Monday, 27 April 2015

Golf in Warsaw: update

This story needs not so much a comment as a follow-up. My initial reaction to the news that a golf course is being built in Jeziorki seems a bit optimistic; a bit like the old Radio Yerevan joke: "Comrade! Is it true they're giving away cars in Red Square?" "Well basically, yes, but the story you heard is not quite correct, Comrade - it's not Red Square but Arbat; it's not cars but bicycles - and they're not giving them away... they're stealing them."

So - what's the scoop on the golf course then? This Google Earth-based image from Marcin Daniecki will give more clarity...

Now, this image (rotated so that west is at the top) suggests that the golf course is occupying about one-third of the area I filled in with tees, fairways and greens. The left-hand side of this image is demarcated by Warsaw's city limits; across that line lies Mysiadło. Now, if Marcin's right, it is unlikely that even a nine-hole pitch-and-putt will fit into this area. May I suggest that it will be a golf driving range? There's less than 200m in any one direction, so I'd go for this.

Especially, as Marcin points out, the factory building within the red perimeter will be knocked down to make way for a 'scenic platform'. All makes sense now.

The Olympic Golf Club in Warsaw's Żoliborz is about this size, the Golf Park across the river in Józefów is a bit bigger, with both driving range and six-hole pitch-and-putt. Nearer to town in Wilanów on ul. Vogla is Golf Parks Poland with a putting green and three-hole pitch-and-putt and driving range. So - nothing even remotely full-size in Warsaw, not even a nine-hole course.

But what will happen in the area with the red question marks? Could still all make room for housing. The land at the bottom of the above pic is still very much agricultural, a tractor was making its way across it this evening, spraying the soil with weedkiller.

Let's have a look at the putative golf course/driving range as it appears today... The soil itself - very post-industrial, with bits of metal, rubber tyre and plastic sticking out. Will need a lot of remediation work doing to bring this up to the standard demanded by golfers.

Signs of recent activity by earth-moving equipment. Biedronka on the horizon, left.

From the south-west corner of the plot; photo taken while balancing on a tree-stump

The industrial building to the left will become a viewing platform?
 All very interesting! This development will be watched closely...

This time two years ago:
Review of Krzysztof Osiejuk's latest book

This time three years ago:
The Shard changes London's skyline

This time four years ago:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time five years ago:
Plans for the railway line to Radom
[five years on: still only plans]

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Nearness of Golf to Warsaw

As ever, I can rely on Marcin Daniecki for tip-offs re: local news. And today - what news! The site of the old rampa na kruszywa is to be turned into a golf course. Not a housing development, not a factory, not a municipal waste incineration plant. But a golf course! Hurrah! Obviously I'm not a golfer, but the appearance of a golf course on this post-industrial scrubland is to be welcomed. Manicured greens and well-tended fairways, tees, bunkers, water hazards, all maintained to a high standard, improves the environmental attractiveness of the area.

Below: I have mocked up an aerial photo taken from the latest imagery on Google Earth (dated 17 March 2015) to show the area around W-wa Jeziorki station. Click to enlarge. Note to golfers: this is a rough mock-up based on Ealing Golf Course, one of eight courses within a five-km radius of my former London home. Copy-pasted in Photoshop, I'd guess there'll not be room for a proper full-sized 18-hole course, but nine holes would fit admirably.

I wonder where the clubhouse will be located... and whether it will have fine dining facilities ?

Golfers will be able to come by train or by bus (the 209, which terminates by the station), but knowing the golfing community I'd guess they will come in their large, shiny new cars in order to show off outside the clubhouse car park.

As I wrote the Christmas before last, Poland is seriously under-golfed compared to the UK. The English county of Surrey (1,663km2) is home to 420 golf courses. Poland, a country of 312,679km2 - the size of 188 Surreys - can boast only 20 or so full-size 18-hole golf courses and maybe another ten or so nine-hole ones, according to the owner of Modry Las, one of Poland best (if not the best) courses. According to the Economist, the US has already passed 'peak golf' and the sport is in decline, for demographic and lifestyle reasons. But here in Poland, golf has everything to play for as society becomes richer and older.

Since the rampa was levelled with the ground, southern Jeziorki has been developing in a way I thoroughly approve of. The new Lidl and Biedronka, a garden centre (Szkółki Zamojskie), tennis on Karczunkowska - and under construction across the fields in Mysiadło - the European Tennis Training Centre. And what then of the fields between Jeziorki and Mysiadło? How about a dressage and showjumping centre? [Over in Mysiadło, a motor-sports centre has been established, with a rally cross circuit and some jumps for motorcycle scramblers. I don't know whether this has been formally approved, or whether local enthusiasts have adopted a corner of the abandoned collective farm (PGR Mysiadło) for their noisy activities.]

Posh sports, leisure and retail. All of which will make Jeziorki an even more attractive place to live. I look forward to welcoming Jeziorki golf course to our neighbourhood. All that's needed is a pavement for Karczunkowska...

This time two years ago:
The selective economic memory of Prezes Kaczyński

This time three years ago:
The British electrical plug and socket reigns supreme

This time four years ago: This time last year:
Easter, and the end of Lent

This time five years ago:
That Icelandic volcano (anyone remember what it was called?)

This time six years ago:
Views of Historic Toruń

This time seven years ago:
One swallow does not a summer make

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Translation and cultural differences

Saturday's congress of translators gave me the chance to ponder some more on the linguistic and cultural space between Britain and Poland.

