Saturday, 15 June 2019

Quantum jumps, quantum luck and the atomic will

For my brother, Marek

This is ground-breaking stuff. This Yale University experiment has the potential to change everything we've learn over the past 95 years or so about how quantum mechanics actually work in practice.

Here's the crucial paragraph: "With their high-speed monitoring system, the researchers could spot when a quantum jump was about to appear, 'catch' it halfway through, and reverse it, sending the system back to the state in which it started. In this way, what seemed to the quantum pioneers to be unavoidable randomness in the physical world is now shown to be amenable to control. We can take charge of the quantum."

Wow. "We can take charge of the quantum."

But how? By willing it so? By the simple act of observation? But we know that as soon as you open the box, the cat that's both dead and alive becomes one or the other. So to avoid the collapse of the wave function caused by conscious observation, the Yale team led by Michel Devoret used something (that I can't understand) called a 'second excited state' which reacts to decay (or not) within the first. Let's assume the whole thing works and is real and the results are as ground-breaking as claimed...

Until now, quantum events were considered to be entirely random, upsetting the Newtonian apple-cart. Newton's laws, which shaped human thinking about the physical universe for around a quarter of a millennium, stated that there must be cause and effect. Without an action, there is no reaction.

Quantum physics, however, suggested that atomic decomposition is an entirely random phenomenon. You might know the half-life of an isotope, but you cannot predict when decay will happen. This lack of predictability bugged Einstein, who couldn't bear (at first) this entirely novel notion of randomness at work in the universe. "God doesn't play dice," he said about this. Now, the Yale experiment seems to side with Einstein and Newton, rather than with Heisenberg and Schrödinger, the bringers of Uncertainty. The change in quantum states is neither random nor instantaneous, it seems. It is, they say, deterministic.  Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that a subatomic particle's position and momentum can not be measured simultaneously. Here we have some guys claiming we can.

If so, we need to rethink cosmology!

For me, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics provides the key to the magic of the universe. The key to consciousness, the key to chance. And the key question - can you alter the outcome of a quantum event by thinking it one way or another?

I believe you can - not in a lab, repeating experiments aimed at measuring telepathy or extra-sensory perception, but practical ways. Above all, forestalling personal mishaps by consciously discounting the possibility of them happening - my definition of 'quantum luck'. Whether this new discovery about the nature of quantum events - in particular the possibility of reversing them - has any bearing on how my personal 'quantum luck' works for me, remains to be seen!

This time last year:
Under the sodium

This time two years ago:
"Further progress? Hell yes!"

This time 11 years ago:
The 1970s and the 2000s

Monday, 10 June 2019

Ghastly June day in London

One for the record books - while Warsaw sweltered under a cloudless sky (31C), London was beset by the most wretched weather. It rained all day; in the afternoon temperatures reached 9C. An appalling June day - it felt like mid-October. 52 mm of rain drenched London today - the equivalent of an average June's rainfall. Central London was a sea of umbrellas, ill-tempered people splashing through puddles, traffic jams exacerbated by road closures. So many people who set off for work wearing summer clothes, tourists leaving their hotels without having checked the weather forecasts, wet, miserable, shivering.

I was planning to walk from the Kingfisher plc headquarters in Paddington to the Polish Embassy - I ended up sitting in a bus diverted around a road-closure on Oxford Street, thankful for the traffic jams that kept the bus moving at walking speed or slower. Inside the bus it was warm and dry.

When I got home and undressed, I found that the label inside my suit jacket had become sodden through my 'rainproof' jacket and had left a square, yellowish imprint on the back of my shirt.

Below: Sheltering under an archway, Margaret St, London W1.

Cold, wet, annoyed. Despite the rain, I did actually manage to walk over 16,000 paces.


Still raining. Fourth day in a row. The River Brent has burst its banks in Perivale, cutting the footpath between Perivale and Pitshanger Park. Too wet to take the camera for my walk, so image capture on phone, quite unsatisfactory quality, but one for the record.

Oh to be in Warsaw in June!

This time last year:
Perfect weather week in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Further progress is unimaginable

This time three years ago:
Baletowa reopens as rail works move on

This time six years ago:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time nine years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time 11 years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time 12 years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

This land is my land

As Delmar says in the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?, "Hell, you ain't no kind of man if you ain't got land". Well, I gone out an' got me a whole acre of the stuff. That's another 2,000m2 on top of the 2,000m2 I already bought with my działka house (1 acre = 4,047.8m2 ). "Buy land, they don't make it no more!" "Land is the only thing that matters; land is the only thing that counts."

I bought the adjacent plot as an investment for the future; although currently an orchard boasting 42 apple trees, it comes with permission to build 'extensive' housing (ie not more than one single-family house per 500m2. Intensive housing = block of flats = no).

Below: view of both plots from the other side of the road. To the left is my original plot (the house set so far back from the road that it's not visible). The newly purchased orchard is to the right.

Below: a Sketch-up 3D model of my house, showing its situation to scale on the 4,000m2 rectangle. The original fence is seen dividing the two plots, trees are omitted for clarity. The rectangle is roughly 20m wide by 200m long.

Below: view from my rear upstairs patio. To the left is an medium-tension electricity pylon that currently runs through the new plot. Beyond is the forest that lines the eastern edge of the plot.

Below: reverse-angle view; in the distance you can make out the house (repainted white when the external thermal cladding was applied). The concrete electricity pylon is visible.

What now? Well, the most important thing is to mark and fence my territory. This needs to be done by a geodeta, a legally-recognised surveyor, who will mark out the boundaries of the newly purchased plot. These will form the legal basis on which I will be able to fence off the land and in effect merge or unify the two plots as one.

Now, to do this, I need to have clear title to the land that I have bought. This has been checked by the notariusz (notary-public) in Grójec who carried out the transaction (an excellent and professional service, by the way, Magdalena Grzesik should you need a notariusz in Grójec). All is good, but the court in Grójec has to enter the transaction and with it my ownership title in the księga wieczysta (literally 'the eternal book' or land and mortgage register). This can take time! When I bought the first plot (with house), I waited between mid-November 2017 and late January 2018 for confirmation from the court that the transaction had been registered and a new księga wieczysta set up in my name. The notariusz told me that she had cases where the new owner had been waiting six months for the court to register the transaction! One way or another, I cannot summon a geodeta to measure and mark the land without a księga wieczysta in my name. So I wait.

Until then, I need to keep the existing fence to the east of my original plot, as there is no fence to the east of the new plot.

Once done, I need to keep a close eye on local development plans. A new asphalted access road to the north of the two plots that is shown on the plans would be useful, allowing easy partition of the north half of the plot into a stand-alone unit, making it easier to develop and eventually sell.

I have time, I have options. The fun part will be to design and cost a new house, which, naturally, will be built to be as energy efficient as possible from the outset. Heat pumps, solar panels etc. But that is many years into the future! The opportunities are huge. In theory, I could build up to eight houses on this property (doubtful though). In the meanwhile, some landscape gardening is an interesting prospect - a small pond, small hillocks, silver birches, pines, paths running through it all...

Finally, I must say I much prefer buying property in Poland compared to the UK process. This is my third purchase in Poland and each one has gone smoothly - the institution of the notariusz being better suited for the job than the English solicitor. Conveyancing UK-style, with exchange of contracts and completion and piles of extra paperwork generates stress and takes time. If there's clear title, the Polish system is straightforward and relatively inexpensive.

This time three years ago:
Preening stork

This time six years ago:
Preserving meadowland - UK and Poland 

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years ago:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time nine years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time ten years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time 11 years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Classic Volgas, London and Warsaw

Imagine my delight when, last week, I stumbled upon a beautiful black GAZ M-21 Volga, outside the Kent in Ealing... It was just like mine, but left-hand drive (from the vignette in the window, an import from Georgia). And in immaculate condition - perfectly restored. My one was a bit older (1963, registration number 3148 PE); I owned it between 1983 and 1985 when reluctantly I had to sell it as it kept breaking down and parts weren't readily available. I sold it to a guy in Manchester who had a fleet of similar cars used for film work. My old Volga did film work too, including an Elton John pop video and a John Le Carre TV spy thriller. And the odd wedding.

The Volga was built for middle-ranking Soviet aparatchiks, and also as taxis. This is a Series 3 model, which was in production from 1962 to 1970.

