Friday, 31 July 2015

Once in a blue moon

Thirteen full moons in 52 weeks - not all of them fitting within one calendar year - so when a month has two full moons - such as this July (2nd and 31st) - the second is called a 'blue moon' (not to be confused with a 'harvest moon', which occurs in August). And the fact that the night was cloudless gave me the chance to photograph the moon. Splendid!

Here it is - shot using a Nikkor 80-400mm lens, set to manual focus on a tripod with VR switched off, mounted on my Nikon D3300, with its 24 megapixel sensor. The moon truly is a thing of wonder - this huge lump of rock, our only natural satellite, progressing majestically about the heavens, over our heads, a quarter of a million miles away. Click to enlarge - it's fabulous. It makes the recent photos of Pluto and Ceres all the more remarkable - the feat of getting a probe all the way there to send back images to earth.

The last time I blogged the moon was in December 2008, when it came closer to the earth than in a long while. For those with an interest in photography and astronomy, here are the two images side by side, with today's image rotated to align with the one taken six and half years ago. Same lens - but attached that night to my old Nikon D80, which had a mere 12 megapixel sensor. Comparing the two photographs closely, the enhanced detail that the more modern sensor extracts from the image is clear to see. I look forward to snapping the moon with a 96 megapixel sensor within a few years. And maybe a 600mm lens!

Finally - an unexpected bonus - a photo of a plane coming into land at Warsaw Okęcie airport against a full moon. It's incredibly difficult to get a perfectly framed shot of an aircraft coming into land with a moon in the background. Never mind the focus and the motion blur - the trick is the framing. It's not easy to photomontage such an image either - the heat haze from the jet engines makes it very time-consuming to do right. Even if you know the flightpath and work out the orbit of the moon, being in the right place at the right time on a cloudless night requires years of patience or luck.

Catching the plane exactly in the middle is incredibly difficult. The moon is not stationary against the heavens. Have a look at Google Images' search results for 'plane against a full moon' - see how many images are Photoshopped and how few are real.

This time last year:
A return to Snowdon - Wales' highest peak

This time three years ago:
On the eve of Warsaw's Veturillo revolution

This time four years ago:
Getting ready for the 'W'-hour flypast

This time five years ago:
A century of Polish scouting

Thursday, 30 July 2015

What's worse - unemployment or a low-paid job?

The big debate about low pay, job insecurity and inequality rumbles on in Poland as it does in the UK, where Genius George Osborne has outflanked the left by increasing the minimum wage, while at the same time cutting in-work tax benefits. By doing so, at a stroke he cut what was effectively a subsidy, paid by the taxpayer, to companies employing staff on a minimum wage, using generous tax credits to bring pay up to what could be considered a living wage. (He also increased the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for Polish migrant workers. 42.50 złotys as a minimum wage, anyone?).

Here in Poland, the issue of 'junk contracts' (umowy śmieczowe) has become a top economic issue for politicians in the run up to the autumn elections. It turns out that over 27% of all Poles working have one of these (me included), making Poland the most flexible labour market in the whole of the EU.

For me, an umowa o dzieło is the preferred way of working. This type of freelance contract is based on the notion of a dzieło, or a work as intellectual property. I write, I edit, I translate, I prepare presentations, I'm a journalist by training and by career experience, and so I've no qualms about being on umowa o dzieło. I work for my zleceniodawca (lit. commission-giver) where I choose and when I choose. Plus, an umowa o dzieło is better for me than setting up as a sole trader (jednoosobowa działalność gospodarcza) because having to run around each month to satisfy the various organs of state with little bits of paper fills me with dread. An umowa o dzieło gives me the flexibility to take on other zlecenia (commissions); typically I have four or more in any tax year. This makes me a proper freelancer - this is not about me trying to escape the clutches of Poland's social security institution ZUS (in any case I've been paying into Britain's National Insurance since 1974). Nor is it about my zleceniodawca avoiding employer's ZUS.

But for young people - and in particular for young women of childbearing age, any type of freelance contract - be it umowa o dzieło or umowa zlecenie, the more usual type of 'junk contract' - is a big problem. In particular, it holds them back from taking on a mortgage loan, and getting a foot on the property ladder. Junk contracts offer zero long-term job security, without which people cannot put down roots and start families.

Why is this important? Politically, because a property-owning democracy is less likely to vote for populist whackos, having a big stake in the economy. Look at how Margaret Thatcher and John Major won four elections in a row by massively increasing home ownership (and indeed share ownership) in the UK. And their Labour successors didn't dare revert to old-fashioned socialism.

Poland's labour market is full of anomalies. The latest headline unemployment rate for Poland (end-June 2015) is 10.3%. This is the percentage of people of working age registered as unemployed. In Warsaw it is 3.9%, while in Szydłowiec, notorious unemployment capital of Poland for many years, just 75 miles south of Warsaw, it's 32.1%. However, Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, gauges unemployment not by those signed on, but by those actively seeking work. By this measure, unemployment in Poland is 7.8%. Suggesting that one in four of Poland's registered unemployed are not actually looking for work, being gainfully employed in the grey economy (szara strefa).

[One year on: Polish registered unemployment rate is not 10.3% but 8.8%; Eurostat's economically inactive rate is not 7.8% but 6.2%. A rapid fall.]

According to Eurostat, the UK's unemployment rate is 5.4%, while Britain's Office of National Statistics says that it is 5.6%. This suggests a rather smaller grey economy than Poland's.

Why do so many more Polish employers choose to pay cash-in-hand? It's less about saving money, more about red tape. Poland is not an easy country in which to employ people. Even if the relative costs of employing people are much lower than in western Europe, the procedures and monthly reporting is more burdensome to employers, in particular to micro- and small enterprises.