The 20th Century saw the English language evolve in the direction of clarity. Winston Churchill and George Orwell both understood the power of clarity in communication. If you want people to listen to you, and act upon what you say, use short words and short sentences, avoid pomposity and get to the point. The Plain English Campaign, launched in 1979, accelerated this direction. The Campaign wages war against gobbledegook and jargon wherever it may appear - in official letters, in the small print of insurance documents, in legal opinions, in press releases, in banks' advertising materials.

The results are there for all to see. Look at the sheer brilliance of the UK government's website, What's the current threshold for paying VAT in the UK? Three clicks from the homepage and you know. Marvel at the clarity of the information: "You must register for VAT with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) if your business’ VAT taxable turnover is more than £82,000." Crystal clear! [I challenge you to find out what the VAT threshold is in Poland from the Ministry of Finance's website. How many clicks away from the homepage?]

It was not always thus; compare today's English with the language as used in Victorian times. Here's Charles Dickens, in full flow; from Dombey and Son (1848): "The Major, standing in the shade of his own apartment, could make out that an air of greater smartness had recently come over Miss Tox's house; that a new cage with gilded wires had been provided for the ancient little canary bird; that divers ornaments, cut out of coloured card-boards and paper, seemed to decorate the chimney-piece and tables; that a plant or two had suddenly sprung up in the windows; that Miss Tox occasionally practised on the harpsichord, whose garland of sweet peas was always displayed ostentatiously, crowned with the Copenhagen and Bird Waltzes in a Music Book of Miss Tox's own copying." This is a single sentence, composed of 104 words. Churchill and Orwell's legacy to the ages is that English literature will never revert to Dickensian logorrhea.

I reach for Moni's copy of Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000). Crisp prose. No waffle. Average sentence length around 24 words, two lines of 11/13pt Monotype Dante.

The reader of English today - for whatever purpose, business or pleasure, expects that the author will make the effort to make themselves understood. It is no longer the duty of the reader to try to unscramble the author's intent. Writing waffle has become unacceptable.

So - when translating from Polish (where clear writing has not been so well established) to English (where it is an imperative), how much onus is on the translator to improve the author's original clarity in the source language?

If the intended recipient is someone from Britain, accustomed to clear sentence structure based around a strong verb, will a direct translation of a Polish sentence into English have the intended effect on the reader? Call to action?

From the website of one of Poland's 14 Special Economic Zones... "Following the submission of the Letter of Intent by the Investor as well as its verification, the Zone Manager publishes an invitation to tender (if the tenderer applies in total for a Permit and the acquisition of rights to the real estate or other assets which are located in the Zone) or an invitation to negotiations (if the tenderer applies solely for the Permit, having the legal title to the real estate or other assets located in the Zone, or holding a document which reliably proves the possibility of them obtaining such a title) in the daily international press, on the Zone's website and, possibly, in the foreign press." OK. 109 words. Dickensian. [By the way, where's the principal verb in this sentence?] Yet this is a faithful and accurate translation of what's on the Polish pages of this SEZ's website. Ale czy o to chodzi?

The target group of the above text, English-speaking managers of potential investors considering this SEZ, will subconsciously see this as proof that procedures for entering the Zone are onerous, formalistic and overly bureaucratic, and therefore probably a waste of time.

My point is this. When translating from Polish into English, the translator - and the author - and the author's ultimate boss - must understand that there are cultural barriers that need to be bridged. In Britain it is not the sign of intelligence and education to go waffling on at ten to the dozen. Rather the reverse. Waffle is used by intellectually insecure people to hide their inability to think clearly.

And yet when I explained all this in Lublin on Saturday, I was met with some scepticism. "In Poland," one legal translator told me, with an entirely straight face, "clients expect their lawyers to write pages and pages of waffle. It's what they pay them to do."

Clearly then, it is high time for a Plain Polish Campaign. Educating both the writer and the reader as to the benefits of clear written and oral communication is essential. Language can be a source of competitive advantage for those countries that value clarity.

This time two years ago:
The demand for Park + Ride keeps growing

This time three years ago:
Cycle-friendly London

This time four years ago:
The end of the Azure Week

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

My dream camera, just around the corner?

The very excellent Nikon Rumors website and news service has published a rumour that Nikon is working on a full-frame mirrorless camera. These are joyous tidings indeed - if the camera has a rangefinder (or at least a viewfinder) rather than relying on the screen at the back to compose your photo (like on a mobile phone).

Let me explain why a) full-frame is important, and b) mirrorless is important and c) a rangefinder/viewfinder is important.

The  answer to 'what's the best camera you can own?' is 'the camera that's round your neck at all times, ready to shoot.' You can indeed buy a Nikon D4S or Canon 1D X, but these beasts weigh in at a kilo and a half (body only) and you don't want that plus a full-frame lens (weighing another half-kilo) stressing your musculoskeletal system all day long.

A smaller, DX-sensored DSLR like my wonderful Nikon D3200 weighs just 650g with a universal 18-55mm zoom lens. Yes, you can carry this around your neck all day long without feeling it. But the difference in quality between a full-frame (FX) and the smaller DX format is noticeable.

How can you marry the quality of a full-frame sensor with the weight advantage of DX format? Dispense with the mirror that's required to give you through-the-lens view of your subject. A rangefinder allows you to focus precisely, like in the early days of 35mm photography, when Leica and Contax ruled the world. No mirror means shorter flange-to-sensor distance, which means the lenses can be smaller and lighter and still have big apertures.

Without a rangefinder (or simple viewfinder) in a mirrorless camera, you are dependent on the screen to compose. For us ageing folk who need reading glasses, this is a big problem. With a DSLR or rangefinder camera, you set the right diopters in the window through which you compose, and you can do so without having to put on glasses. With just a screen to compose from, this is impossible, taking away the spontaneity that's so necessary when snapping. I don't want to have to think...
"Hmm... photo opportunity. Take out and put on reading glasses, switch on camera, look at the back of my camera with arms outstretched, composing on a little screen at a distance of 20-30cm... snap..." No. I want to lift the camera to my eye, compose, snap.

So - how would my dream mirrorless Nikon look?

Let me show you my dream digital rangefinder camera - a digital version of the Nikon S3 2000 - a collectors' piece, a re-issue of the 1958 S3. I've mocked up what a digital S3 could look like. Made of lightweight metal, with a full frame (FX, 35mm equivalent) CCD sensor, it could have take manual or  autofocus lenses (with VR - imagine an f1.4 lens with VR!). Beautifully oldschool.
Nikon S3D digital rangefinder, with manual Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens.Indeed, any Nikon S-mount lens would fit. Contax and Kiev lenses too. And with an adaptor, Nikon F-mount lenses would work just as well (only heavier and bulkier).

Nikon S3D digital rangefinder - 3-inch LCD screen, standard, familiar, intuitive Nikon DSLR controls on the back. Rangefinder window would have diopter settings.

Nikon S3D digital rangefinder body showing full-size FX-format CCD sensor

Nikon S3D digital rangefinder top-plate - thumb-wheel for manual focus
If Nikon were to bring out something like this, it could establish itself as the player in the full-frame mirrorless niche, bringing to an end the monopoly of over-priced, pompous jewellery maker, Leica.

In the same way that Fujifilm's X-series offers a range of smaller-format mirrorless cameras, from the purist, to the budget via the system model, Nikon could do the same for full-frame mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Coolpix A failed (for me anyway) because it had no integral viewfinder. I don't want a camera that I have to hold in front of me at arms' length wearing a pair of reading glasses. Plus, having the same sensor as a DX-format DSLR, there was no quality advantage either.

This time two year ago:
Longer, lighter lens

This time three years ago:
New engine on the coal train

This time four years ago
High time to leave the car at home

This time five years ago:
The answer to urban commuting

This time eight years ago:
Far away across the fields

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Lublin - Pearl of Poland's East

Poland has many fine cities worth visiting; for those not in the know, Lublin, some 100miles/165km south-east of Warsaw, is a bit off the beaten track. Tucked away in eastern Poland, along with Białystok and Rzeszów, it's less visited than Krakow, Gdańsk, Wrocław or Warsaw, yet each repeat visit continues to provide me with delight.

Yesterday I was in Lublin to address a translators' congress - very interesting (maybe a few thoughts on the subject at a later date if there's demand). As I had three hours to kill before my train back to Warsaw, there was a great opportunity to visit Lublin's Old Town.

Below: like Warsaw, Lublin has a Krakowskie Przedmieście, this street running from west to east and ending at the City Hall (right) and the gates to the Old Town (centre).

Below: at every turn, a tower. It was a cold day (+4C) with a strong wind; blue skies would alternate with dark clouds and showers. In the distance, the Trinitarian Tower.

Below: ul. Arcydiekańska, the Dom społecznej pomocy (lit. House of Social Help). On the wall, in white lettering, the Latin inscription Bene merentibus pax - 'Peace unto the well-deserving'

Below: some of the kamienice have been restored, others are still in a poor state, while renovation work continues at a leisurely pace. Sharing an idea from Warsaw's Ul. Próżna and Pl. Grzybowski, black & white photos of former residents grace the windows of buildings in the course of remont.

Below: view from Plac Po Farze* across to the Royal Castle. Note the trees in blossom and the threatening clouds, which thankfully moved north-eastward away from the city.

The Old Town has an abundance of restaurants and bars; having time, I looked around for what I fancied. U szewca ('at the cobbler's') is still the finest, but I was put off by the staid choice of beers. Indeed everywhere into which I popped my head had the same insipid line-up, with the occasional 'unpasteurised', 'unfiltered' or 'regional' beer that typically comes from one of the big industrial brewers. The craft ale renaissance is nowhere to be seen in Lublin's Old Town.

Similarly with food. I ordered a 10oz burger in a pub on the market square. A lovely place, tastefully - intriguingly even - decorated, good friendly service, busy with foreign tourists... the burger comes. High quality of meat - like you'd expect from a trendy burger place in Warsaw. And the price? About 6zł less than in the capital. But a square slice of processed cheese on top of the meat? Ketchup? Get out of town! Would it not be too much to ask for some Roquefort, a slice of fresh pear and some ruccola? And beer-wise, the most exotic departure from the ubiquitous Lech/Tyskie was a pint of Guinness. Where are the craft ales?

Here's a huge opportunity for business development. My children tell me of all the hip places going on in Łódź; now, Lublin - a city where 23% of the term-time population is students - should be at the cutting edge of hip. It isn't - it feels about six or seven years behind Warsaw when it comes to gastronomy and interesting beers. Below: the Old Town gate at the Royal Castle end.

