Friday, 29 May 2020

Sunset's trip

As the world turns at the edge of night... a sunset stroll around my other manor - Jakubowizna. 

Ain't that something? Look at the size of the sky... takes me elsewhere. Didn't have this in West London.

Extinguished flame, the globe's horizon has spun back, leaving traces of fire under the clouds sweeping down inexorably from the north. 

The sun has set; it's getting dark. Your journey lies ahead - you must enter the forest. Atavistic fears well up inside - fears of brigandry, wild animals - and supernatural creatures too...? European travellers in the Middle Ages would have known such fears. Today, I can enter this forest fearlessly; I know it holds no terrors by day, nor by night.

Below: safely back to my działka, my first night's sleep here awaits me now.

This time six years ago

This time nine years ago:
How I almost saved Barrack Obama

This time 11 years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time 13 years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns

Evening elegy across the tracks

Join me as dusk falls, for a virtual stroll through the fields between Jeziorki, Dawidy Bankowe and Zamienie, as Change and Progress will change their nature forever. Idyllic scenes soon to be lost, like the one below...

...and this view across to a solitary farmhouse in Dawidy Bankowe - before long, six lanes of expressway and a service road will be driven in between.

Farm tracks between wheatfields, where a final season's crop is being grown.

The service road runs parallel to the S7 extension; the topsoil has been scraped away the main carriageways to the right, running through the fields, the Action computer warehouse in the distance, while to the left mounds of earth will be turned into embankments and viaduct ramps.

The Action warehouse. This will be Węzeł (junction) Zamienie, the first interchange to the south of Warsaw.

The newly-built hills, getting ever taller, offer entirely new views in all directions... this one, across to Warsaw on the horizon (the towers look tiny because this is a very wide-angle lens)

Looking east towards the railway line...

Looking west towards a setting sun, less than a month to the summer solstice, when sunset in Warsaw will be at 21:01, just 18 minutes later than today.

Back across the tracks, on the Jeziorki side. At least here there won't be an expressway driven through these fields.

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda

This time eight years ago:
Work starts on ul. Gogolińska

This time nine years ago:
Waiting for The Man

This time ten years ago:
The Flavour of Parallel reviewed

This time 12 years ago:
Twilight in the garden

This time 13 years ago:
Late May reflections

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Thoughts - trains set in motion*

Your train of thought is the realest real you, thought clad in a shell of bone and meat. What is it doing? Right now?

Too often it idles, or just passively drifts. Sometimes it takes note – it observes. There are times, all too rare for most of us, when your train of thought engages most actively with the universe, placing previously observed phenomena together, creating a synthesis of ideas – your ideas, new, original ideas. 

And we can never really know what's going on in other people's trains of thought. The parameters of my laptop can be agreed upon independently by computer scientists from all four corners of the Earth, but no one can tell what's going on in my mind.

Some people report an internal dialogue going on in their minds; not me. I'm not even sure most of the time what language I think it. But the thought is there, with moments of will determining the direction of the train's travel.

Thoughts don’t so much ripple outward as move in a linear fashion, hence 'trains'. The term itself predates rail travel; it was already in use in the late 16th century. Thomas Hobbes has a chapter entitled ‘Of the Consequence or TRAYNE of Imaginations’ in Leviathan (1651). "By Consequence, or TRAYNE of Thoughts, I understand that succession of one Thought to another, which is called (to distinguish it from Discourse in words), Mentall Discourse."

And when the train of thought is interrupted, it can be difficult to track back, though the thoughts that you have thought along the way, back to that junction where the train went over the points. On my walk today, I found a train of thought interrupted by a splendid view across the fields – then traced my way back to what I had been thinking about up till then, and what initially set off that thought. 

A plane races over the fields behind the back garden in the darkness – wow! 

What was that? Sounded almost like a propeller-driven fighter plane – I open a new window on my laptop to discover it’s a PZL Orlik – a prop trainer used by Polish Air Force, fast and low… Where was I? 

Familiar? Too many distractions. Aha! Yes, while walking across the fields I recalled my late friend from Polish Saturday school and Polish scouts, Jack C.; we had a drink in London a few weeks before he died. And I remembered his father telling me many years ago that Jack’s key strength was that he could focus on something – not let his attention drift – for far longer than the average person – a useful characteristic for a lawyer. Very intense. But for most of us, trains of thought wanders off onto a new thread – and you forgot what you were trying to get to before being distracted. A good lawyer can concentrate, keep that train on the track.

We think in a linear manner. Our thoughts don't ripple outwards in different directions at the same time. Our story-telling is linear; it's how we explain things as a species. You need to know this piece of information if you are to learn that piece of information later. This is why - correct me if I'm wrong - but neither Stephen Hawking (in A Brief History of Time) nor Carlo Rovelli (in The Order of Time) make that connection as to why we see time travelling in one direction ('the arrow of time' as  Hawking puts it). Even if your thinking shifts to the meta-level, it's still a linear shift; the next station for the train of thought, albeit at a higher level.

There's one notable exception to the linear nature of our thinking - the flashback. It could be prompted (by a smell, for example, reminding you of a childhood holiday), or entirely unbidden. These flashbacks, a phenomenon about which I have written often, have the nature of reassembling in your subjective consciousness the exact quality of sensation that you once experienced (qualia memories). These unbidden flashbacks are as ephemeral as snowflakes; the triggered ones you can savour for longer while that perfume or cooking smell lingers. A temporal gap has been crossed - your consciousness has congruence with qualia from the past.

I would posit that more than anything else, you are the sum of all your trains of thought; you are your dreams – this is your essence, not your body and its driver, your armour-clad ego. The reason I exercise and keep fit is not to compete in body-building contests – it’s to keep body and mind together in the current form as long as possible. What's the purpose of me having been alive all this time, to this age?” The answer lies in the additional knowledge and wisdom that I’ve accrued over the years. All the time, I have been making more and more sense of what’s around me. I’ve added detail, finesse, nuance. Things I once only sensed I can now better put into words – but the level of detail could still be finer. I can explain better, justify better to you – but more importantly to myself – avoiding self-delusion. Thirty four winters, thirty five summers to beat my father’s record. I hope to do so. But it's not an aim in itself - the aim is to improve, to carry my thinking to a higher level. And there's the spiritual dimension to all of this too...

A few nights ago, I dreamt of having my own in-dream epistemological guide, to explain to me what new theories of knowledge were being opened up to me as I dreamt. Wow! 

* Line from Sea Breezes, from Roxy Music's eponymous first album. 

This time two years ago:
Great crested grebes and swans hatch

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

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

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

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

This time eight years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time nine years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time 11 years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time 12 years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Jeziorki in May

The second half of May is loveliest time of year. The greenery is at its most verdant, many flowers are in bloom. It's not too hot - it's been a cool May so far, and the rain has brought welcome relief after a bone-dry and snow-free winter. Far more is needed, however - it's painful to watch waterfowl wading in water they should be diving in. Photos from the manor, then. No particular order...

Below: ulica Żmijewska. Yes, a Warsaw street - find it in any atlas. It heads west from ul. Pozytywki. In the far distance, you can make out the platform lighting of W-wa Jeziorki station, although ul. Żmijewska doesn't reach that far, it just peters out in the fields, just like the next 'street' running parallel to it to the south, ul. Katarynki. This is the southernmost end of Jeziorki.

And to the north - and just across the tracks at W-wa Dawidy - a splendid new and temporary view of the skyline of Warsaw's upcoming new central business district around Rondo Daszyńskiego, in Wola (below). In the foreground, the junction of the S2 and S79; the new S7 extension will connect here with the S79. Photo taken from a huge hill of soil that's part of the new roadworks around here.

Below: ulica Dumki threads its way between the southern ponds (the one on the left is totally dry - you can walk across it. Not even muddy).

Below: panorama of central Warsaw, with a LOT Dreamliner coming into land at Warsaw Okęcie airport. Photo taken from the path of the S7 (under construction).

Below: corduroy field stretching from ul. Dawidowska to ul. Trombity, chimneys of Siekierki power station on the horizon.

Below: view from the far end of my back garden, arable field to the left (barley or oats) and fallow fields to the right.

Below: ul. Karczunkowska.  Memento mori - a roadside cross commemorating the victim of a traffic accident. This is the most dangerous stretch of the road, with no pavement on either side. In winter or autumn or after heavy rains it can be impossible to walk anywhere but on the asphalt, sharing the roadway with speeding traffic.

Below: a threatening sky, sunset not too far; drainage ditch running north-west from ul. Kórnicka, and a southbound train on the horizon.

A much-needed rain shower passing over the last house along ul. Dumki.

Below: part of tourist trail (szklak turystyczny) MZ-5142-z between ul. Dumki and Sarabandy; it runs from W-wa Dawidy station all the way via the Las Kabacki forest to the Vistula at Ciszyca.

This time last year:

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

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Arrogance vs. humility 

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

This time nine years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time 13 years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Poland, UK, Covid-19 and economic recovery

It's clear that there are several factors determining the spread of Covid-19 across different populations. Climate, population density, air quality and genetics play a part as do governmental responses. Poland has done far better at stalling the transmission of the virus than has the UK. Lockdown was implemented swiftly and comprehensively with the result that Poland's death toll is currently 35 times lower than the UK. Per million population it's UK with 531 and Poland with 25.

The timing of the lockdown was crucial. Observing the spread-rate daily, it was evident that without action, there would be a doubling of cases every two to three days, and at that rate, millions would become infected within weeks. Poland took action when there were 81 confirmed cases and three deaths. Within two weeks of lockdown being imposed, the number of cases was doubling every seven days. Now, ten weeks into lockdown, it has taken a full 30 days for the number of cases to double from 10,000 to 20,000, which it did this very afternoon.

The UK government dithered, lost time, got bad advice. Lockdown was imposed on 23 March, when the number of case was already 6,650 and the death toll 81. By then, the spread rate was out of the box. It took just three and half days in late March for the number of cases in the UK to double from 10,000 to 20,000. Today, the latest number of confirmed cases broke through the quarter-million barrier. Twelve and half times more cases in a country that's not quite double Poland's population.

Yet the early lockdown is not the complete story. I have been tracking Google Mobility, a set of metrics gathered from users of Google Maps on their mobile phones. It shows that more Poles have been going to their places of work than Britons. In the week ending 13 May, the number of Britons who visited their usual workplace was 61% down on baseline, while it Poland, it was just 30% down. How many people are working from home in both countries is an important measure, which I shall address.

What's going on? I've long held that the UK economy has become over-dependent on services. The World Bank says that the value added to the UK economy by manufacturing, construction and agriculture totals just 17.5% of its GDP. The rest is services. Poland's economy has manufacturing, construction and agriculture contributing 28.6% of the value added to its GDP.

The first few days of lockdown showed exactly which jobs were crucial to maintaining social order. Food retailing and the retail supply chain, logistics and of course the health service. And which jobs were less important - public relations, fashion, and new-car showrooms. The notion of 'bullshit jobs' was held up to the glare of harsh reality and proved correct. 

With the spread rate down to acceptable levels, the lockdown is easing, but the authorities are on guard in case infections start accelerating again. Eyes are now on the economy. How deep will the second quarter fall in GDP prove to be across the UK and Poland? And how quickly will the economies be able to dig themselves out of the hole in the third and fourth quarters?

I have one cherished theory which I believe is another factor in why the virus didn't hit Poland as hard as the UK, and is also a factor in why Poland's economic downturn won't be as severe or as long as the UK's.

It is to do with learned dependence. The UK experienced the Industrial Revolution around 250 years ago. This means that there are families in Britain where ten generations have lived and died in an industrial, rather than agricultural setting. No initiative was needed to fend for oneself; the mill-owner provided work and paid a salary; housing, food and clothes were within reach of most industrial workers even if conditions were grim. By contrast, being an agricultural smallholder meant taking full responsibility for oneself and one's family; to survive you had to tend crops and livestock, harvest, store, and sell your produce.

Poland was still largely agricultural into the second half of the 20th century. To this day, a greater percentage of Poles lives in the countryside than Britons did in the mid-1860s. Many of my Polish friends' and colleagues' parents farmed smallholdings.

This closeness to the land gives people a mental toughness, a resilience that is not evident on the surface as Poles do tend to complain a lot ("to tragedia, Panie - koszmar, masakra!"), but in the end, they get on with it. This determination to get on is also the result of a much harder history; continual invasions, wars and uprisings which resulted in a family's savings wiped out. Smaller land holdings (in central Poland, at least), had a far greater chance of surviving the turbulence (the larger ones were split up and redistributed after WWII).

Poland's economy has grown without missing a single quarter for the past 28 years. It kept growing in 2009 when most of the developed world was mired in recession. There are many other reasons for that - a robust banking sector and devaluation of an independent zloty among them - but I would argue that 'fire in the belly' and lack of a learned dependence on The Man also kept Poland moving forward. 

It is not just the developed economies of the West that will feel the Covid-19 effect more acutely than Poland; Russia, Belarus and Brazil have been hard hit too in terms of the disease's spread. Where the people look to a protective leader to shield them from harm, be it economic or epidemiological, and that leader fails, there will be repercussions. 

Covid-19 has not let Poland go - yet. The spread rate obstinately refuses to fall, with the number of confirmed infections doubling each month. But there are strong regional differences, with Śląskie province reporting between half and two-thirds of the daily new cases confirmed each day this past week. In Lubuskie or Podlaskie provinces, for instance, new cases are a handful a day. Poland's economy should only open up where and when it is safe to do so.

And there is the danger of a second wave of infection - "just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water". This may well hit Poland late this autumn/winter; the virus might mutate into something deadlier. So my predictions based on gut instinct might be swept away. But for the time being, I'll stick to my view that Poland will have one quarter of steep downturn, one quarter of mild downturn, and then recovery.

