Sunday, 29 March 2015

We don't need no (tertiary) education. No?

This week's Economist cover story (The whole world is going to university - is it worth it?) has prompted me to write about university education, from the perspective of Poland.

In general, my take on this is - when 50% of all jobs in an economy are graduate-level, then, and only then should 50% of young people go on to university when leaving school. Otherwise, there will be masses of disappointed, disaffected, overqualified, frustrated and under-effective people working in jobs below their potential. While parents the world over are keen to see their children studying in prestigious universities, the truth is that vocational education is also essential to ensure that an economy has enough technical and craft skills for the labour market.

Now, to Poland. While Poland has been praised for the performance of its schools, its universities underperform woefully in the global league tables.

Polish schools could still do with improvements around areas such as teamwork and life skills, but generally, there is still rote-learning that's essential to drumming in facts into young minds with good memories. There's none of the wishy-washyism that has taken root in British schools, "like, hey man, if a kid spells things, like, unusually, then that's just him being creative, man. Seven times eight is 37? Well, that's not, er, wrong, it's just differently right." This cuts no ice in Polish schools, where facts are the be-all and end-all. As a result, Poland is above the UK, US and Germany in the OECD's PISA rankings in all three areas - reading, mathematics and science - among 15 year-olds. The trouble is that this rote-learning approach continues pretty much into university.

I remember many, many years ago talking to a bright Polish student who'd managed to get a place at Oxford - a young Radek Sikorski. I asked him what he saw as the biggest difference between a British and Polish university. He replied that he was shocked when on his first day at Oxford his professor told his students to question everything he says.

It only occurred to me many years later, after moving to Poland, just what Radek Sikorski meant. Polish professors are not to be questioned. They are the alpha and omega. They represent autorytet. But the British professor is challenging students to learn how to think independently.

Then there's the British tutorial system, whereby four or five students gather in their professor's room to discuss the book they've read, in the context of that week's lectures. This is largely missing in Polish universities.

What a good university degree should be is proof that a young person has been taught how to think. How to question, how to challenge, how to generate ideas, compare narratives, think at the meta-level; how to identify the big picture, yet be able to drill down into the detail.

Now Polish university courses - and here I exaggerate for the sake of simplicity - still tend to be pan profesor reading from the textbook he'd written in 1986 to a lecture hall full of students scribbling down notes; their end of term assessment based on an exam passed by faithfully regurgitating from those notes.

A Polish professor's tenure is pretty much job for life (quite literally - no set retirement age). A British professor is regularly assessed on the basis of feedback from students, number of published works, and, often, on commercial sponsorship brought into the university.

The Polish universities will change when the old guard finally shuffle off this mortal coil and the younger generation of lecturers, who speak (and publish) in English, who travel abroad, who are up-to-date with commercial developments, get to run the place. Polish universities are described (by those who work within them) as feudal fiefdoms, the last bastions of the communist era.

While the two best Polish universities languish in position 335 (UJ) and 371 (UW) in one of the leading global rankings (with British universities occupying four of the six top places), I cannot blame either Polish students or Polish lecturers for wishing to carry out their studies or research abroad.

Poland needs to kick out the jams - get rid of the silly, anachronistic and time-wasting requirement for doctors to 'habilitate' their qualification before moving on to full professorship, and to start insisting that academic works be written in English, the global language of research. And pay needs to be attractive to retain the brightest and best minds; 3,000 złotys is not enough when the average UK monthly pay is the equivalent of 11,000 złotys.

I'm sure that before long, Polish universities will start to rise up the international rankings, like Polish secondary schools have. What a shame the universities were not reformed along with the schools, back in the late-1990s. Time now for higher education minister, Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, to get radical.

Why's this so important now? Poland's economic transformation has occurred largely off the back of strong manufacturing performance, meshed into the supply chain of German's Mittelstand. The Germans quickly spotted the opportunity to export the handsarbeit to low-cost Poland. As Poland's wages continue to converge with those across the old EU 15, Poland needs desperately to innovate for its economy to rise up the value-added ladder. That innovation should come out of universities - pure research commercialised, patented, and sold around the world.

Sadly, it's not. When it comes to proportion of GDP spent on research and development, Poland's near the bottom of EU rankings. Much of this is down the the poor quality of professors.

The 2014-2020 EU financial perspective is holding out to Poland the prospect of billions of euros to be spent on R&D. This will only happen if Polish universities are staffed with people who have the vision, the talent and the drive to make this happen. Sleepy-time down at the faculty staff-room, internecine plotting against uppity young lecturers etc will have to end if Poland is to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to raise its game in innovation.

The talent is there. Whenever I'm reading about science in the English-language media, I frequently come across inventions, discoveries or innovations in the context of scientists with Polish-sounding surnames. The tragedy is - they are invariably working for Western universities.

