Sunday, 27 November 2016

Castro's death divides the world

To some - a revolutionary guerilla leader who fought for social justice, who ensured Cubans had access to good healthcare and educations.

To others - a tyrant, who wielded absolute power, abusing human rights, denying free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of movement.

I err towards the latter assessment of the man.

I see human progress as being a continual struggle of the Network against the Hierarchy. The Hierarchy, embodied in the Great Leader at its pinnacle, is an ultimately flawed system. In it, the One Leader turns out to want no more than to gain power, consolidate power, and hold absolute power. Power flows vertically downwards from the Great Leader; there's no tolerance of bottom-up initiatives that see the world in different terms.

The Network, on the other hand, is self-regulating and proceeds in a measured way towards people's greater good while casting aside flawed models. Networks evolve to survive. Bad ideas, bad people, are discarded from the network, which is slowly but constantly improving. People work with each other, not for the person above them in the hierarchy.

History is full of leaders who dragged their followers to their doom - or else simply stifled their ambitions and their human potential.

Castro was such a man. For him, Marxism-Leninism, of socialism, of anti-imperialism, Cuban nationalism, were ideological tools, put into the service of his greater aim - absolute power.

Cuba today remains a backwater of an outmoded and utterly discredited ideology. To Western visitors seeing the sixty year-old American cars and crumbling Spanish Empire architecture under a hot sun seems appealing, but many Cubans must feel the same way as Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans did under communism - poor, humiliated - unfree.

This weekend, the internet is full of comments regarding Castro's death. But in Cuba itself, with the lowest internet penetration rate in the Western hemisphere, all online content remains subject to review by the state censor - the Department of Revolutionary Orientation. The sale of computer hardware and software is strictly regulated. Internet access is controlled, and e-mail is closely monitored.

A price to pay for the much-vaunted healthcare system? Singapore had a similar GDP per capita to that of Cuba at the start of the 1960s; today, the average Singaporean's wealth is six times higher than the average Cuban's. So there was no need to repress the Cuban people with a one-party system, human rights abuses, to deny them freedom of speech, to shut them off from the West - with the right governance, free-market democracy would have delivered them a far higher standard of living.

I'd rather be governed by a committee of faceless, though democratically-elected decision-makers than by one Leader, be it a Stalin, a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Pol Pot, Louis XVI, Franco, Mao Tse Tung or Putin. Once such a person gains power, they then focus on extending and maintaining it. The ideology becomes nothing more than a convenient narrative that claims to have the People's best interest at heart - but is actually all about gaining, consolidating and maintaining power.

To submit to the will of the One Leader is to be intellectually lazy; hoping that the One Leader will deliver security and prosperity in exchange for limiting one's freedom is fatuous. It does not work. The lesson of Castro's Cuba, to all romantics of the left, is that one-man rule invariably leads to ruthless repression, censorship and economic hardship. No matter what cock-and-bull story is dreamt up to mask the One Leader's personal ambition.

And name me one country, one place in time, where One Leader has ultimately delivered on human progress?

Good government is about checks and balances, independent courts upholding the rule of law, free media, freedom of speech, freedom of movement.

Fidel Castro was not an exemplar to the free world. May his like never hold such power again.

The way to prevent such egregious abuse of power is to network - to engage in the political process, beginning at the local level, ensuring that decisions that affect your life are taken with your knowledge if not with your consent. Understanding the process of government - and it is a complex process - requires effort on the part of the citizen, but keeping an eye on the hands of those who govern is crucial.

Of everything I have read of the man, the three words that best epitomised this One Leader came from his own sister Juanita, who buggered off to Miami rather than share an island with her brother. "He never listened." A fitting epitaph for any One Leader.

I for one do not mourn Castro's passing.

This time last year:
London to Edinburgh by night bus
[yesterday I did the same trip in reverse]

This time three year ago:
The Regent's Canal, London

This time five years ago:
An end to the entitlement way of thinking

This time six year:
West Ealing - drab and sad suburb

This time seven years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time nine years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Sunny morning, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

This morning, I arrived bright and early at Victoria Coach Station on the Megabus Gold sleeper service from Edinburgh. Not as comfortable as a sleeper train, nevertheless just as economical in terms of time and money. Bright it was indeed; I decided after a coffee and baguette at Pret on Hyde Park Corner to walk right through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

Below: plenty of equestrians around first thing in the morning; I counted ten all told, riding in pairs, impeccably dressed and maintaining a Hyde Park tradition in this age of the motor-car. Note the speed limit for vehicles in the park is 15 mph - which is around 25 km/h. Despite the early hour and the relatively low number of pedestrians, cyclists and horse-riders, every delivery van and parks police vehicle I saw was sticking religiously to the 15 mph speed limit. No 'bez przesady, Panie'. Rules are rules.

Still autumnal, winter feels weeks away. Despite the clear sky there was no frost this morning, unlike Edinburgh yesterday morning.

Below: the Serpentine, the lake that runs through the middle of the park, attracts many species of waterfowl, including several species of goose, duck and gulls; there are also coots and moorhens, mute swans and grey herons. For me the most interesting birds are the ones not seen in Jeziorki; this cormorant (below) strikes a characteristic pose perched on a bollard in the lake, a gull looks on in admiration. Cormorants are good underwater swimmers, and after immersing itself totally to catch a fish, the bird will dry its wings in the sun. Which means a photographer wanting to snap it from the front needs to shoot into the sun.

Below: The bridge in the background carries West Carriage Drive over the water; beyond the bridge, the Serpentine becomes the Long Water, Hyde Park becomes Kensington Gardens.

Left: a pair of Egyptian geese on top of Henry Moore's Arch (1980) Through the arch, in the distance, stands Kensington Palace, former home of Princess Diana.

Below: zooming in on the Egyptian geese, the larger male to the left. The markings around the eyes give these birds a slightly comical appearance.

At the north end of the Long Water is the Italian Garden; the fountains were not active this morning. I'm standing in Kensington Gardens; on the other side of the decorative pond is Hyde Park.

Below: the foreshortening effect of my Nikon Coolpix P900's zoom lens (here at 380mm equivalent), reels in the spire of St Mary Abbot's church in Kensington Church St, on the other side of Kensington Palace. In the foreground, the obelisk commemorating John Hanning Speke, the Victorian discoverer of the source of the River Nile. A group of frisbee-playing students are warming up.

To my surprise, the walk between Victoria Coach Station and Queensway tube station was a mere 6,500 paces (around 5 km/3 miles). If you approach London in bite-sized chunks of walking, you get to know the city that much better than by depending on public transport for all journeys.

So - to recap the past few days, my itinerary since Monday night has been: Warsaw-Koszalin-Gorzów Wielkopolski-Szczecin-Berlin-Stansted-Edinburgh-London; tomorrow I return to Our City.

This time last year:
Brentham Garden Suburb

This time two years ago:
Ahead of the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro

This time three years ago:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...

This time four years ago:
Płock by day, Płock by night

This time five years ago:
Warning ahead of railway timetable change

This time nine years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Poland's North West Frontier

Is it just geographic distance that makes Poland's north-west so inaccessible from the rest of the country? I'm on the third leg of a journey that's given me food for thought, regarding the connectedness of Poland and how that affects economic and social progress.

The Yalta and Potsdam agreements shifted Poland 200km further west at the end of WW2. Poland lost vast swathes of what's now western Belarus and western Ukraine, but gained key towns from the Germans such as the provincial capital cities of Wrocław, Olsztyn, Szczecin, Opole and Zielona Góra and Gorzów Wielkopolski. Yet in the seven decades since the war ended, some of these cities remain backwaters because of a lack of decent transport links.

Only recently, thanks to rail modernisation and the completion of the S8 expressway has it become feasible to get to Wrocław and back in a day from Warsaw. And by reason of its relative proximity to Warsaw rather than because of any super roads or railways, Olsztyn is reasonably well connected.

But Szczecin really is the back of beyond. I was here twice in the mid-1990s delivering training to local entrepreneurs courtesy of an American education fund, both times travelling there from London rather than from Warsaw. So other than a brief night-train stop en route to Międzyzdroje, I've not been to Szczecin in all the 19 years I've lived in Poland. During that time, I've visited every other provincial capital (with half an exception, to which I'll return) - but not Szczecin.

Tomorrow I fly to Edinburgh. Now, trying to connect Szczecin to Edinburgh, I discovered that while there's a host of different buses between Szczecin and Berlin's airports - there's not a single direct bus connection between Szczecin and Gdańsk. There is a train - but it takes five hours. So I'm flying from Berlin. Szczecin was, before the war, Berlin's port, the transport connections remain. And road signs for Berlin outnumber road signs for Warsaw in this part of Poland.

There are three direct InterCity train from Warsaw to Szczecin a day, taking five hours, plus another five direct TLK trains (older carriages, fewer comforts) which take around six hours. The trains from Warsaw go via Poznań. Five-hour journey times mean that going there and back in a business day is impossible. But there is the night train, which takes over seven hours, giving you time get a good night's sleep before getting ofp at Szczecin a little before six am.

I took the night train, though to a different destination in north-west Poland - Koszalin - the first leg of my mini-roadshow around this part of the country. The train arrived in Koszalin at 09:40, allowing for a long sleep on the way up. This service, which continues onto Kołobrzeg on the coast, starts in Kraków, and calls in at Kielce, Radom, Dęblin, Warsaw, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Słupsk along the way - and many other places (27 stops in all on the 13 hour-long journey between Kraków and Koszalin). This train, the Mars, is surely one of Poland's great railway trips.

On my last night train trip, to Wrocław, I noted that the sleeper service had become more spartan - no morning coffee, no bottled water, no flannel-and-soap, no muffin or croissant. But to my delight, these were all available on my train. Once again - to all those of you who like to travel by train at night, with a hotel room and travel in one ticket - I urge you to use it, or lose it. Europe's night train services are going out one by one. [See the 'European sleepers' section of the blog of The Man In Seat 61 here]

So anyway, I arrive at Koszalin, pop by for a petit-dejeuner á la Ecosse, then set off on foot through the town to a hotel just outside its limits for the conference. In my ranking of Polish towns, it seems well kempt, without those signs of desperation - the loan-sharks and pawn shops, the employment agencies offering work abroad, and the kantory for when you return home with a fistful of euros or pounds. But sadly there's not much time to nose around Koszalin today.

After the conference there, I took a lift from the organisers onto the next location, Gorzów Wielkopolski. Now this, dear readers, is Poland's only provincial capital that I've never, ever, visited before. Gorzów Wielkopolski shares the capital status with Zielona Góra (which I have visited). Like Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, it has two capitals (Toruń and Bydgoszcz in that case) because of local jealousies and ambitions that could not be reconciled during the administrative reform of 1999.

To get to Gorzów from Koszalin, we took a roundabout route via the Szczecin's eastern bypass. This is 34km longer than the direct route, but it saves 24 minutes, because of the S3 dual carriageway linking Szczecin and Gorzów. It's 212km between Koszalin and Gorzów going the direct (slower) route - which gives you an idea of the distances involved in this part of Poland, given that Warsaw and Lublin are only 169km apart.

Much of the journey was across mildly undulating terrain with huge fields - unlike central Poland, state-owned collective farms were the normal mode of agriculture here in communist times.

Finally, we arrive in Gorzów Wielkopolski.

I contend, and have done so for many years, that Lubuskie province is an entirely artificial construct, and like Opolskie province should be divided up between its neighbours to the south, east and north.

I mean, how can a capital of a province be named after another province? It would be like having Kielce Małopolskie as the capital of Świętokrzyskie, or Olsztyn Pomorski as the capital of Warmińsko-Mazurskie. An absurdity.

The town itself is Not Nice. Plaster falling off damp graffitied walls, huge holes in the roads - this is clearly not one of Poland's better-run cities. The architecture tells of massive destruction during the final phases of the war, with much nondescript housing between tenements that somehow survived; then the 1990s came and with them the worst that that decade's architects could visit upon a town arrived. Those buildings where prisms are juxtaposed with arches, mirrored facades and cheap materials.

Below: one of Gorzów's main thoroughfares, ul. Walczaka. The fact that trams carry advertising for hearing aids says a lot about the city's demographics.

It was good to leave Gorzów Wielkopolski. Soon we're backtracking our way up the S3 to Szczecin in thick fog as it began to get dark. At times like this, one is very thankful for dual carriageways that prevent idiots overtaking across from the oncoming lane.

Anyway - first impressions of Szczecin after 20 something years - very positive. A busy, bright city, full of young people (suspiciously absent in Gorzów), new trams, cycle paths. And broad boulevards with traffic lights timed so pedestrians have a chance to walk across in one go on a green light without having to break into a trot.

Sadly, no time for a proper exploration of Szczecin - only photo I got in daylight was from the 11th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel (above), looking across at the city's new National Musuem, designed by Robert Konieczny, winner of the World Building 2016 Award. Beyond it lies the Palace of the Pomeranian Princes. Szczecin certainly merits a return visit some summer's day.

Over the border at 120km/h, heading towards Berlin. A two-and-half hour journey by bus - a small 22-seater minibus based on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which could keep up with Germany's autobahn speeds. Below: the landscape of north-east Germany is made awe-inspiring by large numbers of wind farms, generating electricity without having to burn fossil fuels.

But first - tomorrow's conference, bus to Berlin's Schoenefeld airport, then plane to Edinburgh via Stansted. Tomorrow night I'll be in a hotel in Edinburgh. Busy week.

This time last year:
Cars must fade from our cities

This time three years ago:
Unnecessary street lighting wastes money

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's heros on the walls

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time eight years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time nine years ago:
Another point of view

Friday, 18 November 2016

Brexit, Trump, and negative emotions

Flying into Luton airport the other day, I found my routine upset by migrants. Now normally I buy my train tickets to London and back from one of two machines in the baggage hall. Few people use them, there's rarely a queue. But this time - there's a large group of what look like young Romanians standing around the ticket machines, trying to work out which travel option represents the best value. So I press on to the second pair of ticket machines, by the main exit. There's always a sizeable queue here, but at least there are attendants on hand to explain the complexity of ticket pricing.

I join the queue, it's moving reasonably quickly due to the two uniformed women on hand to helpfully explain what to do. Soon there's just one person in front of me. But then:

"Where you want to go to?"


"Bus or train?"

The guy in front of me shrugs. The attendant asks the same question. "Bus or train?" No reply. He grins sheepishly. "Bus or train?" He shakes his head. He has evidently got no grasp of English, other than to say "Oxford" again. The woman asks him what language he speaks. Nothing. She asks where he's from, what country he's from. Again, no reply.

I'm beginning to get frustrated. The bus from the airport to Luton Airport Parkway train station leaves every ten minutes. Miss the next one, I might have a long wait for a train to London...

Again, the attendant asks "Where are you from? What country?" She names a few. "Bulgaria," he finally replies. "Is anyone here from Bulgaria?" she asks the growing queue. Several voices from behind me reply. "Can you ask him whether he wants to go to Oxford by bus or by train?"

Some obliging chap does. All becomes clear. He wants to go to Oxford by bus. But this is the queue for train tickets. The queue for bus tickets is over there. All this is explained to him via the volunteer translator. The Bulgarian moves himself and his belongings across the hall. Meanwhile I'm feeling the reptile brain in me shifting to Daily Mail-reader mode.

"Come over 'ere, don't know any bleeding English, holding up everybody else..."


I catch the ill feelings as they wash over me and I nip them in the bud. It's this kind of thinking that led to the referendum vote on Brexit, it is this kind of thinking that led Americans to vote Trump.

Have I not been here before, myself? On the other side? Travelling around Portugal without a word of Portuguese and expecting the locals to speak English? Were my parents not in this situation 70 years ago? And was I in that much of a rush? (as it happens, on this particular occasion, not at all).

So drop it. Drop the niechęć ['antipathy' is best translation but not quite] to this migrant. Recognise that this is a bad emotion, which has negative political consequences. As I say, understand your biology and rise above it. Bad political consequences. Feel these moments of anger and displeasure at migrants, let them get stoked by the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express, and before too long the path of history, which (in the Western world at least) has been moving inexorably from barbarism towards ever-higher levels of civilisation, takes a crunching reverse gear.

Written on the day when Trump picks hardliners for top posts and the murder trial of Thomas Mair, who shot MP Jo Cox ahead of the referendum, continues.

Above: parakeet-migrant, Cleveland Park, West Ealing. These birds have been breeding prodigiously in South- and West London since coming to the 1990s, hence 'Kingston Parakeets'. Taking food away from local magpies, starlings and jackdaws? Or adding a bit of tropical colour (and noise) to London's suburbs?

[Photo: Nikon Coolpix P900, lens at 2000mm equiv., 1/200 sec at f6.5, 400 ISO.]

This time five years ago:
Premier Tusk's second exposé

This time six years ago:
Into Poland's former Heart of Darkness

This time seven years ago:
Powiśle - synchronicity of shape

This time eight years ago:
The last of the rampa na kruszywo

This time nine years ago:
Airport zoning to halt development in Jeziorki?

Monday, 14 November 2016

The magic of superzoom

The morning was fine and sunny, good conditions to put the new Nikon Coolpix P900 camera and its zoom lens to the test. Below: lens set at 24mm (35mm equivalent, 16mm on a DX camera). This is wider than the kit lens supplied with my DX-format D3300 or the fixed focal-length wide-angle lens on my DX-format Coolpix A.

Now, from the same spot - zoom right in, all the way, to 2000mm to catch the middle of the clock face on the Palace of Culture. Bet you didn't know there was a syrenka on it! Each of the four faces is 6.3m in diameter.

This remarkable photo, below, taken from my office is amazing. In the far distance, nine and half kilometres away, the church of Divine Mercy, in Ząbki, like a surging white wave. In the middle distance, the raw red brick and black roof lying before it is the church of St Barnabas the Apostle, still unfinished; seven and half kilometres from my office. In the foreground is the spire that rises from the middle of the crest of the roof of St Florian's cathedral, Praga Północ; it is two and half kilometres from my office. Note the heat haze shimmer, despite the fact the temperature was a mere 6C. On a clearer day, should be able to see to the horizon.

(Interestingly, there's yet another church that lies directly on this line, except it's not tall enough to be seen, the church of the Mother of God of Lourdes, on ul. Szwedzka.) In the left foreground are the balustrades around the roof of the Zachęta art gallery facing ul. Burschego. Four churches perfectly aligned along a straight line - something for Arthur 'Ley Line' Watkins. The lens is zoomed out to its fullest extent - the equivalent of 2000mm on a 35mm (or full-frame) camera.

Below: looking due east, we see first the twin spires of the Holy Cross church, between which stands the 300m-high chimney of the Kawęczyn heat plant, just over nine kilometres from my office. To the right, the single 90m-high tower of the Most Świętokrzyski bridge.

Like the next photo, below, the lens was only moderately zoomed out, yet still at the extreme end of most zoom lenses' range. Here's the church of All Saints in the foreground, the TPSA building behind it (now re-named Spektrum Tower).

And finally - today's supermoon. Despite the milky film of cloud in the way, the result is staggering. This is uncropped, at 1800mm equivalent (zoomed out fully, the moon could barely fit in the frame).

Taken at 1/40th (!!!) of a second at f6.3, with my elbows resting on the balcony. The thin clouds meant I could not get the same degree of crispness of the shots below...

Below: 1/800th of a second at f8. Zoomed in tighter, also on the Coolpix P900.

Below: taken on larger (DX) format sensor with left 300mm (450mm equivalent) on D3300 and its 24 megapixel sensor, and right 400mm (600mm equivalent) on D80 and its 12 megapixel sensor.

Having said that, both were taken on entirely cloudless days (for more about these photos and lunar photography, see this post.)

This time four years ago:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time six years ago:
Dream highway

This time seven years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time nine years ago:
First snow, 2007

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Nikon Coolpix P900 review

This is a purchase I'd been considering for some while, in particular after seeing the aviation and lunar photography of Angie Garrod on her Twitter feed. The type of camera in question is the 'bridge camera', with a fixed lens rather than the interchangeable lenses on a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. The 'bridge' is between the simple point-and-shoot models aimed at amateurs and the cameras with more advanced features for the more demanding user. In particular, it features a zoom lens of hitherto unsurpassed parameters.

Wanting to get closer to distant objects, such as aircraft flying at cruising altitudes, wildlife (in particular birds) and the moon, I was intrigued by the potential of a camera with a lens that promises the equivalent of 2,000mm focal length, or 40 times the magnification of a standard lens on a 35mm camera.

Of course there's a catch - this is not a 35mm camera, nor even a DX format camera; the sensor is 5.6 times smaller than 35mm and 3.7 times smaller than on my DX-format Nikon D3300. But that small sensor is packed with 16 million pixels (as opposed to 24 million on the D3300's sensor).

When Bob first informed me of the Nikon Coolpix P900 and its amazing zoom, I was sceptical at first, but after seeing Ms Garrod's photos, I thought that this could indeed be a useful acquisition. Instead of carrying either the D3300 and a wide-angle and telephoto zoom or the D3300 with telephoto zoom and my Nikon Coolpix A with fixed wide-angle lens, here's one camera that gives coverage from 24mm right through to 2000mm. Less carrying, and effectively four and half times greater telephoto range. My Nikkor 55-300mm lens for the D3300 gives the full-frame equivalent of 82-450mm.

I did the research, and wanted to try the Coolpix P900 hands-on before purchase. There was one in Euro RTV AGD in Złote Tarasy; the demo model (last in stock) felt tired and shabby. But a few weeks later, a Coolpix P900 turned up at AB Foto in Złote Tarasy, tried it - much tighter (obviously the one at Euro RTV AGD had been played with my many shoppers). So I bought it, at around list price (equivalent of $600).

First impressions - lot of things I don't like. The non-intuitive on/off button (hard to use with gloved fingers); the design (it looks like some clunky early-90s throwback); the plasticky feel; the lack of manual zoom (power zoom drains the battery tremendously), the haphazard way the controls are distributed around the top and back of the camera.

But this is a technological marvel. Work your way through the 242-page manual, and discover vast numbers of clever tricks this camera can do. It can cooperate with your smartphone. Download Nikon's Wireless Mobile Utility, and you can release the shutter remotely (good to avoid shake when taking pics from a tripod); you can review the pics on your phone and share them instantly on social media.You can frame your photo on the screen on the rear wall of the camera, or you can use the electronic viewfinder. As your eye approaches the finder's window, the screen turns off and the viewfinder comes on.

For me, it was the lens that did it. The ability to get four-and-half times closer to your subject than the biggest lens I normally carry about with me is quite something.

Sadly, tomorrow's supermoon is likely to be hiding behind cloud here in Warsaw, but plenty of snaps from this camera will appear on my blog before too long. Indeed, all the pics from the previous post were taken on the P900. I took it on my walk today, but the weather was dreary and the results unremarkable, nothing with which I can show off the camera's unique capabilities. Just this shot of a cygnet on the pond as it ices over. Lens zoomed out to the equivalent of 550mm.

Watch this space!

This time last year:
At which I try my hand at automatic writing

This time three years ago:
Free wi-fi in every room?

This time four years ago:
An advanced plan to escape the Hammer of Darkness

This time five years ago:
Poppies and pride

This time six years ago:
Setting sun in the mountains

This time seven years ago:
That learning moment

This time eight years ago:
Along the Polish-Czech border

This time nine years ago:
Ul. Poleczki - remember it this way?

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Planes and boats and trains and bikes

Took off yesterday from Warsaw Okęcie at just before daybreak, runway 15. Below: looking out to the south, Al. Jerozolimskie and the S2 intersection; beyond lie Piastów and Pruszków.

Below: before long I was in Ealing; over the rooftops the planes stream in to land at London Heathrow, one after the other, from the east. It's a Boeing 777, but which airline?

Below: other planes fly right over London at cruising altitude. What's this - a Boeing 747 or an Airbus 340? No visible underwing registration...

Reaching London St Pancras by train, I take a few moments to visit the food fair outside King's Cross station next door. Delicious artisan pork pies took the edge off my morning hunger. Below: the Great Northern Hotel, sandwiched between St Pancras to the left, King's Cross to the right.

Below: I cross London on the Piccadilly line, which takes me to Acton Town, where I change for an Ealing Broadway-bound District line train. And here, I snap a Piccadilly line train advertising the fact that tube trains will run all night on the line on Friday and Saturday nights, from 16 December.

On my walk around Ealing and Hanwell today, I crossed the Jacob's Ladder footbridge crossing the GWR line running west out of London; here, between West Ealing and Hanwell stations, by the Plasser sidings, work is underway on the CrossRail project, due to open in 2018.

Today I repeated a walk I did last year, over 11,000 paces. Below: Wharncliffe Viaduct, Hanwell, taking the Great Western Railway over the Brent valley. Work began on this structure 180 years ago. It still carries a very busy railway line (four tracks) over it.

Below: zooming into the Lord Wharncliffe's coat of arms above the central pillar of the viaduct. It was he who steered the Great West Railway Bill through parliament.

The River Brent flows into the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell, just under the Hanwell Lock Flight. Below: and here on the canal is the first of the locks; looking north, a barge about to enter it.

Below: a lovely vintage Raleigh Roadster bike on a barge moored on the Grand Union at Hanwell. This is how bikes looked 75 years ago - steel brake rods, stout rubber pedals, enclosed chain, end of rear mudguard painted white for the wartime blackout; plastic bag hides the sprung-mattress saddle.

A walk through Hanwell would not be complete without passing the legendary Reg. Allen motorbike shop on Grosvenor Road; below: here's a 1966 Triumph 350cc twin parked outside in the November sunshine.

Finally - back down by the canal - can anyone recognise this waterfowl? A moorhen?

This time last year:
Cultural differences, Poland and UK

This time two years ago:
Schadenfreude! The downfall of Hofman & Co.

This time three years ago:
From the Mersey to the Tyne

This time four years ago
Autumnal Gdańsk

This time five years ago:
What Independence Day means for Poles

This time six years ago:
Words fail me: what's the Polish for 'to fail'?

This time seven years ago:
Autumn in Dobra

This time nine years ago:
Autumn ploughing

Monday, 7 November 2016

Poles and Brits go shopping... differently

It was one of those moments where the penny dropped and things I had subconsciously seen became illuminated by the strong light of reason. I was speaking at a panel session of an HSBC trade conference in Warsaw last week; in the plenary session opening the event there was a presentation from a German firm of consultants, Simon + Kucher & Partners, setting out the result of a survey of shoppers from across the EU, looking at how they shopped.

The results were amazing: of the nine countries surveyed, Poles showed the highest levels of 'Shopping IQ', Britons the lowest.

On a scale of 1-1000, Poles scored 566, Brits 401. The study rated shoppers for thriftiness, self-control, openness to trying new products (as opposed to sticking to the same ones), brand loyalty, comparison shopping, and researching items before buying. "Shoppers in countries with high shopping IQ scores tend to be more careful and consider their purchasing decisions, while those with lower shopping IQs tend to be highly impulsive," the consultants explain.

This squares with my own observations. It's not just about Britain being wealthier than Poland; Germany is wealthier than Britain, yet Germans score higher than Brits. Is it about advertising? That British advertising is effective and omnipresent, and always has been? Is it about high levels of credit card penetration, creating a 'buy now, pay later' culture? Is it the sheer sophistication of retailing? Is it merely needs vs. wants, and an inability to delay gratification?

Don't know - but I can certainly see and feel the difference when out shopping across the two countries.

The upshot of this is that Polish exporters trying to sell consumer products to the UK need to use different strategies than when they're selling on the home market - and vice-versa. British exporters also need to appreciate that Polish consumers are a different sell to consumers back home.

For a Polish exporter of say, a food or drink product, getting into the UK consumer's basket or trolley for the first time would be harder than at home - price is not the issue, rather, habit is.

For the British exporter of a food or drink product, getting into the Polish consumer's basket or trolley for the first time would also be harder than at home - even if we're talking about a premium product, the Polish consumer is likely to check against alternatives before buying.

In Poland, whole families will clamber into their big SUV and drive seven kilometres across town to a shop where a given product is a few zlotys cheaper; the cost of fuel and time spent driving less relevant than the satisfaction of having made that saving. "Nie oszukali nas!" (they didn't cheat us). In Britain, however, the motto imported from the US - "Give me convenience, or give me death" (to quote the Dead Kennedys) means that price-comparison shopping is less of a thing. "I know it's cheaper at Tesco -  I'm buying it at Waitrose". Brits will do price comparison when shopping online for purchases that bring little joy, things such as motor or home insurance, or six-packs of mineral water or pet food.

How do I shop? I confess to shopping more along the British model. I'm more brand loyal (Loake for shoes, Nikon for cameras, Levis for jeans - for decades), and if I'm after something I won't look elsewhere for a slightly better deal. On the other hand, I'm highly resistant to impulse shopping, and I do carry out extensive research online before making major purchases. My father shops more like a Pole than a Brit, despite living in London for 70 years. Like me, he likes shopping at Lidl; he also looks out for bargains and uses discount coupons (especially at Waitrose).

Now, this survey was carried out more than ten years ago, before the global economic crisis, but there are ingrained habits that have survived. I remember seeing this middle-aged couple in Auchan; he picks up some interesting packet from the world-foods aisle. She immediately asks him: "How do you make it, then?" He mumbled something in reply, then meekly put it back on the shelf.

For more insights into Polish shopping habits, see this report summary from PMR.

This time last year:
Reanimated - my father's car

This time two years ago:
Defending Poland against hybrid warfare 

This time three years ago:
Another office move

This time five years ago:
PiS splits again - Solidarna Polska formed

This time six years ago:
Tesco vs. Auchan

This time nine years ago:
My father's house

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dawidy Bankowe, Łady, Zamienie and back

After two days during which I only managed around an average of 7,000 paces, a good long walk was in order. So I set off through Jeziorki, crossed the tracks and headed to Dawidy Bankowe, thence to Łady (pron. 'Wuddy') to hook round towards Zamienie and Zgorzała before returning home.

Below: ul. Miklaszewskiego snakes around from Dawidy Bankowe to Łady, taking a zigzag route. The road is narrow with hardened verges for passing.

I've commented many a time about how the flatness of the landscape and the overhead cables and wires give Warsaw's exurbs an American Mid-Western feel.

Below: further along ul. Miklaszewskiego, looking towards Łady. I get to the corner and turn left, into the fields.

Below: this is farming country. Many small fields lie fallow, but there are increasing numbers of larger, consolidated fields on which cabbage, potatoes, carrots and beetroots are grown. Sad to see, however, many potatoes dumped by the side of fields - maybe the wrong calibre for the demanding supermarkets. This field is in Łady.

The last few weeks have been very wet. This morning I was awakened by the sound of rain on the roof - which surprised me, as I'd checked the weather forecast on before going to sleep - no rain was meant to fall today. The fields are sodden and this kind of walk can only be done in wellies.

Below: looking south-west towards Podolszyn and Janczewice on the horizon. It's around here that Warsaw gives up the ghost in trying to develop; it's still solidly agricultural, with pockets of exurbia like Lesznowola and Magdalenka between here and the deep Mazovian wieś that lies beyond.

Below: looking from the fields of Podolszyn towards Zamienie, and the new housing developments that have sprung up around the old BioMed vaccine plant that closed in 2004. The new streets are named after spices and flavourings; ul. Arakowa, ul. Waniliowa, ul. Bakaliowa, ul. Szafranowa, ul. Karmelowa.

Below: the white building is a block of flats, almost empty. If you're going to move out of town, you might as well live in a house. This development is not my cup of tea - neither architecturally, nor in terms of its town planning.

Below: the path that leads from the new housing estate into Zakłady Zamienie. Note the hexagonal paving slabs. Very little remains of the plant, to see it two years after it closed (in a scandalous state, given the biologically hazardous materials inside) click here.

Below: the abandoned checkpoint at the entrance, on ul. Zakładowa. A strange atmosphere pervades the place; to the west and north of it, new housing estates, but inside - silence, emptiness.

Below: the same checkpoint back in January 2009, five years after the vaccine plant had closed. There was still a guard on duty here.

Left: a drainage ditch runs right around Zamienie, like a moat. This is the section from ul. Dawidowska marking the southern boundary of Zakłady Zamienie. The house in the distance and everything to the left of the ditch lie in Zgorzała. Across ul. Dawidowska (behind me) are the Action and Pommier warehouses. One day, the S79 will be extended south this way.

Below: bonus shot from near the end of my walk - an EN57 electrical multiple unit - one of the increasingly rare unmodernised stock - approaches the 'up' platform at W-wa Jeziorki. To the left, you can see the new 'down' platform being built, and the gap that awaits the new 'down' track.

Good long walk achieved. Around 15,000 paces /12km/ eight miles.

This time five years ago:
Town planning and the Sublime Aesthetic

This time six years ago:
On the long road from Zero to One

This time seven years ago:
Łódź Rising

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Perceptions and facts - what happens when media promote views ahead of news

I used to buy Gazeta Wyborcza every day; now I rarely do so. For the past three years, my smartphone brings me the news I read on my way to work. When I do pick up a Gazeta Wyborcza nowadays, I find it tendentious, monothematic. It seems there are more articles knocking the PiS government than actually delivering news. Now, I know the PiS government deserves to be knocked. Yet Gazeta Wyborcza paints a dark picture of Poland, one that's at odds with my own personal experience. I can't really say my life has got any worse since the change of government a year ago, although I can appreciate the public hoo-ha over the Constitutional Tribunal, abortion rights and cronyism.

As a patriot, I am, however, unhappy about the way the government's endless procession of gaffes has changed the image of my country abroad from that of a shining exemplar of post-communist transformation to an obstinate troublemaker bent on dragging the clock back to 1935.

But my own, personal day-to-day life in Warsaw continues to improve in small steps, and compared with the fuss that's going on in the UK over Brexit, I'm glad I'm living here and not there.

The way media shape our perceptions of life is important. Britain's Brexit-supporting media have stirred up resentment of the EU and of migrants that far outweighs most individuals' personal experiences. Perceptions are being shaped - manipulated - and those who are most pliable, most likely to have their minds changed are letting this happen. I'm old enough to remember the British media before the commentariat took over - the felietoniści as they are called in Polish. In the Daily Telegraph or The Times, comments on the news events of the day were generally restricted to the editorial pages, the rest was reporting. These days, news travels fast and comment is free. The mix in the media is skewed far more heavily towards commentary, mainly for economic reasons.

The result?

That video of LBC's James O'Brien asking a pro-Brexit listener to name one single EU law he didn't agree with is worth watching; it bears an important lesson for us all. The hapless listener - fed by a post-truth media peddling perceptions rather than fact-based news - could not mention a single instance of EU Directives impinging negatively on his life, nor explain what was wrong with EU institutions. Watch:

This dissection of a voter's motivation to vote for Brexit is being picked apart bit by bit, until all that's left are the basest of motives.

I was prompted to write this post by coming across a copy of today's Gazeta Wyborcza in which I read a long interview with Ludwik Dorn, a former deputy premier in the last PiS-led government (2005-07). At that time, Mr Dorn was often referred to as the 'third Kaczyński twin', so close was he to the then-president and prime minister. Since then, he was fallen out with the PiS leadership, leaving the party in 2008.

Asked whether he fears an authoritarian state led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Dorn said no - because the Polish state's fractious inability to work in a joined-up way. He cites as an example a dangerous bend in a road in Dolnośląskie province, notorious for fatal accidents. The simple solution was to paint a double white line down the middle of the road. Yet despite petitions from locals, despite pressure from the police, this did not happen. The matter was brought to his attention when he was deputy premier and minister of internal affairs. Though it was not his business, he did his best to bring his authority to bear on this minor local matter - without effect. Two more people died as he attempted to sort it out. In the end came the elections, he left office, the double white lines remained unpainted.

Mr Dorn's point is that the Polish state is too inefficient to become a ruthless agent of oppression. Local rivalries and jealousies will thwart any instruction given from the top, and there is not the manpower to hand to carry out the wholesale replacement of cadres required. In other words, Mr Kaczyński is no long-term threat to Poland because of the dead hand of state, which slows down the good things that politicians are trying to enforce, and slows down the bad things too.

But the three page-long interview with Mr Dorn shows how popular perceptions perpetuated by the media may not square with the reality of those who are close up to it.

This roughly squares with my reading of the situation; like Mr Dorn I don't fear Mr Kaczyński trying to make an all-out grab for power regardless of democratic principles. While I can see the parallels between the Catholic-nationalist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, I do not see Mr Kaczyński as having that same murderous disposition - remember that Franco had tens of thousands of his former Civil War enemies killed after the war ended, as a matter of policy. Mr Kaczyński is, I think, closer in character to Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator from 1932 to 1968. Neither man married; as devout Catholics, with a sense (misguided maybe) of duty, neither displayed venal traits.

My biggest gripe with the PiS government at the moment is its inability to prepare the big infrastructure projects for which there are billions of EU euros waiting to be spent. By replacing experienced directors in the ministries and government agencies with inexperienced party hacks, chosen for loyalty rather than ability, public tenders are not being published, the work not proceeded with. As a result, the output of the construction sector is down by a fifth year on year, with many firms getting ready to lay off workers when current projects (begun under the previous government) are completed.

Below: graph showing inflows of EU funds earmarked for investment, six-month average. It shows how after the 2007 election the PO-PSL government also had to relearn how to prepare projects and tenders, after which a steady upward trend could be seen, reaching an apogee around the time of last autumn's elections, after which the drop was far more dramatic than after the last change of government.

Finally - good news - Poland has advanced one place in the 2017 World Bank Doing Business ranking (to 24th place from 25th). Now, the fieldwork was conducted between June 2015 and June 2016, so plaudits should be shared equally between PO-PSL and PiS.

This time last year:
Judging PO's eight years in power

This time two years ago
Cloudless, 18C - the beauty of Polish autumn

This time three years ago:
Call 19115: Warsaw Fix-my-Street

This time five years ago:
Vapour trails at sunset

This time six years ago:
Autumnal blues

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Jeziorki railway update

A quick overview of how work's progressing on the Warsaw-Radom railway line as it passes through Jeziorki. [I've taken a few photos out from this post and replaced them with new some non-railway pics of autumnal scenes, so apologies if you've seen them before.]

Below: shot from the pedestrian crossing on ul. Kórnicka; a Radom-bound train has just departed W-wa Jeziorki station along the modernised 'down' line. On the left, the un-electrified coal train line. In the middle, the 'up' line is coming along nicely - the base and first level of ballast have been laid. Next you will see a row of sleepers ready to be dropped into place, and beside the 'down' line, two lengths of new rail wait to be placed onto the sleepers. Then a second layer of ballast will be put down, holding the whole ensemble in place. The overhead power line and its supports will then be erected - you can just see the white concrete bases on the left.

Below: the new 'up' platform is just beginning to take shape, right of centre. The 'up' line will run down the spot where I'm standing to get this shot. In a few months' time, I'll be boarding the train to town from the new platform, boarding via the train's right-hand doors (as one does at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury and W-wa Rakowiec stations)

Below: Warsaw bound train stops at W-wa Jeziorki station. Once the second track is complete, this platform will serve southbound trains only. Note the pedestrian crossing points marked with red-and-white metal gates.

Below: today is All Saints' Day, a public holiday, so there's no work going on. A JCB digger stands idle. Yes, JCBs are to be found wherever EU-funded infrastructure work is going on in Poland and indeed the rest of central Europe. Yet Anthony Bamford, JCB's owner, is dead against the EU. Biting the hand that feeds him.

Below: look what I found! Lying by the side of the tracks was this vintage destination board (tablica kierunkowa wagonowa); it must have fallen off the side of a carriage - or been thrown off by a vandal (less likely as this one was external). Note the stencilling - I would imagine this would be of Martial Law vintage as red paint was a scarce commodity and this stencil was cut to save paint - the bare minimum to be legible! Look at the letter 'W' for example... (It's the same on the other side, but saying 'Warszawa Wsch. / Kielce'.)

Below: a full coal train, 40 wagons long, heads towards Siekierki, despite it being a public holiday today, and no doubt an adequate stockpile at the power station. The refurbished SM48 diesel locos are more powerful and less polluting than before; one engine can haul and entire train of full wagons unassisted. Here it passes between W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna.

It's not only coal - Siekierki is now a co-fired power station which burns wood-chips along with the coal, in a bid to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The train below is formed of InnoFreight WoodTainer system containers returning empty from Siekierki, pulled by the same SM48 engine.

Below: photo from the ballast mountain, soon to disappear. A full Siekierki-bound coal train between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki, Warsaw's skyline on the horizon.

Below: this roller smoothing is out the base layer of ballast, at W-wa Jeziorki station, flattening it down hard before the sleepers, rails and the second layer of ballast are put in place.

Below: one for the archives - a three-car set from Góra Kalwaria to W-wa Wschodnia between W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy. Note the row of blocks between the tracks - this is where the supports for the overhead power lines will stand. In the distance, the gantries at W-wa Jeziorki station that span both tracks are visible. The line nearest to the camera is non-electrified and serves the coal train to Siekierki power station.

Also stopping at W-wa Jeziorki (for the time being), a double-decker push-pull train on the RE8 Przyspieszony service from W-wa Wschodnia to Skarżysko-Kamienna. Note how low passengers downstairs sit compared to platform level. Inside the train, a multiple portrait of Warsaw's workforce heading home. Breugel would have loved such a scene.

UPDATE 5 November 2016: as predicted sleepers and tracks have been laid for part of the section between W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy. Meanwhile across ul. Karczunkowska, work continues on building the 'down' platform for W-wa Jeziorki station.

This time last year:
On the death of my mother

This time two years ago:
Marek Raczkowski on All Saints' Day

This time three years ago:
Disclosure of UFOs - are we ready?

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki pond development

This time five years ago:
Captain Wrona's perfect gear-up landing

This time eight years ago:
Where's the daylight gone?

This time nine years ago:
All Saints' Day - Wszystkich Świętych