Sunday, 27 May 2018

Great crested grebes and swans hatched

Last week it was the black-necked grebes, this week it's the turn of the great crested grebes to show off their newly-hatched young. Much to my surprise. Firstly - much early than last year (one pairs' eggs hatched around 10 June, the other pairs' hatched on 1 July). Secondly - a large brood - five chicks (last year it was four and three respectively).

Below: mother and chicks - not sitting on mum's back - but then carrying five is a big task. As soon as they're ready, they're off and in the water, parents close at hand to feed and protect them.

Below: both parents and three little ones, the rest following on out of shot.

Below: mother gathers them all in...

Below: father surfaces with a morsel for one of the five... these are testing times for evolutionary biology. Can the female find a mate fit enough to keep coming up with the food needed to keep the entire brood alive? Which of the chicks will fight hard enough to get more than its fair share of the food being provided.

Below: further on towards the north end of the ponds, I catch my first sight of this year's clutch of cygnets, a day or two old, following their mother out of the rushes, in which lies the nest where they were hatched.

Below: a better view of the flotilla. Seven today - seven last year. But of last year's seven, only four survived. Which ones won't survive this year? Let's hope they all do well.

Below: dad identifies himself as 2KC1, back again. This couple have been coming here each year since they were juveniles. He doesn't feed the young (unlike the flesh-eating grebes, where the young aren't yet smart enough to catch small fish or larvae, the cygnets eat vegetation, and have litte trouble feeding themselves as soon as they are hatched). Nor does he swim in close formation to the brood; he's happy sunning himself, watching his family from a distance.

This time last year:
The year of the grebe
[the black-necked grebe chicks hatched a week earlier this year]

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki birds in the late May sunshine

This time three years ago:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda's win

This time four years ago:
Call it what it is: Okęcie

This time five years ago:
Three stations in need of repair

This time six years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time seven years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time nine years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time ten years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Monday, 21 May 2018

Shopping crisis solved

Not content with shutting the shops in Poland on Pentecost Sunday back in 2007, the government has now gone a step further and shut shops on what seems an arbitrary number of Sundays each month (two? three?) with the result that the Saturdays before the closed Sundays have become Retail Hell.

Last Saturday week, I visited Auchan, enduring a solid traffic jam there and back, Puławska chockers like on a weekday evening, and an almost-full car park. But all the check-outs were working, so things went reasonably well - except that five items on my shopping list were sold out.

I drove on to Lidl. Here, the situation was worse. The car park was full to the point of overflowing.  Inside, I found three of the five missing items. I picked up a handful of other things, and found myself at the back of a queue nine people long. Yes, there were nine other weekend-shopping desperados ahead of me with their trolleys heaving with enough produce to last out a war. I endured, paid and left to go to Biedronka to finalise my shopping there.

Yes, the last two Has avocados were there; I had five items in my hand, and sought my place at one of the three open check-outs. I chose the middle one. Just as I arrived at the end of the queue (four trolleys and a couple of baskets), the check-out person decided to close the till, the people with the groaning trolley in front of me were to be her last customers. I put my handful of grocers down and left, swearing I'd never shop on a Saturday in Poland as long as this (or any future) government insists on shutting the supermarkets on Sunday.

So I opened an online account with AuchanDirect, and made my first-ever online grocery shop last Wednesday. At first, a bit of a disappointment. The first two things I was after (Muszynianka mineral water and Maluta Balkan yogurt) were both 'temporarily unavailable'. The cat food was hard to find. The mineral water that was available was not available in the bottle size I wanted. Choice was limited compared to what's in the shop. (Only one Roquefort, not five, for example). But I gamely carried on, and in the end got most of what it was I wanted. Around 130 złotys (which meant that delivery cost 19.90 złotys was relatively steep but cheap in terms of time saved). However, by increasing the value of my shop, the relative cost of delivery falls. (Or I can collect the whole lot outside Auchan for free. Worth investigating.)

I selected a delivery window of 16:00-18:00 on Thursday. The guy came an hour and half early (which was no problem on that particular day as I was off work with a thick cold), but it could have been a problem had I specially arranged to come home for 16:00 to find that the delivery had come and gone.

The produce was in three cardboard boxes (not reusable), the six-pack of large mineral water bottles separately, and some free gifts - sachets of spices and a packet of mints.

It will take a while to change habits, but shopping online is preferable to the unpleasantness of shopping on a Saturday.

Incidentally, it is worth knowing that the Lewiatans in Zamienie/Nowa Wola and Dawidy Bankowe are both open on a Sunday.

