Thursday, 31 December 2015

A year in numbers

Once again - if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. I've just completed the second year of logging in a spreadsheet the key indicators that contribute towards a healthier lifestyle. The principal one is walking. Recommended by the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Surgeon-General of the US, 10,000 paces is a daily target. How did I fare in 2015?

Not bad! From 1 January to 31 December, I walked 3,919,786 paces (a little short of my four million target, but then there's always next year). This works out at 10,739 paces a day - on average. Yes, there were worse days - mainly the result of heavy rain - but rarely was my weekly average below 10,000 paces. In 2014, my daily average was 9,821 paces. So - improvement.

So this year (with an 80cm pace), I walked 3,136km (1,945 miles), up from 2,868km (1,779 miles) last year. Next year, I'm aiming for four million paces.

Incidentally, I'm using a Tanita PD-724 3-Axes pedometer (below), which I take with me everywhere I go. As long as it has a decent (not cheapo no-name) battery, it will serve you extremely well.

As I've written before - if you use your car as the default means of getting about, you have no chance of racking up 10,000 paces in a day. If you slow down the pace of life, use public transport, use that time to catch up on reading, and walk between meetings etc, it's not that difficult.

More improvement in terms of alcohol consumption. My weekly average intake across the year was 28 units, down on last year's 33.4 units. The 28 units is (just) within the "3-4 units a day" that's recommended by the UK Government. My target for 2016 will be lower, somewhere between 21 and 28 units a week. Looking back at my spreadsheet records, last year every fourth day was alcohol-free, this year it's been every third day.

Giving up alcohol totally is pointless, unless you have an addiction problem. Study after study shows that moderate drinking is healthier across a lifespan than living a life of total abstinence. And if alcohol in moderation improves your social and artistic skills - why not. Just be aware of the limits.

Exercise - the sit-ups which sculpt the tum. This year was worse than last year. Daily average across 2015 was a mere 41, compared to 65 in 2014. Must keep them going longer after Lent ends. Waist back to a bulgy 40 inches - it should be 36 inches. 1 January the day to start on that mission!

New to 2015 was keeping a log of Fresh Fruit and Vegetable intake. Recommended daily consumption is five portions - this year I achieved 4.3 portions a day every day across the year. Must do better next year, given that seven or even ten portions are likely to be the new target. The real problem is time - time to prepare the fruit and veg. So I've focused on the easy-to-eat portions, like cherry tomatoes (a handful = 1 portion); banana; tangerines (in season) seedless grapes (in season); freshly pressed apple juice (not from concentrate); and always to go for a salad option, broccoli, carrots, spinach, whenever possible. So - keep eating healthily. No sugar, no cakes, biscuits or confectionery (other than sugar-free gum). At all. None. Zero. We don't need it - not even in the smallest amounts. No salt-snacks. Meat - only the highest quality, and then rarely. Fish and dairy products, nuts, pulses, rice, potatoes - this is fine.

My father, 92, continues to be an inspiration to me in terms of keeping going into advanced old age. The one lifestyle advantage I have over him is that he drove to work every day from 1958 to 1993, whereas I spent nine years cycling to work and many years using public transport.

For our own good, and for the good of society and the healthcare system it has to prop up, it behoves us to watch our lifestyles, avoid the temptations of in-car idleness and fatty, sugary foods, exercise and monitor it carefully. You know it makes sense.

This time last year:
Economic forecasts for 2014 - and 2015?

This time two years ago:
Economic predictions for 2014

This time three years ago:
Economic predictions for 2013

This time four years ago:
Economic predictions for 2012

This time five years ago:
Classic cars, West Ealing

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki 2009, another view

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki 2008, another view

This time eightn years ago:
Final thoughts for 2007

Railways make most of Xmas break

Walking around Jeziorki for the last time in 2015, I noticed that the railway line between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki is finally being modernised. High time. I've written before about the poor state of the track; the current modernisation works between W-wa Okęcie and Czachówek are now well under way.

Below: at the pedestrian crossing at ul. Kórnicka, I see the 'down' track has been lifted, the old rails lying on either side of the old sleepers, awaiting collection. Note the crosses by the signals, warning engine drivers that the signals are inoperative. This view is looking north, towards W-wa Dawidy station. [Incidentally, the pedestrian ramp to the crossing has been removed. I hope the crossing will remain once the modernisation is complete, even though it will mean much faster trains.]

Below: looking the other way,south towards W-wa Jeziorki. You can see where the track-lifting his come to an end; in the distance, some men on the track by the station.

Below: looking back north again, at a passing Koleje Mazowieckie train on its way from Warka to Mrozy. Taken with a 300mm lens, you can see the excavator on the line, south of ul. Baletowa.

The modernisation of the Warsaw-Radom line - in stages (Okęcie-Czachówek, Czachówek-Warka, Warka-Radom) will do much to improve rail links. For us suburbanites, it brings closer the prospect of SKM (Szybka Kolej Miejska = fast urban rail) services to Piaseczno. This should double the number of rush-hour services from two to four. Each SKM train set can carry 800-900 passengers; just imagine how many cars end to end clogging up ul. Puławska that could release.

When the modernisation work reaches Piaseczno (its station has just been reopened following modernisation), there will be a passing loop added, allowing SKM trains to terminate there.

The bad news is that Warsaw's councillors have decided not to invest in a fourth (bus-only) lane for Puławska. Still, when Puławska Bis (the southward extension of the S79) is extended down towards Piaseczno, that should also relieve the congestion on Puławska. I hope for a bus lane, even if it means reducing the number of lanes open to cars from three to two - assuming of course Puławska Bis is built and the SKM starts running frequent services to Piaseczno.

More bad news on Puławska - the photo-radar at Dąbrówka has been covered in black plastic. It is being switched off. For good. Local pedestrians who could cross the road here without fear of death at the wheels of cretins must once again face terror as speeds in excess of double the legal 50 km/h will once again become the norm. Interesting to see 2015 road death toll. Another year-on-year decrease? Polish deputies and senators seem to be siding with petrol-headed morons rather than with pedestrians and cyclists.

Meanwhile, in London - the Xmas-New Year's Day period is also being spent modernising railway track. Below: the view from Jacob's Ladder, West Ealing, two days ago, where the branch line to Greenford is also getting new track. The line swings away from the Great Western main line northwards. Note the large number of track workers in hi-vi suits and hard hats coming on shift. Note also the geo-netting in place under the track bed, awaiting ballast from the adjacent wagons.

Below: Drayton Green station looking south; another ballast train waits at the points. Unlike Koleje Mazowieckie, which is keeping one line open to maintain a full passenger service, Great Western has closed the Greenford line completely for the duration of the works.

Below: looking north from the southbound platform at Castlebar Park towards South Greenford, where yet another ballast train is standing. Beyond, to the left, the girder bridge which takes the line to its final stop, Greenford station.

I'm glad to see investment and modernisation of railways. They are the future. Cars aren't.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Dark thoughts as 2015 comes to an end

The defining event of this year for me was the death of my mother on 1 November at the age of 88. It was unexpected and yet it wasn't; at least her death came swiftly and painlessly. She fainted while standing up, fell over hitting her head on the corner of a radiator, and never revived.

I would like to thank those who offered their condolences - it was good to hear from you all.

Although my mother's blood pressure had been back under control, her pulse was weak and very slow. She could have fallen at any moment - but then again, she could have lived on for a few more years yet.

We live on the edge of chaos. Any day, something life-changingly bad can happen to you or to loved ones. Or to your country. Or planet. Today, all can seem well, but tomorrow events can spin out of control.

In February, it was widely assumed that Bronisław Komorowski would walk the presidential elections, winning a second term by a wide margin. His lead back then was 40 percentage points. In May, he lost. Public opinion can swing wildly, opinion polls are becoming increasingly unreliable.

In the UK, the Conservative Party won an unexpected outright victory; Labour responded by choosing an unelectable leftie as its leader, which will make its chances of reelection miniscule. But with the left conquered, David Cameron must face the Eurosceptics, who, with the backing of much of the British press, hope to further Putin's interests by decoupling the UK from the EU. The Brexit scenario will undoubtedly lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Scots, who voted by a narrow margin to remain part of the UK last year, will seek revenge on the Little Englanders who have marginalised them internationally.

Ebola has been beaten back. Barbarous Islamist terror hasn't.

In America, the prospects of an out-of-control raging ego in the White House, a man espousing extreme views that chime frighteningly with those held by the less-intellectually endowed portion of society, is truly terrifying. Donald Trump with a finger on the nuclear button? Currently bookmakers are offering odds of up to 4:1 for a Trump victory. Somewhat higher than the odds of Andrzej Duda becoming president of Poland this time last year.

Russia looks increasingly ill. The economy is in a downward spiral with no end in sight. With oil prices likely to remain low for the foreseeable future (as OPEC unsuccessfully tries to shut down the American shale plays through overproduction), the Russian monoculture will not pick itself up. Any attempts to diversify the Russian economy through innovation are doomed to failure; North Korean-style autarky beckons. And when the economy is weak, external enemies must be found. Ukraine turned out to be a fiasco - Crimea might have been captured but it is not being digested. Putin, who bragged that he could be in Warsaw in two days, has spent several hundred days failing to conquer the Donbas. And so he distracts, turning to Syria. Where will this new Russian adventure end?

The voice of the closed-minded, basted in their own malodorous sauce, threatens the progress of civilisation like at no time for the past three decades.

And are we too far gone to undo the damage done to the climate by two centuries of burning fuel? Are we on the cusp of runaway climate change? Will the weather get ever-stranger, with anomalous meteorological events becoming commonplace?

In all matters of import, it behoves us to be on guard against complacency.

This time last year:
Shots from the sky

This time three years ago:
One-millionth of a zloty

This time four years ago:
Random year-end thoughts

This time five years ago:
Beery litter louts

This time six years ago:
Miserable grey London

This time seven years ago:
Parrots in Ealing

This time eight years ago:
Xmas lites, Jeziorki

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Hybrid driving - the verdict

Well, the fuel consumption is clearly much lower than in an ordinary petrol-engined car. I picked up the Yaris Hybrid with 10,664 miles on the clock; 426 miles travelled. Fuel used 6.6 gallons (or 30.3 litres). This gives fuel consumption of 64 miles to the gallon, of 4.4 litres per 100 km. Bearing in mind that is was mostly motorway and main-road driving, more than half of which was carrying four adults and luggage, is a 'ver very good rezultat'. Carrying a lighter load, the pure-petrol Fiat 500 I hired in November returned 45 miles to the gallon (6.3 litres per 100 km).

The optimal fuel consumption eked out from a hybrid car would be around town; below 30 mph (50 km/h) the hybrid becomes an EV or electric vehicle. Over that speed, the petrol engine kicks in, charging the batteries for whenever the car slows back down again in town traffic.

Sitting in jams, the petrol engine is still, pressing the accelerator pedal launches the car forward in silence, like a milk-float. The display panel shows 100 mpg (2.8l /100km) when the car's in EV mode. Pulling up a hill, on a motorway, at 70 mph, with four adults and luggage, I can push the display down to read 25 mpg (11.3l /100km), but regular motorway driving gives around 50 mpg (5.6l /100km). The hybrid's not showing its full potential on motorways.

When not keeping an eye on fuel consumption, there's the SatNav to show the way. This would be OK, but my eyesight's not what it was. Watching the road, my eyes are OK, focusing into the distance. To read, I wear reading glasses (+2.75 diopters), but the SatNav screen's too far for that, so basically, it's hard to read while driving. A bit of a distraction anyway, but one for auto manufacturers to bear in mind given the aging demographics of drivers (and more importantly) car buyers.

Other than the hybrid engine mated to automatic gearbox and the SatNav, there's little difference in driving the new Yaris and our one. The solidity and unquestionable reliability of a Toyota is reassuring. But I could not bring myself to buy something as ugly as this. Today, all Toyotas and Lexuses are marred by their hideous appearance. I just hope the current fad for cars that look creased, crumpled and pre-crashed will soon pass.

Below: nice car, shame about the irredeemable ugliness. Yaris, as in Yer Aris as in Aristotle = bottle = bottle an' glass [Cockney Rhyming Slang]. Looks like one.

Below: this is how I see the crass, contrived, strained front end of the current Toyotas, desperately wanting to appear modern; it is the antithesis of effortless elegance (as displayed by the Fiat 500).

I hope that in a few years time, I'll be able to hire a pure electric car with enough battery range to get from London to Derby in one go. Until then, the hybrid's a better bet than old-school pure fossil-fuel guzzler. In the meanwhile, Toyota's designers should go back to basics, look at some beautiful cars and get inspired by timeless elegance, not here-today-gone-tomorrow fads.

This time three years ago:
Pitshanger Lane in the sun

This time This time six years ago:
Miserable, grey, wet London

This time seven years ago:
Parrots in Ealing

This time eight years ago:
Heathrow to Okęcie

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Across the High Peaks on Christmas Day

The annual drive from Cheadle to Duffield took place in unseasonable warmth. I've done this journey many times on Christmas Day - sometimes in snow, sometimes in frost, with sun shining. More often than not in the rain. But never in the warmth of 13C. With the depressing sprawl of Stockport behind us, the car climbs into the High Peaks for a picturesque ride along the visually most interesting part of the A6.

A feeling of early spring was in the air. This year, something else was different - along with Eddie and Moni came Dziadzio Bohdan, who spent Christmas with us this year. Driving back to my brother's across the Peaks, Moni took the photos. Camera Nikon D3300, lens Nikkor 55-300mm.

The Midlands had escaped the serious flooding that has hit Lancashire, Cumbria and now Yorkshire this December, but up in the Peaks, the fields appeared sodden, the ground saturated.

Between Buxton and Matlock, the River Wye is rising; a day of heavy rain could push the water level up a few more inches and out across the A6, the main road between Derby and Manchester.

Out in the fields, sheep are grazing, low cloud envelopes the hillsides, swallowing the peaks. The windscreen wipers switch from 'intermittent' to 'high' to 'low' to 'off' and back all the time.

The road is quiet; we set off at 13:30 to arrive at 15:30. Less than 55 miles (90km), but much of the road has a 50 mph speed limit falling to 40 mph in built-up areas and 30 mph as we drive through the centres of towns and villages along the way.

As we pass Matlock and Matlock Bath, the rain temporarily lets up; we listen to the Queen's Speech on the radio. The world is indoors, eating turkey and stuffing. We're on our way.

Derbyshire - county of limitless country walks. But though it's warm, it's muddy. And the heavens can open at any time.

Across the UK, weather records are tumbling - warmest ever December, wettest ever December.

This time last year:
Derbyshire's rolling landscapes

This time two years ago:
Our Progress Around the Sceptr'd Isle

This time three years ago:
Out and about in Duffield
Christmas Break

This time four years ago:
Boxing Day walk in Derbyshire

This time five years ago
This time seven years ago:
This time eight years ago:

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Sizewell B from 23,000 ft

"Cabin crew, start of descent"... After crossing the Dutch coast, the WizzAir flight to London Luton begins to descend from cruising altitude. Weather over the North Sea is perfect for aerial photography. I have a window seat. The sight of the dome  of the Sizewell B nuclear power station, just north of Aldeburgh, prompted me to take this shot, and tweak it accordingly...

Looks chilling in black and white. The hemisphere covers the pressurised water reactor at Sizewell B, while in the foreground the rectangular buildings are the where the now-decommissioned Sizewell A, a Magnox reactor, operated from 1966 to 2006.

Archbishop of Canterbury supports nuclear option

"Only the pressurised water reactor," sighs Welby.

My little seasonal bon-mot there.

This time two years ago:
The start of the annual pilgrimage

This time four years ago:
We flew into Manchester that year...

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:
Washing the snow away

This time seven years ago:

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Hybrid driving

The car I picked up today for the Christmas week was a Toyota Yaris Hybrid Automatic, from a rental company called GreenMotion. First time I've ever driven a hybrid, but it's time to get serious about reducing environmental impact of my motoring. I wrote a while back about wanting my next car to be a pure electric, but until this gets a bit more practical, I'll dip my toe in the water by hiring a hybrid.

Shock number one - no key. The car senses the presence of the electronic door-opening plipper, and as long as it's somewhere inside, and you have your foot on the brake, it will let you start at the press of a button. This is no problem in a hire car, but imagine after two or three years of ownership of a car such as this and the nagging worry that the one day battery will fail and the radio signal will be too weak to allow you to start the car. Anyway, I press the POWER button, put the car in 'D', release handbrake, slowly release the footbrake... and - shock number two - the car moves forward in near-silence. Out of the car park, out on to the main road, the car is being powered by its electric motor. A light on the dashboard alerts me to the fact that I'm in EV (electric vehicle) mode.

Only once I'm over the second roundabout and heading towards the motorway does the petrol engine take over. And then everything's back to what I'd expect from a Toyota Yaris. Driving to my father's house, I did some cross-country to escape the choked-up M25, cutting through Rickmansworth, Northwood and Harrow, and picking up some petrol en route, given the car was hired empty-to-empty. Running (so I thought) on fumes the last few miles, the electric motor powered the Yaris ably at suburban speeds below 30 mph (50 km/h). I needn't have worried too much - I poured in 30.27 litres of petrol, the Yaris Hybrid has a 36 litre tank capacity.

Another feature of the Yaris Hybrid is the fact that if you pre-register it with Transport for London, you can drive for free in the capital's Congestion Charge Zone. Pumping out 75 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilometre travelled, the Icon version of the Yaris Hybrid - when fitted with 15" wheels - complies with TfL's Go Ultra Low specifications for a ULED (Ultra Low Emission Discount). Paying £10 a year rather than £11.50 for each time you drive into Central London, owning a car like this for those who still insist on driving into town.

