Monday, 14 June 2021

The Morning Road Walked

The year nears its zenith, when the sky's clear, the beauty of the day replenishes the soul with those subjective conscious experiences that return as memories of purest joy.

I woke shortly after 6am, opened the roller blinds to discover a cloudless sky through the trees. Time to get dressed quickly, grab a quick bite, down the lime tea I'd made last night - and set off as soon as possible.

Past the orchards and into the wood, the sun - which rose today at 04:15 - still low in the sky.

Below: this is always a magnificent view - "out where the pines grow wild and tall" and the sandy track leads from Jakubowizna to Adamów Rososki and Machcin II.

Around the corner, to head south for a while, a loop around, gathering a large bunch of wild sorrel along the way as I headed back. It grows in profusion on either side of this track. Sorrel - the acidic leaf that forms the base of zupa szczawiowa - is a taste I very much like; I read that in India, curries are made with sorrel and lentils, so I thought it'd be worth a try. It is in season now. In a few weeks' time it will be tough and fibrous.

The sky is crystalline blue; no Photoshop trickery, just a polarising filter faithfully rendering what I saw and felt wearing a decent pair of polarising sunglasses.

Out of the wood and into the orchards, greeted by a row of silver birches reflecting the strong morning sunlight. I have a thought; "Jesus died to save Mankind," the Bible says. What about the rest of the planet? Does that not merit salvation?

I'm back in less than an hour; time for lentil and sorrel stew (with Halloumi cheese) before the working day commences online. The sorrel just needs to have the dust rinsed off thoroughly, then cut into thin strips before cooking.

Just after lunch, I pop down the road the other way to see how the the works are progressing down by the railway line, and I catch this classic 1950s-USA style Kodachrome view. Convection clouds are starting form, but the day remained dry (unlike yesterday, when I collected two soakings).

One could not ask for more from Nature.

[I should get up early more often for more such sublime walks!]

This time seven years ago:
Poppies in bloom, Jeziorki

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Storms of rain, storms of dust

Not a good forecast for today, so little point of moving to the country. A short walk before the predicted heavy rain was in order - I did not get far. Having passed the station and moving into the fields between the track and the S7 extension works, I noticed a heavy plume of rain falling out of dark clouds was pressing ever closer. And as it do so - the wind was picking up, blowing the fine topsoil from the construction site and nearby fields into the air. It was quite something.

To the north and west of me, intense rain was falling, displacing large volumes of air and creating a strong downdraft. My clothing was quickly covered in dust, I could feel it between my teeth, it was in my eyes (despite aviator-shaped glasses), and bizarrely, when I rubbed my hands together, they felt like they'd had talcum powder sprinkled on them. But no rain. 

Below: looking south-east, at the edge of a wheat field where the construction site begins.

Below: the height of the dust storm. Despite nearby deluges, it was still bone-dry here. The air is full of dust, the crops are waving around in the wind (I should have set a longer shutter speed to show that motion as a blur in the foreground). Looking north-east.

Below: the storm moves off to the south east. To the right, an access road leading to the S7 junction at Zamienie, on the horizon, a hill of soil stockpiled for the construction. I continue along the unasphalted and orphaned section of ulica Kórnicka, truncated by the railway line's modernisation at one end and the S7 extension at the other. Without the old pedestrian crossing, there's no access to this bit of ul. Kórnicka from Jeziorki, nor, without its connection to ul. Sikorki, from Zgorzała.

The rain caught up with me after I'd crossed back under the railway line using the culvert, it will continue to rain until midnight. The water level on the ponds is back to a healthy state, though the algae is blooming and the reeds are closing in.

A similar situation occurred yesterday evening; below: looking west from the top end of ul. Trombity, a titanic deluge in the near distance, to the left of that column of intense rain, you can see clouds of dust that the downdraft has kicked up from the S7 site and the fields.

Below: two more shots of the encroaching storm also taken from ul. Trombity.

The clouds roil, the heavens open. I evaded a soaking by waiting a few minutes in the culvert under the tracks; once again, the worst of this rain passed a couple of kilometres to the west of Jeziorki.

Below: after the clouds move on, the sun reappears to shed strong light on the fresh landscape, right through to sunset, which is now just five minutes before its latest of the year (the sun will be setting at 21:01 for a whole week, from 21 to 28 June in Warsaw).

Extreme weather events make for good photography!

This time last year:
Michalczew, Gośniewice and Warka

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki birdlife update

This time six years ago:
Inside Okęcie airport's new old terminal

This time ten years ago:
Thirty-One and Sixty-Three (short story about 19th century Polish uprisings)

This time 12 years ago:
Jeziorki to Jeziorki - the big rail loop

This time 13 years ago:
Automotive miscellany

This time 14 years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Friday, 11 June 2021

Warsaw West deep under construction

Once my tip for Poland's Worst Railway Station, given a light-touch modernisation ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships, W-wa Zachodnia ('Warsaw West') is currently undergoing a thorough redevelopment to bring it into the 21st century. The Clapham Junction of the East, with its multiplicity of platforms, was a bit of an afterthought in the capital's transport plans, integrated with the nearby bus station in the 1970s. Though much improved compared to its wretched state before 2012 (mainly in terms of proper signage and a decent entrance and booking hall/concourse on the south side of the tracks, it is still a long way off what modern stations should look like. With no heritage architecture to protect, the architects can go large on this one.

