big Bang, and will continue to do so for ever more – or will grow to a certain point, then begin to contact in upon itself back into a singularity, from which a subsequent Big Bang will ensue. Or it's a steady state (this view has rather been disproved by the extending light-shift suggesting that galaxies are moving away from themselves).

I like to think of a Universe evolving from a state of chaos and imperfection towards a state of orderly perfection; it may take one cycle of expansion-contraction; it may take more.

Consider this: every atom in your body is billions of years old – the oldest being only a little younger than Big Bang – currently estimated as having taken place 13.8 billion years ago. Those atoms, consisting of an ever-growing cast of subatomic particles (recently joined by the Higgs Boson) whizzing around their nuclei since time began – and currently form you.

Mankind is only just beginning to tentatively understand the nature of matter.

Our consciousness, our sense of self, residing within our frail, finite bodies, sometimes locks onto their very frailness and temporary nature; sometimes soars to sublime heights of understanding, mostly oscillating between the two states.

Tomorrow: Consciousness

This time last year:
Who needs a Leica with a Noctilux lens when you can do this?

This time This time last year:
Fides quaerens intellectum

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

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

The time seven years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Monist or dualist - which are you?

I am thankful for the Enlightenment; I can write this piece without fear of being burnt at the stake by the Holy Inquisition, as did Giordano Bruno 415 years ago yesterday for positing (among other ideas) that our world is but one of many.

Today, as Lent gets into full swing, I wish to enquire about no less than the nature of the Universe, 'all things visible and invisible' [wszystkie rzeczy widzialne i niewidzialne] as the Credo puts it.

So - what is the nature of these invisible things? Is the realm of the spirit, something entirely different to the physical universe in which our bodies currently dwell. Or it is? Is there nothing beyond the universe, however physicists may come to define it?

Dualism posits that body and soul are two entirely separate entities. We die and go to heaven - heaven neither a place, nor a state of mind, but being in the Presence of God. Monism posits that thought, consciousness, is an emanation of our brains - which are physical; monism is a holistic view of the universe.

Given that science has only a tenuous grasp of the nature of matter - like, just how many subatomic particles are there? And what is dark matter? Is there one universe, or an infinite number of parallel universes? How many dimensions are there - three? or eleven (including ones we're unable to comprehend?) What's quantum gravity? Where is the seat of consciousness? How did consciousness first arise? Delve deep into the many excellent Wikipedia articles on cosmology, ontology, philosophy, and you'll see how many questions there are about our universe.

We know how little we know, how much there is still is for science to discover and prove. What does this mean from the point of human spirituality?

For me at least the notion that the ultimate truth about our existence is contained within the literal Word of Our Creator, handed down directly from its source via any one of a number of competing organised religions, seems far-fetched. All we can really say, if we are honest in our pursuit of spiritual wisdom, is - "keep seeking". Keep asking, keep an open mind to new discoveries - and that way bring yourself closer to spiritual fulfilment.

The number of known exoplanets (satellites of stars in our galactic neighbourhood) that are theoretically considered capable of hosting life is growing each year. A God for our planet is also the same God as for those exoplanets too. One Creator. Made manifest here on Earth at one point in time for the benefit of all future generations of Mankind? Hmm... I do have grave doubts.

We were born to strive, the seek, to question, to journey constantly from a state of unknowing in a general direction of knowing. We know far more than our great-grandparents knew - but far less than our great-grandchildren will know.

Is there an entirely different entity that is the spiritual world? Or is this a convenient construct to assist organised religions in laying down rules useful for the creation of social order?

I do believe in spiritual evolution in the way I understand biological evolution. Step by step, closer to a singularity of awareness and will. Singularity in that all is one; whole and undivided. How then, do I see God?

This time last year:
Grim prospects for Ukraine

This time last year:
Wrocław's new airport terminal

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

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

This time five years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time seven years ago:
Flat tyre

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Kicking off Lent once again

Ash Wednesday has rolled round again. For me, this is the 24th consecutive year of doing Lent seriously. In each one, I've given up at least alcohol; more recently meat has been off the menu too.