If the Polish government tightens the rules on the 'junk contracts', such as awarding public tenders only to companies that employ staff on regular umowy o prace, it will nudge up wages, making Poland less competitive regionally. It will also slow down the fall in unemployment, but it will put more cash (taxed cash at that) into the pockets of workers. This money will drive up consumer consumption, and will make young people feel more confident about their future - which means more will buy property, and more will have babies.

Should a labour market be flexible or inflexible? Just compare France and the UK. In Britain, it's hire and fire, like in the US. Result - low unemployment, and low wages for the less well off - while the managerial class and the business owners rake it in. In France, according to Eurostat, 10.3% of the workforce is looking for a job. That's nearly double the UK's rate. Among the young, it's even worse. The very last thing a French employer wants to do is to take on another employee. They're difficult to get rid of should they prove to be poor workers. So French employers invest in technology - robots -and as a result productivity in French manufacturing is higher than in the UK's. Great for France's manufacturers, not so good in its service sector.

So my tip for Poland's policy makers is as follows: push up the minimum wage (but not too much, as a massive one-off hike would cause disequilibrium). At the same time, the standard employment contract, umowa o pracę na czas nieokreślony, needs to be readjusted to make it easier to hire and fire. Force employers to pay more, but cut the administrative burden on them of employing people to an absolute minimum. Slash the red tape. Then Poland's micro-enterprises (1-9 employees) might suddenly find they can take on workers without needing yet another person to administer them. And Poland's small firms (10-49 employees) - which employ a smaller percentage of the nation's workforce than the small-firms sector or any other EU member state - will grow into medium-sized businesses (50-250 employees).

Better paid Poles in more secure jobs will go out and spend money on things they need to get on in life - in particular property. They'll buy furniture and baby food. They'll see the sense of the long hours worked. They'll stoke the growth of Poland's GDP.

Like Britain, Poland needs to redress the balance between private and public sector. In Britain, George Osborne made it clear than employers (in particular of low-skilled workers) have had it too good for too long at the taxpayers' expense. But in Poland, it's been the public administration that has had it too good for too long at the taxpayers' expense. Too many paper-pushers ensuring that petty regulations are monitored, adding no value to Poland's economy. Get them off the employers' back, and at the same time get the employers to pay their workers more - especially those at the lowest rates of pay.

George Osborne cut over half a million public sector jobs in the UK since 2010. When he announced his plans to do so, the left wailed that the economy would collapse. Yet what actually happened could not have been predicted even by the most gung-ho free-market enthusiasts - more than two million private-sector jobs were created. More people are at work in Britain than ever before. But then inequality in Britain is higher than it's been since the end of WWII.

As I go around companies in Poland I see just how deeply ingrained the concept of Kaizen - bottom-up continuous improvement - is in those firms that are thriving. Yet the public sector is unable and unwilling to accept the challenge of seeing the need to constantly improve its processes to ensure better service to the taxpayer. Once this cultural problem is addressed, Poland's innate determination will see to the rest.

This time last year:
A return to Liverpool

This time three years ago:
Too good to last (anyone remember OLT Express airline?)

This time four years ago:
Poland's Baltic coast as a holiday destination

This time six years ago:
The Warsaw they fought and died for?

This time eight years ago:
Floods, rainbows and hope

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Warsaw to Radom railway works start soon (to Piaseczno at least)

It's been a long time coming - though the contract with the contractor has just been signed and work's due to start within a month - there've been many false dawns since the plans for modernising Line 8 (Warsaw-Radom) were first published over five years ago. It was meant to have been ready this year (in April 2010 I wrote these words: "When will this all happen? According to the PLK website, "work will ... be completed in 2015"). As it happens, if we're lucky, work will start this year.

Today's Gazeta Stołeczna carries the story of the plans. There's good news for those living in Warsaw's southern suburbs and exurbs - by the spring of 2017, the railway will have been modernised all the way from W-wa Okęcie to Czachówek (27km). The SKM (Szybka Kolej Miejska - the railway line operated by the City of Warsaw) will then run to Piaseczno, as it does today to exurbs like Sulejówek Miłosna, Otwock, Pruszków or Wieliszew.

Not only should this double the number of trains between W-wa Jeziorki to town from two to four in peak hours and from one to two outside of them, but the track improvements will mean that the trains will be able to speed up to 160km/h from the 60 to 80km/h they are restricted to at the moment.

To facilitate this, the island platforms currently in use at W-wa Okęcie, W-wa Dawidy, W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna will be removed, the tracks straightened to run parallel between two platforms, one on either side of the two tracks. The existence of the coal line between Okęcie and Nowa Iwiczna will make things more difficult, as the 'up' platform (to town) will have to nestle between the coal train line and the 'up' main line.

Below: looking towards W-wa Jeziorki station. The 'up' line swings round to the left to skirt the island platform, slowing down trains.

And more good news - the level crossing at W-wa Jeziorki will be replaced by a viaduct for ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line. However, no viaduct carrying ul. Baletowa is now planned (the press release issued by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Development mentioned only the one at Jeziorki).

Bad news further down the line - no additional stations are planned - neither for the Cargo Terminal/W-wa Poleczki where new logistics and office developments are bringing in thousands of new workers to the area, nor for Mysiadło with its new housing developments  and no public transport links nor for Stara Iwiczna and Piaseczno's northern edge. The Park+Ride planned for W-wa Jeziorki is on the cards (built by Warsaw city hall), as is a massive car park for 400 cars at Piaseczno station, currently in remont. Piaseczno station is being redeveloped by the local authority there.

There are still question marks over where the SKM trains from Piaseczno via W-wa Jeziorki will end up going in town. They could go via W-wa  Śródmieście, as Koleje Mazowieckie trains from Piaseczno do today; they could terminate at W-wa Główny - currently the site of the Polish national railway museum, or they could swing round before W-wa Zachodnia and circumnavigate central Warsaw via Wola and W-wa Gdańska, crossing Most Gdański bridge before reaching W-wa Zoo then swinging north towards Legionowo.

All this work has been on the cards since 2007, and over that time the condition of the track has continually degraded. I mentioned the state of the track-bed between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki before; only a minority of the sleepers are in sound condition. Many are rotted or burnt. Below: the middle sleeper is in effect useless, being unconnected to the rail in any way.

For folk living south of Czachówek, the news is not good; the tenders to modernise the line from Czachówek from Warka and from Warka to Radom will not be announced until next summer. The line from Warka - including the river crossing over the Pilica - is currently single-track and will need to be to doubled up - which means a new bridge. We read today that Radom and Warsaw will not be linked by modern railway until 2020 at the very earliest.

Until then, there will be several years of delays caused by works on the line, causing passengers to go by road. This blog will be following developments as they happen.

This time two years ago:
In praise of the (Polish-built) Fiat 500 

This time three years ago:
Llanbedrog Beach and a farewell to North Wales

This time four years ago:
To the Polish seaside, by night train

This time five years ago:
Accounting for the past - 20 years on from PRL's fall

This time six years ago:
An introduction to fine British cheefef

This time eight years ago:
Over the Peaks by bus

Monday, 27 July 2015

Reducing inequality in Polish society

This post is written as a reply to the fundamental questions posed by student SGH in his comments to my post from last week about populist economic policies.

We humans are status-obsessed, and whatever economic system is in place, there will always, but always, be those people who'll go flat out to use (indeed even abuse) that system to gain a higher place for themselves in the pecking order.

This was as visible in Poland under communism as it is today in a free-market democracy. The difference was that under communism, the average Kowalski had, say, 20% of what the average Briton then possessed, while the communist apparatchik had 40%; today the average Kowalski now owns 70% of the wealth possessed by the average Brit, while those who've done well from Poland's economic transformation are now several time wealthier than the average Brit.

Say what you like about communism, but it did actually produce a more egalitarian society. And while the bonzowie didn't have to stand in queues to buy bread or shop for meat at stores with nothing but Japanese sausages (nagye haki), they were poor in comparison with the exploited capitalist workers of the Western World. Both relatively and absolutely.

But in our hierarchy-obsessed societies - from North Korea to the USA, what's more important than just having is having more than the next person.

Western Europe has thankfully moved away from abject, life-threatening poverty. There is a safety net; the only question - facing governments in all democratic countries - is how comfortable a safety net can be afforded from tax income without creating unsustainable debt.

And so - to student SGH's point:
"I would argue this paragraph could more revolve around the question whether the system or the people are to blame. Your standpoint depends on where you think a human's fate lies. Either you believe an individual's prosperity lies in their hands, or you believe it is that state that should secure the framework for an individual's success."
The difference between Poland under communism and Poland today shows where that balance lies. The system can either hold everyone back (as it did between 1945 and 1989) or let the harder-working element of the population thrive (as it has done since 1990). And since 1990, the less hard-working feel hard done by. "My neighbour now has a Mercedes. He must be thieving/cheating." No possibility that the neighbour works a 10-hour day and six-day week.

Back in 1989, Poland was, along with Japan, the most equal society on earth, using the Gini coefficient that compares income distribution between the richest and poorest in any society. It's just that Poland was a lower-income country then, while Japan was near the top of the trajectory of its post-war economic miracle.

Is everyone being equally poor better than some people being inordinately richer than the masses? Populist politicians would like the masses to think that. But this is merely their answer (as driven, capable human beings) to the question of how they should find themselves a higher place in the pecking order. "Vote for me, I'll reduce the distance between you and the rich man" is a beguiling message. "In return you give me power and social status".

Yet as we have seen the world over these past 100 years, populist redistributionism makes economies shrink. Wealth-creators, driven by vision, passion, courage, sheer hard work - and big egos - will go elsewhere to realise themselves. In a free-market society, they do this by creating wealth, rather than rising to the top of the heap some other way. Imagine a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs born, educated and trapped in 1980s USSR. How would they have got on? My guess is they would have upped sticks and left rather than striven to become local party secretaries. Should the business environment become too hostile to the wealth-creators, they will move to where it is more benign. them.

So the price Poland has to pay for becoming a materially wealthier society is greater inequality. The poorer quintile's income doubles, but the richest quintile's income rises twenty-fold. The poor are no longer starving - they have access to the staples that keep body and soul together - but they are aware of the fact that they are not living in villas nor driving Porsche Cayennes nor holidaying in the Caribbean.

A system in which the successful are allowed to succeed, unhindered by the politics of envy, needs to be tempered by mechanisms that prevent the poor from falling too far behind. Scandinavia is a shining example. Scandinavian society works, and produces happier people; the state sector is efficient, so citizens don't mind paying high taxes, because they can see their money being put to good use. Tax money burnt on an inefficient public administration creates resentment among taxpayers.

Inequality is rising across the developed world; as Poland becomes a richer nation, so its richer folk become richer still, as we are seeing happening in America and Britain, and as Thomas Piketty has made a name writing about.

