Saturday, 31 July 2021

Stewardship of the land

It occurred to me one morning as I took an early stroll around my acre of land in Jakubowizna, that I didn't just buy land - I bought somewhere in the region of a million plants. Think of each individual grass plant or weed, a few hundred growing to the square metre. Some of these plants give fruit (apples, cherries, wild strawberries, plums, raspberries, blackberries), some flower nicely, some sting or prick (nettles, thistles, brambles), some carpet the ground (grasses). Some are big trees, some are seedlings or saplings - I decide which ones will grow into mighty oaks, and which should be pruned back. I decide which weeds to pull up, and which to leave unharmed. As well as the plants, there are also the insects - maybe a similar order of magnitude. Ants, spiders, flies, gnats. My decisions should be carefully taken, balancing environmental and aesthetic considerations. 

Lawns are bad for the environment. They are aesthetically pleasing - indeed, they are a powerful reminder of 1950s America, a symbol of good times, when materialist plenty didn't have to be tempered by environmental concerns. Petrol-engined lawn mowers keeping those individual grass plants short, then rolled this way then that to give those distinctive stripes. The cost to the environment of hundreds of millions of lawns world wide is immense. Consider the grass plant itself. Capable of producing several leaves (or blades), as well as reproducing daughter plants nearby, it does its bit for the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. And think of the energy (typically fossil fuels) used to cut it. An eight-inch blade of grass is four times as useful to the environment as one that's been cut back to two inches.

Lawns are symbolic of man's taming of nature - bending the environment to man's will. They exact a heavy price on us all. My neighbours mostly keep their large lawns short and tidy - it pleases the eye, but I worry about the climate. The pattern is there - hotter summers, more convection rainfall, intense deluges, flash-floods. Yes, they used to happen before, but they are far more common occurrences today. When was the last time 177 people died as a result of heavy rains in Germany, as happened earlier this month? [Answer - 1910; around 200. This Wikipedia list shows clearly how destructive heavy rains are occurring with increasing frequency in Europe.]

There's a clear correlation between increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the frequency and intensity of floods, heat waves and drought periods. How we look after our land is an important factor. Decisions have to be taken, how to live.

The grass immediately surrounding my house is kept reasonably short using only a scythe. This limits the amount I can - and I want - to mow. Paths are kept open - to the garden tap, to the fruit trees and bushes. The gravel drive is kept as free of weeds as possible - not using herbicides, but by me uprooting the weeds as they start to grow big enough to pull out easily. Until then, they just grow, naturally.

Grass plant, uprooted from drive, awaits replanting

By not using petrol to mow or weed-killer - or indeed pesticides - I am keeping the działka as chemical-free as possible. This is a policy decision. My vista, as I write these words, is of a meadow full of flowers and tall grasses, rather than a neatly-kept lawn. Apples ripen on a row of trees, unsprayed.

The back garden, untamed.

A part of me is there on the forecourt of Leroy Merlin in Piaseczno, eyeing up the ride-on lawn-mower/tractors, imagining one in my garage among the motorbikes, spending the summers going around the estate twice a week, keeping it all neat and tidy. Hacking away at the spreading boughs with a two-stroke chainsaw. The hallmarks of a 'dobry gospodarz'. But is it? We all need to change the way we look at our gardens.

There's 7.8 billion of us. Each one takes personal decisions that impact the environment and climate. I cannot stress enough the responsibility each one of us bears for ensuring that our impact on the planet is minimal. Each decision - whether or not to buy something, where that something comes from (near or far), how much we drive, how much we fly, what we eat.

On the działka, life is predicated by eating, eating by shopping, and shopping by walking - the trip to the shop/s is nearly always on foot. I therefore buy no more than I can comfortably carry in my rucksack for half an hour, enough food for up to two days. Rubbish is dutifully sorted, with anything compostable returning to the soil. Cooking requires gas for the rings - this comes in a bottle, which is still the original one from 2018! I use the gas as sparingly as possible. Cooking rice or lentils entails boiling half a kettle of water, soaking the rice or lentils in boiled water for five minutes or so, which halves the amount of time needed over the gas hob. One day, the gas will run out - and it will be while I'm cooking lunch or supper. Then I'll have the problem of getting it to one of many refill points for a top-up.

All in all, I have intended to make life on the działka as eco-friendly as possible, taking the greatest of care to minimise my eco-footprint. 

This time last year:
The cost of Covid complacency

This time two years ago:

This time four years ago:
Ahead of the Big Day

This time five years ago:
Once in a blue moon

This time seven years ago:
A return to Snowdon - Wales' highest peak

This time eight years ago:
On the eve of Warsaw's Veturillo revolution

This time ten years ago:
Getting ready for the 'W'-hour flypast

This time 11 years ago:
A century of Polish scouting

Friday, 30 July 2021

New phone camera vs. Nikon D3500

The downside of travel on a motorbike with a camera is it must either be around your neck, where it can be a nuisance - banging into fuel tank every now and then - or tucked away in the rucksack. My Nikon D3500 is not a heavy camera, but its presence around my neck is not welcome while out riding. My Nikon Coolpix A is smaller and lighter, but it lacks telephoto capability. It's great for landscapes and architecture but little more. So my new Samsung Galaxy S20FE looked like a promising answer - not least because it has three lens built in, wide, ultra-wide and telephoto. On Wednesday, I left the Nikons on the działka and set off for a ride. 

To my huge disappointment, only one photo I took actually registered on the phone's memory! I assumed that, just as on my Huawei P9 Lite, the simple act of touching the white button centrally located on the bottom panel under the image would capture it. The Galaxy S20 vibrates - there's the impression of the image coming into focus - but it turns out that this isn't enough. You need to ensure that the tiny icon to the left of the white button is filled with a thumbnail of the image. Only then do you know you've got your snap. Which means pressing the white button twice after an unlock.

So the following day I went out for another ride, having taken some test photos the previous evening. It's not all that intuitive! This time, I took the Nikon in the rucksack as a back-up.

Below: where the orchards end and the forest begins; my evening walk, Jakubowizna. Still not convinced by the blueness of the blue in this image taken on the Galaxy S20FE, on this walk I left the Nikon at home to test the universal suitability of the smartphone and its camera. Taken with the ultrawide lens, the equivalent of 13.5mm on a 35mm camera. Given that the number of pixels is half of that in the Nikon, and that the sensor is much smaller, it stands to reason that the image won't be nearly as good if blown up to 30" x 20". However, as an image on a blog page - it will do more than adequately.

Now for a shot using the telephoto lens (below). This is the equivalent of 76mm on a 35mm camera, so a very mild telephoto, more of a portrait focal length. There are also digital (rather than optical) zoom possibilities, but because of potential camera shake it makes more sense to crop the image in Photoshop rather than to zoom in digitally. This is the farm track leading up from Grobice towards Adamów Rososki.

Let's look then side by side, how the camera and the phone compare. Below: not identical shots, but you get the picture. On the left, the Nikon D3500 with lens set at 27mm (35mm equiv.), with polarising filter. To the right, the Galaxy S20FE image taken with its ultrawide lens (13.5mm in 35mm equiv.), and taken from closer in. The .RAW image was processed in Photoshop Camera Raw, something you can't do when shooting .jpg-only shots on the Galaxy S20FE. Yes, you can use Photoshop - but compared to Camera Raw, Photoshop lacks the fine control when it comes to extracting the most detail from highlight and shadow areas, as well as colour balance and saturation. In the final analysis, the better image is the one that most accurately matches what the photographer saw and felt at the time - the one that better reflects the qualia experience of the moment. In this case, for me, it's the Nikon image, left.

Below: the other great plus for the Nikon is the ability to use filters. The circular polarising filter is an essential part of my photographic style, bringing out a Kodachrome-like crystalline blue from the skies. For me, this is an integral part of my sublime aesthetic.

Opożdżew, Nevada. I do like it when local wags play around with the road signs this way. Incidentally, the shot above was the reverse of this one, the one I stopped for. Also taken on the Nikon.

On the plus side - the Galaxy S20's size and universality mean that if I'm ever forced to leave the camera, for whatever reason, I will be always able to get a reasonable shot for the archives, even though it's not as perfect as my soul would like it. The pictures are qualitatively better than the snaps taken on my old Huawei P9 Lite for one main reason - three integral lenses rather than just the one, even if the process of shooting is more complicated.

This time three years ago:
Karczunkowska viaduct takes shape

This time four years ago:
My father's return to Warsaw, 2017

This time five years ago:
My father's first visit to Warsaw in 40 years

This time six years ago:
What's worse - unemployment, or a badly-paid job?

This time seven years ago:
A return to Liverpool

This time nine years ago:
Too good to last (anyone remember OLT Express airline?)

This time ten years ago:
Poland's Baltic coast as a holiday destination

This time 12 years ago:
The Warsaw they fought and died for?

This time 14 years ago:
Floods, rainbows and hope

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Habit or obsession?

When do good habits become obsessions? When does normal behaviour cross the boundary into what society considers abnormal? Obsession is commonly considered to be when one no longer has control over an action - but then habitual behaviour is also a form of autopilot.

At the end of 2013, I set myself a resolution to maintain my health through middle age. Based on a pedometer and spreadsheet, this involved logging my paces and other health inputs every day. My father used to ask me: "What would happen if you didn't do your 10,000 paces today?" I think about his words from time to time when I glance at the health app in my smartphone (which replaced the pedometer years ago) and I see I'm several hundred paces short of my target. So I set off to the end of the drive and back, or go round the garden. Or simply go upstairs and downstairs a few times if it's cold or wet outside. 

Sounds obsessive? I'd justify this to my father by saying that if I were a thousand short today, I'd need to do 11,000 tomorrow, so it's best to get one's duty done now rather than put it off. Makes sense, I'd say. The spreadsheet now has come to play an important - even dominant - role in my life, with daily inputs and regular views telling me how I'm doing. In my eighth year of filling in the spreadsheet, it lets me know when I have to up the pace, do more exercise, walk further, faster - and also when I can slack off a bit - do less of one sort of exercise and still be ahead on last year's total. And have a drink. 

When drinking socially, people are sometimes amazed that I take care to remember how many millilitres of alcohol - and at what strength (I look at the label/ask the barman). Especially on a Big Night Out. And at home afterwards, I'd log the number of units. It's working well - coming up to the end of July, I can see I've consumed 10% fewer units than to the end of July last year - and 60% fewer units than I did between January and July 2014!

Self-discipline can be hard to achieve. What's stopping me from having that cold beer in the fridge or pouring myself a wee dram of single malt? The spreadsheet helps. I look at the numbers. Have that beer now, and it means I'll have to say 'no' at some social occasion next month. Do I need that beer, or is it only out of boredom? Will it help me be more creative if I sip back that Islay whisky? The spreadsheet has quite clearly helped.

So - good habit or obsession? Why bother logging it at all?

One good habit I don't need to log is sugar intake. Other than that which is present in fresh fruit and vegetables, I avoid sugar in the main. Sugary fizzy soft drinks? Literally zero. A rare bar of halva, a cake at a social occasion that would be churlish to turn down, the odd morsel of dark chocolate - very, very rare. Too rare to note - maybe one or two times a month, if that. Similarly for salt snacks, other than nuts (macadamia nuts I enjoy). 

If I'm not noting my sugar and salt-snack intake - why should I do so for alcohol and portions of fresh fruit and veg? Force of habit. Habit or obsession?

Clearing out my father's house, my son and Cousin Hoavis came across my father's daily records of his blood-pressure readings. Like me, he did this obsessively - though on small squares of paper. Because it was not kept in digital form, the dated records are of little value to posterity, with no links to external factors. My blood-pressure readings are kept as a separate sheet on the same spreadsheet file, allowing me to cross-check anomalously high readings with other factors such a exercise, diet, alcohol intake - and indeed, a very important factor - the time at which I went to bed.

These days, wearable devices make all this logging much easier - but the danger is that without conscious input, the data will just pile up, unobserved, unacted upon. 