This time four years ago:
Mszczonów - another railway junction

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

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

This time ten years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time 11 years ago:
Coal line rarity

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Self-discipline and creativity during the lockdown

Having a hobby or pastime is crucial during the lockdown; your day must have structure - there are things to be done to keep the mind and body from atrophying. The connected computer helps - there's no excuse for not seeking answers to the questions that intrigue and pique one's curiosity. Runaway trains of thought can run through points and on to branch lines to ever-more obscure and fascinating destinations. Follow them!

In Derbyshire, my brother has rallied to the Victoria & Albert Museum's call to build a collection of homemade signs and rainbow drawings created during lockdown. This rainbow was created from small plastic pieces, detritus, objets trouves, broken toys, all threaded together.

The number of people who have died from Covid-19 in the UK over the past two and half months is now comparable in scale to the number of civilians who died in the UK in WWII. The eight month-long Blitz killed 20,000 Londoners; across the UK including all the other cities hit by the Blitz, the civilian death toll was 43,000; to the end of the WWII, including the 'Baby Blitz' and the V1 and V2 flying bombs, the civilian death toll was 62,000. Yesterday's excess deaths figures for England and Wales from the ONS have shown that more than 49,600 more people have died in the eight weeks from 20 March to 8 May this year than the number of deaths for the same period averaged over the past five years. 

The pandemic will go into folk history, it will not be overshadowed by a Great War, it will spawn creativity, with luck an inflection point for the better like the Renaissance after the Black Death or the Enlightenment after the Great Plague.

In a slightly more flippant burst of creativity, I channel Scotland's worst poet, William McGonagall: 

Ode on the Covid-19 Pandemic

'Twas in the year of the Lord, Twenty-Twenty,
Mankind had matters to vex it plenty.
There was Brexit and Trump to ire us,
And then from China came a deadly virus.
It spared the young and took the old,
Though the opposite story has also been told.
In London, our Premier's robust word, 
Was we should 'take it on the chin' like a cattle's herd.
When asked to respond with something stronger,
He replied you should all wash your hands for a few seconds longer.
He shook hands with patients - almost as a dare
And ended up in intensive care."

Feel free to send me more couplets to add!

This time last year:

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?

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Excuses, Covid excuses

The past two years had seen huge progress down on the działka; this year - nothing, no progress, other than starting up the motorbikes and doing some cursory scything. Everything's put on hold - summoning the geodeta (official surveyor) to mark out the eastern boundary of my plot, then getting the builders in to put up a new fence along that boundary and to close off the southern boundary, then to get rid of the fencing between my two plots and make them one. The builders are playing hard to get; no one wants to commit right now.

I guess for many work-wise, the Covid excuse for stasis is pervasive; some business goals are for obvious reasons entirely unattainable, some have only a chance of being 90% achieved

Globally, we are still many months from getting the risk down to negligible levels, with the ever-present risk of a second, more deadly, wave this winter. Here in Poland, the last week saw the largest number of new infections since the start of the pandemic, and the death toll, which had fallen back the previous week, rose to reach the fourth-highest weekly total. It is too early to be complacent. On the train back from my działka today, there were far more people travelling towards Warsaw (all but one, I must add, in a mask).

I don't feel confident enough yet to push the boat out on more investment on the działka. I was planning to get a local landscape gardener in to discuss beautifying the plot, that it might bring even more delight to the eye than in its current, rather wild, form. Right now, I'd consider such spending rash; who knows how things will turn out. 

"Fortune favours the bold" goes the saying, but I'd rather err on the side of caution.

Or is this just my Covid excuse?

I honestly don't know. I found the first few weeks greatly conducive to my creativity - I maintained my Lenten resolution to write every day, and this resulted in a large leap in my understanding of my own spirituality. That had been the aim, so goal attained. My aim for this summer - to spend time exploring rural Poland on my motorbikes - has stalled. I feel that any activity that carries a risk of hospitalisation, however slight, should be put on hold until the situation within Poland's health service has become safer.

So for now - it's about marking time. Reading is always a useful pursuit. Just before lockdown, my daughter, my brother and my good friend Jonathan Wood all independently of each other all mentioned Joseph Campbell to me. Campbell was the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake, which then opens the door to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake itself. With Wikipedia, doors fly open unexpectedly, I can spend hours just wandering aimlessly across articles, broadening my knowledge.

But then what? What should I have learnt? I think that Joseph Campbell's monomyth ties in with the narratives we are constantly constructing and re-constructing about ourselves; self-justification on the go (something that's glaringly obvious in the case of that arch-narcissist, Trump). We colourise, glamorise, and airbrush the inconvenient out of our lives. We humans have always sought a good story, since prehistory. Campbell understood this, Tolkien understood this, the authors of the Bible understood this. In the context of the myth, we want a good myth about ourselves. These days, social media feeds on that desire. Implicitly, we all mythologise about ourselves. "Print the legend".

