Sunday, 31 January 2021

Longevity, exercise, telomeres, and mindfulness

End of the month and time to look at how much stronger the 63-year-old Mr Dembinski is in both will and body than his 62-year-old self. 

Walking - well, because of working from home, less than last January, some 900 paces on average a day fewer (11.9k in 2020, 11.0k in 2021). But more moderate-to-high intensity walking, according to the app (37 mins in Jan 2020, 40 mins in Jan 2021). And more portions of fresh fruit & veg (7.2 portions a day, compared to 5.8 portions last January), a benefit of working from home. And other than 75ml of vodka (three units) knocked down the hatch at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, no alcohol consumed this January. Made very easy this year by staying safe from the pandemic at home.

In every area other than paces walked, the 62-year-old me took a thrashing from the older man. In pull-ups and sit-ups, I achieved double what I did last year (23 vs 11 pull-ups a day; 40 vs 18 sit-ups). In throwing a pair of 5kg weights around, I beat last year by a good margin (5.3 vs 3.4 sets of 30 repetitions of different curls on average a day). I can hold the plank longer (4mins 16secs vs 2mins 55secs average), but my greatest achievement is doing more press-ups of higher quality than last year (102 vs 100 a day) Three excellent sets of 34 rather than two mediocre sets of 50. And new this year is squats, averaging 26 a day (30 being the target - the number needed to get a free ride on the Moscow Metro, see short BBC news report here). Working up from seven on New Year's Day.

Blood pressure this morning was 116 over 78, in other words 'optimal'. The range 120-129 over 80-84 is 'normal'. Coincidentally, on 31 January 2020, it was also 116 over 78.

The next two weeks will see a slight relaxation of pull-ups, sit-ups and weights, and then, on 17 February, Lent begins, and the full regime comes back into play, until Easter Day, 4 April. 

What's the point? In a word - longevity. A longer active, fit life. And the point of that? A longer life for the mind. The ultimate goal. My thinking is improving as I get older; mistakes ironed out, clearer understanding, enhanced creativity. All in the mind, within a healthy body.

To take this to the higher level, it has to be science based, not wishful thinking. Can the mindful mind extend the biological life of its host body? 

This from the March 2020 issue of Nature magazine:

"Mindfulness has proved its beneficial effect on a number of medical and psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, and immune disorders. It has been proposed that meditation techniques could positively affect longevity. In fact, intensive meditation training has been associated with an increase in telomerase activity and longer telomere length in blood cells, which is considered a candidate biomarker of human aging." [Full article here]

And this, from Scientific American, December 2014 edition:

"Dr Linda E. Carlson and her colleagues [from the Alberta Cancer Foundation] found that in breast cancer patients, mindfulness meditation is associated with preserved telomere length. Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres don't cause a specific disease per se, but they do whither with age and are shorter in people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and high stress levels. We want our telomeres intact. [Full article here]

Is mindfulness - a much bandied term - about meditation, focusing on your breathing as you repeat a mantra? Or is it more than that - an approach to life, defined by a person's innate curiosity and observational skills? And do those two attributes lead to a fuller, happier life, along with an awareness of being, and a grateful attitude for being alive?

Although my father never sat cross-legged saying 'om', he did live to 96, and he certainly had those characteristics, together with a positive outlook on life. Materialism and the desire for ownership of possessions is at odds with these; I feel there's something here as well in terms of happiness that feeds back into a healthy state of mind. As fellow blogger Jacek Koba has written, happiness is achieved when the ratio of expectations to reality is exactly 1:1.

I give thanks. Gratitude for health is part of the secret; not getting complacent - not letting your guard down because you got away with it yesterday is the other part of the secret.