When I first visited Lublin's Old Town in 1999 it was completely run-down and full of dilapidated alleyways (like the one below, ul. Ku Farze*) and crumbling tenements. Since then, it has slowly established its place on the must-see list of any tourist visiting Poland. Yesterday I saw scores of tourists - and indeed students - from the US, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, the Far East and the Middle East.

Below: the archway from the Old Town market square leading into ul. Rybna (lit. ' Fish Street' or 'Fishy Street'). Some more of the old charm of Lublin - catch it before it gets too Disneyfied.

Below: looking down ul. Złota ('Gold Street') towards the Dominican Basilica.

Below: the Trinitarian Tower, as seen from the Old Town market place.

Below: the Old Town Hall and Crown Tribunal building, surrounded on all sides by the cobbled market place. I don't think many of the tourists strolling around during this low-season weekend were expecting that it could be this cold in mid-April. This time last week it was 22C outside Warsaw.

In August 2013, I wrote a short story in five parts about the reported miracle that occurred in Lublin's cathedral (below). As this is my first visit to the city since writing it, I took the opportunity to see the arch-cathedral of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist (below). The Miracle of Lublin happened on 3 July 1949, while Poland was suffering the worst phase of Stalinism.

Many worshippers reported seeing tears of blood streaming down the face of the painting of the Madonna (below), a replica of the more famous one in Częstochowa. The communist authorities, wishing to stifle the crowds streaming into Lublin to see the miracle, had a provocateur throw a brick (or a plank according to some sources) from the top of the bell-tower to the left of the photo above, which killed an 18 year-old girl, and caused a stampede in the crowd queueing outside the cathedral.

Below: looking down from the square in front of the cathedral.

On my way down the hill from the Old Town towards the railway station, quite a way from the city centre. I pass the Diocesan Museum illuminated by strong late-evening sunshine.

The station is remarkable for having a vast amount of tracks. "The train for Szklarska Poręba calling at Warsaw is standing on Platform 1, Track 52. The train from Warsaw arrives at Platform 3, Track 57." Gulp! Apparently, many tracks are now defunct, ripped up or for freight only, but from the passenger's point of view, this numeration system is madness.Click on the scheme below to see just how complex Lublin station is - but surely there's a better way of numbering tracks? [click here to see the whole picture]. Plus, it's a long walk from the station to town. 

Lublin is well worth a visit. It's cheaper than Warsaw and easy to get to. Now it has its own (and remarkably busy) airport with connections to London Stansted and London Luton, and later this year to Sheffield-Doncaster and Glasgow. The rail journey to Warsaw takes a little over two hours and there's also a good service.

* Fara or Farna - archaic term for 'parish'. Kościół farny = Parish church. Ul. Ku Farze = Towards the Parish (Church) Street; Pl. Po Farze = After (or the Remains of) the Parish (Church) Square (or Place).

This time two years ago:
70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This time three years ago:
Tarkovsky's Stalker: a zone of my own

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's big billboards

This time five years ago:
Pace of development falters

This time eight years ago:
Strange days indeed

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blossomtime sublime

Spring bursts forth in flower as it does each year; with a crystal blue cloudless sky, enhanced by a polarising filter, the Mood Sublime is once again attained. Photos worth clicking on to enlarge, and contemplating the transient nature of blossom.

Below: blossom in Powiśle (Rozbrat)...

Below: blossom in Powiśle (ul. Kruczkowskiego)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Karczunkowska, by the station)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Achillesa)

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Nawłocka)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Trombity)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Trombity)...

This time three years ago:
Novotel Forum clad in Orange

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Icelandic volcano shuts down NW Europe air traffic

This time seven years ago:
Large, charismatic fowl

This time eight years ago:
Antonov An-26 in the twilight of its career

Friday, 10 April 2015

In Memoriam

Please take the time to read the names of those who died at Smolensk; this list is primarily intended to remind  my non-Polish readers of the magnitude of the tragedy that befell Poland that dreadful day five years ago. As you scroll down, the enormity and awfulness sinks in...

Joanna Agacka-Indecka, president of the Polish Bar Council

Ewa Bąkowska, representative of the Katyn Families

Lt. Gen. Andrzej Błasik, Commander of the Polish Air Force

Krystyna Bochenek, deputy speaker of the Senate

Anna Maria Borowska, representative of the Katyn Families

Bartosz Borowski, representative of the Katyn Families

Maj. Gen. Tadeusz Buk, Commander of the Polish Land Forces

Brig. Gen. Miron Chodakowski, Orthodox chaplain of the Polish Armed Forces

Lt. Col. Czesław Cywiński, president of the World Association of Home Army Soldiers

Lt. Col. Zbigniew Dębski, co-founder of the Union of Warsaw Insurgents

Leszek Deptuła,  member of the Sejm (Polish parliament)

Grzegorz Dolniak, member of the Sejm

Katarzyna Doraczyńska, press officer at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Edward Duchnowski, secretary general of the Union of Siberian Deportees

Aleksander Fedorowicz, interpreter at the chancellery of the President of Poland

Janina Fetlińska, senator

Lt. Col. Jarosław Florczak, close protection officer

Warrant Officer Artur Francuz, close protection officer

Gen. Franciszek Gągor, chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces

Grażyna Gęsicka, member of the Sejm, former Minister of Regional Development

Brig. Gen. Kazimierz Gilarski, commander of the Warsaw Garrison

Przemysław Gosiewski, member of the Sejm, former deputy premier

Fr. Bronisław Gostomski, personal chaplain to President Kaczorowski

Maj. Robert Grzywna, co-pilot

Mariusz Handzlik, undersecretary of state at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Fr. Roman Indrzejczyk, personal chaplain to President Kaczyński

Lt. Paweł Janeczek, close protection officer

Dariusz Jankowski, member of staff at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Natalia Januszko, flight attendant

Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, member of the Sejm, former deputy premier

Fr. Józef Joniec, Roman Catholic priest

Ryszard Kaczorowski, former president of the Republic of Poland in Exile

Maria Kaczyńska, First Lady

Lech Kaczyński, President of Poland

Sebastian Karpiniuk, member of the Sejm

Vice-Admiral Andrzej Karweta, Commander of the Navy

Mariusz Kazana, director of diplomatic protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Janusz Kochanowski, Civil Rights Ombudsman

Brig. Gen. Stanisław Komornicki, chancellor of the Order of Virtuti Militari

Stanisław Komorowski, Deputy Minister of Defence

Warrant Officer Paweł Krajewski, close protection officer

Andrzej Kremer, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

Fr. Zdzisław Król, member of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Janusz Krupski, head of the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression

Janusz Kurtyka, President of IPN (Institute of National Remembrance)

Andrzej Kwaśnik, Roman Catholic police chaplain and chaplain to the Katyn Families

Lt. Gen. Bronisław Kwiatkowski, commander of the Polish Armed Forces' Operational Command

Col. Wojciech Lubiński, personal physician to President Kaczyński

Tadeusz Lutoborski, representative of the Katyn families association

Barbara Maciejczyk, flight attendant

Barbara Mamińska, director of the Decorations Office, Chancellery of the President of Poland

Zenona Mamontowicz-Łojek, president of the Polish Katyn Foundation

Stefan Melak, head of the Katyn Committee

Tomasz Merta, deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage

Warrant Officer Andrzej Michalak, flight engineer

Capt. Dariusz Michałowski, close protection officer

Stanisław Mikke, deputy head of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Justyna Moniuszko, flight attendant

Aleksandra Natalli-Świat, member of the Sejm

Janina Natusiewicz-Mirer, social activist

Second Lt. Piotr Nosek, close protection officer

Piotr Nurowski, president of the Polish Olympic Committee

Bronisława Orawiec-Löffler, representative of the Katyn Families

Lt. Col. Fr. Jan Osiński, Roman Catholic priest

Col. Adam Pilch, Lutheran military chaplain

Katarzyna Piskorska, representative of the Katyn Families

Maciej Płażyński, member of the Sejm, former Speaker of the Sejm

Maj. Gen. Tadeusz Płoski, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Polish Armed Forces

Junior Warrant Officer Agnieszka Pogródka–Węcławek, close protection officer

Maj. Gen. Włodzimierz Potasiński, commander of the Polish Special Forces

Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, pilot

Andrzej Przewoźnik , secretary of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Krzysztof Putra, deputy speaker of the Sejm

Fr. Ryszard Rumianek, rector of the Cardinal Wyszyński University

Arkadiusz Rybicki, member of the Sejm

Andrzej Sariusz-Skąpski, president of the Federation of Katyn Families

Wojciech Seweryn, sculptor, creator of the Katyn Monument in Chicago

Sławomir Skrzypek, president of the National Bank of Poland

Leszek Solski, representative of the Katyn Families

Władysław Stasiak, head of the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Warrant Officer Jacek Surówka, close protection officer

Aleksander Szczygło, head of the National Security Bureau

Jerzy Szmajdziński, deputy speaker of the Sejm, former Defence Minister

Jolanta Szymanek-Deresz, member of the Sejm

Izabela Tomaszewska, head of protocol at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Warrant Officer Marek Uleryk, close protection officer

Anna Walentynowicz, co-founder of the Solidarity trade union movement

Teresa Walewska-Przyjałkowska, deputy president of the Golgotha of the East Foundation

Zbigniew Wassermann, member of the Sejm

Wiesław Woda, member of the Sejm

Edward Wojtas member of the Sejm

Paweł Wypych, secretary of state at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Stanisław Zając, senator

Janusz Zakrzeński, actor

Lt. Artur Ziętek, navigator

Gabriela Zych, representative of the Katyn Families

Cześć Ich Pamięci.

This time two years ago:
Warszawa 1935: 3D film reconstructs lost city

This time three years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time three years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time two years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Big bit of history repeating. Or is it?

For Vladimir Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century. Putin's long game is to rebuild Soviet power as Russian power, ensuring that the mistakes of the Soviet leadership are not repeated. He looks carefully at what worked and what didn't; what tools from the USSR's armoury were effective in the furtherance of Soviet power, and which of its activities turned out to be counterproductive.

Putin understands that Stalin-style mass oppression doesn't work. Why execute and incarcerate millions, if selective intimidation of a small, dissenting minority will do the trick more effectively? Why make enemies of the pliant masses when they can be held in thrall with cheap vodka and dumb-ass TV leavened with noxious propaganda and outright lies?

Putin's greatest fear is the regime-changing crowd, which he witnessed in East Germany in 1989, which he saw in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2005. Currently, a wave of under-reported strikes are occurring across Russia, led by public-sector workers who've not been paid, and by factory workers whose factories have been shut down due to a shortage of orders. These are happening in provincial cities and do not concern Putin. These protests will never threaten his position. Massive demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people strong, in the centre of Moscow, however, will. So Putin's focus is to ensure they will never happen. Intimidation is the principal tool to keep the dissident activists away from Moscow's streets. And by claiming that dissidents are mentally ill, the Putin regime is harking back to tried-and-tested Soviet techniques.