Covid-19 and the lockdown has thrown a spanner into to the works of most people's life stories, especially the younger generation, as they set out their own place in the world. We will have to re-weave our personal narratives - why something didn't work out when it should have, or why the lockdown was a lucky break for one reason or another, why we achieved a unexpected result, or found a goal in a different way.

Striving to drop the ego is one way of dealing with this - more on this topic to come.

Meanwhile, the construction sector in Poland is not handing out excuses, they are getting on with it. Both the S7 extension and the Warsaw-Radom railway line modernisation are running way behind schedule, but work is going on, which is reassuring. Work in the open air carries less risk than office work in the city centre.

Chynów station; waiting for the new 'up' line.
Ah - and more one lockdown thing from me - exercise. Keep banging away at the press-ups, pull-ups, planks, weights, sit-ups and paces. Eat masses of fresh fruit and veg, and watch the alcohol intake!

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
The fossil-fuel powered car is dead

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Ethereal and transient

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

This time nine years ago: 
By tram to Boernerowo

This time 11 years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop; rural USA or Poland

This time 13 years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Three Coen brothers movies for lockdown

Moni and I watched A Serious Man (2009) the other weekend, ten years after first seeing it. The film complements our Covid-19 perfectly - it is about uncertainty and the place of God - and fate - in determining the outcome of our lives. The plot revolves around the tribulations of a 1960s Jewish lecturer, Larry Gopnik, trying to make sense of why his life is collapsing around him. Larry teaches physics at a Midwestern university; he is explaining quantum theory with the aid of Schrodinger's cat (which features regularly on this blog). "Is the cat dead or alive?" asks Larry of his physics class.

Will you catch Covid-19 or not? Have you already had it? Do you have the antibodies? Can you catch it a second time? Is that maskless, coughing person walking towards you along this narrow corridor infected? Will Covid-19 linger on, untreatable, in society for years or decades? Will it mutate into something nastier? Will there be a second and subsequent waves? Will there ever be an effective vaccine? Will you end up dying of it on a ventilator as some unspecified point in the future? 

Uncertainty, Larry. "The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on."

Larry asks the question "what's going on?" seven times in the film before he finally makes that above quote - in a dream. But then it is almost immediately negated by his wife's dead lover forcibly  explaining to Larry what's really going on - in the same dream.

Does Larry's doctor have news that Larry has terminal cancer? Will Larry's son Danny be killed by an approaching tornado? As the film ends, we are left with uncertainty. As the father of a South Korean student of Larry's says to him, "Please. Accept the mystery." This might make the film frustrating at a first viewing, but many subsequent re-watchings yield more and more substance as one begins to unravel the universal mysteries that underline our lives, that, like Larry's teeter on the edge of chaos.

The film is a masterpiece - one of my favourite films of all time ever, always a joy to return to, always something new to discover, which is one of the great things about most Coen brothers' movies - their multi-layeredness. 

My second Coen brothers' lockdown movie tip is O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). Set in the Great Depression, it centres on three chain-gang fugitives led by a silver-tongued Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney). Far more light-hearted than A Serious Man, the Depression plays a central role in the film - like Covid-19, it is something that has descended upon society 'from above', something perplexing, beyond anyone's control. If the recurring line in A Serious Man is "what's going on?", in O Brother, Where Art Thou, it's "everybody's looking for answers". Are they to be found in the Bible? "The Truth! Every blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That's right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want!" Are the answers to be found in religion, in politics, in music?

O Brother has a great musical soundtrack, one that's difficult not to like. And the wise-cracking dialogue has plenty of memorable quotes for everyday usage. Our favourite: "it's a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart."

Finally - entirely unrelated to Covid-19, indeed an antidote to the gloom around us right now - The Big Lebowski (1998). An odd-couple buddy movie in the mould of Withnail and I and appealing much to the same sense of humour and quote-mongers. A Chandleresque detective mystery based on mistaken identity, this cult film gave rise to the religion of Dudism, about which I wrote a couple of months ago. Incidentally, I got an apologetic email from a Michael Dembinski the other day - a US serviceman for whom I have been receiving tons of official emails over the years whenever he gets posted to another overseas location. The entire machinery of the US Navy and its sundry contractors - logistics, realtors, client-satisfaction surveys - kicks in, and all of my protests about spamming fell on the deaf ears of bureaucracy - until now. 

"Okay sir, you're a Lebowski, I'm a Lebowski, that's terrific, but I'm very busy, as I can imagine you are. What can I do for you sir?"

Life mirrors art.

This time last year:
[Same this year: Monday afternoon, 25C, Tuesday morning 2C.]

This time five years ago:
Then and now: Trafalgar Square (recreating my father's photos)

This time seven years ago:
Reflection upon the City Car

This time nine years ago:
Biblical sky

This time ten years ago:
Travel broadens the spirit

This time 11 years ago:
Welcome the Ice Saints

This time 13 years ago:
On the farm next door

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Jakubowizna, apple-blossom time again

Apple-blossom time in Jakubowizna. The sublime time of year. Heavenly. Skies that hark back to another place, another time, the seasons at their annual zenith of beauty. Young orchards in bloom.

The old orchards are put to the saw, yielding place to new. Fruit trees are good for nine or ten seasons, and then must be replaced. The cutting down of this orchard has created a new vista across to Chynów station, just around the corner.

Having learned to differentiate the notions of 'pleasure' and 'joy', I am now interested to finding and making repeatable the joyous experience. Seeking that which to a high degree of certainty will yield a subjective conscious experience of joy. But can joy be replicated? Is it not an emotion that only works if it is spontaneous - a surprise? I can report that today I have found what I was after. Sunny day, apple-blossom time, the peace of Jakubowizna - joy that transcends mere contentment.

Meanwhile, my Mazovian acre, untended since the lockdown began - indeed, since last autumn, is left to nature (below). The sunny afternoon is but a foretaste of heaven... Wildflowers in abundance under trees in blossom.

Below: off for a walk around the manor. An old orchard with young trees, under an azure sky. So perfect. Fingers crossed for a good crop of apples this year.

Where the streets have no name - other than this one. For some strange reason, this, the only named street in the village of Jakubowizna, is ulica Grochowska - after Grochów, the right-bank district of Warsaw? Or did a Pan Grochowski own land around here sometime? Or has someone appropriated an old sign from somewhere else and fastened it to a fence here?

The pines grow wild and tall and sublime, bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. Hardly anyone around. Peace.

Below: house in Grobice, the village just to the north of Jakubowizna.

There's nearly an acre of land up for sale right now, just a few doors up from my place. I don't know what Covid-19 has done to the market right now, but on the basis of what I paid for a plot half this size last year, given that this one is overgrown with trees and further away from the asphalt and amenities, I'd suggest that 60,000 to 65,000 złotys (£12,000-ish) would be a fair point around which to bargain. As my builder said to me before starting work on my remont, it's cheaper to buy a plot of land and build something new than to renovate an existing house.

This time last year:
Busy doing nothin'

This time six years ago:
Springtime pictorial

This time seven years ago:
Kitten time!

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw - Centrum to Jeziorki by train with super-wide lens

This time nine years ago:
Loose Lips Sink Ships - part II

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki in the infra red 

This time 11 years ago:
Some rain, at last!

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Things will never be the same: Part III - Risk

For Bartek

How will social interactions look after the pandemic abates? asked Bartek over on Facebook. The answer lies in how we as individuals adjust our tolerance to risk.

Before Covid-19, whenever you left home, you always lived with the slightest risk of death, injury, infection, becoming the victim of crime, losing your wallet, keys, phone or other valuables. Risk is ever-present, we balance on the edge of chaos. Smoking poses a health risk, as does excessive alcohol consumption. These are risks we take, to varying degrees of consciousness.

We have an instinctive idea as to the size of that risk - some greater than others, some fairly minimal. That idea is built up over time in a heuristic manner; Bayesian inference. "I wasn't run over by a bus yesterday nor the day before, so I'm unlikely to be run over by one today." Scrambling up mountains of ballast on a building site to get a better photo. Crossing a railway line other than over a bridge or level crossing. Riding a motorbike. Taking risks means you have to be conscious of what you're doing - my mother's wise words - "Quid quid agis, prudenter agas, et respice finem" (Whatever you do, do prudently and be conscious of the [possible] outcome) ring in my ears when I undertake any activity that involves a modicum or risk. The risk is about balance; balancing, say, the pleasures of smoking (for those born with that particular gene), against the dangers of premature death. Driving too fast balanced with the risk of being involved in a car crash. We have some idea of the risks we are taking.

But post-Covid-19? Sauntering out into crowded buses, bars, cinemas, conference centres - should we as a society take that risk? Or is it down to individuals to assess the risk for themselves?

We will be slowly forced out of lockdown by economic pressures. Neither our governments nor our businesses can afford a lockdown that lasts indefinitely. The risk, that had until now been shouldered by the state, will pass to the individual.

How much risk are you prepared to take?

Would you wander into a leper colony or into a hospital ward full of patients with typhus? Without personal protective equipment? Or into a crowded bar full of strangers in the post-Covid-19 world? Read this blog post from Paul Garner, professor of infectious diseases and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to see what the disease is like - even if you don't end up in hospital. Fancy your chances?

It's Russian roulette. But how many bullets, and how many chambers?

The actuaries are still out.

One in a million?

Let's look at Poland and the UK [source:]

UK: right now - active cases: 179,779

Poland: right now - active cases: 9,406

Let's assume, on the basis of countries with far higher rates of testing than either the UK or Poland, that for every confirmed case there are ten more wandering around, either as asymptomatic carriers, or showing only mild symptoms that don't merit medical attention.

So the UK has around 1,797,790 carriers of the virus. And Poland has 94,060.

The UK's population is 67.8 million. Poland's is 38.2 million. Your chance of meeting someone carrying the virus? In the UK, it's 1 in 38. In Poland, it's 1 in 406. Do you feel lucky? Your chances of catching it are slimmer if you both take precautions. Infected people touch door handles, parcels, packaging, hand rails. They cough and sneeze, spraying droplets into the air. If that infected virus carrier is wearing a mask, and you're also wearing a mask, the risk of infection falls dramatically. If you wash your hands after going out into the public - and develop the muscle-memory not to touch your face, the risk falls dramatically. If you ignore all the health advice - your risk of catching and spreading the virus further increases.

The virus isn't evenly spread around the country - there are geographic clusters of infection, and within those towns and cities there are hotbeds such as care home or hospitals. We know how long the virus can survive on door handles or on plastic work-tops (up to 72 hours). We know that washing your hands with soap, not touching your face, wearing a mask and giving a suitably wide berth to anyone not wearing a mask will decrease the chances of you catching it.

But catch it you still can - just like you can die in a road traffic accident. This Thursday in Poland, nine people died in road accidents; 14 died of Covid-19. [In the UK on Thursday, 539 died of Covid-19. In one day.]

As the pandemic (seems to) get less virulent, so governments need to unfreeze the economy. As this happens, the state will be relinquishing responsibility for its citizens' health - but the citizens themselves need to take that responsibility back. Vulnerable groups (high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, other pre-existing conditions, the elderly) should not venture out without exercising all possible precautions. I have noticed over the past few days that younger Poles have forgotten about masks in public, either dispensing with them all together, or else having them dangling loose and useless. Indoors they are more useful - mask-wearing remains de rigeur in shops.

The risk for the young is low. I won't be taking that risk myself - I will continue to wear a mask on in public, keep a small plastic bottle (from soy sauce in a sushi set!) filled with 95% spirytus rektyfikowany in my pocket as hand sanitiser, wear gloves and maintain a very generous social distance.

You might say I'm overdoing it - but the risk is as yet unknown. No doubt actuaries are working day and night on spreadsheets analysing all the factors that will determine how much risk there is out there. The simple answer is - we don't know. We're learning from day to day, but there's still a long learning curve ahead of us.

Will the virus mutate? It's mutating already, into milder and deadlier strains. Will it come back in a second wave? Likely, if societies and individuals let their guard down.

You take your risk. I'll take mine. As in my previous post, it's an age thing. If you're young, you have far more need to interact with your peers. It's part of your biology. At my age, real-life social interaction is far less important. I'm happy with things as they are - I'm not going to be putting myself into harm's way until the disease has been beaten. Part of this is a reliable antibody test. Could it be that I've already had Covid-19 but in a form so mild that I never even noticed it? Until there's a test available for antibodies in the bloodstream, I don't know. Will there be a vaccine for Covid-19 that's effective across all its various mutations? 

Don't know. These are just the known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns about Covid-19 that no one's yet pondered upon.

This time three years ago:
En Marche! [Polish regional bus 'network']

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki spring pictorial

This time seven years ago:
Kitten time

This time eight years ago:
Warsaw - Centrum to Jeziorki by train with super-wide lens

This time nine years ago:
Loose Lips Sink Ships - part II

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki in the infra red

This time 11 years ago:
Some rain, at last!

Monday, 4 May 2020

Things will never be the same (Pt II of many)

For Moni

The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to be a tipping point in human development, much like the Black Death (which led to the  Renaissance) or the Great Plague (which led to the Enlightenment). It will be one of those historical inflection points after which our economies and societies take on a different direction and different values. The last one (here in Poland) was the change from communism to market democracy. The last one affecting the UK was the end of WWII.

But what about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, which killed 50 million people, you may ask? It was very much 'forgotten plague', overshadowed by WWI, which killed 17 million combatants and civilians. The slaughter in the trenches had a greater impact on the public imagination, on art and society, than an infectious disease that comes round a once year and happened in those years to be far more virulent and deadly than usual. Historians have focused more on the social and economic effects of the Great War than on the Spanish Flu. [It was called 'Spanish' because censors of both belligerent blocs removed mention of a deadly epidemic sweeping army bases and cities alike; only in neutral Spain were the newspapers writing about it.]

Growing up I read a great many books about the First and Second World Wars; I did inter-war history at A-Level and American history at university, but a disease that killed three times as many people that died in WWI and almost as many as died in WWII barely got a mention.

Given that (touch wood!) the fatalities from Covid-19 will not be anywhere near as great as from the Spanish Flu - will Covid-19 get forgotten too? Just as the Roaring Twenties helped society in the US and UK overcome the losses of war and flu, will the rebound after Covid-19 have a similar effect? Will there be a similar drop in inequality?

Maybe, maybe not. Your point of view is crucial. It's a generation thing.

For my generation, growing up in the shadow of WWII, life was Constantly Improving. More comfortable, more interesting, more colourful. Year by year. Food was getting more varied and interesting, more plentiful and more affordable. Take crisps - once they came with salt twisted in a little piece of blue paper to sprinkle. Then - innovation! Ready salted crisps! Then the flavours - Salt & vinegar. Cheese & Onion at first. Then ever more variations around the humble salt snack. Today I get grumpy if the Co-op on Pitshanger Lane doesn't have Mature Cheddar & Red Onion Kettle Chips. Holidays changed from a week in a boarding house in Eastbourne to a fortnight on the Côte d'Azur, then Eilat, Tampa, Thailand and Borneo now Kazakhstan. The more exotic the better. Cars - from an Austin A35 to a Ford Escort to a Toyota Carina to a Range Rover Sport. Clothes that are worn a few times and forgotten about or discarded.

The long path to more and more and always more has been one-way.

But if, all of a sudden, we were to be told "That's it - there will be no more!" - my generation could well say: "That's OK. We can cope. In our sunny youth, we managed without many of these things! We could always go back to doing that again - life without fancy trainers, trekking holidays in the Andes, a new home cinema - no problem!

For my generation - not a problem. But for our children?

Our children were born into plenty - toddling around centrally heated homes with fitted carpets, watching bedtime stories on VHS cassette, eating biscuits with garishly coloured icing, being driven to ballet classes, karate practice or pony club, holidaying somewhere exciting each summer and skiing the nursery slopes in winter. To them foreign travel was always something natural - and now this has come to a sudden stop, and the road towards ever-greater prosperity is set to go into reverse.

This is the Brexit divide as well. Older folk, remembering their youth through nostalgia-tinted reading specs, could, at a pinch, re-acclimatise themselves to Life As It Was Before The Eighties.

Young and lost your job? It'll be a while. The young will have something they've been accustomed to all their lives snatched away from them.

A determining feature of Life After Covid-19 (assuming there isn't a deadlier mutation  on the way) will be the relationship between China, Europe and America. China's communist government is unlikely to say "OK, world - our fault! We let a deadly virus out of our labs/wet market, covered up, let it out - lied, and hundreds of thousands are now dead - it's all our fault, let us pay." No. the Party will deny, deflect and distract and by doing so, the rest of the world will come to mistrust China much as it mistrusts Putin's Russia today. This will hit trade. It will hit those long and tenuous supply chains stretching back to factories in Chinese cities, which have in any case been becoming more and more expensive. It has been this process of globalisation that has given ordinary Western consumers access to goods that a generation ago, only the wealthiest could dream of. Bicycles, furniture, garden tools, clothes - cheaper than ever before in real terms. Now this will end.

There will always be trade with China, but it will decline in volume. Companies worried about another pandemic, closed borders, trade friction, political uncertainty, will move their sourcing nearer home. Chinese factories will lose orders as near-shoring takes place. Robots, 3D printing and other new technologies will replace the Far East; consumers, however, will be paying more for the next replacement bicycle, deckchair and straw hat. Things will never be the same price.

For the Millennials, for whom possessions are less important than experiences - there will be less experiences to experience. Foreign travel will be severely limited and will return to being the realm of the rich. Gigs, bars and restaurants - entertainment - will continue to be subject to epidemiological restrictions and the whole sector will remain jittery for years. For most Millennials, the main thing will be to get back into work, to get that secure job. A mortgage might be easier to secure as interest rates fall even lower and property prices drift downwards.

So where's this Renaissance upside? Where's the new Enlightenment going to come from?

I think there will be a reset of human values, new thinking, new ambitions, a new aesthetic. How will that come about - I'm not sure yet - but I can feel it in the air.

This time last year:
Up to my waist

This time two years ago:
Luton Airport's never-ending modernisation works

This time five years ago:
Another office move

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

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

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

This time 13 years ago:
This is not America. No?