This time last year:
A day of most profound sadness

This time two years ago:
Vintage aerial views of the ground

This time four years ago:
Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - review

This time five years ago:
Ealing in bloom

This time six years ago:
Keeping warm in January

This time seven years ago:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

This time eight years ago:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time ten years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time 11 years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time 12 years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Winter's return

A fresh fall of snow and temperature staying below zero, at a comfortable -2C for much of the day. The snow is forecast to stay for a while. Despite the weather, work continues on the S7 extension. Below: this small thicket of trees and bushes protected from bulldozers and diggers by high-visibility fencing. 

Below: ul. Hołubcowa (to the left),one of Warsaw's unasphalted roads, where even four-wheel drives can get stuck in the mud. With the snow heavy on the ground, it's hard to tell what's road and what's field.

Below: a most unwelcome site/sight: the footpath MZ-5242-z skirted around an expanse of abandoned land overgrown with tansy and goldenrod; the field has been flattened and the vegetation stripped. Looks like a new house or houses will be built here. I trust the footpath, part of an official tourist trail, will remain, even though the online land registry map shows these plots as all belonging to someone. Same old Polish story.

Below: electricity cables and assorted wiring, corner of ul. Trombity and ul. Kórnicka

Below: home in time for tea, Saturday afternoon at dusk. Despite the un-English weather, this time of week brings back childhood Saturday afternoons by the telly, Grandstand, Final Score, Tom and Jerry, Early Evening News.

 Below: taken two days ago, before the new snows fell - abandoned house on ul. Kurantów.

Right: Felusia, Felis Cattus, of the family Felidae, is startled by the sight of a garden full of falling snow. She's been in heat for the best part of two months, so no going out, and a trip to the vet scheduled as soon as she's settled down a bit. Such a contrast to the late Papusia in character, evidently more intelligent and vastly more sociable - heaps more fun.

This time two years ago:

This time five years ago:
Daffodils and crocuses in bloom, in January!

This time six years ago:
Populist start to election campaign

This time seven years ago:
Straż Ochrony Kolei explained

This time eight years ago:
The end of winter? So early?

This time nine years ago:
How much education for the nation? 

This time ten years ago:
To the Catch - short story

This time 11 years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time 13 years ago:
From the family archives

Sunday, 24 January 2021

We live, we dream - what's that all about?

On 1 January I inaugurated a new procedure - logging all my dreams in a large diary by my bed. The purpose - to further my understanding of what goes on in the brain while we sleep. Given that we spend a third of our lives asleep, and around half of that time dreaming, it is a woefully under-researched activity, despite its universality.

Every night, as we go to bed, is liking going to the movies, watching two or three films, each with ourselves as the protagonist, not knowing whether we'll see a horror, a comedy, a drama or a romance. It's just that it becomes routine, and we forget to remember, we lose the lessons that dreams offer us about our human condition.

Already, after three and half weeks, I am gaining some interesting insights.

A bit of methodology. I am drinking a large glass of mineral water, a mild diuretic, before going to bed, to ensure two or three rises in the night to go for a wee - and before returning to bed, to write down any dream memories, capturing them while they are as fresh as possible. I find that one memorable image, written down, will open the gates to a fuller narrative. Noting down dreams at half past two or four o'clock in the morning can be tiresome, but it is important. One thing it has quickly proved to me that dreams do become more vivid and memorable as the night draws on.

One theory I have is that as we sleep, the body - and brain - warm up slightly, due to increasing amounts of body heat trapped in the bedding. In the same way as we tend to get more creative thoughts under a hot shower, in the bath or in a sauna, the effects of eight hours of duvet being warmed by the body is warmer blood passing through the brain.

In particular, I'm looking to see whether pleasant dreams can be achieved in a repeatable manner by using a given set of parameters. This is but the start of a journey I hope to continue for a long time.

A useful guide to oneirology, the science of dreaming is a book by Dr Mark J. Belchner, called The Dream Frontier. Dr Belchner mentions two phenomena that happen often in our dreams. One he calls 'disjunctive cognition', in which two or more persons, places or things do not match. For me typical such dreams involve the blending of my brother and my son as one person, or London and Warsaw as one place. Rarer are 'authentic dreams', in which the classic Greek unities of action, time and place. So far this year, I have had one, set in contemporary America's Pacific Northwest. No bizarre things happened (no unicycling walruses for example), no blended people or places - as real as real life.