Above all, Putin understands that power is not to be shared or given away. This was the key mistake of the last tsar and the last secretary-general of the Communist Party of the USSR. Power must remain concentrated in one strong pair of hands.

Keeping Soviet citizens cooped up in their town of residence, and ultimately, inside the barbed-wire confines of the Bolshaya Zona, the wider USSR outside of the Gulag, was also a mistake, Putin realises. Let those who can afford foreign travel do so. If they don't like Russia, let them leave. For good. Simple. The reason that the USSR didn't allow ordinary Soviet citizens to travel abroad was a) because  it was feared that if they could, they'd all pack up and go, and b) because they'd see that the dream of the wonderful life afforded to them by the USSR was one big lie. Putin has no problem with dissidents leaving. His people know where they've migrated to, should they ever get too uppity. And in terms of b), Putin's propaganda strategy turns to old Soviet model on its head.

Rather than saying that everything in Russia's rosy (thanks to the internet, everyone can see its shortcomings), Putin is saying that the West is rotten, morally damaged and evil. He is saying that Russia is suffering because of the West's insatiable desire to conquer Russia - rather than point to its feeble, venal institutions, its monoculture economy or its underinvested infrastructure. And mixing this propaganda message about Fascists in Kiev backed by the US and EU into a blend of reality TV and raunchy entertainment shows, the bulk of the nation has evidently swallowing the lie.

Gorbachev's clamp-down on alcoholism didn't work. So let the masses drown their sorrows in subsidised vodka. OK, Russia has the lowest male life expectancy outside of sub-Saharan Africa? Better an inebriated nation than a nation of people soberly demanding their rights to a better life. In February, Putin lowered the minimum price of vodka.

Incidentally, obituaries noting the recent death of Singapore's founding statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, suggest that his achievements in propelling the city state to world-class prosperity are prompting authoritarian leaders the world over to say - 'this model works'. But for Mr Putin to make the comparison between himself and Lee Kuan Yew would be entirely fallacious. The reason that Singapore works is because it has a strong public administration (well-paid and incorruptible); because it is one of the very best places in the world to run a business (entrepreneurs know they will never be shaken down by venal bureaucrats or by the local mafia); and because it has rock-solid property rights. While Lee Kuan Yew tolerated opposition politicians about as much as Putin does, Singapore's leader understood that private-sector business must be allowed to flourish unhindered and that the public administration must be efficient and trustworthy.

In Putin's Russia, home-grown private business was never allowed to get off the ground and establish a solid bedrock for economic growth, akin to Germany's Mittelstand. And the public administration - from traffic cops to buildings inspectors, from customs officials to hospital bosses, live from the baksheesh they collect, passing on up a given percentage up the ladder, which reaches right up to the top. This system worked in Ukraine until the people there got totally sick and tired of it, and overthrew it. Putin fears the same may happen in Russia (albeit the system in Ukraine was more blatant, less sophisticated).

It is only a robust and thriving private sector, based on an unshakable faith in the Rule of Law and property rights, that will ever get Russia's economy into a healthy state. That takes, as we have seen in Poland and across the other post-2004 EU member states, a minimum of 20 years. But only if the institutions function properly and the rule of law is observed.

The Soviet Union's planned economy was a mistake that Putin wants to avoid. But his tendencies to micro-manage keep pulling him back from a liberalising direction. A centrally planned economy based on slave or semi-slave labour can just about keep its head above water in a world dominated by heavy industry. But in today's globalised, knowledge-based economy, central planning is as useful as the Holy Inquisition. The Kremlin cannot centrally decree a Russian Apple, Microsoft or Google. You can force an informatyk to write you 1,000 lines of code a day, but you can do nothing to ensure that it's good code.

Since the debacle over the Bekaa valley in 1982, the largest air battle ever fought by jet aircraft, the Israeli Air Force, with its US-built F-15s and F-16s, shot down between 82 and 86 Syrian Air Force Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s for the loss of four of Israeli jets. This was a wake-up call to the Soviet Politburo - while the Soviet fighters had faster climb rates and were more manoeuvrable, as well as being cheaper and easier to maintain in the field, their avionics, weapons guidance systems and radars - dependent on computer hardware and software - were clearly inferior.

This realisation - that future wars would be won by the country with the superior information technology - led to glasnost, perestroika and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union. The big question is - has Putin taken this lesson on board? As a Chekist, he understands the concept of the hybrid war and the role of maskirovka. Lie, disinform, deceive, camouflage, distort. This works well against a weak and poorly-trained army and a gullible public opinion at home and in the West. But in the event of Putin's bayonet striking steel, would he back down?

The firmer the West is with Putin, the less likely he is to keep pushing. The West won the Cold War because it was prepared to stand up to the relentless bullying of the USSR throughout the decisive decade of the 1980s.The question is - what lessons from that period has Putin learnt, and what lessons have the peoples, and the leaders of the West learnt?

This time two years ago:
Sunshine, snow, April

This time four years ago:
In vino veritas

This time five years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time seven years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Another snowy Easter; Lent summed up

As I sit here in the kitchen writing, I can see flurries of snow outside. It is Easter Sunday. Leaden skies, westerly winds, but the snow won't settle as it's +2C. So disappointing, given that two weeks ago it was already warm enough to wander out without an overcoat.

Still, it's the end of Lent, something I celebrated at midnight with a really fine bottle of Citra IPA by Great Heck Brewery - a truly superior ale, crisp, golden, full of single-hop flavour.

Time to look at the effects of 46 days of fasting, preceded by a gentler period of reduced food and drink intake plus increased exercise.

The effects are good. Weight down from 12 stone 0lbs (168lbs/76.2kg) down to 11 stone 2lbs (156lbs/70.8kg). And thanks to the sit-ups and reduced calorific intake, it's come off the right place - the middle. My girth has been reduced from 40 inches (101.6cm) to 38 inches (96.5cm). Not bad - two whole inches - 5cm, in three months.

During the first quarter I missed by steps target (a million paces) by less than 9,000. Still, not bad - that's 793km or 489 miles walked.

Logging the personal fitness data - and this year I've added fresh fruit and veg intake to my spreadsheet - is a good motivator for me to at least keep sight of my Lenten resolutions for the rest of the year. A useful indicator - in the week around Christmas, I managed to consume 78 units of alcohol, nearly four times the recommended amount. My consumption for the whole of the first quarter of this year has been just over one-third the recommended amount.

Meat - apart from the odd craving for a decent hamburger now and then, fish and cheese pretty much fulfil my protein needs. I can see a world in which cattle are no longer farmed for meat, but only for dairy, and burgers come from old dairy cows and bulls maintained exclusively for the breeding of dairy herds. Such meat would be expensive and ropy, but the benefits to the planet of cutting down on beef farming would be great.

Ensuring that I eat my five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables daily has become another little daily ritual. Looking over my log, I can see that in the first quarter of this year, I've managed this amount, 5.2 portions indeed. [A portion is a cupful. I don't count boiled/cooked vegetables, only raw.]

On the spiritual side - what have I learned this Lent? Mainly (the incident of Eddie's Three Tickets) that one should not look for Meaning in Coincidence. This is stuff straight out of the Coen Brothers' inestimably great movie A Serious Man. For three railway trips to Łódź in a row, Eddie gets a ticket for the same seat in the same carriage. The odds ostensibly come to 337 million to one. "What can such a sign... mean?" This Lent, I concluded that the answer is - nothing. Or is it?

Over the millennia, our species has devised complex theological structures to account for the intellectually baffling puzzle of coincidence. Entirely disconnected events - connected. Seemingly random? Or bearing meaning, that we can find if only we think about the connection hard enough?

Or is it neither and both? Consider the Schrodinger's Cat paradox mentioned in A Serious Man, along with the Uncertainty Principle. Is the ultimate answer, to quote Clive's father from the film "Please, accept the mystery"?

Stuff to ponder on. A life in balance must consist of a balanced amount of pondering and action.

And a happy 92nd birthday to my father, Warsaw Uprising veteran, Bohdan Dembinski - such strength of body and will in old age is an inspiration to me!

This time last year:
Happy 91st to my father!

This time two years ago:
My father at 90

This time three years ago:
An independent Scotland - what if?

This time four years ago:
Królikarnia - Warsaw's 'rabbit house'

This time seven years ago:
My father at 85

Friday, 3 April 2015

Analysing the success of Lidl

It's been just over three years since Lidl opened its store in Jeziorki; my first impressions were dire. After walking around the aisles, Eddie and I left having bought zilch. As we left, we exchanged the same thought - "There is absolutely nothing in this shop". The reason our first trip to Lidl was so utterly negative was the lack of well-known brands. From butter to beer, from canned fish to sliced ham, Lidl's shelves stocked nothing familiar. [see this post from three years ago].

But Lidl has changed. Indeed, Lidl is fast becoming a major challenger to the retail establishment in the UK, where the Big Four (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Asda) are suffering at the hands of the German upstart. Here in Poland too, Lidl is becoming increasingly popular, as any conversation with other shoppers will confirm.

What's the secret of success? Turning a negative (no continuity of supply) into a positive (be surprised, indeed delighted). Good category managers with a sharp eye for a bargain.

If shoppers at the established supermarkets are like farmers, expecting regular supplies from the field or the granary, Lidl shoppers are like hunters, seizing the unexpected opportunity.

Lidl's Deluxe own-brand deli products are amazing - not only on account of their low, low prices, but because the stupendous quality. Take for example the recent appearance of an 850g pack of Parmigiano Reggiano - matured for 30 months, not the usual 15 - in a large, wedge-shaped cardboard box and including a special cheese knife. Priced at something unbelievable, like 59.99 złotys (just over a tenner). And taste-wise - this is the best Parmesan I've ever tasted. Trouble is, they're all gone. Disappeared. Sold out within a few days.

Below: a small selection of Lidl's Deluxe range, including stuff like Tortelloni al Nero di Seppia con ripieno al Salmone.

The Deluxe shelves expand in the run-up to Christmas and Easter; the 24.99 złotys packs of pate de foie gras will disappear before long. If you see something you like, and the price is good, and the sell-by date is long, buy, buy, buy.