This time last year:
Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh's urban mountain

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time five years ago:
First long bike ride of the season

This time six years ago:
Life returns to Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Early spring dusk

Friday, 27 March 2015

London's Docklands: a case study in post-industrial revitalisation

On Monday I was in London for the International Food Exhibition at the ExCel centre, in the heart of London Docklands. I took the Tube to North Greenwich, on the Jubilee Line, and then crossed the river on the Emirates cable car service, which was launched ahead of the 2012 Olympics. Though lightly used by commuters, the cable car - which rises 90m over the Thames at its highest point - is a useful link between the O2 Arena south of the river and the the ExCel centre to the north. Below: the view looking north from the cable car. You can see a Docklands Light Railway train, beyond it the new Siemens Crystal exhibition centre - a extremely sustainable 'green' building.

Thirty years ago, Docklands was dead - killed by the containerisation of maritime freight. Tilbury docks downstream took over the role of London's commercial port. Eight square miles around the redundant Royal Victoria, Royal Albert, King George V Docks and the Isle of Dogs were redeveloped, and as it turned out, the entire scheme proved to be a splendid success. Today, London Docklands is a valuable extension to the City of London in terms of office space for the financial services sector; modern transport infrastructure - the Tube, light railway, new roads, river crossings and an airport have brought vibrant new life to the place. And there are thousands of new dwellings - some re-adapted from old warehouses, but mostly new-build. And restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and exhibition space.

Below: from the north bank, looking south, a view more usually associated with the Alps than with East London. A casual glance at any map will show you how the Thames snakes around this part of the city; the more crossings - tunnels, bridges, cable cars - the better.

Below: the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome, built to see in the year 2000, now a permanent fixture on the Greenwich Peninsula. A popular music venue, currently hosting fading acts from the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s - and yes, the 1960s.

Below: the heart of the docklands. I used to come here often in the early-mid 1980s, before the redevelopment of the docks got under way. The old docks were a perfect film set. As well as being the location for Full Metal Jacket, 1984, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, it was also the backdrop for dozens of pop videos. Today the cranes are still here, dressing a set rather than earning a living. Overhead, planes take off from London City Airport, redeveloped from what used to be King George V Dock.

Docklands still attracts the film makers. I chanced upon the rehearsal for the filming of the advertisement for the new Jaguar XF, which will be driven across the Thames. And all the while, planes are taking off from London City Airport.

With the silk covers removed, the car is still wearing its overcoat, to be taken off just ahead of its drive. (Click here to see the actual high-wire drive across the Thames.)

Below: homeward bound on the Docklands Light Railway, approaching Blackwall Station. To the left, the HSBC building. As the train is driverless, you can sit in the front seat, which offers a splendid view of the City's skyline as the train heads west.

Below: approaching Poplar station. The DLR is a light railway, characterised by sharp-radius curves, steep inclines and short platforms. In places, it feels a bit like a roller-coaster! Much of it was built along old abandoned track beds or on derelict land,

Below: nearing the City end of the DLR (termini at Tower Gateway and Bank). On the horizon three recent additions to the skyline - the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin (the Shard is across the river by London Bridge).

The history of the regeneration of London's Docklands is worth learning from. Today, it's a given that the scheme was a success; back in the 1980s, there were plenty of doubts. Lessons for Poland: public investment spurs private investment, infrastructure kick-starts economic recovery.

This time last year:
Scotland and its language

This time two years ago:
Death, our sister

This time three years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time four years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time five years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time six years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Open Skies spy eyes Jeziorki

Soviet-era aircraft over Jeziorki are getting rarer and rarer with the passing years; I've snapped some good ones since I started blogging in 2007. So it was with a good deal of excitement that I reached for my camera, with 55-300mm lens mounted, as I saw this Russian Antonov An-30 coming in to land at Okęcie over our house.

What's this plane doing over Warsaw? It is monitoring Poland, for Russia, as part of the Open Skies Treaty. On the tail fin (obscured in this shot by the left tail plane) is the wording 'Открытое небо'. [Like the Polish odkryte niebo - literally 'uncovered heaven']

Click to enlarge, and look at the round window just below the cockpit. Can you see a face peering down?

I have seen several Open Skies Antonov An-30s above Jeziorki; some were Bulgarian, others Ukrainian, others still Russian. It is interesting that despite the ongoing conflict in east Ukraine, the Russians have not pulled out of Open Skies (as they have pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe less than two weeks earlier).

How much longer Russia will continue as a member of Open Skies is unknown (probably until Mr Putin calculates that there is more political capital to be made from withdrawing than from gathering aerial photographs and electronic information this way). But for the time being, his planes are flying over Poland. Are Polish and planes from other NATO members flying over Russia right now, as the treaty envisages? Are Russian planes on Open Skies missions flying with their transponders switched on or off?

