Friday, 31 March 2017

Health & fitness in Q1, the Quarter of Abstinence

Lent 2017: Day 31

The end of the first quarter of the year, the end of the first month of Lent (15 days to go). Focus now on the physical aspects - how's the fitness going? As I did this time last year, I'm making public my results. This is a particularly abstemious time of year, starting with a low-alcohol January followed soon after by the start of Lent. Hence those way, way below Prof Dame Sally Davies' new 14-unit guideline consumption scores.

Q1 2015
Q1 2016
Q1 2017
Paces walked (total)
Km (miles) walked
793 km
(489 miles)
820 km
(506 miles)
836 km
(516 miles)
Paces walked (daily average)
Sit-ups (daily average)
Alcohol (units/week average)
Portions fruit & veg (daily average)

The progression in walking is clear, with the million-pace target cracked in two successive years.

Sit-ups were disappointing (something to do with me reading about the fallacy of spot fat-reduction - exercising the fat bits makes the muscle under them grow, but the fat itself does not burn off). Having said that, I've been doing far more other forms of exercise, with weights and press-ups to the fore, and chin-ups as well. So overall, the morning and evening exercise regime for Q1 2017 has been tougher than in previous years.

As was the case last year, it's been a winter quarter in which I didn't come down with a cold or flu. Let me repeat the words I wrote this time last year:
Whenever I felt THE VERY FIRST symptoms of a cold creeping up on me – that slight tickling on the roof of the soft palate – I determined the cold away, by visualising those nasty viruses, little round spiky balls, then blasting them away with killer thoughts like a fire extinguisher. Several seconds in which I wished them gone, focusing my entire being on getting rid of them – and I'd wake up the following morning with no symptoms whatever... Too early to say that this is wishful thinking, but I'm convinced that mind-over-matter has worked here.
Well, a year on, this still holds true. Mind over matter, coincidence, wishful thinking or some other form of cognitive bias? Or just a dwindling number of cold viruses (you only get one a lifetime, whereafter you're immune to that strain) that I haven't yet has as I get older?

This time four years ago:

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

This time seven years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Globalisation and individual identity

Lent 2017: Day 30

A terribly sad day for me personally yesterday - the UK announcing its intention to leave the European Union after over four decades of integration with the world's wealthiest trading bloc.

A tight vote, in which a slim majority tipped the British nation down the chute towards what could be an economically catastrophic outcome. Why did it happen? As I wrote earlier, the overriding reason was not some vague notion of sovereignty, but rather a wish of a great many people in smaller English towns to control migration from EU member states - read Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

It was not London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Leicester, Oxford nor Cambridge - nor Scotland nor Northern Ireland - that voted leave. Rather it was thousands of market towns across England, where within the space of a decade or so the number of immigrants shot up from 0.1% of the population to 5%. People in these towns felt swamped. They could hear foreign languages being spoken 'everywhere' in their streets, and felt it was time to 'take back control'.

Last week's Economist reviewed The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, by David Goodhart. Here are the first three paragraphs:
WHY did Britain vote to leave the EU? Why did America elect Trump? Why are populists on the rise all over Europe? David Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect magazine and now a proud 'post-liberal', has found a culprit. Populism, he argues in his new book, is an understandable reaction to liberal overreach.  
Focusing on Britain, he identifies a new divide in Western societies, pitting a dominant minority of people from 'Anywhere' against a majority from 'Somewhere'. The first group, says Mr Goodhart, holds 'achieved' identities based on educational and professional success. Anywheres value social and geographical mobility. The second group is characterised by identities rooted in a place, and its members value family, authority and nationality.  
Whereas Anywheres, whose portable identities are well-suited to the global economy, have largely benefited from cultural and economic openness in the West, he argues, the Somewheres have been left behind—economically, but mainly in terms of respect for the things they hold dear. The Anywheres look down on them, provoking a backlash.
So here's the thesis. Educated, mobile Anywheres vs. traditionalists, rooted Somewhere. At first glance, I'm definitely an Anywhere, with my post-grad education, living and working a thousand miles from my place of birth. In a detached house with big garden. But when I dig a bit deeper, haven't I returned Somewhere? Not on some expat posting to a random capital city, but back to where my father born. To the land whose songs I learned to sing as a boy. To a land that over the past 20 years I have got to know far better than the average native.

I doubt I could have moved to, say, Stockholm, Rome, Madrid or Copenhagen and felt as comfortable as I do living in Warsaw. It's a blood-and-language thing, for sure, but there's a spiritual side to being from Somewhere too - for me at least. I have an acute sense of Spirit of Place. The suburban sprawl of West London, the Perivale where I lived for 15 years before moving to Poland, spoke not to my soul. If anywhere in England does, it's the stretch of countryside from the Buckinghamshire, along the old Great Central through Northants (in particular around the village of Catesby) into Warwickshire.

I spent four years at university in Warwickshire, exploring the county on foot; so much of the landscape resonated with me; it was the Warwickshire of Shakespeare, the 'low farms, poor pelting villages' that drew me into its countryside. The Fens of East Anglia, flat and empty, took me to another time, another place; the landscape there resonated with me for some almost supernatural reason.

Feeling a sense of connection with place is, I think, a common experience, but if the default is merely 'where I was born and grew up', then the 'Anywhere' in me looks down upon it.

Finding your own place in the world requires seeking and sifting. Brought up on National Geographic magazines (between myself and my father, we have about half a century's worth!) I have a good sense of the world and know which places draw me, and which don't. I have never had any great urge to globe-trot; I'd be happily confined to the Europe and North America, but then again the search for spirit of place wanes as time, progress and development erode the landscape of my memories.

So I do not feel I am an Anywhere. Yet I am not a Somewhere. Poles could say to me "you didn't live here under communism. You did not experience what we experienced." True. But then I have actively chosen to live and work in Poland; I'm not living there by default.

More considerations of this subject, from 2010, here.

This time three years ago:
More photos from Edinburgh
[A city where I could live, despite not having any PAF! moments there.]

This time four years ago:
Edinburgh continues to fascinate

This time five years ago:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time nine years ago:
Swans pay us a visit

Monday, 27 March 2017

Eyes without a face

Lent 2017: Day 27

Do you get that split second of surprise when you unexpectedly catch a reflection of your face - on the darkened screen of your smartphone as you hold it up to read, in the window of a shop or bus? Does it take you aback? Who is that person?

I've long felt that disconnect between what I see when I catch sight of myself and who I feel I am.

For I feel that I am a consciousness residing within a human body that moves about the face of this planet, in a state of awareness, learning, evolving, teaching, communicating - observing, feeling. The body, the face, is but a distraction, it ages; it will die. Within it is an ever-sentient awareness capable of such subtle realisation and fine judgment, honed with experience, taught by time and rising in understanding.

When I dream, I have no physical characteristics; I am neither big or small, young or old; I am ageless. That's the real me, as I am, not as I am seen externally. And as such, I am comfortable in my own company.

Was it director Ken Loach who described himself as having an eye instead of a face? The observer rather than the actor. Creativity comes from observation, spostrzegawczość - perceptibility; that ability to detect fine nuances.

Next comes the need for will, to put those observations to use, be it in a painting, a drama, a photograph, a novel, a poem, a film, a sculpture - a concrete call to action from within to create. Now, this requires focused self-discipline. The drive to create comes a desire to share one's observations, unclouded by an ego that filters and distorts, that replaces the searing beam of truth with a self-serving narrative. Get your ego out of the way of the telling; just tell it as it is.

Thinking about one's appearance is a distraction. I feel most comfortable when blended in, not standing out, from the crowd. It is difficult to observe, mindfully, when one's demeanour is screaming "LOOK AT ME!" Invisibility would be ideal, being unnoticeable, indistinguishable - externally at least - from the rest of humanity.

Somewhere on Twitter I read that creative people age better than ones who are not driven to share their observations in their art. Not 'age better' in an external, visual, sense; rather in coming to terms with age. I can appreciate that sentiment. Self-obsessed folk ruminate on the onset of the ageing process, wasting time in a Quixotic struggle against inevitability.

All this is well and good, but it still doesn't inoculate me against those shocks of catching an unexpected reflection of myself!

We judge others by appearance. Others judge us by appearance. We judge ourselves by appearance. This is only natural; taking stock on the basis of appearance is an evolutionary defence mechanism. Friend or foe? Predator or prey? Authority figure that one automatically defers to - or a mug to be taken for a ride? We make subconscious decisions about strangers in a split second. Those first impressions are intentionally strong - in our ancestral past, they could have meant the difference between survival and death. The fact your genes have made right through the evolution of life on earth to reach the person reading this text now suggests that they had been rather good at that judgment.

But we should be wary of those first impressions. They are often misleading. They often prevent your conscious brain from taking a more informed view. My mother was one of many, many TV viewers who, when some expert was talking on screen about a given subject, would comment on their clothing, hairstyle or other aspect of appearance rather than listening to what they had to say.

We must understand our biology and rise above it. We should not allow ourselves to become lookist - to judge solely by external impressions. We should not judge others that way - nor ourselves.

This time last year:
London blooms in yellow

This time two years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time three years ago:
Scotland and its language

This time four years ago:
Death, our sister

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 March 2017

"Jeziorki bogged down in railway mud"

Jeziorki made it onto page 5 of today's Gazeta Stołeczna, with a story bemoaning the delays in the rail modernisation works, which are running months behind schedule. This is hardly news for us residents, trudging through mud to get to the new platforms, but the piece did shed light on what's next. [Full text in Polish here for those who've not got to their free three-article limit.]

The works should have been completed in 20 months from September 2015. The 22nd month is now passing. The temporary level crossing which I wrote about last week will be opened, the article says, next week. But of the works on the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the tracks, no sight.

Below: from the top of a hill of mud, I take this shot looking east along ul. Karczunkowska. Nothing has stirred here in months, apparently because 'the documentation wasn't complete'.

The article suggests that the viaduct will be ready by the end of December, and opened at the beginning of 2018. The chances of that happening are as remote as Trump's chances of completing  full term as president.

Further promises made in the article include the completion of modernisation works from Czachówek to Warka by 2020 and onward from Warka to Radom. And then, it is said, the fastest journey from Warsaw to Radom, a mere 100km (62 miles) from Warsaw, will take 75 minutes, rather than the 2hrs 49mins it can take.

But first the rebuilding of Nowa Iwiczna station, which will involve the demolition of the old island platform, which in turn will involve single-track working again, so that the line can be realigned to fit the new 'down' platform. And work at W-wa Okęcie station and between Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy is as yet incomplete. Finally, a mass of tidying-up all along the tracks is necessary - there's heaps of rubbish left behind.

The single-line working will hit commuters, as if things aren't currently bad enough. On Friday, the 18:16 service from W-wa Śródmieście to Skarżysko-Kamienna was massively delayed; I ended up at W-wa Ślużewiec waiting for the 19:04 to Piaseczno, which - as it was due to arrive - was announced as having been cancelled. So I took a bus, getting home 1hr 40 minutes after reaching Śródmieście.

Commuters' patience with Koleje Mazowiecki would be better, given the scale of the job facing the railways, if it communicated better with passengers.

This time last year:
Ideas, and how they take hold

This time two years ago:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

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

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

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

This time eight years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

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

Friday, 24 March 2017

Warsaw photo catch-up

Warsaw is changing rapidly; landmarks of the city centre are being replaced with new buildings. Below: the PKO Rotunda, on the corner of ul. Marszałkowska and Al. Jerozolimskie. Completed in 1966, it suffered serious damage as the result of a gas explosion that killed 49 people in February 1979. It was repaired and reopened eight months later. Plans to tear it down and replace it with a similar building were scotched last week, when the conservator of heritage buildings stopped the Rotunda's demolition. What happens next, we'll see.

Next door to the Rotunda was the Universal building (Al. Jerozolimskie 44). A mere 14 stories high, it was pulled down last month. All that's left now is rubble (below).

Below: a new retail and office development rises up on the site of the old Sezam shop, demolished two years ago. Work on the new building seems to have slowed down of late.

Below: this view will change within the next few years, as the Varso Tower will start to rise up in the gap on the horizon. Located on the western corner of Al. Jana Pawła II and Al. Jerozolimskie, Varso Tower will become Warsaw's highest building, higher than the Palace of Culture. Its viewing gallery will be twice the height of the one on the Palace's 30th floor.

Below: the Palace of Culture snapped from ul. Sienna. A contrast between the beginning and the end of the second half of the 20th Century

Below: W-wa Śródmieście station building. The two symmetrical pavilions were designed to complement the Palace of Culture, which stands behind. The above-ground part of the station is due to be demolished in the comprehensive redevelopment of this area.

Below: ul. Świętokrzyska between ul. Marszałkowska and ul. Emilii Plater. I've written about the demolition of the Emilia building; it will be re-erected in Park Świętokrzyski, between the street and the north side of the Palace of Culture. When rebuilt, it will face this row of shops.

The clocks finally go forward this weekend; this will be the last week that I go home in the dark for the next six or so months.

This time last year:
Conscious of being conscious

This time three years ago:
New road and retail

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

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

This time eight years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A leader for our times - the invisible leader

Lent 2017: Day 23 

At the halfway mark; 23 more days to go until Easter.

An interesting quote I came across in an article I was editing:
A leader is best
When people barely know he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him
Worse when they despise him,
But of a good leader, who talks little
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled
They will all say “We did it ourselves” 
—  Lao Tzu 
In 6th Century BC, this simple definition of a what makes a wise ruler had been set out. Yet two and half thousand years later, we can easily spot those leaders that are obeyed and acclaimed and those who are merely despised.

I like Lao Tzu's vision of the modest leader who's invisibly present at the epicentre of many overlapping networks, encouraging rather than goading.

Bad leaders, with loud mouths and toxic personalities - and there are many in business and politics - may be perceived as 'strong', but tend to be divisive and their over confidence and inflated self-esteem means they cannot acknowledge their errors and distance themselves from mistaken policies.

The good leader, less visible, is prepared to learn from mistakes and move on quickly in a more suitable direction. A valid U-turn is better than marching over the precipice.

The bad leader sets out a worldview where mistrust is the default position. Mistrust is expensive. It is a less costly policy to trust by default, switching to mistrust only in cases when someone has abused that trust.

Understanding 'win-win' in politics and economics is crucial. Too many leaders in business and politics see a zero-sum game, in which I win, they lose. This leads to adversarial relations, which in the long term lead to a worse outcome than win-win. [This can be easily proved by repeated rounds of the Prisoners' Dilemma; those playing a cooperate-cooperate strategy, defaulting on the player that quits win-win, then retaliating until that player returns to playing win-win.]. The lump-sum of labour fallacy, which posits that for one person to get a job, another has to lose it, is regularly trotted out by populists whose voters fail to understand that economies grow as new jobs are created.

I see these negative traits in many of today's political leaders. Not a step backward, keen to blame all around them but themselves, aiming to grab the levers of power for their own sake, rather than offering a vision of a trust-based society that gets on with their lives with a minimum of top-down interference.

Business learns from mistakes faster than politicians. After the hubris of the global banking crisis, companies have learnt that sustainability and resilience are more important than short-term profit. The network is evolutionarily superior to the hierarchy; if the hierarch makes the wrong policy decision the results can be hard to rectify, given the hierarch's reluctance to accept responsibility and desire to shift the blame elsewhere. Politicians respond to the voters; businesses to their shareholders. Shareholders, concerned about the safety of their capital, are more rational than voters, who are easily swayed by rhetoric. Business leaders who can now demonstrate a longer-term view of shareholder value than those prepared to screw future prospects for the sake of the next quarter's figures are seen as the better bet.

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's abandoned goods station;

This time four years ago:
Social justice - the Church and inequality

This time five years ago:
Google Street View comes to Poland

Monday, 20 March 2017

The mature mind's power over the instincts

Lent 2017, Day 20

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." [Corinthians 13:11]

Would that it were so simple.

As a child, I was aware of my childish instincts, which could get the better of me; but I was also aware of a deep consciousness that could perceive much that lay beyond my comprehension. Growing up, the process of reaching maturity (which has not yet fully happened!), is about overcoming our base infantile and reptilian reactions and striving to understand the deeper processes within. It is the essence of being human.

We live in troubled times, when tolerance of the Other in our society is in short supply; populist politicians garner support by exaggerating the threat posed to our societies by outsiders. A number of studies (this is an interesting one) have shown that babies are by nature racist, and with age and experience this innate bias can change.

The other day, late in the evening, crossing from the railway station to the Metro, I saw a Roma beggar woman holding out a paper cup into the stream of the rushing crowd in the cold wet rain. She was wailing loudly, and ignored by all. My first instinct was a shot of hate and anger. The sheer stupidity of begging in the 21st Century, a people that are wilfully unable to fit into society, playing shamelessly on naïve people's emotions, trying pathetically to elicit pity from passers-by!

Yet my higher consciousness managed to overcome the more barbarous instincts, the flash of anger passed to be replaced by reflection. The woman, forced into begging by the hierarchy of a people shut off from the mainstream of society for centuries. What is the alternative for them? What can be done? What's the correct policy response? I pondered on my low innate feelings; how easy it is to harbour them and let them run riot; how easy it is to allow them to be manipulated by evil politicians. I had a similar flash-of-anger-at-outsiders moment at Luton Airport last November, when a Bulgarian chap who couldn't speak a word of English was blocking an ever-lengthening queue to the train ticket machine when he actually wanted a bus ticket. "Take Control!"


The reptilian brain is ever-present in us all, but higher awareness is also present, the angelic; it manifests itself in us at the earliest of age. As we get older, the latter should rise in influence and overpower the reptilian in us, managing how we think, what we do, what we say and how we behave. As young people, we behave in an uninhibited manner, showing more of our personality, with greater exuberance and abandon; as we get older we reflect more upon ourselves and what we're like, and we become more introverted, sharing fewer and fewer of our innermost thoughts, and when we do so, with a much smaller circle of close friends.

When I was a child, my thoughts and behaviours were a mix of mindless and mindful, the latter in the minority, though strong, and memorable. As a teenager, mindless mostly. The hormones coursing through the body have a tendency to switch off the mindful self. This is why we have a duty to understand our biology and rise above it. As an adult, the mindful mature me is in charge, but every now and then mindless reaction, reptilian instinct kicks in. I have learned to identify it an correct my behaviour back to the path of mindfulness.

Looking back at the posts I've published on this blog eight or nine years ago, I can see how my writing style has improved - but I can also see a continual honing of my thought processes. Age and experience have been put to good use; life is about continuous, continual, learning and self-improvement. "Every day is a lesson in living," as my mother used to say. But what's the goal? To be able to iterate and comprehend all that we are conscious of, to set it down, to discuss and learn and put to the test and put into practice. Understand your biology, and rise above it.

The barbarous and angelic is there in us all, in unequal proportions. Some of us are aware of this truth, and strive consciously to decrease the former and increase the latter as we live and learn and grow older. But many of us have no consciousness of this duality within our nature and do not attempt to stifle the baseness and anger. When the barbarous side to our nature becomes fodder for those political leaders who haven't got their own innate barbarism under control, whose levels of self-awareness are too low to understand the motivations for own behaviour, things start getting dangerous.

This time five years ago:
Welcome to spring

This time six years ago:
Giving way or standing firm?

This time seven years ago:
Summerhouses near Okęcie

This time eight years ago:
A truly British icon

Saturday, 18 March 2017

New temporary(?) level crossing almost complete

I blogged about this last weekend - the work has gone well, and this morning traffic was (gingerly) making its way across the railway tracks south of W-wa Jeziorki station. It is now possible* to get from ul. Gogolińska to ul. Buszycka without having to make a 8.7km detour via Dawidy or an 9.9km detour via Nowa Iwiczna. However, word has not got out yet, so motorists are none the wiser.

Making life difficult (at least for law-abiding drivers) is this sign (below), just beyond the Biedronka car park, which suggests that this is private land and that entry is forbidden. But the newly laid asphalt continues around the corner and takes you to the level crossing, just south of the 'up' platform at W-wa Jeziorki station.

Brand new road - will it have a name? And will this crossing continue to function once the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line is complete? Watching cars crossing from east to west, drivers are confused as they get to ul. Gogolińska, and don't know whether to turn left or right. Signs don't say!

Most interesting: the level-crossing keeper's hut (below )is looks like it's been uprooted from somewhere else and brought to Jeziorki in its scruffy state, graffiti and all.  The one barrier that has already been installed looks like it came from the old level crossing on Karczunkowska (it was there last week, it's now gone). This shabby old hut is a far cry from the solid old keeper's building that was torn down in the autumn. Which suggests that it's temporary (when the new one on ul Baletowa by W-wa Dawidy becomes operational, it will be able to control this crossing and the one at Nowa Iwiczna).

Below: looking north along the 'up' platform. A southbound Koleje Mazowieckie train awaits the signal to set ofp, while a cyclist wheels his bike across the pedestrian crossing. To the right, an approaching train on the coal line. In the distance, Warsaw Trade Tower and Warsaw Spire (far right)

Work is not yet complete. Below: a pair of modernised SM48s back-to-back, running empty towards Konstancin-Jeziorna, past the one level crossing barrier - not lowered, because it's not functioning yet. I guess the second barrier will be installed any day now.

Below: old habits. Walking along the new tracks will be more dangerous than hitherto, as trains will be speeding along at up to 160km/h. However, with the works going on, the paths on either side of the tracks can get way too muddy for walking.

* Follow-up: Sunday 19 March. Motorists! Back to the old detours, this was too good to be true. Some time on Saturday evening on Sunday morning, contractors blocked the level crossing - it will stay blocked until the second barrier is put in place and the whole thing made operational.

Follow-up: Monday 20 March. Both barriers in place and lowered. Looks like it will be a while before traffic runs this way again.

Follow-up: Saturday 26 March: A peek inside the crossing-keeper's temporary hut. A good field of view.

No workers to be seen anywhere on the line from W-wa Dawidy down as far as Nowa Iwiczna.

Meanwhile, after a week's closure, some drivers are still coming up to this crossing point in the hope that it will be open and that they can be spared the detour. Which from this point is a minimum of 9.3km.

This time two years ago:
Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time five years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Rzeszów - capital of Poland's south-east corner

My third trip to Rzeszów (the first was in 2006, second in 2014). I arrived on the night train from Warsaw in good time for a seminar in which I was presenting and moderating the panel discussion. Later, I had three hours to visit the town before taking an evening train home.

Rzeszów (pop 200,000) is the southernmost and smallest of the three cities on Poland's eastern flank, with Białystok (pop. 300,000) to the north, Lublin (pop. 350,000) in the middle. With a population around the size of Aberdeen or York, Rzeszów is an increasingly prosperous place, centre of Poland's burgeoning aerospace industry.

Left: this communist-era statue, the Monument to the Revolutionary Act (locally known as 'donkey's ears', stands at the major crossroads just to the north of the city centre. It suggests that the city is full of belching factories and 1970s blocks.

But Rzeszów has a lovely old town, not quite as nice or large as Lublin's, but worth a visit (there's a huge variety of bars and eateries around it).

Below: as you approach the old town, there's a handy mural with a reproduction mid-18th Century map to help you find your way. In the distance to the right, the towers and roof of the Bernardine basilica.

Below: the old town market place, lit by strong late-winter sun under a glowering sky. Under the market place is a 213 metre-long network of underground corridors and storerooms; these can be visited in guided groups.

Below: looking north-west into the marketplace, rebuilt in the 1840s after a fire destroyed the original 14th century market.

Below: nicely lit, nicely painted, well kept, no graffiti.

Left: looking into the square; note the street lamps attached to the walls. In the distance, the town hall.

Below: looking down ul. Baldachówka. At this time of year, the old town is quiet, the beer gardens are closed, and few tourists obstruct the views. On a sunny day, very picturesque.

The last time I was here, in high summer, the market was teeming with tourists, the beer gardens all full. However, the atmosphere, the klimat, with the glowering skies and strong sunshine plus the relative emptiness makes it a more satisfying visit.

Rzeszów does not have a particularly large old town, and the handful of streets that comprise it can be circumnavigated in half and hour or so, even if you're stopping to snap and catch the views. If you're in Rzeszów on business, make sure to pop by the old town before you move on.

Below: looking east along ul.Adama Mickiewicza. I like the name of the coffee shop on the left; powoli means 'slowly', but po woli also means 'after [my] will'.

Below: the town hall, to the right, which dates back to the 16th century, underwent numerous alterations and modernisations in the 19th century, giving it its current neo-Gothic look.

Rzeszów has a large shopping mall opposite the Monument to Revolutionary Action, the Galeria Rzeszów. This boasts no fewer than 79 clothes shops and 23 shoe shops; it is one of four malls in the city, which has one of the highest ratio of shops to population in Poland. As well as many stores, there's also a thriving market place with a great many stalls. Below: a health-food stall selling various beans and pulses.

Rzeszów is a lot more than just the old town; it is ringed by blocks of flats and industry, but the centre itself consists of buildings from different historical periods, each creating a different atmosphere.

Above and below: towards the railway line, low-rise buildings from the late 19th century.

Left: Rzeszów's main railway station. The building, destroyed in both world wars, has been rebuilt to retain its original architectural style. I arrived here on the night train from Warsaw, via Kraków. Note the taxi's registration number; comedian at the wheel?

Below: my train home, hauled by a diesel engine as far as Lublin, thence to Warsaw under electrical traction. Journey took over five hours, with a 30-minute stopover at Lublin while the engines were changed.

Rzeszów is also accessible by plane from Warsaw, but without Ryanair offering competition on the route, tickets start at 186.79zł for a weekday single. Second-class single by PKP (TLK) is 58zł.

This time three years ago:
A tipping point in European history

This time four years ago:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time five years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
A week into Lent

This time seven years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time eight years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time nine years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Spirit of place, spirit of age

Lent 2017, Day 12

Time makes its mark on places; the natural pace of erosion, trees topple in high winds, or get struck by lightning; floods, changing watercourses alter the landscape - but man has accelerated the pace of change in the environment. But how have man-made changes affected the spirit of place - the way our aesthetic sensibilities are touched by where we are?

Two photographs, taken at exactly the same spot (ul. Nawłocka, with ul. Trombity perpendicular to it), exactly ten orbits of the earth around the sun. As Jeziorki becomes more civilised, so its klimat changes, the way my consciousness savours it, changes.

Changes... Nawłocka was partially paved in August 2010, with speed bumps as an integral part of the it. The birch in the foreground was cut down, and the verge between field and road narrower, as the farmer tills more of the land. And the house has been built on plot prepared in the autumn of 2007 on the corner of Trombity and ul. Dumki. Aesthetically, that sense of 1950s America that I once used to feel strongly around here (see posts here and here) has evaporated. An ephemeral connection with another time, another place that's gone with progress.

Doubtless the next ten years (may they be peaceful) will bring more change, more development, more progress, and those fleeting moments of anomalous familiarity, congruent flashbacks to another consciousness, will get rarer.

Since childhood I have always been sensitive to spirit of place, preferring this route over that route for purely aesthetic reasons, this vista to that vista, this town to that town, and mourned the passing of buildings that I liked (the Great West Road's Golden Mile was never the same after Victor Matthews bulldozed the Firestone building one bank holiday weekend). Even the interiors of majestic buildings change their atmosphere; South Kensington's Science Museum today still has some galleries that remind me of my childhood, but many of the exhibits in wooden cabinets have been replaced by interactive displays in primary colours.

Here we are, conscious beings moving over the face of Planet Earth, absorbing our surroundings, we're a temporary part of where we live - a place that itself is becoming increasingly evanescent.
Time to wonder about those atoms vibrating about all over.

This time last year:
The crux of the matter

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

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

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

This time six years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

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

This time eight years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[Now re-named ul. Kujawiaka]

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

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Changing Jeziorki, late winter

Many new things to report from Jeziorki as I take a break from blogging about Lent.

For one, a new - temporary? - level crossing is being built (as per tip-off from Dr Marcin) that will join the road behind Biedronka with ul. Gogolińska. Six months after ul. Karczunkowska was closed off, awaiting the construction of a viaduct to take it over the railway line, there's still no sign of work, so an alternative is being provided for local traffic.

Below: to my untutored eye, these concrete tiles do not look like a permanent measure, nor does this crossing look wide nor strong enough to support buses or anything heavier... we'll see. Will the 715 return to its old route? Will it be able to turn sharply from Gogolińska onto the level crossing? Will there be a proper barrier here?

Below: from the end of the 'up' platform at W-wa Jeziorki, looking east towards Biedronka, on the left edge of frame. Again, the access road looks like it's for cars only. Not much room for a properly profiled turning.

Below: looking west from the back of the Biedronka delivery bay; on the right edge of frame, the southern end of the 'up' platform.

Two bonus trainspotting snaps: below: a Newag-refurbished SM48 hauls a full load of biomass containers towards Siekierki power station.

Below: a relative rarity on this stretch of track, a Class 66 loco in EWS (English Welsh and Scottish Railways) livery runs back light to Okęcie sidings. EWS is now owned by DB Schenker Rail UK; DB Schenker Rail Polska bought PCC Rail, the two subsidiaries of Deutsche Bahn swap locos.

Other changes... below: ul. Nawłocka, which runs between ul. Trombity and ul. Karczunkowska, is getting closer to civilisation. Only partially paved as far as the last houses, the rest of the street is a rutted, muddy mess. The far end, by ul. Achillesa was one huge puddle from one side to the other. A kerb was laid just before Christmas and the onset of the snow and ice; last week a large consignment of ballast was laid. I look forward to end-to-end paving before Easter.

Also new - viewing platforms built out into the middle pond on ul. Dumki. There has been extensive work here these past few weeks, but much more to do before summer kicks in. Below: looking towards ul. Kórnicka. It looks like two platforms will arise here.

Below: looking towards ul. Trombity, at the southern end of the middle pond, yet another platform being built out here. Worth remembering that the last two summers, the pond here was bone dry, with no water to be seen anywhere within the scope of this photo.

Below: the swans are back! For them, building a nest away from the humans is proving more and more difficult with each passing year as development and civilisation encroaches upon the reed beds.

Below: the goats are back! Nibbling away at the grass on the football pitch between ul. Kórnicka and the retention ponds, they are a sign of Jeziorki's semi-rural character.

Below: the last of the ice. Shaded by trees from the noonday sun, the most northeasterly pond is the last one with any remnants of ice. Still thick enough for a small log I threw at it to bounce off and skid along the surface. Nine weeks and two days after it froze over - a record during my 15 years here.

Below: visible from my bedroom, this development of four terraced houses is emerging along yet another spur off ul. Trombity. (The practice of house-numbering around here can be explained to British readers by imagining that Regent St be renamed Oxford St 253, A-V.)

As I write these words, I can hear the constant two-stroke whine of chainsaws across the field, as householders make the most of Lex Szyszko - the controversial law proposed by environment "protection" minister, Jan Szyszko. As I mentioned last month, trees can be felled without the bureaucratic fuss that was previously required by law, as a result, hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut down over the past two months.  The result - here in Jeziorki - the most major change to the landscape that I've witnessed in 15 years. Especially around the southern end of ul. Sarabandy - I can hardly recognise some vistas. All will be clear once Google releases the latest satellite imagery on Google Earth and we can compare Poland before and after the introduction of Lex Szyszko.

Below: tree stumps, ul. Trombity. All legally chopped down, of course.

This time three years ago:
A night of musical enchantment

This time four years ago:
A selfless faith

This time five years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time six years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time seven years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time nine years ago:
Spring much closer

Friday, 10 March 2017

Coincidence, consciousness and quantum physics

Lent 2017 - Day 9

Arriving at Warsaw's Okęcie airport yesterday on the lunchtime BA flight, I crossed from the plane to the terminal building over the passenger boarding bridge. As I stepped on to it, I was suddenly minded of the disaster at Ramsgate harbour in 1994 when six people died as a result of a walkway collapse. "An unusual thought," I thought. As a frequent flyer I'm not often beset by thoughts of disasters, but here I was ruminating on collapsing bridges. I was still thinking about it on the other side of passport control, walking down the stairs towards the railway station. "The fact I've consciously thought about collapsing bridges means one thing is certain - a bridge won't collapse today," I thought.

So imagine my shock when, on the train, I swiped my phone and saw the BBC Breaking News headline: "Italy motorway bridge collapse kills two".

The tragedy occurred on the A14 motorway between Ancona and Loreto, the two victims, a husband and wife in a Nissan Qashqai were in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time. Behind them stopped short several vehicles whose occupants suddenly realised how close they were to an untimely death. Driving slightly slower a bit earlier on would have saved their lives...

Time.. the time of the accident? This is crucial to me. I checked a number of Italian news websites (Google and Google Translate are invaluable) and found it happened just before 14:00. I had my thought at around 14:45.

Cause, effect, coincidence?

There are some coincidences that are utterly meaningless, such as the time when Eddie got three tickets all with the same number - seat 12 in carriage 12 - for the same train from Warsaw to Łódź on three consecutive trips. What did this coincidence, with the odds against it being many thousands to one - mean? Nothing, as it happened.

But in this case? Maybe I'd have dismissed it as coincidence, forgotten it eventually, had not - by further coincidence, I not come across this article on the BBC website this morning. It is a long, and by no means easy, read. Is there some science between thoughts making their way across space and time?

I shall try to abridge it. But first, what's it about?
The perennial puzzle of consciousness has led some researchers to invoke quantum physics to explain it. That notion has always been met with scepticism, which is not surprising: it does not sound wise to explain one mystery with another. But such ideas are not obviously absurd, and neither are they arbitrary. 
For one thing, the mind seemed, to the great discomfort of physicists, to force its way into early quantum theory. What's more, quantum computers are predicted to be capable of accomplishing things ordinary computers cannot, which reminds us of how our brains can achieve things that are still beyond artificial intelligence. "Quantum consciousness" is widely derided as mystical woo, but it just will not go away.
So here we all are, conscious beings (some of us anyway), balancing constantly on the edge of chaos, aware that disaster can strike out of the blue; can we will it away by applying consciousness at it?

Can our thoughts actually - even in small measures - affect the course of events? Or can events beyond our field of vision affect the course of our thoughts?
Perhaps the most renowned of [quantum mechanics'] mysteries is the fact that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we choose to measure some property of the particles involved. 
When this "observer effect" was first noticed by the early pioneers of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how – or if – we look at it, what can "reality" really mean?
Schrodinger's famous thought-experiment concerning the cat in the box with the decaying radioactive particle, leads up to the supposition that the cat is both alive and dead until the observer opens the box to check, The importance of the conscious observer into the outcome of a quantum experiment is then thus:
It is as if nature "knows" not just if we are looking, but if we are planning to look.
American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) took this further:
[He] even entertained the thought that the presence of living beings capable of "noticing" has transformed what was previously a multitude of possible quantum pasts into one concrete history. In this sense, Wheeler said, we become participants in the evolution of the Universe since its very beginning. In his words, we live in a "participatory universe."
Wow. The role of consciousness in the actual course of the unfolding of the Universe - mind-blowing stuff. The physical 'how' of what mechanisms are at work here are still a matter of conjecture (a number of them - which I cannot pretend to begin to understand - are expounded in this article).

So which is it? Orchestrated objective reduction? Quantum cognition that involve vibrations in  microtubules - protein strands found in the neurons in our brains? Quantum positions in the nuclei of phosphorous ions within our cells? Lithium isotopes? Different theories are at play here. But the conclusion is difficult even to the most sceptical of scientists to dismiss:
To this day, physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you. But one way or another, it is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow linked.
So - science suspects there is something going on. It's weak, hard to detect, hard to reproduce in the lab, still harder to find in the human brain. I certainly believe it's there, the deeper questions are what does this mean, and how can we use these effects? I doubt if I'll find out in this lifetime...

This time two years ago, Warsaw's M2 metro line opened:
It's been 19 years, 11 months and 1 day...

This time four years ago:
A selfless faith

This time five years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time six years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time seven years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time nine years ago:
Spring much closer

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Good thinking, recorded

Lent 2017 - Day 7

Reading back old posts on this blog, I find myself asking more often than not these days whether I haven't already passed peak creativity. Have already I thought all my best ideas? After all, most of the Greats of Popular Music had hit their peak before they were 30, and those that are still around are doing little more than revisiting their greatest hits written decades ago...

Well thought-through, original ideas based on inspired conjectures should be captured, moved forward, then pushed, extended, towards a deeper and wider understanding of our human condition, then shared and tested in dialogue with like-minded people, resulting in better quality ideas, robust, able to stand up to scrutiny, a synthesis, a new standard, a new foundation from which to strive further.

It does take self-discipline to write down those thoughts. For the past ten years I've carried a notebook in my pocket everywhere I go, but sadly too few of my more interesting thoughts have been recorded. The content of my notebooks, each containing about three months' worth of notes, is around 95% work-related and a mere 5% is inspired observations and insights. Some of these thoughts end up in my blog posts, some don't. They'll often not make the mark when subjected to subsequent scrutiny. "I thought that was interesting or inspired? It's banal..."

Many people have had the experience, after four pints of ale quaffed during the course of a long and fascinating conversation with interesting people, that they have captured the secrets of the universe, only to forget them after the fifth pint of ale. Jotting down ideas - then revisiting them when sober - is a good litmus test for whether you indeed stumble upon any philosophical revelations.

As it happens, today I have filled my most recent notebook - begun on 5 December 2016; it was a fresh notebook, bought a few months ago, is sitting in my desk at work. All are around one-quarter A4 in size, all fit in my trouser pocket. Most have elastic bands to hold them together and another elastic band to hold a ball-point pen in place. Below: gathered in one place, my notebooks, going back to 2007.

I should have started a long, long time ago; notebooks and ball-point pens were around all my life. Writing down those startling thoughts is a discipline, but I find myself raising my camera to my eye far more often than taking out my notebook and jotting down some thoughts. This is a good time of year to work on the habit of writing down thoughts as they happen, rather than hope I'll remember them. Looking back at old blog posts, I can see that I've had some good ideas that I did manage to enshrine for posterity - and a good thing too, as I forgotten I ever had them. Going back and re-reading helps cement them in my memory, much like revising for exams helps studying.

Capturing thoughts to my smartphone will no doubt come soon as voice-recognition software and mobile apps will appear allowing me to dictate in the phone and turn my speech into the digital word, to appear directly on screen. But for now, notebook and ballpoint pen must suffice.

Thoughts rush through our mind all day - and indeed all night too, in dream form. Capturing thoughts that can be useful tools in the continual improvement of our lives, towards the goal of fulfilling our potential here on earth should have been a commandment. It's something we should all do, a natural part of the process of human growth.

This time last year:
Spirit of place and our own spirituality

This time two years ago:
Poland's road death toll falls but remains too high

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

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

This time six years ago:
Silver birches and blue skies

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

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

Monday, 6 March 2017

Self-discipline, habits and growth

Lent 2017, Day 6

One can flop through life following the path of least resistance, doing only what's required. But the purpose of life is to fulfil one's potential, and that requires self-discipline. This, sadly, is not something I understood or appreciated until I was in my late 20s. And today, several months away from my 60th birthday, I realise I could have pushed myself a lot harder to make the most of the cards that I was dealt by nature and nurture.

But life is not about striving for perfection. One will never attain perfection by anyone's measure; aiming for it only brings about disappointment after disappointment. Rather, life is about continuous improvement, incremental change that can, over time, lead to significant improvements in outcomes. Across any field of human endeavour, and starting at any age. It's Never Too Late To Mend!

Introducing good habits and weeding out bad ones, incrementally. And not giving up.

Biggest bad habit: Procrastination. Putting things off - the things you have to do.

[There. At this stage, I know I've been putting off my morning exercise, so I just took a break and did 31 push-ups. A record for this year. I re-started on 1 January with just ten; twenty push-ups is what the US Army expected of its soldiers in WW2 whilst airborne units expected 30 of their paratroopers. Just cracked it!]

Procrastination gets us all, we give into it, some of us are better than others, but for nearly all human beings, the struggle against procrastination is a lifelong battle.*

Obsessive/compulsive behaviour is a tool for implementing good habits. It's been three years, two months and five days since I started logging my fitness and diet every day in a spreadsheet. Friends and family say that this is nerdish, but like my father, I like filling in spreadsheets and looking at the data making a good trend. More walking, more exercises, less alcohol, more fresh fruit and veg. Some self-disciplined people can achieve much without having to use this prop - but for me, it helps.

If there's one arch procrastination thing out there for me, it's Twitter. Times are so infuriatingly interesting! I wake up in the morning and reach for Twitter just to see what that Trump person has done overnight, the Russian war effort in Ukraine, or any Brexit latest. I need to be up-to-date with news, analysis and opinion and Twitter is good for this - but it's a real devourer of time. It's difficult to discipline oneself on Twitter, because you feel that the next significant Tweet will either appear at the bottom or at the top of your Twitter feed. Bad habit.

Good habits need working on, and IT helps. Since the New Year, I've been using Todoist to keep track of all the things I need to do in the working day. Very useful. And from America, home of self-improvement, I'm getting on every few days or so some useful articles about Human Growth and Good Habits, some of which are practical and worthy of consideration.

Observing Lent, at first as nothing more than a 46-day period of self-denial, but building up year by year as a time of self-reflection about body, mind and spirit. Making each Lent more significant as a learning and growth time than the year before. Self-denial is but the first stage. The Will Not To Do Something is easier to exercise than the Will To Do Something Hard. I could not have done 31 push-ups just now had I not done 29 push-ups yesterday. And 10 push-ups on 1 January.

Let's all agree that we'll never reach perfection. But we can make today better than yesterday - but that improvement should be remembered and celebrated, even if it's only numbers on a spreadsheet.

*Read this piece about procrastination - it's long, but one of the best, and most humanly written articles about our shared human weakness I've ever read.

This time three years ago:
Putin - tactical genius, strategic failure
[I had - the West had - evidently underestimated the man.]

This time four years ago:
Socialist Realist architecture in late winter sun

This time six years ago:
The Cripple and the Storyteller - part II

This time seven years ago:
The station with no name
[update: W-wa Dawidy station got its sign last autumn]

This time eight years ago:
Lenten thoughts on motoring

This time nine years ago:
Flowers, spring - already

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The atoms in us

Lent 2017 - Day 5

The universe is so amazing we can hardly get our human brains around it. Both at the macro level - all those billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and at the micro level - what goes on within the atom - it's all incredibly hard to grasp. Yes, there are scientists that know the physics and the maths, but intuitively, the idea that electrons are spinning round the protons for ever - literally, since shortly after Big Bang in the case of hydrogen atoms - is beyond the comprehension of most of us. Big Bang was that moment when the macro - the entire universe - and the micro - the atomic - were One.

An incredible thought, given the currently estimated span of the known universe is some 91 billion light years in diameter. This figure, agreed by a consensus of astrophysicists, is puzzling, because they also agree that the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago and that nothing travels faster than light - so one would think that it would be impossible for the universe to be more than 27.6 billion light years from edge to edge.

But let's return to the atom. There are 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 x 10 to the power of 27, or seven billion billion billion) in your body. Each of these atoms was once part of a star. Two-thirds of those atoms are hydrogen atoms, and they have been around for over 13 billion years. And whatever happens to you, to this planet, to this solar system, to this galaxy - these atoms are going to be around for billions more years to come. And for the tiniest fraction of that eternity they came together to form - you. You. The conscious being reading these words right now. A combination of atoms brought together by physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, electrons and nuclei dancing around one another in coordinated motion - by accident? Or on purpose?

The basics of the atom we learnt at school - a nucleus composed of a positively charged proton and a chargeless neutron, orbited by shells formed of negatively charged electrons. But science is delving ever-deeper into that nucleus and finding every stranger subatomic particles. And it's here that our understanding and imagination breaks down. It's easy enough to read and remember the names of these exotic particles - quarks, leptons, gluons, bosons, hadrons - it's harder to truly understand what they mean, what they do, and what properties they possess.

By 'understand' I mean 'have an intuitive grasp' in the same way that we all intuitively grasp that force is mass times velocity. But what about the quantum chromodynamics of the hadronization process?

Without getting supernatural at this point, I do wonder whether the atom contains something other than just mass and energy. Can it carry memory, for instance (as in quantum computing). Could they interact with our consciousness? Atoms in us right now, apart from their birth within stars, have also been present in other life forms on earth; they could have been in trilobites, coelacanths, giant horsehair ferns 50m high, Carboniferous dragonflies with 75cm wingspans, cave-dwelling hominids, finally our more recent human ancestors.

This continuity of life links us through our atoms with what's been before, and with that which is yet to come.

This time three years ago:
Our house gets connected to the town drains

This time four years ago:
No more revelations

This time six years ago:
Free will vs. destiny