What policy responses can be used to slow the growth of unsustainable inequality? The less-driven should be helped by improved access to education - at all levels, by more nuanced macroeconomic tools, by adverts for glittery things on the TV and on billboards. Yet we live in an age of deficit and debt, and governments - having overspent in the past now have to focus on reigniting economic growth and getting the budget out of the red.

I am convinced that as a whole, the Polish population is more driven than the comfy societies of Western Europe, where prosperity (much of it inherited) is a given for the majority. Poland is still a country na dorobku ('on the make', 'working one's way up'). Poland: Determination.

The system does need continual reform. Continual, bottom-up improvement, Toyota-style, kaizen. Kicking out the jams. Bureaucracy that adds no value, nor protects value, must be eliminated. Identifying the friction that makes the business or doing business more complicated than it should be.

But while wealth-creation in Poland is still being stultified by unnecessary friction created by an inefficient state - what should happen to that wealth once it has been created? Should it be taken away from the wealth-creator and redistributed to all the clients who vote for a redistributionist economic model?

Here we see the responsibility of those who have made it to give something back to society. Once they've got bored of swanking around town in the latest four-wheel drive limo and holidaying in the most exotic locations, once their villas no longer give them the satisfaction of showing them off to impress acquaintances - then they realise that engagement in philanthropic activities places them even higher up the pecking order. As we get richer we owe an increasing duty of care towards those unable to compete in the free market. Whether the rich chose to support educational or healthcare charities (from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation going back to Andrew Carnegie), American billionaires have pointed the way - use the fruits of what they have earned to help humanity along on its road from barbarism towards civilisation.

If the rich want to avoid the hubris of populist revolution (cf. France, Russia, China), they will need to see - in their own self-interest - the need to share their blessings with the less well-off. Soft power. Helping other human beings realise the most of their potential. The rich - by way of enlightened self-interest - will need to work out how to modify the current political-economic system - the best mankind has ever had - to make it more sustainable. Otherwise the politics of envy might yet come to destroy it.

This time two years ago:
Llanbedrog beach

This time four years ago:
The Accursed Soldiers - a short story

This time five years ago:
Driving impressions of the Toyota Yaris
[The car continues to be totally, 100% faultless five years on.]

This time seven years ago:
Poland's dry summer

This time eight years ago:
The UK's wettest summer ever

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Defining my Sublime Aesthetic

Sunset, crushed velvet twilight in my City of Dreams.

Magic hour; shortly after the sun has passed below the horizon.

Neon lights reflecting off wet asphalt. The feel of the sun and wind on the face. Iridescence. Moonglow. The Cosmos. Stars sprinkled on a midnight blue-black sky. Aurora Borealis. Silver aircraft illuminated by sunlight, high up in the stratosphere. That numinous feeling associated with the glory of being alive.

The Road. Wide open plains or prairies, the desert under a sapphire sky, the light polarised by aviator's sunglasses.

Below the sky's canopy, rain forest echoing rich life. Dense, lush, exotic, saturated colours. Darts a dragonfly, unchanged from the Carboniferous era, 300 million years ago. Like the shark, a great evolutionary triumph.

And lobefins - air-breathing fish making their way out of the oceans to evolve into land animals. Trilobites scuttling about beneath giant horsetail ferns that tower 30m over primeval swamps, half-way from Zero to One. What was once, will be. The infinite - immortality - atavism. Time past morphing seamlessly into the future. Palm fronds, Palm Hills, Iridium Springs... 1950s America.

The 1950s - mid-Century modern architecture from the USA, influenced by Scandinavian modernism. Flat roofs, windows stretching from floor to ceiling. Industrial infrastructure shimmering in the heat - steel pipes, radio masts, railway lines converging into the distance.

The Radio - tuning in through the crackly ether to catch pedal steel guitar and station idents. Heavenly doo-wop harmonies, crooning saxophone and carefully chosen notes from an upright bass.

Mysticism blending with sensuality, floating off to where waves lap endlessly upon the shore on some faraway beach. Footsteps in slow motion; sunlight and saltwater on the skin; the Oceanic Feeling. Metaphysical sensations. The transience of blossom, the earliest intimations of impending autumn.

An aesthetic that connects the conscious observer with the Eternal, catching those moments of transcendence from the here-and-how.

This is but a sketch of a draft of a prototype of an aesthetic manifesto - a direction in which I am driven to explore. Where to go, what to experience. But most important - to define further. I have a Quest.
Photograph of 1930s aeroplane - Nick Morris 
Infra-red photograph of railway line - Rysiek Szydło
This time two years ago:
Porth Ceiriad on the Llyn Peninsula

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, late July

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, after the storm

This time eight years ago:
Rural suburbias - the ideal place to live?

Friday, 24 July 2015

Poland in ruins

A big thank you to Student SGH for pointing me towards Polska w ruinie, a Facebook site mocking the assertion by opposition politicians that Poland is in ruins. Poland is clearly not in ruins.

As I got off the bus this morning and boarded a town-bound train at W-wa Okęcie, gazing down at it all from the brand-new pedestrian walkway, it occurred to me that for all my moaning and complaining about the tardiness of the S2/S79 construction works, things are finally coming right for Poland. The walkway still has to reach the station, but it crosses the main road.

I remember when this was all fields...

...back in 2009. Polska w ruinie.
I looked at the cranes on the horizon, all the way from Wola via Śródmieście all the way down south towards Mokotów and Służewiec. This isn't EU hand-out money - these are private investors expressing their faith that Poland's economy will continue to grow at a handsome clip.