The An-30, NATO code-name Clank, is a fairly old aircraft, the newest having been built 35 years ago, the oldest are approaching 45. But then, as I've written here on a number of occasions, old age is no reason why planes shouldn't keep flying. The Russian Air Force still currently has 14 An-30s in service on cartographic duties. (So not an old warhorse; more of an old carthorse.) The An-30 is based on the An-24 and An-26 twin turboprop transports; I saw several of these parked up (presumably no longer serviceable) at Katowice airport yesterday; some were old Polish Air Force planes, the rest in the livery of Ukrainian private airlines.

This time last year:
New road and retail: waiting for Jeziorki's new Biedronka to open

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time five years ago:
What's the Polish for 'commuter'?

This time six years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

This time seven years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mill town Łódź

To Łódź today, for the Grand Business Mixer (over 200 firms present), held in the award-winning Grohman Factory, a beautifully refurbished textile mill converted into modern office and conference space. The project, located in Łódź's Księży Młyn district, won first prize at last year's Expo Real exhibition in Munich, beating 39 other entrants from all over the world. Original brickwork blends with modern materials.

Also part of the refurbishment project, the factory's fire station. Proudly displayed outside it, the original water pumping engine, made by Mather & Platt Ltd of Manchester.

There are still many buildings in the complex that are still in a state of dilapidation; I hope that in time all the original buildings will be restored and brought back to use.

Across the road (ul. Tymienieckiego), here's another refurbishment project, the Scheibler Factory, converted into loft-style dwellings. Around the core building in the old outhouses are arrayed shops that sell lighting, flooring, home entertainment, and some fine restaurants.

The photo below puts the former factory into its setting; surrounded by tenements built for the mill workers. These are still occupied, but have not been refurbished; they're a bit run down and could do with the same quality of work that went into the Grohman and Scheibler factory projects. Note the factory clock, clearly visible for all the workers to see.

Below: a typical tenement ('famuła'), note the doorstep that's been replaced by a wooden pallet. Original cobbles and brickwork, a place of immense historical character.

Łódź has been known as 'Poland's Manchester' - below, you can see why. Though the alleyways are wider. The city authorities are applying to register the entire complex as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bricktorian Poland!

I have been to Łódź many times but have never visited Księży Młyn. Definitely worth seeing.

This time two years ago:
Church and state

This time three years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

Walking home along ul. Dumki, I caught this pair of swans flying low over the pond, sunset in the background. Photos like this are the pay-off for having a camera around my neck all the time!

I could hear a lot of honking and flapping and splashing; four swans were making a commotion at the far end of the pond. The swans were in playful mood, chasing one another across the full length of the wetlands; taking a long run-up (literally; running along the water) before managing to get airborne, then staying low, just over the surface.

One coming back the other way...

And all was quiet and still at this end, the swans, exhausted by their high-speed, low-altitude chases, landed in the water and calmly resumed dredging up weeds from the bottom.

This time last year:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time three years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Spiritual leaders and spiritual mentors

This year's Lent has passed its half-way stage; in three weeks time it will be Easter. Time then, to return to my lenten ponderings on matters spiritual.

Don't follow leaders; seek the fellow-minded, discuss your spiritual feelings with friends; try out your ideas, fine-tune them. Question everything that anyone tells you about God - including what I'm saying.

Human history is littered with tribes, nations and religions led to their doom by leaders driven by a false ideology.

To quote Brian from Monty Python's Life of Brian, "You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals! You're all different! You've all got to work it out for yourselves!"

This, is I think the most profound point the film makes. It pokes fun at mankind's innate desire to seek salvation through following leaders, seeking heavenly signs, attributing divine intervention to coincidence*, and over-literal interpretation of The Word. And as well as religions, it mocks political ideologies too.

Instead of following leaders, we should work together towards consensus; picking up good ideas, discarding bad ones. A collegiate style of cooperation; arguing passionately for what we believe in, but being ready to give up cherished nostrums should a better way of seeing things emerge.

Better? How? Something that's truer, an idea that's more robust, less flaky, better able to withstand the rigours of empirical analysis. But at the same time, more human.

Leadership is a big word in business theory. The idea that a manager should do more than tell people what to do, but should inspire, encourage and lead by example. Leadership, therefore, is good; merely being the boss bad. Leadership is about one-to-many.

Mentoring is a big word in business theory. [Despite that, Google has helpfully put a squiggly red line under the word, suggesting instead 'tormenting'.] Mentoring is about one-to-one support of an employee (typically on the fast-track to senior management) by a more-experienced person.

How does this apply to developing spiritual insight?

The notion of 'leader' implies the notion of 'follower'. The notion of 'mentor', however, implies are more equitable relationship. The person being mentored ('mentee' - a clumsy word) is encouraged to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to test hypotheses.

Which brings me on to the question of 'authority'. A leader relies on having the respect of the followers. Authority has to be earned, it is not to be expected as a right. Too many leaders across history have not taken that to heart; the notion of 'divine right' proved to the be the downfall of rulers who led by decree and ignored the plight of their subjects - Charles I, Louis XVI, Nicholas II.

Wise leaders, whose authority is respected, have immense strength and influence. Part of the problem tearing at the heart of Islam is the lack of a single figurehead - such as the Pope - who could act as a moderating, stabilising influence. And indeed, Pope John Paul II exerted an enormous authority on the people of Poland; while he was alive, Poland had at least one unquestionable leader it could look to and unite around.

Leadership can be broadcast, published or delivered to large crowds, but in more intimate surroundings, there is space for dialogue and questions which becomes more the preserve of the mentor than the leader.

But mentorship can only occur when the number of mentors is at least equal to the people who feel the need to be mentored, rather than led. And at difficult times, its easier to let others do the thinking for us, and to be led, rather than to engage into a dialogue that will lead (hopefully) to a synthesis and a new, higher, level of understanding.

Religions tend to work on the basis of one to many. Top down leadership from sources of authority. Rather than mentoring - one to one.

The difference is like that between a Polish university, where a professor lectures a crowded hall, and a seminar in a British university, where three or four students have a long discussion with their professor, who openly encourages them to question his or her assumptions. Hypothesis - thesis - antithesis - synthesis. Not just learning by rote what is being passed down to you, but by examining and discussing.

The quest for higher levels of human consciousness can be sought through spiritual experiences such as gazing in wonderment at the heavens, but this should be leavened with intellectual examination of who we are in our universe, with the aim of improving our understanding of the purpose of life.

Many a tough question will face us along the way; the point is to learn, to advance, to evolve.

* Example: On Friday, Eddie asked me to buy him a train ticket to Łódź for the following morning. I did so, brought it home; when he saw it, he gasped in amazement. "It's for seat 12, carriage 12! The very same seat in the very same carriage I had for my last journey to Łódź - and for the journey before that! Seat 12 carriage 12, three journeys in a row? What could such as sign... mean?" 

OK, let's look at the odds: this particular train, the 06:05 Śnieżka TLK service from W-wa Wschodnia to Łódź Widzew and then down to Szklarska Poręba via Wrocław has six second-class carriages, each of 116 seats, a total of 696 seats in total. The odds of getting that same seat number, three journeys in a row is 696 x 696 x 696 is 337,153,536 to one. 

Well actually, it's far less - the number of the first ticket is irrelevant unless you're into the number 12 (see below), the second one is merely a one-in-696 probability of having the same number as the first, the third would then be a one-in-484,416 probability of having the same number as the second. And besides, the ticket numbers are probably batched so that a given pool of tickets is available at certain stations along the line, and there are over 30 between W-wa Wschodnia and Szklarska Poręba. Even so, the coincidence is striking. But what does it mean? Look at the numerology! Look at the number 12 - the sum of one and two is three - and Eddie is born on the 3rd day of the 12th month! What does it mean...? Not much. It does means, Eddie - watch out, don't be complacent, be more aware."

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
In memory of me

This time three years ago:
Cleaning sensors on my Nikons

This time four years ago:
Changing seasons and one's samopoczucie

This time five years ago:
Stunning late-winter beauty
[these are among my most gorgeous winter photos ever]

This time six years ago:
Lenten fare - Jeziorki gumbo

This time seven years ago:
Digging up Dawidowska

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

My apologies - a correction. Line M1 and M2 are directly connected

Two commentators have rightly pointed out that my last post contained a factual error (now corrected) - there is an underground passage between Lines M1 and M2 of the Warsaw Metro, which allows passengers to change trains without having to go up to near surface level, leave the system, check back in and descend to the other line.

The passage linking the two lines is at the southern end of the Line M1 platform (ie. back of northbound trains for Młociny, front of southbound trains for Kabaty). It's not particularly well signed, so if you are at the front of a northbound train or the back of a southbound train, you will pass two sets of escalators taking you up from the platform to level -1.

Below: if you get off a northbound Line M1 train, the passage to Line M2 is not immediately visible (it's behind the pillar to the right)

Below: still at Line M1 platform level - the top of the escalators leading down to Line M2. Note two 'up' escalators and one 'down' escalator.

Below: heading down the escalators. There is a lift option for wheelchair users, and raised floor markers for the visually challenged.

Below: at the bottom of this set of escalators, a short passage, then a staircase. View looking the other way towards the escalators to Line M1. Looks like the budget ran out for a second set of escalators. At busy times, it feels dangerously crowded, when four sets of trains arrive within minutes of each other, each disgorging passengers who wish to change lines here.

Below: finally down on the platform for Line M2. The passage linking the two lines is at the western end of the platform (so back of the eastbound trains headed for Dworzec Wileński, front of the westbound trains for Rondo Daszyńskiego).