Today is the first day of Lent, which carries on for 46 days and ends on Easter Sunday, falling this year on 5 April. This year, like last year, my Carnival (the period from New Year's Day to Shrove Tuesday) was relatively abstemious, raising a wine glass or beer mug only in company. Already I've trimmed my waistline, which is the key indicator, toning the internal core muscles through sit-ups (up to two lots of 85 a day). And the walking - I've kept up a good regime, averaging 10,821 paces a day every day since the New Year.

So - this year the proscribed list looks like this: no alcohol, no meat, no fast-food, no salt-snacks, no cakes, biscuits or confectionery, no sugar other than that found naturally in fruit. No fizzy drinks - only 100% fruit juice, water and teas; just one cup of coffee a day (first thing in the morning). Dairy products are OK, as is fish. Not such a restrictive diet as the one I did a few years back which was essentially vegan (no fish or dairy, also zero caffeine), but a challenging one with the exception of sweet things which I don't feel any temptation to eat anyway, and salt snacks which I set aside a couple of years ago.

Caffeine is the difficult one to give up. Doing so suddenly leads to three days of crushing headaches, followed by around a week of low-level background headaches. This can be reduced through a gradual reduction of caffeine intake in the weeks leading up to Lent, but not eliminated. At the end of the day though, I have come to realise that there's little point. Small amounts of coffee drunk daily is good for the brain and staves off senile dementia.

Sugar is also addictive, thankfully I have no predisposition to craving sweet things. Since last Lent, science has shown that sugar is something we can all live without, whereas salt we do need (though not in the amounts chucked into processed foods). Sugar has a more pernicious effect on blood pressure than does salt; we're told to limit salt to 4gm a day, sugar is less healthy. Sugars in fruit are fine; the biological role of sugar is to make us want to eat Vitamin C. But until the industrial processing of refined sugar from cane and beet (and lately corn starch), humans got by with no more sugar than found in fruit and honey. So - give up cakes, biscuits and sugar snack-bars for ever, for the sake of your health.

My brother has suggested this probiotic pick-me-up - the Yogurek. Take a gherkin pickled in brine (not vinegar), cut lengthwise into four, and dip into a natural yogurt. Good for the gut flora.

The walking will continue, along with sit-ups. Also, as I keep saying, I must focus on being more creative, writing more in particular.

This Lent I will try to be more philosophical, writing about the spiritual side of life, asking some existential questions and looking for answers.

I do invite you to join me, set aside a list of proscribed pleasures, a list of things to do that require willpower - and get going.

Tomorrow - an inquiry into Monism and Dualism.

This time last year:
Design, Build, Finance, Maintain, Operate: Improving the procurement of Poland's infrastructure

This time two years ago:
Wait to spend or save lives now? An infrastructure quandry

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

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

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Compositions in blue and white

Weather-wise, the appearance of cloudless skies and bright sunshine after a fortnight of February gloom has brought good cheer, and a some rays of optimism. The temperature today rose from -1C at dawn to +9C in the afternoon

Photo recipe: Take a brilliant blue sky, place a circular polarising filter on to your lens (the wider the lens the better), find a white subject, position yourself between the sun and the subject, turn the filter until maximum contrast is obtained, and snap.

Stare at leafless trunks of the slender silver birch trees of Jeziorki. Enlarge the photos, stare at them, and use your will to bring on the spring...

Some suburban blue and white... Across the tracks from Mysiadło, the Little Boxes estate.

And finally - blue and silver. Still my favourite skyscraper in town (although the Cosmopolitan building is very attractive too), Rondo ONZ One. Photo taken yesterday afternoon.

Five weeks until the start of astronomical spring, six weeks until the clocks go forward. Lent starts on Wednesday.

This time three years ago:
Waiting for the change to come

This time four years ago
A wetter Poland?

This time six years ago:
Heavy overnight snow

This time seven years ago:
Changing Jeziorki skyline

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

75th anniversary of Stalin's Deportations

Seventy five years ago today, on 10 February 1940, my mother - aged 12, her elder sisters (14 and 16), their mother and their father heard that dreaded knock on the door - it was the NKVD - the precursor of the KGB and today's FSB. The family, which lived in Horodziec, in the eastern province of Wołyń (then Poland, today in Ukraine) was given an hour to pack their things before being taken to the railway station in Sarny. There, they were forced into cattle wagons with scores of other local families and taken 1,500km in the depths of winter to a labour camp, Spetspos'yolok 17, located 20km from the nearest railway station, in place called Punduga, north of Kharovsk in the Vologda Oblast. [Google Earth:  60° 7'40.99"N,  40°12'17.24"E].

Hundreds of thousands of Poles were arrested and deported that day 75 years ago. My mother's family were classed as 'enemies of the people' because my grandfather worked in forestry, and to the NKVD the forests were potential partisan bases. By eliminating those with knowledge of the forests (and their entire families), it would be harder for partisans to conduct armed operations against the new Soviet order. Their skills were put to good use, as slave labour in Soviet lumber camps.

From Wikipedia: "In 1940 and the first half of 1941, the Soviets deported a total of more than 1,200,000 Poles in four waves of mass deportations from the Soviet-occupied Polish territories... The first major operation took place on February 10, 1940, with more than 220,000 people sent to northern European Russia. The second wave of 13 April 1940, consisted of 320,000 people sent primarily to Kazakhstan. The third wave of June–July 1940 totaled more than 240,000. The fourth and final wave occurred in June 1941, deporting 300,000." The exact numbers are for historians to determine, difficult when the Kremlin has once again locked the archives.

Below is a letter that my mother sent to her friend from exile in Russia. Dated July 1940, the letter tells of daily life of a 12-year-old girl on a Soviet labour camp.

My mother writes that everyone over the age of 13 was working at the lumber camp chopping down trees, while she, as a junior, would rise at 5:00, join the queue for food, buy bread (brown loaf - 1 rouble 20 kopeks, white loaf - 2 roubles 10 kopeks), and oily, watery soup with noodles (41 kopeks a bowl). At 12:00 there'd be another queue - for lunch, then washing and mending clothes, and yet more queuing for food at 6:00 pm.

The camp, she writes, was surrounded by endless forest; it consisted of four barracks, a mess hut, offices, bakery, baths and a delousing hut. There's kipyatok (hot drinking water), a place for sharpening saws and axes, a well, a summer club; a school and a nursery is being built for children from the age of three months to three years so that their mothers can go to work. There were 400 people at the camp. My mother writes that she weighed 38 kilo, and as thin as a mosquito. She signs off apologising for her handwriting, as she's slowly forgetting to write in Polish (the schooling in the camp being in Russian).

Many had it much harder - sent to the depths of Siberia, to Kolyma, to the deserts of Central Asia.

Following the so-called amnesty accorded to Poles in the wake of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the family was allowed to make its way to join General Anders' nascent Polish army. My mother and middle sister Irena managed to leave the Soviet Union with the army, via Persia and Palestine; oldest sister Dżunia and their parents didn't - my grandfather died of typhoid fever in Kazakhstan. Ciocia Dziunia and my grandmother returned to Poland after the war, to the re-claimed territories of western Poland, while my mother and Ciocia Irena found themselves in Britain, safely under the dominion of King George VI rather than Stalin.

Stalin, the very epitome of evil in human form, cared not a jot whether the peoples he was murdering wholesale were Poles, kulaks, Ukrainians, the bourgeoisie, Georgians, Cossacks, the intelligentsia, Belarusians, Balts, the Orthodox clergy, 'rootless cosmopolitans' or Tatars. Or indeed Russians - his largest national group of victims.

My aunt on my father's side survived Auschwitz; now in her nineties, she receives a monthly pension from the German government. German Chancellors over the decades have wept openly at Warsaw's Umschlagplatz. German textbooks are unequivocal about Germany's role in the War. Germany has atoned for - and is paying for - its sins. But Russia?

