Friday, 30 November 2018

Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Consciousness

An interesting discussion the other day with Andrzej Mańka prompted this piece. We were talking about whether computers would ever acquire consciousness, and thus become autonomous. The starting point was a news item we'd both heard about - namely, that two robots began communicating to one another in a language that no human could understand. Andrzej had heard about this in the context of Google; I'd heard the story in the context of industrial robots (Industry 4.0). We were both wrong - the story originated at Facebook.

A brief media flap occurred in the spring of 2017 after an experiment in machine learning at Facebook took an unexpected turn; two robots (or 'bots') had been programmed to learn how to negotiate, how to automate and optimise techniques for buying and selling online. After a while, the following dialogue was observed between the two bots, called 'Bob' and 'Alice', both tasked with maximising their outcome. Now, Alice is negotiating the purchase of balls from Bob - let's see what happened...
Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have 0 to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
At first glance this seems like gibberish, but an examination of this negotiation shows a certain structure, a logic in there somewhere, that humans can sense exists, but can't work out. The bots are using English but in a way we can't understand. At this point, Facebook pulled the plug on the experiment - not for fear that bots will take over the world, as many in the media implied - but because the result was pointless, being useless to a human user.

My daily encounters with artificial intelligence come in the form of Microsoft Word's grammar check, which has the temerity to put me right in grammar and Google's often-hilarious Google Translate. Having followed the development of Google Translate for many years, I can say it is far better today than the joke-generator it was at first (early example: Spotkanie odbędzie się w j. polskim. translated as "The meeting will be held in the lake. Polish."). Microsoft Word has difficulty in distinguishing singulars from plurals (in the phrase "one of the leading audit and consulting companies" it suggests that I use 'audits'' rather than audit' due to its inability to spot the principle noun-object in the phrase, which is 'companies' and not 'audit', which here is an adjective. Basic stuff).

 Now, if this is cutting edge of AI as it commercially available today, I will wager that it will take decades to move on to something that will break through the barrier of meaning. Besides, the global economy is suffering a dearth of IT programmers and developers. Last year, the European Commission estimated that by 2020, the EU will be struggling to fill over 750,000 vacancies for coders, engineers and tech specialists. Every corporation on earth is trying to deal with the challenges of distributed ledger technology (DLT or blockchain), of the Internet of Things (IoT which is especially pertinent in manufacturing and the built environment), of cloud computing, of quantum computing (dealing with qbits - no longer zero or one, but zero and one) and yes, artificial intelligence. There's not enough humans to do it.

Machine learning - automation of the coding process - is an answer to the shortage of suitably qualified techies. But to get computers up to the level where they can develop new IT solutions with minimal human interference takes human brain power.

Consider code-writing as a craft skill. It needs to be taken from being a craft to being a full-automated process in the same way as building cars has moved to being the preserve of skilled craftsmen building tiny handfuls of cars for the extremely wealthy to factories full of robots churning out cars to a global mass market. It will happen, eventually - but then what?

Let's say, as proponents of AI and machine learning do, that one day, we will reach the Singularity - the moment when runaway improvements of learning cycles lead to ultra-intelligent machines that finally surpass all the intellectual activities of humanity. When will this happen?

The speed at which some neurologists believe the brain computes is around 1016 operations per second. Computers are getting there. Since 2013, the race for the world's fastest computer has been between the US and China; since 2013 these have been in the petaflops (peta = 1015, flops = floating operation points per second) range, the current record as of November 2018 is the IBM Summit supercomputer which is capable of 200 petaflops. One fifth of the way towards the 1016 needed to take on the human brain. Now, this 1016 figure is based on the theory that human consciousness is the merely the product of activity of the tens of thousands of connections between the hundred billion or so neurons in the brain.

But Prof Stuart Hameroff and other proponents of a counter-theory state that consciousness takes place within the cell rather than being a product of reactions between cells. If true, if indeed the 109 tubulins within each brain cell, each switching at 10 megahertz, this would mean 1016 times 1011 neurons or 1027 operations per second. Way faster than the fastest computers - if mankind is currently making petaflops computers, we need to move past exaflops (1018), zetaflops (1021) and yottaflops (1024) - and 'yotta' is currently the largest decimal unit prefix in the metric system. Zetaflops machines are predicted for 2030, they will still be six orders of magnitude slower than the human brain, according to Prof Hameroff.

But let's say that one day this century, there will be computers operating at 1027 floating point operations per second. And that Hameroff is right. Then what? Will we find that consciousness is an emergent property of these computers' complexity and speed? Will they have feelings? Will they inform us (or even one another) how they feel, what they thought when they saw their operator coming into work wearing an unusually loud shirt?

In other words, can consciousness be created artificially? In the early 19th century, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein's Monster, a human being brought back to life through science (chemistry and electricity). The monster possessed feelings and capacity to learn. Computers can learn, But can computers have feelings?

My own belief is no. Proponents of AI singularity say yes. At this moment, it is belief vs. belief, faith vs. faith, theory vs. theory. We don't know - yet.

This time last year:
Viaduct takes shape in the snow

This time four years ago:
No in-work benefits for four years?

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:
Another November without snow

This time seven years ago:
Snow-free November

This time eight years ago:
Krakowskie Przedmieście in the snow

This time nine years ago:
Ul. Poloneza closed for the building of the S2

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Earth is flat

That's how we see it from day to day; precious little inkling do we have trudging the pavements or the footpaths that we stand upon a globe. Yet the earth is round, of course it is. The ancient Greeks knew that (from the top of the Colossus of Rhodes an observer could see a vessel out at sea whilst an observer at ground level, 108m below, couldn't). And the differing lengths of shadow at noon and day-lengths at different latitudes easily confirm this.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, a small yet ever-growing minority of human beings obstinately cling to the belief that that the world is flat. Flat because in their worldview, devoid of external evidence, without the necessary curiosity, they refuse to have foisted upon them something others wish them to believe. And every piece of evidence provided to them to prove the earth is spherical is nothing less than the product of a conspiracy.

Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-84), the founder of flat-earthism in the modern era, proved how by shouting loud enough and long enough, you can persuade many people with poorly-honed critical faculties to swallow pseudoscientific hokum. Rowbotham wrote a book, 430 pages long, filled with the results of poorly-designed or spurious experiments, Zetetic Astronomy, Earth not a Globe. Unless you are learned enough, and patient enough, to wade through it all and and compare it to mainstream scientific treatises, you might end up convinced that yes, Rowbotham was clearly an expert and had made enough good points to be taken seriously.

Below: were the circumference of the earth no more than 30 miles, Rowbotham's experiment might have proved something else...

FIG. 2.

It's six miles from Welches Dam to Welney Bridge on the Bedford Levels. Both still there if you want to try this for yourself...

FIG. 3.

Above all, Rowbotham was not a quitter. At first, his public-speaking engagements would end in him being roundly dismissed. Yet he was tenacious, determined. And people like tenacity. With time, "his quick-wittedness and debating skills were honed so much that he could counter every argument with ingenuity, wit and consummate skill." He'd fill halls with people willing to part with sixpence - around £12 or 60zł in modern terms) to hear him speak. This lovely quote from the Leeds Times about Rowbotham resonates clearly in our times: "He demonstrated that scientific dabblers unused to platform advocacy are unable to cope with a man, a charlatan if you will (but clever and thoroughly up in his theory), thoroughly alive to the weakness of his opponents".

After Rowbotham's death, the torch of flat-earthism was taken up by Lady Elizabeth Blount, who added the element of Biblical literalism to the theory. This thread - the battle between the literal interpretation of the Bible and science continues to this day.

Flat-earthers have taken to YouTube and the social media in a big way - it is an excellent channel for propagating the most fantastical of theories (NASA was created to propagate lies on behalf of the Illuminati). I won't put any links here, so as not to encourage them. The internet was made for flat-earthers and other conspiracy pedlars. It saddens me to watch flat-earthers speaking out with such vehemence against that which we know to be fact. They don't trust observations made by others, cannot offer a coherent counter-proposal and often distrust or disagree with each other. There's a right model (the earth is a sphere, orbiting the sun) and countless wrong models (a disc with a waterfall at the edge, a wall of ice at the edge, the stars are 700 miles above us, etc).

The parallels with Brexit are clear. An economic model that works is being rejected 'because'. Because the 21st century's equivalents of Samuel Birley Rowbotham have deemed that the EU is a 'doomed project', that Juncker is a drunk, that Britain can do better trade deals with the rest of the world alone than as a member of the world's wealthiest trading bloc, etc etc et bloody cetera.

The Earth is flat because I can't see how it's round. We can leave the EU because I can't see in my day-to-day existence in rural Derbyshire (or wherever) how the EU has improved life.

To all the latter-day Rowbothams can be added those who see the EU as an obstacle to them making their next tax-free billion and to an evil foreign power wishing to break up the EU because it empowered the former vassals of Moscow to prosper in freedom and security.

If you honestly believe the UK will be better off outside the EU, you are probably suffering from other delusions such as climate change is a hoax or that the Earth is indeed flat.

By the way - I love the illustrations from Rowbotham's book. All royalty-free, a good source of whacky Victorian artwork!

FIG. 48.

This time last year:
50th Anniversary of the Fiat 125p

This time two years ago:
Fidel Castro's death divides the world

This time three years ago:
London to Edinburgh by night bus

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

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

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

This time nine years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time 11 years ago:
Late autumn drive-time 

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

London in verticals

Still channelling Miroslav Šašek, now looking for those sights that might have appealed to the author of This is London back in 1959, those tall verticals... Today's walk began at Chancery Lane and ended at Leicester Square, taking in the Strand and the Charing Cross Road.

Left: this is the entrance to the Strand Campus, King's College London, built in 1831, as London was just getting its first university (the fourth in England, Durham being founded around the same time). Three hundred years earlier, England had but Oxford and Cambridge as seats of learning, while Scotland could already boast three - St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

The first half of the 19th century saw London fill up with neo-Gothic and neo-Classical styles, befitting the Capital of Empire.
Right: a conjoined Type C pillar box today separating the stamped from the franked mail. Once the distinction was between mail intended for the capital and for further afield (marked 'London' and 'Country'). The EIIR under the crown says this item is relatively modern; VR cyphers can still be seen on 19th century postboxes around the UK.

An icon of Britishness, how long will they remain in use with so many letter-writers switching to emails and bulk-postage going out from warehouses?

Below: a familiar London landmark on High Holborn (pron. HOE'b'n), this was Staple Inn, built in 1585, now an arcade of shops. Originally it was where wool was weighed and taxed. A rare survivor of the Great Fire of London (1666).

Left: a familiar tube station to me, just down the road from where I worked for 16 years. From pavement level the top of the Charing Cross Road entrance is rarely seen - using my superwide lens and some perspective straightening, here's the entire facade. Built in 1935 as part of the Piccadilly Line modernisation. Older entrances (from 1906) lie across the road to the north and west of this one.

Below: should you ever need robes for court or state or academia, this is where you need to go if you want to look like batman in a cape with a long white hat. London's oldest tailor (est. 1689). Ede & Ravenscroft's Oxford outlet serves as tailors to the Bullingdon Club.

Right: the second-oldest vehicle I saw in London today, the oldest being a 1964 AEC Routemaster bus. Here is a Vespa 50L scooter dating back to 1969 (half a century old next year), with an original white-on-black number plate.

Owners of classic/vintage vehicles have a duty of care to future generations to ensure that these wonderful pieces of engineering soldier on. As well as road tax exemptions, their owners should be encouraged to keep their heritage vehicles going for as long as possible - and to sell them into good hands if they can't.
Left: the Royal Courts of Justice, photo taken from where Fleet Street ends and the Strand begins. Two surviving red phone boxes, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. You may think that in 1924 when they were introduced, they must have shocked traditionalists. Yet the neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice were opened a mere 42 years earlier. The pace of technological advance must have felt as rapid then as it does today.
Right: just off the Strand, a view of the back of the building of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The building, which dates back to 1774, was designed by the Adam brothers, Robert and James. The Scottish architects and furniture designers were responsible for popularising neo-Classical architecture in Britain. The RSA itself dates back to 1754, and is "committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges". Notable past fellows include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith and indeed Karl Marx.
Left: the Wellington pub on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych is every inch what a tourist thinks the typical London pub should be like. The Edwardian building maintains many original features and is worth popping in for a swift half and the hopes of catching the atmosphere of 1902.

This part of London has a broad range of architectural styles from across the centuries. Most passers-by - tourists as well as office workers - are focused on eye-level - shop fronts, restaurants and bars - but to capture the city's real character, its visual wealth, you have to look up, above the garish displays.
Right - perhaps the most famous of London's closed underground stations. This is Aldwych, which was served by a short spur of the Piccadilly line from 1907 to 1994. The original name 'Strand' is visible today - it was renamed Aldwych in 1915. The line from Holborn was envisaged to continue south under the Thames to reach Waterloo; it never did.

By the time I went to work in London in the early 1980s, this station was only served at peak hours, by a shuttle train that ran from Holborn and terminated here. Because it was not heavily used, Aldwych Station was often (and continues to be ) used as a film set, complete with a working Tube train permanently kept here for that purpose.

My walk today took in around 8,000 paces in central London and a further 4,000 in Ealing. Walking is the best way to really get to know a city.

This time last year:
Roadblock and railfreight

This time two years ago:
Sunny morning, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

This time three years ago:
Brentham Garden Suburb

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

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

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

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

This time 11 years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Edinburgh again and again

My ninth visit to Edinburgh since I began blogging in 2007. A city that I'm very fond of aesthetically; it has so much to give. From the commanding views from Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill to the majesty of the Castle, the architecture of the New Town, the Old Town that's straight out of a Harry Potter film set, the soaring bridges, the narrow passages diving down steep staircases - a city that's been more engineered than built.

This time I felt a need to see more of the Water of Leith Walk; it was not pouring with rain and I was armed with my 10-24mm Nikkor zoom, better for architecture. Below: looking down Young Street, in Edinburgh's New Town. I'm a great fan of cobblestones. What also makes this shot a 'publisher' is that there are no huge gaily coloured plastic wheelie bins nor scaffolding visible. These two rank high in my list of visual annoyances in Edinburgh.

Left: on the corner of Leith Bridge, Queensferry Road and Bell Brae a neo-Gothic turreted residential folly... what imagination, what engineering prowess to build something like this. Dean Bridge, designed by the great Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford rises high above the Water of Leith.

Below: looking up at Dean Bridge from the Water of Leith, the 10-24mm Nikkor zoom set to its widest, no attempt at parallax correction.

On my last visit, I mentioned the classic series of illustrated children's books by Miroslav Sasek, in particular This is Edinburgh (1961); here's Sasek's take on Dean Bridge...

...and this is my best attempt at getting his view. It entailed me clambering atop a huge millstone in the middle of a small park on Miller Row, and using various distorting tricks in Photoshop, but still I couldn't get the exaggerated perspective that Sasek presents.

Below: from the top of Dean Bridge looking down onto Dean Village and the Water of Leith.

Below: stone steps running down steep hills between tenements, and the views in between, are a beguiling feature of Edinburgh.

Looking up steep hills too yields rewarding views; here's Gloucester Street; at the summit lies Edinburgh's New Town, laid out in a neat rectangle, along the ridge of the hill.

As dusk begins to fall, I cross Princes Street to enter the Old Town. To many younger people, its similarity to the sets of the Harry Potter movie franchise are a major attraction, one the city has not been slow to capitalise on.

Below: imagery that resonates with anyone feeling a sense of history. Just behind me on Cockburn Street is the Arcade Bar, which serves excellent haggis, neaps and tatties. As I tucked in, I had this magnificent view in front of me (though through a plate-glass window).

Below: back to Princes Street; to the right the National Gallery of Scotland, in the distance the Walter Scott Memorial. Time to return to get some rest after a second day's early start in a row.

This time four years ago:
Ahead of the opening of Warsaw's second Metro line

This time five years ago:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...
(Portents of troubles to come)

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

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

This time ten years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Tram tips for Edinburgh

Edinburgh's tram network resembles Warsaw's Metro system prior to March 2015 - just one single line. It is a boon to tourists arriving at Edinburgh Airport, whisking them into the city centre without being bogged down in the heavy traffic of the A8 Corstorphine Road. The modern stock is comfortable, has free (and fast) wi-fi, and as befits a line serving an airport, plenty of luggage space.

Below: the tram terminus at Edinburgh Airport. Trams to town every seven minutes (every ten minutes in the early morning and evening).

However, there are points to be aware of, especially when using the tram for the first time. The fare structure is designed to ensure that tourists pay more their fair share for using the system, in effect subsidising local users. Nothing wrong with that, but if you travel light as I do, and want to save money, heed my tip. There are but two zones in Edinburgh's tram network. The Airport Zone - and the rest of the line. A ticket from the airport into town costs £6.00. The next stop - Ingliston P&R - is less than a mile away (1.4km or 1,750 paces/15 minutes walk). And from Ingliston P&R, the ticket costs not £6.00 but £1.70 - a saving of £4.30.

BUT! There is a catch... If you want to pay cash, the ticket machines will not give you change. Drop a £2 coin in, and you've lost 30p of your £4.30 saving. And if you want to pay by card, there's a minimum payment of £3.00. So here you lose £1.30 of your £4.30 saving. Unless you buy a return ticket (£3.20) or an all-day ticket (£4.00). Now, given that the all-day ticket including the Airport zone costs £8.50, that's an even greater bargain.

Below: alight at Ingliston P&R and take a walk from there to the airport to get some exercise and save money.

Below: the in-scale map displayed at the airport terminus puts the whole network into perspective.

Below: Gogarburn, the next stop after Ingliston P&R, alight here for Royal Bank of Scotland's HQ. One advantage of trams and light railways over the main line is that the track radii can be short to accommodate tight curves, as seen here. The curve here is so tight I couldn't fit the whole thing into one shot even with a 10mm lens, so a panorama had to be stitched together (and hence two trams within a short distance of one another - actually the same tram).

I have another tip. You cannot buy your ticket on the tram; you can buy from ticket machines which are located at each tram stop. Remember to have the exact fare - no change. And be ready to select the ticket you need in advance - no time for umming and ahhing when there's a queue of people behind you and the next tram's due any minute.

The problem I had this year and indeed last year is that the touch-sensitive screens are not very sensitive. You touch and nothing happens. The tram conductor on the tram I (finally) caught - after missing one because I couldn't buy a ticket in time - told be to be hit the screen hard with my finger. Which I did the next two times I was buying tram tickets. Two sharp jabs - one to hit the '+' button by your choice of ticket, and one for the 'confirm' button. Contactless car payment doesn't confirm immediately - you have to wait a couple of seconds before you get the message that your ticket(s) are being printed.

All in all, the system is clunky and no longer state-of-the-art. For that, visit Wrocław. The trams there have the simplest system of all; no cash, no tickets, only card payments - the virtual 'ticket' stored in the chip of your credit/debit card, which you present to the ticket inspector.

Without doubt the best way from the Edinburgh Airport to the city centre is the tram; my tips will save you money and spare you frustration at the ticket machine!

This time last year:
Warsaw to Edinburgh made easier
[tram price fare rise since last year: 10p for city zone, 50p for airport zone!]

This time three years ago:Stuffocation: the rich-world problem of dealing with too many things

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Edinburgh's second Polish statue

Unveiled this month, the statue of General Stanisław Maczek in Edinburgh cements the bonds between Poland and Scotland deeper still. Three years ago, the statue of Wojtek the Bear was unveiled in Princes Street Gardens; the Maczek statue, in the quadrangle of Edinburgh City Chambers on the Royal Mile, stands close to the Great War Stone that commemorates the Scottish capital's war dead from both world wars. Both statues' prime locations reflect the importance to the city of its relationship with Poles and Poland.

Look to the right of the bench - note the dates. Yes, General Maczek lived 102 years; a life that spanned the British premierships of William Gladstone and John Major. He fought during the First World War in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian army (against the Italians in the Alps); he died when Lech Wałęsa was president of an independent Poland. What a life - what military campaigns - he fought the Ukrainians in 1918, the Bolsheviks in 1920, the Germans in 1939, and in France the following year; he led Poland's 1st Armoured Division at the Battle of Falaise and liberated Breda in Holland, as well as the PoW camp at Oberlangen*, where many female soldiers of the Polish Home Army, Warsaw Uprising insurgents, had been incarcerated.

Unable to return home to Poland after the war, he lived in Edinburgh. Despite his stirling war record, he was denied a general's war pension by the British government, and worked as a barman.

It is fitting that General Maczek is remembered in this way in the city in which he spent nearly half of his long life.

Below: a wide-angle shot of Edinburgh's Wojtek the Bear memorial.

* This was the only camp for female prisoners of war, the first ever established.

This time last year:
Edinburgh - walking the Water of Leith

This time two years ago:
Poland's north-west frontier

This time three years ago:
Cars must fade from our cities

This time five years ago:
Unnecessary street lighting wastes money

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

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

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

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

This time 11 years ago:
Another point of view

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Wider-angle London...

I usually travel with my trusty (and really excellent for the money) Nikon D3300 with its kit 18-55mm lens; a mildly wide to (very) mildly telephoto lens. Knowing I'd be in two cities that amaze with their architecture, I elected for this trip Kingdomside to take the superwide 10-24mm Nikkor zoom. So here's a bit of London...

Below: I love every bit of St Pancras station. It has been so beautifully restored; the grimy brick of my childhood also had its charm (I remember when Scammell Scarabs plied the Midland Road). I can imagine Victorian railway officials at work, poring over forms, in those windows to the left, as smoke billowed over the turreted rooftops.

Below: hidden behind London's main streets are the mews - the stables in which rich folks' horses were kept, and above them stables for coachmen, grooms and ostlers. These days mews, with their historic character and cobblestones make for desirable residences for many a million.

Below: Regent Street, looking south. There are 12 days of Christmas, but none of them fall in mid-November. The Xmas lights are up, reminding us to part with our money to buy things we don't need. I mean for Christ's sake, Black Friday's still four days away...

Below: into the City of London, Bishopsgate (one of the Seven Canonical Gates of London - Aldgate, Ludgate, Moorgate are the ones that most readily spring to mind). Bricktorian Britain jostles with the New.

Ah now! This is interesting! The corner of the Old Brompton Road; a grocery store goes out of business, the shopfront is taken down, and a ghost sign appears - and what an interesting one! Borgward was a postwar German car brand that itself went out of business (in 1961), not before producing some nice cars (the Borgward Isabella coupe was particularly attractive). The sole concessionaire for the UK market was Metcalfe & Mundy Ltd. All history now - worthy of note.

This time last year:
First snow. first frost of the year

This time eight years ago
Childhood memories of Warsaw

Saturday, 17 November 2018

First frost, 2018

What does this tell you: first frost 2007, first frost 2011 were both a whole month earlier, on 16 October. Last night the temperature fell to -3C. Monday's installation of the alarm system in Jakubowizna was not completed on account of a poor mobile phone signal, so Pan Darek had to pop over again with an external antenna to finish the job. And I was told that the sofa bed (scratched to pieces by cats) has been refurbished and can be delivered to the działka. So a change of plan was required for today, and a lovely morning it was too.

Cloudless sky all day long, temperatures shooting up to +5C by the afternoon.

A long walk was Most certainly in order... down past Chynów station towards Krężel... Another photo in the style of Eric Ravilious...

By half past three the sun was low in the sky and its was quickly getting cooler - though not back down to zero this time. Overnight temperatures will not dip deeply into negative territory.

Out of the woods and into the open, the sun touching the horizon.

Earlier I took some snaps of the track modernisation work around Chynów - here's that ST43 diesel loco used to haul wagons carrying new rails. Built in Romania by Electroputere, these engines are nicknamed 'Rumun' by Polish train spotters. PKP ordered 422 of them (from 1965 to 1978).

Below: a rake of empty rail-carrying wagons south of Chynów station. The new rails can be seen between the existing tracks of the 'down' line, currently in use in both directions.

In theory, you can get to Jakubowizna by bus, but the bus stop (no timetable displayed) does not look encouraging. Incidentally, how can you spray a stencil so that the first few letters come out black and the last few yellow? Neat effect, probably accidental, product of sloppy work, but still...

Finally, my recovered sofa bed, recovered in both meanings of the word. Scratched to pieces by the cats, the old upholstery was so badly wrecked that it looked fit for the skip. However, the folding mechanism is still first rate, so following the precepts of the Buyerachy of Needs, rather than buy a new piece of furniture, I had this one reupholstered. The work, by Werson of Nowa Iwiczna, was stunningly brilliant - better than I imagined. Werson has also made furniture for the president's palace and restores upholstery in classic cars. I highly recommend.

This time three years ago:
Cameron, Paris, ISIS, PiS and Brexit

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:
Foggy days and Warsaw's airports

This time eight years ago:
Local elections - the lure of ultra-localism 

Thursday, 15 November 2018

To Tychy

To most Poles, Tychy (20km/12 miles south of Katowice) is best known for brewing Tyskie beer and for the production of the new Fiat 500. A large and important part of the Silesian agglomeration (130,000 population - the size of Norwich), Tychy is somewhat subsumed in the larger whole - Poland's largest conurbation of 2.7 million people. The city is also of note for its Stalinist workers' district, built in the Socialist Realist style in 1951-56. Only Nowa Huta, the steel-mill suburb of Kraków, can boast a more expansive area of Socialist Realist housing. Below: stretched out over 18 hectares, located east of Tychy station, this is an architectural gem - Osiedle A ('estate A') of Nowe Tychy. Home to 6,100 people, it was intended as a model workers' community. No pub.

Look at this! An iconic image of the Stalinist era. Should it be painted over, or left for posterity? Where have I seen this before - on Pl. Konstytucji in Warsaw? Or on the cover of the 1949 Worker's Diary?
Below: Socialist Realism was neo-classical in form; street layouts inspired by Ancient Rome

Unofficial street art. Would Stalin and his henchmen have sought to track down and punish the author(s) of this criticism of the aesthetic conditions of this workers' paradise? What agent of Imperialist England (note the spelling: not 'color' as a CIA saboteur would have written) stands behind this attempt to subvert the Polish People's Republic? This photo is unaltered in Photoshop.

Left: literal translation - 'Prohibition of Game with Ball'.

Below: Tychy New Town (Nowe Miasto) is close to Tychy's main railway station. Two passenger trains from the Silesian regional railway operator SKR pass one another, while a PKP Cargo Siemens Vectron engine runs light between the platforms.

Below: what's this? A fire station? A film set? Security towers at a sensitive border crossing?

Left. No. This is a Catholic church. The parish church of St Francis of Assisi and St Clare. It looks like a defensive bastion - a fortified emplacement, a science-fiction structure - if the former, who is it protecting the parishioners against? And if the latter - I'd bet that it is successful in attracting those with an interest in fantasy fiction. One way or another, it's a church reflecting these times. (See it on Google Maps Street View 3D - impressive!)

Below: Tychy is one of three Polish cities that currently still have a trolleybus network - the others being Lublin and Gdynia. While the trolleybuses constitute the minority of the Tychy bus fleet, the bulk of the non-electrified buses are powered by compressed natural gas.

For a heavily industrialised town, having electric powered buses cuts back a bit on air pollution. The bulk of the non-trolleybus fleet is powered by compressed natural gas. Which also helps.

Below: but what's this? Back at the Tychy station, watching the imminent arrival of the InterCity train from Białystok to Bielsko-Biała... just look at the smoke pouring out of the signal box! You'd think that PKP could easily heat such buildings from the electricity in its overhead power lines - but no - filthy coal is being burnt.

This time three years ago:
Face to face with the UK retailing scene

This time four years ago:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time six years ago:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time eight years ago:
Dream highway

This time ten years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time 11 years ago:
First snow, 2007