My father did keep his financial affairs on spreadsheets, in particular the value of his share portfolio. Each day at the close of the trading day on the London Stock Exchange, he'd enter the price of each of the shares that he owned, and would track their performance over time. He'd keep a note of all cheques he'd write out, keeping real-time note of his bank balance. I'm not that obsessive about money, as long as I'm in the black, it's OK.

Obsessions can be traits linked to psychiatric disorders, but this one is very mild; more a harmless quirk of personality, inherited genetically. Harmless? I'd say healthy - keeping habits good and bad under a daily watchful gaze.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

Monday, 26 July 2021

Unpicking the Rational Revolution

The world - the universe, life, indeed - are all explainable. The rational human being, raised on the thinking of Plato, Newton and Darwin, has no room in their worldview for ghosts, astrology, spiritualism, alchemy, palmistry, hermeticism, gnosticism, occultism, channelling aliens - or indeed for organised religion. All is matter or energy. There is no such thing as the 'paranormal', the 'supernatural' or the 'metaphysical'. These outdated forms of thinking were merely the products of irrational minds that sought answers to questions which science has now successfully answered.

Mysticism, in all its forms, is bunk.

Our rational, scientific worldview - the one in which we've been raised - tells us that all natural phenomena can be reduced to mathematical formulae, These, we believe, can successfully predict the motion of the stars and planets, the properties of DNA, the workings of the mind, the innermost secrets of the electron, and the forces at work within the expanding universe.

Not entirely.

For the past 90 or so years, science has been pulling back from assertions such as "we just have a couple more formulae to crack, and then we'll know literally everything." From its inability to pinpoint the seat of consciousness or identify dark energy and dark matter (and how they interact with gravity), what happened before Big Bang, how the Universe will end - the world of science is less and less confident that It Knows It All. And will quantum physics ever become intuitively understandable? Given that our intuition has been shaped by classical physics for centuries, how long will it take humanity to absorb the weirdness of quantum mechanics - the Wave Function of the Universe, for example, into the way we see the everyday world around us?

And now we are seemingly faced with unidentified aerial phenomena, witnessed by credible observers and recorded across multiple sensor platforms - craft performing feats that science cannot even begin to explain. Acceleration from stationary to hypersonic speed in two seconds. Plunging from space, through the atmosphere, into the ocean. Doing this with no visible means of lift (no wings or rotor blades), nor visible means of propulsion (no flames, no vapour trail, no wake). Science dogmatically digs in against such claims, offering increasingly weak rebuttals.

Our faith in science begins to waver - and at a highly dangerous time, what with anti-vaxxers talking rubbish about the Covid-19 vaccines that are already successfully combating the virus.

Classical science works well enough at our human scale, but fails to cohere at the subatomic (10-27m) or at the galactic (1027m) scales. Quantum mechanics and Einsteinian space-time relativity fail to gel. Our knowledge starts to fray at both ends, without a unifying theory to bind them. And here, the magick steps back in to fill the void. The world of the metaphysical - that which is above, or beyond, physics. In earlier days this would have been packaged as the occult - hidden knowledge - secret mysteries that only the Initiated can learn and pass on down the ages. All this begins to be just as valid - though at the metaphysical level, couched in arcane language that works differently to the language of science.

Cognitive bias, however, should always be at the forefront of one's mind when cutting a new path through the undergrowth of mysticism. And, it must never be forgotten that it was the scientific method that brought us the comforts of modern life, including healthcare and electricity.

It does seem more and more likely that we are being visited by beings from different worlds. We know not whether these worlds are planets circling other stars in our galaxy, or other dimensions, or from other times. We do not know whether these craft are probes or whether they contain living beings. Science is wholly unable to explain the phenomenon of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. 

Of the 145 cases investigated by the US Navy, only one could be successfully debunked as something familiar.

Whatever is out there, watching us, has evidently mastered physics at a level that we cannot even begin to imagine. In the meanwhile, the notion of channelling these entities using telepathy makes as much sense as dismissing the phenomena as weather balloons.

Our own personal routes to Understanding, to Purpose are individual. Seek your own way. Like the excited electron making its way through a molecule. It doesn't just follow one route - it follows all the possible paths - and then recalculates the most efficient one and says: "that's the one I have taken," as it if has worked this out backward in time. This is quantum superposition, and it stands as a good analogy for our own paths to God.

This time last year:
Ride to Roztocze

This time two years ago:
Poznań and Wrocław - two boomtowns

This time eight years ago:
Scaling the highest peak in Wales

This time nine years ago:
Beaches of the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula

This time ten years ago: 
The Accursed Soldiers - a short story

This time 11 years ago:
Driving impressions of the Toyota Yaris
[11 years on - still rock-solid]

This time 13 years ago:
Poland's dry summer

This time 14 years ago:
The UK's wettest summer ever

Sunday, 25 July 2021

New phone, new laptop - Part II

This stinks. Migrating to a new laptop with a whole lot of unfamiliar software is such a huge waste of time, serving only to raise my blood pressure and anger. At every turn, this doltish operating system does nothing but frustrate me with some fresh idiocy. Like serving up the temperature, by default, in degrees Fahrenheit. The scale in which water freezes at some random number and boils at another random number. Or insisting on US date format. July 25th, 2021. Or the need to change 'language' to UK English in about 150 different settings folders, manually. Or an entirely different, and simplified to the point of uselessness Network & Internet settings interface.

Hence my new Microsoft password is a stream of obscene invective aimed at the corporation. I was expecting a message from it such as "The password you have offered is offensive to Microsoft and can be construed as constituting abusive behavior. Please devise a new password or face possible legal action." But no - to my surprise, my new password was meekly accepted, having the requisite uPPer- and loweR-case letters & symbo1s and numbers. So much for artificial intelligence.

Maybe this time the process of migrating to a new laptop will be different. Maybe I'll get used to it sooner rather than later. Maybe I'm just suffering from a decades-long prejudice against Microsoft. 

