Thursday, 31 March 2016

First Quarter of 2016 - health and fitness in numbers

Lent has come to an end, but the walking and sit-ups and healthy eating continue. With the end of the first quarter, time to sum up and compare the results with last year and 2014.

Q1 2014
Q1 2015
Q1 2016
Paces walked (total)
Km (miles) walked
730 km
(451 miles)
793 km
(489 miles)
820 km
(506 miles)
Paces walked (daily average)
Sit-ups (daily average)
Alcohol (units/week average)
Portions fruit & veg (daily average)

If the slogan of the Garmin's current ad campaign for its wearable fitness products is 'Beat yesterday', mine is 'beat the same quarter last year'. As you can see, the progression in walking, sit-ups and fresh fruit & veg consumption is clear (I didn't track the latter in 2014). 

As for alcohol consumption, however, two things to bear in mind: 1) Prof Dame Sally Davies's new weekly target for the week is 14 units* and 2) Lent is a moveable feast, and though in none of the three Lents did I touch a drop, in 2014 it only started in March.

So – all going well. I'm considering adding press-ups to the routine from 1 January.

The walking was good this quarter. This was the first time I'd cracked a million paces in a three-month period. A daily average of 10,000 paces (8km) is not enough; more than 11,000 (9km) a day is required.

This was also a quarter in which I did not come down with a cold or flu. It's too early to be certain about this theory, but here goes. Whenever I felt THE VERY FIRST symptoms of a cold creeping up on me – that slight tickling on the roof of the soft palate – I determined the cold away, by visualising those nasty viruses, little round spiky balls, and blasting them away with killer thoughts like an inert-gas fire extinguisher. Several seconds in which I wished them gone, focusing my entire being on getting rid of them – and I'd wake up the following morning with no symptoms whatever. Three or four times this quarter I've had this. Too early to say that this is wishful thinking, but I'm convinced that mind-over-matter has worked here.

Why's all this health-related stuff important?

Look at it this way. You spend: 
  • 2-3 years in infancy.
  • 8-9 years in childhood.
  • 6-7 years in adolescence.
  • 9-12 years as a young adult.
  • 10-15 years in the prime of your life [usually absorbed raising children]
  • 15-20 years in middle age.
  • 20-30 years in old age.
Note the extended length of the last two stages. They're long and getting longer. Actually, they may end up constituting the bulk of your lifespan. To spend those years enjoyably, it behoves us to look after our health at every preceding stage. To quote the great Alexei Sayle: "When you're young, you're very devil-may-care, aren't you? 'Yeah, I'll drink that radiator fluid! WAAH!'" Later, you have to make up for it, "drinking nothing but mineral water, working out 28 times a day at the gym and eating only free-range organic radishes".

The life in balance calls for the right mix of diet and exercise as a regular, daily regime, keeping off the bad stuff (and sugar now seems to be the worse, worse even than unsaturated fats). 

* 1 unit of alcohol = 250ml of 4.0% beer, 25ml of 40% spirits, or (more difficult to measure in practice) 75ml of 12% wine. I have become obsessively fastidious as to measuring how many units I consume.

This time three years ago:

This time five years ago:
Cycling to work - the new season begins

This time six years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Sunday, 27 March 2016

London blooms in yellow

A catch-up from my last two weeks Kingdom-side. March is the month of daffodils in London. They bloom earlier than in Poland. Two weeks of settled weather, the first rain fell on Thursday, a day before my return to Warsaw. Plenty of daffodils. Some have been in flower since the tail-end of January. The growing season is extending. Below: outside my father's house.

Below: looking up Clarendon Road in Ealing, towards Fox Lane, daffodils over the Thames Valley Water mains running down from the reservoir at the top of the hill.

Below: Haven Green, Ealing Broadway. The white fencing around the green is an original feature.

Below: daffodils in Hyde Park.

Below: magnolia in bloom, Hyde Park.

This time last year:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time two years ago:
Scotland and its language

This time three years ago:
Death, our sister

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Easter everywhere - the end of Lent

Lent 2016: Day 46 - Holy Saturday

Just hours to go before the end of this year's Lent. Normally, I'd be staying up to midnight to see in Easter Sunday with a glass or three of something decent. Not this year - I've just flown in from the UK (so I lose one hour) and the clocks go forward tonight (so I lose a second hour). Bob and Ewa have kindly invited me over to their place, down Konstancin way, for 10am. This, to my body clock, is 8am Greenwich Mean Time, so I must get up at least two and half hours earlier to get there (on foot) after breaking fast. So - an early night tonight.

The fasting went perfectly this year. No surrender to temptation; no alcohol, meat, fast food, confectionery, cake, salt snacks etc. The daily average of walking was well over 11,000 paces, with more than 200 sit-ups done each day. An inch and half off the tum (down to 38.5 inches), still too much but I'm not stopping with the sit-ups, will continue with them as I see a clear correlation - eight weeks of sit-ups equals one inch off. Can I get down to 36 inches by late-summer? That's the target.

But on to the more important part of Lent - contemplation of the Eternal. What have we learnt? Does the Universe have a Purpose? Is it evolving as a spiritual unity? Is that unity distributed consciousness? What is the Purpose? Is it evolution from the brutal towards the angelic - evolution in the direction of higher awareness, greater sensitivity?

If so, there is no room within us for manifestations of the brutal - hatred, anger, aggression, violence. We must understand our biology and rise above it. How then are we to tackle manifestations of brutality when applied against us? Within the Rule of Law, with force if necessary, but the force applied without anger or hatred. We must remain vigilant of the fact that brutal persons wish to set back the progress of civilisation, for personal gain - power, wealth or both, for warped ideological reasons.

I will continue reading Fr Michał Heller's Filozofia przypadku, skipping the maths bit in the middle which is just way beyond my O-level comprehension of the subject, moving on to the theological conclusions that he draws. But I feel like the student Clive in A Serious Man, who claims to understand Schroedinger's cat without understanding the mathematics of probability underlying quantum physics. Which makes me wonder, how much progress can people make in trying to understand the world around us if there are whole areas of knowledge (economy, engineering, computer sciences, sociology etc) of which we know precious little.

Life is for learning; too many people think that finishing full-time education means they can stop learning. Get home from a repetitive job, be entertained, sleep. Not good enough.
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who I am
But you know life is for learning
- Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

If you have taken the trouble to read my Lenten posts, many thanks. At this time of year my readership falls off dramatically (from over 20,000 page views/month at the beginning to 9,500 page views/ month towards the end). Normal mix of Warsaw and Jeziorki localism and ultra-localism, political and economic views, photography from across Poland and the UK, resumes shortly.

Easter Everywhere. The title of the 13th Floor Elevators' 1967 album, from which the song Slip Inside This House, containing some deep mystical insights. Enjoy.

This time four years ago:
Sunset shots, first bike ride to work

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

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

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

Friday, 25 March 2016

Ideas and how they take hold

Lent 2016: Day 45 - Good Friday

For ideas to gather adherents, they must be couched in plausible language. The story told in the first part of Prof Jim Al-Khalili's documentary The Beginning and End of the Universe (BBC4) of how science came to accept the theory of the Big Bang as fact is interesting. It was not Einstein but a Belgian priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaître, who first postulated that the Universe was not in a steady state, eternal and infinite, but expanding rapidly from an initial singularity. Einstein famously poo-poo'd Lemaître's concept, saying that while his maths was sound, his physics was abominable.

It was only until after Edwin Hubble discovered galaxies beyond our own, and found that that the further away from our galaxy they were, the more rapidly they were accelerating away from us, did Einstein finally accept that Lemaître was right. The chance discovery by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of cosmic background radiation that is now known to be the echo of the Big Bang, nine years after Einstein's death, proved the theory to be correct.

It took the best part of 40 years for Lemaître's to become scientific mainstream. Ideas of a single mind need to be validated, cross-checked and subjected to intense scrutiny over decades before being taken seriously, never mind becoming the predominant way of looking at our world and our Universe.

Evolution is another example. The publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species and the theory of natural selection was found to be disturbing by Victorian society, as it upset Man's unique status in nature.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about "conscious life - emerging and continually improving". My brother wrote back and said that Darwin would prefer the phrase "conscious life - emerging and continually adapting" - replacing a loaded word with a neutral one. The concept of 'continual improvement' may be an example of the cognitive bias of wishful thinking, a desire to impose my deeply-felt hopes onto the evolution of consciousness. The notion of improvement suggests a direction and a purpose; whilst adaptation merely suggests outcomes based on suitability to environment.

Can animals think and feel as humans do? Worth looking into this article from the Christmas 2015 edition of The Economist. Mankind is becoming more sensitive to the idea that other species have feelings too. In May 2015, the government of New Zealand legally recognised that animals are sentient, paving the way to greater rights for animals.

The mystery of consciousness and science's other great unknown - dark matter/dark energy - are still a long way from being unravelled. We can come at these questions with mathematics, physics or biology, but it is our human intuition that leads the way; science follows with equations and experiments. Peer review, debate and hard questions will pave the way to establishing new knowledge. But strive to understand we must, and questioning established nostrums is part-and-parcel of reaching new levels of understanding of who we are, where we are going and the Universe of which we are part.

Richard Dawkins, the arch-atheist, will be remembered more for his concept of the meme - no, not a funny picture going viral online - the meme is the idea of the idea as a gene; spreading if they are good, dying out if they are not. The concept of the meme applies equally to jokes and fashion as it does to scientific or religious ideas. Only the ones that have something attractive in them replicate.

Religions are not subject to the same scrutiny as scientific theories; certain tenets, based on holy scriptures, are beyond debate, and a matter of faith. And as I wrote earlier this Lent, this leads to a certain stasis in matters spiritual; an unwillingness for religions to keep up with advances in science. My Lenten explorations are written in the hope for a solid bridge between the worlds of science and spirituality.

This time last year:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
New road and retail: waiting for Jeziorki's new Biedronka to open

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

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

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Conscious of being conscious

Lent 2016: Day 44 - Maundy Thursday

The idea that living creatures other than Mankind are conscious - are aware of their existence, their surroundings, experience sensations such as surprise or the feeling of sun or wind on their skin - is not particularly controversial. But can they be aware of being aware? Have they the consciousness of being able to sift through their thoughts as they happen, and analyse them?

We don't know for the present. Maybe one day science will be able to answer this question. Or maybe not. The notion that consciousness is distributed throughout the Universe is controversial, let's hold that it is indeed true. That just as we can, or a dog can, feel alive, so can far smaller beings - even atoms may possess awareness of their own existence, albeit to a far, far smaller degree.

Evolution has brought us - and our consciousnesses - into being, a process that took billions of years. It has been a journey beginning with Big Bang (and who knows what happened before then?), the formation of galaxies and stars and our star, and our planet, and life - conscious life - emerging and continually improving.


Is there a purpose to the evolving complexity of consciousness throughout evolution? Is consciousness evolving elsewhere? On other planets, on other galaxies? I am not considering intelligence at this stage. I would posit that intelligence tends to go hand in hand with consciousness. With greater intelligence the greater ability to define one's own experience in terms of awareness of sensations and tools with which to report upon our thinking.

Trains of thought chunter along through our minds, often distracted onto another track, as a set of points at a railway junction will make a train change directions. And as they do so, we can rise above the tracks and look down and see what made our train of thought change direction. This is the ability to think at the meta-level. But is it uniquely human? Could we imagine a chimpanzee or gorilla, engaged in the act of digging termites out their nest with a stick, suddenly pausing to think about a flash of sunlight reflecting from the surface of a glossy leaf - and consciously catching itself doing so?

A side-track; back to the main line. Our intelligence increases over generations. This is not to say that there weren't geniuses in centuries past - there were, but there were fewer of them. Access to education, being able to learn facts, and then being taught to interpret those facts, is helping raise the sum of human intelligence. The internet is helping immensely. Facts have never been so easy to find, the synthesis and propagation of new ideas has likewise become easier.

What is this likely do to the state of consciousness? The experience of the mystical, the spiritual - definition is important - depends on sensitivity, on the awareness of being aware. Just as we are not all equally intelligent, so we are not all equally sensitive to those moments of sublime connection with the Universe, with Eternity, Infinity and Oneness. Some of us more than others, some would consider this whole discussion a faggy waste of time.

[Just had a train-of-thought-at-a-junction moment as I considered a delightful conceit in which a future President Trump is told about Roswell and UFOs and Area 51 - all true - and he can't cope with it all and he loses his mind and is carried away gibbering to a padded cell]

But anyway, let us safely assume that a) consciousness does reside in all life forms and b) we are unique in being conscious of the fact that we are conscious. What next?

If humanity can survive this turbulent and dangerous period of its history, I would like to think that we do, as a species, become more intelligent, more aware, more sensitive, less warlike, able to identify and subdue our destructive and warlike traits, our capacity for hatred and anger, and evolve in the direction of more angelic beings, which possess ever higher levels of consciousness.

This time two years ago:
New road and retail

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Name of God and the consciousness of everything

Lent 2016: Day 42

Six weeks through, four days to go. On Sunday we heard in church that 40 of Lent had elapsed, the Biblical 40 days. The 40 days that Jesus was fasting in the desert, and was tempted by Satan*. So why does Lent last 46 days? Two schools of thought: 1) Lent is over on Palm Sunday, with an additional and strict fast on Good Friday; 2) the 40 days are from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday inclusive, but there is no obligation to fast on the six Sundays of Lent. I'm happy to go the distance without the Sunday breaks nor quitting on Palm Sunday.

Anyway, my reading of Filozofia przypadku has slowed to a trickle. The maths is beyond me. "You understand the dead cat?  But... you... you can't really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works." The Coens evidently side with Fr Michał Heller on this one.

Incidentally, a probability conundrum has occurred to me reading the book. When you add whatever two numbers together, there are three possibilities - odd plus odd, odd plus even, and even plus even. Yet although there are three possibilities, there are only two outcomes - the sum of the two numbers is either odd or even. My brother claims there are actually four (odd + odd, even + odd, odd + even and even + even). Is that the answer? Anyone care to comment?

Meanwhile, Google, bless it, is getting cleverer and clever. On what basis did YouTube suggest to me that I listen to The Stooges' We Will Fall? This ten minute-long track from their first eponymously named album has the drone of an instrument resembling the tar (Persian stringed instrument used by Edward Artemiev in the soundtrack of the film Stalker, which I'd been listening to recently). And - a Hindu mantra. Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram repeated throughout the song. Wikipedia interprets the deepest meaning of the Ram mantras as God is Everywhere, and present in every particle of nature, whether living or non living.

What could such a sign - mean?

I looked. Google led me to the Wikipedia page about Swami Ramdas, an Indian mystic (1884-1963). Endlessly repeating a name of God, Ram, was his path to Enlightenment.

The Name of God.

Why do many religions give such importance to God's name - the word given by Man for the Deity? And the use of that name as a device around which to meditate upon? Swami Ramdas said: "People do not know what the Name of God can do. Those who repeat it constantly alone know its power. It can purify our mind completely... The Name can take us to the summit of spiritual experience."

We Will Fail, recorded in 1969, some two years after The End by the Doors or All Tomorrow's Parties by the Velvet Underground, is similarly hypnotically Eastern in musical atmosphere. The late 1960s were the decade when the artistic avant-garde of the pop world flirted with Eastern mysticism, the first such opening up to the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism began to enter the Western mainstream.

The notion of God being Everywhere, present in every particle of nature, whether living or not, is making its way into science. Many years ago, I was inspired by books like The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra or The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, both nuclear physicists interested in Eastern philosophy, and making the connection between science and mysticism. A few days ago, my brother sent me a link to a fascinating article by Bobby Azarian about the theory of Integrated Information Theory (IIT) which resonated with me, because so much in this article (written by a science writer) squares with my personal conjectures and intuition.

The theory posits that the Universe itself is conscious; that we live in a cosmos composed of a sentient fabric. IIT claims to provide a precise way to measure consciousness and express it in mathematical terms. Even the proton, which possesses information (related to the position of sub-atomic particles within it) has consciousness, albeit in tiny amounts.

A Universe teeming with consciousness. IIT suggests, the article concludes, a new kind of scientific spirituality. God everywhere. The Name of God? The Universal Singularity.

"Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both." - Fritjof Capra, from the epilogue of The Tao of Physics.

* Incidentally, why did Jesus follow Satan to the mountaintop? An omniscient Jesus would have known Satan's intent was to tempt Him, so why didn't he just say "Sod off Satan" rather than go along with the ploy?

This time two years ago:
The clash of narratives

This time three years ago:
The Church and democracy

This time four years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time six years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time seven years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time eight years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Before Spin - at the interface of government and the media

My first job after leaving journalism school was at the Confederation of British Industry, where I was employed as an information officer. My first boss, Keith McDowall, at that time, director of information at the CBI, has just published his autobiography; I was delighted to have been invited to the book launch held on Tuesday at the Reform Club in London's Pall Mall.

Before Spin, offers fascinating insights into the interface between government, business and media over half a century. Covering the period from the Second World War to the Blair era, Before Spin reveals many of the human stories from behind the headlines of those years, fleshing out the social history of post-war Britain.

Keith began his career as a young local newspaper reporter before landing a job on the Daily Mail, then making his way from Fleet Street into government PR in several ministries, then heading the Information Directorate at the Confederation of British Industry, and finally running his own PR firm.

The historical narrative begins in the late summer of 1939, when Keith, then a boy of ten, discovers his summer holidays will be prolonged because of the outbreak of war. The arrival of Canadian artillerymen, with their guns, uniforms and swing records, provided huge excitement for the lad, who from the photos of the time, looked like the eponymous hero of Richmal Compton's Just William books.

A critical point in the autobiography is the death of Keith's father at the age of 43 in 1941. He died in hospital of bronchial disease, leaving the family to fend for itself, an experience that strongly shaped Keith's political views. The war dragged on as he grew up fast, for Londoners the night-time bombings were something to get used to; "we just got on with it," he says. Later in the war came the V-1 flying bombs, but it was the V-2s that were most terrifying. Over 1,300 of these ballistic missiles hit London from mid-1944 into early 1945. "Rumours of major incidents in London were circulating in which there was no sound of an an engine, but just a sudden massive explosion with far more devastating damage that could be caused by a doodlebug. We heard on the grapevine that 164 people had been killed as they queued at Woolworth's in New Cross... The V-2 rocket... literally arrived out of space...[it was] so terrifying because there was no way we could prepared or take cover."

For me, the most fascinating period portrait was of British journalism in the post-war years - a bygone era of typewriters, boozy lunches, rushing round bomb-sites in pre-war sports cars to get the scoop, and the greatest prize of all - a Fleet Street byline. Keith started his career on the South London Press, a paper covering London south of the Thames, from Wandsworth to Deptford. After several scoops which did not go unnoticed in the national newspapers published across the river, he was offered a job on the Daily Mail, eventually taking on the industry beat, this at a time when unions, strikes and industrial action were making Britain the 'sick man of Europe'.

Some beautiful vignettes tell us much about the political climate of 1950s Britain. Hiding in the back of a Morris Minor van with a photographer, McDowall of the Mail caught the leadership of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, days before their policy-making conference, leaving the HQ of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Black and white prints in hand, Keith confronted an executive member of the union with the accusation that they had been taking instructions from the communists. The resulting story and photo made the front page.

The expenses system oiled the wheels of the newspaper industry. Informal payments, ostensibly to buy a pint to loosen the tongue of a copper or eye witness, were also used as financial bonuses to incentivise ace reporters, while highly paid printers and their closed-shop unions kept the newspaper owners under constant pressure.

An extremely interesting time, certainly the Fleet Street of those days would make an excellent backdrop to a TV series (more interesting than detectives, vets or midwives). And there are many hilarious anecdotes (my favourite concerns a certain crime reporter on the Daily Mirror) that capture that era perfectly.

In the late 1960s, Keith made the jump from being an industrial reporter to working for Her Majesty's Government as a public relations man. His Fleet Street experience proved invaluable in all the ministries he worked in, starting from the Department of Economic Affairs, then - and I think the most exciting part of the story - in the Northern Ireland Office, finally a spell at the Department of Employment under a Tory then a Labour government, before going on to head the PR unit at the newly-nationalised British Shipbuilding. So the book has lots of insider portraits of politicians such as Jim Callaghan, Willie Whitelaw and Michael Foot to mention but three.

Precious insights emerge from this part of the book as to how Britain's Civil Service runs. "Four-fifths of civil servants say 'we can't' and one fifth ask 'why can't we?'" On paper, there are hundreds of people in each department at a ministry, but the trick is to identify the 12 or so people who - despite their official job titles and formal place in the hierarchy - actually make things happen.

As a child and teenager I was ever a keen student of current affairs and voracious newspaper reader, and it is fascinating to read an insider's account of the events that I recall from those years; Bloody Sunday, the sectarian Tit-for-Tat Murders, the Three-Day Week, the Grunwick strike, nationalisation of the shipyards, right through to the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the birth of the world into which I started work as a young adult. There was Operation Motorman, the clearing of Londonderry's No-Go areas by 4,000 British Army troops. And there was the Three-Day Week, from January to March 1974, the culmination of the industrial strife that characterised Britain in the '70s.  I remember it well; my family would have get into the car and drive somewhere with electricity (in our case Ruislip for fish and chips) when the lights went out in Ealing. The book shows what was going on between the government and the unions at that time - and how the media reported it.

Keith moved to the CBI in 1981 and recruited me in September of that year into his Information Department team. My 16 years at the CBI have been put to good use in my current work, using best practice picked up there to help build a new Poland.

There are also the stories that didn't grab the nation's attention but are nonetheless well worth recounting, such as the attempted takeover of the Cooperative by an asset-stripper who was, as it turned out, was basing his £1.2-billion bid on stolen data. This was after Keith had left the CBI to set up his own PR agency. During this time, he had been involved in the conversion of London pirate radio station KissFM into a legitimate broadcaster in the early 1990s.

The final chapter, the one that gives the book its title and theme, compares today's sound-bite focused PR on the profession as it evolved in the pre-internet, pre-social media era. This should be compulsory reading for all students of journalism and media studies. Slipping standards, brought about by the young Special Advisers (SPADs) on short-term contracts who've replaced many of Whitehall's full-time PR people, are more interested in photo opportunities than in-depth briefings. Perhaps the politics we have - lurching from one form of populism to another - are a reflection of 24-hour media bombardment when too little time is allotted to checking facts and too much attention is given to sound bites.

Keith McDowall at the launch of Before Spin at the Reform Club
As expected from a former Daily Mail journalist, the book is written with clarity and an easy-to-read style, which allowed me to devour all 373 pages in a few sittings. For anyone of my generation or older with an interest in current affairs, Before Spin will evoke plenty of memories of the stories that made the front pages and TV news headlines. For students of post-war British social history, the book fleshes out the names and the dates.

The foreword is written by Peter Hennessy, and it looks like half of the House of Lords has endorsed the book on its back cover!

Before Spin by Keith McDowall [ISBN 978-1-910792-17-9] is available from Melrose Books for £19.99 (hardback).

This time last year:
Mill town Łódź (Liked it so much, I've since bought a flat there)

This time two years ago:
Today, a tipping point in European history

This time three years ago:
Church and state

This time four years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe no. 7

This time seven years ago:
Poland's economy - upturn in sight? (answer of course: yes!)

This time eight years ago:
Spring? Feels like Christmas in the snow...

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Radom line modernisation update

Tomorrow I'm off to London for nearly a fortnight. Here in Poland, winter drags on, interminably. Chilly, damp gloom, not a hope of a ray of sunshine, nature still awaiting the signal to awake. Snow and rain forecast, +1C for Monday/Tuesday. Meanwhile in London, I can expect a sunny +9C tomorrow afternoon.

Time to upload this week's photos to show how work in progressing on the Warsaw-Radom line. In particular, the section that interests me the Most - Warsaw - Okęcie - Dawidy - Jeziorki. So then...

Let's start at W-wa Okęcie station, Thursday morning. Below: the footbridge over the S79 (just visible in the right of the frame) is being extended across the railway line towards ul. Kłobucka. This will make it easier to walk from W-wa Okęcie to the airport (a 15-minute walk).

Below: photo taken from the end of the S79 footbridge, my back to the wheelchair lift. I can now see why the footbridge had to wait - the trackwork is a different project, and a different budget.

Below: under the footbridge. Until it's ready, passengers coming from either sides of the track have to cross over to the platform at ground level. It's muddy but doable.

Below: W-wa Dawidy station, Friday evening, looking north. The new 'down' platform is being built to the left of the frame. The new track will extend into the distance. Once laid, the rest of the old island platform will be demolished, and all traffic between W-wa Okęcie and Piaseczno will run single-track on what will be the 'down' line.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki station, this morning, looking south. The new 'down' platform is being built to the right of the frame. The crew was hard at work today. Even so, the amount of work still ahead is huge. And a viaduct will be built over the tracks.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki station this morning, looking north. To the right of the frame you can see that many more trees have been cut down. In the foreground, ul. Karczunkowska crosses the tracks. The viaduct will replace the level crossing, the level crossing keeper's hut will be demolished.

Below: bonus shot, in the Tunel Średnicowy, between W-wa Śródmieście and W-wa Ochota. My train was held at a red signal, time to lower a window (old rolling stock) and take a photo looking towards the ends of the platforms at W-wa Centralna. Magic atmosphere!

As of tomorrow, the timetable will be altered yet again, with more trains taken out of the schedule. There will be six trains fewer in each direction along the Warsaw-Radom line going through W-wa Jeziorki each day. If this helps speed up the work, all for the good. If the work is delayed and the single-line shuttle working continues into 2017... not so good.

The crux of the matter

Lent 2016: Day 32

After three days of intellectual drought, during which I found no new insights to inspire me spiritually, AdTheLad comments on my latest post. Great! There's nothing like a bit of dialogue to spark off a train of thought that moves on towards a new synthesis. And thanks also to Aidan for lunch on Thursday, during which a dialogue on matters spiritual also occurred.

The crux of the matter, as AdTheLad said, is the question of the divinity of Jesus Christ. For Christian believers, 'the way, the truth, the life'. The only-begotten son of God.

For the 4.6 billion human beings who are not adherents to Christian beliefs, this is somewhat problematic. To benefit from the grace that Christian sacraments confer, you have to buy into the notion of Christ as God. And here, I stumble.

The Nicene Creed, setting out what Catholics (in particular) are obliged to believe, is for me, difficult. This is not a manifestation of the Sin of Pride. It is rather an intuitive inability to grasp the notion of God as 'Father' and 'Lord' (are these but metaphors, or are Catholics expected to see the Deity as a) male, b) paternal and c) feudal?) And the idea that God, the creator or all things visible and invisible (and here I'd tend to agree, although wishing to understand this notion better) manifested Himself but once to Humanity in 1st Century Judea?

The big problem with organised religions is their innate exclusivity based on beliefs in absolutes. Those who do not buy into your central tenets are damned. Or are they? The Christian notion of salvation, as it applies to non-Christian, is elastic, even within the very Catholic Church (depending on how traditional one is).

For me, a deeper understanding of the nature and - crucially - the purpose of God is more important than notions of 'grace' or 'salvation'. And this is an intellectual journey and yes, it does demand an understanding of philosophy and science, and I know I have so much to learn, to discover and experience - and a single lifetime is just too short for such a journey.

The journey is not a search for comfort but rather enlightenment. Comfort I can find in the warm fug of the familiar. Curiosity is the driver of Mankind along the path of evolution. Having an innate belief in progress, in the ongoing transition - rarely smooth, yet inexorable - from barbarity to civilisation, from the bestial to the angelic, we cannot sit still in one place and say "yes - that's it - let's stick with this, for this is the final, absolute and utter truth". We must question and seek. I do believe in synthesis, looking for what is common across all faiths, and building upon that.

There is still two weeks of Lent to go. Each Lent, I notice the number of page views on my blog falls (roughly halving over the 46 days). From 20,000 to 10,000. Few people are that interested in my spiritual quest; that is not my purpose. Re-examining my writings from past years proves instructive; milestones that I can measure my journey with.

Incidentally, today is the 80th birthday of Fr Michał Heller, there's a good potted biography of him in weekend edition of Polska - The Times. More from his book Filozofia przypadku soon (once I've ploughed through the mathematical part and moved onto the philosophy!)

This time two years ago:
10,000 steps is a lot for one day

This time three years ago:
Bary mleczne - Warsaw's cheap eateries

This time four years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens reviewed

This time five years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

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

This time seven years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[five years on, there's finally prospect of change]

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

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Free thinking and the Second Vatican Council

Lent 2016: Day 28

For AdTheLad

The fourth week of Lent approaches its end, past the half-way mark and I'm beginning to feel a sense of sadness that this dear old friend of mine for 25 years, will soon be over. At Christmas, with its excesses of food and drink, I sense Lent looming, months away still, the first few days are hard but then I get back into the swing. And with each passing year it becomes less about the body and more about the spirit.

AdTheLad took me to task about my comments regarding the spiritual search, when, he says, the answer is 'right under my nose', meaning the Catholic Church. Searching for absolute truth is not something that can be accomplished by any one person in any one lifetime, I would argue, and Scriptures and their interpretation are but one starting point from which one can but begin the journey - and a journey that is unlikely to end in a satisfactory conclusion.

Are we right to search? The pre-Vatican church was against free thought or attempts to independently seek answers to spiritual questions. The Second Vatican Council introduced much change; some clearly visible (Mass in the vernacular, priest facing the congregation, no altar rails etc) and some - as I wrote about in my Lenten blog posts from three years ago (final part here) to do with the very heart of Catholic theology.

The Second Vatican Council has divided the Church. There's the Traditionalist wing, the most extreme of which (the Sedevacationists) claim that an Anti-Pope has been sitting in the Vatican these past 50 years, and the Liberal wing, who find their more open and accepting vision increasingly difficult to sell to those who want simple answers.

The Second Vatican Council opened the door to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue while reducing the accent on pious ritual and the role of the priest as intermediary between God and Man.

Since the death of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church in Poland has tended to drift back towards a pre-Second Vatican Council form, albeit without the Latin or the altar rails. Communicants can still choose to receive the Host in their hands rather than having it placed on their tongue. But in terms of theology, the voice of openness, inclusivity and dialogue that I would hear at the Dominican Abbey in Służewiec is being drowned out by the less tolerant voice of Radio Maryja, which dangerously mixes nationalist politics into the Catholic faith.

Reading Fr Tischner or Fr Heller does give hope that the Polish church is still capable of producing excellent minds, capable to reaching out to all those who sincerely seek. Following Fr Tischner's commentaries on the post-Second Vatican Council catechism, I found that I learned much that was new and useful on my spiritual journey. It is easier to journey with such books at one's side than to make everything up on one's own.

This, I think, for me is crucial - not to wander off entirely on one's own, but to read deeply and broadly, watch your own opinions take form over time, become more sophisticated, able to answer ever tougher questions. But still, at the end of the course, we will be only a tiny way further along that great path from Zero to One. And here's my biggest gripe with selling of salvation - it's a one-shot solution, a three-score (now more commonly four-score) and ten attempt at doing right in exchange for an eternity in paradise. Would that it were so simple...

This time two years ago:
Getting ul. Karczunkowska ready for Biedronka opening

This time three years ago: God's own risk

This time four years ago:
A third of the way through Lent

This time five years ago:
Balancing surfeit and shortage

This time six years ago:
Congruent consciousness

Monday, 7 March 2016

Spirit of Place and the human spirit

Lent 2016: Day 27

Slowly getting on with Michał Heller's Filozofia przypadku. Strong on history and the mathematics of probability at the one-third mark, not much new in the way of philosophy yet - but I suspect a big wodge is coming soon. The days are overcast and damp, neither cold nor promising hope that soon spring will arrive. It is przednówek, the sixth season, that time of year when in Poland winter has long outstayed its welcome, but when the long, warm days still feel a long way off.

Time to think about Spirit of Place and what it means to the human consciousness. Many of us - not all of us - certainly not me - live in a place not of our choosing. The choice is often economic or default. Yet where we live has a huge effect on our lives, how we feel, how happy we are.

I do not intend to discuss my anomalous memory phenomenon here, only to focus on current-life memories that fall into three categories: triggered, unbidden, and dreams.

The unbidden memories are the most interesting. They are of specific places/times in my life, which for no reason, pop into my head. I can be doing something around the house, working at my computer, sitting in a canteen or office meeting, and *PAFF* - there it is - the perfect simulacrum of how I felt at a precise place, at a precise moment in time.

William Wordsworth described this phenomenon accurately in his poem Daffodils;
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
Thinking back about the many of these I have had, I can see a pattern. The places, the moments - they repeat themselves frequently. New ones are added to the canon. But they too repeat. They resurface, combine and recombine in dreams. Often my dreams are in a hybrid Warsaw-London, England-Poland setting.

Some places have a strong fascination for me. Watching Sir John Betjeman's Metro-Land on the BBC TV the night it aired, 26 February 1973, had a strong impact on me. I was 15 at the time, and after seeing it, I was drawn to visit, time and time again, many of the places shown in the programme. In particular the far reaches of Metro-land, beyond Aylesbury - out to Quainton Road, Verney Junction and Brill. Another such area is around the Catesby Tunnel in Northamptonshire. I have been many times, it inspires me.

But there are other places that do not return to me; Perivale, Greenford, the A40 Western Avenue - not associated with happy times. Hanwell, Ealing, most certainly. They come back to me. Not Perivale.

Poland has vast appeal to me - the chance to travel out into the Polish countryside in high summer. I cannot wait. Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Kraków... and Łódź rising - Polish cities I love.

I feel with each journey, I am laying down markers, preferences, familiarities; they return to me - not just 10,000 daffodils, tossing their heads in sprightly dance - many scenes, rural, urban, sunny, snowy, foggy *PAFF! A foggy morning, Elthorne Park, Hanwell, autumn 1969, on my way to school, Boston Manor Station on the Piccadilly Line, posters for the musical film, Paint Your Wagon on the platform... that exact feeling I had that foggy morning.
Pilgrimage, the journey to a place of cult or veneration, but why that particular place? What was it about the spirit of that place, its klimat, that determined that it should be a shrine, a place of pilgrimage? To what extent is the journey as important as the destination? The notion of topophilia is relevant.
Why does our brain store and then reform memories of place and time? What evolutionary advantage does this phenomenon bestow upon us? Like beacons, drawing us back, memories that return and strengthen association of mind and place.

Follow-up - Tuesday 8 March: Last night I dreamt of that curiously familiar amalgam of England and Poland; an estate of white council houses on the edge of the Vistula escarpment in Lancashire...

See also - label Spirit of Place (scroll past this post)

This time last year:
Poland's road death toll falls but remains too high

This time two years ago:
Putin: tactical genius, strategic failure

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

This time five years ago:
Silver birches and blue skies

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

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

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Cognitive bias in the search for God

Lent 2016: Day 23

Half way through this year's Lent, more than ever before a true journey with a goal - to spend the 46 days not just avoiding pleasures such as alcohol and meat, but also focusing more intently that ever on the spiritual dimension, thinking about the metaphysical, about the purpose of life.

And this year, my brother Marek is helping me along the way by asking the tough questions that require deeper thought - and research. Marek questions whether Fr Heller is prone to cognitive bias arising from System 2 thinking. This refers to Daniel Kahneman's 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which posits that there are two systems of thought in humans:
  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
Both systems, says Kahneman, give rise to cognitive bias, though of different types. Marek says that Fr Heller's cognitive bias arises from System 2 thinking. But then any number of philosophers, even those holding views contrary to Fr Heller, would tend to be System 2 thinkers. However, the need to sift through cognitive bias in the search for meaning in our human lives is an entirely valid one. Richard Dawkins is as likely as Fr Heller to suffer from cognitive bias associated with System 2 thinking.

An exhaustive list of cognitive biases as demonstrated by people is to be found on this Wikipedia page. It features the cognitive bias that I most associate with people who are actively seeking metaphysical answers to life's mysteries - wishful thinking.

At the heart of spiritual quests is the hope, the yearning, for life beyond death. In my long experience with flashbacks, anomalous memory events, deja vu, I am associating this phenomenon of my consciousness with the possibility of life before birth, of human awareness being able to transcend one's time and one's body. Wishful thinking? I was aware that this type of thought, ascribing this particular answer to this very personal phenomenon is indeed a form of wishful thinking. Which is why I tend to reject a simple religious-based answer such as reincarnation. The sensations are too infrequent in regularity, happening on average once or twice a week, too fleeting, and too weak.

But they are there, and very real, and very consistent over the decades. I want to fine-tune my observations, cut out any false colour, any exaggerations, and seek with increased finesse in the rest of my lifespan the nature and origin of these flashbacks. Wishful thinking is a cognitive bias I have long identified as being an obstacle to cross.

I have a current theory, and reading Fr Heller's book is proving extremely useful as a means of fine-tuning the theory. Namely, that our spiritual growth as a species is something that has been going on, and will continue to go on, before and after our lives' duration. Our bodies are carrying eyes and ears and a brain that is aware of the passing of a tiny fragment of a continuum of a process of spiritual evolution, and we - tiny shards, echoes of who we are today - may yet witness the process unveiling in the future.

If there is a purpose to the Universe, it is towards an ever-greater consciousness, an ever higher state of awareness, until all is united in a Universal Singularity; the evolution from beast to angel, the journey from Zero to One.

All this is merely sentiment, feelings, inspirations, poetic yearnings - not hard science. But it is also a part of my thinking that science and the spiritual - the metaphysical - will encroach upon one another's domains.

The purpose of Lent is to test beliefs and subject them to rigorous examination from all side. Neurological, cosmological - logical even.  Half of Lent has passed, more reading, more thinking, more reflection and more - I hope - dialogue on these matters to come.

This time last year:
A spiritual frame of mind

This time two years ago:
Sunday in the City

This time three years ago:
God's teachings

This time seven years ago:
A week into Lent

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Pascal's Wager dissected with Occam's Razor

Lent 2016: Day 22

Prof Fr Michał Heller's Filozofia przypadku dwells a while on the figure of Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician and philosopher. In particular, Pascal's correspondence with Pierre de Fermat on the subject of probability, which led to huge advances in the mathematics concerned with statistics. However, Pascal is best known in popular culture today for his famous wager.

To paraphrase: If you believe in God, and God does not exist, you've lost nothing. If you don't believe in God, and God does exist, you've lost an eternity in paradise. Since believing in God doesn't cost you anything, you might as well do so, as you've nothing to lose. Logically this premise remains true.

Now, Pascal was a devout Christian, and for him, God was the God of the Catholic Church, there was either that God or none. But what of alternatives to a Christian God - a God that is omniscient, omnipotent and omniscient?

It's one thing to decide that it's worthwhile believing in God, quite another determining the nature of that God. And here I call upon William of Ockham, 13th Century English philosopher, who left us Ockham's (more usually spelt Occam's) Razor. For armed with this tool, thinkers through the ages have begun with the assumption that the simplest - or simpler if there are only two - explanation is more likely to be correct.

Flashing lights low on the horizon, away from the usual flight paths to the airport is more likely to be a radar calibration aircraft than a flying saucer from another world. The vase that fell off the window sill and smashed is more likely to have been moved by a gust of wind blowing at the curtains through an open vent than a malevolent sprite. The dinosaur fossils found in the Gobi Desert are more likely to be 65 million years old than to be the remains of creatures killed in Noah's flood 6,000 years ago.

And so on.

But applying Occam's Razor to the existence of God is not so simple. For while it can be used to dismiss a dualist view that there is a material Universe and a quite separate spiritual world as being unnecessarily complex, it cannot deny the notion that the Universe is unfolding, and therefore may well be said to have of itself a purpose. I would posit that it is easier to consider that the Universe does have a direction of travel, and that this direction is a fulfilment of consciousness, than to consider it all to be the result of a purpose-free accident.

This time last year:
Speaking to God, listening to God

[I didn't post yesterday, but it's worth reading this post from 1 March 2015:
How does God speak to us? Signs, tokens]

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

This time four years ago:
Weekend with the Fuji X100

This time seven years ago:
Sublime sunset, Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Dramatic sunset, Jeziorki