Another proposal by Dr Belchner is that 'dreams don't lie'. "Our dreams", he writes, "are not concerned with disguise and censorship. They are our most honest communications, perhaps the only human communication in which we cannot lie. We can lie about our dreams, but not in our dreams." When you are dreaming it, you are getting the raw truth. Of course, once we wake, we strive to make convincing narratives from the material that's been dreamt - but I strive in my diary to make my notes as authentic as possible, and not to shy away from embarrassment or emotional discomfort. From our dreams we can learn much about our truest, deepest anxieties, often ones we don't confront in waking life.

And I am also testing the folk wisdom that cheese before bed sets of vivid dreams. So for control purposes I am eating 50g of vintage Cheddar or Parmesan. An effect I noted one night when I took no cheese before sleep was a lack of memorable dreams, something that's never happened on any other cheese-eating night. In the diary for Friday 22 January at 07:10, I wrote: "EATING CHEESE BEFORE SLEEP DOESN'T NECESSARILY RESULT IN MORE VIVID DREAMS, BUT IT DOES HELP YOU REMEMBER THEM!" The following night, I doubled my cheese intake. This resulted in a terrifying dream of a fiery apocalypse descending from the sky onto central Warsaw, and me in a darkened apartment off ul. Marszałkowska urinating blood, dying young in my early 50s, just as the worst evil imaginable was about to engulf us all. That was 03:45 on Saturday 23 January.

And lo! I dreamed...

At the end of this month, I intend to tabulate the results, with the aim of creating a quantitative database looking for common themes and clues that might further the undervalued science of understanding what goes on in our minds as we sleep. And every now and then, some more oneirological insights. In the meanwhile, Lent is less than a month away, and that will mean another concentration of blog posts of a spiritual nature.

My thanks to Beata for inspiring me with the idea, to Ben Hoyle (@bjp_ip), for the most enlightening Twitter feed (neurology/evolution/tech), and to my brother Marek, my chief intellectual sounding-board.

This time five years ago:
Searching for growth

This time eight years ago:
The more it snows - a decent snowfall in Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time ten years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time 11 years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time 12 years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in bad weather

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Magic sky

The morning was dismal, rain washing away what remained of the snow. The earth is soggy, asphalt slushy, here and there patches of ice make walking difficult. After lunch, the clouds thinned, and then parted enough to allow some sunlight. The sun set at 16:04, more than 40 minutes daylight have been gained since the winter's earliest sunset. A shortish walk then, returning along ul. Sarabandy and turning in towards the ponds. Just as the sun went down, the sky did this... 

...and then proceeded to intensify as I walked west...

...Reaching a maximum intensity around here...

...before becoming more muted...

...and extinguishing slowly.

The whole show lasted around quarter of an hour. By the time I reached the footpath home, a more usual sky.

Finally, birthday greetings to daughter Moni (28) from Felusia, member of the species Felis catus, of the family Felidae. For a five-month-old cat, Felusia has sharp insights into the human condition.

This time last year:

This time three years ago:
The Hunt for Tony Blair
[Apologies to UK readers - the YouTube link is geo-blocked there]

This time five years ago:
Lux Selene

This time eight years ago:
David Cameron, Conservatism and Europe

This time nine years ago:
Citizen Action Against Rat Runners

This time ten years ago:
Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

This time 11 years ago:
Building the S79 - Sasanki-Węzeł Lotnisko, midwinter

This time 12 years ago:
My return to skiing after an eight-year break

This time 13 years ago:
Moni's 15th birthday

Thursday, 21 January 2021

The Sun and Snow

Sunshine reflecting off the snow - instant mood elevator. Thankfully, no work that cannot be delayed until after sunset, so off I go for a long stroll to catch those life-enhancing rays.

Below: Pozytywki pond. scenes unknown to me in my childhood - clear blue sky, snow on the ground. England's maritime climate very rarely offers such sights. I'm minded of skiing holidays in the French Alps - but the atmosphere up there at 2,000m above sea level was rather more lunar - council estates on the moon. Days like this bring back that sublime feeling - I know this but know not where from. The snow on the surface of the pond is quickly turning to slush as the sun beats down...

Below: further along ulica Pozytywki, a reminder that there's still plenty of agriculture going on within Warsaw's boundaries. Apropos of skiing holidays, I do miss the smell of French cigarettes hanging in the crisp Alpine air, though I'm not a smoker.

Below: Warsaw's southern boundary, defined by this drainage ditch. Warsaw to the right, Mysiadło to the left. In the distance, the Warsaw-Radom railway line. Warm enough to take off my hat and gloves.

From here a few paces forward, then turn 90 degrees right. Across the corduroy field, below, ul. Karczunkowska - and what's that on the horizon? Why, it's the top of Varso tower. The rest - and most of Warsaw's skyline - has been swallowed up by the world-beating smog. Polish cities vie with India's metropolises in global smog alerts these past days. Combination of coal-powered energy generation, lazy drivers driving to the office, and households burning whatever crap comes to hand.

But turn away from town for cleaner air. Looking south, walking into the sun.

Below: well down along the track to Nowa Iwiczna, looking back towards town this time.

I cross the track just north of Nowa Iwiczna and cross into Nowa Wola, where new estates are springing up like proverbial mushrooms after rain. Here's one I haven't seen before, off ul. Postępu just south of Zgorzała.

Along ul. Postępu, Osiedle Kolorowe (lit. 'Colourful Estate'). I'm in two minds about this garish paint scheme, but with a blue sky and strong sunshine, this looks like a tourist poster for a Norwegian fishing village. So I'm OK with this today!

This time last year:

This time three years ago
Notes from the Arena of the Unwell
[Interesting from the perspective of Covid-19]

This time four years ago:
The magic of a dawn flight

This time five years ago:
Warsaw as a voivodship

This time seven years ago:
Around town in the snow

This time nine years ago:
Reference books are dead

This time ten years ago:
A winter walk to work, and wet socks

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Snow turns to slush

Within just over 48 hours, the temperature rose from -18C to +4C, the equivalent of a rise from -1C to +21C. Although the pond ice was still thick in general, by this afternoon there were already patches where slush was forming on the surface and where good sense told one to stay clear. The cause - bubbles of methane created by rotting vegetation on the pond's bed. I observed a tiny hole with water bubbling from beneath. Further on, the holes were bigger, the dark, slushy patches spreading across the width of the pond.

The previous evening, I went out in the evening as the working day was too busy for a daylight stroll. It was still -4C and snowing gently. Below: ulica Dumki. The Nikon Coolpix A working admirably.

Today's walk took me around Jeziorki from the south; here's one of my favourite views, among the scrubland where at this time of year only hares' pawprints can be seen in the snow.

Below: work on the S7 continues at an exemplary pace, although on the photo below one can only see a solitary excavator. Tipper trucks were in constant motion, though none in this shot.

Below: not easy working in these conditions; because the culvert under the east service road (in the foreground) has not yet been completed, road traffic is diverted onto the carriageway of the S7 for the duration. There is a steep slope to get from the service road to the S7; this flatbed semi-trailer had great difficulty making it - three attempts were needed. The first two ended with the combo slipping all the way back down. There isn't the space for a long run-up!

Below: just before crossing the tracks to get back to Jeziorki, a biomass train passes on its way to Siekierki power station. Co-firing wood chips with coal is a cheap (and in my mind ineffective) way for Poland to reduce its fossil-fuel dependence. 

This time last year:
London in its legal finery

This time two years ago:
Winter walk through the Las Kabacki

This time four years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Rain on a freezing day (-7C)

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time ten years ago:
Winter's slight return

This time 11 years ago:

This time 12 years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time 13 years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

Monday, 18 January 2021

Onto the ice, onto the frozen ponds

After last year's hiatus, the cold snap that's brought Warsaw a proper winter has at last frozen over the ponds to the point where it's safe to walk, ski or indeed cycle over them. No sign of car tyre tracks, as in previous winters - nor is this likely, as Wednesday's forecast is for rail and +4C high. Between 01:45 and 07:45 this morning the lowest temperature recorded at the airport nearby was -20C.

Time then, to cautiously descend upon the ice. Below: many have gone before, but none have ventured so far out. As always, caution is the watchword. Listening for cracking below at every footstep, pausing as a plane flies over (the noise drowns out any potential warning sounds), placing one's weight evenly, steadily.

Below: the gaps in the rushes on the far shore show how far I've come. My ambition to get to the north end of the ponds the back way is thwarted by the growth of the reeds. Over the past three years, they have completely encroached on the open water that used to stretch from here to the end. No more will I be able to go where the herons nest. Swathes of pond have in effect stopped being pond and are now marshland.

Below: this waterway, leading west towards ulica Trombity, is still clear. Hares' tracks are visible in the snow. I couldn't see the wild boar tracks that were here in previous winters. How long before this open water is also choked with reeds.

Below: the gabions that form part of the retention ponds to the west. You can see that the water level is low; usually it is above the dark line halfway up the gabions. On the horizon, the wood where the herons nest. No longer accessible on foot without a machete to cut through the dense reed beds.

As I made my way back home I pondered on whether last night's low of -20C wouldn't become noted as the lowest temperature recorded in Warsaw this century. Many Poles who remember communist times will have lived through the 'zima stulecia' of 1978/79, which saw record snowfall in Warsaw, 70cm (27 inches) on 31 January. More recently there was the less snowy but record-breakingly cold winter of 1986/87, where the lowest-ever temperature in Warsaw was recorded, -31.0C.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Mid-Jan pictorial round-up

This time six years ago:
UK migration and the NHS

This time nine years ago:
Miserable depths of winter

This time ten years ago:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time 11 years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time 12 years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time 13 years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Peak winter, may there be many more such as this!

And here it is - the coldest day, and the most beautiful day of the year so far. Sunshine, a frost of -13C, and plenty of fresh snow. It's been a long time, but days like this raise the spirit immensely. The light bouncing off the snow raises serotonin levels higher than straight sunlight, there is believed to be a link between this and mood*.

Below: two photos from Jeziorki's ponds, making the case for this being Warsaw's most beautiful suburb.

Below: footprints on the ice suggest it's safe to walk on - I'd give it another frosty night (having tried at the northern end and heard ominous sounds beneath my feed as I did so).

Below: across the tracks, watching a southbound Koleje Mazowieckie train on its way from W-wa Dawidy to W-wa Jeziorki. Behind me, work on the S7 extension has come to a complete halt.

Below: corner of ul. Dumki, with tourist trail (szlak turystyczny) MZ-5242-z leading off into the distance.

ul. Trombity is safer to walk on - no ploughs, no grit; the snow somehow not turning into a sheet of ice when driven over by cars. And today, drivers are abiding by the 30km/h speed limit, even as they practice their handbrake turns.

It's been four years since Warsaw has seen such a combination of frost and snow; such weather events - which used to be the norm in Poland over the winter - are destined to become rarer as we change our climate. Grateful for the day's weather, I made the most of it, 11,000 paces, best part of an hour and half. Clothing for -14C? Above all, I'm in need of a new pair of gloves, my old pair, bought from a street stall on Krakowskie Przedmieście many years ago have holes and are generally too thin for such frosts. Otherwise, three layers including a lined jacket, pair of corduroy trousers and pair of suede, fur-lined boots is good for the job. Oh, and cashmere woollen watch-cap and face mask that goes down to the neck.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Familiarity, music and memory

This four three years ago:
On taxation and (national) defamation

This time eight years ago:
Where's Britain going to be in Europe?

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki under water

This time 11 years ago:
In a nutshell - the best science book I've ever read

This time 12 years ago:
Flashback to communist times

This time 13 years ago:
Pre-dawn Ursynów

Friday, 15 January 2021

Winter approaches its zenith

Winter is looking better as better as more snow - and the temperature - falls. Today's walk pretty much follows the steps of yesterday. Below: the 'foodstuffs & industrial shop' on ulica Baletowa. Christmas lights up until Candlemas on 2 February, in the old tradition. I'm glad this independent retailer is open and I pop in from time to time for supplies for my walks.

Below: the cemetery gates on ul. Jeziorki. The white-red-white stripes are not a display of solidarity with Belarus, rather they are markers for the tourist trail (szlak turystyczny) MZ-5143-c, which like trail MZ-5242-z (white-green-white) begins at W-wa Dawidy station.

Below: a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner on final approach to Warsaw Okęcie. Beyond the treeline, over the railway tracks and the S79 expressway and ul. Wirażowa, over the fence, touchdown in 40 seconds or so.

Below: the ponds are icing up nicely. I can stand on the edge, the ice will now hold my weight, but if I bounce on my knees I can hear cracking. By Monday morning it should be firm enough to walk across, after two nights well below -10C.

Below: ul. Dumki - almost home. This is the asphalted stretch of Dumki, though one would never guess.

The shifting of budgets to central government away from local government is making itself felt; last year there was no snow so the lack of snowploughs and salt went unnoticed, but this is the first winter when ul. Trombity was left unsnowploughed. The result for pedestrians is very slippery ice, packed hard by car tyres. Safest to walk on the grass verge, there being no pavement along the length of the street.

This time two years ago:
Signals from space

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Winter, at last, in all its glory


Two years waiting, at at long last - proper winter. Yesterday, 13 January, it arrived - time to catch it. Briefly, the sun appeared - but to the north, more snow clouds gather. The snows will help raise the water level of the ponds - barely visible to the left of the photo.

Across the tracks, looking at Jeziorki with my back to where the new S7 extension is cutting through the fields between Jeziorki and Dawidy Bankowe. Dead goldenrod and tansy dominates in this fallow field.

Below: an abandoned orchard on ulica Kórnicka - the inaccessible part of the street, cut off by the railway line at one end and the S7 extension at the other. I dare say fruit-growing won't return here.

Today's walk was at twilight; I set off half an hour before sunset. Below: the northern end of ul. Kórnicka, where it meets ul. Baletowa. I am reminded of a Christmas cake decoration as a child - a dark-green fir tree sprayed with white, sitting in a red wooden pot, about two inches high. Every year, my mother would place it in the white icing on top of the marzipan coating the rich fruitcake. 

Below: Is this rural Buckinghamshire? No - this is ul. Sporna, less than 11km (6.8 miles) from the centre of Warsaw, looking north-west

Ul. Sporna, like ul. Kórnicka, is also cut in half by the railway line; no longer is there a level crossing even for pedestrians. On the other side of the tracks, Sporna continues to Dawidy via Dawidy Zwyczajne (the bit of Dawidy that's within Warsaw's borders). Below: a train towards town has just departed from W-wa Dawidy station.

Below: back on ul. Trombity, winterously gorgeous as night falls.

Winter will stay with Warsaw and Mazowsze for a few more days, with heaps of new snow and a nighttime low of -17C forecast for Saturday night, followed by a daytime high of -12C on Sunday.

This time seven years ago:
The simple beauty of

This time eight years ago:
My brother at 50 - and as a child

This time nine years ago:
First snow in the Old Town

This time ten years ago:
Blood on the tracks, again

This time 11 years ago:
Views from Książęca footbridge - winter and summer

This time 12 years ago:
The Most Poniatowskiego