My first contact with the firm was in the form of MS-DOS with its typed prompt commands. Enough to stop the IT revolution in its tracks. This was during an early attempt to digitalise production of the magazine I was managing in London in the late 1980s. Fortunately, nothing came of it. Within a few months, however, I entered the shiny, happy world of the Apple Mac, all icons, point-and-click graphic user interface. It worked. It worked perfectly. I became a convert. Unfortunately, after moving to Poland in 1997 I discovered that an Apple Mac cost the same as a working furniture factory in Mińsk Mazowiecki. And then a miracle happened. Microsoft released its second iteration of Windows, and this could be used to do desktop publishing with almost Apple-like efficiency. Windows-compatible machines were put together in Polish basements from components flown in from Thailand, and worked well and were reasonably priced. Windows got better and better with XP, reaching a peak with Windows 7. (Nobody mention Windows Fista, utter crap.) Windows 8 was a retrograde step with cute little pictures taking over from the mouse and keyboard commands which by now had become habitualised. Windows 9 was skipped, then came Windows 10 which will soon be replaced by Windows 11. 

Windows 10, with its constant upgrades and smartphone-like graphic interface, was not something I ever wanted, being entirely happy with Windows 7. When I bought my previous laptop (a used ex-leasing Dell), it came with Windows 10, and so I had to learn how to work with the new operating system. It was not an easy process; over three years on, I still struggle from time to time to carry certain actions.

This time round, however, I shall intend to try something new - to run this new laptop using as much Microsoft as possible. So hello Edge, hello Outlook, hello MS Office, hello Teams, hello Bing, hello MS Maps, etc. And farewell (here at on this laptop at least) to Chrome, Mozilla Thunderbird, Libre Office, Zoom, Google Search, Google Earth etc. 

I have spent 22 years ducking the moment that I have to use MS Outlook. I remember when it was installed across my previous employer's devices. It was universally hated, and nicknamed MS LOOK OUT! (warning ahead of a crash). It is still unpopular. Why does Outlook not work well with MS Teams running? I haven't met anyone who raves about Outlook being the answer to workplace productivity.

Can I get used to it and to the other MS products? If so, how long will it take me to adjust? I'm writing this blog post using Blogger (a Google product - no alternative here), yet things look different in Edge.

Having two laptops - like having two phones - means the process of adjusting to the New Reality will take much longer. How much longer - I'll write about it at some point in the future. By which time I will have to start learning to get used to Windows 11.

This time last year:
Two images from my early childhood

This time two years ago:
How PKP PLK's planners should treat pedestrian station users.

This time three years ago:
Foreign exchange: don't get diddled!
[for the saps who pay £250 for €200 at the airport]

This time five years ago:
Defining my Sublime Aesthetic

This time seven years ago:
Porth Ceiriad on the Llyn Peninsula

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, late July

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, after the storm

This time 13 years ago:
Rural suburbias - the ideal place to live?

Friday, 23 July 2021

My first experience of W-wa Główna station

Re-opened to passenger trains on 14 March, Warsaw's new old station remains functionally unfinished after over four months. A short walk-through, but first, some history. 

Until Warsaw's main railway station, W-wa Centralna, or Dworzec Centralny, was completed in 1976, Warszawa Główna Osobowa served as the main terminus for passenger trains entering Warsaw from the west. Once W-wa Centralna was opened, W-wa Główna remained in use for another 21 years but only as the terminus for trains on the Radom line. It closed in 1997, around the time I moved to Poland. I remember the station in 1966, peering over the bridge on ulica Towarowa, seeing many EN57 electric multiple units, then painted navy-blue and cream, standing at its many platforms. From 1972, the northern platforms of W-wa Główna Osobowa were given over to the railway museum. Beyond that were the goods platforms. These now serve as the location for Warsaw's Nocny Market. [Click here to see Towarowa before hipsterification.]

The reopened W-wa Główna station has, as yet, no working signage - just two sets of paper timetables posted in the display cabinets. From the one street entrance, on ulica Towarowa, you can only guess from which of the four platforms your train will depart (its destination is on the head of the train at the other end). There's no ticket office or even booth, no station personnel. I called in to have a look and was disappointed by the prowizorka of it all. The passenger footbridge at the far end of the platforms is still unfinished; all that is ready are the four platforms and their canopies.

The purpose of the reopening of W-wa Główna lies in the impending modernisation of the Linia średnicowa - the transversal railway line that cuts under central Warsaw in a tunnel, with the two stations W-wa Centralna for long-distance trains and W-wa Śródmieście for suburban trains. The modernisation will entail the replacement of W-wa Powiśle suburban station for two new ones - W-wa Muzeum Narodowy (by Rondo De Gaulle'a) and W-wa Solec nearer the river.

Below: looking west, the footbridge visible in the distance - though I could see no work going on (it's ten past three in the afternoon on a weekday). Note the two electronic indicator boards - both blank. One double-decker train is heading to Radom via Chynów, the other is heading to Skierniewice. Which is mine?

Below: looking east with Warsaw's skyline on the horizon. The display cabinets at this end of the platforms contain no timetables (on the basis that footbridge access is not yet ready, so no one needs them here). A curiosity - note the kilometre markers; the one on the left of the photo below says 1.7, one nearer the entrance on ul. Towarowa says 1.6. So counting up from Kilometre Zero at W-wa Centralna, it seems, rather than from the junction back at W-wa Zachodnia? The two double-decker Koleje Mazowieckie trains are flanking a ŁKA (Łódź Agglomeration Railways) train that also terminates at W-wa Główna.

Below: "Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day" - so two stopped clocks will be right four times a day. Why two analogue clocks are needed here is beyond me - presumably one is needed in case the digital displays aren't working - but two? Note the steam engines in the distance - these are open-air exhibits at Stacja Muzeum, the PKP graveyard for once-magnificent locos, now left to rot, exposed to the elements for almost half a century. They should be indoors and looked after the way the National Railway Museum in York does.

Below: I hear a station announcement - the double-decker train that's leaving first is the one for Skierniewice, so I board it to travel the one stop to W-wa Zachodnia, where I shall change trains. I take this train because it is on the right-hand track, giving a better view of the works. I note the 'kiss and ride' drop-off points by W-wa Główna - curious, since pick-up points are needed, given that this is an inner-city terminus station, not the place where someone is likely to be dropped off. At first sight, I thought this was a driving school.

On the way from W-wa Główna to W-wa  Zachodnia. The acres of sidings are being rationalised, unnecessary tracks ripped up. Note the curved window line - I'm sitting upstairs on the double-decker. And note Warsaw's new skyline. When I moved to Poland in 1997, none of these towers existed.

Below: I change trains at W-wa Zachodnia, which gives me a chance to get an update on work going on here. A cracking pace. Every time I pass through, it's advancing. Note the roof structure taking shape.

Bonus shot: another change of trains, this time at W-wa Jeziorki, onward bound to Chynów, and I am surprised to see this brand-new rolling stock headed for Piaseczno. This is the Siedlce-built ER160 Statler FLIRT 3 (Fast Light Innovative Regional Transport), one of 18 units ordered by Koleje Mazowieckie in 2019.

Progress - it could be faster. And yet, despite my impatience, it is clearly visible. I might be having a cobble*, but Poland's railways - and indeed Warsaw, and Poland - have all come a long way in a short time. But there's always more that we want!

*cobble stone = moan (Cockney rhyming slang)

This time five years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Rondo ONZ One at twilight - the City Sublime

This time eight years ago:
Up that old, familiar mountain

This time nine years ago
More from Penrhos


Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Consciousness - in the brain, or everywhere?

There's a major philosophical debate in science about the nature of consciousness (I recommend dipping into the Closer To Truth discussions with Robert Lawrence Kuhn on YouTube). There are scientists and philosophers who will traditionally argue that consciousness is no more than an emergent property of the brain, limited to what goes on within the skull of higher-order animals. Others suggest that consciousness might well be like matter - a fundamental property dispersed across the Universe - and like matter, something that can neither be created nor destroyed, only altered. I have long held the latter view.

The notion of non-local consciousness - panpsychism - is explained by philosopher Phillip Goff in this 2020 interview in Scientific American: "In our standard view of things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence consciousness exists only in a tiny part of the universe and only in very recent history. According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. The fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts."

So on to the human brain - assuming electrons have some proto-consciousness, how does it end up in the magnificent experiences that we call awareness or consciousness?

The Penrose-Hameroff theory of orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR) - consciousness being caused by quantum events taking place within the structures inside the neuron called microtubules - has been around since 1996. Widely criticised by the scientific establishment, the Orch OR theory of quantum consciousness has neither been validated nor dismissed over the past quarter century. Nor indeed built on.

An article appeared today [link here] about an experiment which looks at one potential way in which quantum particles could move about in the brain. Although it was conducted in a lab rather than in a brain, it could yet lead to further developments that would show whether or not Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff were on the right track or not.

Cristiane de Morais Smith, professor of theoretical physics at Utrecht University, and Professor Xian-Min Jin at Shanghai Jiaotong University, have published a paper describing their tests of the principles underpinning the quantum theory of consciousness. They looked at quantum transport in fractal networks (though quite what this means is beyond me). Prof. de Morais Smith writes: "Our observations from these experiments reveal that quantum fractals behave in a different way to classical ones. We found that the spread of light across a fractal is governed by different laws in the quantum case compared to the classical case. This new knowledge of quantum fractals could provide the foundations for scientists to experimentally test the theory of quantum consciousness. If quantum measurements are one day taken from the human brain, they could be compared against our results to definitely decide whether consciousness is a classical or a quantum phenomenon."

"Is consciousness everywhere?" "It is and it isn't until a conscious observer observes it there."

My bet is on consciousness being a quantum phenomenon.

"Allow for the possibility that the future is relevant to the present." - Jeff Tollaksen, professor, co-director, Institute of Quantum Studies, Chapman University.

[UPDATE 23 JULY - two days after I write this post, this article pops up on "Panpsychism ... offers an explanation for consciousness that doesn't try to do an end run around the known laws of the physical world, but assumes consciousness is an intrinsic part of it," the article says - although it doesn't mention the Penrose/Hameroff Orch OR theory.

This time three years ago:
Ahead of the S7 extension - Dawidy

This four last year:
2017 participatory budget for Jeziorki - winners and losers

This time seven years ago:
The Second Summer of Cider

This time eight years ago:
North Wales in the sun

This time nine years ago:
Back at Penrhos

This time 11 years ago:
A farewell to Dobra

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Memory, collective memory and proof of memory

Wittgenstein said that whilst we can be certain that we are conscious now, can be equally sure that we were conscious in the past? I say we can.  Or at least I can say with certainty that I am sure. And I can prove this by tapping into the phenomenon of qualia memories. A moment in which the conscious mind experiences exactly the same qualia as it did at another time.

Seven years ago, just before five o'clock in the morning, I set off on a long bicycle ride south, following the Warsaw-Radom railway line. [A link to a blog post about that journey appears below, This time seven years ago.

By 7am, I had reached Sułkowice, and I popped into the local supermarket to buy food. I rode on, across the DK50, and found a quiet spot by the side of a farm track in Chynów for a second breakfast. While making myself a baguette sandwich filled with ham, I watched two hares playing in the adjacent field. Below left: 19 July 2014. Below right: 21 July 2021, exactly the same spot (note the cylindrical fence-post topped with concrete, with a steel rod sticking out of it).

I was entirely unaware of it at the time, but three years and four months later, I'd be buying a działka less than 700m from where I sat eating my baguette. The quest to find the exact location took a while; it was only when I found the photo I'd taken (on my 2013-2016 Samsung Galaxy S3) that I realised it lay east of the railway line.

Six years later, the area has changed greatly; the level crossing that until last summer led ulica Miodowa over the Warsaw-Radom line had been closed, all traces removed. The gravel road has been asphalted all the way to Jakubowizna, the railway line comprehensively modernised, with flood protection drainage on both sides. Old orchards have been uprooted, new ones planted and tended to fruition. The hares are still here; two of them popped out across the road, watched me for a while, then scampered back into their field. The spirit of place has changed - exactly the same location, only more prosperous, better managed; standing here, I no longer could relate directly to the qualia I'd experienced at 07:27 on Saturday 19 July 2014. 

But I can certainly conjure them up!

Looking at the photograph brings it all back accurately. My memory has been proved correct. The 'I' that existed on 07:27 on that summer's day seven years ago and the 'I' that is writing these words is linked by consciousness and memory, and externally verified. This is a deeply personal memory; no one but me can prove I am experiencing it. Collective memory is different. "Do you remember when we..." "Yes, and we..." In such cases, often the other person adds an element that you yourself might have forgotten. If you don't recall something, but the other person does (or the other way around), is the memory valid? Does a new, collective, memory come into existence?

I would posit that only you can judge; if another person describing an event at which you were present, but of which you have no qualia memory (that is, you have no deep, abiding memory of sensory perceptions at the time), it might not have existed for you. Psychologists might argue that you have been trying to shut off the memory - perhaps in some cases. In most, the experience itself failed to register, failed to trip at the spiritual, consciousness, level.

From the very beginning of this blog, I had set out to create a body of work for myself that I could return to and verify those deepest memories. In the case of my bicycle ride of 19 July 2014 - it worked.

Here's a link to a past post I wrote about the elusive and personal nature of memory

This time three years ago:
And did Her feet...?

This time five years ago:
40 years ago - Montserrat, holiday that would shape my life

This time six years ago:
Last night's storm

This time seven years ago:
Drifting south with the sun - bicycle hobo

This time nine years ago:
Royal Parks in the rain

This time ten years ago:
Storm clouds over Warsaw, Dolinka under water

This time  11 ago:
Round-up of pics from Dobra

This time 12 years ago:
Conservatism - UK or Polish style?

This time 13 years ago:
Wheat and development

This time 14 years ago:
A previous visit to London

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Warka shows how small-town Poland is on the move

Moni drove over to the działka, and we set off to Warka for lunch, and to see how the railway - and the town - is getting on. In brief - Warka station (1.65km from the town square) is ready - job done, platforms, underground tunnel, waiting room - everything complete. Likewise the new, two-track bridge carrying the Warsaw-Radom railway line over the Pilica river. 

Still to do, the new station, Warka Miasto (a mere 700m from the town square). It's taking shape, not a major job (two platforms, access via stairs to the new viaduct taking ulica Lotników over the railway line). 

Once it opens, Warka will face the same question that many towns with their main railway station far from the centre have - why is that station named for the town located further away than a station much nearer the centre? John Betjeman's poem Great Central Railway springs to mind - "And quite where Rugby Central is/Does only Rugby know"... On the other hand, Warka gets upgraded to one of those Polish towns that has more than one station to its name.

Below: Warka Miasto ('Warka Town') station is located on a curve, just before the bridge over the river Pilica, visible in the distance. Two parallel platforms will straddle the two tracks (before the modernisation, there was only the one line from Warka to Radom). Note the huge pile of apple crates to the right. This is the heart of apple country.

Below: the view from ul. Lotników, looking toward the 'down' platform. What will no doubt delay the opening of the new station will be the installation of level-access lifts from the viaduct down to platform level. At W-wa Jeziorki, this took many months after everything else was ready. Putting in the lifts (for 'up' and 'down' platforms) is by far the most complex part of the remaining works.

Below: the new viaduct is open for road traffic, replacing a gated level crossing that had been here before - a similar situation to that at W-wa Jeziorki. All the ungated crossings on the line to Radom will disappear.

Below: the classic view of the two new bridges, replacing the single-track bridge that had been built here in 1934 (destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt after the war). While the new bridges were under construction, a replacement bus service linked Warka and Radom, meaning journey times from Warsaw to Radom were typically over three hours. Now the work's done, it's an hour and 20 minutes.

The new bridges are of the same design as the old bridge, but with more attention paid to flood prevention. Note the concrete buttressing to the right.

Below: the Pilica is a popular river for canoes, which in Polish are called kayaks. [In UK English, a kayak can be a canoe, but a canoe is typically open from bow to stern.] Today - a sunny Sunday in July - the river was full of small boats heading downstream in the direction of the Pilica's confluence with the Vistula, 17km/10.5 miles to the east.

Below: kayaking down the Pilica has become a big thing. All along the river bank, new hotels and tourist infrastructure has sprung up to cater for the sport. Along the road parallel to the Pilica you can see minibuses with special trailers that can carry ten or so kayaks; they travel empty downstream, and laden with kayaks upstream. Good to see so many people making the most of the weather and the river!

Below: a double-decker Koleje Mazowieckie train on its way from Radom to Warsaw approaches the bridge at Warka.

On the bridge itself - I assume we were not trespassing, as there were no signs prohibiting pedestrians from using the walkway on the western side. In the distance, the tower of the voluntary fire service station in Warka.

Below: I wrote about Warka station in June of last year - since then, the pedestrian tunnel has been completed, the station is ready. The waiting room has a machine serving hot drinks, including rosół (chicken broth), but no small bottles of chilled mineral water for summer. On the west side of the tracks, the tunnel is ready. Like at Chynów station, there are no lifts to platform level from the tunnel, only a set of long and gentle ramps, a more robust solution than lifts which are prone to malfunction. On the other side of the tracks from the station, there's no paved footpath, just muddy puddles. But then access from here to ul. Grójecka is the remit of the town, not of the railway.

We ate at a restaurant called Kociołek, located at the foot of a block of flats some way from the market square. The food was excellent, but what a bill! For two main courses, one prawn starter and two half-litres of 0.0% beer, the bill came to 95 złotys (£17.82). Four years ago, my father, Moni and I lunched in Mogielnica, a small town 32km/20 miles west of Warka, where cold beer, half-litre, two sparkling mineral waters, two soups and three massive main courses came to 52 złotys (£11.17). Inflation is letting rip in Poland, made worse by the effect of the pandemic. Google Maps was still showing us restaurants in Warka that are no longer in business.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
New Nikons on the way!

This time nine years ago:
Work continues on S2, going under the railway lines

This time ten years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time 13 years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

This time 14 years ago:
Legoland, Dawidy Poduchowne

Friday, 16 July 2021

New phone, new laptop - Part One

It's been well over four and half years since my previous phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3, was replaced. Since November 2016, my Huawei P9 Lite has served me extremely well - a much better phone than the Galaxy, which after three years of daily use was on the verge of conking out (battery would run down from 30% to 0% in the space of a bus ride home). The Huawei is now being replaced with a new Samsung, a Galaxy S20, presumably with 17 generations of Galaxy S of advancement over the old S3.  On the same day as I went into the office to pick up the phone, I also took possession of a new laptop, a brand-new Dell - but more about the laptop another time.

I have two issues with the Huawei. One is the the fact that Huawei is so closely connected with the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army that I don't trust it enough to make the most of all of its software. I will not, for example, give the phone permission to help itself to all my Google contacts - something it asks me to do when I want to install software to my laptop that syncs with the phone. Think about it for a moment. If I am openly critical of the Chinese Communist Party on social media, someone in Beijing (or more likely, an algorithm in Beijing) will decide that it wants to snoop on me - and see who all my contacts are. No thanks!

As a result, I could not transfer files or photos from phone (a mere 16GB of memory, so for the past 18 months, it's been about 96% full); as the phone filled up with files, less-well used apps had to go to make space. I started off with four screens of apps - today I have just one and half screens, the rest being automatically deleted by Huawei to free up space. Frustrating! Some of them were deleted because I didn't use them during the pandemic, such as taxi or airline apps; others - even ones I'd paid for! - Huawei bulldozed off my start screen with the enthusiasm of the Party clearing a village to make way for a dam.

The Samsung S20 has 128GB of memory, so no worries there, nor do I have concerns about how data on this phone could be collected and used by Samsung and South Korea's ruling party and armed forces. However, the new phone is keen to play tricks on me. One such trick was to vibrate, light up and when swiped, it informed me that it was 36 hours until my 6am Monday morning alarm. WHAT? I have set no such thing! Another incident: I'm across the tracks in Chynów picking blackcurrants. Suddenly, from my pocket I hear "bu-bu-boom, tick, tick, bu-bu-boom, tick, tick..." It's the intro to David Bowie's Five Years. What's this? Mr Bowie from beyond the grave, telling me, Mr Dembinski, that "We had five years left to cry in/Earth was really dying"? Or was this just an unsolicited ad from YouTube Premium?

There were things about the Huawei that I really liked. One was the health app. This is much more user-friendly than Samsung's health app - I can see not only today's total number of paces and medium- to high-intensity walking, but can look back over yesterday, last week, last month, last year. The Samsung one is low on features. And Huawei products are no longer available on Google's app store (for reasons to do with the Chinese Communist Party). Somewhere in Beijing, an algorithm has detected the fact that since 30 November 2016 (the day I got the P9) a 63-year-old Polish gent has walked 19 million paces, putting him in the Top 1% of active walkers among all users of Huawei products. Comparing the two walking apps, they are both quite accurate - today, according to Samsung, I walked 10,518 paces, and according to Huawei, I walked 10,416 paces, a difference of 0.9%.

In the photo below, you'll see the new laptop and phone (left) and old laptop and phone (right) - and in the bottom right hand corner, my 2011 vintage Nokia that I still use. Incidentally, the Nokia has just 38.8 MEGA bytes of internal memory. I intend to give it up, transferring its SIM card to the Huawei, which will continue to serve for my personal number, albeit in a stripped down mode, data moved to the Samsung where the Chinese security services have no access. The Nokia's SIM card is too big for the P9, so I need to call into a T-Mobile shop to move the card data onto a new card that fits. You can see the Galaxy S20 is longer than the Huawei P9, both are the same width. The primacy of the vertical format has been established.

Getting used to upgraded tech takes time. All the time, I come across things that work differently to the way they did in the old phone. With some I can change settings, with others, it is I that needs to adjust. Still, looking back at my 2016 swap-over from the Galaxy S3 to the Huawei P9 Lite, I can see that things are easier, more intuitive, I have several years more experience with the Android mobile operating system. Looking at the clunkiness of the Nokia operating system, the huge advance that we've seen over the past decade, I am suddenly in awe of the age we live in.

This time last year:
Longevity and Purpose

This time three years ago:
New bus stop for Karczunkowska

This time nine years ago:
Who should pay for railways?
[Interesting stuff about America's advanced electric railway line over the Rockies - built over 100 years ago!]

This time 11 years ago:
Grunwald - the big picture

This time 13 years ago:
"Take me right back to the track, Jack"

This time 14 years ago:
The summer sublime

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

First steps in meditation

In seeking a way into meditation, I'm looking for commonality between meditative methods from around the world. It's increasingly clear - even to rational scientists - that meditation works, and had plentiful benefits for body and mind. But neither Buddhism, nor Hinduism, nor the Western esoteric tradition, nor New Age of their own hold all the answers. 

Four commonalities are 1) emptying the mind, 2) focus on breathing, 3) distancing ego from consciousness and 4) repetition of a mantra.

So - choose your mantra. I'm using the following: Wu hsin ('no mind' in Chinese) and Ein sof (Hebrew - 'unending', 'the infinite', 'limitless') to empty the mind of quotidian clutter. One from the East, one from the West. And so - breathe in - Wu - breathe out - hsin. Breathe in - Ain breathe out - sof

Feel free to devise your own mantras. Down the years, the coupling of Wu hsin and Ein sof have worked for me, though mainly as a sleep aid and more recently as something to repeat before taking a blood pressure reading.  [I believe I came across these two terms in Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics in 1984. I have the book here, but can't find the reference...]

Emptying the mind - abandoning the ego - should be seen in the context of your life a part of an infinite eternity; the aims of meditation should more than just calming the body down. A state of being at one with the cosmos, a unification with the continuous and the whole, an opening to fresh creative thoughts - and new energy. That, at least, is what I'm hoping for.

Your mantra needn't be an esoteric term in a foreign language. It can literally be mumbo and jumbo, as long as the words resonate with a metaphysical meaning to you. My mother used to repeat the word 'relaks' to the tune of 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star', much to the amusement of my children. The US armed forces instruct service personnel to repeat 'don't think, don't think, don't think' over and over again as they try to sleep, focusing on those words, shutting out extraneous thoughts. I like this approach too, as it suggests that clearing the mind does not necessarily have to be linked to the spiritual.

A meditative approach can certainly help with falling asleep, but my aim is broader, to awaken new thoughts, to channel the Universe - channel God, if you will. Certainly, it's part of my bedtime ritual, along with feelings of gratitude and wishes of good for those around me (also known as 'prayer'.) Gratitude should be part of our day-to-day mindset. Bringing about that 'inner hug', feelings of deep love where tears begin to well up in your eyes, is the goal.

But meditation for its own sake, to create a wakeful state of mind that is alert rather than dozing, means making it a part of the day's routine. It must be done away from the computer! There's always the temptation, when the mind's freewheeling, to latch on to a thought and think - ah yes, that's interesting - let's Google it.

A daily walk or walks get the mind into the right frame of mind, especially if you do so on your own - conversations can distract. 

One word of advice I'd have for myself today is - go to bed before 22:30. It's too easy to sit up by the computer till midnight, till 01:00 even - it's no good for body or mind.

UPDATE 10 August 2021: This is the best of what I've seen so far...

This time two years ago:
Poetry in the search for eternal truths

This time three years ago:

This time four years ago year:
It's just an Ilyushin (central Warsaw's plane-restaurant)

This time five years ago:
Marathon stroll (31.5km) along the Vistula 

This time seven years ago:
Complaining about the lack of a river crossing between Siekierki and Góra Kalwaria! 

This time eight years ago:
S2 update (nearly ready)

This time nine years ago:
Progress on S2 bypass - photos from the air

This time 11 years ago:
Up Śnieżnica

This time 14 years ago:
July continues glum (2007 - a rainy summer)

Monday, 12 July 2021

High summer in Chynów - storms, fruit and exercise.

This is a lovely photograph, taken around the corner from my działka, a few minutes after Saturday's sunset. Looking north from Chynów. Good to see local people exercising - quite a few cyclists, roller-bladers and Nordic walkers out at this time of day. 

Taken from the same place, at the same time - but with a totally different lens. Instead of a telephoto zoom at 300mm, a super-wide-angle zoom at 10mm. The red glow of the horizon a few minutes after sunset is all you get when zoomed in tight - but  rise above it, and then the sky gradually turns a deep blue. Nearly three weeks after the year's latest sunset, the day has lost just seven minutes in the evening; hardly noticeable - yet.

Friday's storm caught me briefly; there was trouble on the Radom line (it's still not right since the 28 June reopening); I jumped onto a Góra Kalwaria train that arrived at W-wa Jeziorki when a Radom train was due, which meant changing trains at Ustanówek (below). By the time I reached the shelter at the end of the platform, the downpour began - mercifully it turned into a regular rainfall by the time I emerged from the pedestrian tunnel in Chynów, and got home to the działka just slightly wet.

On Sunday the sun disappeared behind a bank of cloud on the north-western horizon, but a far more ominous one was heaving in from the south-east. Flashes of lightning occurring often; as I turned the corner, the downdraft from the rainstorm suddenly whipped up, tearing leaves off the trees. A good day's walking, 15,000 paces (compensating for a shortage of paces on the rainy Friday).

Taken from nearly the same point as the top photo, but looking the other way. I set off with the wrong camera; I had hoped to do some extreme zooms of the Warsaw skyline with my Nikon Coolpix P900. Sadly, the skyscrapers were hardly visible. When the storm approached, I was armed with the P900 (which does not do wide-angle well) and my phone. Neither is optimised for extracting subtlety from the heavens, nor capable of taking .NEF (RAW) files to work on in Photoshop for an accurate rendition of what I saw and felt. So - an approximation.

I got home from my walk about ten minutes before the heavens really opened. In the meanwhile, the sweet cherries that haven't been picked or eaten by the birds have rotted and fallen; the sour cherry season is getting into full swing, and I've been picking blackcurrants to make more nalewki. Current score - 11 jars of various size, enough for about three litres, once the secondary fermentation has been carried out. Plenty more to come - the classic wiśniówka next! It should also be a good year for blackberries, though the raspberries coming through are meagre and dry.

[Update 14 July - it's been like Groundhog Day this week; I wake up, open the roller blinds, the sun's shining in a cloudless sky. As the day goes on, the clouds build up to the east. As five o'clock comes along, the lid goes down on the laptop, I stroll out for blackcurrants. It's hot. I'm sweating as I pick the berries. To the east, the increasingly frequent claps of thunder from an ever-darker sky - to the west, the sun continues to shine, untroubled to cloud. A contest between east and west. Wind is blowing from the high-pressure area to the low-pressure area - a good sign, because it means the downdraft, caused by large volumes of water falling out of the clouds, is still a long way off. As I finish picking the blackcurrants, the wind starts to veer. The thunder and lightning become almost continuous; as I start climbing the gentle slope up towards my działka, there's no mistaking the downdraft. By seven, the storm reaches Jakubowizna. Lights on - it's dark outside. And yet sunset's nearly two hours away. Repeat the following day.]

Update 17 July - as I cross the tracks to pick blackcurrants, I'm passed by a group of six cyclists. Nice bikes, and cracking performance! No one whistling show-tunes here!

This time last year:
Summer wet and dry
[A pattern is emerging!]

This time three years ago:
Rainy summer Warsaw moods

This time six years ago:
Marathon stroll along the Vistula

This time seven years ago:
Complaining about the lack of a river crossing between Siekierki and Góra Kalwaria! 

This time eight years ago:
S2 update 

This time nine years ago:
Progress on S2 bypass - photos from the air

This time 11 years ago:
Up Śnieżnica

This time 14 years ago:
July continues glum (2007 - yet another rainy summer)