Over the next week I'll be driving this car intensively - tomorrow to Derbyshire, then on Christmas Day up to Cheshire, then back down to London via Derbyshire - the usual route - M1 and A6. Tomorrow I'll also do some urban driving around Ealing. It will be interesting to see how the hybrid concept works in practice, whether fuel economy will be superior to standard petrol or diesel-powered cars. The last few cars I've hired all had engines of less than 1.2 litre capacity (Fiat 500 Hyundai I10); can the hybrid better them in terms of performance and economy?

Given Toyota's long (the first Prius was launched as long ago as 1997!) experience with hybrids, there should be a no unreliability issues to worry about. Our own Yaris, five years old, is flawless.

My only real gripe with the Yaris is that it is viciously, monumentally ugly. It looks as though a Sumo wrestler sat on the bonnet in the factory, crumpling the sheet metal. The car looks like its sucking a lemon. This seems to be the house style of Toyota/Lexus at the moment - and I don't like it. This is the facelifted third generation of Yaris - ours is the second, and to my eye at least, the most attractive. The first generation was too rounded, and rear visibility was poor, hence most have bumps in their rear beam. The third was initially OKish, but the facelift moves in the direction in the current fashion for creases.

My other gripe concerns the entire automotive industry - the growing bulk of cars. The first generation Yaris was 3.615m long. This one is 4.115m long, So - 17 years after the launch of the 'B' segment ('supermini') Yaris, the facelifted third iteration of this vehicle has added 500mm - half a metre - over 20 inches - in length. The current Yaris is now just 5cm shorter than the 'bug-eye' 'C' segment ('compact') Corolla from the late '90s.

But this car's only mine for a week, I hired it for practicality, not looks.

Anyway, a fuller review of the hybrid will appear in a few posts time, after I've had several hundred miles of driving it.

This time two years ago:
Convenience vs. Privacy

This time three years ago:
The messy joys of pomegranate eating

This time five years ago:
Yuletide break

This time six years ago:
Washing the snow away (temperature rises by 14C in 12 hours)

Monday, 21 December 2015

A conspiracy to celebrate

It's that time of year again. The economy is given a massive boost as human beings turn into consumers, driven by a tight deadline to buy food, drink, clothing and durables - gifts for one and all - to consumer together on one given day of the year. This day, we conspire to believe, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Judea, in 0AD. [As it happens, the historical figure of Herod died in 4BC.]

The news that the Sultan of Brunei has banned Christmas because it could undermine Islam is news precisely because Xmas has long lost its associations Christianity with the majority of the Western Hemisphere, having become a festival of secular consumption.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus Christ was born on 25 December. Indeed that date was first mooted in the 3rd Century. Shepherds watched their flocks by night in Judea between the spring and early autumn. The probable reason the early church opted for the day because it coincided with the Pagan festival of Yule, and the passing of the Winter solstice - celebrating the fact that by 25 December the day was no longer getting shorter - but extending in length. And so just as many early Christian churches were built on the sites of Pagan worship, so its festivals held on days associated with Pagan celebration.

The historical authenticity of Jesus Christ's birth as narrated in the nativity accounts of the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew is doubted by most scholars. Features such as the birth taking place in Bethlehem ('Royal David's City') were written in by the Evangelists to square with Old Testament prophecies relating to the coming of the Messiah.

And yet, and yet, Christian, agnostic and atheist alike in the West conspire with one another, along with many other, non-Christian parts of the world, that 25 December should be that day that peace and goodwill prevails among men, and the weeks before that date be spent in preparation. Retail spaces are decorated with sparking lights, sparkle suggesting the snow (singularly missing at the birth of Christ) and the stars in the night sky.

Recent inventions such as the Christmas Tree (19th Century Germany, from Pagan roots), Santa Claus (St Nicholas, whose feast-day was 6 December), red-nosed reindeer and elvish toy-makers from Lapland are bolted on with abandon. The Golden Age of the Christmas Hit Single (the 1970s) blurs the Victorian and Pagan past; before long Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" will become a carol. One day my grandchildren will believe that Noddy Holder out of Slade was a character from Dickens. Canonical Christmas - adding layer upon layer of ___ to the ritual - from the Gospels' manger, star, wise men, shepherds etc, via the Santa, his sleigh, nocturnal visits down the chimney, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, through to 1970s pop music. And now Mariah Carey. It's all too much.

Getting ready for Christmas in the corporate world means a flurry of activity from early September (when the world gets back to its desk after the summer holidays) to mid-December, when business stops for a round of Christmas parties. During these 11 weeks, 40% of all the work in the year gets done in the Western Hemisphere. And then - barring the retail and hospitality sectors - it generally stops until early January. "Lazy old Britain takes fortnight off for Xmas" stories grace the pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Express.

Here in Warsaw, over the past week and half I've found myself walking huge distances each day - between meetings and shopping and drinks dos and home. Last year, I logged 56 units of alcohol a week throughout December - nearly three times the recommended amount and 'danger level' according to the National Health Service. But then "Christmas comes but once a year", and with the New Year a return to relative sobriety.

On Wednesday morning I set off to the UK for the annual marathon (Luton Airport - Ealing - Derbyshire - Manchester - Derbyshire - Ealing - London Airport). Not a week that can be defined as a rest. A few days off in the New Year, back in the office on the 4th, day off (Three Kings) on the 6th... the Christian calendar, overlaid on top of the Pagan one, sets the tone for the darkest days of the year.

Życzymy udanych zakupów = We wish you successful purchases, to quote the captain of my WizzAir flight to London Luton.

This time last year:
The Mythos and the Logos in Russia

This time two years ago:
Going mobile - I get a smartofon

This time three years ago:
The end was meant to end today (remember?)

This time four years ago:
First snow - but proper snow?

The time five years ago:
Dense, wet, rush hour snow

This time six years ago:
Evening photography, Powiśle

This time seven years ago:
The shortest day of the year

This time eight years ago:
Bye bye borders - Poland joins Schengen

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Changes on ul. Baletowa

On my way to work by bus along ul. Puławska this week I noticed roadworks at the junction of ul. Baletowa. What's up? I decided to check today. A project in the local pipeline is the widening of ul. Baletowa at its choke-point, between ul. Farbiarska and ul. Gajdy, to make it wide enough for buses. And opening the junction with Puławska to allow traffic coming down Baletowa to turn left and towards town. At the moment, there's no left turn, so if you want to go to town from Baletowa, you detour via ul. Sporna.

Below: there will be traffic lights here - to add to the frustrations of the wozidupki from Piaseczno who absolutely must travel in their own cars rather than transport themselves to town along with the naród. I just hope that a bus lane will appear soon along Puławska.

For residents of ul. Farbiarska, Sporna, Gajdy and Kapeli, the opening of this short stretch of road to Puławska will mean less traffic outside their homes. Wider pavements make walking safer too.

Below: the corner of Baletowa and Farbiarska. The city has bought private land on either side of the street allowing this choke point to be widened. Choosing a good time to do so, with land prices low. I cannot wait to see buses connecting W-wa Dawidy station with Puławska.

Along the stretch between Gajdy and Puławska, there's the American House restaurant. You can see its sign in the distance in the  I confess to never having eaten there. Looks too formal. Should the restaurant/hotel ever open a bar and grill, I'd pop by for a beer and a burger; Pyry and Jeziorki could do with a local pub. Below: to advertise the place, American House uses this lovely old ZIL-157 6x6 truck, parked up on Puławska.

Below: compare this part of town as it looked in May 2002...

...and in August 2015. The biggest contrast lies in the number of cars parked everywhere.

Another victory for 19115: some property owner had decided to close off the public footpath and szlak turystyczny between ul. Sarabandy and ul. Klarnecistów. A patrol was dispatched. The path has been re-opened to local pedestrians.

This time two years ago:
UK migration - don't blame the Poles

This time three years ago:
Jacek Hugo Bader's Biała Gorączka reviewed

This time four years ago:
Thoughts upon the death of the Dear Leader

This time five years ago:
Global warming or climate change?

This time six years ago:
Progress along the S79

Friday, 18 December 2015

Modern governance for a complex world

It's been three centuries since the last human being to claim to know everything - Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz - died. Since the death of this remarkable polymath, I doubt that there's anyone today who'd claim to know everything about even one discrete area of knowledge, from microbiology to astrophysics, from neurology to genetics. Our known universe is becoming more complex at an exponential rate; the more we get to understand, the more it becomes apparent that whole new swathes of the unknown open up to us.

And so it is with government.

It all seems so complex, the business of running a state! Yet it should be so simple... Voters, disgruntled with this or that, were taken in by promises of 500 złotys a month child benefit, free prescription medicines for the over-75s, increased minimum wages, earlier retirement, etc, etc. How this was then to be delivered - well, the voters trusted the promising party to deliver. PiS has been busy sweeping out the corrupt old cronies from power, rearranging government departments to suit its world view - and suddenly the party leadership (J. Kaczyński, esq.) has realised that promises rashly made to win elections have to be paid for somehow, and that this is a lot more difficult to deliver than to promise.

How to do it? Collect more taxes! From the evil banks! From foreign supermarket chains! Making the VAT system watertight! Except once the new government got to grips with the detail, the complexity of the world we live in today became apparent. Impose a tax on the banks, and they will simply raise their margins for loans and cut the interest rate on deposits. Who suffers? The citizens, small business. Supermarket retailing is a cut-throat, ultra-low margin business. Impose a turnover tax that's higher than the margins the supermarkets make, and they'll pass that on... not to the consumer, but on to the suppliers. Small businesses once again, bakers, dairies, farmers, who'll get squeezed even further, passing the pain onto their workers and subcontractors. And meanwhile, the amount of tax raised fails to meet the costs of all the promises made.

Collecting VAT. Yesterday I read a report by PwC into Polish VAT. This year, the consultancy estimates that the Polish state will miss out on 53 billion złotys of foregone revenue - uncollected VAT - from the grey sector. This sum represents 3% of the Polish GDP. All those garages (warsztaty), builders, dodgy petrol stations, smuggled cigarettes and alcohol.

Now, 53 billion złotys is more than enough to pay for all of PiS's election promises and then some more. But saying 'we'll collect all the taxes' and actually doing it are two different things. It can be done to a much better extent than at present, but no government can totally close down the grey sector.

There are two approaches to making the VAT system more watertight. One is the modern way - digitise, digitise, digitise. You buy a woollen hat with a debit card for 123zł. Instantly, 100 złotys travels electronically from your bank account to the merchant's bank account. And at the same time, 23 złotys goes to the taxman - the Value Added Tax. This is called 'split payment' and it works already in Czech Republic and a few other advanced economies. Digitising tax collection also allows for the reconciliation of invoices in real time, business managers will no longer have to wait for the end of the month for visibility of sales figures, costs, taxes and post-tax profits.

The PiS approach to tax collection, I fear, will be different. More tax inspectors will be hired. A Big State must be protected by a Big Army of administrators. The tax inspectors will descend on hapless owners of newspaper kiosks at 01:30, they will go through mountains of VAT receipts and invoices and check the cash register and interrogate the kiosk owners and discover, and the end of a month-long investigation, that the kiosk owner has underpaid VAT that month to the tune of 37 złotys. The cost of the investigation, however, was 5,000 złotys. The kiosk owner is prosecuted, quits the business, no one is bold enough to step into their place, and another light goes out.

Tax inspectors will need to be inspected. "Ile mam dać, aby nie dać?" And of course, the inspectors of tax inspectors will need to be carefully monitored. And so on. Paralysis will happen - or else the whole thing will just blow apart - the human factor - and we're reduced to the level of Russia.

Digitising tax collection is the way forward. Clever algorithms can cross-check e-invoices (in .xml rather than dumb .pdf files) against payments, reconciling revenue with tax payments. Algorithms cannot be bribed. They will instantly show anomalies, mistakes, outright tax evasion. [Please read this blog post from October about the relative inefficiency of the Polish tax authorities. It costs 1.60zł to raise 100zł of tax in Poland; it costs 73p to raise £100 of tax in the UK. Too much chasing grosze, not enough strategy and digitalisation.]

Tax collection should be made as easy as possible, and it needs to go online. Pre-filled tax returns, where an ordinary citizen on an ordinary work contract merely clicks to accept a tax return form where their monthly income and tax payments have already been entered.

If we look at how well banks and airlines, to name two industries, have digitised, as citizens we should be demanding that the state does likewise.

But to get things done, companies - and governments - needs a strategy and good execution. Od ogółu do szczegółu - from the big picture down to the detail. Ministers must formulate and articulate; the civil administration must make it happen. All this requires high quality human resources. Properly motivated, trained and experienced. I cannot see this happening here.

The British example is interesting. As Chancellor of the Exchequer,from 2010 to 2015  George Osborne reduced the size of the UK public administration by half a million people. At the same time, private sector employment grew by over two million. Front-line service numbers - doctors and nurses, policemen, teachers - were not cut. The tax administration was, however, slimmed down still further and now is to be consolidated into regional centres with local tax offices being closed down. The Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise - two separate bodies - merged in 2005 to form Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. This is something Poland should do, in particular given that so much excise duty (again, fuel, tobacco and alcohol) not being collected because of a lack of cooperation between the tax authorities (responsible for VAT) and excise duty collectors.

Will Poland's new government modernise its tax system? I fear not. The hope that 'at least grown-ups are in charge of the economy' seems to be fading on a rising tide of Kaczyzm, an ideology based on a world-view from the past century. Public administrators that are replacing the 'old corrupt elite of cronies' are somewhat lacking in relevant experience. Closed to the outside world, to new ideas, without any concept of how complex the issues that face the modern state are, I fear they have no frame of reference, they are like children who wander into the middle of a movie.

Choosing an IT provider to digitise something as huge and complex as a medium-sized nation's tax system will be a nightmare. It's much tougher than choosing a tactical transport helicopter for one's army. There will be mistakes. They will be costly. But it has to be done if taxes are to be collected effectively.

My fear is that this government is becoming paralysed by the fear it has generated itself. It will show itself to be inept. Laughable. Decisions made will be rash, the fallout painful. If taxes cannot be collected efficiently and the system cannot be made more watertight, democracy will falter.

This time last year:
Contagion - CEE's foreign-exchange markets

This time two years ago:
Muddy Karczunkowska

This time four years ago:
Ul. Trombity - a step closer to dry feet?

This time five years ago:
Matters of style

This time six years ago:
Real winter hits Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
This is not Mazowsze, no?

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Snow in December: a figment of my imagination?

I've been blogging since 2007, so this is the ninth December covered here. When I first started coming to Warsaw in winter, it was usual to have heavy snow in mid-December, then a thaw around Christmas. Older residents would tell me that those thaws were unusual, and that winters had already been getting noticeably warmer.

Looking back over past years, it becomes clear to me that the a) either climate change has taken root some while back or b) the concept of a snowy December in Warsaw was ever but a myth. Traditionally we head back west to the old country around the 23rd of the month; on return, in time for Sylwester, there's usually snow and frost in place. So now - an overview of Decembers past...

Below: 16 December 2007. A light dusting of snow coats Jeziorki. Nothing earlier that month.

Below: 21 December 2008. No evidence of snow throughout the month, certainly none before Christmas. Photo taken from the top of the Rampa na kruszywa, demolished earlier that year.

Below: 19 December 2009. A goodly deposit of snow in the garden, this beautiful wave sculpted by winds.

Below: 4 December 2010. Photo of a foraging pheasant taken from the house. First and last snow before Christmas break.

In December 2011, the first fall of snow was so unremarkable that I couldn't be bothered to photograph it. I said so too. [here]

In December 2012, there was a heavy overnight snowfall from the 17th to the 18th. Below: Here's how Plac Zbawiciela looked a few months after the football championships had come and gone...

Below: a 'named storm' visited Warsaw on Friday 6 December 2013 - Hurricane Xavier (Orkan Ksawery), whipping in swirls of snow during the evening rush hour.

Last December was snow-free until Christmas. Below: this shot was taken on the 20th. The greenery looks lush like early spring.

I was prompted to write this post because Britain's Met Office has forecast that next year will be the hottest year on record. If so, it means that the three hottest years known to mankind have been the three most recent ones.

This time two years ago:
A muddy walk along ul. Karczunkowska

This time three years ago:
Ul. Trombity - a step closer to dry feet?
[Asphalt yes, but still no pavement]

This time five years ago:
Matters of style

This time six years ago:
Real winter hits Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
This is not Mazowsze, no?

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A little done, much still to do

Walking to Puławska this morning, I was delighted to see that the most highly demanded piece of local infrastructure investment in this year's budżet partycypacyjny has been put into place. We local voters voted for nine projects - this is the first to be completed.

Left: this might not look like much to you, but to local citizens and children going to the primary school round the corner on ul Sarabandy, this is a life-saver.

The Number One Most Voted For project by so-called 'Zielony Ursynów' (all of Ursynów to the west of ul. Puławska) was this 80-metre stretch of pavement from the bus stop to ul. Sarabandy.

Previously, the local authorities said that this was impossible to do, because there wasn't the space to make the pavement wide enough for a wheelchair. Rubbish. There was. Plenty of space. It just had to be wrested from the roadway. Car drivers (who should be driving at no more than 50km/h around here anyway) can just drive with more caution. The most important thing is that schoolchildren can get from the bus stop to school without getting splashed or squished. And that for rest of us, the final stretch of Karczunkowska at least can be navigated in a civilised manner.

Below: for those of my readers familiar with this stretch of road, the appearance of a decent pavement is a marvel. Note: the fence to the left has been shifted right back from the kerb - which suggests the city bought several dozen square metres of private land to build this path. Well done.

Below: not only new pavement - new bus stops. The three bus shelters, Karczunkowska 01, 02 and 03 have been replaced by more modern ones offering slightly more protection from the elements.

A small digression about buses, Warsaw and London. In Warsaw, the bus stop has a timetable for all the bus routes that serve it. The times are given to the minute; other than at rush hours, buses generally run to timetable. So when I see on my ZTM mobile phone app that the 715 is due at 09:10, I'm pretty sure it will be at my stop at that time. It was this morning! In London, the bus stop timetable says 'Every 7-12 minutes' - which is useless. I might as well march on for that time, on the basis that I've just missed one. Not to mention the massive disparity in prices of public transport - Londoners are three times better paid than Varsovians in real terms but they pay around ten times more for their public transport.

But Warsaw still has more to do. Mrs President Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Ask yourself - would you walk home along a pavement like this (below)? If not, why are you expecting inhabitants of Jeziorki Południowe to do so? You've fixed the first 80 metres of ul. Karczunkowska. Thanks. But there's two more kilometres of this street before it reaches the city limits. This is disgusting. I'm heartily sick of wet shoes, twisted ankles and muddy trousers. I'm payin' taxes, but what am I buyin'?

The next round of the budżet partycypacyjny starts soon, so Jeziorki folk need to get together to insist this gets finally fixed.

This time three years ago:
Welcome to the machine, Mr Kaczyński

This time five years ago:
'F' is for 'Franco', not 'Fascist' [Prescient post!]

This time seven years ago:
Christmas lights: all in the best possible taste

This time eight years ago:
Letter from Russia

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The end of a beautiful dream? Or not?

Today's press conference in Wałbrzych, at which various teams announced the findings of their search for the Gold Train, ended in typical Polish style - the clash between swashbuckling romanticism and tedious empiricism, and the world ended up none the wiser.

Below: screenshot from Google Earth of the site, a little north of Wałbrzych Szczawienko station, the area of interest lies between the main line that runs left to right and the disused siding that runs to the bottom of the pic. Click to enlarge.

According to the two chaps who first claimed to have discovered the alleged whereabouts of the train, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, the train is there, 10 metres underground, 92m long, in a tunnel five metres high.

According to Professor Madej of AGH (the mining and metallurgy university in Kraków), badania grawimetryczne (God knows what this is in English, as the Wikipedia page is available only in Polish), there may be a tunnel, but there's no train.

But then according to Dr Adam Szynkiewicz from the University of Wrocław, who's worked on the Pyramids of Giza, there is an anomaly down there - metal elements with very strong electromagnetic field. A train? Maybe. "It is necessary to find out," he says.

Why not look for it?

What? And disrupt the railway service between Wrocław and Wałbrzych?

I get the feeling that it is in the State's interest to keep the issue in abeyance. Maintain the mystery. Digging it up to find nothing would burst the bubble. The wonderful tourist attraction would disappear - no one wants to come to place that used to be shrouded in a legend that has now been disproved. But leave the question unanswered - and they will come. The longer you leave it unanswered, the better.

I disagree. The legend is alive. There are several sites, all of which are accessible by rail, where the legendary train may still be, even if not in alte Nieder Salzbrunn. "It's uh, it's down there somewhere.  Lemme take another look."

There's no better Polish way of pouring cold water on something than to get an boring old professor singularly ungifted with communication skills to blather on in lengthy sentences, using jargon that  to the layman sounds comfortingly learned. "I defer my opinion to his unquestioned authority".

So - what's next? Today's press conference was a total let-down, an anti-climax. It took us nowhere new, it answered no questions - and the world's press are waiting. Three voices - a 'yes', a 'maybe' and a 'no'. Next, then, is the creation of a working group, to study in detail, the three studies, and to prepare a recommendation to the authorities of the city of Wałbrzych.

Having been to the site, I really cannot see why digging can't begin, starting from the top - the roof of the tunnel - rather than horizontally, which would indeed interfere with regular rail traffic. Boring down several metres using the type of drills used for wells would not be difficult or costly. It would quickly reveal whether or not there is a tunnel in the hump of raised ground between the main line to Wrocław and the siding that used to run to the ceramic factory. The cost is the of the order of magnitude that private individuals could easily raise. Drill four or five holes, and you'll have a quick yes-no answer as to a tunnel's existence. Or dig laterally into the hump of ground from the east side (away from the main line).

If not - end of story. If there is - the next steps need to the more carefully planned, to avoid damaging anything down there. According to Piotr Koper, the tunnel mouth is blocked to a distance of 10 to 12 metres. Surely it's not beyond the wit of the authorities to allow some exploratory digging or drilling? The typical Polish problem is finding someone brave enough to take the decision.

"Typically Polish?" you ask. There's an interesting parallel right now, off the coast of Colombia. A US treasure hunter has allegedly found the wreck of a sunken galleon with billions of dollars worth of gold and silver coins. Now, is the treasure hunter entitled to 50% - or just 5% - of the find? Whose law applies? What about the owners of the treasure - the rightful heirs of King Philip V of Spain? Read the whole story here.

Previous Gold Train posts here.

This time two years ago:
Kitten football

This time three years ago:
The drainage of Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
The Eurocrisis - what would Jesus do?

This time five years ago:
Orders of magnitude

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time seven years ago:
Better news on the commuting front

This time eight years ago:
I no longer recognise the land where I was born

Monday, 14 December 2015

This year's Classic British Car quiz

Six British classics snapped in the UK during the second half of this year. Can any reader accurately identify them? Extra points for model year, plus any additional info... Another chance for the Inner Anorak to emerge and shine!

This was meant to be the Rootes Group's answer to the Mini.

It's a Jaguar XJ6. But what engine size? Which series? Which year?

Any differences from the first car?

This one is truly tricky. Nearly had me stumped.

Jaguar. But which Mark? And which engine size?

How much information can you provide about this car?
"Mr Dembinski," you may ask, "why this post about Classic Cars? You're always telling us how the car is strangling the city, making drivers fat and lazy, and that the car should fade away into history." Yes indeed. Much as I admire steam engines, and would go out of my way to watch as steam engine in action, I'd never advocate the return of steam motive power to the railways. It's dirty and releases too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Steam has had its day. However, it's truly great to see a 2-10-0 Kriegslok hauling a rake of 1940s coaches up an incline, or seeing a plume of smoke around the bend on the Wirksworth railway in Derbyshire. Long may steam preservation societies keep the steam engines running. Same goes for classic cars. These classics above I hope will stay roadworthy for decades to come, even as the automotive industry goes into terminal decline.

The answers to last year's Classic British Car Quiz:

1. Triumph TR5 [The TR6's headlights were either end of the grille]
3. Daimler SP250 Dart
4. Rover 3.5 Litre Coupe [later P5B model with V8 engine]
5. Reliant Scimitar GTE
6. Rover 3500 [bonnet bulges tell of a V8 engine underneath]
7. MG MGB GT [late model, rubber bumpers]
8. Reliant Scimitar GTE

Last year's winner was Anonymous, who scored seven out of eight (wrongly identifying Car 6 as a Rover 2000).

This time last year:
End of year Classic British Car Quiz

This time two years ago:
The poet's gift - an exploration into Why One Writes

This time four years ago:
Advertising H&M on Warszawa Centralna station

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time eight years ago:
Staying Underground: Piccadilly Circus

New shoes from old, courtesy of Loake

I wrote in June about the appearance of a Loake shop in Warsaw, and the shoe manufacturer's promise to restore old pairs for the equivalent of £50. I took in one of my many pairs of Loakes for a 'long sole' rebuild, and three weeks later, they were ready for collection. Below: how this pair (bought in or around 1996) looked before, having sustained many Warsaw winters of salty snow and ice.

Below: and how they look today. Still the same uppers, but the entire sole and heel has been replaced, as have the shoes' linings, and new laces.

Below: this is the brand - my favourite shoes. Made by shoemakers, in England. Not by robots or children. These shoes will be good for many years; this is sustainable manufacturing.

Below: the key ingredient - a Goodyear-welted leather sole, with rubber finish for those mucky Jeziorki roadsides - pavements have still to reach this far-flung part of Warsaw. This is something no 'Mr Minit' style heel bar can ever provide - a tip-top quality shoe repair, hand-stitched - not merely glued.

Given that a new pair of Loakes cost 1,290 zlotys, spending a quarter of that on a new long sole every few years makes this a long-term investment. No here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions - Loakes are timeless in style and the mark of a gentleman. [Watch this BBC piece about Slow Fashion.] Loake Warsaw, ul. Chmielna 30 (in the courtyard). A stone's through from Kino Atlantic.

Since collecting this pair, I've handed in four more for reconstruction; a further four pairs wait at home.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Jeziorki's ponds from the air

Flying in yesterday I had excellent conditions for snapping Jeziorki. It was around noon, the day was overcast, so no sharp shadows,and  I had a great seat (3A). A rare opportunity, then, to see how the ponds are doing after the summer's drought. So - from south to north, as my airliner approaches Warsaw Okęcie airport, photos taken from an altitude of around 300ft.

Below: the tarmacked, southern end of ul. Dumki. The water levels didn't go down too far in the southern pond. To the left of this pic, between the trees, there's a small canal linking the southern pond to the middle pond. This summer it was bone-dry.

Below: the middle pond was the most drought-stricken, but recent rains have started to raise the water level, especially at the southern end. It was here that at the height of the drought I could cross the pond in office shoes and not even muddy them.

Below: the northern end, with gabions creating a water retention pond by ul. Kórnicka. The area between Dumki and Trombity here is the remains of the wetlands, left as a wildlife sanctuary for birds - here we have herons, marsh harriers and black-faced gulls.

Next year should bring the development of a park around ul. Dumki, with a footpath and cycle path, fitness equipment and other amenities. Let's hope this body of water will not be spoiled.

This time last year:
Snow or no snow?

This time three years ago:
Old manual-focus Nikkor 28mm lens attached to Nikon D40

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

This time eight years ago:
"Rorate caeli de super nubes pluant justum..."

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Today's answer to the Old Boys' Network

I was surprised and honoured to be invited to be one of the guest speakers at a get-together of Warwick University graduates (and indeed students) in Warsaw. The event celebrated the university's 50th birthday. When I started the place was but 11 years old - part of the massive expansion of higher education that the Labour government had invested in from the mid '60s onward.

With British higher education being so much better than what Polish universities offer*, many young Poles head off to the UK to do their degree courses. And Warwick - a hotbed of radical socialism when I was there - has matured into an establishment that ranks in the top ten of all UK universities and in the top 100 of all global universities. I'm rather proud of that, even though in my day, student life was about punk rock and occupying Senate House. Today's students - not funded by generous student grants, and having to find £9,000 a year for tuition fees that in my day were paid by the State - take their studies more seriously I wager - especially if they're from countries like Poland.

Below: group photo from the event. Standing centre (stripy tie) is Her Majesty's Ambassador to Poland, Robin Barnett - who went to Birmingham University down the road from Warwick.

And how things looked 36 years ago - this is me holding forth at the Students Union hustings in 1979 (rather grainy photo courtesy of Nick Morris).

The event, held at Warsaw's Pure Sky Club overlooking Złote Tarasy was excellently organised and really enjoyable - I had some extremely interesting conversations with fellow Warwick graduates, and I will definitely be up for more networking with this group.

Britain's global 'soft power' is made up of things like this. Great universities, recognised the world over, attracting the brightest students from many countries. Back home, the lessons learned in the UK - not just academic studies, but best practice across different aspects of life, can all be put to good use building a better future for all.

* Most global university rankings have between two and five Polish establishments in the top 500 - the best no higher than 300th. The UK has four in the top ten.

This time last year:
Pluses and minuses of PKP InterCity

This time two years ago:
When transportation breaks down

This time seven years ago:
Full moon closest to Earth