Monday, 27 March 2017

Eyes without a face

Lent 2017: Day 27

Do you get that split second of surprise when you unexpectedly catch a reflection of your face - on the darkened screen of your smartphone as you hold it up to read, in the window of a shop or bus? Does it take you aback? Who is that person?

I've long felt that disconnect between what I see when I catch sight of myself and who I feel I am.

For feel I am a consciousness within a body that moves about the face of this planet in a state of awareness, learning, evolving, teaching, communicating - seeing, feeling. The body, the face, is but a distraction, it ages; it will die. But residing within it is an ever-sentient awareness capable of such subtle realisation and fine judgment, honed with experience, taught by time and rising in understanding.

When I dream, I have no physical characteristics; I am neither big or small, young or old; I am ageless. That is the real me, as I am, not as I am seen externally. And as such, I am comfortable in my own company.

Was it director Ken Loach who described himself as having an eye instead of a face? The observer rather than the actor. Creativity comes from observation, spostrzegawcość - perceptibility; that ability to detect fine nuances.

Next comes the need for will, to put those observations to use, be it in a painting, a drama, a photograph, a novel, a poem, a film, a sculpture - a concrete call to action from within to create. Now this requires focused self-discipline. The drive to create comes a desire to share one's observations, unclouded by an ego that filters and distorts, that replaces the searing beam of truth with a self-serving narrative. Get out of the way of the telling; just tell it.

Thinking about one's appearance is a distraction. I feel most comfortable when blended in, not standing out, from the crowd. It is difficult to observe, mindfully, when one's demeanour is screaming "LOOK AT ME!" Invisibility would be ideal, being unnoticeable, indistinguishable - externally at least - from the rest of humanity.

Somewhere on Twitter I read that creative people age better than ones who are not driven to share their observations in their art. Not 'age better' in an external, visual, sense; rather in coming to terms with age. I can appreciate that sentiment. Self-obsessed folk ruminate on the onset of the ageing process, wasting time in a Quixotic struggle against inevitability.

All this is well and good, but it still doesn't inoculate me against those shocks of catching an unexpected reflection of myself!

We judge others by appearance. Others judge us by appearance. We judge ourselves by appearance. This is only natural; taking stock on the basis of appearance is an evolutionary defence mechanism. Friend or foe? Predator or prey? Authority figure that one automatically defers to - or a mug to be taken for a ride? We make subconscious decisions about strangers in a split second. Those first impressions are intentionally strong - in our ancestral past, they could have meant the difference between survival and death. The fact your genes have made it to the person reading this text now suggests that they had been rather good at that judgment.

But we should be wary of those first impressions. They are often misleading. They often prevent your conscious brain from taking a more informed view. My mother was one of many, many TV viewers who, when an expert was talking about a given subject, would comment on their clothing, hairstyle or other aspect of appearance rather than listening to what they had to say.

We must understand our biology and rise above it. We should not allow ourselves to become lookist - to judge solely by external impressions. We should not judge others that way - nor ourselves.

This time last year:
London blooms in yellow

This time two years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time three years ago:
Scotland and its language

This time four years ago:
Death, our sister

This time five years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time seven years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time eight years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time nine years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Saturday, 25 March 2017

"Jeziorki bogged down in railway mud"

Jeziorki made it onto page 5 of today's Gazeta Stołeczna, with a story bemoaning the delays in the rail modernisation works, which are running months behind schedule. This is hardly news for us residents, trudging through mud to get to the new platforms, but the piece did shed light on what's next. [Full text in Polish here for those who've not got to their free three-article limit.]

The works should have been completed in 20 months from September 2015. The 22nd month is now passing. The temporary level crossing which I wrote about last week will be opened, the article says, next week. But of the works on the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the tracks, no sight.

Below: from the top of a hill of mud, I take this shot looking east along ul. Karczunkowska. Nothing has stirred here in months, apparently because 'the documentation wasn't complete'.

The article suggests that the viaduct will be ready by the end of December, and opened at the beginning of 2018. The chances of that happening are as remote as Trump's chances of completing  full term as president.

Further promises made in the article include the completion of modernisation works from Czachówek to Warka by 2020 and onward from Warka to Radom. And then, it is said, the fastest journey from Warsaw to Radom, a mere 100km (62 miles) from Warsaw, will take 75 minutes, rather than the 2hrs 49mins it can take.

But first the rebuilding of Nowa Iwiczna station, which will involve the demolition of the old island platform, which in turn will involve single-track working again, so that the line can be realigned to fit the new 'down' platform. And work at W-wa Okęcie station and between Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy is as yet incomplete. Finally, a mass of tidying-up all along the tracks is necessary - there's heaps of rubbish left behind.

The single-line working will hit commuters, as if things aren't currently bad enough. On Friday, the 18:16 service from W-wa Śródmieście to Skarżysko-Kamienna was massively delayed; I ended up at W-wa Ślużewiec waiting for the 19:04 to Piaseczno, which - as it was due to arrive - was announced as having been cancelled. So I took a bus, getting home 1hr 40 minutes after reaching Śródmieście.

Commuters' patience with Koleje Mazowiecki would be better, given the scale of the job facing the railways, if it communicated better with passengers.

This time last year:
Ideas, and how they take hold

This time two years ago:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
New road and retail: waiting for Jeziorki's new Biedronka to open

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time seven years ago:
What's the Polish for 'commuter'?

This time eight years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

This time nine years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Warsaw photo catch-up

Warsaw is changing rapidly; landmarks of the city centre are being replaced with new buildings. Below: the PKO Rotunda, on the corner of ul. Marszałkowska and Al. Jerozolimskie. Completed in 1966, it suffered serious damage as the result of a gas explosion that killed 49 people in February 1979. It was repaired and reopened eight months later. Plans to tear it down and replace it with a similar building were scotched last week, when the conservator of heritage buildings stopped the Rotunda's demolition. What happens next, we'll see.

Next door to the Rotunda was the Universal building (Al. Jerozolimskie 44). A mere 14 stories high, it was pulled down last month. All that's left now is rubble (below).

Below: a new retail and office development rises up on the site of the old Sezam shop, demolished two years ago. Work on the new building seems to have slowed down of late.

Below: this view will change within the next few years, as the Varso Tower will start to rise up in the gap on the horizon. Located on the western corner of Al. Jana Pawła II and Al. Jerozolimskie, Varso Tower will become Warsaw's highest building, higher than the Palace of Culture. Its viewing gallery will be twice the height of the one on the Palace's 30th floor.

Below: the Palace of Culture snapped from ul. Sienna. A contrast between the beginning and the end of the second half of the 20th Century

Below: W-wa Śródmieście station building. The two symmetrical pavilions were designed to complement the Palace of Culture, which stands behind. The above-ground part of the station is due to be demolished in the comprehensive redevelopment of this area.

Below: ul. Świętokrzyska between ul. Marszałkowska and ul. Emilii Plater. I've written about the demolition of the Emilia building; it will be re-erected in Park Świętokrzyski, between the street and the north side of the Palace of Culture. When rebuilt, it will face this row of shops.

The clocks finally go forward this weekend; this will be the last week that I go home in the dark for the next six or so months.

This time last year:
Conscious of being conscious

This time three years ago:
New road and retail

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time seven years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?

This time eight years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A leader for our times - the invisible leader

Lent 2017: Day 23 

At the halfway mark; 23 more days to go until Easter.

An interesting quote I came across in an article I was editing:
A leader is best
When people barely know he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him
Worse when they despise him,
But of a good leader, who talks little
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled
They will all say “We did it ourselves” 
—  Lao Tzu 
In 6th Century BC, this simple definition of a what makes a wise ruler had been set out. Yet two and half thousand years later, we can easily spot those leaders that are obeyed and acclaimed and those who are merely despised.

I like Lao Tzu's vision of the modest leader who's invisibly present at the epicentre of many overlapping networks, encouraging rather than goading.

Bad leaders, with loud mouths and toxic personalities - and there are many in business and politics - may be perceived as 'strong', but tend to be divisive and their over confidence and inflated self-esteem means they cannot acknowledge their errors and distance themselves from mistaken policies.

The good leader, less visible, is prepared to learn from mistakes and move on quickly in a more suitable direction. A valid U-turn is better than marching over the precipice.

The bad leader sets out a worldview where mistrust is the default position. Mistrust is expensive. It is a less costly policy to trust by default, switching to mistrust only in cases when someone has abused that trust.

Understanding 'win-win' in politics and economics is crucial. Too many leaders in business and politics see a zero-sum game, in which I win, they lose. This leads to adversarial relations, which in the long term lead to a worse outcome than win-win. [This can be easily proved by repeated rounds of the Prisoners' Dilemma; those playing a cooperate-cooperate strategy, defaulting on the player that quits win-win, then retaliating until that player returns to playing win-win.]. The lump-sum of labour fallacy, which posits that for one person to get a job, another has to lose it, is regularly trotted out by populists whose voters fail to understand that economies grow as new jobs are created.

I see these negative traits in many of today's political leaders. Not a step backward, keen to blame all around them but themselves, aiming to grab the levers of power for their own sake, rather than offering a vision of a trust-based society that gets on with their lives with a minimum of top-down interference.

Business learns from mistakes faster than politicians. After the hubris of the global banking crisis, companies have learnt that sustainability and resilience are more important than short-term profit. The network is evolutionarily superior to the hierarchy; if the hierarch makes the wrong policy decision the results can be hard to rectify, given the hierarch's reluctance to accept responsibility and desire to shift the blame elsewhere. Politicians respond to the voters; businesses to their shareholders. Shareholders, concerned about the safety of their capital, are more rational than voters, who are easily swayed by rhetoric. Business leaders who can now demonstrate a longer-term view of shareholder value than those prepared to screw future prospects for the sake of the next quarter's figures are seen as the better bet.

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's abandoned goods station;

This time four years ago:
Social justice - the Church and inequality

This time five years ago:
Google Street View comes to Poland

Monday, 20 March 2017

The mature mind's power over the instincts

Lent 2017, Day 20

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." [Corinthians 13:11]

Would that it were so simple.

As a child, I was aware of my childish instincts, which could get the better of me; but I was also aware of a deep consciousness that could perceive much that lay beyond my comprehension. Growing up, the process of reaching maturity (which has not yet fully happened!), is about overcoming our base infantile and reptilian reactions and striving to understand the deeper processes within. It is the essence of being human.

We live in troubled times, when tolerance of the Other in our society is in short supply; populist politicians garner support by exaggerating the threat posed to our societies by outsiders. A number of studies (this is an interesting one) have shown that babies are by nature racist, and with age and experience this innate bias can change.

The other day, late in the evening, crossing from the railway station to the Metro, I saw a Roma beggar woman holding out a paper cup into the stream of the rushing crowd in the cold wet rain. She was wailing loudly, and ignored by all. My first instinct was a shot of hate and anger. The sheer stupidity of begging in the 21st Century, a people that are wilfully unable to fit into society, playing shamelessly on naïve people's emotions, trying pathetically to elicit pity from passers-by!

Yet my higher consciousness managed to overcome the more barbarous instincts, the flash of anger passed to be replaced by reflection. The woman, forced into begging by the hierarchy of a people shut off from the mainstream of society for centuries. What is the alternative for them? What can be done? What's the correct policy response? I pondered on my low innate feelings; how easy it is to harbour them and let them run riot; how easy it is to allow them to be manipulated by evil politicians. I had a similar flash-of-anger-at-outsiders moment at Luton Airport last November, when a Bulgarian chap who couldn't speak a word of English was blocking an ever-lengthening queue to the train ticket machine when he actually wanted a bus ticket. "Take Control!"


The reptilian brain is ever-present in us all, but higher awareness is also present, the angelic; it manifests itself in us at the earliest of age. As we get older, the latter should rise in influence and overpower the reptilian in us, managing how we think, what we do, what we say and how we behave. As young people, we behave in an uninhibited manner, showing more of our personality, with greater exuberance and abandon; as we get older we reflect more upon ourselves and what we're like, and we become more introverted, sharing fewer and fewer of our innermost thoughts, and when we do so, with a much smaller circle of close friends.

When I was a child, my thoughts and behaviours were a mix of mindless and mindful, the latter in the minority. As an adult, the mindful mature me is in charge, but every now and then mindless reaction, reptilian instinct kicks in. I have learned to identify it an correct my behaviour back to the path of mindfulness.

Looking back at the posts I've published on this blog eight or nine years ago, I can see how my writing style has improved - but I can also see a continual honing of my thought processes. Age and experience have been put to good use; life is about continuous, continual, learning and self-improvement. "Every day is a lesson in living," as my mother used to say. But what's the goal? To be able to iterate and comprehend all that we are conscious of, to set it down, to discuss and learn and put to the test and put into practice. Understand your biology, and rise above it.

The barbarous and angelic is there in us all, in unequal proportions. Some of us are aware of this truth, and strive consciously to decrease the former and increase the latter as we live and learn and grow older. But many of us have no consciousness of this duality within our nature and do not attempt to stifle the baseness and anger. When the barbarous side to our nature becomes fodder for those political leaders who haven't got their own innate barbarism under control, whose levels of self-awareness are too low to understand the motivations for own behaviour, things start getting dangerous.

This time five years ago:
Welcome to spring

This time six years ago:
Giving way or standing firm?

This time seven years ago:
Summerhouses near Okęcie

This time eight years ago:
A truly British icon

Saturday, 18 March 2017

New temporary(?) level crossing almost complete

I blogged about this last weekend - the work has gone well, and this morning traffic was (gingerly) making its way across the railway tracks south of W-wa Jeziorki station. It is now possible* to get from ul. Gogolińska to ul. Buszycka without having to make a 8.7km detour via Dawidy or an 9.9km detour via Nowa Iwiczna. However, word has not got out yet, so motorists are none the wiser.

Making life difficult (at least for law-abiding drivers) is this sign (below), just beyond the Biedronka car park, which suggests that this is private land and that entry is forbidden. But the newly laid asphalt continues around the corner and takes you to the level crossing, just south of the 'up' platform at W-wa Jeziorki station.

Brand new road - will it have a name? And will this crossing continue to function once the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line is complete? Watching cars crossing from east to west, drivers are confused as they get to ul. Gogolińska, and don't know whether to turn left or right. Signs don't say!

Most interesting: the level-crossing keeper's hut (below )is looks like it's been uprooted from somewhere else and brought to Jeziorki in its scruffy state, graffiti and all.  The one barrier that has already been installed looks like it came from the old level crossing on Karczunkowska (it was there last week, it's now gone). This shabby old hut is a far cry from the solid old keeper's building that was torn down in the autumn. Which suggests that it's temporary (when the new one on ul Baletowa by W-wa Dawidy becomes operational, it will be able to control this crossing and the one at Nowa Iwiczna).

Below: looking north along the 'up' platform. A southbound Koleje Mazowieckie train awaits the signal to set ofp, while a cyclist wheels his bike across the pedestrian crossing. To the right, an approaching train on the coal line. In the distance, Warsaw Trade Tower and Warsaw Spire (far right)

Work is not yet complete. Below: a pair of modernised SM48s back-to-back, running empty towards Konstancin-Jeziorna, past the one level crossing barrier - not lowered, because it's not functioning yet. I guess the second barrier will be installed any day now.

Below: old habits. Walking along the new tracks will be more dangerous than hitherto, as trains will be speeding along at up to 160km/h. However, with the works going on, the paths on either side of the tracks can get way too muddy for walking.

* Follow-up: Sunday 19 March. Motorists! Back to the old detours, this was too good to be true. Some time on Saturday evening on Sunday morning, contractors blocked the level crossing - it will stay blocked until the second barrier is put in place and the whole thing made operational.

Follow-up: Monday 20 March. Both barriers in place and lowered. Looks like it will be a while before traffic runs this way again.

Follow-up: Saturday 26 March: A peek inside the crossing-keeper's temporary hut. A good field of view.

No workers to be seen anywhere on the line from W-wa Dawidy down as far as Nowa Iwiczna.

Meanwhile, after a week's closure, some drivers are still coming up to this crossing point in the hope that it will be open and that they can be spared the detour. Which from this point is a minimum of 9.3km.

This time two years ago:
Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time five years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Rzeszów - capital of Poland's south-east corner

My third trip to Rzeszów (the first was in 2006, second in 2014). I arrived on the night train from Warsaw in good time for a seminar in which I was presenting and moderating the panel discussion. Later, I had three hours to visit the town before taking an evening train home.

Rzeszów (pop 200,000) is the southernmost and smallest of the three cities on Poland's eastern flank, with Białystok (pop. 300,000) to the north, Lublin (pop. 350,000) in the middle. With a population around the size of Aberdeen or York, Rzeszów is an increasingly prosperous place, centre of Poland's burgeoning aerospace industry.

Left: this communist-era statue, the Monument to the Revolutionary Act (locally known as 'donkey's ears', stands at the major crossroads just to the north of the city centre. It suggests that the city is full of belching factories and 1970s blocks.

But Rzeszów has a lovely old town, not quite as nice or large as Lublin's, but worth a visit (there's a huge variety of bars and eateries around it).

Below: as you approach the old town, there's a handy mural with a reproduction mid-18th Century map to help you find your way. In the distance to the right, the towers and roof of the Bernardine basilica.

Below: the old town market place, lit by strong late-winter sun under a glowering sky. Under the market place is a 213 metre-long network of underground corridors and storerooms; these can be visited in guided groups.

Below: looking north-west into the market place, rebuilt in the 1840s after a fire destroyed the original 14th Century market.

Below: nicely lit, nicely painted, well kept, no graffiti.

Left: looking into the square; note the street lamps attached to the walls. In the distance, the town hall.

Below: looking down ul. Baldachówka. At this time of year, the old town is quiet, the beer gardens are closed, and few tourists obstruct the views. On a sunny day, very picturesque.

The last time I was here, in high summer, the market was teeming with tourists, the beer gardens all full. However, the atmosphere, the klimat, with the glowering skies and strong sunshine plus the relative emptiness makes it a more satisfying visit.

Rzeszów does not have a particularly large old town, and the handful of streets that comprise it can be circumnavigated in half and hour or so, even if you're stopping to snap and catch the views. If you're in Rzeszów on business, make sure to pop by the old town before you move on.

Below: looking east along ul.Adama Mickiewicza. I like the name of the coffee shop on the left; powoli means 'slowly', but po woli also means 'after [my] will'.

Below: the town hall, to the right, which dates back to the 16th Century, underwent numerous alterations and modernisations in the 19th Century, giving it its current neo-Gothic look.

Rzeszów has a large shopping mall opposite the Monument to Revolutionary Action, the Galeria Rzeszów. This boasts no fewer than 79 clothes shops and 23 shoe shops; it is one of four malls in the city, which has one of the highest ratio of shops to population in Poland. As well as many stores, there's also a thriving market place with a great many stalls. Below: a health-food stall selling various beans and pulses.

Rzeszów is a lot more than just the old town; it is ringed by blocks of flats and industry, but the centre itself consists of buildings from different historical periods, each creating a different atmosphere.

Above and below: towards the railway line, low-rise buildings from the late 19th Century.

Left: Rzeszów's main railway station. The building, destroyed in both world wars, has been rebuilt to retain its original architectural style. I arrived here on the night train from Warsaw, via Kraków. Note the taxi's registration number; comedian at the wheel?

Below: my train home, hauled by a diesel engine as far as Lublin, thence to Warsaw under electrical traction. Journey took over five hours, with a 30min stopover at Lublin while the engines were changed.

Rzeszów is also accessible by plane from Warsaw, but without Ryanair offering competition on the route, tickets start at 186.79zł for a weekday single. Second-class single by PKP (TLK) is 58zł.

This time three years ago:
A tipping point in European history

This time four years ago:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time five years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
A week into Lent

This time seven years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time eight years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time nine years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Spirit of place, spirit of age

Lent 2017, Day 12

Time makes its mark on places; the natural pace of erosion, trees topple in high winds, or get struck by lightning; floods, changing watercourses alter the landscape - but man has accelerated the pace of change in the environment. But how have man-made changes affected the spirit of place - the way our aesthetic sensibilities are touched by where we are?

Two photographs, taken at exactly the same spot (ul. Nawłocka, with ul. Trombity perpendicular to it), exactly ten orbits of the earth around the sun. As Jeziorki becomes more civilised, so its klimat changes, the way my consciousness savours it, changes.

Changes... Nawłocka was partially paved in August 2010, with speed bumps as an integral part of the it. The birch in the foreground was cut down, and the verge between field and road narrower, as the farmer tills more of the land. And the house has been built on plot prepared in the autumn of 2007 on the corner of Trombity and ul. Dumki. Aesthetically, that sense of 1950s America that I once used to feel strongly around here (see posts here and here) has evaporated. An ephemeral connection with another time, another place that's gone with progress.

Doubtless the next ten years (may they be peaceful) will bring more change, more development, more progress, and those fleeting moments of anomalous familiarity, congruent flashbacks to another consciousness, will get rarer.

Since childhood I have always been sensitive to spirit of place, preferring this route over that route for purely aesthetic reasons, this vista to that vista, this town to that town, and mourned the passing of buildings that I liked (the Great West Road's Golden Mile was never the same after Victor Matthews bulldozed the Firestone building one bank holiday weekend). Even the interiors of majestic buildings change their atmosphere; South Kensington's Science Museum today still has some galleries that remind me of my childhood, but many of the exhibits in wooden cabinets have been replaced by interactive displays in primary colours.

Here we are, conscious beings moving over the face of Planet Earth, absorbing our surroundings, we're a temporary part of where we live - a place that itself is becoming increasingly evanescent.
Time to wonder about those atoms vibrating about all over.

This time last year:
The crux of the matter

This time three years ago:
10,000 steps is a lot for one day

This time four years ago:
Bary mleczne - Warsaw's cheap eateries

This time five years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens reviewed

This time six years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

This time seven years ago:
W-wa Śródmieście - commuters' staging post

This time eight years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[Now re-named ul. Kujawiaka]

This time nine years ago:
A sight that heralds the coming of spring