This time two years ago:
Mszczonów - another railway junction

This time five years ago:
The Devil is in Doubt - short story, part I

This time six years ago:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time seven years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Coal line rarity

Sunday, 20 May 2018

This year's brood of black-necked grebes hatched

It's been black-necked grebe weekend on Jeziorki's ponds; birdwatchers have descended to snap the latest arrivals. Below: a pair of black-necked grebes on the middle pond... The male (in front) looks more bedraggled - there's a good reason for this.

It is only when mum turns around that you can see three (click to enlarge, then count!) chicks riding on her back (below). The black-necked grebe chicks hatched exactly the same time last year, by the way.

Dad is diving for food - damselfly larva - to feed the chicks. This is why he looks somewhat dishevelled. Below: he's got one. But which chick will get it?

Below: off he goes again, pond weed on his back, in search of more larvae for his brood. An endless job. But food is plentiful.

A different story with the other black-necked grebes, near the wooden walkway towards the north end of the middle pond. Below: yesterday I snapped this grebe with chick; the mother was trying to off-load the chick, which was scrambling to get back on board. "A bit selfish of the mother," I thought.

But today I could see why. This grebe doesn't have a mate. Below: she is rearing the solitary chick on her own; so the chick - rather than riding its mother's back, is in the water alone, while her mother is constantly diving for larvae to feed it. But it seems to be thriving nevertheless.

Time after time, the mother dives and pops back up, never without food. The chick, in the meanwhile, is waiting for its mother, and every now and then, disappears under water, learning to dive and hunt.

The mother grebe is also coming up bedecked in weed; she's doing a great job.

On the southern pond, the great crested grebes are without young (last year they hatched in early July); and this year the great crested grebes have been more discrete about their nest location - not within a few metres of a footpath like last year!

Elsewhere on the pond, coot chicks have hatched; the swans, black-headed gulls and ducks haven't . And I saw a pair of common pochards on the the north pond.

This time last year:
To Warka in the sunshine

This time five years ago:
The descriptive vs. the prescriptive

This time six yeas ago: 

This time ten years ago:
Why Poland can no longer afford to keep the grosz

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 3 of 3)

[For Part 1 of the review, click here]

The final part of Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time pulls away from the physics and takes the human view of the phenomenon. "We inhabit time as fish live in water." The very source of time, suggests Rovelli, is our own perception. We see things emerge, unfold, become; the process runs forwards, never backwards. Evolution is a continuous and one-way process, as is entropy. "The entire difference between past and future may be attributed solely to the fact that the entropy of the universe was low in the past."

Rovelli asks us to imagine being on a high mountain, looking down into a valley covered by a sea of white clouds. The surface of the clouds gleams white, immaculate. We start walking down. The air becomes more humid, less clear, the sky no longer blue. Eventually, we find ourselves in a fog. What happened to that well-defined surface of the clouds? "It vanished. Its disappearance is gradual; there is no actual surface that separates the fog from the clear air above. Was it an illusion? No, it was a view from afar. It's like that with all surfaces. This marble table would look like a fog if I were shrunk to a small enough, atomic scale. Everything in the world becomes blurred when seen close up."

This is actually a huge insight, not only in terms of time and physics, but indeed economics and politics too - detail blurs perception. We tend to want our truths clear-cut; yet the more we drill down, the more complex it all becomes.

Back down at that atomic level, the glass of hot water left to cool on the kitchen table is abuzz with vibrating molecules shedding heat energy over time. It is the act of observing those blurry vibrations (always slower than before, never faster) that generates time. Rovelli speaks of 'thermal time' and 'quantum time', though this is not time as we experience it, rather it is the granular, discrete, packets of time, determined by the speed and position of a molecule. For it is down here, that the direction and evolution of time becomes a phenomenon of physics, and not a matter of human perception.

"It took us thousands of years, but in the end we managed to understand the revolving of the heavens: we understood that it is we who turn, not the universe..." furthermore "...perhaps the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe, but is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it." The entropy of the universe was low in the past, as the second law of thermodynamics demands, it is increasing. As it does so, "memories exist, traces are left - and there can be evolution, life and thought."

Yes. Rovelli moves into the human sphere; it is memory that allows our consciousness to perceive the passing of time. Marcel Proust's famous madeleine cake from À la recherche du temps perdu (those memory flashbacks prompted by long-forgotten smells and tastes) gets the status of chapter heading. "Proust could not have been more explicit writing... 'Reality is formed only by memory'. And memory is a collection of traces, an indirect product of the disordering of the world, of that small equation, ΔS ≥1." Here on earth, the human brain is the ultimate time keeper, storing across a network of many billions of brains, past, present and to come, the memories and the traces of lives measured down the millennia. "We are time. We are space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come."

The final chapter heading, The Sister of Sleep, looked familiar. Of course - it is also a chapter heading from Tischner/Żakowski, Death, our Sister. Tischner is quoting St Francis of Assisi; Rovelli is quoting Bach. Death marks the end of each individual human's time - then what? "We see just a tiny window of the vast electromagnetic spectrum. We do not see the atomic structure of matter, nor do we see the curvature of space." We are too limited in our understanding to comprehend. The nearest most of us can get is through music, he suggests. "Song, as St Augustine observed, is the awareness of time. It is time. In the Benedictus of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis the song of the violin is pure beauty, pure desperation, pure joy. We are suspended, holding our breath, feeling mysteriously that this must be the source of meaning. That this is the source of time. The song fades and ceases. The silver thread is broken... the earth returns to dust. We can close our eyes, rest. This all seems fair and beautiful to me. This is time."

On his Wikipedia page, it says that Rovelli sees the conflict between science and religion as unsolvable because most religions demand the acceptance of some unquestionable truths, while science is based on the continuous questioning of any truth. Yet it is clear from this book - as it is from Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe - that the author's position on their being some greater, mystical power at work is far removed from that of Richard Dawkins. We are far more than meat robots in an accidental universe!

This book is relatively accessible to the general reader (if you made it through Hawking's A Brief History of Time you'll find this easier and - dare I say - more artistic). Every science writer has their strengths; Rovelli's for me has been his understanding of the role of entropy in the universe. Here and there, he argues in favour of his loop quantum gravity theory; but then you'd have to understand string theory to get this. Shortcomings? I'd like to have read what Rovelli makes of dark matter and dark energy (and how a universe that's expanding at an accelerating rate sits with second law of thermodynamics). And also about quantum entanglement, superluminary transfer of quantum information (which in effect suggest that there is such as thing as 'instantaneous', by inference positing the theoretical possibility of universal time).

Above all, how the idea that atoms seem to defy entropy; electrons in position around their neutrons for ever. Are they only defying entropy - or are they defying time itself?

I like the small hardback format, the paper stock, the clear 12/14pt type and page layout; physically the book is a nice object to have in your hand.

Many thanks to my father for getting me the book; now I look forward to reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics; look out for my review on this blog in early June.

This time last year:
The year's most beautiful day

This time four years ago:
W-wa Wola became W-wa Zachodnia Platform 8 two years ago today 

This time five years ago:
From yellow to white - dandelions go to seed

This time six years ago:
The good topiarist

This time eight years ago:
Wettest. May. Ever.

This time ten years ago:

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 2 of 3)

[For Part 1 of the review, click here]

The past is fixed; the future is open. The present, suggests Rovelli, that fleeting intersection between what was and what will be, doesn't exist. "Nothing is. Things happen, they don't exist." Impermanence is ubiquitous. Just as things can be disassembled into their ever and ever smaller components, down to subatomic particles, so events can be taken apart. "A war is not a thing, it's a series of event. A storm is not a thing, it's a collection of occurrences... Things are, in themselves, events that for a while are monotonous"; for example, a large rock or mountain that is constantly shedding molecules under the influence of atmospheric phenomena. At our level, it seems permanent, a thing. Yet at the molecular level, its surface is undergoing continuous change.

A human being? "It's a complex process which food, information, light, words and so on enter and exit... A knot of knots in a network of social relations, a network of emotions exchanged..."

Understanding the world, the universe, on the basis of things rather than events means that you end up ignoring change. Change happens across time; here I feel that Hawking explains the temporal aspects of Big Bang better than Rovelli, who's better at the level of planet Earth than the expansion of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

The notion that the past, present and future are all equally really, and that the passing of time is merely an illusion is called eternalism; Einstein wrote "People who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion". Eternalists have devised the concept of the 'block universe', a single block; all equally real; only the passage of time from its beginning to its end is illusory.

Prof Rovelli is not, however, an eternalist; like Stuart A. Kauffman, he sees the future as being something that isn't predestined; it is unfolding, becoming (both men use these two words to describe the future). Kauffman has the advantage of being an evolutionary biologist. Not a single, set block of time encompassing the entire universe from its beginning to its end, rather something that in itself is creative.

Our languages are inadequate, says Rovelli, to discuss time. When we observe an event upon the face of the sun, we see something that occurred eight minutes and 20 seconds ago, yet we describe it in the present tense. There's no tense that captures the phenomenon of time stretching over distance. Earlier today, the BBC ran a story about the discovery of oxygen in a distant galaxy as it was just 500 million years after the Big Bang (in other words 13.3 billion years ago). The oxygen, the oldest ever found, itself was the result of an even earlier galaxy that existed some 250 million years after Big Bang. And yet it was only just spotted recently; mankind lived in its ignorance until now. Is that oxygen still out there today? We can have no idea. Watch this space for 13.3 billion years!

Moving from language to physics, Rovelli is keen to promote his own field of expertise, namely quantum gravity (where there are several competing theories). Rovelli champions loop quantum gravity (based around something at the Planck-length scale named 'spin-foam'). The other main theory is string theory. Both (and other less well-established ones) aim to unify Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (which places gravity into the context of spacetime) and the other three fundamental forces (electromagnetism and strong- and weak atomic forces). Suffice to say, I am entirely out of my depth when trying to really understand either loop- or string theory, even by way of metaphor. However, the idea that gravity can be quantised - broken down into discreet particles at the Planck level - I grasp. One way or another, the problem of time is central to an understanding of gravity, which is why Rovelli is so fascinated by it.

Equations without time, is what Rovelli is angling at here. "Time and space are no longer containers [of the universe]. They are only approximations of a quantum dynamic that knows neither time nor space. There are only events and relations [between events].

In Part III, Rovelli returns to the human scale, to our understanding of the passage of time, and gets metaphysical.

This time last year:
The fossil-fuel powered car is dead

This time three years ago:
With Blood and Scars by B.E. Andre - book review

This time four years ago:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we? 

This time five years ago:
Ethereal and transient

This time six years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time seven years ago: 
By tram to Boernerowo

This time nine years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop; rural USA or Poland

This time 11 years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Pt 1 of 3)

Having read Stuart A. Kauffman's magnificent Humanity in a Creative Universe, and the late Steven Hawking's best-selling A Brief History of Time, I am thankful to my father for buying me another excellent pop-science book, Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time. For those to whom the name is unfamiliar, Prof Rovelli is the author is the Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (a million copies sold, translated into 41 languages); my father is reading this right now (so I look forward to reviewing it next month).

Compared to Prof Hawking's book about the same subject, The Order of Time has two advantages. One is it was written 30 years later, and science has advanced somewhat. The second is that the author, being a historian and philosopher of science as well as a purely theoretical physicist, places the science into a broader context of human wisdom.

Divided into three parts, Prof Rovelli strips away our perceptions of time as something that flows uniformly from the past, through the present and into the future at a regular rate. Einstein proved, over a century ago, that time contracts and stretches, being affected by mass and velocity. Time passes more slowly the nearer one is to a massive object than further away; time passes more slowly the faster one is travelling. Today for a few thousand dollars, says Rovelli, you can buy a timepiece accurate enough to show the difference in time between sea level and mountain peaks, and between a stationary observer and one flying at supersonic speed. So there is no objective 'universal' time; spacetime is stretchable. The reason that we don't notice this is down to scale. We see the sun as it was over eight minutes ago, the moon as it was 1.3 seconds ago. It doesn't make any difference to our lives unlike international time zones, an artificial construct.

Rovelli doesn't mention (as it is as yet inconclusive) the notion of information being passed between entangled particles instantly - faster than the speed of light, stuff that Kauffman touched upon. A large-scale experiment conducted this month seems to confirm Einstein's worries about 'spooky action at a distance'. If confirmed, it suggests that information can travel at superluminary speed - question can that happen at interstellar distances?

Entropy, the key to understanding time

Rovelli brings to our attention the idea that Rudolf Clausius's equation for entropy change (ΔS ≥1) is "the only equation of fundamental physics that knows any difference between past and future. The only one that speaks of the flowing of time." Indeed, ΔS ≥1 is the only equation in the book's main text (much like the only equation in Hawking's book is E=mc². ). This is because it is significant in the age of quantum mechanics; other equations are reversible, whereas if you leave a glass of hot water in a cold room, the water will only tend to get cold. It is here we can witness the passage of time. But again, there's a notable gap - like Hawking (who at least mentions it), the role of dark energy pushing our universe apart at an accelerating speed - isn't mentioned by Rovelli.

The quanta of time attract Rovelli's attention. Just as light is both particles and waves, so time is fluid and yet granular. The shortest unit of time is Planck time; a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second (That's ten to the minus 44th). In other words, you cannot have 'half a Planck time'; Plank Time is indivisible. Similarly, out there at the subatomic end of spacetime, Planck length ("the minimum distance below which the notion of length becomes meaningless") is a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimetre. Down at this level, electrons have no precise position, everything is a blur - until observed by the conscious observer.

Essentially, Rovelli is tearing down everything we instinctively feel about time and its passing. He asks us to imagine the moment Copernicus watched the sun set and having the insight that it is not the sun descending below the horizon, but rather him sitting on a planet that's spinning backwards as it orbits a stationary star. What this paradigm shift means for science - and for philosophy - I will cover tomorrow in Part 2 of this three-part review.

This time two years ago:
Brexit and Trump - a political fiction

This time six years ago:
The law of diminishing returns disappears up its own fundament

This time seven years ago:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time nine years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events

Monday, 14 May 2018

Zamienie and Nowa Wola - unplanned exurbs

It's been a while since I last walked around these exurbs across the tracks - I went for a walk with Moni on Sunday to see how the largely unplanned development is sprawling out into fields that until recently were agricultural.

Below: these cranes are visible from ul. Dawidowska; this is a brand-new estate of flats going up in the grounds of the former vaccine plant in Zamienie. Address - ul. Waniliowa (lit. Vanilla Street). Moni asks what the point is of moving right out to the very edge of town to live in a flat rather than in a house with garden. Indeed.

Outside the old Zamienie complex, out in the fields, is the estate called Osiedle wśród pól (lit. 'Estate amid Fields'), complete with that phantom bus stop that appeared a year ago, still not served by any Warsaw bus route. From this point it is two an half kilometre walk (or 3km drive) to W-wa Jeziorki station. When the S7 extension is built, these new estates will effectively find themselves cut off from Jeziorki by a major expressway junction, Węzeł Zamienie.

When this development was started, it was indeed, an Estate amid the Fields. Very soon it will become an Estate amid Estates (Osiedle wsród osiedli). Doesn't sound so appealing.

Below: this is ul. Polna, Nowa Wola. No asphalt, a dirt track that's dusty in summer, muddy in late winter/early spring and in late autumn. And yet the car is literally the only way out of this place. We are 3.5km by foot/4km by car from W-wa Jeziorki station. Once the S7 has cut these houses off from the east, from the railway line, from the shops on Puławska, residents will find their lives seriously inconvenienced. The developers, no doubt, will deny all knowledge of plans to take the S7 south down to Grójec when they dreamed up this scheme. But the architecture I like, it puts me in mind of Taos, New Mexico in the mid-1950s.

Below: this neoclassical effort at the southern (asphalted) end of ul. Polna will pass without comment.

Below: an access road in what was the old Zamienie vaccine plant; bit by bit the old character is disappearing. Before long, the S7 will be roaring past, just a couple of hundred metres from here.

Warsaw's outward sprawl continues. Despite the availability of derelict land for building (post-industrial developments are happening close to the city centre), there's still an appetite among developers and buyers for facility-free estates in featureless fields just outside Warsaw's borders, where there are no zoning plans.

"Build it, and they will come?" Probably.

This time last year:
Long-term memory, awareness and identity

This time two years ago:
Language and politics

This time three years ago:
Trafalgar Square, then and now

This time five years ago:
GM's city car for Europe fails to wow me

This time six years ago:
A biblical sky

This time eight years ago:
The parable of the Iron-Filings Factory

This time 11 years ago:
Got to get ourselves back to the Garden

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Retracing my grandfather's footsteps

Yesterday I was speaking at a conference at the Społeczna Akademia Nauk on ul. Łucka 11, right across the street from where stood the tenement in which lived my father's family when he was born in 1923. On his baptismal certificate, the address was 'ul. Łucka number one thousand one hundred and fifty five', which for many years I assumed was a mistake. I assumed that it could not have been Łucka 11, flat 55, because between the wars, Łucka 11 was the Ostrowski brothers' coach-building factory; neither could it have been Łucka 1, flat 155, because Łucka 1 then - as today - standing on the corner of ul. Żelazna, could not have been divided into 155 flats.

But then last summer, the mystery was solved; reader Alojzy (thank you, Sir!) pointed out that Łucka 1155 was the numer hipoteczny, or mortgage number of the flat, which corresponds to an apartment within the tenement on Łucka 16. Today, that building is no longer there, replaced in the 1990s by a nondescript development of flats. But a little further east, the derelict apartment building at Łucka 10 is still there, awaiting demolition. Online, I cannot find any pictures of Łucka 16 before the war (there are photos of Łucka 12 and 14 on Wczoraj i Dzis blog, taken eight years ago).

My father's family moved in 1926 to a new apartment building for employees of PKO (which has its very own Wikipedia page).

This is Łucka 10 today, the last reminder of the architecture that would have been familiar to my grandparents before their move to posh Ochota. My father, being three at the time of the move, has no recollections from Łucka.

Below: view from across the street.

Below: view of the back from the eastern side...

Below: view of the back from the western side...

Below: photo taken from the Społeczna Akademia Nauk, looking east towards central Warsaw. In the foreground, the Norblin factory redevelopment is under way. A neat and tidy Skanska building site! In the middle distance, the cranes rising above Mennica Legacy Tower (a long way to go there).

I looked up the word 'oficyna' which for many years I took to be some kind of office (because of the association with oficyna wydawnicza = publishing house). It actually means 'annex' or 'outbuilding'.

After the conference, I walked back to my office along the same pavements that my grandfather would have walked on his way to his office on ul. Świętokrzyska, just a few hundred metres further than mine.

[Update, 30 July 2019: I take my father to ul. Łucka. We pass Łucka 10, we carry on to Łucka 16A. On a hunch, I turn off the street and go a bit further in, past the car park in front of Łucka 16A. And there it is! Łucka 16! We find it!

Not only has my father survived the war, but also the hospital in which he was born (ul. Lindlaya), the church in which he was christened (pl. Grzybowski), the flat in which he lived until he was four (ul. Łucka), and the flat in which he lived from the age of four until 3pm on 1 August 1944 (ul. Filtrowa). All in all, an incredible coincidence given that so much of Warsaw was flattened! His primary school (pl. Narutowicza), his first secondary school (ul. Śniadeckich) and his technical high school (Politechnika Warszawska) also survived - only his second secondary school, on the corner of ul. Świętokrzyska and ul. Jasna, has gone.

This time last year:
Keep-fit park opens in Jeziorki

Saturday, 5 May 2018

God, an Englishman, orders His Eden thus

If God is an Englishman - a notion which in today's sublime weather felt theologically possible - then this is how He would order His Eden... Below: bowls in Pitshanger Park.

Left: St Mary's Church, Perivale, stands on the footpath linking Perivale Lane with Pitshanger Park, running across Ealing Golf Club. The church itself dates back to the 13th century (possibly 12th), though the tower is from the 16th century with weatherboarding added much later. Unused as a church since 1972, it is now used as a venue for classical music recitals.

Below: the 297 bus route, served by double deckers, makes its way up Castlebar Road. Upstairs, front seat, best view. And the weather... such a crystalline blue sky, I haven't seen it like this since last time I was here.

It is time to visit the Brentham estate (or Brentham Garden Suburb), which I last wrote about in November 2015. Since then, I have acquired a book by Aileen Reid (Brentham, published in 2000 by the Brentham Heritage Society) on the subject; today I set ofp to track down the photo used on the front cover. And I found it - on Fowler's Walk. The architecture here is wonderful; classic British Arts & Crafts of the early 20th century.

Below: the corner of Ludlow Road and Ruskin Gardens, complete with Edwardian post-box.

Below: corner of Neville Road and Brunswick Road. Under such a Mediterranean sky, the vernacular style seems particularly sublime.

Below: Fowler's Walk again, the lower end. It's a gorgeous Bank Holiday weekend, so many residents have gone away taking their cars with them, thus affording car-free vistas of the architecture.

Below: Holyoake House on Holyoake Walk, a small block of flats, in a human scale, quite in keeping with the houses that surround it.

Below: lower end of Ludlow Road. Perfectly trimmed hedges are a hallmark of Brentham.

When blessed with such weather, I feel I should be spending every minute of sunlight outdoors, but too much sun can be dangerous; a two-hour long walk in the afternoon was quite sufficient for health.

This time two years ago:
W-wa Okęcie modernisation nears the end

This time three years ago:
I buy a Nikon Coolpix A
[An excellent buy. I await a Nikon FX mirrorless camera!] 

This time four years ago:
More about the Ladder of Authority

This time five years ago:
By bike, south of Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
Functionalist architecture in Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
What's the Polish for 'to bully'?

This time nine years ago:
Making plans

This time tent years ago:
The setting sun stirs my soul

This time 11 years ago:
Rain ends the drought

Friday, 4 May 2018

Luton Airport, revisited

Luton Airport is living proof that Change Alone is Eternal, Perpetual, Immortal. I can't honestly say I can't remember when the current modernisation works began; they had no beginning and seem to have no end. The passenger flow from groundside to airside on Departures and from airside to groundside on Arrivals is in a state of permanent flux. Security, which used to be done on the first floor, is now on the ground floor; acres of new shopping space have been added over the years, with many units still not leased.

[By way of background, I fly through Luton around ten times a year and have done so for the past 10 or 12 years, so yeah, I know the place well. I know that you'll always find a seat at the new Pret-a-Manger, located where Bar Ten used to be by Gates 1-7. I know the free airport wifi is invariably crap, especially whenever there are any significant delays. And I know that W.H.M. Shit (anag) rarely has those large 15p bags needed to hold your magazines and other purchases. And that free copies of the Times are available by the gates, but run out early, though the rack by Gate 28 usually still has some even in the evenings.]

Today I was in for a shock as I left the baggage area for the exit - again it has changed. Once again, one leaves through a different set of doors, back to where they once were... or were they? It was so long ago... Below: a new look for Arrivals.

All change, but the signage isn't keeping up. Or the communication. Once, there were two machines serving railway tickets in the baggage reclaim area. Here, one could buy a ticket to London, ahead of the crowds queueing by the ticket machines nearer the exit. Those machines in the baggage area went a while back, on my last visit the ones by the exit were gone too.

Today, I wandered through the Arrivals hall, bewildered. The exit had been shifted - no sign of anywhere to buy tickets for onward travel - bus or train. The actual exit is now closer to the entrance area for Departures, and a long way from the stop for the bus taking passengers on to Luton 'Airport' Parkway station. Stuff it - if they can't sell me a ticket, I'll walk to the station, I decided. I ended up walking past some new construction (car park? offices?), through the National Express departure bays (all in new positions), then, beyond the drop-off point, finding myself having to hop over fences (in full view of the police) to cross the road in the wrong place to save myself backtracking several hundred metres.

The road from the airport to its station was not designed for, nor by, pedestrians. Either way, one is forced to walk along the verge of a busy road, without pavements. It's doable - it takes about 30 minutes (40 minutes in the snow) if you don't have more than a light rucksack. and it saves £2.10 on the bus fare.

Anyway, I get to Luton 'Airport' Parkway station, buy my ticket to town (£14.70), train comes in promptly and all is well. But I shall be going through 'London' Luton Airport airport again on Monday; will all go smoothly?

Luton is not my airport of choice; Heathrow is so much closer to my father's. But Luton is where the low-cost carriers fly into. I can get from Warsaw to Luton for 198 zł one way (£41) ticket bought three weeks in advance. The train to town is £14.70, tube across London (off peak) is £2.80, bus from Ealing Broadway to my father's is £1.50 (total £21.10 including airport bus). In other words, the 1,000 mile flight costs just twice as much as the 30 mile overland journey from airport to Ealing.

Now, all this is important in the context of a no-deal Brexit. If the UK should tumble out of the Open Skies treaty, third-country airlines won't be able to ply their trade between an EU member state and a non-member state. So forget flying an Irish or Hungarian airline between Poland and the UK - one will be stuck with national carriers, LOT and British Airways.

Looking three weeks ahead, BA's cheapest London-Warsaw ticket is £201. That's five times more than WizzAir. OK, so the tube's much cheaper (£1.50 off-peak from Heathrow Terminals 1-3 to South Ealing), but so what. LOT is half the price of BA (£102.70 for the cheapest flight one-way, three weeks out). Still two-and-half times pricier than WizzAir.

Which is just one reason why I really hate Brexit.

FOLLOW-UP 5 May 2018: Just seen the article in yesterday's City AM - WizzAir has just registered its UK operation as a separate entity, with eight planes and 300 staff. No doubt the planes, all based at Luton, will have G-____ registrations (rather than H-____ as at present). Registering then in the UK, taking on extra UK staff, will not be cheap. Costs will be passed on to the passengers. Unnecessary duplication of business process - just for the sake of Brexit.

This time three years ago:
Another office move (I'm pleased say we're still in the same building!)

This time four years ago:
Workhorse of the Free World's Air Forces over Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Looking for The Zone, in and around Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
I awake to snow, on 4 May

This time 11 years ago:
This is not America. No?

Thursday, 3 May 2018

New roads and rails

A recent post by Student SGH prompted me to have a look at how the Warsaw's southern bypass (Południowa Obwodnica Warszawy or POW) is getting on, down by the river. The panorama (two wide-angle shots stitched together) below shows the pillars that will carry the bridge over the Vistula east of Wilanów. Work is going on quickly. One worth following on Skyscraper City. Here's the link to the latest - the 1,424th (!) page about the construction of the S2 from Puławska to Lubelska. The popularity of the thread is to do with the large number of people living around this particular project. So there are many fine photographs, many taken with drones, showing how things are progressing.

Meanwhile, there's no movement in sight along the route of the planned S7 extention from the airport to Grójec, other than the appearance of wooden stakes, painted day-glo orange on top, and waving stripy plastic tape, which are intended to show where the expressway will run.

This one (there's another in the distance, where this arable field gives way to a strip that's been left fallow) is between Dawidy (on the horizon) and Zamienie (behind and to the left of me). Somewhere here will be the first junction south of the airport, Węzeł Zamienie, the nearest to Jeziorki. Once this is completed, and the S2 with the bridge over the Vistula, the journey from home to the other side will take minutes.

Also seen (though not photographed) was the DK79 Góra Kalwaria bypass junction with the DK50, which is also progressing well. A massive roundabout, where the two main roads will meet, is taking shape.

Below: a rare shot of a weedkiller train making its way from Siekierki towards the coal train sidings at Jeziorna, seen here passing through Bielawa.

Below: worth throwing in this shot - it shows the globalisation of trade. This is the Chengdu-Rotterdam container crossing the Vistula, taken from a tram on the Most Gdański bridge. Note the emergency instructions ('in case of danger, break glass') on the window.

These container trains between China and western Europe (and back) are becoming regular sights on Polish rails; here's one, below, snapped a few days earlier at Czachówek (on the line from Duisburg to Chengdu). This is the Skierniewice-Łuków line (to the right the junction and spur running ofp to Radom.

This time last year:
The Gold Train shoot - lessons learned

This time four years ago:
Digbeth, Birmingham 5

This time five years ago:
Still months away from the opening of the S2/S79 

This time six years ago: 
Looking at progress along the S79  

This time seven years ago:
Snow on 3 May

This time eight years ago:
Two Polands

This time nine years ago:
A delightful weekend in the country

This time ten years ago:
The dismantling of the Rampa

This time 11 years ago:
Flag day

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

'Twas on the Thursday morning, the electrician called...

Thursday morning. Getting ready to go to work, when my phone rang. It was the electrician who was outside my działka to change the meter. "You were meant to be 'ere between 08:00 and 10:00 to let me in!"

"Hang on a second," I replied, "I haven't agreed to this..." And then I remembered. On Tuesday evening, on returning from work, I opened the mailbox to find an avizo - so ofp I went to the post office to receive a registered letter from PGE, the electricity supplier. I say 'letter', actually it was an A5 envelope containing no fewer than 79 pages in total - contracts in duplicates, handbooks, explanations, termination letters, errata slips - not stuff you'd want to be reading on a Tuesday evening after work. And not on the day before the Annual General Meeting and Board Meeting.


I left it. The fat envelope sat in my rucksack all day Wednesday, unread, and then on Thursday morning the bloke called. All uppity he was that I wasn't there to let him in. Patiently, I explained that it takes two to be umówiony, and that I had not agreed to be there, that particular Thursday morning. Between 08:00 and 10:00, especially when that day I had to be in the office to run a seminar on digital disruption/digital transformation.

Later, I referred to the contents of the A5 envelope. Inside the umowa (contract) it did indeed state that if I wished to change from the G11 tariff to the more advantageous for me G12W tariff (cheaper electricity at weekends, which is when the działka would be in use), the meter would have to be changed. On Thursday 26 April. Between 08:00 and 10:00.

All of this would have been fine, had the letter reached me sooner than the evening of Tuesday 24 April, on the eve of the Most important day of my firm's business calendar. The letter was sent (according to the postmark) on 17 April from PGE Obroty S.A. in Skarzysko-Kamienna; it took a full week to travel the 140km to my post office on ul. Puławska. That's 20km (12 miles) a day. I could literally have walked with it quicker.

PGE Obroty S.A. could have used sent me an email or an SMS saying 'we're going to change your meter in nine days time - is that OK?' The company had both my email address and mobile number on the last form I'd sent them (in reply to my original letter of 16 February). But no. They will send it all by post, knowing that this is the most primitive and business-wise, least effective way of reaching the customer.

And why seventy-nine pages? Who reads this stuff? Everything, in Einstein's words, should be as simple as possible, yet no simpler. Has any lawyer or business-process manager gone through those 79 pages, paragraph by paragraph, line by line, questioning whether this has any meaning or relevance, and why we have to send this, is this clear communication?

This is what they sent me:

Now, among all this bumph, bądź mądry and find that one sentence that mentions the impending visit of the guy to change my meter.

How much time does it take one human being to read through all this stuff? How much of it do you really have to read? What happens if you don't? How much of it is understandable? Do you know the formula to working out how much you have to pay for electricity? It looks like this:

This is babble. Who understands this? If whoever wrote this thought - "they don't understand, but so what?" - then that person doesn't merit a customer-facing job. Without explanation, just dumping this in the contract is a heinous error of judgment.

In Britain, consumers may complain, but they are years ahead in terms of the service they receive from the utilities.

In Poland, I too have a choice. And here's my message for state-owned PGE. I'd prefer to buy my electricity from a Polish firm than from a German, French or Swedish one. But if it communicates with me per noga, then I must say I'd pay over the odds to a supplier who gives me what I want.

A smart meter. An app in my phone that lets me monitor and control my electricity usage. A contract that's clear and easy to understand.

And if not...? The Polish electricity regulator, URE, has insisted that among the 79 pages included in that fat envelope is one sheet giving me the right to annul my contract with PGE and switch to another provider.

UPDATE Friday 4 May 2018: I get an SMS at 15:57 from Poczta Polska to say that the signed contracts, which I posted by registered, priority mail on Monday 30 April, reached PGE Obrót S.A.'s Skarzysko-Kamienna offices today... not bad given that Tuesday and Thursday were both public holidays.

This time last year:
The Gold Train film shoot - Day Three

This time three years ago:
45 years under one roof

This time six years ago:
May Day in the heat (it was 31C in Warsaw!) 

This time eight years ago:
Bike ride across rural Poland

This time 11 years ago:
Mazovian landmark from the air