It's not yet as obvious as in London, but Line M1 is colour-coded blue, and Line M2 red. Like the Piccadilly and Central lines respectively.

Thanks to readers An Lukasz and Marcin for pointing out my error, which prompted today's revisit and photos. Duly corrected on previous post.

Update 12 March: Take a look at this story on TVN Warszawa, pointing out just how bad signage is for the direct interchange between the two lines. [Thanks Marcin K]

This time three years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens tested

This time four years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

This time five years ago:
W-wa Śródmieście - commuters' staging post

This time six years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[Three years on, nothing's changed...]

This time seven years ago:
A sight that heralds the coming of spring

Monday, 9 March 2015

It's been 19 years,11 months and one day

The wait, that is, between the opening of the first line of Warsaw's Metro and the opening of the second line. Anyway, Line M2 is here and functioning, as of yesterday at 09:40, so this morning before work I checked it out for myself.

The line is short, just seven stations; from west to east: Rondo Daszyńskiego, Rondo ONZ, Świętokrzyska, Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet, Centrum Nauki Kopernika, (then under the Vistula), Stadion Narodowy and Dworzec Wileński.

So then. Starting from the west end of the line, Rondo Daszyńskiego (below). Note the red station entrance, shaped like a large, post-modern letter 'M' sloping towards the ground. Not too far away, Warsaw Spire rises above the neighbourhood, which will soon fill up with new skyscrapers as the city's central business district expands westwards.

Below: the new stations have sliding glass doors, head-height, impossible to jump over, unlike the gates on the first Metro line. Fare dodging has become harder.

It's eight in the morning, so rush hour... where are the crowds? The new public transport solution has not yet made its impact on commuters; no doubt in weeks to come, more and more people will start to use the new line.

Next stop, Rondo ONZ (below). The murals on the station walls were designed by famous Polish artist, Wojciech Fangor (92). Typographically unique and characteristically Polish, imparting a sense of urgency and style.

Westwards to Świętokrzyska, the interchange station with Line M1. Passengers wanting to change lines can either go up to level -1, go through the gates, enter the gates to the other line, and descend once more to platform level, or use the connecting passage (see next post). Warning: if you have a single-use ticket, do not go up to change lines, use the connecting passage.

The next stop is Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet, located at the junction of Nowy Świat and the east end of ul. Świętokrzyska.

Then to Centrum Nauki Kopernika (which was originally to be called Powiśle), and under the river, stopping at Stadion Narodowy, the train finally terminates at Dworzec Wileński, interchange for the station from which mainline trains would once depart for Wilno/Vilnius (but sadly today Polish trains no longer go there). Mr Fangor's graphics seen to good effect here. The journey from Rondo Daszyńskiego to Dworzec Wileński took just ten minutes, including five station stops along the way.

Below: entrance to the Metro at Dworzec Wileński, this time in blue. This is an important interchange from trams, suburban trains and buses. Time to head back to the city centre. Remember, this is rush hour...

Back at Świętokrzyska. Day two of operations, and two of the escalators are already broken. The up escalators (the single down escalator is working OK). The middle one is being fixed, so it's closed off, passenger troop up the stationary one on the right.

Meanwhile back to Line M1 for a train to Centrum and to work. It arrives. It is so packed I cannot squeeze on board, and have to wait for the next one, only slightly less crowded.

It's been a long wait; I wonder how long before Line M2 is completed (Line M1 took over 13 years to get from Kabaty to Młociny). Finally, the length of time between the opening of the first and second metro lines around the world:

  • Paris - first and second line both opened in same year(1900)
  • Hamburg - one year (first line: 1912, second line: 1913)
  • Stockholm - one year (first line: 1950, second line: 1951)
  • Mexico City - one year (first line: 1969, second line: 1970)
  • Moscow - three years (first line: 1935, second line: 1938)
  • New York - four years (first line: 1904, second line: 1908)
  • Prague - four years (first line: 1974, second line: 1978)
  • London - five years (first line: 1863, second line: 1868)
  • Madrid - five years (first line: 1919, second line: 1924)
  • Minsk - six years (first line: 1984, second line: 1990)
  • Berlin - eight years (first line: 1902, second line: 1910)
  • Beijing - 15 years (first line: 1969, second line: 1984)
  • Buenos Aires - 17 years (first line: 1913, second line: 1930)
  • Warsaw - 20 years (first line: 1995, second line: 2015)
  • Rome - 25 years (first line: 1955, second line: 1980)
  • Tokyo - 27 years (first line: 1927, second line: 1954)
  • Budapest - 74 years (first line: 1896, second line: 1970)
  • Athens - 131 years (first line: 1869, second line: 2000)
Below: a photo I took 19 years, 10 months and 30 days ago, on 10 April 1995, two days after the first line of the Metro was opened. This is Kabaty station, the southern terminus. Today, this is a built-up area all the way to the forest in the distance. 

This time two years ago:
A selfless faith

This time three years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time four years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time five years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time seven years ago:
Spring much closer

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Polish road deaths fall again; still way too high

The number of human lives lost on Poland's roads last year fell once again, to a headline figure of 3,202*, down by 4.6% from 2013's toll of 3,357. My prediction last year that over three thousand people, alive when I wrote those words, would be killed on the roads during the course of 2014 proved sadly, though predictably correct.

Although the annual tendency for the number of fatal accidents on Poland's roads continues to move in the right direction, the pace of improvement is flagging. The 2013 figure represented a 7.8% fall on 2012. Compared to 2004 (5,712 dead), last year's toll represents a drop of 44%. And this as the number of vehicles registered in Poland continues to climb (a 67% increase over the past ten years).

So things are getting better, but are still way behind the UK. The 2014 data is still unpublished, but looking at 2013, the number of people killed on UK roads was 1,713, the lowest since records began back in the 1920s.

Speed remains the number one killer on Poland's roads. For 855 of those 3,202 victims, the principle cause of their fatal accident was excessive speed (27%). This is down from 29% in 2013, but still compares negatively to the UK, where excessive speed was the primary cause of 20% road deaths in 2013.

Drunk drivers were responsible for the deaths of 363 people in Poland last year. Of those fatal accidents caused by drunks, 175 deaths were the result of excessive speed.

While incidents of egregious driving are fewer than they were when I arrived in Poland and the mayhem and carnage on the roads was of a different order of magnitude than today, I still witness cases that beggar belief. Just look at this driver (below). There is a 60 kph speed limit on ul. Karczunkowska and yet driver of the silver Citroen has sailed past a string of traffic at around 90+, ignoring the pedestrian crossing (which my children used for many years on their way to school).

This kind of recklessness behind the wheel deserves punishment such as being deprived of access to a car for one year. The irony is that had I not pixelated out his number plate, I'd have been the one facing legal difficulties, not the driver whom I'd caught in the act earlier this week.

The Polish government has not engaged in the kinds of public awareness campaigns seen over the decades in the UK. Rather it gets worked up in moral panics in the mass media like the one last January when an over-the-limit driver killed six pedestrians prompting a silly argument about alco-locks built into cars.

In the UK, public information campaigns such as Kill Your Speed, Not A Child or Twenty's Plenty, alongside heavy use of speed cameras, has had the effect of significantly reducing fatal accidents to a level which is among the lowest in the world. Road safety has nothing to do with the number of vehicles on the road. It is all about civilisation. Which is in turn about mutual respect for other road users, in particular more vulnerable ones.

Here in Poland, it is the private sector and voluntary organisations that lead the campaigning for safer roads (see this campaign from last year, run by an insurance company's charitable foundation) . Shame on you in government for not taking the lead!

As last year, I end with these official recommendations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for British citizens travelling to Poland:
In 2013 there were 3,357 road deaths in Poland. This equates to 8.7 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.7 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2013. 
Driving on Polish roads can be hazardous. There are few dual carriageways and even main roads between major towns and cities can be narrow and poorly surfaced. Streetlights, even in major cities, are weak.  
Local driving standards are poor: speed limits, traffic lights and road signs are often ignored and drivers rarely indicate before manoeuvring.

* Full Polish accident stats for 2014 here.

This time last year:
Putin: tactical genius, strategic failure

This time three years ago:
My photos turned into beautiful watercolours

This time four years ago:
Silver birches and blue skies

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2009)

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2008)

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Spiritual evolution: are we in a New Age?

Human progress is evident all around, but are we progressing spiritually? As a species, are we growing in consciousness as well as in intellect? Is there more to civilisation than politeness and tolerance? As mankind pushes back the boundaries of science, are we nearer a universal awareness?

I often look at our cats and wonder what they make of humans, Openers of the Cat Food Tin, Masters of Darkness and Light, who bring sunshine to a room by touching a white square on the wall, who can move rapidly in little rolling houses. Are we gods to them? Or just another intriguing part of their life, of which they are vaguely aware, but intellectually incapable of making sense of it all?

We are uncovering more and more about the Universe, but there are still huge areas about which we know little. Dark matter and the seat of human consciousness, to name two. A definitive account of where the Universe came from and what its ultimate fate will be. And indeed how many Universes there are, and how many dimensions there are. That's just the stuff we know we don't know.

I mentioned the other day the astrological concept of the Age of Aquarius. Yes, it sounds like twaddle (you divide the heavens into 12 arbitrary groups of stars that when viewed from Earth look like fish, archers, lions, crabs etc, then work out when the vernal equinox from one constellation to another). And anyway, the so-called 'dawning of the Age of Aquarius' could begin any time between the 15th Century and the 27th Century. But this line of thought, the idea that Mankind is currently entering a New Age, is of interest. Clearly, the old religions are failing to keep up with the spiritual aspirations of today's civilisation, a civilisation with a far better understanding of the physical Universe than ever before.

The notion of New Age spirituality - blending bits and pieces of existing faiths, bringing in mysticism from the East, such as Zen, coupled with modern science (see Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, for example) - is a holistic striving for monism, ending the separation between the physical world and that of the soul. The battle between science, which eschews wishingful thinking in favour of rigorous experiment and empirical proof, and spiritual movements which are prone to fantasise and dream up baloney to hawk for profit is ongoing. Yet, to quote Capra, "science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both."

Californians wearing Native American dream-catcher headdress and swinging healing crystals while chanting Buddhist mantras are, I feel, way off the mark, selling a dream rather than really seeking higher levels of understanding and awareness.

The spread of civilisation and learning, the increase in leisure time, access to unprecedented amounts of knowledge via the internet, are helping those who genuinely seek answers to ultimate questions to advance. At the same time, IQ levels are rising (see Flynn effect), the product of better nutrition, smaller families, better education. But greater intelligence does not in itself result in higher levels of consciousness and understanding, though without it, there cannot be spiritual evolution.

I believe that over the centuries and millennia, Mankind will move nearer to God, reach ever-higher levels of consciousness and evolve spiritually. This is the long path from zero to one, not always a straight line, rather, a rising tide, with each wave tending slightly higher up the beach.

Previous essay in this series: A spiritual frame of mind

This time three years ago:
S2 - a year from completion?

This time four years ago:
In praise of blue skies

This time five years ago:
A piano, tuned

This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A spiritual frame of mind

Many years ago, when Eddie was still small, the prospect of being taken to church of a Sunday morning brought about tantrums. He did not want to go. Yet when on holiday in Przemyśl, friends of ours suggested we all go to a Greek-Catholic Ukrainian mass, Eddie came too, and at the end of the mass he wanted to stay for the next one, so entranced was he by the whole show.

In particular the music. When I first watched Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in the late 1970s, one scene struck me as being entirely unconvincing. The portrayal of the Ukrainian-American community certainly squared with my British-Polish upbringing, but... this church? This singing? All too Hollywoodsy - the choir must have been professional singers. And yet when I visited Ukrainian churches in Poland, the first thing that struck me was the wondrousness of the music; polyphonic, otherworldly, intensely mystical. A different world to that which one hears sung in Polish Catholic churches. Then there's the decor, the feeling that one is sharing in a profound mystery behind the gilded iconostasis - something incredibly uplifting.

Certainly having the Catholic mass in the vernacular (post Second Vatican Council) takes away from the majesty and communion with the eternal. (And the change from the King James Version to the New English Bible has had a similar effect, replacing majestic, well-loved wording, so deeply embedded in the English language, with something that reads like government health and safety guidelines.)

Before moving to Poland in the late 1990s, I'd take Moni to Ealing Abbey, a Benedictine church, where one mass each Sunday was said in Latin, and the singing by a choir of monks was quite different in quality to the tones heard at the Polish church down the road.

And while children's masses are family-friendly, when hordes of screaming four year-olds are tearing around the aisles squirting Ribena at one another, it is difficult to get into a spiritual frame of mind.

And it is this that's needed for one's consciousness to reach out to God. The right atmosphere, one conducive to prayer, leaving a space for dialogue, being open to that elusive back-channel.

For me, a 13th Century cathedral, be it Anglican or Catholic, in France or England or Poland (with a decent choir) does the trick. Modern churches, shorn of the decorated stonework, without the stained glass, with oaken pews replaced by bean-bags, and filled with angular, gimmicky modern art fail me in this extent.

Frankly, I find it far easier to communicate with the Infinite in the countryside or outdoors on a starry night.

Ritual without the right spiritual attitude, to me at least, has no intrinsic quality. Doing for the sake of doing, rather than genuinely seeking communion with one's Maker. A genuine search for spiritual meaning requires concentration, and an mind uncluttered by external distractions.

This does make me ask whether it is possible to seek God in the presence of many people, or whether it is a solitary quest.

Thus endeth the second week of Lent.

Link to previous post in this series: Speaking to God, listening to God

This time last year:
Sunday in the City

This time two years ago:
God's teachings

This time six years ago:
A week into Lent

Monday, 2 March 2015

Speaking to God, listening to God

In The Doors' song, The Soft Parade, Jim Morrison states categorically that YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH PRAYER. Well, apart from me having an issue with the concept of 'Lord' (so feudal - why not 'Chief Executive Officer of the Universe?' - equally laughable), I disagree with the late Jim. Indeed, God is not a cosmic wishing-well to pour in our wants. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof asked God whether it would spoil some vast eternal plan if he were a wealthy man. Evidently it would have, as his plea was not fulfilled by the end of the musical.

