Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ealing in bloom. In January (Part 2).

It's not just crocuses and daffodils - trees are flowering too across Ealing. And January has not yet come to an end. In Warsaw, we'll have to wait another ten weeks to see spring bursting forth in flower. Still, here are some more pics of Ealing in bloom for my readers located in Poland!

Below: St Stephen's Avenue, the church spire in the background.

Below: Gordon Road, three houses obscured by flowers from a single tree

Below: The Avenue, another riot of blossom

Below: close up of apple blossom on Cleveland Road, drops of rain still clinging to the flowers.

I wonder how long this floral feast will last? The climate is sending misleading cues to plant life.

This time last year:
Keeping warm in January

This time two years ago:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

This time four year:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time five years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time six years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time seven years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Ealing in bloom. In January.

I flew to London yesterday, and arriving at my father's house I was surprised to see that the crocuses had already come into flower in the back garden. This suggests that spring will be three weeks early this year. After the warmest and wettest December ever recorded, January continues the spell of anomalous weather.

Daffodils are associated in Britain with St David's Day - the patron saint of Wales, which is 1 March. And here we are, late January, and the first daffs have come into flower.

Below: crocuses on the lawn. Usually, a sight seen in early March (see this post from 2014).

Below: bright yellow flowers against a bright blue sky.

Below: yellow crocuses in Pitshanger Park.

Frost may yet come and claim it all back for winter, but not next week - the Met Office forecasts a temperature range of 2C (nighttime low) to 14C (daytime high) between now and Friday. Which is a similar range to what Warsaw can expect.

It will be windy in Britain - in particular up north, with another named storm (Henry) due, the eighth to hit the UK since November.

This time last year:
Populist start to election campaign

This time two years ago:
Straż Ochrony Kolei explained

This time three years ago:
The end of winter? So early?

This time four years ago:
How much education for the nation?

This time five years ago:
To the Catch - short story

This time six years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
From the family archives

Friday, 29 January 2016

A modest proposal regarding the Złoty

The world's major currencies - the dollar, the euro, the pound, the yen/yuan, have specific symbols known the world over, present on the keyboards of our computers and smartphones. That's $, €, £, ¥. Since 2010, the Indian rupee (₹) and since 2012, the Turkish lira (₺) have joined the exclusive club of currencies that are assigned their own symbol.

Every other currency - the Swiss franc (CHF), Russian rouble (RUB), Australian dollar (AUD) - have prosaic three-letter designations used by currency dealers and bureaux de change the world over. And in this less-distinguished group of currencies, we find Poland's złoty (PLN). [Note: the 'N' in PLN means 'new' and was introduced when Poland denominated its currency by shedding four zeros on 1 January 1995. PLN thus replaced PLZ.]

Anyway - given that Poland is in no great hurry to ever join the euro - a ramshackle collection of currencies designed by the Germans to keep their exports competitive - what about a symbol for the złoty? The eurozone's troubles are endless and structural, and to sort them out there has to be banking union and tax union, and handing over sovereignty on matters like that to the European Central Bank will not play well in Poland whatever the complexion of its government.

OK, so Poland did sign up in its EU Accession Treaty to join the euro one day - though matters like 'when' and 'at what rate' were left up in the air.

The euro works like this: putting the drachma, Italian lira, peseta and whatever it was the Portuguese had into the same currency as the German deutschmark has had the following effect - making the euro incredibly competitive for pricing German exports. Look at the graph below:

Over the past five years, the euro has become 20% weaker compared to the dollar. Hey America! There's never been a better time to buy a BMW, Merc or Audi! Now, imagine the above graph as deutschmark to dollar. Unshackled from the currencies of the Mediterranean, the deutschmark could have been appreciating like the Swiss franc, a safe-haven currency backed by strict fiscal and monetary discipline. German exports would have become uncompetitive. So for the cost of bailing out the lax PIIGS, Germany has retained a strong manufacturing sector through the global crisis along with low, low unemployment.

[One reason why today's US GDP growth figures for Q4 2015 were so weak was because the strong dollar has hit American exports. America's loss, Germany's gain.]

And where would Poland - inextricably linked to the German supply chain - fit into the scheme of things, were it to have joined the euro along with Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltics?

Trapped, in a word. Poland was the Green Island in 2009 because the złoty depreciated by nearly 40% against the euro between August 2008 and February 2009. This gave Poland's exporters (30% of Poland's GDP) a chance to get competitive. Poland never suffered the crippling unemployment faced by Spain or Greece.

So - if Poland wants to demonstrate a healthy dose of eurozone scepticism, and with it a disdain for the notion of an ever-closer union led by an inner core of EU members - I suggest it adopt a symbol for its currency. This needs further debate, as I'll explain..

 Left: a capital 'Z' with two horizontal lines through it. A variant could have but one horizontal line through it, but that (and here's the historical sensitivity) was the insignia of the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division. Although this particular bunch of evil thugs tasked with fighting partisans behind Nazi lines never fought on Polish soil, this symbol could be misread by other nations. So - handle with care. But with two lines - it looks neat and strong, and alluding to the euro's symbol, €.

The alternative (left) is a vertical line through the 'Z', referencing the dollar (Latin American pesos tend to have two vertical lines through the 'S'). This variant would display more transatlantic yearnings, and a sign of difference from the horizontally-crossed euro.

Alternatively, and here my typographical and Photoshop skills are not strong enough, a single (or indeed even double) horizontal wavy line through the 'Z', alluding to the wavy line in the handwritten lower-case letter 'ł'. Very Polish, and unique among currency symbols.

Dear readers - what do you think? [Readers answered - their suggestions are here.]

Should the złoty (nominally at least) be aiming to converge with the euro at some undefined moment in the future? Should the złoty stay out of the eurozone for ever (much as the pound sterling seems likely to do)? And if so, should the złoty adopt a symbol for itself, a matter of national pride? And if so - what should that symbol look like? Comments please!

Click here to see readers' suggestions!

This time last year:
Warsaw Spire getting higher and higher

This time two years ago:
Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

This time three years ago:
Is this winter's end?

This time four years ago:
The other Jeziorki station

This time six years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time seven years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
(For a while there it looked like the city authorities would provide us locals with a pavement so that we could safely walk to the station with clean footwear. Seven years on - not a bit of it. Maybe a Marszałek of a Warsaw Agglomeration voivodship could see to it.)

This time eight years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Polish individualist

Walking past a long line of stationary cars in the rush hour this morning, I had another insight into cultural differences between Poles and Britons. [WARNING: Sweeping broad-brush generalisations follow, of course there are exceptions, but I'm trying to present a Big Picture.]

Sitting fuming one-per-car in traffic, these individual(ist)s cannot not bring themselves to collaborate with others in getting to work. The streets of Warsaw are bunged up solid with one-per-car commuters driving short distances to work because it's beyond them to even think of sharing a bus, tram or train with their fellow citizens. We could all whisk into work in half the time by public transport were we to cooperate effectively with one another. If even half of those who had an alternative to driving took it, Warsaw would be an even better place to work.

The wonderful British 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, has, I think, some very Polish characteristics. There's no doubt that the protagonist played by Patrick McGoohan is clearly on spectrum. Often brusque in his dealings with others, he is obsessed with small details and takes the matter of his personal freedom very seriously. He is accused of being 'unmutual', of not wanting to get on with his fellow inmates. Being 'mutual', showing a willingness to cooperate with others with the aim of a building a better society for all - the notion of win-win (or even win-win-win) does not come easily to Poles.

Business in Poland is far more adversarial than it is in the UK. Both parties to a contract subconsciously consider that the natural outcome is that there will be a winner and a loser in this deal. And they'll do everything to ensure the other party doesn't win, often doing themselves down in the process. In the UK, there's a basic, background appreciation that things can be done on trust, so less time is spent ensuring one's interests are protected. The cost of mistrust is high - between businesses (lengthy legal contracts); within businesses (internal audits, compliance teams); between citizens (padlocks, crowbar-proof doors, alarms, security services); between tax authorities and taxpayers (endless kontrole - audits).

Building trust across society is the best investment any nation can make in itself. Everything else - education upward - stems from a basic belief that we can all trust one another, our neighbours, employers and government. And while that background level of trust has been steadily growing in Poland over the 18 years I've lived and worked here (it's still not as high as in the UK), I fear it may be going to reverse, taking into account the 19th Century mindset of Jarosław Kaczyński.

Yet there is clearly something about Mr Kaczyński that appeals greatly to many Poles. PiS is currently enjoying a 42% approval rating in the polls. Statements from government ministers against 'lefty liberal fads' such as cycling, vegetarianism or recycling resound with the grumpy individualist, who, like Patrick McGoohan will not be pushed around. The PiSite nagonka aimed at the WŚOP charity has something to do with the high profile of its organiser Jurek Owsiak successfully getting people to pull together. The concept of individualism (in opposition here to teamwork, rather than collectivism) is very Polish. This is not the 'rugged individualism' of the American West, rather an unhealthy individualism that cuts off the 'other'; nasz and nie-nasz.

Why are Poles such individualists? Why are they not so good at teamwork and collaboration? The very word 'collaboration' has negative connotations in Polish - and for good historical reasons. Poles tend to be better at solitary work, focusing in depth of the subject matter, rather than working in teams. Brits are good at teamwork, sharing a project in a cross-disciplinary approach, avoiding the information silo.

This, I think, comes from schooling. In the UK, there's a school subject called 'games'. One afternoon a week, for two hours, there will be competitive team sport activity - for all pupils. Football, cricket or rugby for the boys, rounders and netball for the girls. In Poland, there's WuEf - Wychowanie Fizyczne (literally 'Physical Education' or PE). Seen as a non-subject by children and parents alike (the number of zwolnienia or sick-notes I wrote for Moni and Eddie does not bear thinking about), WuEf entails little more than getting changed into shorts and a vest and running round the gym hall for half an hour. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it's the lack of that ingrained teamwork that has held Poland back; its sporting heroes on the international arena tend to be individuals rather than teams.

And Poles love to live in hierarchies, clawing their way up the vertiginous career ladder from młodzy specjalista, via specjalista to starszy specjalista. They don't like sharing information within the company, the starszy specjalista fearing that the młodszy specjalista is after his job. Which of course he or she is. A boss of a British company in Poland employing several hundred people told me that the day he posted the new organisation chart, showing who reports to whom, he was inundated by petitioners telling him that this reporting line was unfair, or that this person (shown above the petitioner on the org chart) should actually be lower, based on age, length of service and education.

Having said all of the above, collaboration in the workplace is attracting a backlash (see this article from the current Economist). Maybe Poles' ability to focus in solitude is an unrecognised reason why the economy's been doing so well. Whilst open plan offices are not controversial in the UK, in Poland they generate much resentment when they are being introduced by multinationals, while Polish firms (especially state-owned enterprises) tend to stick to the traditional long-corridor-with-individual-offices layout.

How this will pan out in the long term, with innovations in technology threatening to upset the world of work as we know it, is a moot point. Which approach will prove more resilient - the teamwork-based collaborative approach, or a cluster of focused individuals beavering away in solitude?

Time will tell.

This time last year:
Winter woes and a crisis of creativity

This time three years ago:
Warsaw - the more it snows

This time four years ago:
Get orf my lairnd!

This time five years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time six years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time seven years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time eight years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in fog

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Searching for growth

Time to ponder the big economic issue of our time; economic growth, or rather lack of it. The world economy is moribund right now (with a few bright spots such as Poland); growth is either low (much of the West), negative (Russia, Brazil) or decelerating (China, India).

Last week's Economist reviewed a book by Robert Gordon, in which the economics lecturer analysed the roots of US growth over the past century and half, and concluded that it is doomed to slow down, because it's no longer creating major, life-changing products or services.

How about the internet, and all the wonders that from it derive? "The invention of the driverless car will have less impact on society than the invention of the car." "We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters" - two ideas in the Economist's review.

We have too much stuff.  The Economist last week touched on a strand of thought that I aired last month (see this post. I was delighted to see the William Morris quote I used repeated in the Economist article!). The average American house has 300,000 things in it, we learn. How much do we need?

The average American car spends 95% of its time quietly depreciating away on the drive or in front of the office. What a waste. The average power drill is used for a total of eight minutes across its entire lifetime. The internet is likely to make us buy fewer things and share more of them.

Robert Gordon's premise is not new. In his book Wired Life, published in 1999, Charles Jonscher took a counterintuitive look at the internet revolution as it was unfolding. These were the days before Google, smartphones, mobile apps or IoT, so the full scope of the coming revolution was not yet apparent. Mr Jonscher's premise was that the internet, marvellous though it is, would be as nothing compared to the real industrial revolution - of railways, steel, electricity, hygiene and the internal combustion engine. The real human leap was suddenly being able to travel from the village in which you were born - and your ancestors spent their lives in - to the seaside or to a big city in just a few hours. It was the end of the drudgery of housework brought about by the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine.

Daily newspapers, radio, cinema, television, transport for all (trains, bicycles, buses, affordable cars) - the upowszechnienie* of these inventions transformed lives beyond all comparison with those of our pre-industrial forefathers. The rolling out of the above created economic growth on a hitherto unprecedented scale. As Charles Jonscher wrote, his grandmother witnessed greater change than he's done to date. You can have a digital detox for a week or so, but try going without the benefits brought to us by the Industrial Revolution for even a day.

The internet has sped up - immeasurably - access to information which was already there, or in the case of Big Data, has allowed us to aggregate and synthesise new value from it. New growth comes in the form of new efficiencies, many of which end up destroying jobs. Industrialisation created jobs that new efficiencies in agriculture destroyed. Yet the IT revolution will not, ultimately create jobs. Robots in factories, algorithms in accountancy. The future will keep the clever and driven very busy, but the intellectually less well-endowed and lazy will find it increasingly hard to find gainful employ. Unlike industrial workers in the 1950s, they will not have disposable income to spend on things that drive further growth. Robots will end up paying their social benefits.

Mobile apps will certainly continue to bring incremental benefit to our lives. (I'd love a more efficient way of monetising unwanted things than the hassle of selling them on eBay or Allegro.) But new apps will not bring about another huge leap forward in humanity as the onset of the Industrial Revolution did.

What will? What do we all want, what will all pay for?

Longevity and health. I'd love to live to 200, hell - 500. Providing I'm mentally and physically in good shape and able to make the most of the opportunities that superlongevity can offer. And I'm sure 7.4 billion consumers would share this dream.

In the short term, any new breakthroughs in life sciences will bring benefit only the wealthy (and those on clinical trials). Regulatory authorities will have a high old time trying to regulate a brave new world, where indeed, the unregulated future is that we will see Alphas and Epsilons evolving differently.

But there is hope. Last week, we learned that there are now seven billion mobile phones in use around the planet. This doesn't yet mean one per human being, as many of us in the developed world have two. But I remember back in the mid-1990s, in my first job in Poland (for CenterTel - now Orange), hearing with disbelief the head of marketing predict that in a few years' time, mobile phones would be as cheap as shoes. Back then, a Motorola cegła (brick) had a huge battery the size of an encyclopedia and cost as much as a Fiat 126p Maluch. This was a time when only 85,000 Poles had a mobile phone. The same may happen in life sciences, only we will have to wait far longer, for regulatory reasons.

In the 1950s, the average family in the UK was spending a third of its income on food. Today it's one-eighth. The money saved goes towards the big costs associated with displaying social status (big house, big car, exotic holidays) and furthering that status into the next generation (private education).

The future will see further falls in the costs of living, leaving more for - what?

There's never been a worse time for hoarding capital. Interest rates are close to zero. Bond yields are extremely low. Stock markets are wobbly. There's in there's investing in innovation - would you punt your money on a start-up unless you had a excellent knowledge of its market niche?

So we have a world full of debt, of capital sitting around doing nothing, of people with too many things not knowing what to buy next - and in such a world, corporations are seeking growth. Maybe the currently understood engines of growth are spluttering.

America, as I've written before, is good at Thinking Big and having a Can-Do Attitude. We all need to adopt these mental attributes. If a new technology or business model works - roll it out on the largest imaginable scale. But life sciences, biotech, requires a completely different approach. A new app can be written, tested and delivered to market in months. A new drug or medical treatment can take ten years or more before receiving final regulatory approval. This does not go down too well with investors, who don't like the massive swings in share price as successive rounds of clinical trials go worse or better than expected on the long road to market.

Growth - big growth - of the order mankind experienced over the past two centuries - is looking less and less likely. The only hope is in life sciences - after all - what else would you want to spend large chunks of your disposable income on? But the capitalist system working within a democratically established regulatory framework is not going to bring about a life sciences revolution overnight - nor even over a decade. Gene therapy, nanotechnology, personalised medicine driven by Big Data - this will take ages to roll out, and will require close collaboration between academia, pharmaceutical business, healthcare providers and regulators. Get these to work together better, and we might see a new engine for rapid economic growth taking hold.

Thanks to Tim Richards (@aerohaveno) for pointing me to Will Hutton's Guardian piece from 31 January 2016 setting out the same basic thought. "If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we've reached peak stuff," says Mr Hutton. In which case, Poland still has a long way to go. Its people are a long way from being sated with objects.

* Upowszechnić = to spread, to diffuse, distribute, popularise, propagate, promulgate - none get sufficiently close to the meaning of this useful word. U-pov-SHEH-neetch - literally, 'to make universal' or 'to make commonplace'.

This time three years ago:
The more it snows - a decent snowfall in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time six years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time seven years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time eight years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in bad weather

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Under the moonlight - lux selene

The combination of a full moon, a hard frost and clear sky set me off to catch some more nocturnal snaps on the ice. In effect, a continuation of yesterday's shoot, but with different equipment. Today I took my Nikon Coolpix A, focused manually at infinity, quarter-second exposure at f2.8, with 6,400 ISO. The electronic screen on the back of the camera that acts as viewfinder proved useless; other than the moon, I could see squat. Still, the moon as reference point and a few bracketed shots to check exposure, and I got some results.

Below: I climbed to the top of the small island in the middle of the ponds to get this shot. Lack of human footprints up here suggest I'm the first to get up here this winter.

Below: I scramble down the other side to photograph the moon with the island silhouetted against the sky. Note the tracks of wildlife in the foreground.

I also took the 10-24mm zoom on my Nikon D3300. Set at a sixth of a second at f3.5 and 12,800 ISO. Looking south, houses on ul. Trombity along the right side of the pic. Note car tyre tracks in the snow.

Below: the moon shines through the line of trees that forms the break between the south and middle ponds. Want an axe to break the ice?

Below: a plethora of tyre tracks on the north pond, nearest ul. Kórnicka, suggests that many a driver braved the ice today to have a try a handbrake turns and other thrills. Given the temperature was below zero for over a week, this can currently be attempted without risk.

Below: time to head home, following a pair of tyre tracks that lead all the way back. Another frosty night is due, although by tomorrow evening, the temperature will have risen to zero.

On days like today, one must venture out and snap. One lesson for me using the Coolpix A is that the camera can now distinguish between light and dark better than the human eye (and far better than its own screen).

Ah! And happy birthday Moni (23 today - time flies).

This time three years ago:
David Cameron, Conservatism and Europe

This time four years ago:
Citizen Action Against Rat Runners

This time five years ago:
Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

This time six years ago:
Building the S79 - Sasanki-Węzeł Lotnisko, midwinter

This time seven years ago:
My return to skiing after an eight-year break

This time eight years ago:
Moni's 15th birthday

Friday, 22 January 2016

Ice, pond, night.

Walking on ice, for those who know about it, is easy. The key is to keep an eye on the thermometer and on other people. A few nights' deep frost, and you'll be OK, once you can see other humans' footprints, which suggest that risk of falling though is limited. But once you see car tracks in the snow that covers the ice that covers the pond, you know you - are - SAFE. Totally. Safe. There eez no reeesk.

So walking home from W-wa Dawidy when it's -8C, I take to the lake. The camera is set to a massive ISO 12,800, 1/6th sec exposure at f3.5 with vibration reduction switched on. (It's always on, except when camera's on a tripod. This is all hand-held). Autofocus isn't working in this darkness, so it's manual focus, set to infinity.

Left: the moon is almost full, the sky starry and clear. Overhead a plane is coming in to land. The Sublime Aesthetic comes over me; this is not a scene from my childhood, though it's so familiar. The street lights of ul. Puławska cast an orange glow on the horizon. Tracks of human footprints mingle with those of dogs and hares. It is cold, I can feel it in my toes and fingers, being dressed rather for the office than for a two-kilometre walk at this temperature.

Below: looking across at the backs of houses on ul. Trombity, Christmas lights still up (acceptable until the weekend before Candlemas).

Below: looking back towards the west, ul. Baletowa running across the frame.

This time two years ago:
Sorry, taki mamy klimat - Polish rail in winter

This time four years ago:
Music of the Trees

This time five years ago:
Studniówka - a hundred days before the exams

This time six years ago:
It's all in the mind - but where's that?

This time seven years ago:
Roztopy - the big melt-down

This time eight years ago:
The year's most depressing day

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Warsaw voivodship: good idea, or pie in the sky?

One idea proposed by the current government that I thoroughly support is that of creating a separate voivodship (or province) of Warsaw. In its current form, the province of Mazowsze consists of a massively wealthy Warsaw (wealthier than Glasgow, Bristol or Nottingham in terms of GDP per head at purchasing power parity) surrounded by swathes of far poorer towns plagued with high unemployment. And while in its current shape, Mazowsze as a region is richer than the EU average. And because of its supposed wealth, Mazowsze receives lower funding from EU programmes designed to iron out inter-regional differences.

I agree for two reasons: 1) better urban planning for Warsaw, connecting its hinterland with its labour market and 2) better absorption of EU funds by the rest of Mazowsze.

Whereas the five voivodships of eastern Poland (Podkarpacie, Świętokrzyskie, Lubelskie, Podlaskie and Warmińsko-Mazurskie) are recipients of additional EU funds through a separate programme, Mazowsze does not.

[A bit of background. Administrative units across the EU classed as NUTS - from the French - Nomenclature des Unites Territoriales Statistiques. NUTS-0 are countries, NUTS-1 are macro-regions. Poland has seven of these. NUTS-2 are, in Polish terms, voivodships. It is at the NUTS-2 level that EU Cohesion Programmes are targeted. NUTS-3 are small regions, in Polish terms, poviats. A poor poviat in a rich voivodship therefore misses out on its share of EU funds.]

Compare neighbouring poviats like Szydłowiecki (31.2% unemployment) and Starachowicki (12.8% unemployment). The former is in rich Mazowsze, the latter in poor Świętokrzyskie. Then take Radom, a city the size of Portsmouth or Newcastle-on-Tyne. It has the highest unemployment (18.3%) of any major town in Poland, nearly double the national average (9.6%). When drawing up the current administrative map of Poland, Radom opted to be in Mazowsze, rather than suffer the indignity of being in Świętokrzyskie (capital in Kielce – a city smaller than Radom).

Poverty is not just a feature of southern Mazowsze. Towns like Ostrołęka, Siedlce and Ciechanów, once capitals of the tiny, pre-1999 voivodships, also have far higher-than-average unemployment. Across Mazowsze, only Warsaw and its surrounding districts (poviats) has an unemployment rate below the national average. Ah – there's one exception. Płock. Home to Poland's petrochemical industry (and home town of Mazowsze's Marshal, Adam Struzik), Płock (10.2% unemployment) has generally escaped the worst privations caused by low growth and high unemployment. Mazowsze-minus-Warsaw is being left behind by the five voivodships of eastern Poland.

Creating a separate administrative entity, akin to Greater London, Ile de France or Bratislavsky Kraj, will see a new Warsaw Agglomeration voivodship surging up the ranking of EU regions by GDP. (As it is, Mazowsze voivodship's GDP per capita is higher than that of Greater Manchester. Warsaw on its own would be far wealthier.) And it should also see the rest of Mazowsze entitled to the type of regional support funding that its richer eastern neighbours receive.

The creation of a new administrative body would require the creation of a new chief executive or marshal. Currently Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, as mayor of Warsaw, has high (70+%) approval ratings Re-elected twice, now in her third term of office, she remains popular. [I curse her name, however, whenever I trudge home along ul. Karczunkowska in the mud or deep snow – where's our bloody pavement?] But the second Metro line has been built, new roads are being built, Warsaw has many new buses and trams, and it is clear to one and all that Our City is moving forward rapidly.

To the new government, the creation of a new voivodship will be an opportunity to try to unseat Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Despite the election of a PiS government nationally, 15 of 16 voivodships are run by marshals from parties other than PiS. Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz seemingly unshakeable position could be put up for grabs should the new voivodship be created before the end of her third term of office.

There is a need to hurry. Talk of leaving this reform until after 2020 makes no sense; EU funding will have all but dried up. But there are major issues that need to be resolved.

Firstly - the new capital of a new Mazowsze. PiS argued to make it Płock. Now, Płock is a long way from Radom, even further from Siedlce. So where should Mazowsze's capital be? It actually makes sense to keep it where it is - roughly equidistant from all points of Mazowsze - namely Warsaw. But that would upset everyone. Equally. Not a bad idea then.

Second - where would the borders of the new Warsaw Agglomeration voivodship run? The current proposition is to add the nine poviats adjacent to the capital city. This simplistic idea will lead to glaring anomalies. Why should popular exurbs Milanówek, Podkowa Leśna and Grodzisk Mazowiecki lie outside the new province (because the Grodzisk poviat is not adjacent to Warsaw) while small, distant towns like Mrozy, Jadów or Osieck lie within just because the poviats they are in adjacent poviats?

An equitable way of defining the Warsaw Agglomeration would be by travel-to-work area. Milanówek and Podkowa Leśna are commuter dormitories; Mrozy and Osieck are not. Transport infrastructure and commuting should be principle determinants in defining the new Warsaw Agglomeration voivodship. Any town where a significant part of the population travels each day into the city centre should be included.

So my proposed map of the new voivodship, bounded by the yellow line (click to enlarge), would look as follows:

Note that I've included Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki inside the boundaries. And this would include Modlin Airport - which, as Marshal Struzik's pet project, would no doubt be fought over.

Creating a Warsaw Agglomeration voivodship would instantly create a huge benefit in terms of urban planning, infrastructure and public transport. Warsaw's exurbs, currently outside its administrative remit, are not properly connected with the capital. Housing estates spring up in fields, tens of kilometres from the city centre; neither developer nor local municipality (gmina) gives a fig about how the new residents will get to their jobs. Proper roads, amenities and public transport are not laid on. Because why should they. With a NUTS-2 level capital city, this can all come to pass.

PO and PSL say that reforming the administrative borders is pointless. They give no cogent reason. As far as I'm concerned, splitting the Warsaw agglomeration from the rest of Mazowsze is good for both.

I hope that this reform that can be executed quickly and well by the new government.

This time three years ago:
Around town in the snow

This time four years ago:
Reference books are dead

This time five years ago:
A winter walk to work, and wet socks

Sunday, 17 January 2016

On defamation and taxation

The Polish Anti-Defamation League (foundation council member: Poland's culture minister Prof. Piotr Gliński) published an open letter to EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger, accusing him of defaming Poland. I want to focus rather on the fifth paragraph of this open letter:
"The Polish government aims i.a. to introduce a tax on international corporations because most part of them don’t pay taxes in Poland and 5 percent of GDP is illegally transferred abroad."
The blunt assertion is as follows: the bulk of foreign direct investors here in Poland ("most part of them") don't pay taxes. And $27.5 billion (of Poland's $550 billion GDP) is being transferred abroad, in breach of the law. Is this true?

Let's think about this for a moment. Back to basics time. Economics 101.

Do we know how much capital has been invested in Poland by foreign companies? Around $200 billion since Poland's transformation, says the Polish inward investment agency PAIiIZ. Do we know how many jobs have been created in Poland by foreign companies? Directly, around two million. Indirectly (suppliers, subcontractors etc) another 1.5 million.

Does this matter? Don't these jobs count? Or is the Anti-Defamation League just using flimsy populist arguments to win favour at home?

Let's get down to business.

What is VAT? It is a tax. It is paid by just about every single foreign investor in Poland on their transactions in Poland. You sell a product or service, VAT gets collected and paid.

What is ZUS? It's called 'social security' but it is a hypothecated tax, to be spent on unemployment and disability benefit and pensions. You employ people, you pay their ZUS.

What is PIT? Personal Income Tax. It is paid by the employer to the state for every employee on a full-time employment contract.

In other words, even Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Starbucks - notorious non-payers of Corporate Income Tax (CIT) in the UK - pay tax in Poland. OK, they may well be wriggling as hard as their tax advisors will let them to avoid CIT through arcane manoeuvres such as transfer pricing or base erosion and profit shifting, but they do employ people here and sell services and get taxed on these activities in Poland. So while they don't pay all the tax they should, they can't avoid all of it.

It irks me greatly that last year Facebook paid less tax to the UK Treasury than my nonagenarian father did (£4,500). But Facebook did this legally. It's up to governments to close tax loopholes. Corporations have a duty to their shareholders to maximise returns on investments. So if it's legal - they will do it.

I've explained before how profit-shifting (or transfer pricing) works but let me do it again. Company X makes €10 million profit in Poland. To avoid this getting taxed at 19% (Poland's CIT rate), a subsidiary of Company X's US, UK, French, whoever, parent company, based in Liechtenstein or Ireland for example, issues Company X with an invoice for, say, €9.8 million, for the rights of using the brand 'Company X' in the territory of Poland. Or for 'management fees'. Or whatever. The €9.8 million goes to Liechtenstein, where an office employing two people makes a vast amount of profit from Company X branches around the world, and gets hit with a tax invoice from the government of Liechtenstein, not for 19% or 20%, but a mere 12.5%.

This will only get sorted by international cooperation (within the OECD, for example). On the one hand, countries should have the right to set their own tax rates. On the other, egregiously low tax rates encourage the shifting of profits to a country that taxes profits at lower rates. But individual countries waging war on their own against corporates are tilting at windmills.

Foreign investors have benefited Poland greatly over the past 26 years. They have invested in buildings - factories, offices, retail centres; in people - spending billions on training; and in machinery. OK, they can always up sticks and go elsewhere. They can take their machinery - but they can't take the buildings nor the skills they've left behind.

And what does the Polish government want to do?

Aim new taxes, based not on profits, which can be artificially reduced, but on turnover, which can't, at two categories of foreign investors - banks and retailers. What will happen? Banks will simply shift the burden to their clients and customers. Higher margins, more for cash machine withdrawals, a bigger handling fee for arranging loans, etc etc. Banks have their ways of clawing back lost revenue.

But the retailers - they will pass the losses on to their suppliers. On to Polish manufacturers, farmers, wholesalers. And their employees and their families. In an era of negative inflation and cut-throat competition, retailers cannot simply raise their prices - they'll lose market share.

In other words, this attack on foreign investors who come to Poland and steal our money is a) misguided and b) likely to backfire.

But this is not to say there's not a problem. Poland is suffering from money leaking out in illegal ways. It's just that it's not the multinational corporations that are doing this. They cannot afford to do illegal stuff. If the law says you can avoid paying tax by doing this, they will do this. So how much money is leaking out of Poland, and who's behind it?

May I direct my readers' attention to this report from Global Financial Integrity. It looks at illicit financial flows from developing countries from 2004-13. In those ten years, the study suggests that $9 billion was illicitly taken out of the Polish economy, putting Poland 20th in the global ranking of countries from which money is being stolen. $9 billion over ten years averages $900m a year. Now, according both the IMF and the World Bank, Poland's GDP in nominal dollar terms in 2014 was $550 billion. So the $900m a year stolen from Poland represents around 0.16% of the country's GDP, nowhere near the 5% 'illegally transferred abroad' that the Polish Anti-Defamation League claims.

Much of this $9 billion is carousel VAT fraud, 'firma słup, puste faktury' - this is Pan Heniek rather than large multinationals. And then there's trade mispricing, and money laundering. And excise duty avoidance. Smuggled tobacco, alcohol and fuel - mrówki on a massive scale, many operating with the connivance of our big eastern neighbour. It is not Pani Halinka's bar mleczny across the way that needs a kontrola skarbowa if the Polish state is to collect the revenues it's missing out on.

If corporations are abusing tax loopholes to transfer more than their fair share of profits abroad, the answer is not to lay a rather poorly planned turnover tax on some them, but to tighten up tax law in cooperation with other tax jurisdictions, within bodies such as the OECD. This requires some serious expertise, not a knee-jerk reaction intended to please the nation's disgruntled.

Using such weak, unresearched arguments against putative defamers of Poland will cut no ice with them. In the meantime, let's keep correcting those ignorant editors who write about 'Polish death camps'.

This time three years ago:
Where's Britain going to be in Europe?

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki under water

This time six years ago:
In a nutshell - the best science book I've ever read

This time seven years ago:
Flashback to communist times

This time eight years ago:
Pre-dawn Ursynów

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Czachówek in the snow beckons

After a week of +1C temperature, sleet and beastliness, I awoke to a beautiful thick covering of snow, a light frost (-5C) and a blue sky. Below: view from my bedroom window.

After breakfast (rye bread, Roquefort and smoked salmon) I set off to W-wa Jeziorki station to catch the 11:35 Koleje Mazowieckie service for Czachówek. As I waited for the train (its lights visible in the far distance below), I had the chance to see how the modernisation works are progressing. The entire 'down' platform has been removed! We now wait for new track for 'down' line, all the way from W-wa Okęcie to Nowa Iwiczna, where the track removal is currently ongoing.

The 17km journey takes 25 minutes, the return ticket costs me 12.88 złotys (around £2.30). I step off in Czachówek Górny and walk down what was Czachówek Środkowy. Below: standing between the platforms of the old station, looking east along the Skierniewice-Łuków line.

Having crossed the track, I'm in the Czachówek diamond, the forest bounded by the four tracks connecting the north-south Warsaw-Radom line and the east-west  Skierniewice-Łuków line. Tracks in the forest show that many humans have already been here this morning - and much wildlife too - deer, foxes, hares.

Below: crossing back across the  Skierniewice-Łuków line. From the left, the track heads north towards Warsaw, to the right, the track heads south towards Czachówek Południowy, Warka and Radom. In the distance, Czachówek Wschodni station.

Below: photo taken from an embankment looking down into a snowy back garden. "Ja tu pilnuję!"

Below: crossing the spur that connects the south to the east. During the modernisation of the main line, half of the eight services a day from Warsaw to Góra Kalwaria have been cancelled; passengers have to change at Czachówek Południowy for a shuttle service that runs to Góra via Czachówek Wschodni over this spur.

A good day's walking (11,700 paces) and a chance to take in some sorely-needed winter sunshine.

Communicating the government's point of view in English

Yesterday afternoon, the ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Poland's long-term foreign currency credit rating by one notch to BBB+. And Poland has been put on 'negative watch', which means that further downgrades are possible. The repercussion for the zloty was immediate. In the space of a few minutes, it dropped by around 2% against the euro, dollar and the Swiss franc. Poles with CHF- or EUR-denominated mortgages fretted over their exposure to ever-higher repayments. 

S&P's note explaining the downgrade read as follows:
The downgrade reflects our view that Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly as the independence and effectiveness of key institutions, such as the constitutional court and public broadcasting, is being weakened by various legislative measures initiated since the October 2015 election. 
For example, the constitutional court’s ability to work efficiently and independently will likely be undermined, in our view, by changes to the court’s composition and decision-making process. 
The government’s new media law, as another example, gives the government extensive powers to appoint and control the directors and supervisory boards of public broadcasters. A third law terminates contracts of all current senior, career civil servants and removes a constraint regarding previous party membership, therefore enabling the new government to change the structure of the civil service. In our view, these measures erode the strength of Poland’s institutions and go beyond what we had anticipated regarding policy changes from the general election. 
The change in the rating outlook to negative reflects our view that there is potential for further erosion of the independence, credibility, and effectiveness of key institutions, especially the National Bank of Poland (NBP).
The Polish Ministry of Finance did not take the news lying down. At a minute to eight yesterday evening, it put out a brief press statement:
Relating to Standard & Poor's decision we inform that the comment of the Ministry of Finance will be released after reviewing other rating agencies decisions which are to be published tonight.
This has not passed the eyes of a native speaker. The verb 'to inform', for example, in this context is transitive and requires an object. "...We would like to inform you that..." Leaving it without an object reads badly. Then there's the clumsy sentence construction. "The comment will be released after reviewing other decisions"... Use of a gerund gets round the thorny question of who will do the reviewing. In other words, this press statement looks like a straight translation of a sentence from Polish into English with little regard as to how effective it will be when read by a native-speaking reader.

At 22:22, on the Ministry's website, the full statement appeared. Again, poorly written in English. The opening paragraph reads:
"The decision of the rating agency Standard and Poor's  about lowering credit rating of Poland is incomprehensible from economic and financial analysis point of view."
Is incomprehensible to whom? To the government of Poland? Why not say so! And look at the misuse of definite articles, a real giveaway as to the non-native status of the author/ translator/ editor. What's the word 'analysis' doing here? It adds no weight to the sentence - it's clearly been translated out of Polish into English and the translator has meekly translated a word which was there in the original, for fear of upsetting their boss. I also wonder who the authors think this text is for. I suspect it is rather for their bosses, so they can be seen to have been taking appropriate action. Full marks for prompt response and working after hours in the ministry - not so good on the execution though.

The sad thing is that, should any native English reader go to the trouble to work out what is being communicated here, the message is actually valid. Namely that the fundamentals underpinning the Polish economy are largely sound (actually the result of good macroeconomic stewardship on the part of the outgoing government). The press release goes to great pains to highlight the positives (stable banking sector, falling unemployment, rising exports, robust GDP growth). Drawing on those very statistics that Beata Szydło on the campaign trail said 'can't feed families'.

The press release said precisely zero about the reasons that S&P gave for the downgrade - the erosion of independent checks and balances. However, S&P has faced criticisms in the past for some of its politically (rather than economically) motivated downgrades. This is now tricky territory. When faced with a downgrade, a government should have a prepared communication strategy, not a knee-jerk reaction. Risk management. Reputation management. And that means communication in good English.

As I wrote here, we are living in an age of competing narratives and spin. Poland's new government needs to learn how to sell its narrative effectively via English-language journalists and their media outlets to a global readership of decision makers. These are the people who decide whether or not to invest in a given market, to create jobs here or there. The ebb and flow of global capital is determined by people who read the Financial Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal.

Knowing how to get PiS's narrative across effectively in these media requires a seasoned strategist and writers whose first language is English. They must be familiar with the basics of house style (writing '€300,000', for example, not '300 thousand of euro', not using superscript 'th' after a date). Style shows you are familiar with the English-language media you are trying to influence. Style guides for many major media titles are available free online. And above all, mastery of definite and indefinite articles. Without them, I'm sorry - you'll never convince a native speaker that you're one yourself.

Finding a native speaker who can do all this, and has a strategic grasp of communication, and who is sympathetic to the current government, will not be easy. When Radek Sikorski as Poland's foreign minister drew on the services of former UK ambassador to Poland, Charles Crawford in the area of communication consultancy, there was oburzenie among PiS supporters. Ironically, Mr Crawford is currently one of the tiny handful of English-language commentators actually writing supportive articles about this government.

Without a strong voice in the English-language media (and indeed social media), this government will have a hard time abroad. It will be belittled and mocked, and the fallout for Poland will not be positive. Simply translating a message from Polish into English cuts no ice, especially if the translation is second-rate. And even more so if the original Polish message has not been properly thought through.

Judgment is key. Yet the Polish for judgment, osąd, is very rarely used.

The message needs to be tailored for the hearts and minds of English-speaking decision-makers in the UK, North America and Australasia. And for the many millions of non-native readers of 'global English' who draw on English-language sources of business and political insight. Time to start hiring.

This time two years ago:
Thinking big, American style. Can Poles do it?

This time three years ago:
Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

This time four years ago:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

This time six years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time seven years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time eight years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise

Friday, 15 January 2016

From city centre to suburb in the snow

Homeward bound at the end of the working week, having popped by for an ale or three with the lads at The Alchemist Gastropub (Pl. Piłsudskiego 3). Well recommended - my third visit there this year (!). Coming back across an Ogród Saski touched by the magic of a heavy snowfall, I am transported to the sublime plane, a different reality takes hold (below).

Across the Saxon Axis, the lights of Marszałkowska in the distance and a searchlight in the sky, the beauty of Ogród Saski comes to the fore, statues, fountain, geometry.

Approaching ul. Królewska as it crosses Marszałkowska, the park yields unto city centre (below). The temperature is only just below zero, the snow wet, so it sticks to branches and wires.

Below: Marszałkowska is quiet, the snow has been removed, the liquorice-slick asphalt reflects the street lighting. From Świętokrzyska Metro station I'm transported swiftly to Wilanowska, from where I board a 709 towards Jeziorki.

The magical appearance of Jeziorki clad in fresh snow prompted me to carry on southwards on the bus so I could walk home the long way, from Dąbrówka along ul. Katarynki and Pozytywki. Below: the car dealerships flanking Puławska - Lexus, Renault, Volvo have their stocks covered in snow, the different coloured street lighting give a strange otherworldly cast to the snow.

Below: ul. Pozytywki (lit. Music Box St.), the electricity cables coated in snow. Here in the southernmost parts of Warsaw the atmosphere is almost rural, farms and small businesses among the new houses.

Below: wrought iron fencing and trees covered with a heavy layer of wet snow, now setting firm as the temperature falls. Klimat.

This time two years ago:
The simple, useful beauty of

This time three years ago:
A warm blanket of snow

This time four years ago:
Tinker, Tailor - the allure of film-going

This time eight years ago:
Trundling Tamara

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Tweeting and blogging

I will have been blogging now for nine years come April. Over that time I will have published over 2,250 posts. Each month, this blog has around 15,000 page views - up from a recent low of 10,000, down from a high of 20,000 (there was a short period where Google Analytics was telling me I was getting 100,000 page views a month, but those were probably bots rather than humans). My blog hit peak view in 2012, and readership has been in decline since. This can be seen below:

The Golden Age of blogging (circa 2010) - when everyone had a blog and everyone read blogs - has passed. But blogging is not dead, just as TV did not kill the radio, just reduced its audience share. In the meantime, Twitter has come to prominence and Facebook has been growing relentlessly.

Below: Google Analytics' traffic tools are far more detailed than Blogger's (both are part of Google). Different results - this is because I've not worked out how to insert the up-to-date tracking code into my blog. Frankly - too much bother; I generally check my traffic stats on Blogger rather than using Google Analytics. Sorry - it's evolved into something way too geekily nerdy for me.

I started on Twitter at the end of 2013, and today I have 455 followers (the average number of followers per active Twitter user is 208). Being good at Twitter isn't easy - you need to spend time on it (in my case mainly during commutes); you need to deliver to your followers - insights, humour, whatever, all in 140 characters; your writing must be sharp and clever.

Why am I on Twitter? If I'm to be honest, it's to drive traffic to my blog.

Why am I blogging? If I'm honest, it's to stake a place for posterity. Initially, I wanted to document that little corner of a Warsaw suburb in which I live, note the way it is changing, place a marker post for future generations. But blogging gives me the opportunity to share observations about Poland, Britain, politics, economics - and the human condition. It gives me something to fall back on to see how my views have changed, become more refined, more nuanced with age. If anything, I hope the future will be brighter, so I will be able to focus more on matters spiritual, the lifelong quest for spiritual understanding. And the Sublime Aesthetic.

Back in the mid-1990s, as I was starting to get to grips with what the internet would be able to do for mankind's development, I posited that in 20 years time, I'd have my own TV channel with an audience of ten viewers around the world. I was wrong about the TV bit - my medium is the written word and the still photograph. And I somewhat underestimated the size of my global audience - and global it is - the bulk of my readers outside Poland are from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and - surprisingly - China (actually slightly ahead of Australia). This is the main advantage of blogging in English  rather than Polish - global audience. Plus for me, educated in England, trained in journalism and with nine years' experience in editing a monthly business magazine, my written English is considerably better than my written Polish.

Blogging has its rewards, not least the occasional e-mail of thanks from a regular reader (one wrote the other day that his morning online starts with the news, the weather... and And I blog with my 92 year-old father very much in mind, especially when writing about local matters.

Tweeting is different. As I wrote the other day, the main problem with the 140-character limit is that you cannot develop an argument. This means you can preach to the converted, but you can't convert. This tends to draw battle lines in societies which can quickly spill over into hate speech. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to seek common ground with those whose worldview is different to yours in Twitter. Any egregious behaviour online will end in accounts being blocked; trust in society has been taken down a notch. This is especially true in politics; Poland is but a microcosm of the shitstorm that will hit Twitter in the US in the run-up to a Clinton v. Trump presidential race.

If anything, the direction I'll be taking on Twitter in coming months is to avoid Polish politics and focus rather on the economy, promoting activities that help generate faster growth, innovation and new trade. It is emotionally draining having to deal with trolls who misunderstand your motives and writing. Not a problem I have when blogging!

This time two years ago:
The sad truth about the pavement for Karczunkowska
[Since then one tiny stretch has been paved. Rest is mud.]

This time six years ago:
A haul of wintery wonderfulness

This time seven years ago:
Optimal way to work?

This time eight years ago:
Highest point in Jeziorki 
(photos of the Rampa before demolition)

Monday, 11 January 2016

What else can I write about today?

I'll always recall the moment I learnt of David Bowie's death; 8:14am on a 715 bus turning onto Puławska from Karczunkowska, I received a push-notification from the Guardian app that he was dead. Within seconds Twitter was full of the news and throughout the day the tributes poured in.

The most significant pop musician of my age? The 70s, perhaps the greatest decade of pop of all time ever, and David Bowie was there in my consciousness throughout the period. For me, from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars was one of the key artifacts defining those times. So, so many meaningful Bowie songs kept appearing at key times of my life. I remember the Friday morning in the school playground after David Bowie's provocative performance of Starman on Top of the Pops the evening before - it was the one thing everyone was talking about.

I've just spent three hours having come home from work going through his discography and listening to the those tracks that most poignantly resonate with my teenage years; so many precious memories from an artist who surprised, who dug deeper, who interpreted, who continued creating for decades, really creating when others had sat down to rest.

Punk rock, which so influenced me, was a here-today, gone-tomorrow phenomenon (1976-79); David Bowie entertained me with something new right through to Tin Machine (1989 - a much underrated album). I might have switched off, but he kept on creating right up to his death. "So young," commented my son. Yes, 69 is indeed too young for someone so intelligent, so creative, with so much still left to say.

It's difficult to write anything sensible on this day, I'll leave this post for updating as and when. It is evident that David Bowie was an extremely significant figure of our age, for us all and for me.

Since his death, I've had the following songs going round my head: Starman, Space Oddity, Five Years, Warszawa, Loving the Alien, Putting Out Fire With Gasoline, Tin Machine, Ashes to Ashes.

He fell to earth from the aeons to entertain us and make us consider the infinite.

 Bu-bu-boom puh-puh / Bu-boom puh-puh / Bu-bu-boom puh-puh / Bu- boom puh-puh...

This time two years ago:
Where's the snow?

This time four years off:
Two drink-free days a week, British MPs urge

This time five years ago:
Depopulating Polish cities?

This time six years ago:
Powiśle on a winter's morning

This time seven years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Eddie's giant soap bubble

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Work on the tracks continues apace, disruption widespread

It's a Saturday, time to pop down to W-wa Jeziorki station check out how the modernisation of the railway line's getting on. I'm delighted to be able to report that it's going well.

Below: looking north along the platform towards ul. Karczunkowska and onwards to W-wa Dawidy beyond. Tracks are being lifted, the trackbed will be prepared for new concrete sleepers and rails. Note - the traction cables have been removed from the catenaries. They came down before Christmas.

Below: trees between the platform and ul. Gogolińska have been marked for removal. This is where the new platform will be built. The idea is to allow the 'up' and 'down' tracks to run straight without the 'up' track having to be routed round the island platform. This will allow faster running times for through trains. The new 'up' platform (for town) will be situated north of Karczunkowska.

Below: looking south from the end of the platform towards Nowa Iwiczna. With the 'down' track lifted, both up and down services are forced to use this one line. Note how the 'up' line bends to accommodate the island platform. Because of the single-track working working Piaseczno up to W-wa Okęcie, services have been reduced. More about this later. To the left of the photo, the coal-train line, unelectrified, which swings off east to Jeziorna and Siekierki past Nowa Iwiczna station.

Photos taken on Three Kings public holiday at W-wa Dawidy. Below: a fence has been erected to keep passengers away from the now-disused 'down' platform. Photo taken from the level crossing on ul. Baletowa. Plans to build a viaduct over the tracks here have come to nought (for the time being at least). In the distance the lights of a semi-fast train to Radom hoves into view - the RE8 service does not stop at W-wa Dawidy or W-wa Jeziorki.

Below: a coal train to Siekierki awaits the signal at the exit from the Okęcie sidings. This photo also shows the amount of bend in the 'up' track required to swing around W-wa Dawidy's island platform.

The modernisation work has hit services from W-wa Śródmieście (below, photo taken on Friday evening). Trains are usually delayed in both directions. The 10km of track currently under single-line working means that any slight delay in services in either direction has massive knock-on effects. And today, Koleje Mazowieckie announced that a cracked rail on this stretch meant a 90 minute delay to services.

This means massive dislocation for all commuters between Warsaw and Piaseczno and all points south. Because the number of services has been reduced, there's more road traffic down ul. Puławska, private car and bus. [Rather than one train every 30 minutes, there's a 75-minute interval between services to W-wa Jeziorki during the evening rush hour.] Puławska as a result gets even more jammed. Having found on Friday that I have a 45-minute wait for the train to Jeziorki, I decided to take the Metro to Wilanowska, boarded a 715 to Karczunkowska - which took 45 minutes rather than the 25 minutes in the timetables. Having said that, there are 19 (yes, nineteen) bus departures between 17:00 and 18:00 from Wilanowska to Karczunkowska.

I hope that when the work is completed (it will go on well into next year - demolishing four platforms and building seven new ones between Okęcie and Piaseczno, and laying the new tracks) we'll see the SKM trains running through Jeziorki and the number of trains increased five-fold.

This time two years ago:
In which I get started on Twitter

This time three years ago:
London Underground is 150 years old

This time four years ago:
My enemy's enemy is my...?

This time five years ago:
Some thoughts upon the Nature of Warfare

This time six years ago:
Snow so deep it needs a plough

This time seven years ago:
A fieldfare in midwinter

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Public media? State media? National media?

In Britain, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a national institution. It has its critics on the left and the right. Arch-Thatcherites would have had it shut down and replaced by 14 commissioning editors. Meanwhile the Corbynite left is currently spitting venom at the Beeb.

Around for 93 years, established under a Royal Charter, the Corporation's mission as being to "inform, educate and entertain... to serve the public interest and to promote its public purposes: sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities, bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK."

Now, the UK, with its 160 year-long tradition of a professional, apolitical public administration, treats the BBC in a similar way to the way it treats its civil service. When governments change as a result of the will of the people, there will be a change of emphasis in certain policies, reflecting the political manifestos. Yet in general people working in the ministries and agencies and state-owned corporations such as the BBC mainly carry on as if nothing had happened - continuity and stability is maintained.

Here in Poland, where democracy is but 26 years old, the notion of 'apolitical' is not something an incoming government - any incoming government - can get its head around. The spoils of state are seen to belong to the party(s) that won the election. Out go the old department directors - and in come the new government's people. All of whom need to learn the business of governing. As I wrote, some are complete amateurs, novices to their domain.

A British observer watching the current fuss around Polish public broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio couldn't possibly imagine a situation in which, by Act of Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes responsible for replacing the director-general, the executive board and the management board of the BBC. And that the new director-general would have powers to sack everyone and replace the BBC's newsreaders and weather presenters with new faces. This is what's happening in Poland right now.

In the BBC's long history there have been scraps with the government; notably the sacking in 1987 of Alasdair Milne by Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the board of governors, who had close links with the Conservative Party. Compared to what's going on at Polish state broadcaster TVP now, 1) the Conservatives had been in power for over seven years at the time, 2) Milne's departure (and replacement by accountant Michael Checkland) was not accompanied by mass sackings of well-known broadcasters and 3) there had not been the need for a special Act of Parliament to have been voted through to ensure party-political control over the BBC.

And by way of balance and irony, right now, Alasdair Milne's son Seumas, the Labour Party's head of communications, is engaged in a war with the BBC over the way he sees the corporation favouring the Conservatives, in particular the way BBC News covered the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister live on air. If you're knocked by right and left you know you're getting it right.

The BBC, long considered the world's least-bad broadcaster, holds a position of trust in the hearts and minds of the British people that is the envy of public broadcasters around the world. A compulsory licence fee means there are no commercials on BBC TV or radio (at least in the UK). Having spent time during my journalism training covering court cases in which non-payment of TV licence fees led to imprisonment, I can tell you the system's fairly water-tight.

Here in Poland, only a minority bother paying (yes, our TV set is covered). The majority don't bother because 1) they know they can get away with it, 2) they have low regard for TVP and 3) they know there are ads being broadcast, so let the advertisers pay for it. The third point is valid; commercial broadcasters TVN, Polsat and others, must exist from ad revenue, they know what their cost base is and how much revenue they must raise to survive. TVP brings in ad money and licence fees. Messy.

I believe Poland should chose one of two roads - turn TVP (and indeed Polskie Radio) into quality, trusted, apolitical broadcasters like the BBC - or, if Polish politicians are insufficiently wise and high-minded to leave the public media to its own devices - shut it down and leave the media to the private sector, like in the US.

One way or another, for me it's rather academic - I don't watch TVP nor listen to Polskie Radio. Indeed my boast that I spend more time in front of TV cameras than actually watching the box is no exaggeration - I do around 50-60 TV and radio appearances a year on average, commenting in Polish about events taking place in the UK. Everything from David Cameron's recent visit to Warsaw to royal babies. My internal observations is that TVN is extremely slick and well-run, on a tight budget, while TVP isn't. When the public broadcaster sends a crew round to interview me, it despatches one VW van with driver, a reporter, a cameraman, a sound man, a chap with reflective screen, and a Pan Heniek type who just hangs round smoking a cigarette. The private stations just send round reporter + cameraman in a taxi. Their studios are at the edge of town, built to a budget. TVP's studios are palatial and in more expensive parts of Warsaw.

Mobile internet has changed the way I consume news. No longer (as of November 2013) do I buy a Gazeta Wyborcza daily. These days I get my news through my many and varied Twitter feeds. Comment has become free; news must be gathered impartially and from a trusted source. Other than the Economist, I don't subscribe to what's behind the paywall, but the few free articles a week we're allowed from papers like Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza,  the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and others (mainly Polish business titles) - plus the free news sources - is enough to fill my commuting time.

So - on to today's demo in Warsaw (photos below). I was amazed by how many people turned out (20,000 by one account, though the police claims 8-9,000). I was amazed at how good natured the demonstration was. And the cross-section of society taking part. But at the end of the day, the best slogan shouted by the crowds was "wasza telewizja, nasze piloty" - "Your television, our remote controls". The best way not to get irritated by the tendentious, pro-PiS stuff being emitted by the public broadcasters in future is simply not to watch it. There is an alternative. Now, if TVN or Polsat were to be threatened, I'd be there to defend them to the hilt.

This time last year:
Beer, consumer choice and the Meaning of Life

This time two years ago:
What's Cameron got against us Poles?

The time four years ago:
Anyone still remember the Przybyl case?

This time five years ago:
Wetlands midwinter meltdown

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time seven years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine