Sunday, 16 October 2016

The bacteria that don't kill you will make you stronger

Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, leprosy and tuberculosis are among the diseases spread to humans by bacteria - microorganisms, around 0.001mm in length, pathogens that can kill humans. Better hygiene and antibiotics have saved many billions of lives since the microbe was discovered in the mid-19th Century.

Yet last month, the US Food & Drug Administration banned the sale of antibacterial soaps. This is the result of research conducted since 2013, suggesting that they might affect natural resistance to bacteria. Not just in our own bodies; flushing this stuff down the drain via wastewater treatment plants, it eventually enters the wider environment where it can increase bugs' genetic resistance to antibodies by natural selection.

From childhood, we've had it drummed into us that bacteria, along with viruses, are a danger to our health, yet the reality is that our relationship with bacteria is far more complex. The human microbiome [this Wikipedia page is well worth reading], consists of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea, the last being until recently considered a form of bacteria, now known to be something quite separate. Let's look at the bacteria...

There are between three and ten times as many bacteria living within and on us than there are cells in our bodies. Wow. If you scrape together all the bacteria on this planet, they will weigh in total more than every animal and plant put together. We inhale and exhale, ingest and excrete them in vast numbers; bacteria and us - we symbiose in a general equilibrium with one another.

The hygiene hypothesis suggests that as we evolved into mammals then on into humans, we spent a lot of time in the mud and rotting vegetation, from which we picked up many microorganisms that formed a symbiotic relationship with us, either immunising us, or killing the weaker individuals. But since higher standards of hygiene have spread around the world, our bodies have adapted accordingly. Studies of epidemiological data have shown that various immunological and autoimmune diseases are much less common in the developing world than the industrialised world.

Are we obsessing too much with being germ-free?

An article about former UK minister Michael Heseltine (83) and his garden piqued my interest. Here's a man who had a serious heart attack 23 years ago - and today, this octogenerian seems to be in splendid fettle. The health-giving properties of gardening... yes - I read about this somewhere... Turn to Google... [Short aside - these days, there's no excuse for ignorance other than a lack of curiosity. 'Can't be googled' = intellectual laziness. If you're curious, you can find out more, faster, than ever before in human history. And double-check it. Make sure you're not merely reinforcing your prejudices.]

And I find plentiful articles on the subject. Let's take this one: headline: It’s in the Dirt! Bacteria in soil may make us happier, smarter. "A strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. And on top of that, this little bacterium has been found to improve cognitive function and possibly even treat cancer and other diseases." Injecting M. vaccae into cancer patients was found to alleviate symptoms, and improve emotional health, vitality, and even cognitive function. So soil bacteria is good for the samopoczucie (another candidate for a loan-word in English - 'the way your mind and body feel').

It would be hypocritical of me to commend gardening to my readers, as I don't do a hand's turn of it myself, but I do a lot of semi-rural and rural walking, stirring up the biome beneath my muddy boots or breathing the dust kicked up beneath me on dry footpaths in summer.

We need to get the balance right. We shouldn't flood our kitchens and bathrooms with antibacterial sprays and soaps, nor should we live in filth and abnegation. A conscious approach to these matters is all important.

This time four years ago:
Hello, pork pie!

This time This time two years ago:
The meaning of class - in England, in Poland

This time five years ago:
First frost 

This time nine years ago:
First frost 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Mystical experiences at 37,000 ft

I don't like night flights; you might as well be on a tube train two hours from the next station. On night flights I choose an aisle seat. And early morning flights I spend at least half of the time asleep. But flying at noon, with a seat next to the sun - that's the way to fly! Once the plane is above the clouds, and the sun's heat warms the rims of my RayBan aviator shades, and the sublime beauty of being up there puts me in touch with the Eternal.

Today's flight from Warsaw to London Luton was perfect in this regard. Below: somewhere over Germany, a business jet shoots over the top of my WizzAir Airbus A321, which passes under its contrail. Click to enlarge to see the photos in their full glory.

Below: approaching the North Sea from Holland; wispy clouds at stratospheric altitude, then a thin layer at around 20,000 ft, casting a shadow over low-lying clouds

Below: approaching Luton, sandwiched between the low cloud and the high cloud, the sun just about to hide behind the latter.

"Cabin crew, prepare for landing!" Luton not as ghastly today as it usually is - if you fly in on that 6am flight, it arrives as one of about six from across Central and Eastern Europe, and around a thousand people suddenly descend on border control in one go. The midday flight arrives around 2pm in Luton, which is decidedly less busy. For some reason, everyone at the border control was smiling - making the whole process much more civilised.

This time last year:
The staggeringly high cost of tax collection in Poland

This time five years ago
One stop beyond

This time six years ago:
Who am I? (Kim ja jestem?)

This time sevenyears ago:
First snow, 2009. Ghastly!

This time eight years ago:
Train links to town improving

This time nine years ago:
A beautiful Sunday, south of Warsaw

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Rich get richer... and the result is Brexit and Trump

I strongly commend Barack Obama's piece in last week's Economist outlining the economic policy challenges that will face his successor. [Click here for the full article.] He presents an overview of the problems before pointing the finger at the causes.

Two few stand-out sentences:
"I believe that changes in culture and values have also played a major role. In the past, differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels—at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organisations. That’s why CEOs took home about 20- to 30-times as much as their average worker. The reduction or elimination of this constraining factor is one reason why today’s CEO is now paid over 250-times more."
So your factory worker or bank teller is on $35,000 a year, while the CEO earns $8,750,000 a year.

And percentage-wise, the CEO pays less tax. And then while the factory worker may end the year deeper in debt than the year before, the CEO is unlikely to be able to spend $8,750,000 over the course of a 12 month period. And so, the CEOs' wealth accumulates, their families get richer...
"In 1979, the top 1% of American families received 7% of all after-tax income. By 2007, that share had more than doubled to 17%."
Their money is tied up in fancy real estate, cars and other playthings - but the bulk of it is capital - money that's shifted around the planet by fund managers or (increasingly) by family offices in search of higher yields. Capital can sit around in banks earning scant interest. It can buy treasury bonds earning low yields. It can be invested in businesses - a higher risk, but those who hedge their investments and choose stocks wisely do better than those who merely park their cash in a deposit account. And capital can be gambled on foreign currency exchange movements.

Capital is merciless. Since the EU referendum we've observed the pound falling. By 17% against a basket of major currencies in less than four months.

What you won't here from the politicians or read in the papers is what's going on beneath the surface, capital invested in the UK weighing up the pros and cons of moving elsewhere. Private equity funds, not having to report to shareholders, in particular. They don't need to worry about activists when upping sticks and moving somewhere more profitable, somewhere less uncertain.

Capital has benefited from one-off events such as China's opening up the world, as well as technological advances such as  IT and automation which increase the profitability of many businesses over time. The profits have gone into the pockets of the owners of capital.

The pound's fall from $1.49 on 23 June to $1.21 yesterday shows that the markets can punish British consumers for their vote in a manner that's so relentless, so determined, that no EU leader nor bureaucrat could ever accomplish.

Capital is the master. It pays well the people who keep the system moving - the directors and managers, the politicians, the senior policy-makers in government, the top media commentators who shape public opinion. But when the accumulation of wealth - of capital - at the very top of society starts to accelerate alarmingly, which has been happening since the 1980s, the spinning wheel starts to wobble.

The (uneducated) poor do foolish things. There are many of them, enough to vote in stupid things or stupid people that make no sense. Their lack of education leaves them open to manipulation; the narcissistic, sex-pest son of a billionaire can tell them he's not part of the elite. Newspaper owners who live in offshore tax-havens can tell them that migrants steal their jobs and ponce off the state at the same time*. And they believe, and vote accordingly, and the results of that vote will result in their lives being more miserable than ever - while capital silently moves on, flowing around their isles of misery to more profitable jurisdictions.

Barack Obama:

Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based. This is not just a moral argument. Research shows that growth is more fragile and recessions more frequent in countries with greater inequality. Concentrated wealth at the top means less of the broad-based consumer spending that drives market economies.

This makes sense. Question: how to achieve this? By taxing the rich 'until the pips squeak' (to use the quote attributed to British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey in 1974)? To 'eat the rich', as many anarchists claim they'd like to do?

I'm a believer in the theory of nudge - non-proscriptive suggestions, rather than the zakaz and nakaz approach passed down to Poland from the Tsarist Russian prikaz. Taxation would not hurt - higher income taxes for money earned that no longer go towards to the day-to-day upkeep of the salary earners and their families should be taxed at a higher rate. Of course there should be an incentive to strive, to reach for a higher standard of living, but their comes a point when additional improvements become incremental. A bigger yacht, a third holiday home, a million-dollar painting. But in general, the rich, the super-rich, the 1%, should become very aware of their privileges and give back far more, in terms of charitable activities and donations, being less ostentatious about their wealth, living a visibly more austere lifestyle, rather than flaunting it in the mass media.

For anyone having to live from month to month, in a state of stress about their personal finances, such flaunting of wealth is obscene. Couple that state with a poor education, and an inability to distinguish cause-and-effect in politics and in economics, and you can understand why the poorer quintiles vote for any old blarney to the effect of 'vote for x and your life will be better', in the same way that a consumer may reach for a new skin cream or dieting aid that promises better results than what they used before.

Now more than ever, the ultimate recipients of the largesse created by the capitalist system should show their gratitude for the privileges they were born into, and contribute more.

This time last year:
Respect for pedestrians' lives? Not among Polish MPs

This time four years ago:
Autumnal gorgeousness in Warsaw

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Gliwice - much nicer than I'd expected

The Silesian agglomeration is a huge industrial/post-industrial chunk of southern Poland, its manufacturing and mining heartland. Centred around Katowice, are clustered towns like Zabrze, Bytom, Tychy, Chorzów, Dąbrowa Górnicza, Ruda Śląska - each of 100,000 to 300,000 in population. Between these towns, full of brick tenements from the 19th Century, are green spaces; above the trees can be seen coal mines and chimneys, pylons and masts. At the western end of the agglomeration lies Gliwice, which I visited to attend a factory opening.

Below: Gliwice station is in the throes of a major modernisation project, which is nearing completion. Inside the booking hall is a splendid abstract mural on ceramic tiles, one of the biggest and best of its kind (Gdynia's station booking hall comes an equal first for me).

Below: Is this Kensal Rise? Or am I in Norwood Green? No - this is Gliwice, pre-war Gleiwitz; the Germanic architecture reminding me of Bricktorian Britain. I have a few minutes before my railbus to Gliwice Łabędy departs, so I have time to take a look around the part of town north of the station.

Below: No longer does Łabędy look Germanic; here, the advert for a confectionery shop painted on the side of a house reminds me of northern France. Note the church at the top of the hill.

Below: industrial housing in Gliwice Łabędy. Note the decorative brickwork. The gently sloping roof is almost invisible from this view. Four or five families live in this building.

Below: Gliwice on a wet autumnal night - this is the main street, ul. Zwycieństwa. which connects the railway station to the Old Town to the south.

Below: the Methodist church on ul. Kłodnicka, which runs parallel to the Kłodnica river.

Below: another fine piece of 19th Century brick architecture is the local labour exchange (powiatowy urząd pracy) on plac Inwalidów Wojennych.

Below - Gliwice's town hall or ratusz (from the German rathaus), which as in many Polish towns, sits in the middle of the old town square. The building dates back to the late 18th Century.

Below: another 'this could almost be England' moment, though the onion-dome spires wouldn't fit. Ornate mouldings above the windows contrast with the red brick. Ul. Zwycieństwa.

Left: detail on the corner of ul. Krótka and Plebańska, a female figure with urn, watering.

Below: back on ul. Zwycieństwa, a beautiful late 19th Century tenement with touches of Art Nouveau. Posh shops and cafes at street level, large flats with high ceilings above. Trams have been removed from this street (a great shame), but the tram tracks remain.

Below: the Kłodnica as it runs under ul. Zwycieństwa. Gliwice is a busy and wealthy city, average wages are said by its mayor to be higher than anywhere else in Poland apart from Warsaw.

The town is, to my mind, far nicer aesthetically than Katowice; more concentrated around an old town market square, it's neater and better looked after. Indeed, there's more to the Silesian agglomeration than just Katowice - if you're down in Silesia, pay a visit to Gliwice. I regret not taking my 10-24mm super wide-angle lens - I'd not been expecting any architectural surprises, yet found plenty.

This time three years ago:
Poland does poorly in Global AgeWatch ranking

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:

Monday, 10 October 2016

On Relevance and Irrelevance

For my brother and my father...

Time marches on, we must not waste it. Not waste it in futile action, nor futile thought.

Futile thought - irrelevance. In my late-20s, I learnt the habit of intercepting irrelevant trains of thought that were going nowhere and stop them in their tracks. Silly thoughts, vaguely amusing to toy with for a while, but ultimately not taking me to a new level. I learnt this habit after my brother taught me to think at the meta-level - to think about what you're thinking. [Today this has become known as mindfulness.] Irrelevant trains of thought that bog down the brain, distract and drag one away from life's search for meaning and purpose - catch yourself thinking them and stop them.

A few weeks ago, on a day far sunnier than today, I sat atop the ballast hill across the tracks on ul. Kórnicka and pondered the relevance of matter. It was one of those thoughts that come to me, unbidden. The relevance of matter. Matter - as opposed to energy. The M in E=mc² , where c is the speed of light, the speed of causality, the speed at which all things unfold. The electron shell whizzes around the nucleus, perpetually, and inside the nucleus - particles. Which possess mass.

Above: the equation E=mc², depicted in a mural in the booking hall of Gliwice station.


What is Hashem trying to tell me? The relevance of matter...? 

I look.

Wiktionary... Relevance, n. Pertinence. I check Pertinence... n. Relevance.

Not useful. Now, I turn to Wikipedia. Ah! Now to the meat. Relevance... [click here] So then. "Relevance is the concept of one topic being connected to another topic in a way that makes it useful to consider the first topic when considering the second."

Now, the relevance of matter (one topic). It must be relevant to something... to another topic. What is that topic? Purpose? If matter has no relevance, it become irrelevant, at least in a philosophical sense.

Because matter exists, it must be here for a reason, rather than it just happened.

Relevant in Polish? Istotny, stosowny, odnośny, trafny, związany z tematem, suggests Google Translate. The first suggestion offered is the best - istotny - from istota - or being, gist, entity, substance. Language seeks meaning for observed phenomena. Matter we can see and touch. It is. But what does it mean, and what is its purpose?

Once again, the Goy's Teeth scene from the Coen Brothers' greatest film, A Serious Man needs to be watched, to give you that wondrous sense of 'neither and both at the same time'.

This time last year:
Apple time down south of Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Poland gets anglicised as Britain gets polonised

This time three years ago:
Ale, architecture and city politics

This time four years ago:
The pros and cons of roadside acoustic screens

This time five years ago:
Moaning about trains again

This time six years ago:
Warsaw street names - Dolna, Polna, Rolna, Wolna, Smolna. Lost?

This time eight years ago:
Ditches, landscapes, autumn

This time nine years ago:
Golden autumn in Łazienki park

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Learning to fly

I watched them from the time they were hatchlings; seven of them. I watched them grow as grey cygnets, the brood dwindling from seven to six, to five - and finally down to four. What killed the others, I don't know - virus? anglers' lines? poisoned by food thoughtlessly thrown to them by people? I watched them grow until they reached their parents' size.

Cygnets have an imperative to learn to fly before the ponds in which they were born freeze over. In early October, an unseasonable frost or first snow is still unlikely. Flight, however, remains the most important skill the young swans need to learn.

This morning I walked home from ul. Kórnicka along ul. Dumki. The swan family - two parents and four cygnets - paddled along parallel to me. I was halfway down the length of the northern pond, when the swans stopped, turned round, and faced north. Suddenly there was a great sound of flapping and splashing, as, heading into the wind, they starting running along the water, beating their wings harder in an attempt to get airborne; then retracting their undercarriage, gaining grace and altitude, they slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

I watched them climb higher and higher, bearing north-west. I stood there, until they were out of view. Will they do a large circle and return, or have they headed off (like the large gaggle of 37 geese I saw over ul. Karczunkowska on Tuesday) for the winter? From past years' experience, I guess they'll be back for a while. Last year, the swans didn't leave Jeziorki until the very end of December.

If you click on the label 'swans' at the bottom of this post, you'll see how this year's brood of cygnets has grown - and scroll down, you'll see past years' swan history of Jeziorki, from the first time swans found our ponds as a great place to live - since March 2008.

[An excuse to watch the excellent pop video for Learning to Fly by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from 1991.]

This time two years ago:
Scotland's answer to the Hoover Building

This time three years ago:
In which I don't vote in the mayoral referendum, thus helping to save HG-W's job

This time four years ago:
Gorgeous cars from Czechoslovakia

This time five years ago:
Donald Tusk and Co. get re-elected

This time six years ago:
Poland's wonderful bread

This time seven years ago:
An October Friday in Warsaw