On my return to Warsaw - look what I find! Another GAZ M-21 Volga! This one, in Ursynów is up for sale...

Careful now!.. this is why I didn't go to this year's classic car show at Nadarzyn - the temptation to pull out the wallet and acquire something like this was nagging me! But as my late mother used to advise me, quoting from Gone with the Wind - "Buy land - land is the only thing that matters; land is the only thing that lasts." (News on the land purchase front on Wednesday.)

Here's a black Volga (snap taken at the Nadarzyn show two years ago). Oh to be behind the wheel of one of these once again... 

A propos classic cars, just a couple of years younger than the Volga, a Chevrolet El Camino SS 454 (with Cowl Induction) stars in this sublime video for Bruce Springsteen's Hello Sunshine.

Mood beautiful.

Bonus classic car - Is this a photo taken from the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico in the early 1960s? No, this is Monday 3 June - while waiting this morning for my train to town, I snapped this Porsche 356B passing Jeziorki station on ul. Gogolinska. Beautifu1!

UPDATE 04.06.2019: More classicism from by my office - below: a customised FSO Syrena R-20 pick-up, used to advertise a radio station... Produced between 1972 and 1980.

Below: you'll have seen these here before, but a well-lit photo of a brace of Jelcz buses from the 1960s parked, as always, outside the Palace of Culture.

This time last year:
Memory and Me

This time two years ago:
Sticks, carrots and nudge - a proposal

This time four years ago:
London vs. Warsaw pt 2: the demographic aspects

Friday, 31 May 2019

It's the 31st of May and where's the viaduct?

Another deadline has come and gone. The viaduct carrying ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line at W-wa Jeziorki station was meant to have been opened in late-December 2016; late-December 2017; August 2018; December 2018; March 2019 and now May 2019 and it still isn't. Not a bad thing, mind you; once it is open it will mean far more traffic tearing up and down Karczunkowska, which still has no pavement for a crucial 200m of its length between ul. Nawłocka and Trombity.

When will the viaduct be open? There's still much to do. For starters, the final layer of asphalt needs to be laid. No fewer than 13 pedestrian crossings with zebras and road signs need to be put down. Road markings - the white lines - need painting. The cycle path along the south side of the viaduct needs to be completed. Around 30m of balustrades have be installed on either side of the viaduct between the steps down to platform/street level. Four level-access lifts need to be installed. And this is just the viaduct - the park + ride is nowhere to be seen (although the access road to it has just had the first layers of asphalt applied). The bus loop is nearly done but requires asphalt. Station signage is being put up - plenty of new signs, white on dark blue, the process will not take long.

Signing off the entire project and opening the bridge to traffic will take ages. The case of the 100m-stretch of ul. Sokola (part of the Trasa Świętokrzyska) between ul, Jagiellońska and ul. Targowa is worth bearing in mind. The construction work was completed in December 2017, and opened 17 months later because the acoustic screens were deemed unacceptable to the authorities. The level-access lifts at Czachówek Południowy station are still not ready, a year and half after the rest of the work there was completed.

A frantic burst of activity this morning, but to no avail - another deadline missed.

Yesterday these signs below were awaiting placement - now they're up.

Get used to them! All of a sudden, Karczunkowska looks like an important thoroughfare, rather than a pavement-free local byway that most villages of Podkarpacie would be ashamed of.

Below: this morning - the signs are up. No balustrades or safety barriers over the tracks, only temporary measures.

Below: this time on Wednesday, 30 May 2018. Progress but at a slow pace.

Below: up top - waiting for the last lick of asphalt; the first application of a cycle path.

Below: looking down at where the Park + Ride will be; parking for 67 cars. Like, less than a bus-full of people. Other than providing an access road to the P+R, paved and lit, work to actually build it has not even begun. Note the lack of permanent balustrades to the left - still waiting for these, only temporary barriers at the moment.

Well guys, no rush. Just come up with yet another deadline, and miss it... I won't miss the extra volume of new traffic.

This time two years ago:
My mother's school - subject of exhibition at national army museum

This time three years ago:
Stormy end to May

This time four years ago:
Where's it better to live: London or Warsaw?

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki, magic hour, late-May

This time seven years ago:
Świdnica, one of Poland's lesser-known pearls

This time ten years ago:
Spirit of place

Friday, 24 May 2019

Spitalfields and Smithfields - more from the City

Friday in the City and the chance to explore; I am often visiting the City on business and rather than head back to Ealing from the nearest Tube station, I meander westwards on foot, each time choosing a new route. There is so much to see, so much to discover, and such a rich history that is visually and intellectually rewarding.

Below: peak Spitalfields, hipster capital of London, where old brick has been put to new use. A once run-down area within walking distance of the skyscrapers of the City's financial heart has become a Most sought-after location.

Right: here we are, right at the edge. In the background and to the right, the steel and glass of a modern financial hub; the NatWest and RBS buildings on Bishopsgate. In front of them and to the left, the early Victorian brick and cobbles of Spital Yard. The 'Spital' comes from St Mary's Hospital, founded in 1197.

The district was associated with weaving, cloth-making and garment manufacture with successive waves of immigrants since the 17th century - Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis - establishing themselves and their businesses around here.

The gatehouse to St Bartholomew-the-Great church. There are two parishes side by side; St Bartholomew-the-Great and St Bartholomew-the-Less, formerly the parish church of Bartholomew's Hospital, ('Barts'), the teaching hospital, founded by the Augustinian Friars in 1123. The entire complex stands between Smithfield Market to the north, the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) to the south-west and the Bank of England to the south-east.

London's rich mediaeval history was mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but St Barts survived.
Right: the word 'bedlam' comes from the corruption of the word Bethlehem, which by 1460 had become Europe's first psychiatric hospital. This plaque is to be found by the Liverpool Street entrance to Liverpool Street station.

The words 'hospital', 'hostel' and 'hotel' derive their etymology from the same route (the dropped 's' replaced by the circumflex over the 'o' as in the French spelling of hôtel. Originally, "hostels of God," early mediaeval hospitals provided hospitality to guests - pilgrims - and patients alike. Only after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the late 1530s did the roles of hospital and pilgrim's rest begin to diverge.

Left: the entrance to the Museum of the Order of St John - the Knights Hospitaller, located in Clerkenwell in the old priory gatehouse, built in 1504. The museum tells the story of how the monastic order was founded in the 11th century during the First Crusade in Jerusalem to look after Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land - and how it subsequently turned into what is now St John Ambulance Brigade. The brigade's logo - the Maltese Cross - seen on the pavement - shows the continuity of the organisation spanning almost one millennium.

Left: Lowndes House, No.1 City Road. Built in 1929 in an imperial style that would already have appeared dated at that time when modernism was the rage, this was the London headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer's UK manufacturing facility was in Glasgow. Compared to other Singer buildings - such as the one in St Petersburg - quite modest. Singer was one of the first American multinational corporations, with a global reach well before WW1. Today, the Grade II listed building serves as a Travelodge hotel.

Below: O joy! I walked the length of Spitalfields' Elder Street, expecting that a good street landscape would be spoilt by modern cars. But no! A Bentley S1, built between 1955 and '59. And how perfectly placed, at the end of the street...

...standing next to a Morris Minor Series II convertible (1952-56)! A marvellous sight! Both displaying the patina of decades of driving.

Below: onwards from Spitalfields to Smithfields - and another classic, somewhat younger (late 1970s, so only 40 years old) MG MGB Roadster passes the meat market.

Left: at Smithfields, to find the house in which lived Sir John Betjeman. It's here - at 43 Cloth Fair, the entrance being on Cloth Court. This was his London home from 1954 to 1972, with an interlude (1958-59) living at Rotherhithe while the flat was being refurbished following a fire. A fine location from which to explore the City, Those 18 years saw many historic buildings making way for steel-and-glass offices.

Right: blue plaque over the door to Sir John Betjeman's flat. His youthful explorations of the City of London were described in Chapter VI, his autobiographical poem, Summoned by Bells; he would visit the City's churches on Sundays, drawn towards the more obscure ones.

Below: Christ Church, Spitalfields, a Hawksmoor design. It was one of a spate of churches erected as a result of the work of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. Not 50 but 12 arose in and around London in the first half of the 18th century; this one in particular to minister to Huguenots who had fled France to England to avoid religious persecution at home. To the left of frame in this photo, Spitalfields Market. Street food and street fashions.

By the 19th century, the mission of Christ Church had changed with the coming of a new influx of immigrants - Jewish refugees from the Russian Pale of Settlement. The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews was active in this parish, as can be seen in many of the plaques inside the vestibule, commemorating Jews who had converted and those who ministered to them (below).

Left: another literary 'JB' - John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress. Here is his grave, at the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. As with the works of John Betjeman, I was introduced to Pilgrim's Progress at school. All I can remember of Bunyan's book are the words 'Slough of Despond'. Also buried here are Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, and William Blake.

16,000 paces walked today - a good result.

This time two years ago:
That tune going round your head now...

This time three years ago:
The eyes... the eyes... 

This time four years ago:
New old terminal open at Okęcie airport

This time six years ago:
Arrogance vs. humility 

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw looking good ahead of the football-fan influx

This time ten years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time 12 years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Betjeman The Bonus of Laughter - Vol. 3 of Bevis Hillier's biography

Hillier's books have been my bedside and travel companions since February; three months on, I have finished and feel greatly satisfied, yet sad that this literary journey has reached an end.

The first volume describes the childhood and youth of John Betjeman, his life at Oxford, his first jobs and the poetic influences that led to the publication of his first book of poetry. The second volume charts Betjeman's rise to prominence - as a journalist, broadcaster and poet. In the final volume, Betjeman reaps the rewards of his work; recognition, honours, the onset of old age, illness and death.

This book shows the arc of his career reaching a zenith and then falling back to earth as infirmity, and the demands that came with the role of Poet Laureate, dulled his edge. Entering the eighth and final decade of his life, we see a man confined to a wheelchair wrestling with the great existential question - is there a God?

Betjeman's poems were not taken seriously by the literary establishment in his time. Heavyweight academic books about English poetry in the 20th century have been written that do not even mention him. He is often dismissed as a 'popular' poet; "the low-brow's middle-brow," "idly snobbish and trippingly traditional" "harmless writer of light verse" by those who could be bothered; others affected to ignore him. Typically his poems outsold theirs by twenty to one.

But ignore Betjeman you cannot. He gets to the bones of the human condition, love and death, the universally applicable subjects, with a simplicity of language learned from journalism that takes practice and sympathy for the reader. He is the pre-eminent poet of place; his descriptions of towns, villages, churches, landscapes, resonate with the reader to the extent of being able to share the qualia of being there.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Betjeman was his religious questioning. He wanted to believe in God - a high Anglican God - but was troubled with doubt throughout his life, doubts that intensified with age. He was born in when almost everyone believed; but by the time he died in 1984, few English people truly believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, or in a heavenly afterlife. His angst-ridden contemplation of the Eternal and Infinite gave his poems an edge that conscious and sensitive spirits can identify with.

For these two reasons I admire Betjeman's poetry so much.

"It's easy to be difficult," said Betjeman of T.S. Eliot's phrase "the desirability of poetry's being difficult." Being difficult in poetry was fashionable at the very same time that being difficult was fashionable in art and classical music, observes Hillier.

The book expounds on the massively important role of Jock Murray, his publisher, who almost existed so that Betjeman's poems could reach their public. 'Jock' (John Arnaud Robin Grey Murray) was the sixth generation of John Murrays to run the publishing company. The seventh sold it - today the John Murray imprint, once Queen Victoria's personal publisher, belongs to the French conglomerate, Lagardere.

I found the way the footnotes were presented rather tiresome; when reading the narrative, my focused attention is distracted by a superscript number referring me to the notes section at the back of the book, which in itself, in volume 3 alone, runs to 84 pages. Looking up the note requires abandoning my train of thought, flicking to the notes section, trying to find the chapter heading (only in the second volume is the reader aided in this by a guide at the top of the notes pages referring to the pagination of the main body of the book), and I know that when I finally get there, I have less than a 50/50 chance of learning something new and interesting rather than just finding it's yet another 'ibid'.

Sadness in parting with this book after three months is tempered by the knowledge that I can dip into my various collections of John Betjeman's works with a new understanding.

This time two years ago:
Birds and their young, Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
"Distinguish joy from pleasure" - wise words

This time seven years ago:
A post about a book about a film about a journey to a room

This time nine years ago:
Mr Pheasant trumpets his presence

This time ten years ago:
Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

This time 11 years ago:
Zamienie and the encroaching tide of Development

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Electric cars for hire by the minute

Is this the start of a revolution? Our electricity supplier, Innogy, has launched an electric car-hire scheme in Warsaw, placing a fleet of 500 BMW i3 cars at the disposal of any driver with the Innogy Go! app in their smartphone. Full information (in English) here.

The white-and-lime-green cars are becoming a common sight on the streets, people are getting used to them. By-the-minute car hire has been around in Warsaw for a few years (Panek and Traficar), but having electric ones that can zoom along bus passes is an advantage. And Innogy Go! only charges by the minute, not by the kilometre.

Before going any further, a digression about electric vehicles.

A few years ago, I took a close look at the range-topping Tesla S at an event in Łódź. I was struck by how tinny the doors sounded when they closed. There is a reason (Toyota's hybrids also have doors which make a similar sound). The doors - the entire car body - has to be built as light as possible. With fossil-fuel-engined cars, if you need to put in an extra weighty feature to help make the car more attractive, you add a few cc to engine's capacity. "I want the car door to shut making the sound of a door of a bank vault!" says the car designer. "Yes," replies the car engineer, "to achieve that, the car door will have to have the weight of a bank-vault door." "Quite so. Make the engine bigger to compensate!" Easy enough to do with petrol or diesel, a tough ask on an electric engine - or more accurately, on the battery that powers it.

So electric cars have to be lighter, thus more fragile. And so, the vicious circle will be broken. In this, the automotive industry has been making ever-heavier cars more powerful - therefore kinetically more dangerous to other road users in a crash, leading to heftier safety cages, crash bars and other passive measures, making cars even heavier - therefore needing even more power, and with it more kinetic danger, leading to more defensive measures. A bit like the the naval powers building Dreadnought battleships with ever greater guns and armour. Or the nuclear arms race.

I have sworn never to buy a fossil-fuel engined car ever again. But then, do I really need to own a car - any car? I'm entirely happy pottering around Warsaw on London on public transport and on foot, and hiring a car when necessary.

Will I ever use an auto-na-minuty? On Tuesday after work I went to Ikea in Janki to check out a few things. I went by public transport and was there quick enough (SKM from W-wa Śródmieście to W-wa Rakowiec, from there a 15 tram to P+R Al. Krakowska, and from there a 711 bus to Janki.

Whoever was responsible for planning the shopping centres at Janki assumed that literally no one would want to get there by public transport. The bus stop is over 900m from Ikea! After my retail experience was complete, time to go home. The journey home (a mere 8km as the crow flies) took the best part of 90 minutes because of the vicissitudes of the suburban bus routes weaving around various villages calling at empty bus stops along the way. And it was bucketing down with rain. A good time to use an electric car for a short-distance journey. According to Google Maps, the journey home from Ikea in Janki should take 16 minutes by car (through Falenty, Łady and Dawidy Bankowe); at a rate of 1.19 złoty per minute, that would be under 20zł. Now, the cheapest rate taxi would be around 30zł for this ride. Is this an attractive saving? Your first ride is 1 grosz for the first 15 minutes... Now, that's tempting.

A fair-weather alternative to the electric car is a electric scooter (skuter as opposed to hulajnoga). Operated by Blinkee, these are cheaper, but you need to wear a helmet (in the box at the back). There are 200 of these scattered around Warsaw - find them using the app.

Below: the alternative, in the pouring rain.

Pricing: electric car vs electric scooters in Warsaw

Units Driving
per min
per min.
500 1,19 zł0.50 zł 236 zł
Blinkee (scooter)200 0.69 zł0.09 zł89 zł

This time last year:
Sunday shopping issue solved
[After a year of doing the Big Grocery Shop online, I won't return to doing it the old way! It's 25 minutes of my time to order, receive and unpack the goods, rather than 90 minutes including the 7.5 km drive there and back.]

This time three years ago:
Mszczonów - another railway junction

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

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

This time eight years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
Coal line rarity

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Russia's Far East - maps and roads

Until not so very long ago, Russia's Far East had no year-round, asphalted road connection to the rest of the country. In 2010, Vladimir Putin officially opened a new road that finally allowed motorists to make the entire journey from Moscow to Vladivostok without having to cover a thousand kilometres off-road.

In my 1989 Atlas Avtomobil'skich Dorog SSSR, the gap is glaring. The Soviet motorist - unless an intrepid explorer with a rugged and reliable four-wheel drive vehicle - could not drive from one end of the country to the other. Below: the key map shows where the gaps are. Between the eastern edge of page 83 and the western edge of page 84 - nothing. To the south of the Amur river - China.

Let's zoom in a little bit - the Soviet highway network had a huge hole in it between Chita and Khabarovsk - over 2,100km of gap. However, if you go east from Chita and west from Khabarovsk by minor roads not of highway standard but were asphalted,the gap shrank to just over 1,000km.

Below: the eastern edge of page 83 of Atlas Avtomobil'skich Dorog SSSR: Note the dotted line heading north-east out of Sretensk - the dotted line means no asphalt - in Russian as in Polish, 'gruntowa'. Beyond Gorbicha, there is no road. At all. Whatsoever. The black lines are the railways - the Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur. As you can see, Russia's east and west were held together by just these two slender threads. Now a third is in place (since 2010), the connection of Chita and Khabarovsk by a main road - certainly not motorway standard - but something entirely acceptable in the Western world, given the volume of traffic using it.

Below: the western edge of page 84 of Atlas Avtomobil'skich Dorog SSSR: Two roads leading north-south, but nothing east-west. This was 1989, remember...

Below: Google Maps shows us the 1,004km of 21st-century asphalt that today joins together the road networks of Siberia and Russia's Far East. It might be long, but it's just seven metres wide. The only road connecting east and west.

Three years after the asphalting of the road was complete, Google sent a car with a camera mast to drive the length of it, taking photos for Google Maps Street View and for Google Earth. The result is fascinating. Unlike in Soviet times, when unauthorised possession of military maps was a criminal offence and the few maps available to the public were riddled with deliberate errors and small in scale, Google offers top-quality images and maps to one and all. Based on satellite imagery and backed up by cameras on the ground, we can now see into the lives of Russians living in distant provincial towns and villages like never before.

Much of it is ramshackle, rusty, potholed, improvised, crumbling; here and there some new buildings appear but this is not China. Rather this is slow decline.

Here is a small selection: Below: this is the point, north of Never (pron. 'N'yev'yer), where the road to Magadan, over 3,100km away, begins. Note - when the photo was taken, the roads were numbered M58 (Chita- Khabarovsk) and M56 (Never-Magadan); they were re-numbered P297 and P504 respectively in 2011, though the old nomenclature remain on photos taken in 2013.

It's a mighty long way down the dusty trail to Magadan, once gateway to the hell that was Kołyma. Double the distance between London and Warsaw. At least today it's accessible by road from 'mainland' Russia - in Soviet times, it was only accessible by sea during the ice-free months, and by air. No land routes.

Below: Magadan is well covered by Google Earth Street View. A desperate, hellish place even in high summer.

"Minus 40 is no frost. Forty kilometres is no distance. Forty percent is no alcohol" (Siberian saying).

The imagery is from 2013. After the rupture with the West following the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, it is unlikely that Russia will allow Google to update its Street View maps or to extend the coverage. So see what's available to see today, dragging the orange man symbol onto roads highlighted in blue on Google Maps (on picking up the icon).

Google Street View offers an excellent sense of 'being there'. A few weeks ago, I was riding through Góra Kalwaria, not far from Warsaw, and thought to myself - "I was here recently with Eddie. We were looking for the location of the pizza restaurant we used to stop at when he and his sister were small... but I couldn't recall driving here with Eddie... and then it occurred to me that we did this scouting online, on Google Earth Street View, and my recollection of that moment shared by the computer screen felt just as though we'd actually been driving through Góra Kalwaria!

This time two years ago:
Heavenly Jeziorki

This time  six years ago:
Why are all the shops shut today? 

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki at its most beautiful

This time nine years ago:
Useful and useless in my wallet

This time ten years ago:
In search of the dream klimat - remote viewing made real

This time 11 years ago:
Zakopane to Kraków in 3hrs 45min

This time 12 years ago:
The year's most beautiful day?