Returning from Wrocław from my first Polish business trip in nearly 18 months (!), I had the chance to see how things are coming on. It's clear that there is a very, very long way to go before this job's finished. Below: the new station building will arise on the left. Platforms 6 and 7 have already been demolished.

Large maps of the locality explain clearly (at last!) how passengers are to get from Platforms 1-5 to Platform 8 and on to the bus loop on the north side of the tracks. Allow 15 minutes to walk there from the south side!

It may take longer; the picture top was taken from the line serving Platform 5; there's a pedestrian level crossing here with lights and a guard. If a train's coming, everyone must wait until it passes before being allowed to cross. And there are also a few points where construction equipment can pass through; again, barriers are put in place, and passengers have to wait.

The tunnel that links the platforms will be replaced by one 60 metres wide, that will house a new waiting room and booking office as well as shops. In the meanwhile, travellers are trying to orientate themselves.

Below: arriving at Platform 5 track 4, the Lubomirski, a train that links Gdynia and Przemyśl, departing W-wa Zachodnia on time, headed by an EP09 locomotive, in 'retro' orange and brown livery, as used in the mid-1980s when this series of passenger engines was new.

Below: the new footbridge that will serve as the only crossing between platforms until the tunnel is ready. An eastbound ED160 multiple unit awaits departure for W-wa Wschodnia.

This time six years ago:
Loakes in Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
Gdynia, on the beach, six am

This eight years:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time nine years ago:
Football in Warsaw

This time ten years ago:
Era becomes T-Mobile

This time 11 years ago:
Warsaw-Góra Kalwaria-Pilawa rail link closed

This time 12 years ago:
Marsh harrier, golden airliner over Jeziorki

This time 13 years ago:
Bus blaze on way to town

This time 14 years ago:
A beautiful, stormy twilight

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Little annoyances and optimising your life

Since Blogger (owned by Google) implemented the upgrade of its interface last year, there have been several major improvements introduced that help me cut down the time taken to publish a new post. But there were also a few retrograde steps. 

One of these is to do with copy-pasting links.

[Bear with me here.] The new way requires the blogger to click on the link icon (or use keyboard shortcut Control + K). A dialogue box duly opens. This now requires me to drag the cursor into the box, then press Control + V to paste the link. Now, why couldn't the cursor already be in the box? (It used to be before the upgrade!) Why should I have to go dragging it there? Because there's another box, above it, with the text from which the link should go. But I've just highlighted that text! It should automatically appear in that box! (Again, as before.) And then there's the checking of  'Open this link in a new window'. Unless Blogger/Google actively wants to lose traffic to linked sites, this should be the default - not something I need to check! 

Anyway - my point is this. What once took one click to do after highlighting the text, now takes three, what took two seconds to do now takes six or seven. I may have to do this three, four times for any given post - an extra 15, 20 seconds tops - but over time it all these wasted seconds build up. And they annoy me. A bug or a feature?

What should I do? Send an email to Blogger/Google with my suggestions of how to optimise the interface in the hope that someone will see it and react? Or will they receive my email, nod, yawn, and just leave it unanswered? Say they do notice it and think - "yeah, that makes sense" - will they improve the interface straight away, or leave it until the next major upgrade in a couple of years' time? 

And so I left it, there being more pressing matters, as always, and so the wasted minutes pile on. Now, having taken a decision not to do anything, I cannot be annoyed at Blogger, Google or indeed myself every time I have to drag the cursor to the box and check the 'open this link in a new window' box.

A metaphor for so much that could be optimised in life - but it's easier to leave it as is. Don't sweat the small stuff. Leave it, procrastinate until nudged, live with life's imperfections, suffer them in silence - or take arms against this sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.

This time last year:
The 13th Thirteenth

This time two years ago:
Ghastly June day in London

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

A proud moment

One of the four photos I entered in the local photography contest won a distinction (fourth prize); I proudly claimed my diploma last week which shall be displayed on the wall in my działka. A sign of participation in the life of the local community.

The contest was organised by the Stowarzyszenie Przyjaciół Gminy Chynów, (Association of Friends of Chynów Municipality), and you can see all 57 entries on the association's Facebook page (scroll down a bit).

Each photo had to have in included in its file name the grid coordinates of where it was taken, to ensure that only genuine views photographed within the boundaries of the gmina would be included, and not generic shots of orchards snapped elsewhere.

As one of the conditions was that none of the photos could have been previously published (including online), this is the first time I'm showing my entries on the blog. Now, the photo which won the distinction (below) is similar, but from a slightly different angle to one I have already published (in this post) - not cheating!

Below: 'Spring - Cherry Orchard in Bloom, Jakubowizna.' The award-winning photo. No jiggery-pokery in Photoshop - just the use of a polarising filter to draw out the contrast between the sky, the blossom and the leaves.

Below: 'Summer - Before the Storm, Grobice.' Technically, still astronomical spring, as it was taken on 19 June 2020.

Below: 'Autumn - Orchard full of Apples, Jakubowizna.'

Below: 'Winter - Young Orchard in the Snow, Jakubowizna'.

This time last year:
Rail progress - Krężel to Chynów

This time seven years ago:

This time nine years ago:
Fans fly in for the football

This time ten years ago:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time 11 years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time 12 years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40

The time 13 years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time 14 years ago:
Poppy profusion

Sunday, 6 June 2021

WinterCity, SummerCountry

My fourth day on the działka, thanks to the long Corpus Christi weekend. Plenty of walking, fresh air and late-spring sunshine. More chances to ponder on the difference between the town and country.

Poland was still a largely rural country at the end of WW2; in 1950 over 63% of Poles lived na wsi (in villages/in the country/in rural communities). By 2017, this had fallen to 40% - the same as the percentage of rural Britons in 1867!  One hundred and fifty years of difference! 

Few of the people I have got to know over the past 24 years living and working in Poland were born in Warsaw (or, as in my case, have at least one parent born in Warsaw). This, I posit, has a large impact on people's outlook on life - and indeed, their levels of determination. Yet now, Poland's process of urbanisation has of late been turning into one of suburbanisation, a trend which the pandemic will accelerate. Warsaw's exurbs are expanding rapidly as a result.

Although my entire life has been spent living and working in a capital city, the 'living' bit has always been suburban - within 10 miles of the centre. And all my working life has been spent in the centre of a capital city, so commuting has been a regular part of it. The pandemic may be easing, but I intend to continue working remotely as much as possible, coming in only for those events that cannot be joined online. This gives me the potential to work more from the działka, which in summer and into autumn is a heavenly place to be. The walks are more varied; the sunsets sublime, the absence of traffic - the quiet.

And this evening, returning from my sunset stroll - it suddenly clicked. 

Winter is like breathing in - summer like breathing out. 

Winters should be about working hard, reading by the fireside, studying, exercising, saving - and living in abstinence. Winter - the inner life; the life of the mind.

Summer should be about letting go. Enjoyment; spending what you've saved. Seeking the sublime, avoiding stress, chilling out.

October to March - puritanism. April to September - epicureanism. 

Village life in winter is dismal. Outside it's grim; indoors - there's not much to do. But in the city, there is plenty to keep the mind active in winter - theatres, cinemas, concert halls, art galleries, museums. 

Winter - hurry yourself along - summer is long awaited! And when it comes, may summer time move more slowly; there's no rush. [There are weather-related exceptions - beautiful cloudless days with startlingly blue skies and -20C of frost in midwinter, and longer rainy stretches in summer when the rain won't cease, it's cool, damp and miserable. But I'm generalising.]

Once nature explodes into life (this year's spring was exceptionally muted, weather-wise), the country is the place to be. Long rambles through woods and fields and orchards and meadows offering a communion with nature on a scale that urban parks cannot match. Motorbike rides along rural backroads, exploring further afield than your feet alone will take you. Covering ground, opening geographical horizons, rather than just mental ones.

I can see looking back at my exercise routines over the past seven years that a pattern is emerging. Dry Januaries lead into an abstemious Lent. Then spring kicks in - the exercising lessens, the booze starts to flow (but more walking than ever - though at a slower pace than in winter). But as autumn nights begin to lengthen and the dread Hammer of Darkness approaches - it's time to withdraw, pump up those exercises with the aim of beating last year. Then there'll be a few mad days around Christmas and the New Year - celebrating the Return of the Sun - and the year's framework is complete.

Now's is the time to enjoy life, time to take a long pause, recharge the batteries. Soak up the sun.

Left and below: two photos from the same spot, one looking east at midday, one looking towards the sunset. 

When I set off this morning, the sky was cloudless; on my walk I could see clouds bubbling up in a line over where the Vistula is, some 15km to the east - convection clouds; bodies of water releasing vapour and forming clouds that rise and merge. 

There was no rain today, however, just the threat of it. By the evening, that threat had passed, the condensation clouds had blown away. All was good for a second walk, to catch the setting sun - my Jakubowizna ritual. 

This time last year:
Homage to Americana
[more photos from the same spot. It resonates with me.]

This time two years ago:
This land is my land
[Two years since I doubled the size of my działka]

This time six years ago:
The day, seized.

This time nine years ago:
Classic British cars for British week

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

This time 11 years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time 12 years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time 13 years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs

Friday, 4 June 2021

Fortieth anniversary of the Osieck rail disaster

 The Fourth of June is remembered in Poland as the anniversary of the first (semi) free elections in communist Poland in 1989 that would rapidly lead to the country's political and economic transformation, and escalate into the fall of communism across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.

It is also the date, in 1981, of one of Poland's worst railway accidents, one that claimed the lives of 25 people. It happened in Osieck, on the Skierniewice-Łuków line (about which I have written several times on this blog, click label for more), east of the Vistula. Single-line work was in operation due to engineering works, an east-bound passenger train passed a red signal and collided head-on with a west-bound iron-ore train.

Looking at the names, and the ages of the victims, one feels a sense of lives stupidly cut short, of bereavement, of human potential unfulfilled. In particular the two seventeen year-olds - presumably twins - and the mother and daughter who died; the grief of their families must have been beyond endurance.

 The Fourth of June is also the date of the Ufa and the Arzamas rail disasters in Soviet Russia; the former in 1989, resulted in the deaths of over 575 people - mainly children - died, when two passing trains sparked an explosion of gas that had leaked out of a transit pipe into a valley. The latter, in 1988, was the result of the explosion of over 100 tonnes of high explosive, killing 91 people and resulting in a crater 26m deep.

Railways are much safer than ever, thanks to lessons learned, and much safer than driving.

This time last year:
Moonrise, Nowa Wola

This time two years ago:

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Prepare to have your horizons broadened

Things will happen faster than I'd hoped; I don't know whether humanity is ready.

From Politico: "The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, ordered the director of national intelligence to work with the Pentagon on a public report on unidentified aerial phenomena by June 25, 2021."

From the numerous leaks that have already surfaced in the media, it is clear that the US Navy has a great many sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena on record, both credible eyewitness accounts and radar, infra-red and gun-camera footage showing contacts with craft that have capabilities far beyond what science and technology can currently explain. [For the best of these, the 60 Minutes interview with two former naval pilots about an encounter in 2004, video footage of which became public in 2019. Link at the bottom of this post.]

It has become evident that these are not weather balloons, nor swamp gas, Venus low on the horizon or flocks of geese. The US military establishment is embarrassed; these are either drones from enemy foreign powers - or what? It is not a subject that serious people seem want to discuss in public.

The Pentagon's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which ran from 2007 to 2012 to analyse classified reports of UAPs from the US military, has categorised these crafts' so-called 'five observables' - characteristics that are inexplicable using our contemporary knowledge of physics:

1) Anti-gravity lift. All aircraft need flight surfaces (wings, rotors) and means of propulsion (propellers, jets, rockets). Yet objects have been sighted and recorded overcoming earth’s gravity with no visible means of propulsion and lack any flight surfaces. 

2) Sudden and instantaneous acceleration. The UAPs may accelerate or change direction so quickly that no human pilot or aircraft could survive the g-forces. A trained human pilot can withstand up about nine times the force of gravity (9G), an airframe about 18 or 19G before its structure becomes compromised. The UAPs have been recorded performing manoeuvres that would result in forces of over 400G.

3) Hypersonic velocities without signatures. UAPs leave no 'signatures', no vapour trails or sonic booms, while travelling at speeds many times faster than sound. 

4) Low observability, or cloaking. Even when objects are observed, getting a clear and detailed view of them - either through pilot sightings, radar or other means - remains difficult. Witnesses generally only see the glow or haze around them.

5) Trans-medium travel. Some UAP have been seen moving easily in and between different environments - space, earth’s atmosphere and water. Under water, navy sonars have tracked them moving at twice the speed of a nuclear submarine.

AATIP has been replaced by the UAP Task Force. Officially announced last August, its mission is stated as "detecting, analyzing and cataloguing UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to US national security." 

Assuming that a statement is made, it is likely to appear at a time that will least impact the global markets - 25 June is indeed a Friday, so expect it to come after Wall Street has closed for the weekend. The US military and political establishments will try to keep this low-key; the global media is likely to treat the public report in a light-hearted way. Whether this will be headline news depends very much on what else happens on Friday 25 June to shape the world news agenda.

Because the US establishment - and with it the establishments of all NATO governments and even China and Russia - have no clue as to the origin of these unidentified aerial phenomena, a tidal wave of speculation will be unleashed as old certainties crumble.

The aftershock will be profound. Establishments will be shaken to their core. Let's start with the scientific establishment.

The scientific establishment will be rocked to its foundations. We will be hearing about 'worm-holes', 'gravity waves', 'warp bubbles', 'parallel universes', 'string theory', 'fifth (indeed, umpteenth!) dimension', 'time travel', and we'll become familiar with the names of nearby stars orbited by exoplanets. These discussions will go on in the background, for those who are interested. Disclosure by the US government that its airspace is routinely being penetrated by craft of unknown origin displaying performance beyond current human scientific explanation will not chase the pandemic off the headlines, but it will be there.

Prof Avi Loeb, the head of Harvard University's astronomy department, put his reputation on the line in late 2017 by suggesting that the object 'Oumuamua - the first object ever detected entering the solar system from outside - was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but something built by an advanced intelligence. For four years he has been fending off rebuttals from fellow astrophysicists claiming that it's just a lump of frozen nitrogen, frozen hydrogen, cloud of dust or simply a rock. Yet when asked about the US Navy sightings, Prof Loeb dismisses them as being the result of faulty cameras and old software failures; the same glib dismissal as that is given to his theory regarding 'Oumuamua.

Then there's the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) community. Again, a group of serious scientists using a network of radio telescopes around the world, crunching the big data in the hope of finding signs of alien life, risk being made to look foolish if the US government acknowledges that extra-terrestrial intelligence has been here, under our noses, for ages - and SETI didn't even notice.

I will feel sorry for astronomer Ian Ridpath and other professional UFO sceptics/debunkers, who have spent decades of their careers pouring scorn and disbelief on eyewitnesses of the strangest phenomena. Suddenly, the debunkers' logical, reductionist arguments based on the skilful application of Occam's razor will fall apart. They will still have the kooky end of the UFO community to mock, but once the US government has acknowledged that UAPs are real, that there are hundreds of recordings on radar, infra-red, gun-camera footage and observations from credible eye witnesses, their round rejection of UFOs/UAPs as being something that can be entirely explained away will evaporate.

The UFO industry built up since the late 1940s, stoked by Hollywood and pop culture, will also be seriously shaken. Fondly held theories (US military holds dead alien bodies and has been reverse engineering alien craft for decades) will re-emerge or will be dismissed. Roswell, Area 51, crop circles, alien abductions - these narratives will either become more real or be finally debunked.

Organised religions - in particular Christianity, founded on the notion that Christ sacrificed His life for Mankind - will have to learn how to spin this. Is Jesus also Lord to beings from advanced intelligence that come from - afar? the future? The Vatican has moved in the direction of acknowledging the presence of UFOs, and stands prepared.

Business - in particular that part of it founded on technology - will have to sit up and take notice. If our physics can make these craft do these things - shouldn't we be there, doing it too, exploiting these new capabilities to commercial ends? How will markets open on the morning of Monday 28 June?

Aliens - time-travellers - whatever - have, I as have written on this blog over the years, absolutely no interest in reaching out to us - we are simply not ready. We'd be like a two-year-old child confronted by a great scientist or philosopher - what is there to talk about? How can you conduct a meaningful dialogue? They are not here to sort out our problems.

All we can do is acknowledge, come to terms with a new, Universal reality, and begin to readjust our worldview.

The 60 Minute story.

This time ten years ago:

This time 11 years ago:
Jeziorki's Storm of Storms

This time 13 years ago:
How to tell you're flying over Poland

This time 14 years ago:
Poppy fields

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Consciousness, memory and familiarity

Imagine, if you will, being deprived of sight, hearing, the sensations of smell and taste, and all feeling. And yet you remain conscious. What would you be conscious of? (I'm assuming for he sake of this thought-experiment no state of distress or discomfort). 

Without sensory inputs from the present, all that would be left would be mental processes. You could pass the time trying to solve long-multiplication problems; but more likely, you'd drift off into memories of the past. And the ones you'd feel happiest with dwelling on would be pleasant memories.

 Imagine, being in this state, setting off on a virtual walk or ride along a familiar route. [I used to do this as a child while bored in church, during the sermon. I'd visualise the journey from home to Oxshott Common, a regular weekend family haunt, summoning up the spirit of place at each stretch of road, each junction along the way.] I'd do this while lying in bed ill (see this experience from 2018).

The memories of qualia experienced would resurface. What do I mean by that? Moments of simple joy.

This morning, I went out into the garden with Felusia the cat; the sun was shining in a sky dotted with small clouds propelled by a cooling wind; we stood on the recently mowed lawn, she was looking around, attentive, observant - then suddenly she looked up at me, I looked at her - a second's eye contact but a moment of knowledge, a moment that will remain in my memory. Nothing special, yet very special. The pure act of being aware of being, shared with another sentient creature.

I speculate that we take with us on physical death conscious memories of such qualia. Not memories of moments of pride or elation or anger or hatred or shame or embarrassment - moments coloured and flavoured by the ego; rather from our physical bodies leave the best memories, familiar places, feelings of peace and universal understanding.

Such moments from my pre-physical past return to me every now and then - sometimes once or twice a day, sometimes less often, but they are there - and they have been there all my life, familiar in feeling, recognisable, yet faint. Intimations of immortality, a thread of consciousness, ego-free, which connects past, present and future.

They are glimpses, flashes, intangible; they're not present 24/7 nor can I draw on them at will. They require a sensitivity to detect; and just as some scientific instruments are more sensitive than others, so some people are more sensitive to this phenomenon than others. Historians - even lay people with a strong interest in a given time and place in history - I would argue, feel the pull, even though they might not recognise it, or give it any conscious thought. Just something there, like a smell in the attic or an old, familiar tune.

If you are looking for an afterlife in which you are you, taking yourself beyond the grave - then this all sounds disappointing. Its not 'strong' enough. If you believe that bodily death snuffs out consciousness forever, then this probably sounds like some wishy-washy fairy tale, some form of cognitive dissonance that can be explained away rationally. For me, it's a phenomenon that I shall spend the rest of my life trying to understand.

This time two years ago:
Classic Volgas, London and Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Memory and Me
[picking up on the same thread as in this post!]

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

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

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Stupendous sunset, Sułkowice

The day's disappointing weather ended on a spectacular note; my planned bike ride down to Radom was cut short by a heavy downburst of rain just before Warka. I sat out the rain in the Orlen gas station before riding back to Jakubowizna - I could see that the weather would be far worse than forecast.

However, an evening walk made up for the showery day. I walked from Jakubowizna to Grobice, crossing the DK50 to snap an extraordinary sunset with a sun slipping behind the horizon through a narrow slot under the clouds.

Below: I'm standing north of the DK50 and west of the Warsaw-Radom railway line, looking towards Sułkowice, famous for its police-dog training centre (and where most of Poland's movie dogs were trained). Somewhere north of there, a plume of rain cascades down as the sun sinks behind the forests.

Below: thermonuclear sun, come back tomorrow to give us light and warmth. The last few minutes of daylight as planet earth spins away.

Below: under the DK50 bridge to look at progress on the trackside drainage. To the right (east side) of the tracks, the cutting has been lined with ballast to prevent slippage and erosion; to the left side, the ballast has yet to be laid - the drainage ditch is still no more than a muddy trench. The downpour is approaching from the north - will I make it back to the działka in time before it reaches me?

Below: further south, all that's left of the day's sun is that which is reflected upon the under-surfaces of the low cloud, pressing down claustrophobically. 

I turned the corner into my street just as the first heavy droplets started to fall. Made it - just.

Music for sunsets - Sunset - by Roxy Music, the final track off their third album, Stranded. Many's the time I'd listen to this on cassette while perched on the windowsill of our family home in West Ealing, watching the summer sun set over Northolt - something impossible today because of development.

Keeping the line dry and running fast

Next month will see the reopening of the rail link between Warsaw and Radom, work that began in September 2015. Nearly six years to modernise a 100km-long line that took just 20 months to build in the mid 1930s. There will be a separate post soon to celebrate the reopening, but today I'd like to focus on just one aspect of this investment - the drainage.

The modernised line offers significant improvements in journey time. Looking at an old timetable from before the work started, the fastest time between W-wa Śródmieście and Chynów was 1 hour and 1 minute; from next month it will be down to 41 minutes to cover the 43km. This means trains will be averaging 60 km/h including station stops, hitting maximum speeds of 100km/h. There is potential to improve that much further in future. However, this can only happen if the tracks remain as smooth as when they were laid; the biggest threat to that is erosion by rainwater.

Climate change brings with it a new meteorological certainty: uncertainty. Severe weather events - in particular droughts or floods - will become more common and less predictable. The railway engineers and designers who planned the modernisation did so taking into account the likelihood of flash floods and droughts. Intense downpours can suddenly dump vast torrents of water into trackside ditches, which, if not properly managed, will over time carve away the underpinnings of embankments and wash away cuttings. If these come interspersed with dry periods, hard-baked topsoil that doesn't soak up rainwater leaves the land more vulnerable to sudden surges of water. 

Erosion will result in the track becoming bumpy and uneven, leading, as has been the case, to ever greater speed restrictions. In the years before the modernisation, it took longer to get from Warsaw to Radom than it did before the war by steam train, with speed restricted on much of the line to 60km/h (38mph).

Any upgrade to the Radom line had to be done in tandem with drainage work. And this had to be done in the context of the lands on either side of the line. Beyond W-wa Okęcie and excepting Piaseczno, it's mainly rural land or forest all the way until the line reaches the northern outskirts of Radom. Here in Chynów, its mainly orchards. The railway could not keep itself dry by merely diverting floodwaters into neighbouring agricultural lands. Joined-up planning was needed; the results are expensive. Culverts and ditches cross orchards that empty into trackside ditches, water pumped along to prevent lakes from forming locally; retention ponds built where necessary. None of this flood-prevention infrastructure was present on this line before its modernisation. [Worth taking a look at the Corpus Christi flood of 2010 to see how much damage heavy rain can cause if there's no proper drainage in place.]

Around one-third of all the work on the line has been to do with keeping rainwater from eroding the foundations of the embankments and from washing away the cuttings. New culverts have been dug under the line, pumping stations built at suitable intervals, and drainage ditches cut alongside the line, some buried in pipes, others covered with concrete slabs. Getting the balance right between leaving grassy earth (needs plentiful and expensive maintenance!) and huge concrete gullies (expensive, bad for the local ecosystem!) is difficult.

Below: looking along the line towards Chynów station (just over the brow of the hill). Note the pumping station on the horizon, and the underground channel running alongside the track at the foot of the embankment. It exits by the concrete culvert which allows water on either side of the embankment to find its level.

Below: on the other side of the road running parallel to the tracks, another drainage ditch for collecting water from the orchards and feeding into the same culvert. Note the pumping station, top right. These orchards have been very prone to flooding; after heavy rain the sound of diesel pumping engines syphoning water away could be heard from my działka at the top of the road (to the left). Now, hopefully, the orchards have become self-draining.

Similar pictures can be taken up and down the line all the way from Warsaw to Radom. The work is not over yet. In Jeziorki the east side of the track is now having its drainage ditch fitted with 'U'-shaped concrete inserts to prevent erosion, topped off with concrete slabs to prevent debris blocking the flow of water (below).

It was 91 years between the line's construction and its first major modernisation (excepting of course the post-war reconstruction). I hope that the current works just approaching their end will be good for at least half that time, and that trains will be able to run along the new tracks ever faster, cutting journey time and encouraging more people to abandon their cars in favour of trains.

This time five years ago:
Politics - the importance of fact.

This time six years ago:
Rural Mazovian toponyms

This time seven years ago:
Carrying the weight on both shoulders

This time eight years ago:
Railway history - the big picture

This time ten years ago:
A new lick of paint form W-wa Powiśle

This time 11 years ago:
The ingredients of success

Saturday, 29 May 2021

In play and in earnest

The Coen brothers' A Serious Man is a film to which I return time and time again for its deep resources of wisdom and insight. The very title - A Serious Man - should be a question for all of us; are we serious - or are we just playing? Are we mucking around, having a good time - or getting on with it? 

Play is a useful teaching aid for children as they develop. We played, we learnt. But childhood comes to an end, and the things we played at now have to be put to practical use, in earnest. Effectually. Some of us - many of us - continue long into our adult lives still that playing at those things we should be doing in earnest. Life, outside of the safe confines of parental care, takes no prisoners; it can be harsh. Playing at life, rather than taking it seriously - shows an infantile approach to this gift that we are all living.

Play tends to taper out in adolescence - toys are put aside for tools. Parents should accelerate this process. Rites of passage are key. Bar Mitzvah comes at the right age - first Holy Communion is too early - Confirmation, too late. By the age of 12-13, toys should be put away - and playtime should be over. 

In my adolescence, this moment came when sticking together Airfix kits ceased to be play and became a craft; the process of making model planes and tanks had a different end - realism; an aesthetic goal. Many adults continue their hobbies that began in childhood and adolescence, but turn serious. Especially when money becomes involved, a hobby turning into a livelihood.

Am I effectual in what I'm doing? How can one judge?

I often ask myself whether I'm taking life seriously enough, or just coasting; hours of a day wasted, accomplishing little. For many, life's like that - wake up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to sleep, repeat until retirement. With a bit of child-rearing in between to ensure the cycle continues into the next generation.

The moment in A Serious Man when protagonist Larry Gopnik is finally gone to see Rabbi Marshak, and is desperately appealing to his stern gatekeeper to have a word with the spiritual authority is crucial: "This is not a frivolous request. This is a serious - I'm a serious - I'm a - I've tried to be a serious man, you know?"

Do I take life seriously enough? Am I a serious man? Or am I still messing about - merely playing with life - after all these decades?

Setting life goals, prioritising them, seeing them through to the end, a good work rate - this would be how I define living life in earnest rather than in play.

This time last year:
Sunset's trip

This time seven years ago
The importance of the rucksack for the body

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

This time 12 years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time 14 years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns


Thursday, 27 May 2021

Are Aliens intrinsically good or bad?

Let's start with the basic, undeniable, fact that our Universe consists of around 200 billion galaxies, each with between hundreds of millions and a hundred trillion stars. The famous Drake equation attempts to work out how many of those stars might host advanced civilisations. The current best-guess is that within our galaxy alone, there are 15,600,000 such civilisations. This number could be out by a factor of a hundred, so it could be as few as 156,000 or as many as 1,560,000,000. 

The Universe should be teeming with life, assuming that the Laws of Nature are indeed Universal. Many species of sentient life could have evolved within our own galactic neighbourhood. If so - why have they not contacted us?

I'd argue that they know us very well, but are wise enough not to trouble us. As a species, we couldn't cope with contact with advanced alien civilisations.

Their wisdom comes from having removed hatred, anger, and propensity to do evil, from their gene pool - either by natural selection, or (more probably) by genetic engineering. They will have got over their species' adolescence - wars and diseases have been eliminated. Yet along the eternal way from Zero to One, many alien civilisations have disappeared, having unleashed upon themselves nuclear wars, runaway climate change or other - as yet unknown to us - catastrophes.

The ones that have endured have done so by being good - the ultimate purpose of the Universe - all-good, all-aware. Focused on advancing their knowledge, it is highly likely that they know about us down here on Planet Earth, but have striven to ensure that we do not know about them - not until the time is right, not until we have improved significantly. We are as unruly children, smashing windows in our own house, micturating on our rugs; they are as wise - and possibly immortal - elders. And peaceful.

Wars require anger and hatred to get started and to keep going. People have to hate or fear their perceived enemy enough to accept the risks that war brings. Wars thin out the population - in particular males of mating age - but they also spur on technological advance. Consider these two bomber aircraft below - their first flights were just 17 years apart (1930 and 1947), less than the time that's passed between Concorde's last ever flight and now. Consider too, that very little has changed in the aerodynamic look of the Boeing Stratojet and the shape of airliners in production today, 73 years on.

Handley Page Heyford                                Boeing B-47 Stratojet

Spin-offs from war included improvements in mass production, new technologies and processes which quickly found their way into consumers' lives. And space flight - now routine, the basis for technologies such as GPS and weather mapping - is a spin-off from Nazi Germany's V2 ballistic missile programme.

Advancements in science and technology do not occur predictably or at an even pace. Ask anyone around in 1955 what the future will look like, and they would have said nuclear-powered spaceliners that can fly from London to Sydney in two hours. Or giant hovercraft crossing land and sea. Or people commuting to work in small helijets. Hardly anyone would have said a computer in every house linked into a gigantic network providing communication, information and entertainment.

Today, we'd all say that IT will continue to develop, in the direction of artificial intelligence, while healthcare, driven by new discoveries and techniques will made enormous progress in fighting diseases - and indeed ageing.

But let's go forward a thousand years, as distant as Europe's Dark Ages are to today. Let's go forward a million years, a period more than three times longer than Homo sapiens has been around. A tiny fraction of the time since multicellular life forms began to appear on Earth. The leaps in knowledge, in technology, cannot be imagined. But the scope is there - a galaxy to be explored; the secrets of the Universe, the purpose of life. It is our destiny.

If I agree with the Catholic Church on the doctrine of Original Sin, it is in that we are all born with the capacity to anger, to do contemptible things; violence is a natural tendency. Until this has been worked out of the human gene pool, we shall not be able to reach to the stars. In general, over the centuries we are getting better, less cruel, understanding that win-win is preferable to adversarial relations in which one side emerges victorious, the other side the loser. But that Original Sin is still there within us. We do not know how to respond to the presence of evil dictators and murderous despots, other than all-out war. If they do not threaten us directly, it becomes convenient to let them continue. Misjudged attempts at toppling them (Iraq, Libya) show how difficult this problem is.

Advanced alien civilisations will have overcome this problem. 

We think they will come in space ships? Did we reach the moon in dugout canoes? Distance may have been overcome by the use of quantum entanglement, or some other process of physics of which we have currently no idea.

They will come in peace - but only when we are at peace.

"One-eyed men aren't really reigning
They just march in place until
Two-eyed men with mystery training
Finally feel the power fill

Three-eyed men are not complaining.
They can yo-yo where they will
They slip inside this house as they pass by.

Don't pass it by."

- Slip Inside This House by the 13th Floor Elevators

This time last year:
Thoughts - trains set in motion

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

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

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

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

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

This time nine years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time ten years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time 12 years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time 13 years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Monday, 24 May 2021

Joys of spring

This morning I wake up, and open the front door to this - and a splendid choral performance by the birds in the garden, in full throat. Life is good.

Below: my front garden, from the street, an explosion of flower. Completely unretouched in Photoshop, sliders set to neutral, this is how the photo came out of the camera. A polarising filter accentuated the sky, but that's how my eyes see it while wearing sunglasses.

Below: kilometre 42 on the Warsaw-Radom railway line. This may be 42km (26 miles) from Warsaw, but its skyline can clearly be seen from Chynów. 

Below: sunset over Sułkowice, across the DK50, Warsaw's southern ring-road for transit traffic, mercifully light at this time of day.

Left: ulica Sezamkowa (lit. 'Sesame Street'), Nowe Grobice. A tree in fresh leaf, despite being blasted and burned by lightning and hacked at by man. The power of nature to heal, for life to keep on living, despite the odds.

Below: agriculture likes straight lines - apple orchard next to forest, looking south towards Grobice. Last week's blossom is past its peak, I'm glad I caught it. Now, a long wait until October and the apple harvests, when the trees will be groaning beneath the weight of fruit. Between now and then - much spraying with chemicals.

Below: between ul. Słoneczna ('Sunny Street') and ul. Wspólna, both in Chynów, a field of strawberries that lies in Jakubowizna.

Below: Chynów cemetery before the deluge. A short, sharp downpour coincided with me entering J&B Snack Bar to order my double spicy burger. Which I finished just as it ceased raining.

This time last year:
Jeziorki in May

This time two years ago:

This time four years ago