But petitioning God for higher levels of awareness and understanding is right and proper. And basic human needs - health, work, companionship. Nationhood? "If you will it, it is no dream," said Theodor Herzl of the State of Israel. "Ojczyznę wolną/Rać nam wrócić Panie", the last line of the hymn sung at Mass during Poland's partitions and communist occupation. Does God listen to patriots, or is strong will in itself enough to alter history?  If we pray for peace, will our prayers be answered? Why Auschwitz...? Is prayer an individual matter or a collective one?

Prayer is a dialogue; I do believe there is a back-channel, but you must be prepared and open to listen to it. Ask the right question, in the right, spiritual, frame of mind, reflect upon it in silence, and listen to the wisdom embedded in all those atoms of which you are made. The moment you realise that you are listening to God is the moment that an unbidden thought - one that you have not cogitated upon - enters your consciousness. It may not be what you have been seeking. It may only be a partial answer, or a clue to consider another way. You may find the answer disappointing, confusing, exhilarating. But you must know that it is the answer. You must be sure of its authenticity; that it is not wishful thinking nor self-justification. It may take weeks, it may even take years to hear that real voice.

In answer to my questions as to the nature of the afterlife, many years ago I heard the answer: "We are part of a continual whole." Unbidden. Just like that. Those words.

But such occurrences are rare; you have to be in the right state of consciousness, ready to receive.

And - recorded on this blog (here), another unbidden explanation, coming to me on a day of numinous wonder: "There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes". Marvellous; the close presence of the Divinity.

I wrote about disasters happening when least expected. Prayer should also be about being on your guard; about considering the possibility of personal disasters, in order to avert them. Or just postpone the inevitable, postpone to a time when you are more ready to deal with them.

Next: getting into a spiritual, or transcendent, state of consciousness.

Previous post in this series: How does God speak to us?

This time two years ago:
D3200 shoots X100
[One of my most popular blog posts!]

This time three years ago:
Weekend with the Fuji X100

This time six years ago:
Sublime sunset, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Dramatic sunset, Jeziorki

Sunday, 1 March 2015

How does God speak to us? Signs, tokens - coincidence?

This is such an important question. Does God show us signs, tokens? If so, how should we interpret them?

There are people who believe in all kinds of signs - does the mysterious disappearance of the Southern Equatorial Band on Jupiter four years ago really mean the Age of Aquarius is almost upon us? Attributing significance to things we see or experience

Today, I saw a flock of five magpies - traditional birds of omen - fly overhead. "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver..." Does this mean I'm about to come into wealth? And even if I do - would there be any connection with seeing five magpies today?

A Serious Man - the Coen Brothers' best, most meaningful, film - examines the this question in detail. Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota Jew, finds his comfortable life unravelling about him, and seeks answers from three rabbis. The first offers nothing but banality "It's about perspective." The third refuses to see him. But the second rabbi, the Rabbi Nachtner, offers tall tale to illustrate how God speaks to us. Best we see this - one of my favourite scenes from any film I've ever seen.

We are biologically conditioned to seek patterns in the world around us, to seek meaning in coincidence. But is there meaning in coincidence? Is this how God speaks to us?

Mankind has a tendency towards superstition. Black cats crossing our path, avoidance of the number 13, breaking mirrors etc. A superstitious mind sees an object of ill omen; should something bad then actually happen, the relationship between the two unrelated events becomes causal.

Good luck is also believed to be brought on by unrelated factors - placing a lottery ticket under a 'lucky object' is not going to shorten the odds on winning. Wearing an item of red underwear while sitting the matura (final school exam) will not improve the scholar's results.

Causal links between actions and events that aren't justified by reason and observation boil down to wishful thinking or superstition.

And yet, and yet. I have often felt that the Universe is held together by a web of coincidence; that there is meaning to be found in the relationship between events. Is it? Should we seek it?

On the basis of my experience, I see it this way: if you see a rare occurrence, it lodges in your consciousness. See it again, and it should be a call to thought, thought that can prevent disaster (dis-aster - from the Latin word for star and the prefix for 'to split' or 'to reverse'. Disasters are unforeseen; causing "loss, upset or unpleasantness."

Seeing meaning in coincidence should not be taken as an omen that something bad will happen - it should be seen as a wake-up call to shake us out of complacency, to consider that the ways things are right now will pass; to a better state or worse state. Coincidences may be read as flashing beacons that warn. (Read the post Balancing on the Edge of Chaos.)

Previous post in the series: dealing with good and evil

Next: speaking to God, listening to God.

This time last year:
Spring makes itself felt in Ealing

This time two years ago:
Waiting for the warmth to return to Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Remembering Poland's 'Accursed Soldiers'

This time four years ago:
Getting the balance right between work and play

This time six years ago:
Sublime Jeziorki sunset

This time seven years ago:
Sunrise getting earlier