It would be a shame to flush all this down the toilet by voting for an ideologically-motivated party with little interest in economic matters, willing to sacrifice the economic gains of the past quarter-century out of political spite. [I recall talking to the vice-president of a state-owned enterprise who'd been installed by PiS after its 2005 election victory. I asked about the tasks ahead of him. He said "I've got a couple of years to get rid of all the communists working here". Commercial goals were of little interest to him.]

Populist politicians the world over tend to convince those who are less determined, less hard-working, weaker of will, that it wasn't their fault they preferred to goof off rather than study for their exams, or that their work-rate was lower than that of their more successful colleagues, or that they preferred to spend money on immediate pleasures rather than save. No, it's the fault of a global conspiracy of evil people to do them down. "Vote for me, and I'll take money from the rich man in taxes, and give it to you in benefits." And this process has the side-effect of totally screwing up the economy. Just look at Venezuela. Politically motivated, economically hapless. And look at Ukraine - richer than Poland in 1990 in terms of GDP per capita - now a basket case because of 25 years of bad government. And Argentina - in 1900, the world's fourth-richest economy, today merely an emerging economy. Bad macroeconomic management by elected governments.

Poland has done well, yet it's economic success has tended to be patchy. Poland's big cities have done well, Warsaw the best. Take a look at this map of Europe's regions - here. (A big thank you to Paddisław Wędrowniczek for digging this one out.) This picture dates back to 2011. Since then, Poland's economy continued to grow faster than the rest of the EU, so the picture showing the catch-up process is even more pronounced when the data is extended up to the second quarter of 2015.

So back in 2011, Warsaw's residents are better off than people living in most UK regions - only Inner London, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are better off. (This is in terms of purchasing power - living costs are much lower in Warsaw, in particular housing, public transport and education.) Poznań and Wrocław were looking good too - and we can see the effect that KGHM, Poland's copper-mining powerhouse, has had on the Legnicko-Głogowski region.

The current Polish government has had a lot of good luck, it has made some good macroeconomic decisions, it has largely avoided taking bad ones, but it has failed to drive the reform process at the pace required to spread the fruits of a quarter-century of economic boom more evenly. This complacency now threatens the government in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, set for Sunday 25 October.

The idea that a 'right-wing' government will redistribute wealth by taxing retailers (all of them - foreign or Polish-owned, selling food, clothes, furniture etc.) on turnover rather than on profits is laughable. It will only serve to decrease wealth and lead to job losses. In Hungary, ideologically motivated tampering with macroeconomic issues resulted in the closure of shops on a Sunday. The result - the destruction of 3,000 jobs since March. A Sunday-trading ban would hit Poland - a much larger economy - even harder.

Messing about with the macroeconomic levers sends all the wrong signals to foreign investors, who - like it or not - create vast numbers of jobs and put billions of zlotys into Poles' wallets. Silly policies such as 're-polonising the banks', arbitrary changes in the way certain sectors are taxed, bringing down the retirement age or closing shops on Sundays are all messages to foreign investors - "don't bother coming here to create jobs".

I am worried that at the elections, ideology will take the upper hand over economic pragmatism, that an ill-judged assault on 'foreign capital', 'exploiters of the ordinary Pole', will actually have the opposite of the intended effect - due to the economic illiteracy of an ill-chosen government. I'd like to be able to look at this post in years to come and say 'I got it wrong'.

Either in that PiS took office and steered clear of making ideologically motivated economic policy mistakes - or that by some miracle they didn't win the election.

This time three years ago:
Penrhos - a bit of North Wales that's forever Poland

This time four years ago:
On motivation - and being motivated

Monday, 20 July 2015

Last night's storm

The storm front sweeps over Jeziorki, from north to south

Minutes later, a tempestuous wind and a deluge of water

The rear of the cloud; rain still falls, but the storm is passing.

After the rain has ceased. The temperature is still over 20C; the water's warm.
This time last year:
Drifting south with the sun: bicycle hobo

This time three years ago:
Royal Parks in the rain

This time four years ago:
Storm clouds over Warsaw, Dolinka under water

This time five years ago:
Round-up of pics from Dobra

This time six years ago:
Conservatism - UK or Polish style?

This time seven years ago:
Wheat and development

This time eight years ago:
A previous visit to London

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Soft Power, as wielded by the UK - and Poland

Soft power was in the news this week, as a result of the publication of a ranking of the world's Top 30 countries in terms of their persuasive (rather than militaristic) ability. Defined as "the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or money as a means of persuasion", the concept of soft power has been around since 1990. I'd use the synonym spreading civilisation. Now, for the first time, the world's most influential countries have been ranked.

The UK came first. Wow! Beating America, Germany, France and Japan.

Poland came 24th. ŁAŁ! Beating Israel, Mexico, Turkey and China.

Historically, Poland's soft power has stemmed from its diaspora. From novelist Joseph Conrad to civil engineer Ernest Malinowski, who built Peru's trans-Andean railway, from  explorer Sir Paweł Edmund Strzelecki, discoverer of Australia's highest peak, (Mount Kosciuszko) to double Nobel-prize winner Marie Curie-Skłodowska, who pioneered research into radioactivity, many have Poles raised Poland's profile positively abroad, even when Poland was literally off the map.

Soft power is the antithesis of gunboats or nuclear weapons. It is about a country being liked rather than feared, and using that positive emotion to guide other countries away from barbarism and towards ever-higher levels of civilisation. Analogy? The school classroom. The most popular pupil has more real influence than the class bully.

Diplomacy pays a huge part in the promotion of soft power, something I see in my everyday work. It is extremely encouraging to see the rapid improvement in the quality of Poland's diplomats. The Polish Embassy in London's current campaign on Twitter to commemorate the role of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain is a great example at how to win hearts and minds.

Britain's diplomacy rests strongly on the promotion of best practice. Long-term programmes such as the Better Regulation Initiative are extremely important. The British Civil Service, permanent and independent, was built after the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1854 on the bedrock of apolitical professionalism. It is among the best in the world. What better than to share its expertise and experience with countries willing to learn how to improve their public administration? From clinical trials to regulating rail infrastructure, from public procurement to public-private partnerships, the British are keen to pass on what they have learnt to other nations - this I see myself in Poland. It is great for both countries. Poland learns, improves - Britain gains influence. Win-win.

Britain also offers its own diplomats first-rate professional training, based on centuries of first-hand insights. Poland has upped its game when it comes to the quality of its public administration since joining the EU.

Britain has other things going for it. Culture - from the BBC to its massive presence in popular music. And sport (home of football, rugby and cricket). And education. It was not that long ago that Poland's finance, foreign and justice ministers were all UK educated. And professional bodies. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers - are all present in Poland, and are busy training and accrediting professionals here and around the world. Let us not forget The Economist - 1.6m copies sold each week around the world. When it comes to extending Britain's influence among policy-makers and influencers worldwide - this weekly magazine projects intellectual power like no other media outlet on earth. In terms of circulation, influence, global reach and sheer braininess, The Economist is streets ahead of Forbes or Bloomberg Businessweek.

China creeps into the Top 30 at number 30. OK, there's Tibet, the South China Sea, civil rights issues, a one-party state - but there's an amazing culture and a willingness to be liked - something that's entirely lacking in Russia, a country which currently does not enjoy a place at the top table among the world's soft powers. Russia merely wants to be respected through fear - a rather primitive longing for a nation. A primitive, thick, bully. At odds with Russia's wonderful culture - its writers, musicians, painters, dancers and movie-makers.

Anyway - here's what the report said about Poland:
Poland's ranking at 24th is a tribute to the political and economic transformation that has taken place since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although the private sector is still developing, for example, leaving some way to go to in its 'Enterprise' score, Poland's economy has liberalised remarkably quickly. It largely avoided the financial crisis and has become one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. The political space has opened up rapidly, leading to a high score for 'Government' in our index. While the transition to democracy is by no means complete - we see, for example, public TV and radio still regulated by the government - civil society groups, NGOs and the media operate with significant degrees of freedom. Internationally, Poland has stepped up engagement and built alliances quickly, across Europe and with other emerging economies. Perhaps the biggest scope for improvement in Poland's score is in promoting its cultural assets. Poland has a rich culture, historically and artistically in particular, but this is not well understood by international audiences. Poland has made great strides in promoting access to and use of the internet, but the potential to use digital channels to reach external audiences is not maximised. Nor is Polish culture seen first-hand as widely as it could be; tourism numbers are rising but the tourism industry still has great scope to grow. Poland is the stand-out country in its neighbourhood and the future looks bright for the country.
If I could add my comments here: 'enterprise' is still hamstrung by a public administration that can all too often get in the way with unnecessary red tape, a clumsy tax system and poor communication with the citizen. Here, Britain's soft power in the form of the Better Regulation Initiative, bringing over top speakers to explain how challenges were met and obstacles overcome, is helping those countries that want to be helped.

Here's what the report said about Britain:
The UK has topped our Soft Power 30, much to the surprise of most British people no doubt. The result belies recent accusations that British influence is in decline. Vladimir Putin mocked Britain as a 'small island no one listens to'. This is hard to reconcile with the UK's position in the G7, UN Security Council, NATO, the EU, and at the epicentre of the Commonwealth. British soft power is often felt in more subtle ways, whether through the Beatles, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, David Beckham, the Royal Family, or the English Premier League. Moreover, the success of the 2012 Olympics was a coup for a country struggling to rediscover its confidence in the wake of two recent wars and a major recession. By many measures, London has overtaken New York as the premier global city. According to Government figures, the UK attracts more in Foreign Direct Investment than Germany, France or Spain. However, the true extent of Britain's influence abroad will be tested in the upcoming negotiations over reform of the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has staked his credibility as a world leader on these negotiations, and if he was to come back empty handed, it would be a huge blow to national confidence.
Incidentally - why's the US only number three? As a hard power, still unbeatable, although new challenges are mounting. But as a soft power? America, that gave the world Google, Twitter and Facebook, the iPhone, the Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe, James Brown, Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen has a poor reputation when it comes to race issues, easy access to firearms and downright arrogance.

So then - a new international ranking, one to add among the World Bank's Doing Business, the World Economic Forum's Competitiveness Index and Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. In years to come, the Soft Power 30 will no doubt increase to 50, then 100 then 189, and obsessive international rankings watchers such as me will have another date to put in their calendar to wait for. My guess is that Poland will move on up, leapfrogging smaller European states as its economy continues to grow and its influence - projected from Warsaw and from its diaspora around the world - does likewise.

This time three years ago:
First flight from Modlin

This time six years ago:
Another cycle route to work

This time seven years ago:
PZL M-28 and Piaggio Avanti - Okęcie regulars

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Eating cheaply and well in Warsaw

I wrote a couple of years ago about the Polish phenomenon of the Bar Mleczny - which is neither a bar nor does it specialise in dairy products - but rather is a subsidised eatery offering basic Polish menus and very reasonable prices. This week I visited two. The first, a bar mleczny on ul. Czerniakowska, named, with hipsterish disdain for artifice, Bar Mleczny na Czerniakowskiej. This was a real find. One bus stop south (and a short walk) from the British Embassy, it's not exactly enticing from the outside. But inside it is trendy in a stripped-down sort of way - and the food is awesome. I ordered chicken livers stewed in onion, with buckwheat and spring cabbage. Oh it was so good. I took the bus home in a state of bliss. The liver had the consistency of a cream cheese, the zasmażana spring cabbage was a total delight, parboiled, then lightly fried in butter and flour (zasmażka = roux) with skwarki (lardons). Pyszności, Panie!

Unprepossessing, isn't it? But within lie culinary delights.
The following day, a visit to the legendary Prasowy, a bar mleczny at the lower end of Marszałkowska. Opened in 1954, it served printers and journalists from local publishing houses. It was closed in 2011 because the City of Warsaw, which owns the building, sensed it could make more money renting it out to a wealthier tenant. Anarchist squatters then moved in and started cooking and serving food themselves, raising the profile of the old Prasowy. Goaded into action, the city hall reinstated Prasowy and it reopened shortly after our office moved from nearby Al. Szucha to Marszałkowska.

Larger, busier and serving a trendier clientele than the bar mleczny on Czerniakowska, the menu was similar; again I went for the chicken livers and buckwheat, though at five pm, they had run out of all vegetables. My chicken livers were not served as hot as on Czerniakowska, although they were every bit as tender. At this advanced hour, ordering some freshly made pierogi was a better bet, despite the wait. A portion of pierogi cost six złotys, an extra złoty for them to come smothered in skwarki.

Dine as Varsovians dine - at a bar mleczny.
The price is the best part of it. For a main course, expect to pay around 12 to 15 złotys - around two to three quid. The tomato soup is 50p. No alcohol is served - this is mainly a lunchtime rather than evening-eating concept. Queue to order and pay for your meal, then hang around the serving hatch until it is served. Menus and prices chalked on the wall.

Seven hundred meals a day served here.
Because the bary mleczne are subsidised by the Ministry of Finance, what they serve is regulated by law (in this case the Regulation of the Minister of Finance from the day of 30 March 2015 year, in the case of objective subsidies for meals sold in milk bars). As you will see from this ordinance, there are 95 ingredients which can be subsidised. Item 83 is table salt, which was missing from the previous iteration of this law. This meant that food had to be cooked salt-free for a while until the law was amended. Read more about Poland's bary mleczne on this informative Wikipedia page.

Incidentally, you may have caught some alarming headlines on the front pages of Polish newspapers of late about deaths caused by barszcz Sosnowskiego. I immediately made a mental note a) not to buy any soups from this manufacturer or b) eat at any of Sosnowski's restaurants.

Turns out that this story has nothing to do with Poland's popular beetroot soup; barszcz Sosnowskiego is actually giant hogweed, a particularly nasty plant that can kill. Heracleum mantegazzianum grew along the banks of the River Brent, close to where I lived in London for many years - a nasty three-metre high umbellifer which is highly toxic when in contact with human skin.

This time last year:
In which I foretell the MH17 tragedy a day before it happened

This time three years ago:
Who should pay for railways?
[A good question to pose would-be politicians]

This time five years ago:
Grunwald - the big picture

This time seven years ago:
"Take me right back to the track, Jack"

This time eight years ago:
The summer sublime

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Something new in the skies over Okęcie

Yesterday evening I heard an aircraft noise that was unusual enough to make me look out of the window. "A C-17 Globemaster III coming into land", I said to myself, and alerted the Okęcie spotter community via Soon afterward, I was corrected by a better-informed forum member, who wrote that the plane I saw (shoulder-mounted swept wings, T-tail, portly grey fuselage) was not a C-17, but a somewhat smaller Airbus A400M Atlas, operated by the Royal Air Force, call sign ASCOT 45. Furthermore, another informed source said that the same plane would be taking off from Okęcie today at 11:10.

As it happened, I had a meeting at Poleczki Business Park this morning that finished at half past ten, so I strolled over to the airport. The wind was in the right direction for air traffic to be taking off from Runway 29, with a convenient spotting point on ul. Wirażowa. I got there a few minutes before eleven to find a crowd of spotters, equipped with long lenses and full-frame bodies ready to snap the plane.

With British punctuality, the RAF Atlas made its appearance at 11:13 (after appearing around the corner from the military stand).

So - here are some snaps of the beast as it taxis to the runway. Below: the eight-bladed props make a strong impression, like scimitars slicing the air. Behind the A400M, a Bombardier Q400 twin turboprop, with a mere six blades per engine.

Below: it does look unusual; the planform of a C-5 Galaxy or C-17 Globemaster III - and propellers. Turboprops matched with swept wings do give give a good range/speed trade-off. Consider the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear - first flight was in 1952 and it's still in service and able to reach California from bases in Russia.

Bigger than the sixty year-old Lockheed Hercules design which it will replace in RAF service for tactical airlift duties, the A400M can transport over 110 paratroops distances of over 4,000 miles / 6,000km. It has short-field, unpaved runway capability.

The production delay and cost overrun of this European project has become legendary. (Worth seeing what the late Baron Gilbert had to say about it in the House of Lords.) But still, here it is. The RAF has ordered 22 of these. With such a fleet, the British military will be able to fly three battalions of troops to any bit of NATO that Russia might be looking to invade.

The A400M lifts off, heading for Oslo. It gets aloft quickly for a plane of its portliness.

Summer is the time for plane spotting round these parts - shame that 95% of what flies in and out of Okęcie is plain vanilla - Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and Embraer ERJs. Still, when something good like this happens - like seeing a new type with my own eyes for the first time - the excitement is worth the wait.

This time last year:
How the other half lives - a Radomite's tale

This time two years ago:
On guard against complacency

This time three years ago:
Ready but not open - footbridge over Puławska

This time four years ago:
Dusk along the Vistula

This time five years ago:
Mediterranean Kraków

This time six years ago:
Around Wisełka, Most Łazienkowski, Wilanowska by night

This time seven years ago:
Summer storms

This time eight years ago:
Golden time of day

Monday, 13 July 2015

Marathon stroll along the Vistula

Sunday was going to be nice, so after a early start, massive breakfast and packing supplies, I set off for W-wa Jeziorki station where a Koleje Mazowieckie train took me 25 to Góra Kalwaria. A convenient connection, it left at 08:20 and arrived at 09:02, leaving plenty of rambling time. Not many people on the six-car set, but quite a few cyclists and walkers.

Today, passenger trains no longer cross the Vistula as they once did; the line beyond Góra Kalwaria is freight-only and heavily used - I saw several freight trains hauling oil cisterns, containers, empty flat-cars or as below, logs. If these are to be burnt in coal-fired power stations in order to claim green certificates - shame. If they are to be used as building materials or for furniture, doors and window frames - great. In the distance, the rail bridge across the Vistula, downstream of the road bridge that carries the DK50.

Below: I take a closer look at the bridge. Note to urban explorers - crossing is not safe. Trains are frequent and long, the wooden planks are rickety as are the metal barriers. SOKists (railway guards) lurk in the bushes and hand out fines to those foolhardy enough to attempt the crossing. Having said that, PKP PLK, Poland's rail infrastructure operator, should build a segregated and safe pedestrian crossing here - it would boost local tourism.

Below: Overhead a Polish designed-and-built TS-8 Bies trainer, restored and today privately owned. I guess it's kept at the airfield at Gassy that I visited several years ago. I snapped another example of this lovely vintage aircraft at the Radom Air Show two years ago.

I set off northwards, in the direction of Warsaw, heading downstream. After a while I come across a jetty sticking out into the river, used by anglers. From here, I get a distance shot of the bridge. In the short time I was here, three trains crossed the river. The weather was ideal for walking; not too hot, not humid, a slight breeze wafting across.

All along the riverbank, proof of how mighty the Vistula is. I am standing on a uprooted tree that was carried downstream on a flood, until it came to rest on this jetty. Massive tree trunks could be seen here and there, testament to the power of the elements.

From the end of the jetty, looking across at the deserted sandy beaches of Otwock poviat on the other side. The river water is far cleaner today than it was before EU money started being used to build water treatment plants. Seven years ago, I observed (here) " The water is filthy with floating plop-plops..." "Three went by in the space of a minute." Yesterday, I saw none. The EU's Water Directive is proving to be a success in improving the quality of Poland's rivers.

The road running parallel to the flood defence wall ('wał') is very popular with cyclists. Few motorists come here - good. It's quiet and peaceful. Road bikes on the road, off-road bikes on the wał itself, mostly heading south in the direction of Góra Kalwaria.

Below: islands in the stream. Every now and then, sandy islands appear in the middle of the Vistula. Magic views, unspoilt, few people around.

Below: am I on the banks of the Missouri? Is this Montana? No, if I turn through 180 degrees, I find myself asking...

... Is this Apulia? Am I overlooking the olive groves of Abruzzo? No, this is heavenly Mazowsze. Peaceful and sublime.

But the solitude comes to an end as I reach Gassy, from where a ferry takes cars, motorbikes, cycles and pedestrians over to the Otwock shore. Below: the real queue starts on the jetty. Cars have a long wait, as the ferry can take but five at a time. Pedestrians and two-wheel traffic has no trouble getting on. Tickets start at 3zł for a pedestrian, 18zł for a car with passengers. Journey time is less than five minutes, the ferry runs non-stop from between 09:00 and 20:00 at weekends (details here).

This time last year, I was here by bicycle, doing the same journey the other way. The ferry was in place, but had not been given permission to operate because of protests by ecologists. Evidently good sense prevailed, as this service is boosting tourism on both banks of the river. Demand was plentiful, walkers and cyclists far outnumbering the motorists.

Below: on the Otwock side, looking towards the wał. As soon as I cross the river, I note a different ambience or klimat; slightly different flora. Which side of the river more definitively captures the essence of Mazowsze?

From here, I walked through Otwock, the Piaseczno of the East. A sprawling suburb. My Bilkom mobile application fails to inform me of works on the railway line back to town, I catch a replacement bus service. All told I walk over 39,300 paces (31.5km/19.5 miles) during the course of the day. No ill effects (muscle pains, blisters) at all.

This time last year:
Complaining about the lack of a river crossing between Siekierki and Góra Kalwaria!

This time two years ago:
S2 update (nearly ready, as it happened)

This time three years ago:
Progress on S2 bypass - photos from the air

This time five years ago:
Up Śnieżnica

This time eight years ago:
July continues glum (2007 - a rainy summer)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Seven days in Warsaw in seven photos

Ul. Marszałkowska, after the thunderstorm

Panorama of Warsaw's skyline, from Most Siekierkowski

Storm clouds threatening Ursynów; Al. KEN at Metro Stokłosy

Rural Warsaw; wheat and wild oats, ul. Trombity, Jeziorki

City in mid-summer; ul. Emilii Plater

Rondo Jazdy Polskiej (no, that's not a palm - its the Polish cavalry monument)

Metro Świętokrzyska - post-modernism on Line 2
This time last year:
Best Bacon From Poland: ad on London bus, 1969

This time six years ago:
Sunset across the tracks, Nowa Iwiczna

This time seven years ago:
The storm the forecasters missed

This time eight years ago:
Peacocks in the park