It is by putting in high-end products (such as the famed Chateau Talbot wine for 200 złotys, the appearance of which on Lidl's shelves made national news) that Lidl draws in the discerning middle-class foodie. I mentioned the Beefmaster steaks (these are now also available in Biedy-Biedronka too), and the Roquefort. The chleb drwalski (Dr. Walski's bread) is wholesome, nutritious and tasty, the organic bananas are tastier (and yellower) than the fruit offered in Auchan; the own-brand nuts (walnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios), are good and inexpensive.

I'm also a fan of Lidl's unbleached, uncoloured, unperfumed Eco toilet paper. OK, it's not whiter-than-white, it doesn't smell of spring meadow nor does it have roses printed on it, and its greyness does nothing to visually enhance your bathroom. But it is better for you long term. One doesn't want to go rubbing all those chemicals into one's posterior on a daily basis. Germans are very fussy about their bottoms.

Another Lidl peculiarity is lack of shopping baskets. There are trolleys, yes, though these don't take 2zł coins (only 1zł, 5zł and €1 coins accepted). But if you want to do a small shop, the convention is to help yourself to a cardboard box and to use that instead of the basket.

With its off-beat, quirky image, its ability to surprise and delight the shopper, Lidl is winning the hearts and wallets of shoppers wherever it appears. But it will never become mainstream. Lidl could never become the dominant supermarket brand, unless it changes its strategy.

Over the three years its been here, I use it regularly, but my big weekly shop is still done at Auchan. My spend there is lower (maybe even 40% lower) than it would have been had Lidl (and indeed Biedronka) not appeared in Jeziorki. At a pinch I could live without visiting Lidl, but I could not live without Auchan. Having said that, I could not shop at Auchan without use of a car, but for regular fresh-food top-ups, Lidl and Biedronka are both within easy walking distance (1km).

Auchan has a far wider range, and - although sometimes it stops stocking things I've hitherto bought regularly there - it can boast around 95% continuity of supply, in terms of stuff I bought a month ago and want to buy again. At Lidl it can be as low as 35%. The other week I popped into Lidl in search of four items, none of which were there (Nixo mackerel fillets in sunflower oil, green seedless grapes, Plan de Dieu Burgundy wine and Wensleydale cheese). I left the store empty-handed. Big fail.

The secret of successful shopping at Lidl is to be prepared to be surprised. The UK marketing campaign for Lidl - 'Join the Lidlers' has created the verb 'to go Lidling'. This means "to rummage around looking for a pair of matching cycling gloves discounted from 30zł to 6zł". It means to keep an eye open for the weekly Lidl newsletter telling you that next week will be Mexican week and that crispy tortilla shells will be on sale from next Monday until stocks run out. The Lidl newsletter will inform you that AC-powered air compressors, hedge-trimmers, motorcycle helmets, leather wallets, deep-fat fryers, shower-cabin de-fungifiers and digital compost thermometers will appear, and then disappear unless you're quick enough to hunt down the bargain.

Lidl can therefore only take a complementary role in the food retail landscape. Being surprised and delighted is all well and good, but the regular supply of staples at a consistent price is more important to consumers.

Follow-up, June 2015: The Deluxe promotion is gone and long forgotten. Other than bio bananas and Eco toilet paper, I've few things that draw me into Lidl. If the shop could keep Deluxe going the year round, it'd have me in there more often.

This time last year:
Should schools be teaching language - or Languages?

This time two years ago:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time three years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time four years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki
(+18C! Today it's around zero and snowing!)

This time five years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time six years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time eight years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour

Thursday, 2 April 2015

On gratitude and loving life

As Lent draws to a close, the joy of Easter Sunday almost upon us, some closing Lenten thoughts of a spiritual nature.

I believe it was an elderly Maurice Chevalier, who when asked what it's like to be old, said "it's better than the alternative". Enjoying life, however it may appear, is the essence of gratitude for being given the chance to be alive. That chance is so mathematically slim, and yet it is a chance that so many of us neither realise we have, or squander it.

What then, is the purpose of life? It is to make the most of what we have. To optimise our potential; I'd argue that it is the spiritual potential that's the most important - striving to get ever closer to the Universal Singularity, a total understanding of everything, unconscious awareness of all.

This is not to be achieved in one lifetime, but how far we evolve spiritually depends to a great degree on how much we love life.

I have written about prayer as dialogue; often, that feedback, that feeling that our message has been received and understood, is that feeling of 'the inner hug', accompanied by tears welling up in the eyes. That moment, we stand on the brink of a greater appreciation of everything.

Moments in which the glory of creation is apparent to us. Moments when we delight in manifestations of human kindness. Moments in which the Eternal Deity's presence is clear and certain.

Sadly, such moments are few and far between in our rushed lives. Seeking them out rarely brings the intended result. Holidays, pilgrimages, silent visits to empty churches - do we find these moments - or do they find us? It is difficult to force oneself to be spiritual. And I am convinced that many among us do not have any contact with the Sublime, the Eternal, the Numinous.

Meditation, something I do at night when I wake and cannot fall back to sleep again quickly, is a useful tool in that space between wakefulness and sleep. Meditate on your breathing in, on breathing out, on the essence of what it means to be alive, and conscious, and aware.

Easter is almost upon us but the weather is unseasonable; parts of Poland are snowier than they were at Christmas time. Freezing temperatures are not conducive to the season of joyous rebirth. Winter this year was mild; spring has been delayed.

This time three years ago:
Edinburgh views

This time four years ago:
Halfway through Lent

This time six years ago:
Swans on ul. Trombity

This time seven years ago:
Papal anniversary, Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Sowing oats, Jeziorki