Not a bit of it. Kicking off WW2 in unison with Hitler, invading as many countries between September 1939 and June 1941 as Nazi Germany did, Russia still claims to be the victim. And my grandfather, a Polish citizen, is no doubt claimed as one of the "26 million Russian war dead". Alongside millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Moldovans, Transcarpathian Ruthenians and Karelian Finns forcibly turned into Soviet citizens after the start of WW2.

But for my mother, her family, and the millions of deportees from central Europe to the Gulags and labour camps of the USSR, there's never been a word of apology from either Soviet or Russian leaders.

When Russia finally accepts that in 1939, it was ruled by a murderous despot, who'd risen to power by slaughtering the rest of the terrorist gang with whom he'd stolen an entire country in 1917, when it comes to accept that the invasions in 1939 and 1940 of eastern Poland, the Baltic States and parts of Finland, Czechoslovakia and Romania were naked acts of territorial aggression; when it accepts that millions of citizens of those countries, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, were wrongly deported, imprisoned and murdered - then - and only then - can Russia be looked on by Poland and the rest of the civilised world as a great country; a majestic nation with a proud culture that has spawned so much great literature, music and art, a country of unimaginable natural beauty, a friendly neighbour. Until such a time, Russia can only be associated in the minds of the peoples of central Europe with the image of a boot stamping down repeatedly on their faces. Which is what's going on to this day in Eastern Ukraine.

If Russia is ever to be accepted as a good country, rather than a bullying, murderous dictatorship with nukes, the Russian state will need to win the trust of its neighbours, and its own citizens. The best way to do this is to come clean about its 20th century past.

Incidentally, I find it odd that Poland - which put on such a splendid commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as well as the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising - has not even noted the significance of today's anniversary.

This time last year:
'Peak car' - in Western Europe, at least

This time two years ago:
Pavement for Karczunkowska NOW!
[We still don't have one... I walk home in fear of my life.]

This time three years ago:
Until the Vistula freezes over

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

This time six years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Białystok fails to impress

OK, so early February is not the best time of year to see any city, but Białystok must rank among the ugliest of Polish cities. I arrived yesterday, walked from the bus station to my hotel, the Branicki on ul. Zamenhofa (a nicely restored place). At half past six in the evening Białystok was dead; hardly anyone out on the streets, very little by way of cafes, bars or restaurants. Architecturally, the city lacks delights or surprises.

Below: view from my hotel window this morning. Absolutely nothing to write home about.

Below: shopping is not an exciting experience in Białystok, the Ipswich of the East.

Below: early '90s eyesores like this in Warsaw have long been torn down and replaced by something decent looking. File Dom Handlowy Wenus under Polisz Arkitekczer.

And this... Is no one in Białystok town hall responsible for the city's aesthetics? This is hideous! Down the hill from this monstrosity, a big loudspeaker was blaring tinny Disco polo out across the street last night, a cheap keyboard in minor key, synthetic drum beat and the most banal of lyrics. When I walked back this afternoon, the same loudspeaker was still blaring tinny Disco polo.

One bright spot - Al. Marszałka Piłsudskiego has fine examples of street art adorning the blank walls of some kamienicas. The street itself is devoid of retail space, but there's a good cycle path on either side of this main thoroughfare.

Below: according to Google Maps, this is Białystok's centrum - just off ul. Lipowa. Lack of a mediaeval centre makes this Białystok stand out negatively from the other big eastern cities, Lublin and Rzeszów. No charming starówka, or old town district.

But above all it's the advertising, a riot of badly-chosen typefaces on badly-selected background colours, shop signs and billboards that bothers me about Białystok (below).

I cast my mind back to an earlier visit to Białystok - October 2008 - six and half years ago, when I took the photo of the railways station (below)...

...and I returned to exactly the same spot today (below). What's changed? Well, PKP has managed to modernise exactly one platform. It's amazing how not hosting an international football championship has led to stasis.

Probably the city's most depressing building is the PKS bus station (below).

Bye bye Białystok, my bus back to Warsaw is due in an hour. Time for me to go.

But despite the ugliness, Białystok is not a despondent dead-end city where the only the good thing to come out of it is the road to Warsaw - like Radom. Yes, there were a few kantory (bureaux de change), mainly near the stations, offering competitive rates on euros (from Germany), pounds (from the UK) and dollars (from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine). But the retail category that caught my eye in terms of how just many Białystok has - were shops selling wedding dresses. Evidently the younger citizens of Białystok are still tying the knot in town.
This time last year:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz

This time two years ago:
Interpreting vs. translating vs. explaining

This time three years ago:
More than just an Iluzjon

This time four years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

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

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

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Demand and inequality in the global economy

If mankind has learned anything last year, it's that the rich get richer, no matter what. Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the 21st Century, makes the point that you make more money investing wealth than you do from working for someone. Of course, you need to have that wealth before you can invest it. Once a portion of society does - inherited from generations that have assiduously garnered that wealth and passed it down to their scions - that portion's wealth will continue to grow and the gap between rich and poor will increase.

We have also learned, via the Economist, that inequality has been boosted in the last half-century or so by the not unsurprising phenomenon of university-educated men marrying university-educated women, and such couples spend far more on educating their offspring than couples who have not had the benefit of tertiary education. Given that today's economy places a huge value on education, the scions of the educated - who also happen to be the beneficiaries of inherited wealth - will continue to pile on the money, passing it onto their offspring, thus increasing the gap between rich and poor.

We read that the wealthiest 1% of the world's population owns 80% (or some other staggering figure, depending on which charity or think-tank did the maths). The middle classes of the developed world, whose mission in life is to rescue those less fortunate than themselves gnash their teeth in simulated woe, while the poor of the developed world (who are far, far wealthier and healthier than their grandparents' generation) threaten to rise up to smash the system (again).

From Greece's SYRIZA to Spain's Podemos, the populist redistributionist left is on the march, allied with the radical right in a struggle to bring down The System, which has left them poor while a shadowy conspiracy maintains and multiplies its obscene wealth.

It's easy to knock this way of thinking, but there is a point in here somewhere. The developed world seems to have run out of puff; the economy lacks the drive, the vigour, the need - to develop further. The only people, as the Schumpeter column in this week's Economist points out, who are working flat out to drive the economy forward, are the owners of technology companies, bringing us apps that will change the way we live, work, shop, etc, while turning them into multi-billionaires. The rest of the middle classes - in the developed world at least - seems to have lost that fire in the belly, that animal passion to win - because we have all the material things that we need. In fact we're drowning in them (UPDATE NOV 2015: see my post on 'stuffocation').

Why bust a gut working harder, to earn money that could go on yet another flashy car, exotic holiday or fashionable clothes? Why buy that second home in the Caribbean when it can be rented for the season? What's the use of a second billion when all it's going to do is to be left to the children?

We saw this in Japan in the early 1990s. An economy that grew faster than any on earth in the 45 years from 1945 to 1990, suddenly hit a plateau and just stopped growing. The stereotypical Japanese young man today seem to lack any kind of drive, and is content to live with his parents reading comics.

When the basic needs on Maslow's hierarchy have been sated, the ones that require money - being fed, clothed and housed, and basic comforts are sated, the higher order human needs such as love, belonging and self-actualisation can be met without necessarily spending money on them.

Self-esteem can be achieved by spending big bucks on a grand house with a huge lawn and a black SUV with a V8 motor and darkened windows - but it can also be achieved by contributing to society in less cash-intensive but more laudable ways. And if you've inherited (rather than worked for) that grand house with a huge lawn - why strive to buy a second one?

The developing world - and I'd still include Poland here - is playing catch-up with the West. When in catch-up mode, people are prepared to work harder, because they still have basic needs that need to be met. Poles in the UK will work harder than indigenous Brits, with their ingrained sense of entitlement from the Well-Fair State (to quote Ali G). They are worked harder at school too.

Is increasing inequality a biological rather than historical (to quote Karl Marx) inevitability? I believe it is. The answer is certainly enlightened regulation by the rulers that the we the people choose to govern us. Smart policy solutions, based on empirical  study and implementation of best practice rather then knee-jerk populist slogans. Incremental change rather than radical change. And yes, self-regulation and leadership from the wealthiest.

But in the short-term, where is that demand going to come from in the developed world, where few are genuinely needy? Where 27" flatscreen TVs and all mod-con kitchens, and one-child per bedroom are the state-sanctioned norm? When London rioted in 2011, the youths involved were intent on helping themselves to the latest trainers and mobile devices than Making A Political Point.

Yes, there are still pockets of relative deprivation - but it is relative. Disease and starvation no longer stalk the Western World. The rich - or rather the middle class - are paying for an extensive safety net that ensures that the poorest do not get dangerous.

It is good to see a rise in philanthropy - money spent in improving the health of the developing world, or educating those who could benefit from it but cannot afford it will bring about a continued betterment of mankind. (Interestingly philanthropists are generally those who earned the wealth rather than stole it, but that's another story.)

Yet my central question remains. The developed world will only pull itself out of the doldrums if it can find the drive which triggers some brand new demand. Perceived rising inequality is a sideshow - albeit an extremely serious one that needs a robust policy response. Where will the next wave of demand come from? I'd put my money on life-sciences and healthcare - we all want to remain youthful and vigorous into our 90s and beyond.

This time last year:
Sorry, takie mamy koleje
[One of the most famous quotes from the Tusk years]

This time two years ago:
Visit to Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

This time three years ago:
Under Rondo Dmowskiego

This time four years ago:
My Most favourite bridge

This time five years ago:
Street lighting under the snow

This time six years ago:
Ul. Poloneza - archival video before the S2 was built

This time seven years ago:
Aerial juxtaposition over Jeziorki

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The future of Warsaw's public transport

Although published in December, this document only caught my eye via a link on TVN Warszawa - the city's plans for the sustainable development of public transport for the capital. In case you wish to download it (a 109-page .pdf document in Polish), it is available here. I take it the city means 'sustainable' rather than 'balanced' because the word zrównoważony, as I've pointed out on this blog frequently, has come to be the Polish equivalent of 'sustainable' even though evidently in Polish it isn't.

Anyway, it is a document that deserves study - it contains much valuable detail about Our City and how it is likely to develop. It also contains lots of interesting facts and figures.

This study doesn't stop at Warsaw's city limits, but takes in the surrounding gminas, or municipalities (one administrative level down from powiat or district). It is an acknowledgement that Warsaw is no longer a city, but a metropolis, spreading far out into the surrounding countryside (the area covered by this study stretches some 70km north to south and over 60km east to west). A joined-up public transport strategy is essential if the main arteries into the capital are not to be clogged up by exurbanites desperately commuting by car for want of an alternative.

Below: towns like Góra Kalwaria are included in this survey; it is 30km south of Warsaw city centre (as the crow flies) and 15km south of the city's borders. It is lucky enough to be connected to the capital by a rail link.

The document is thorough in its demographic assessment. It makes for interesting reading - it shows how young families are moving away from the city centre to raise their youngsters away from a high density urban environment. This will create pressure on suburban bus routes as the children grow up to make their own way to schools and colleges. The city centre is depopulating and at the same time ageing. Between 2003 and 2013, Warsaw's population grew by a mere 36,000 (the bulk in new residential districts like Białołęka or Wilanów), while the surrounding gminas added an extra 112,000 registered residents.

Warsaw also has over a quarter of a million students, some 40% of whom come from outside the metropolitan area - that's a further 100,000 people needing public transport.

There is also an acknowledgment that we don't really know how many people live in Warsaw - the number of niezameldowani (people living without a meldunek or registration of residence). It was estimated at 222,000 in 2010 - a number that would push Warsaw's population to two million.

Warsaw is a rich city; its GDP per capita is three times the national average, and 181% of the EU28 average; unemployment is the lowest in Poland. Hence, the capital will continue to act as a magnet for people seeking material advancement in life. The key question is whether they will settle in the city and its immediate suburbs, or will want to live further out, in a house with garden, and commute to town.

Dividing up the area into 'urban', 'urban-rural', 'rural-urban' and 'rural' (Jeziorki is 'urban-rural', while Dawidy Bankowe across the tracks is 'rural-urban'), we see that only the outer fringes of the furthermost gminas are properly rural. It's worth pointing out that 23% of Warsaw proper is still actually farmland!

The study examines in detail the travel habits of Warsaw residents and those living outside the city limits who travel in and out each day. Fascinating nuggets emerge - Wednesday is the busiest day of the week on the Warsaw Metro - 63% of taxi users are going home - only 1.1% of journeys are made by bicycle.

Crucially, the study considers the future with a number of different scenarios. One is that of urban concentration, the other of de-concentration. Will people cluster around the city centre, or move out to the distant suburbs? This is crucial in terms of car usage.

It is discouraging to see the increase in the number of cars per 1,000 citizens rising to 580 in Warsaw and 612 in the western exurbs (the figure is 416 in Berlin and 212 in Inner London); the hope is that continued improvements in the quality, reliability, frequency and comfort of public transport will slow this growth.

Consider this - in Warsaw, more than twice as many journeys are made by public transport (69%) as by car (30%). In the outer suburbs, public transport accounts for 42% of journeys, car 46%. Where there is good public transport, people will use it.

Over the past years, the authorities have encouraged citizens to use public transport by spending a lot more on it. From 2007 to 2013, Warsaw has doubled the annual subsidy to public transport operators from 724m złotys to 1.45 billion złotys, increasing the amount of subsidy per ticket from 61% to 67%. Politicians calling for free public transport (like that chap from PiS who was beaten by Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz in last autumn's mayoral election) need to understand that this would cost the city's annual budget an extra 800m złotys or so and would lead to an inevitable deterioration of services as planned investments are shelved.

Below: investment in the bus fleet means that all Warsaw buses today are low-floor types; the old Ikaruses, once the mainstay of MZA, the city's bus operator, disappeared finally in December 2013. 

I'm heartened to read that the city is intending to restrict and even close off certain parts of the city to cars, limiting the number of parking spaces, increasing the number of pedestrian precincts and prioritising public transport. There's also a lot of good stuff about bringing stations, bus and tram stops and transport hubs up to the highest standards when it comes to accessibility, and improving frequency and punctuality of services. There's even mention of using GPS technology to monitor punctuality, and to help create more realistic timetables. Nothing, however, about extending the Metro.

Improving passenger communication with better information regarding services is also covered by the study. There's nothing worse than being kept in the dark - your bus or train is late and getting later, there's no announcement, no ability to find it via an app in your smartphone.

The report is hazy about this crucial element of customer satisfaction. While the Metro is excellent, with monitors telling you when the next train is due down to the nearest 10 seconds, and increasing number of tram stops are fitted with monitors, far-flung bus stops or railway stations offer nothing than a printed timetable. The simple - and cheap - answer is to enhance the functionality of the ZTM and Bilkom mobile apps, so that all buses, trams and trains can be tracked in real time via GPS.

Warsaw's public transport has come on tremendously over the past ten years, as EU money is invested and Western European best practice takes root. The ability to buy tickets more easily, gain better, more accurate travel information (not necessarily yet in real time), a joint ticket covering all buses, trams and suburban trains and the Metro, has made travelling around Warsaw far less stressful. Plus, the smartphone means that time travelling by public transport can be put to good use.

I would hope that in another five years, there will be new tram routes, more bus lanes, more cycle paths, an SKM line down to Piaseczno, a real-time GPS system that tells you exactly where that bus you're waiting for actually is, and that more people will give up their cars and take to public transport. It is difficult to do your 10,000 paces a day (as recommended by the World Health Organisation) if you are tied to your car, and as I wrote on the post earlier, cities where the car rules tend to be fatter and less healthy.

Do take a look at the report - it's good that the city of Warsaw is taking public transport so seriously.

This time last year:
[This winter PKP PLK has put up snowdrift fences]

This time three years ago:
(on the superiority of Polish schools to British ones)

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:

This time seven years ago: