Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Lent starts at midnight - make the most of it


After an evening of whisky, wine, beef, more whisky and a Red IPA (Ruda Maruda from Browar Waszczukowe) to sip while writing, it'll be time for Abstinence with a Capital A. For 46 days, as usual. My first proper Lent - giving up alcohol from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday - was in 1992. Since then, more and more things have been added to the 'giving it up' list (alcohol always there), the apogee coming in 2008, when I gave up meat and dairy and fish and existed on a totally vegan diet for the duration. Nothing so harsh this year.

I'll be giving up alcohol and meat (the hard ones), plus the easy ones (which hardly get a look-in to my daily diet anyway) confectionery, cakes, biscuits, salt snacks, and added salt from the shaker. Coffee - one cup a day, in the morning.

Plus exercise - since 1 January, I've rigorously (with one week's remission while in London) been exercising; now I'm up to 25 press-ups plus 100 sit-ups plus six chin-ups plus three lots of weights twice a day. This will continue for as long as possible, the aim being to beat last year's record.

More importantly, over the past few years, I've taken this time of year to go into greater depth into the mind and spirit. Expect more posts about the unity of body, brain and soul. And health - of body, mind and spirit. And mindfulness with a lowercase 'm'. Yes, it's that time of year when my blog's readership halves; the 20,000-plus page views a month fall away to less than 10,000 by Easter.


This is what I want to write about - I want to ask questions about what we are, why we are, where we are heading, what we are made of. What is it all about? What do we expect of life? What is expected of us? What's the purpose? Why wake up in the morning?

Life should be a series of questions, a long and tiring trudge with many true insights and many false trails along the way - but at the end - are we any wiser? Człowiek całe życie się uczy, ale głupi umiera ('man learns all his life, but dies stupid') is a very fatalist (and if I may say so, a very Polish) mindset, with which I entirely disagree.

Life is for learning. Developing continually, expanding what we know, what we understand (do you really understand, say - electricity, like truly?)... The quest for knowledge has become so much easier. Google and Wikipedia have given mankind access to tens of thousands of libraries of knowledge. If you really want to know about anything - it's now available by pressing a few dozen keys. But it's about turning the knowledge into wisdom. That does take a lifetime of active seeking, of chance insights and putting it all together in one synthesis.

Yet though we progress, our lives are short - what's our 100 years in the 13.8 billion year history of our universe - and when we die, what of that learning that's been acquired? It needs to be encoded and communicated to the future [Partially, a deep reason why I blog.] Are we wiser as a species than we were 1,000 years ago? 2,000 years ago? Yes, I think we are.

I do want to return to those supernatural aspects - yearnings - longings - that many of us have - are we souls embodied in flesh and bone, or are we flesh and bone with souls - or are we just flesh and bone that imagine we have souls? I firmly believe the former, but Lent is a time of examination, of sincere questioning, of planting footholds on the mountainside ready to propel ourselves upward - and hoping we'll not slip and tumble back down.

Lent happens at that magic time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, when winter is approaching its end and the miracle of spring is waiting for happen. With empty, unsated stomachs, our spirits should be keen and open to receive the light of truth.

For the next 46 days, this blog will focus on the body, mind and spirit as a singular whole. Join me for another Lenten quest, the challenging search for another step in the direction of universal truth - we will not get there in our current bodies, but get there we will.

[PAFF! Madame Blavatsky - like, where did that thought suddenly pop up from? Those eyes...]

This time last year:
Coincidence and survival

This time four years ago
The Book of Revelations

This time five years ago:
Strong late-winter sunshine

This time six years ago:
Best pics from February 2011

This time seven years ago:

This time nine years ago:
End of the line

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Winter's short return

Overnight frost, snow flurries in the morning. The ponds have frozen over again, the surface covered in a thin layer of ice, below which is water, below which is a thick layer of ice.

Below: gingerly, I took a few steps out onto the new ice. My wellingtonned feet went straight through the thin layer, but underneath, all was still solid. This is the 54th day of ice cover on the ponds.

Below: what's this I see? Looks like a viewing platform is being built; wooden piles are being driven into the pond. The workmen are happily stomping all over the ice - although nearer the shore it is melting. A fitness park with apparatus will be erected over to the right, plus car parking.

Below: up on Ballast Mountain to catch an Okęcie-bound train of empty biofuel wagons heading back from Siekierki power station.

Below: a Polish Air Force CASA C295 coming in to land at Okęcie. Trains and planes = Jeziorki.

Below: a new development - a row of six houses (the sixth is out of frame to the left) emerges between ul. Trombity and the railway line.

Below: a lovely, unretouched photo of trees. Trees which are now no longer protected by the Polish state - the owners can come and cut them down as and when they please.

On the one hand - good - less bureaucracy. "It's my land, the trees are on my land, I decide what happens on my land." Fine. But at the higher, longer-term level, urban Poland is going to lose hundreds of thousands of trees, trees that give oxygen back to the atmosphere.

The afternoon was sunny, temperature got up to +3C. But tomorrow it will rain, and by Tuesday the temperature will be in double digits. Spring still is a long, long way off.

Ten years of digital photography

It was ten years ago today, Sunday 25 February 2007, that I bought my first proper digital camera (mobile phone doesn't count!). The Nikon D80 was a mid-range digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, with a 12.1 megapixel sensor. I traded in the kit lens it came with (an 18-135mm zoom) for a more useful 18-200mm zoom, which broke in December 2012 after five and half years of almost-daily use.

Not long after, the D80 body itself packed up. Now it's worthless - a collection of partially-working bits that could theoretically be used to repair another D80, which in any case would be worth little, being worse in every possible way than what's what's on the market today. [Movie prop?] So, unlike old film cameras, which will keep on working for as long as film is produced, this former digital wonder is fit only for recycling.

Below: museum piece, unused for over four years. Shutter still works, but card reader no longer 'sees' SD card; menu on rear screen works, but playback doesn't.

I replaced the D80 as my principal DSLR with a newer, smaller, lighter, better specced but bottom-of-the-range D3200 at that time, which itself replaced by the even more compact D3300 in December 2014. Now, my D3300 (24 megapixels) shares time around my neck with a compact Nikon CoolPix A and a superzoom bridge camera, the Nikon CoolPix P900. Each of the three has a specific purpose - the CoolPix A is a lightweight travel camera, great for the bike, great for landscapes; the P900 is for clear-skies shooting of distant objects - aircraft, wildlife, the moon. But the D3300 is the most universal, the fastest operating, the best all-round camera. The cheapest of Nikon's DSLRs, I can totally recommend it; the newer D3400 is a few grams lighter and can transfer images direct to your phone, but prices on the D3300 are some 500zł/ £100 lower.

The D80, which introduced me to digital photography, was much heavier (body-only 630g compared to 455g for the D3300) and together with the heavy (though universal) zoom lens it was quite a weight to carry around all day. But it did prove revolutionary. Before I bought the D80, my principal camera for many years was a Leica M6 rangefinder, sitting unused now since 2007, alongside my M2, M3 and Nikon FM2 (all owned since the 1980s). Shooting film might today seem cool, retro and hipsterish, but spending lots of money on film and processing, and waiting days to see the results is why digital beats film hands-down.

Over the 10 years since I bought the D80, four times as many photographs have been taken as during the entire course of human history, since  Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph 1826 or 1827. It was only 25 years ago that the first photograph was posted on the internet. 2015 was the first year in which humans took more than one trillion photographs, up from 380 billion in 2011. How many will still be available to look at in 100 or 1,000 years time remains to be seen.

In the meantime, with over two billion mobile phones around the planet already boasting good cameras, the ability to capture images has reached pretty much every person that wants to capture images of the world around them. My first proper camera, a Nikon EM, cost £118 back in 1979, the equivalent to two week's pay in those days. The vastly more capable Nikon D3300 is currently available in the UK for £336, equivalent to three day's pay.

Having photos displayed on a computer screen is better than looking at paper prints, and of course with Photoshop you can adjust exposure, colour balance, perspective, as well as being creative. I do miss making those big 16" x 20" black and white prints, but for that you need a darkroom with smelly chemicals, a tall enlarger and space for large trays - developer, stop bath, fixer and water.

Less than six weeks after buying the D80, I took the decision to start a blog, but more about that on 1 April. Without that camera, I would not have started blogging.

I bought the camera at a Dixons Duty Free shop - can't remember whether it was at Heathrow or Luton - returned home, charged up the battery, read the manual while waiting, took a few test snaps in my room, long deleted, and went to sleep.

The next morning, I took the photo below from my window. Taken at 200 ISO (the fastest speed the D80 could go), f4.2 at 1/50th sec, lens at 31mm (46mm in 35mm/full-frame equivalent).

Below: Ten years after my first foray into digital. See the tree how big it's grown. Note also the new houses (under construction) to the left of the photo. Taken on my D3300 at 200 ISO, f4.2, but for some reason the shutter fired at 1/120th sec.

'Proper' camera sales are falling as the cameras in our phones get better optically and operationally. In 2013, nearly 14 million DSLRs were sold globally; by last year this had fallen to a little over 8 million. And sale of 'mirrorless' cameras (interchangeable lens but non-reflex, such as the Leica M10 or Sony A7) has remained static at 3 million units sold over those past four years.

My dream camera would be a full-frame mirrorless Nikon that will still be able to take Nikon F-mount lenses with a body that's much lighter and smaller than current DSLR bodies. The excellent Nikon D810, with its 36 megapixel sensor, weighs a mighty 965g (more than double the weight of the D3300 body). A full-frame body weighing around 500g would be perfect, thanks. Will buy.

This time last year:
Between atheism and creationism

This time two years ago:
A peek into the Afterlife
[the best piece I've written about my spiritual quest]

This time three years ago:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time four years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
My Nikon D80 five years on

This time six years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time eight years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time nine years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on

Friday, 24 February 2017

Our postman and the Polish labour market - today and tomorrow

Here in Jeziorki, part of the district of Ursynów, on the southern edge of Warsaw, the postman has not delivered any post since Friday 10 February. There's no strike; there's simply not the staff. I'm now three Economists behind with my reading, and there are bills in that mail sack that need paying, except I can't pay them because I don't know how much they'll be for.

It turns out that Pan Krzysztof's on holiday - it's good to know that a postman in Warsaw earns enough for a skiing vacation - a sign that Poland's becoming a normal economy. But can Poczta Polska not provide cover for him?

The simple answer is of course - staff. There are too many jobs chasing too few people in Poland's big cities. According to official data released yesterday, unemployment in Warsaw at the end of January was 2.8%. That's the claimant rate. Now, there is a disparity between claimant rate and economic inactivity rate (which is how Eurostat measures unemployment); nationally, the claimant rate is 8.6%, but the economically inactive rate is only 6.0%. This suggests that around one-third of Poles registered as 'unemployed' are actually working, typically cash-in-hand, in the grey economy. Now, if this were the case in Warsaw as it is nationally, the capital's registered unemployed who are economically inactive would fall to 1.9%.

By any measure, this is what's called 'frictional unemployment' - people signing on between jobs. And while some groups have difficulty in finding work, the young and inexperienced and those in pre-retirement age, paid employment has never been easier to find in Warsaw. And for employers, the corollary is true - recruiting and retaining staff has never been more difficult.

Talking to employers and HR managers, I hear that this is a huge problem in Poland's larger cities. Wrocław and Katowice have the same rate of registered unemployed as Warsaw, while Poznań's is even lower at 2.0%. Many firms are recruiting Ukrainian citizens. I heard last week that over 1.2 million Ukrainians have registered with Polish authorities for work; an order of magnitude similar to that of Poles working in the UK.

Sectors such as logistics, retailing, hospitality, agriculture and IT are increasingly reliant on workers from Ukraine. I was amazed to see at W-wa Zachodnia station posters in Ukrainian offering jobs at McDonald's; less surprising were the posters in Ukrainian on bus stops in the Grójec-Tarczyn region offering seasonal fruit-picking work.

While McDonald's, fruit farmers, warehouses and IT companies can take on Ukrainian citizens, it's a lot more difficult for the Polish state to hire them, not least from the political and PR point of view.

I'm sure that if the Economist's distributor here in Poland were to change their delivery provider from Poczta Polska to any one of a number of reputable private-sector companies, I'd be getting my weekly read within three days of publication - and not, as in this case, after nearly three weeks.

Having said that, 1) as a paper-and-digital subscriber to the Economist, I can read it all online anyway (I prefer paper, however), and 2) the fact that unemployment is low and wages are growing faster than inflation is a good thing, as it helps to even out inequality in Poland.

Poland's weak demographics (female fertility rate at 1.3 children is second-lowest in the EU) may be helped slightly by the 500+ programme, but the biggest change to the labour market in coming years and decades will be robots, algorithms and artificial taking away many routine and repetitive jobs.

The onus will then be on the state to ensure that the working-age population is equipped with the skills needed in such a labour market. Which in turn means Poland needs to revolutionise its education - including vocational education and its universities.

The writing is on the wall.

UPDATE 28 FEBRUARY - Still no post. 17 days since the last mail was delivered (11 working days)

UPDATE 2 MARCH - After 18 days with no delivery, the postman finally came. In his sack were no fewer than five PIT-11B tax forms, essential for our annual tax returns, which have to be filed by the end of next month. NO Economists. I'm now three, soon to be four, back copies late.

UPDATE 9 MARCH -25 days since my last Economist arrived, I find four in my mailbox (below), along with sundry correspondence from financial institutions, more PIT-11B tax forms, invoices etc.

I feel like Marwood in Withnail and I when Danny reveals he's intercepted all their post including cheques and an eviction notice.

This time last year:
What purpose does the Universe serve?

This two years ago:
Will your Soul last for eternity?

This time six years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time seven years ago
A week into Lent

This time eight years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time nine years ago:
Over the fence

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Fat Thursday - a blast against sugar

Other Catholic countries have their Mardi Gras - literally 'fat Tuesday'. In Poland we have 'fat Thursday', tłusty czwartek, four days earlier. Note the 'fat' - not 'sweet'. Yet it's sugar that predominates. Full-page ads in the media suggest consumers blow out on eight-packs of sugar-coated doughnuts on this day, while office kitchens are groaning with plates piled high with patisserie.

Below. queue of people, mostly young, outside the Dunkin' Donut on ul. Świętokrzyska. It's half past five in the evening, people on their way home from work.

Five days before the start of Lent (this year Ash Wednesday falls on 1 March), Polish tradition expects cake-eating on a gargantuan scale. And what's left over gets eaten on ostatki - literally, 'the lasts', Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

Time to reflect on the role of sugar in our diets.

We don't need sugar at all. The evolutionary only role played by sugar is to encourage fruit-eating in the summer and autumn to top up with vitamins that stave off scurvy in winter. For sugar is an addictive drug, and in large amounts a toxin; increasing scientific evidence suggests that it's sugars, not fats, that are the root cause of the obesity epidemic in the rich and developing worlds.

We cannot live without salt - we need it to regulate perspiration, six to eight grams a day, increased in hot climates where bodily fluid loss can be dangerous.

But we can totally live without sugar, as our ancestors did for millennia. Until the invention of industrial sugar manufacture and processing, sugar came only directly from plants, sending those signals to the brain to eat more because it tastes good.

Once business realised how much profit there was in sugar, an entire industry was born, at first on the backs of the slaves shipped to the New World from Africa. Sugar today goes into much of the processed food we eat and beverages we drink - and the results can be seen waddling down the street in countries rich and middle-income.

Sugar breaks down to form fatty deposits around our internal organs, fat that's incredibly difficult to shift even with sustained daily exercise. It rots our teeth. It brings on type 2 diabetes, and an increasing body of scientific evidence links sugar consumption with a decrease in brain mass and dementia.

Society finds alcohol consumption the subject of humour; but sugar consumption does not have any of the social opprobrium that falls upon alcohol or narcotics addiction. But given the social costs related to treating obesity and its side-effects, in particular Type-2 diabetes, maybe sugar addiction should also merit a bit of mockery.

If you're troubled by over-weight - just try this. Weigh yourself. For one week, cut out ALL sugar from your diet - stop eating confectionery, cakes, biscuits, processed foods that included sugar (start reading those labels!). Eat everything else as you normally would. Weigh yourself after one week.

Point proved?

Lent is a good time to change diets, to go for that 46-day cleanse.

Below: bonus photo - ul. Świętorzyska after three beers. Click to enlarge!

This time last year:
The Devil is in doubt

This time two years ago
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This time four years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time five years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This time six years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time eight years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time nine years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Jeziorki meltdown in the fog

It's been a long winter - the ice on the ponds has been there for an unbroken 47 days. On Thursday, the temperature soared to 8C in the sunshine, then fell back to around 2C at night, has stayed around that level ever since. It rained much of yesterday. The rain has washed much of the snow away, the thick ice on the ponds now covered in around an inch or two of water. The ice is still utterly impenetrable, but walking on it makes no sense as footwear gets soaked through.

Today was foggy, the rain ceased, time for a longer walk to see how Jeziorki looks as the big thaw gets under way. Below: a small stand of birch trees towards the southern end of the ponds.

The cloud hangs low over Jeziorki, I can hear the planes but cannot see them, despite being less than 2km away from the end of the runway. Below: indentations left by car tyres filled with snow remain after the rest has melted.

Below: at the north end of the ponds, towards ul. Kórnicka. The ice at the edge of the pond is still welded hard to the shore. In a week's time, unless frost makes an unexpected return, the sheet of ice will be largely gone.

The fog was growing denser as I crossed the tracks. From the side of the ballast mountain (which I hope will remain now the railway line has been modernised), I catch sight of the Koleje Mazowieckie train heading south towards Radom (below).

Meltwater from the snow floods the lower fields and pours into the drainage ditches that line both sides of the tracks. Below: note the snow-drift nets to the right, bearing the initials PKP PLK SA, the state-owned rail infrastructure operator. These replaced the old wooden snow-drift fences a few years back.

Below: a line of apple trees stretches from the tracks towards ul. Trombity.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki's 'down' platform in the fog. Perilously slippery in the icy snow, it is at least now safe to walk on. An amended railway timetable comes into force on Sunday 12 March. One fewer Koleje Mazowieckie service to town, but some trains running faster (W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście in 31 minutes).

Condemned - these trees must die that Man may park. The W-wa Jeziorki Park+Ride will be built here, to the east of the tracks, where the old bus loop used to be. It'll be bigger than the loop; many trees are being felled to make way for asphalt. I'm in two minds about the Park+Ride. On one hand, it'll encourage many commuters to leave their cars here and take the train to town. On the other, given that one articulated Solaris bus can carry 175 passengers, the comparative cost/benefit of providing parking spaces vs. buying more buses is dubious.

Below: ul. Karczunkowska, looking towards the station. According what the local authorities were saying last August, when the level crossing was closed here, work should have been completed by 24 December (Yes! See here!). It's evident that it'll take years. A viaduct will be built here one day. Given it took three years to build one over the S2 at ul. Poloneza, I foresee a 2020 opening.

Below: ul. Nawłocka thaws out; slippery ice, mud, wet snow. Horrible to walk on. Still, this dirt track will soon be paved over, note the new kerb that's already been laid on the left hand side of the road. The sun went down today an hour and half later than its earliest sunset in mid-December.

The nice bit of winter - crunchy snow underfoot and blue skies (smog notwithstanding) has passed; after the thaw, the przednówek - the pre-spring, the sixth season, that can last five to six weeks. But lengthening daylight lifts the mood.

This time last year:
Health, happiness and wholeness

This time two years ago:
Kicking off Lent again

This time three years ago:
Improving the procurement of Poland's infrastructure

This time four years ago:
Wait to spend or save lives now? An infrastructure quandry

This time eight years ago:
It's not rich countries that build roads, its roads that build rich countries

This time nine years ago:
Snow that was doomed to melt

Friday, 17 February 2017

Truth, spin, bullshit and lies

In my childhood, I was taught not to lie, to tell the truth. Parents, teachers, priests would all say in unison - fibs are bad, truth is good. The world has moved on. Lies in politics once meant the end of a career. Then came Spin. "From their point of view, it looks like this. From our point of view, it looks quite different." Then came bullshit - "I don't know if what I'm saying is right or wrong, and frankly I don't care." Now come lies. "I know it's not true, but it benefits me politically to say it." Of course, lies are not labeled as such by the liars - they're alternative facts.

From trying to find the positive angle to simply lying about things. What Trump's victory is telling us is - it's OK to lie and cheat.

A slogan seen at an anti-Trump demo that has since gone viral reads: "What do we want? Scientific proof. When do we want it? After peer review." Brilliant. Yes - let's all work together to analyse assertions, check facts, point out lies and bullshit.

Agent Fox Mulder's oft-repeated quote "I want to believe" from the 1990s TV show The X Files is the other side of the coin. Liars need people to lie to. Disaffected voters want to believe in what 'alternative' politicians are telling them, the alternative to the mainstream, the establishment, the elites, that they blame for their woes. They shut their eyes and ears to uncomfortable truths, preferring the opiates offered to them by the liars.

It's about knowing. Facts. Truth. It takes effort, to read, to follow complex arguments, sift through long documents; but above all it takes trust, trust in sources of information. 

Russian communism was based on lies. Soctiechnika - the technique of manipulating society based on dezinformatsiya, and provokatsiya - taught to functionaries at party and security service schools. The 'Four Ds' - distract, deny, distort, dismay, used from Bolshevik times to the present days. "You Soviets lock up your dissidents into psychiatric hospitals!" "So what - you Americans lynch negroes." Today it's no different. In Soviet days, the party newspaper was called Pravda - truth - it's readers knew its leaden, turgid dogma was anything but. Putin's Russia has moved on. Out goes the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, in come racy game shows, light entertainment to leaven the propaganda that's designed to confuse; rather than to foist a turgid world view on the people, the Kremlin today is saying that everything's rubbish, nothing's real, give up, trust no one.

Lies, manipulation, deceit - verbal and visual. Photoshop gives editors the power to create images that look real enough to believe. Below: a flying saucer, shortly before crashing into the frozen lake at Jeziorki. Or not. 

When the current shit-storm over Trump, Putin, Brexit, and here in Poland over dobra zmiana has finally settled down, hopefully without undue bloodshed, the voters of the world will rub their eyes and start demanding peer-reviewed proof - about climate change, about migration and the economy, about how our nations and our businesses are run, how our tax money is spent. Trust but verify, to quote Ronald Reagan. Things will get better; it is cyclical. There's a long wave in history, not so much repeating as rhyming. I'm forever optimistic, this is no time for world-weary cynicism. Succumb to it and the bastards will have won.

Finally, Senator John McCain, speaking at the Munich Security Conference today: "We must never cease to believe in the moral superiority of our values  - truth against falsehood, freedom against tyranny, hope against despair."

Our values. Very much so.

I'll leave it there.

This time last year:
How much spirituality do we need?

This time four years ago:
The Chosen Ones

This time five years ago:
Fixies in the snow

This time eight years ago:
Just the ticket

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Historical turning point - which way now?

The world into which I was born was created in late July 1945, in the wake of the Labour Party's victory in the UK general election. It was an unexpected victory; Winston Churchill, who had led the nation to defeat the Nazis, was beaten with a 12% swing to Labour - the largest ever swing in a UK general election. This was a dramatic political turnaround, a clear rejection of the prewar order. What followed the 'khaki election' was the creation of the welfare state, the National Health Service, nationalisation of the 'commanding heights' of the UK economy and increasing trade union power. Social democracy became the norm across most of western world. In the postwar order, social justice rolled forward as the European empires relinquished their grip on their colonies, and the US abandoned racial segregation. By the 1970s, inequality between the rich and the poor fell to the lowest levels in history.

This model was to continue in the West until May 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won the general election with an 8% swing to the Conservatives. In the 34 years between 1945 and 1979, regardless of who was in power - Conservatives or Labour - the post-war consensus endured. The Conservatives did not turn back any of the major reforms implemented by Labour. The NHS was not dismantled in 1955, nor were coalmines or railways privatised, and comprehensive education was not abolished in 1970.

Between 1945 and 1979, social change was accelerating and society was becoming more equal. The working man never 'ad it so good. The consumer, however, was not getting such a good deal. Strikes were commonplace, good products were expensive, cheap products were shoddy. People in the UK wanted a change. People in the US wanted one too; Ronald Reagan was elected in November 1980.

The age of Thatcher and Reagan was the counter-revolution, a radical change of direction from that cosy world created after WW2. Emphasis was on the supply side of the economy, monetarism - benefiting the consumer rather than the worker, rewarding initiative. Inflation and the unions were beaten. The Thatcher and Reagan counter-revolution was not to be undone by their successors. The Conservatives' 18 years in power was followed by 13 years during which Labour's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to reverse the changing tide that Mrs Thatcher ushered in. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, eight years of Bill Clinton likewise did not see the undoing of Reagan's legacy. These were years when Information Technology began to spread into the workplace, and low value-added manufacturing began moving offshore.

Consumers benefited as prices came down and quality rose. In 1976, a portable music centre consisting of turntable, cassette player and radio cost £100. Last week I saw a similar concept - a turntable for vinyl records that could not only play them but convert them to digital files via a USB port - for £100. Yet with IT and offshoring killing many jobs, pushing many less-skilled people into lower-paid service sector work, there was a mounting sense that the unfettered economic liberalism that Thatcher and Reagan brought about in 1980 was not a success for all.

A generally confused electorate in Britain voted for Brexit last June; an even more confused electorate in America voted for Trump four months later. 2016 is as much a turning point in history as 1980, 1945, 1933 and 1914.

What happens next? Putin holds the cards. Unable to do anything positive with Russia (build infrastructure, build a civil society based on trust, build a solid entrepreneurial middle class, build an innovative economy) the only way he can hold his head above water is to pull other countries down to Russia's level by sowing dissent, doubt and discord, by fracturing alliances and societies, and doing this with the most modern of weapons - information technology.

The war that Putin is waging on eastern Ukraine is killing people and destroying property. Yet in almost three years, Russia has failed to prise apart the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts from Ukraine as it did with Crimea. By any 20th century measure, it's a war that's not going well for Russia. But the war that Putin is waging on the West is far more successful. Deniable, well-hidden. Just remember at the beginning of 2015, Russian jokes were about Putin's 3 x 63 - he'd be 63 that year, oil would fall to $63 a barrel and there'd be 63 roubles to the dollar. It all came to pass - and worse (oil fell below $30 and a dollar cost as much as 78 roubles), yet Putin is stronger than ever.

What next? The French and Germans are both reporting suspected Russian interference in their respective elections, with Putin's game plan to install a pliant leader that would help fracture the EU and NATO. If Putin can pull these off, the gains made by the Western world, in terms of liberty, civil rights, prosperity and prospects benefiting the vast majority of its citizens - will be under intense threat.

This time last year:
Coincidence and consciousness 

This time three years ago years ago:
North-east of Warsaw West revisited

This time four years ago:
Looking for answers

This time five years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time seven years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time nine years ago:
Okęcie dusk

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Short haul musings

Unbelievable! You can fly Ryanair from Warsaw Okęcie to Wrocław for 9.19zł + 8% VAT (as a domestic flight), in total 9.93zł, or £1.95 each way. Booked just 15 days in advance.

I had to be in Kąty Wrocławskie for a meeting that started at 09:30; the outbound flight from Warsaw to Wrocław (the airport is 27km from my destination) arrives at 09:15. Too late. Instead of the cheap flight, I take the tried and tested night train, which arrives at Wrocław Główny station at 06:18. Plenty of time for a Scottish breakfast and for the 30km journey by car to Kąty Wrocławskie.

Night train masterclass: it's great to have a compartment to oneself. Buying a one-person compartment is awfully expensive; an advance booking (week+ ahead) costs 368.00zł. A bed in a three-berth compartment costs 139.40 zł. Now, a bed in the two-berth compartment costs just sixty zloty more - 199.90zł, which is a whole 168.10zł cheaper than the single berth compartment. Now, here's the trick - few people go for the two-berth option. If you book late (no later than two hours before the train begins its journey), and you see the lower berth is free - the chances are you've got it to yourself.

As regular readers know, I'm a great fan of the night train, it combines travel and accommodation in one ticket. This trip was a dream - compartment to myself and slept soundly from Warsaw to just outside Wrocław, woken with a coffee and croissant from the attendant.

But I flew back. My last return from Wrocław was by evening train, which took over four hours. By air, the journey is far swifter. I arrive at the airport with ample time, so I go through security, have some pierogi at the Flying Bistro bar (19.90zł - less than four quid for a plateful), catch up with emails and wait for the gate to open.
16:05 Gate opens 
16:15 I leave the terminal building, having shown my boarding pass and ID card.
16:19 I'm in my seat (3E). 
16:34 Plane pushes back from its stand 
16:47 Take off 
17:10 Captain switches off 'fasten seatbelt' sign 
17:15 Captain announces "Cabin crew, prepare for landing" 
17:28 Touchdown, 12 mins ahead of schedule 
17:37 Buses take passengers to terminal 
17:45 Leave airport on foot [18min walk] 
18:03 Koleje Mazowieckie train departs W-wa Okęcie station 
18:08 Train arrives W-wa Dawidy station 
18:40 Arrive home, having walked across the frozen lake [32min walk]
I could have saved half an hour by taking a taxi home from the airport, but that 10.5km journey would have cost four times more than the 360km Ryanair flight between Wrocław and Warsaw.

Above: Wrocław airport. Below: arrival at Warsaw, just 9.93zł away.

I'm amazed at how efficient the service was.

When PolskiBus.com began selling tickets online, it instantly created a competitive headache for existing bus operators, as well as the railways. Why pay 50zł for a five-hour train journey when you can book a five-hour bus journey for 15zł?

Now Ryanair is pushing things further. Why pay 15zł for a five-hour bus journey when for even less you can fly the same distance in less than an hour?

Unlike the ill-fated OLT Express, Ryanair is a company run by people that know what they're doing. All those extras - suitcase fees, choosing your seat, paying through the nose if you want to fly last minute - that's what's keeping the firm profitable. Those low, low fares are there if you book ahead in low season. But while those seats are there at this price - go for it!

This time last year:
Mind, matter and life

This time two years ago:
Compositions in blue and white

This time five years ago:
Waiting for the change to come

This time six years ago
A wetter Poland?

This time eight years ago:
Heavy overnight snow

This time nine years ago:
Changing Jeziorki skyline

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Walkers' London

Beautifully sunny day in London, 10C, spring on the way. In Warsaw, it's -7C. And snowing.

To get to know any city, go on foot. Last November, I was in Edinburgh on a similarly lovely, sun-drenched day (as sun-drenched as is possible in Edinburgh in November), but duties made sure that my trip from the airport to the BBC studios in the city centre and back was in a taxi, so I didn't have the opportunity for walking and snapping.

Today in London, however, I did. Below: Broadcasting House, the BBC's original studios. An amazing piece of purpose-built Art Deco architecture from the early 1930s.

Below: an often-overlooked London monument, once the highest building on the skyline, now a bit old-fashioned, without the tourist charisma of Berlin's Fernsehturm. BT Tower, formerly (and to me for always), the GPO Tower. A piece of telecommunications infrastructure that for me, as a child, ushered in a new era in  satellite transmissions. And it was here, some time in the early 1990s, that I attended a press conference held by British Telecom demonstrating something called the World Wide Web. A 34-minute walk from one meeting to the next - would have taken eight minutes by taxi, quarter of an hour by the Underground - yet those minutes spent walking brought joy and enlightenment, and memories of the Spirit of Place.

Below: rush-hour evening, King's Cross - as seen from St Pancras. The two railway termini stand side by side, athwart Pancras Road. In the distance, rising off to the right, Pentonville Road.

Below: St Pancras station, seen from across the road from King's Cross station. Marvellous atmosphere as dusk falls. Let's walk right up and take a closer view at the magnificence of the old Midlands Grand Hotel.

Bricktorian Britain at its most impressive. Harking back to the Middle Ages, rather than embracing the modernity of technological progress of the Victorian age, George Gilbert Scott's structure is, like the Houses of Parliament, in the Gothic Revival style.

London as only London could be; so much of the capital is modern, yet so much timeless. Icons known the world over, such as the London Transport logo.

If you're in London on business, do plan your day to maximise the amount of walking you do. There is so much to see in this complex, multi-layered city, so many delights to charm the eye and enrich the soul.

WALKERS' LONDON UPDATE Thursday 9 February. I walk from Bank, across London Bridge, back across London Bridge, then re-crossed the Thames at Southwark Bridge, continued along the South Bank past the Globe, the National Theatre and NFT, then re-crossed the Thames for a fourth time, this time on the Golden Jubilee Bridge, across Charing Cross station, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Chinatown, Soho, Fitzrovia and on to the Polish Embassy.

QUIZ PICS - anyone like to say where I took these two photographs?

This time last year:
Deconstructing political graffiti - London and Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Europe's peripheral woes

This time four years ago:
Winter returns to Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Babcia vs. Roma action, Centrum

This time six years ago:
Reasons to be cheerful

This time seven years ago:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time eight years ago:
What's to be done about Warsaw's unmade roads?

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki in the fog

Monday, 6 February 2017

Fifteen years in one house

Old Polish proverb: "The first house you build, you build for your enemy. The second house you build, you build for a friend. The third house you build, you build for yourself." The suggestion is, of course, that practice makes perfect. Far more Poles live in houses they've self-built (or had someone build for them as a bespoke project) than in the UK, where developers build what sells and the punters move in. This is testament to the fact that Poland has a lot more land than England, and that therefore there are fewer restrictions on home-building.

The Polish way, until the recent boom in mortgage loans, was to buy a plot, design the house (nothing to complicated or showy), lay the foundations, erect the structural shell then add roof, put in windows and doors, then finally finish off with plumbing, flooring, heating, kitchen & bathroom - then move in. With a couple of years of scrimping and saving between each phase. Mortgage loans means one can advance faster.

In the case of our home, into which we moved on this day in 2002, it took just over two and half years between me spotting the perfect plot of land and us moving in to a (nearly) finished abode. But then a mortgage helped to speed up a process that the save-and-spend-on-next-phase method would have taken ten years or more.

I look back at where I'd lived...
  • Croft Gardens, Hanwell. 12 years, 7 months
  • Cleveland Road, West Ealing. 6 years, 5 months
  • Warwick University - on and off campus, 3 years 9 months.
  • Cleveland Road, back for another 2 years, 4 months
  • Ribchester Avenue, Perivale, 14 years, 9 months
  • Ul. Gajdy, Pyry, 4 years, 6 months
  • Ul. Trombity, Jeziorki, 15 years.
So I've lived under this one roof for longer than in any other house in my life. Other than two years of living on campus, I've always lived in a house, never in a flat. Never worried by someone upstairs or downstairs playing music too loudly. Twenty-eight years living in a detached house.

After 15 years in Jeziorki, the house feels comfortable. The downstairs windows were repaired last year, but everything else is still as it was. Kitchen appliances, washing machine and tumble dryer (all Bosch, since you ask), the central heating (Junkers) all works fine, thanks. One or two hairline cracks in the plasterwork, oak flooring showing signs of wear (under my desk, top of the stairs), otherwise the structure is sound and well insulated (thick Wienerberger Porotherm bricks, with six inches of expanded polystyrene stuck to the outside). Patch of damp over the upstairs bath (ventilation was put in wrong place), and the downstairs ventilation was never connected to the fan. No other problems to report. The garden's lovely, the moles at bay.

What would I change in the next house? Principally, style. Out goes trad, neo-vernacular, dworek-style with columns and references to the 19th Century. In would come neo-moderne, big windows from floor to ceiling, steel, stone and wood, underfloor heating and even more space. A bigger garage, a bigger garden. Lots of privacy.

This time last year:
London, Warsaw, governance

This time two years ago:
Białystok: Ipswich of the East 

This time three years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz

This time four years ago:
Interpreting vs. translating vs. explaining

This time five years ago:
More than just an Iluzjon

This time six years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time nine years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Ukraine: Would I stay or would I go?

The war drags on. It's not a civil war between the Ukrainian government and separatists - it's a war between two nations - Russia and Ukraine. Russia is using the formula that 'pro-Russian separatists' are trying to gain independence from Ukraine, to fool the West. In reality, the Kremlin is sending over heavy weapons - including armour, rocket artillery and anti-aircraft missiles, across the Ukrainian border to turn up the heat whenever it feels it can get away with it.

As I had predicted, Putin is keeping the frozen conflict in Ukraine alive. His aggression is costing the lives of many thousands of Ukrainian civilians who have not fled the fighting. And the lives of many brave Ukrainian soldiers, who are getting into harm's way to do what brave Polish soldiers did back in 1920 - to hold back the barbarian tide from the east.

How would I - how would you - react if we were there, in Ukraine, not in the relative comfort of the West, of the EU, of NATO?

Run or fight?

Tough question for hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainian men. Seek a better, safer life in the West, turning your back on your flawed fatherland, still mired in corruption? Or stay and fight - fight for an independent homeland, fight for justice - and, in the long term, a country that could be normal, with decent institutions, on the path to prosperity, a country where people can grow and reach their potential?

Looking at Ukraine from a purely selfish, Polish, perspective - Poland needs a buffer between it and Russia. Long term, Poland wants to see Ukraine succeed, and to succeed it needs to have seen off Putin, built a strong civil society, and an effective state with good laws and honest leaders.

Putin's greatest fear was always that Ukraine - like the Baltic republics, also former components of the USSR - would develop a stronger economy than that of Russia. That Ukrainians would be richer, freer, happier, than Russians east of the border. That one day Ukraine might join the EU, the single market, adopt best practice in governance - and Russians would see that and want some themselves.

It is nearly three years since the Maidan protests resulted in President Yanukovych fleeing to Moscow and the Russian armed forces seizing Crimea. Since then, the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues.

Putin does not understand 'win-win'; rather than trying to beat the West at its own game by developing free enterprise and an open society, it is easier for him to pull everyone else into the mire. From a man who looked beaten back in 2015, with low oil prices and a united West, he is now beginning to look far stronger - by openly meddling in the affairs of other nations' politics. Propaganda based on the the four Ds - deny, distort, distract, dismay - is pumped out daily on RT and Radio Sputnik, internet trolls are visible on the comments sections of influential Western media, pushing the Kremlin's agenda, and hackers are attacking the IT systems at the heart of the West's financial and political infrastructure.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Putin is pushing in his bayonet deeper whenever he, in Lenin's words, feels mush, and stops whenever he feels resistance. The resistance can be diplomatic, economic (sanctions) and military, and it is the Ukrainian military that are bearing the brunt.

Young men who could have slipped across the border into Poland and readily found work and a better life here. But they chose to stay and fight.

We should, as Poles, be immensely grateful to them, for staying to defend their homeland - and to defend civilisation from barbarism.

We should defend ourselves against Kremlin's propaganda - which, unlike in Soviet times, has no ideological agenda - it is simply aimed at fragmenting Western society and giving Putin more pliant mush into which he can push his bayonet into deeper.

This time three years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz

This four years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time nine years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

How to annoy the passengers

As I wrote six months ago, the area around Metro Wilanowska, a major public-transport junction served by the Metro, trams and buses, is being redeveloped. The main pedestrian thoroughfare has been closed for the duration, which might be another year to 18 months. In the meanwhile, passengers changing from bus to Metro, or Metro to bus, must take a detour.

The planners dreaming up the temporary footpath have made a big mistake. This is where the 709, the main public transport conduit between Piaseczno and Warsaw, terminates - a bus that at peak times runs once every five minutes, each bus carrying over 170 passengers. Nearly 2,000 people per hour are disgorged from this one, single bus line. And this is one of 15 bus routes that finish or start their journeys from Metro Wilanowska.

Below: this, the newest Google Earth image of the area (from September 2016) shows how public transport planners believe passengers will walk from the Metro station to the head of the 709 bus stop (red line). The short yellow line shows how passengers actually do walk.

Rather than yield to the convenience of passengers, they are forced to make an 110-metre long detour, snaking south-west then back east to get to where the 709s start from. The planners ensure compliance by erecting metal barriers along the proscribed path.

Will the people listen? No. The demolish the barriers, knocking them down. The authorities put them back up again. The passengers know them down. The authorities should take note - lay some temporary paving slabs making the shortest distance between Metro and bus stop. But no - they keep putting the barriers back up again. And then the passenger knock them down again.

Below: this evening, the barriers are down. And there's plenty of people going this way, rather than the long way round. If the bus is about to depart shortly (and the 715, for example also starting from here, runs once an hour), you don't want to be making a 110m detour.

Below: overnight, the barriers were put up again. They get in the way. People climb over them, knock them down. This is just stupid.

Surely the authorities can learn from this. Simply connect the buses with the metro with some temporary paving slabs, lift them up when the building work's completed, and lay the grass back down again... Otherwise, passengers will get the impression that they are ignored and despised by the very people that should be aiding their mobility.

Same thing at W-wa Okęcie station. I've written about this before. Ten months after the completion of the new foot bridge, it is still blocked off pending final approval by the building inspector. 'No entry! Construction Site' says a sign on a wire mesh fence. Which has been summarily demolished by passengers, angered at the alternative - walking a longer, more dangerous route, over live railway tracks.

Below: the barrier ignored. I admire my compatriots for their refusal to bow to the laziness and stupidity of officialdom.

Planners, builders, administrators - THINK!

This time last year:
Zloty symbol - your suggestions

This time two years ago:
The future of Warsaw's public transport

This time three years ago:

This time five years ago:
(on the superiority of Polish schools to British ones)

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years ago:

This time nine years ago: