Saturday, 30 September 2017

Miedzianka by Filip Springer

Been a while since I reviewed a book here! The book is Miedzianka Historia znikania, (In English: History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgotten Polish Town), a reportage by Filip Springer. Big thanks to daughter Moni for passing it to me.

If Norman Davis and Roger Moorhouse's history of Breslau/Wrocław was titled Microcosm because it encapsulated an entire region's history by focusing of that one city, Miedzianka could be titled Nanocosm. It tells the story not of Lower Silesia's capital but of a Lower Silesian village - one of thousands, caught in the ebb and flow of history, at the interface between Teuton and Slav - but a village with a very specific nature.

I've been caught up in the story of the Nazi Gold Train in nearby Wałbrzych; Miedzianka tells a similar tale, of dark secrets, tunnels and excavations. But here the element being searched for was not gold - but uranium.

It was in 1948, shortly after Polish communist authorities exerted their control over Lower Silesia in the wake of the Red Army's advance into Nazi Germany, that the Soviets began looking for uranium. All over this region, wrested from the Third Reich, Soviet geologists were hunting for sources of uranium ore that could be refined into atomic weapons. And in Miedzianka, the former German copper-mining village of Kupferberg, they found it.

Since the earliest days of this Silesian settlement in the 14th Century, copper (and some gold, silver and tin) was being extracted from the hills. The village of Kupferberg grew over the centuries, surviving fire, pestilence and war, rebuilding itself after successive disasters. By the end of the 19th Century, the mining had all but disappeared, and the village was a modestly prosperous, attractive resort with a castle, two churches, a brewery and several hostelries and restaurants (below).


While WW1 left Kupferberg unscathed, its aftermath - hyperinflation, social unrest, the coming of the Nazis, hastened its end. Drawing on first-hand accounts and German-language histories of Kupferberg, Springer paints a portrait of a community that, like the whole of Germany, was dragged to its fate by the seductive power of Fascist ideology. The coming of the Nazis had two faces; on one hand the economy was recovering strongly from the Great Depression through public works, on the other, the regimentation of society sowed fear and mistrust among the villagers of Kupferberg (map from 1937 below)


Then came the war; many of its sons were lost on the eastern front. People disappeared. The Hitler Youth terrorised the village's old establishment. As the front line drew ever nearer, waves of refugees passed through Kupferberg fleeing the Red Army rapists and murderers. The village was not spared the trauma. With the Red Army came the communist Poles, ready to administer these lands as part of a new Poland. Kupferberg became Miedziana Góra - and then just Miedzianka.

The German population was deported - not all at once, but in waves (interesting details here - for the first few years after the end of the war, German and Polish children studied side-by-side in Polish schools in the newly acquired territories). By 1948 there were hardly any Germans left. And the Poles in their new homes were obsessed with finding hidden German treasures.

Stalin's breakneck quest for an atomic bomb was helped by information acquired from Nazi scientists, who were also working on such a weapon. They knew where to look for uranium. The Red Army was hot on the trail. When Soviet geologists confirmed the presence of radioactive ores within a mountain that had already been riddled with tunnels since the Middle Ages, the village was rapidly turned into a production centre for the Soviet A-bomb project. It was sealed off from the outside world, guarded by Red Army soldiers and NKVD and UB goons. At the same time, workers were lured to the mines by promised of high pay (the equivalent of around 8,000 zł a month in today's money). They came from all over Poland. Some from the east, lands that had now become incorporated into the USSR. Some were fleeing their partisan past, others were in search of a new life, new adventure, excitement - none knowing what they were letting themselves in for.

Very quickly mine shafts were dug, tunnels extended in the direction shown by clicking Geiger counters, and the radioactive ore brought to the surface and taken by trucks towards secret facilities deep in Russia. There was a heavy cordon of secrecy around the whole project. The cover story was that this was a paper factory. People who spoke too much disappeared; questions were not to be asked. Miners leaving the premises were searched by Geiger counters to ensure they weren't smuggling uranium ore out of the mines to pass onto Western intelligence, which was eager to glean any information about the Soviet A-bomb programme. Polish miners who'd returned to the fatherland from the coal mines of northern France and Belgium were particularly watched. They spoke French among themselves and many, who had had enough of the realities of communism, wanted to return to France, and were in touch with the French embassy.

The UB and NKVD were observing the miners closely for any sign of disloyalty to the communist regime. The book describes how one raucous, vodka-fuelled names-day party turned ugly as the UB waded in, suspecting the miners of shouting political slogans. One miner was beaten to death at the local militia station. Meanwhile, miners were complaining of ill heath due to their exposure to radioactivity. They disappeared. Did they get sent to sanatoria and then to work in far-off parts of Poland? Or were they disposed of by the NKVD? Springer suggests we'll never know.

By 1952, after extracting over 600 tonnes of uranium ore, it was decided to close down the mine. Meanwhile, the hurried way in which this had been done was resulting in holes appearing in fields and roads, buildings collapsing or cracking. Officially, there had been no uranium mining going on. The mine closed, the village of Miedzianka began slowly to die. Over the next two decades, more and more houses yielded to subsidence, inhabitants were moved to nearby villages or to the city of Jelenia Góra. By the early 1970s, a decision was taken to level Miedzianka with the ground and make it disappear. The walls of a few houses and one of the churches remain today (Google Earth satellite map of the place from 2015, below).


[Click to enlarge; opening the images lets you to compare then and now, by toggling between the two.]

Springer approaches the subject in a style similar to that used by legendary Polish journalists Ryszard Kapuściński [see here] and Jacek Hugo-Bader [here and here]. It is a free-flowing text drawing in quotes from different voices, without the quotation marks and attributions that give accuracy but slow down the pace. He lets witnesses (many in their 80s when he interviewed them) give their often-contradictory accounts; some are sensationalist and conspiratorial, others matter-of-fact, others still claiming that nothing much untoward was happening.

It is a great story. The geopolitical shifts at the interfaces of great powers, and the human victims. I was particularly gripped by Springer's depiction of the Nazis' rise, in a small sleepy village known then for its tourism and excellent beer, far from Hitler's power base. It shows how that madness crept up and infected a whole nation - and the price that nation had to pay.

The book is available in English (History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgetten Polish Town, translated by Sean Bye). There is good precedent - much of Kapuściński's work has been translated, and both of Jacek Hugo-Bader's books I review (see links above) are now available in English - Biała gorączka as White Fever and Dzienniki Kołymskie as Kolyma Diaries. I saw both on sale at Gdańsk Airport last week.

In the meanwhile, a trip to Miedzianka and the surrounding area is definitely in the diary for next year! But first, a download of prewar German maps of the Kupferberg is in order.

This time two years ago:
Out of the third, into the fourth

This time three years ago:
Inverted reflections

This time four years ago:
Observations from London's WC1
and Observations from the City of London

This time five years ago:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time seven years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time nine years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time ten years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Two weeks, seven cities

My itinerary since Wednesday 13 September:

Warsaw-Katowice-Warsaw-Wroclaw-Warsaw-Opole-Warsaw-Łódź-Gdańsk-London-Gdańsk. Eight if you count Sopot. Photos to follow on my return to Warsaw!

This is the busy season - those 14 weeks between the middle of September and the run-up to Christmas when 40% of all the work in the Northern Hemisphere gets done. Event after event, new faces, business cards, topics, all fascinating. And between them, travel. Travel that deepens my knowledge of Poland and Britain Still to come - Rzeszów and Edinburgh, no doubt a few more destinations before things wind down in mid-December.

I'm back in my hotel room in Gdańsk, which I left early yesterday morning to catch a plane to London. Ryan Air sent me an email suggesting that because of strict border controls, I should turn up at the airport three hours before departure. I turn up two hours before departure. I'm looking around - where are the crowds? No one else is around. I go to passport control and present my ID to the uniformed lady at the desk. "Why did they tell me to turn up three hours early?" I ask. " Today there's only one flight. Yesterday at this time, there were four flights."

Did Ryan Air not know this? Intelligence, artificial or human, should be able to improve the passenger experience by working out the likelihood of long queues at passport control.

Other than this, I must say, flying with Ryan Air was not the horror story I was expecting. Both flights - from Gdańsk to Stansted, and from Stansted to Gdańsk this morning - departed and landed on time. And the stewardess this morning recognised me from yesterday and bid me a special hello.

Stansted Express worked well in both directions - the fact the train station is directly beneath the airport rather than being a ten-minute, £2.10 bus ride away as is the case at Luton is a huge plus in Stansted's favour. As is the fact that you're not flying from a dysfunctional building site. However, the Stansted Express takes a bit longer to get to London (50 minutes one way rather than half-hour to Luton) although both are now the same price (£28 return).

Łódź to Gdańsk was by night train, although this was a couchette rather than proper sleeper, so although I could lie down, I slept clothed. It was a good night's sleep although I felt smelly and rough the next day. Word of warning to pedestrian users of Google Maps and Łódź Widzew station - there is no entrance to the station from the north side. Google Maps showed me a more-or-less straight-line walk from Moni's flat via ul. Narutowicza, Konstytucyjna, Małachowskiego, Czechosłowacka and Wagonowa. However, when I got to the level crossing on Wagonowa - it was closed. Cut off by a new railway depot with high fencing. No way across. I had to walk along a muddy path parallel to the tracks, past the new depot, past the station, until the fencing ceased. Finally, I had to cross the tracks and walk back to the station along the line and scramble up to the platform. All this at half-past one in the morning. 16,000 paces though!

Gdańsk continues to work its charms on me, remaining my favourite Polish city. One could never get bored of living here; the Tri-City has so many attractions from its sandy beaches, its history Old Town, the historic shipyards, the national park in the hills above the city, so much fine architecture. Photos later!

This rushing around hits my sleep and diet. Difficult to find time to eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, though at receptions and hotel breakfasts I cram in as much as I can.

Poland's rapid infrastructure improvements mean that cities that were once five or seven hours apart are now reachable in three; it's easy and quick to buy tickets online, to check train timetables and real-time delays online. This all makes places more accessible and easier, less stressful, to visit.

And in the meantime, I'm reading Miedzianka by Filip Springer - a great piece of reportage full of the atmosphere of Lower Silesia in the post-war years. A full review later too. So much to do, and the day continues to have but 24 hours!

This time last year:
A guide to naming streets in Poland and the UK
(one of my very best posts)

This time six years ago:
A glorious month

This time sevenyears ago:
My grandfather

This time eight years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time nine years ago:
Well-shot pheasants


Sunday, 24 September 2017

Of pipes and pylons

The work on the railway line is continuing. It's gone on so long, and there's no end in sight. The prospect of a viaduct carrying ul. Karczunkowska is as distant today as it was last August; at least the problem has been identified - the fact that there's a collision between where the electricity has to go and where the water and sewerage has to go. At last there's some action going on; there are construction crews on site and the pipes and pylons are being sorted out.

Below: a JCB digger on Karczunkowska, ahead of some pipe-laying. It annoys me that Lord Bamford, second-generation owner of JCB, was such a staunch proponent of Brexit. Maybe it didn't occur to him that EU money, through structural funds being spent across new member states on infrastructure, has bought literally thousands of his machines in recent years.


Below: between W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna, the problem is obvious; trackside drainage is inadequate, and as a result when the rains came, putting up new pylons became problematic.


Below: between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki, two new culverts have been completed, but the drainage ditch parallel to the track has only been completed for one short stretch on the eastern side. The rest is overgrown and liable to flooding. And trackside cabling still needs to be installed. Note the new signal turned 90 degrees to the track - it awaits connection.


Below: cabling work is under way  further south opposite W-wa Jeziorki's down platform. Still a long way to go before this stretches all the way to W-wa Dawidy.


Below: heavy plant and heavy rain have turned the path alongside the eastern edge of the track into a morass. No sign of cabling work going on here, just a hundred metres or so south of the location of the previous photo


Below: a new pylon astride the closed bit of ul. Karczunkowska awaits erection, but first the sewers and water pipes need to be laid... or is it the other way round? Saturday and no one's doing anything.


Below: A day earlier, Friday morning, and crews are at work. It looks like a new temporary footpath is being laid to link W-wa Jeziorki's platforms to the bus stop. This suggests that the old temporary footpath will be closed as work on the pipes begins.


On Thursday morning an excavator was busy removing yet more of the Ballast Mountain, below. At present, about 40% of it is left.


Below: view from the top, while I still can. My favourite spot in Jeziorki, which I can climb to think existential thoughts and take photos from.


This time two years ago:
What's the biggest threat - Putin or ISIS?

This time three years ago:
Scenarios for change in Russia

This time four years ago:
A new bus for Jeziorki - the 809 to Bobrowiec

This time six years ago:
Bunker in Powiśle

This time seven years ago:
Sunshine brings out the best in everything

This time nine years ago:
There must be a better way (3)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Autumn comes early

A wet, dull, cool September. Summer ended quickly this year. Jeziorki is in mud, the air is damp and the nights are longer than the days. Six months to go until the Spring Equinox. The Warsaw that my father visited in early August this year and last year - bathed in summer sunshine, energetic and proud - is changing into a greyer version of itself, drawing in upon itself ahead of the onset of winter.

Below: Rondo Dmowskiego, where the Rotunda is being rebuilt. Today a hole in the ground; before too long a new, modern take on classic post-war Warsaw architecture. In the meanwhile, the Crossroad of Warsaw looks like a provincial bazaar after closing time. In the background, the Palace of Culture, its summit hidden in low cloud.


Left: at the Palace itself, a strange installation has appeared at its feet. A mirrored cube with a white flag flying. What's all this about? And those coloured lines that appeared on Pl. Defilad? Are they linked? Something to do with this year's Warszawa w Budowie event? Warsaw will find out next week (however, I'm off to Łódź-Gdańsk-London-Sopot, so might miss it).

Talking of Warsaw under construction, the cranes are still hovering over D.H. Smyk (below). This wonderful piece of post-war modernism is being returned to its former glory as a department store.


Below: looking north up Al. Jana Pawła II, with the Q22 skyscraper in the centre. Opened a year ago, it represents the new wave of tall buildings that are reshaping Warsaw's Central Business District.


And the following day I found myself in Q22, looking down on Al. Jana Pawła II. Photo taken from the 21st floor.


Below. Q22 is in the background in this shot taken on the corner of ul. Świętokrzyska and ul. Emilii Plater. Evening rush hour, still in daylight. By the end of next month it will be darkness - darkness in the morning, darkness in the evening.


Make the most of going to work and going back home again in daylight. Below: waiting for the 07:38 from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście, as a classic EN 57 (three front windows, ribbing along the sides) heads south for Radom.


At this time of year, and in particular in the weeks after the time change in late October, we have to focus on our physical and mental well being. It is not a happy season. When the sun comes out, make the most of it. Spend every sunny hour outside if you can...

This time last year:
Kriegslok passes through Jeziorki
[There was steam in Jeziorki last week - missed it sadly]

This time five years ago:
A little way west of Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
The Old Sailor's Tale - part II 

This time seven years ago:
Prague-Jeziorki-Moscow

This time eight years ago:
The passing of Lt. Cmdr. Tadeusz Lesisz 

This time ten years ago:
Summer ends, autumn begins

Friday, 22 September 2017

Information technology breakdown

Apologies for not posting for a few days, but I had a major IT disaster from which I'm still recovering, and one that shows how increasingly dependent we all are on tech.

For the past three weeks or so, I've been getting a countdown to the day that the licence on my ESET Nod anti-virus software expires on my six year-old Samsung laptop. I put it off and put it off, a week to go, five days to go, two days to go... On Sunday morning I had the time to finally get round to it, on the last day before expiry.

I downloaded the software. It duly installed itself, so I thought a thorough scan of the hard disk would be in order. I set it running, and could see that this process would take a long time, so I went shopping, leaving it with the instruction that after the scan, the computer should do a restart. Two hours later, the scan had finished (zero viruses found), but the computer had not shut itself down. It then refused to do so, or to sleep - the only way to shut it down was to press and hold down the on/off button. Never a good idea, but it was all that I could do.

On restarting it, I found that neither my Chrome nor Internet Explorer browsers worked. Up popped alerts from Samsung and Adobe that their software was broken. Not being able to go online to search for a solution, I gave up. The next day I went to work and asked our admin manager Kuba what was up. Turns out I had downloaded the home version of ESET Nod, while the right version (and paid for by the company) was the corporate version. The two obviously didn't get on well together.

To remove the anti-virus software required the de-installation and then re-installation of Windows 7 Home Edition. Not an easy nor quick process. For this the laptop had to go away to our outsourced IT service company. First though, the IT guy there tried to do what he can remotely, via a piece of software called TeamViewer. He removed a lot of gunge from out of my laptop, including a particularly pernicious piece of software from Ask.com, which slows things down. This process didn't work, so my laptop was taken away on Monday afternoon. It should have taken two days, but I was out of town on Wednesday (in Opole on a factory visit), so it was finally delivered back to me yesterday.

The computer runs much faster now - BUT - I have lost all of my bookmarks and links (including the one to my time-management software) and the clean re-install of my email program, Mozilla Thunderbird, removed my address book. This took the best part of yesterday and much of today, and still I'm finding things that aren't working as they should. Next week I'm out of the office all week (Łódź-Gdańsk-London-Sopot), so it may well be that stuff I don't currently know isn't working is indeed not working and no one can help.

Coming back to a laptop with things all different is like the feeling you get coming out of a dentist after having dental work done - your tongue runs over unfamiliar textures. It's all cleaner, healthier, but feels strange. I'm having to reset things all over again, router code, new passwords, rebuilding desktop folders and shortcuts. A huge chore, holding me back from doing more productive tasks. Essential work nevertheless.

At times like this, I realise that the technology that started coming into my working life in the late 1980s (word processor) and into my personal life in the early 1990s (first Mac laptop), has now become something I'm dependent on. It's not the FOMO thing ('fear of missing out') - I could keep up with my social media using my smartphone - it's more the extent to which my work in communicating with people across Poland and the UK is now totally electronic. I found myself using the phone more; although my smartphone gives me access to much of what's on the laptop, it's no substitute. A decent, full-size keyboard on which I can touch-type with all my fingers, with widely spaced keys, is a must.

This time last year:
Konin - town of aluminium, electricity and coal

This time four years ago:
Car-free day falls on a Sunday

This time five years ago:
Vistula at record low level

This time eight years ago:
Car-free day? Warsaw's roads busier than ever

This time nine years ago:
The shape of equinox

This time ten years ago:
Potato harvest time in Jeziorki

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Stepping up the pace

As regular readers will know, I'm obsessive about logging my exercise and other health metrics (much more about this in coming weeks). But today I want to focus on walking. Since 1 January 2014, I have been keeping a daily record of how many paces I walked each day. It's going well in that I've been consistently cranking out over the 10,000 paces recommended by the World Health Organisation, the UK's National Health Service and the Surgeon-General of the USA. Just checked the spreadsheet - from 1 January 2014 to 18 September 2017, my daily average has been 10,440 paces.

That's the quantity - but what about the quality of those paces? A pedometer (or indeed pedometer app in the smartphone that's replaced my pedometer) shows you accurately how many paces you have walked, but they can be lazy, large, intensive, fragmented...

I've registered a while back with Public Health England's One You programme, which nudges you towards better health. A regular online questionnaire checks how you are, quizzing you on a number of basic metrics. While I get my walking in, I don't seem to be doing enough intensive exercise. One You offered me an app called Active10, which checks how briskly I'm walking, and prompts me to walk faster more often for longer spells.

The word 'brisk' is not well-known among many Polish speakers of English - it means żwawy, dziarski, pełen animuszu, according to my Stanislawski. The app uses a mix of the gyroscope in your smartphone and GPS satellite technology to determine how quickly you're covering ground. It measures minutes rather than paces; the display show me, for example, that I've walked for 17 minutes, 14 of which have been 'brisk'.

My goal is to achieve up to three 'Active 10s', which are uninterrupted ten-minute bursts of brisk walking. This is harder that it at first seems. Not only does this mean no dawdling ['to dawdle' = mitrężyc], not dropping the pace for even a short while, it means I can't stop to take a photo, admire a view, say hello to a neighbour etc. If I do eight minutes and slow down or stop, and then return to brisk walking, it doesn't count as an Active 10. So I have to start again. Now, walking 10,000 paces usually takes around 90 minutes, so fitting in three Active 10s is achievable, but you have to think about it.

If I have an issue with OneYou, the entire programme, is that it's targeted to a wide demographic of all ages and education levels, so it's not very complex. The questions are meant to be easy-to-answer. But one that gets me whenever I fill in the questionnaire concerns alcohol. I'm asked how many beers, wines and measures of spirits I drink on a Monday, on a Tuesday, and so on. As if people think "It's Thursday! I'm going out to have 568 millilitres of premium larger, a single shot of gin, and a medium-sized glass of fortified wine - as I do EVERY Thursday." This of course is nonsense. I keep a log of my alcohol consumption (and have done so every day since 1 January 2014), unit by unit. I note the strength of all the drinks I consume, multiplying it by volume to work out the units. So half a litre of 6% beer is three units. A setka (100ml) of 40% vodka is four units. This year, my average weekly intake is 17.1 units, above the NHS's new guidelines of 14 units, but well below the old guidelines of 21 units (for men). Not to mention the older guidelines of 28 units a week. I consider 17.1 units, with most weeks including at least two consecutive days without any alcohol, to be eminently reasonable. But the NHS keeps nudging me to lower this - which I shall indeed aim for.

The exercise questions are better, because they nudge you towards regular, twice-daily exercise that gets the heart beating faster. I'm good on this in the mornings, with weights exercises and press-ups, but OneYou makes me aware that this is not enough. I need to do exercises in the evenings too.

I like the overall approach of OneYou, of which Active10 is a part. The 'gamification' of health, being nudged towards a healthier lifestyle, works. I found myself drawn into the targets and rewards that are at the heart of Active10. I'd be interested how it looks for the NHS in terms of the cost of implementing it, and the benefits it brings across society in terms of a healthier population. How many people are registered with the programme, and how many actively use it to improve their long-term health?

Back to brisk walking. I have a 15-minute walk from home to station, then another one from station to office. If I walk briskly, I can cut that down to 12 minutes at either end, I can theoretically do four Active 10s in the course of a normal working day. Three is all that's needed.

  Left: screenshot from the Active10 app. This is a sample walk. Unlike the Huawei Health app, this one needs to be activated, it doesn't come on by default - a mistake. Two days in a row I walked over 16,000 paces but neglected to switch on Active10, consequently that activity was never logged. Note the blue bar punctuated by orange bars. That's then I was forced to slow down for crossing the street etc; to hit an Active10 you need to be somewhere without obstacles that force you to break your brisk pace.

If you still drive to work, leave the car, figure out a route to the office that gives you the chance to get your paces in, and to do them briskly.

This time last year:
Evolution of human consciousness

This time two years ago:
Farewell to Ciocia Jadzia

This time three years ago:
By train from to Konstancin and Siekierki

This time four years ago:
Summer's end, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Ząbowska, Praga's newly-hip thoroughfare

This time nine years ago:
Catching the klimat

This time ten years ago:
Road to Łuków - a road trip into the sublime

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Full-frame, mirrorless and interchangeable lens.

As all photographers know, the world is divided into Nikon and Canon users, so if you're a Canon user - well, let's just leave it there. I've used Canon, Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad at work, but when shelling out my own money on kit, it's been Nikon all the way for me (don't even bother to argue), since I bought my first SLR, a Nikon EM, back in 1979, and for nearly 30 years I've owned an FM2.

Since going digital in 2007, my principal cameras have been Nikon digital single-lens reflexes (DSLRs), although I also have a Nikon Coolpix P900 bridge camera (mainly for its amazing zoom lens) and a Nikon Coolpix A, my travelling-light camera.

Now, the Coolpix A (discontinued in 2015) is a great little camera - solid and sturdy yet light, with an excellent wide-angle lens and amazingly good battery life. But it lacks two things. The fixed lens limits it to landscapes and interiors (too wide for people or wildlife). And the full-frame sensor that would make it equivalent to a 35mm film camera in terms of resolution and coverage.

Nikon has just released its latest full-frame DSLR, the D850. This amazing beast has a 45 megapixel sensor (compared to the 24MP sensor on my D3300 DSLR or the 16MP on my Coolpix A), incredibly fast and accurate autofocus and incredible low-light abilities. BUT with kit zoom lens, it weighs 1,700g (compared to 300g for the Coolpix A and 600g for the D3300 with kit zoom). One point seven kilos is way too much to be lugging around one's neck all day. So pass.

The idea of the mirrorless camera is to remove single-lens reflex's mirror box, reducing the distance between focal plane and the flange where the body meets the lens. The digital mirrorless camera is in effect the old rangefinder camera (of which the Leica M-series was the champion). But Nikon made rangefinders too, ditching them in favour of the SLR shortly after launching the Nikon F.

The Nikon Rumors website is abuzz with stories that having got the D850 launch out of the way, the next big product release will be a mirrorless camera. With a full-frame (FX) sensor rather than the two-thirds size DX-format sensor that my Coolpix A and D3300 both have. Launching an FX- and a DX- model would mean Nikon would have to produce two whole new lines of lens. If it's a toss-up between the two, I'd go for full-frame FX.

To ensure compatibility with Nikon's F-mount 35mm/full-frame lenses, any new mirrorless camera would need to work with an adaptor. But the real beauty of full-frame mirrorless is the ability to launch a whole new range of lenses that are smaller and lighter than those needed for the SLR design. Looking at the leading full-frame mirrorless digital cameras on the market, the Leica M10 and the Sony A9 can give the image quality associated with a DSLR like the D850 in a package two-thirds the weight (just over a kilo for body plus lens).

A DX-format mirrorless digital camera could weigh in at under half a kilo with lens. But it's that full-frame that I hanker after; the depth and richness of detail and colour.

This is what I'd love Nikon to come up with; harking back to the S-series rangefinders of the 1950s, but with a 45MP full-frame sensor with in-body vibration reduction, 25,600 ISO low-light ability (up two stops on the Coolpix A) and a handful of fast standard and wide-angle lenses to begin with. Retro-design but stripped of all unnecessary details.


Below: the lens mount would be based on the Contax bayonet, making it compatible with old Nikon rangefinder lenses. An adaptor for Nikon F-mount lenses would be available too.

Below: Or in black? With current Nikon logo for a more modern look?

Here's a to-scale comparison of the different sensors, the full-frame (FX), the APS-C or DX format, the CX format (Nikon 1) and the 1:2.3 format found in my CoolPix P900. Image sensors on smartphones are more diminutive still (typically 5.8x4.3mm or even smaller).


Commercially, Nikon has to get this one right if it is to stay in the game. The Sony A9 has impressed the reviewers with its abilities - but at the end of the day it's neither a Nikon nor a Canon. The Leica M10 is just too expensive to be of interest to any but the wealthiest and most dedicated amateurs. Introduce a camera that fails to catch on (like the mirrorless Nikon 1, with its CX-format sensor and interchangeable lenses), and financial peril draws near. Get it right, and Nikon will make up lost ground on market leader, Canon, which also lacks a full-frame mirrorless camera in its line-up.

In the meanwhile, I really appreciate the capabilities of the Coolpix A. [I think Nikon did it a disservice by putting it into the Coolpix range - it's as good as any DX-format camera Nikon makes, plus it's made of metal, a really high-quality piece of kit. Here's mine, below. Note the corners where the paint's worn off, showing bare metal beneath. A bit more about the Coolpix A here.


And it performs well too! Below: a pic of my prewar Contax II rangefinder camera taken using available light with the Coolpix A. You can see the genesis of the Nikon rangefinders here.


Earlier posts about my dream Nikon rangefinder (from March 2013 here, and from April 2015 here).

This time four years ago:
The rich, the poor, the entrepreneur... and the banker

This time six years ago:
At the hipsters' ball

This time seven years ago:
Cycling through the spirit of place

This time eight years ago:
Invaders or liberators?

This time nine years ago:
Adlestrop, en route to Kraków

This time ten years ago:
Return to Zamienie

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The demographic challenge facing Poland's employers

Wrocław, Katowice, Rzeszów, Tarnobrzeg - wherever I go around Poland to meet with local employers, the number one subject for discussion is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees. Let me explain this with one graph (below)


The largest age cohort of Poles today is 34 years old; people born in 1983 (in the dark days of Martial Law). There is nearly 700,000 of them. Then there is a sharp and consistent downturn, with fewer births in each successive year for the next 20 years, with a demographic low of 14 year-olds, born in 2003. This low is followed by a small 'echo boom', weakly mirroring the demographic upturn experienced by Poland between 1967 and 1983. The 'echo boom' high-point is made up of eight year-olds born in 2009, after which a decline, which the 500+ universal child benefit scheme seems to have halted at least. Question now (and a nation will anxiously await the statistical office's population figures for 2017) is whether 500+ will actually do what it is intended to do, namely to cause a long-term increase in fertility rates.

Those 34 year-olds, born in the darkest days of Poland's recent history, grew up as children at the tail-end of communism, remembering (just) when confectionery was rationed. They left school in the mid-1990s, when the free market was asserting itself. They went to university to study management and marketing - skills sorely needed at that time. And when they graduated, unemployment was beginning to fall from the record 20.4% it reached just before Poland's EU accession. This age cohort moved Poland's economy along, driving growth right through the global crisis. Today's 34 year-olds are now economically stable; many are home-owners and mortgage-payers with small children - and a large stake in Poland's future prosperity.

But let's look at the other side of the coin. If employers are worried that things are bad now, with unemployment at a record low of 7.1% (GUS's claimant count)/4.8% (Eurostat's economically inactive count), recruitment and retention will get even harder over the next seven or so years. Between now and 2024, the number of school- and university graduates entering the labour market will continue to fall by around 17,500 a year. After that - a short respite of six years of rising labour supply before the next dip.

Now - is this really a problem, given that several reputable think-tanks are forecasting that some 30%-45% of all jobs on the labour market will disappear between now and 2030 because of robotics and artificial intelligence. New technologies such as machine learning, internet of things and distributed ledger (blockchain) will automate whole swathes of routine white-collar work involving accountancy, supply-chain and maintaining all manner of registers. Machine learning will automate many of the more mundane tasks carried out by lawyers.

So is it a bad thing that fewer young people are entering the labour market?

It is very much about matching skills of jobs.

With nearly half of school-leavers in Poland (and indeed in the UK) going on to some form of tertiary education, the question is whether 50% of the jobs remaining in the labour market will be graduate-level jobs.

Looking at today's school leavers who are going on to take a degree course, the question is whether they have an idea for what they want to do at the end of it - or not. Those who want to end up as engineers, doctors, or IT guys will go on to study relevant courses. But what of those who don't really know what career path is right for them at the age of 18 or 19? Is there any sense on taking a five-years master's course in some -ology or -istyka? Are they doomed to a service-sector job at a call centre at the end of it?

Today we stand at the cusp of a major technological revolution as profound as the advent of IT in the early 1980s, the introduction of the assembly line and electricity at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and indeed the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century.

Young people - and their parents who guide them - who do not feel which way technology and the economy is evolving - may end up in dead-end jobs.

The worst-case scenario is a labour market crying out for people with skills, while huge swathes of young people remain out of work because they have the wrong skills. It is up to the government, looking soberly at demographic projections and assessing the direction of technological advance, to come up with the right policy response that will create a education system capable of turning out the work force tomorrow's labour market will need.

In the meanwhile, Polish employers are filling gaps as they can - mainly with workers from Ukraine (of whom there are over 1.2 million working legally in Poland). This is a short-term measure - literally - as their work visas are for three to six months. Numbers of Poles returning from the UK are still low, though employers and recruitment agencies are reporting a rising trend in this direction. While salaries in Wrocław, Krakow, Poznań or Gdańsk might be three or four times lower than in London, house prices are seven to ten times lower and public transport is up to 13 times cheaper.

This time four years ago:
The rich, the poor, the entrepreneur

This time five years ago:
Food: where's the best place to shop in Poland? 

This time six years ago:
Bittersweet

This time seven years ago:
Commuting made easy

This time eight years ago:
Work starts on the S79/S2 'Elka'

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw's accident-filled streets

This time ten years ago:
ul. Poloneza's pot holes rip off my car's exhaust (This bit of Poloneza has since been renamed ul. Kujawiaka)

Monday, 11 September 2017

All hopped up and ready to go

As I've expressed here in the past, I just love the hoppy taste of India Pale Ales, the craft beer revolution has delighted me. In London, my father stocks up with Lidl's own-brand IPA, Hatherwood's No. 2 Green Gecko, a consistently decent ale with good bitterness. Here in Warsaw, the profusion of craft-beer pubs (last week the London Boys had a get-together at Drugie Dno on Nowogrodzka) means my predilection for hoppy ales can be satisfied on a night out. I stuck to a beer called Modern Drinking from the Pinta brewery, and very good it was too.

Over Lent I was wondering when someone would come up with an alcohol-free IPA. And sure enough, I found this in Auchan...

Na-chmiel-ona. Hoptimum, by brewer Nepomucen, from Jutrosin (which lies between Rawicz and Krotoszyn). It has 0% alcohol, zero sugar, carbohydrates or gluten. It is simply hops and water. It is, however, not cheap, costing over 6zł, for a refreshing, thirst-quenching and very grown-up beverage.

Now this gave me an idea. Surely it is not beyond my wits to construct something similar? As it happens, round the corner there's a działka with some hops growing over the chain-link fence adjoining the pavement. Will these be harvested in coming days? The hop cones are big and ripe. I help myself to a few that are overhanging the footpath, so that I can conduct an experiment...


Around 20 hop cones. Half a litre of water. Nothing else. Boil vigorously for 30 minutes in a pan with lid. After half an hour, remove from heat, strain and allow to cool. The half-litre has reduced down to around 300ml of hoppy extract, which is mightily strong. This can be diluted with around four parts fridge-cold sparkling mineral water to one part hop extract. The result is something that has that the bitterness of IPA without any of the alcohol. And a taste that lingers around the mouth and tongue, refreshing, clean and sharp.

Medicinal properties of hops? Read this. So there we are - how to get the hoppy taste without the alcohol. Now - where to buy larger quantities of hops!

This time two years ago:
September song

This time four year ago:
A traveller's tale (reading this shows how fast Poland has progressed in transport infrastructure)

This time five years ago:
One for the record - hot September day (30C)

This time six years ago:
MOSTTOMOST

This time seven years ago:
The half-closed airport

This time eight years ago:
Last of the summer bike rides to work?

This time nine years ago:
My own Polish Adlestrop

This time ten years ago:
Laurie Anderson's chillingly prescient 'O Superman'

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Preference and Familiarity

My mother never, ever wore trousers. And my father has never worn jeans. Perhaps a generation thing. He never wears a hat. But then neither does my son Eddie wear jeans nor hats. Now that's a pure preference thing. A 21 year-old who doesn't have any jeans (and has never had any jeans) in his wardrobe is rare. We all have our own set ways.

My aesthetic tastes are shaped by the past, in particular by past visions of the future from the recent past. The postwar years, the early 1950s, were years of optimism, space-age dreams of rockets and Saturn's rings. Modernism in architecture, the automotive flights of fancy as created by Detroit - that's where I'm at. To a soundtrack by Count Basie And His Orchestra.

The notion of spiritual continuity - not reincarnation, for that suggests that from life to life you continue being you - but more the continuity of familiarity and preference across lifetimes. How does this happen? Could this phenomenon be connected with the theory that matter consists of mass, charge and consciousness?

For me, there are times and places that resound with an immediate familiarity, that 'click' or 'PAFF!' moment, this has happened to me since early childhood. I have written about this over the years on this blog; my goal being to bring greater understanding and definition to a strange phenomenon that defines me.

One immediately familiar object that resonated with me was getting a toy American diesel locomotive from Święty Mikołaj (aged four or five), one of these, though moulded in orange plastic. I pulled it out of the box and - instant recognition. It was one of these (below)




These are images which still connect with me far more than train pictures from Britain, Europe or anywhere else on earth. Immediate familiarity.

Others pieces of machinery that have the same effect have included (in the air) the Douglas DC-3 Dakota, Piper Cub, North American T-6 Texan, Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, while on the road all manner of Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Chryslers, Fords.. and Hudsons, Studebakers and Nashes, Harley-Davidsons and Indians.

But more than anything, we are defined by our tastes in music. It's natural to have a lifelong affinity for music you enjoyed during your childhood, teens and young adult years. But what determines whether we grow up preferring, say, soul over heavy metal, jazz over folk, or Ralph Vaughan-Williams over Gustav Holst. Research is definitely needed into the genetic sources of musical preference. Do certain harmonic structures, musical intervals and tempos tend to create emotional responses in people with a certain genetic variation?

Watch Louis Jordan, another of my "past life" favourites, getting all existentialist. I fundamentally agree with the tenets of his argument here.


Is there something deeper at work here? A spiritual, supernatural, (for want of a better term), rather than biological reason behind our aesthetic preferences, be it in the visual arts, the built environment or music?

This time last year:
A long day in wonderful Wrocław

This time three years ago:
Putin will not heal Russia's tortured soul

This time four years ago:
Opole, little-known town

This time five years ago:
Raise a glass to Powiśle  (Mrs G-W gets a thumbs down)

This time seven years ago:
Mud, rain and local elections (Mrs G-W gets another thumbs down)

This time nine years ago:
There must be a better way (commuting woes, again)




Monday, 4 September 2017

Searching

I won't find The Answer in my lifetime. You won't find The Answer in your lifetime. No one alive today will find The Answer in their lifetime. [There are lots of people peddling Answers but they're all wrong.] We can, however, all get a small step closer to total knowledge, total wisdom. We can reject false answers, wrong perspectives, incorrect approaches. The search is from our perspective, never-ending. We can ponder, discuss - reach ever-higher levels of synthesis than has hitherto been reached before, but it is like building a staircase to the sky out of housebricks - if you build too high without a broad-enough base, the while edifice will come eventually crashing down.

Since childhood, I have been convinced that I am somehow operating on a higher level of consciousness than most people around me. My daughter says this way of thinking is judgemental, elitist and snobbish, that I'm putting people down. But my feelings are based not on judging others for their innate intelligence or their level of education. Rather it's the fact that some people do have more acute powers of observation - perceptiveness (spostrzegawczość) than others. And then some people more naturally curious about the world around them than others.

People who notice interesting details of stuff around them and ask themselves questions about life and everything or those who - consciously or subconsciously - are on a lifelong quest to broaden and deepen their understanding of their own existence.

As I grow older, I feel that life is coming into ever-sharper focus. New insights into issues, gained over decades, improve understanding. But simply growing older is not enough; if we do not question what we think we've established as wisdom, we end up entrenching ourselves with fixed ideas. The phrase "I've always said that..." is a warning sign that you're dealing with a person who does not appreciate that one's own views should evolve and mature over time, become more nuanced, accommodating newly-discovered complexities that arise as we honestly ponder the things around us. Beware too of persons (populist politicians, typically), who want to oversimplify, to reduce complex issues into solutions which seem appealing at first sight - but are wrong.

At school, none but the best teachers teach us to be curious. And indeed, can curiosity be taught? Should the curious mind break out from the pack, to seek ahead, alone? Thinking back over my 14 years of primary and secondary education, I cannot honestly recall a single teacher that did encourage us pupils to grow in curiosity. Some were better, others worse - but essentially they were handing down predigested knowledge to be memorised, rather than to be assembled into wisdom.

As to perceptiveness, the concept of spostrzegawczość was explained to me in Polish Scouts in 1970s London. We'd get points for noticing that which is around us. An important part of field-craft, bearing in mind the paramilitary nature of Polish scouting. Powers of observation can make all the difference in a battlefield between survival and being a sniper's victim. But in civilian life, finely-honed powers of observation have different guises. Some of us are attuned to noticing different things - and will attach great import to a stained collar, cracked plaster-work, a funny smell or a chipped cup. Others will notice, but will not get bothered by superficial imperfections. Others will simply not notice.

Those of us with above average levels of curiosity and perceptiveness will grow in consciousness, share and discuss and learn and teach and thus develop as human beings, for consciousness is all, it is the essence of being alive, it is that spark of Godliness, or Universal wholeness within us.

This time last year:
Interstices: between Kłobucka and the tracks

This time three years ago:
In which I ride my Brompton to work

This time six years ago:
Bike ride to Powsin as summer fades gloriously

This time seven years ago: 
Compositions in yellow, blue and white 

This time eight years ago: 
When the Z-9 used to run, temporarily, to Jeziorki 


Sunday, 3 September 2017

New estates and phantom bus stops

A long walk to see how things are going between the railway line and Zgorzała. The housing estate here is growing rapidly

Click to enlarge these Google Earth images using the Time Slider feature to see how these fields have changed between June 2008 and September 2016. New housing outlined in yellow; since last September, more is appearing.


I'm finding this a rather inchoate community; on the one hand it's officially Zgorzała, on the other, there's no asphalt road connecting it to Zgorzała... the only asphalt in and out links this estate to Nowa Iwiczna. Neither ul. Przepiorki (connecting these houses to Zgorzała proper) nor ul. Gogolińska (connecting these houses to Jeziorki) are in any way passable to cars after a few days of rain.


And still more houses are being built, presumably there's planning permission to fill these fields with houses. But what about shops, schools, restaurants, bars - everything that makes a town a town? There's one shop, a Lewiatan, not bad (stock reflecting a sophisticated and well-to-do clientele)






Everyone's expected to pass in and out by car along ul. Kielecka. Nowa Iwiczna station (Zone 2) is a one-kilometre walk away, with no pedestrian footpath short-cut.

Another phantom bus shelter! Here in Zgorzała estate, across the way from the Lewiatan shop. No signage, no clue as to what buses will run to/from here and when.


Phantom bus shelters are all the rage south of Warsaw's border: this one is by the new estate at Zamienie. Again, not an inkling as to when it becomes operational. Maybe it awaits the asphalting of Raszyńska/Złota, the road that links Podolszyn Nowy and Zgorzała by way of Zamienie.


And another phantom bus shelter - this one in Dawidy. Like the one above, it was completed in May, you won't find anything official about it on the internet, only hearsay (alleged lack of planning permission). What bus routes will be using this new infrastructure?


Apropos of Zamienie - I noticed today that it has a new fire station! Here's the old one...


...and here's the new one. A worthy investment, giving that hundreds of houses have sprung up around these parts in the last few years.


Having said that, it won't be long before this fire station ends up on the wrong side of the S7, but that will be a while (and the expressway junction at Zamienie is not far anyway).

And finally - I wrote last week about the new railway timetable (which comes into force today) and how this should mean the gated level crossing on ul. Baletowa by W-wa Dawidy will become operational. Not a bit of it. Today, as last week and for many months, the level crossing keeper's hut stands idle, no barriers.

This time seven years ago:
Battle of Britain: Poland's contribution

This time eight years ago:
Sewer under ul. Karczunkowska