Sunday, 31 January 2010

Greed, fear, fight and flight; economy and the weather

For those of you following the English-language Polish blogosphere who've not yet bookmarked Politics, Economy and Society, I recommend you do so. The latest post proves (yet again) that the its anonymous author is an up-and-coming talent, a guy with the potential to become a significant figure in the world of economics, finance or politics.

Not only has he a keen and nuanced grasp of the intricate issues - he also addresses a global readership by taking the trouble to write in English. In short, he works hard. He's putting in his 10,000 hours.

This post is what good blogging is all about - showing that you don't need a contract with a major media group to let the world know that You Have Good Ideas. The post also shows the difference between a potential professor and a dull lecturer - the former can simplify complex issues and present them in a way that the averagely intelligent student can follow. The latter makes the complex issues seem more complex still.

His main point - that the current economic crisis was caused not by greed, but by lack of fear, is spot on.

Economics, after all, is the study of humans and how they interact with money. Humans, all 6.8 billion of us, like all other living things, are driven by two imperatives - to survive and thrive. Once survival is assured, we strive for more.
Poor man wants to be rich
Rich man wants to be king
King ain't satisfied until he rules everything
- Bruce Springsteen, Badlands
But beware hubris. Beware that moment when you think that you are the Master of the Universe, and that nothing can touch you. As that great English 20th century mystical philosopher, the Reverend W. Awdry, continually told his young readers, pride comes before the fall. "Look at me," wooshed James. "I'm a splendid red engine." And children would know, as they turned the page, that on the next one, James would run into a tar wagon, shoot off down a hill out of control, or end up spinning wildly on a turntable.

As mammals, survive and thrive is rooted in our flight-or-fight instinct; that knife-edge moment in the dealing room when a split-second decision can make a dealer a quick killing or can lose his clients millions of dollars.

Bartek compares forecasting the economy to forecasting the weather. But the economy, I would argue, is an order of magnitude less complex than the weather. Although one is a closed system, the other growing along with our population, the sentiment of 6.8 billion individuals is easier to predict than the world's weather. You can break that 6.8 billion down into many sub-groups; 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.9 billion Christians, 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, 800 billionaires. Then sub-groups of sub-groups; potential Toyota Corolla buyers, for example, or National Geographic channel watchers, or users of a generic anti-inflammatory drug, or wearers of Levi jeans. Chinese ones, Christian ones, rich ones, poor ones.

The coming century will tell us far more about ourselves, what drives us, how much of what we are is determined by our genes, and how much by our environment and upbringing. Is there a laziness gene that condemns swathes of humanity to apathetic resignation to their economic fate? Or when societies get wealthier, does the drive, the appetite for risk, diminish greatly within the bulk of the population, leaving those with a biologically-greater need for the power and influence that wealth brings striving to get wealthier still? And in doing so take even greater risks? With other people's money? What makes a multi-billionaire drive himself for 14 hours a day to make another billion? What role does testosterone play?

My guess is that over the coming century, as we get to understand much more about ourselves as a species, about our biology and psychology, we will come to learn much more about how our global economy responds as a system to our individual greed and fear.

Unusual motive power, Jeziorki

Above: In my 12 years living around these parts, I've seen coal trains bound for Siekierki power station with one loco in front; with one pulling in front and one pushing from behind, I've seen two pulling and one pushing, I've seen three engines coupled together, running light, but I've not yet seen three pulling. This triple header (SM42-1075 in front of two SM48s) is heading towards Siekierki via the marshalling yards at Konstancin-Jeziorna with a full load of coal. It's a tough winter! You can see how much smaller the Polish-built SM42 is compared to the 'Tamaras' (Russian-built SM48s, also known as TEM2s).

Above: A very rare sight - an ET41, which is a permanently coupled pair of engines used mainly for hauling heavy coal trains from the Silesian coalfields to the Baltic ports. The unit replaces the EU07 loco, usually used for pulling Koleje Mazowieckie double-decker trains on the Radom to Warsaw line. This train was on bang time (unless it was the earlier one running 110 minutes late). Click labels below for more railway pics around Jeziorki.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Eternal Warsaw

Zygmunt's Column, outside the Royal Castle, snow gently falling, a nun on her way to a church in the Old Town.

This is the kind of stereotypical image that most western Europeans and Americans have of Poland.

All that's missing is a polar bear.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Launching the General's book

To the Royal Castle today for the launch of Silent and Unseen, the English-language version of Stefan 'Starba' Bałuk's WWII autobiography, Byłem Cichociemnym. I've written about the book before; suffice to say that the event was a real success. There was a full-house audience, consisting of old soldiers honoured with the Virtuti Militari, Poland's highest military decoration, members of the special forces, who have taken on the traditions of the wartime Cichociemni, and guests, many of whom were Poles born in the UK. Above: General Bałuk, 96 (seated) shares a joke with a fellow holder of the Virtuti Militari.

The book is available in both language versions from the publishing house Askon.

More coverage (in Polish) on Warszawsky's blog.

Thanks to everyone who came!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Warsaw junctions, winter's evening rush-hour

On my way to Moni's school for the half-yearly parents' meeting. I take the 182 from the office to ul. Wawelska, where it cuts under Al. Niepodległości (above). There are underground passages on either side of Wawelska full of small electronics shops where you can buy computers and computer parts at low, low prices. And where the guys are generally more knowledgeable than in a large chain store.

Above: The same junction, the south-bound tram stop, looking towards the city centre. The Marriott Hotel has a huge digital clock on it. The same vista, though closer to the centre, and in a tighter crop, here. The rear wagon of the elderly number 16 tram that arrived soon after stank of smoke as though there was an electrical fire somewhere; everyone got off, the driver investigated, he gave the all-clear, and we proceeded.

Above: Junction of ul. Wołoska and Racławicka. Note the heaps of snow. The temperature soared (from -9.6C to +0.4C) today, air pressure dropped further (from 990 to 970 hPa) and lots of new, wet snow fell. Over the weekend, we can expect -7C, so all the new snow will turn to ice once again.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Winter and broken-down trains

What a sight greeted my eyes (above) as I got off the train at W-wa Powiśle this morning! A Pruszków-bound SKM train had broken down some 200 metres east of the end of the platform. As you can see, it's modern rolling stock, not a 40-year old EN57. I can only guess the passengers had to wait a fair old while before being told that they can get off the train and walk to Powiśle.

Above: social solidarity in action. Strangers were helping one another up onto the platform, not an easy climb when wearing thick winter clothing and clumpy footwear.

Above: I get the story into the following day's Gazeta Stołeczna, which earns me 200 złotys.

Right: Another view of winter hitting public transport; the bus stop at Rondo ONZ is one of the busier ones in Warsaw.

As I awaited a 155 back to the office after a meeting, three buses turned up at once. The one at the rear had to stop past the area from where the snow had been cleared. Passengers had to get off the bus by leaping over heaps of icy snow. Dangerous.

My train home was on time, though waiting for it, I spared a thought for passengers aboard the 15:47 departure from Siedlce to W-wa Zachodnia. At W-wa Śródmieście, this Koleje Mazowieckie service was advertised as being 120 minutes late. A record for a local train?

Weatherwise, today saw the really heavy frosts and blue skies replaced by snow-bearing clouds. Pressure dropped by 30 hPa in under 24 hours (from 1020 to 990!); fresh snow helped brighten the grey and tired mountains of ice piled up on the edges of Warsaw streets. More snow expected through to Saturday, then deep frosts to return.

Aha! And more here about the broken-down SKM train, in Polish.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Łazienki Park, midwinter

Returning to the office from the studios of TokFM on foot, I chose to take a brisk walk through Lazienki Park (3.6km) rather than to wait in the intense cold for a bus and then another bus.

And on a day as beautiful as today, why not. The park is again looking perfect in its mid-winter finery. Above: The New Orangery, home to the Belvedere Restaurant, a great place for fine food any time of year.

Above: For some reason, when calling to squirrels in Polish, you address them (regardless of gender) as 'Basia'. The park's squirrel population is as hyperactive as a council estate-full of radio-controlled toy cars on Christmas Day. They will charge up to any passing human and demand food. If not forthcoming, they will scamper off to the next one. Or ransack a nearby bird table.

Below: through the trees, the Old Orangery. Moments, lost in wonder.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Electric, in the dark

Peering into the mouth of the Tunel Średnicowy, the railway tunnel that burrows under the heart of Warsaw from the western end of the platforms at W-wa Powiśle all the way across town via W-wa Śródmieście (suburban trains) or W-wa Centralna (long-distance trains) to emerge by W-wa Ochota, a mile and half (2.3 km) to the west.

Unlike London, Warsaw doesn't have termini beyond which no trains go - all trains pass right under the very centre of the city.

The line (for my non-Polish readers) was opened in 1933 and electrified (and here's a surprise) in 1936.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Compositions in white, blue and gold

Cloudless winter's day, sharp frost, sunset; the ingredients for the perfectly magickal walk, serene and transcendent.

Above: ul. Kórnicka, the footpath approaching the railway crossing. Footprints of wildlife outnumber those of humans.

Above: Abandoned greenhouse, ul. Trombity, seen from railway line.

Right: Setting sun over Jeziorki; to its right, the radio mast at Raszyn, to its left, houses in Dawidy Poduchowne. The snowfields are covered by a thin icy layer covering about half a metre of compacted snow beneath.

Below: Home again - Trombity, dusk.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Along the S79: Sasanki to Węzeł Lotnisko

Today's sharp frost did not put me off a planned walk from ul. Sasanki alongside the path of the new S79 expressway currently under constructions. I caught a town-bound train from W-wa Jeziorki and rode three stops to W-wa Służewiec. Over the viaduct, to the top of ul. Wirażowa. Below: No work going on at the Sasanki end.

No entry to pedestrians! While I can understand this from the point of view of the general contractor worried about accidents and liability, it is a bit of an imposition on locals on foot to be barred from getting from A to B in their own neighbourhood.

Below: The railway line that runs between działki (allotments) from PKP W-wa Okęcie to the airport, allowing trains to bring tanker wagons of aviation fuel to the airport. The track curves round to the left. Fresh tracks through the snow suggest a recent delivery.

Below: ul. Wirażowa from the trackside, approaching W-wa Okęcie station from the north. No roadworks going on here either. Very quiet.

Whilst Wirażowa is closed, the station remains open. It is well-used by airport workers. A wooden walkway has been built through the building site, linking the airport to the station.

Below: seven diggers arrayed alongside Wirażowa. The no entry and Objazd (diversion) signs are where the road is closed.

And on to the Poleczki viaduct. Again, no sign of any work today. Below: view from the viaduct looking south; the S79 will run to the right of the railway tracks.

Below: Between Poleczki and Węzeł Lotnisko. This be ul. Wirażowa, extended south of the airport's cargo terminal, where it currently ends. The S79 dual carriageway will run to the left, where the mounds of soil are.

As I walked on, with the glaring sun, clear blue sky and -12C, it occurred to me why I persist in going on excursions on days like this. I am laying down memories for the future, like bottles of fine wine. This walk will return to my mind, unbidden, a hundred years from today.

Friday, 22 January 2010

It's all in the mind - but where's that?

An outstandingly thought provoking article in this week's New Scientist by Prof. Ray Tallis, tackling the question that science has yet to answer - where is the seat of consciousness?

Are our thoughts, our awareness of self, our emotional response to a beautiful piece of music, or to an awe-inspiring landscape - are these just reactions of matter and energy within our skulls?

(A neutral monist would say - yes, they reside in your brain and nowhere else outside of it.)

Prof. Tallis offers scientific comfort to those of us with a spiritual view on life who feel that there's more to our consciousness than mere neural activity. He tackles problems such as feelings of past and present, how memory has yet to be adequately explained and how neurophilosophers are uneasy with concepts such as the self, initiation of action and free will.
Science begins when we escape our subjective, first-person experiences into objective measurement [... ] You think the table over there is large, I may think it is small. We measure it and find that it is 0.66 metres square. We now characterise the table in a way that is less beholden to personal experience.
Indeed. Whether it's large or small, how can you ascribe your emotional associations (with tables you've seen in the past, aesthetic reactions to the table) to a mere chemical-electrical interplay of electrons, neurons and synapses?

(As I write about that table, the first association I have is with the table in the kitchen at Osterley House, West London, that I visited with my father and my son in 2007. This is the first time I've thought about that kitchen, that table, since. Yet the thought of that table in Osterley took me back to a similar kitchen and a similar table somewhere in Edwardian England. Why? )

Human consciousness is indeed the final frontier. We are no closer to understanding it than the mediaeval alchemists were to unravelling the secrets of the atom.

Many of us have experienced feelings that we know are not reduceable to matter and energy. We are biological entities, driven by an evolutionary imperative to survive and thrive. But there is more to us than that. Which is something I shall in my own humble way attempt to look for and describe. A guide to the lower foothills of inquiry into the place where neuroscience meets human spirituality.

Work on S79 continues, despite cold

The temperature hit -12C this morning, but work on the S79 between Węzeł Lotnisko and ul. Sasanki continued unhindered. I snapped away through the grubby and iced-over window of the train (which was on time for a change) into town.

Right: just beyond the level crossing on ul. Karnawał. One can see that the general contractor Teerag-Asbag is not slacking. Along the whole stretch, diggers, tractors, graders, bulldozers and piledrivers were at work. This morning, we woke to blue skies, a welcome sight after three weeks where we had a day and half of sunshine. The temperature is due to fall to -20C overnight; I wonder if they'll be working tomorrow...



The soul rejoices in the sight; the sound of footsteps on snow at -12C is quite different from how they sound at -3C.

A chunk of icy snow, kicked along the pavement, sounds like a block of balsa wood.

Below: somewhere between W-wa Okęcie and W-wa Służewiec.


Below: Panoramic shot of work underway by ul. Sasanki, where the intersection at the top end of the S79 will be. The piledriver is working right up by the rails. Just visible at the right is the Sasanki viaduct.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Unacceptable.

As I arrived home at W-wa Jeziorki this evening, my train a mere 27 minutes late, I spared a thought for the poor commuters trying to get home to Żyrardów. The departures board announced that their train was 90 minutes late. Below: Actually, by the time it departed, the train was 97 minutes late. It was due to depart at 17:24, it left at 19:01. Quite a feat, as the 42km/26mile journey was only scheduled to take 49 minutes.


Koleje Mazowieckie is losing its way. At first, the newly re-painted green, white and yellow rolling stock looked good, the double decker trains, the FLIRT trains, new connections, a joint Warsaw city transport-Koleje Mazowieckie season ticket... Now things are getting back to how they were. This train (right) that waited rather a long time a W-wa Powiśle, had three out of its 12 offside doors jammed open, so passengers could step out on the wrong side, in front of a train coming the other way, or simply fall out of the train when moving. In the front three carriages, not a single neon light was working (it was emergency lighting only); graffiti is coming back onto the rolling stock, and snow's not been cleared from the platform. Wstyd, Panie!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A month until Lent starts

As my coffee tin inexorably approaches empty, I'm getting nearer and nearer to Lent, when caffeine (in tea as well as coffee) is foresaken, along with alcohol, meat, dairy products, salt snacks, confectionary, chips etc, and a strict fruit, veg and fish diet is adhered to. Water, 100% fruit juice and fruit or herbal teas are the only liquids. All for 46 days, starting on Wednesday 19 February, and finishing on Easter Sunday. This will be my 19th consecutive Lent of strict fasting.

Physical exercise - sit-ups and push-ups - enforce the will to do (as opposed to the will not to do). I shall also write more (more creative writing).

Since I gave up driving to work in July, my cycling and walking have ensured that my current pre-Lent weight is some 7lb/3kg less than at this time in previous years, so I will not have to make the same effort to get down to my university graduation weight of 11st 7lb (73kg).

The period of Lent is a good time for abstinence and reflection. The Lenten time of year, before spring kicks in, was always one of physical hardship. After the jovial excesses of Xmas and the Carnival season (which in Poland stretches from New Year's Day to Shrove Tuesday), the body and soul start looking forward to the self-discipline of Lent.

So - join me. By setting aside earthly pleasures, one can contemplate the Eternal. There's a month to prepare. It is worth it - you will feel much better, physically and spiritually, for doing Lent.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Looking back from suburban to inter-city

Turn around from your everyday views and look to see something you've never seen before. And here's something I've not noticed in all the time I've been commuting in and out of W-wa Powiśle. Across the fast track, hurrying the inter city trains past all the suburban platforms, a view of ul. Smolna as it dips down the Vistula escarpment. The 18:13 from W-wa Wschodnia to Katowice rushes into the tunnel towards W-wa Centralna.

Q: When is a street not a street?

A: When it is an ulica. Here we are, on ul. Dumki, well within the city limits of the capital of the EU's sixth largest member state. And yet, within the last week, along the western end of ul. Dumki, not a vehicle has passed. Indeed, not a single human being has stepped foot here.
Above: Since the last snowfall over a week ago, there's not been any new human footprints. I'm the first person to walk along this suburban street for at least seven days. Underfoot, the snow has the texture like sorbet covering a thin, crisp wafer of chocolate, under which there's yet more sorbet. Plenty of animal tracks - fox, hare, and birds.
Above: Talking of hare - there's one! I startled this specimen which took off across the fields. Sadly, I was not armed with my 80-400mm lens, so the 18-200mm had to suffice. The hare's gait is quite unlike that of the rabbit - indeed, here it looks like more like a large cat with antennae or antlers

Above: Still on ul. Dumki. Not a single sign of human activity. Remarkable, since we are just over 100 metres away from ul. Baletowa (below), a busy thoroughfare. Note passage dug into the snow by the householder. One's civic duty done (of course it helps having a pavement; Baletowa is paved from end to end, unlike ul. Karczunkowska).

And finally, a note for Polish -> English translators. Ul. Dumki is not translated as Dumki Street, any more than Bahnhoffstrasse is translated as Bahnhoff Street or Rue St. Michel as St. Michel Road. Yes, the Polish word ulica does mean 'street', just as Platz means 'place' or 'square'. But Alexanderplatz is how we'd say Alexanderplatz in English. It's a proper noun. So let's stop translating ul. Marszałkowska as Marszałkowska Street, please.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Science in a nutshell

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is without doubt the best general science book I've ever read. Since buying it two weeks ago, the 687-page book (including 113 pages of notes and index) has been my constant travelling companion to and from work; today I finished it, and instantly found I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. So I dived straight into New Scientist's website for more science writing that I can easily assimilate.

ASHONE works for me because the author is not a scientist - merely an intelligent and curious person who took on the monumental task of diving into the worlds of subatomic physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology and earth sciences, linking them all together and presenting in simple language the state of mankind's knowledge about life, the universe and everything.

I've been discussing the book with everyone I've met these past two weeks, insisting that every sentient human being on this planet should read the book from cover to cover. In particular those without science degrees. And certainly every young person before they set off to university.

The book tells us what science knows about the universe, the atom and life - how it got to know what it knows (ASHONE is also an excellent history of science) and - for me most important - is what science doesn't know or can't yet explain. One area of research that the book fails to cover totally is neuroscience - how the brain works, the mind and consciousness. The human brain, after all, is the most complex thing known to Man.

We learn just how precarious life is, and what a billion-times-billion to one chance it is that you and I are here, and conscious, and able to grasp the wonder and enormity of it all. Hydrogen, we are told, converts one seven thousandth of its mass into energy as it turns into helium inside stars. "Lower that value to one six thousandth, and no transformation could take place - the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise it to one eight thousandth, and all the hydrogen in the universe would long since have been exhausted." Then there are other miracles - gravity being neither too strong, nor too weak, the Earth being the right distance from the sun, water freezing from the top down, an atmosphere that shields us from deadly cosmic radiation - without which we would simply not be.
"[F]or you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you... Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years... every one of your forebears on both sides have been attractive enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstance to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually... in you."
Bryson's portrayal of the great thought-leaders who have brought scientific knowledge to where it is today is generally one of single-minded eccentrics, working away obsessively for decades to prove a notion to their peers. Though he doesn't mention it, RRBI and Asperger's Syndrome (even high-functioning autism) seems to have been present in most of mankind's greatest scientists.

Here's a lovely quote, one that should fill us all with the optimism of life...
"[Atoms] are fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed...)

So we are all reincarnations - though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf, or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms themselves, however, go on practically for ever."

And given we know very little about the inner workings of atoms (150 known sub-atomic particles, 100 more believed to exist, we are told), what's stopping atoms from being carriers of consciousness or storehouses of memory, or indeed, of will?

Memory - consider this:
"Brain cells last as long as you do. You are issued with a hundred billion or so at birth and that is all you're going to get. It has been estimated that you lose 500 of them an hour, so if you have any serious thinking to do, there isn't a moment to waste. The good news is that individual components of your brain cells are constantly renewed ... no part of them is likely to be more than a month old. Indeed, it has been suggested that no part of us, not so much as a stray molecule, was part of us nine years ago."
So - if this is the case - where do memories from before nine years ago reside? Literally mind-blowing information if you ponder this for a while!

As we learn more about ourselves and our place in an expanding universe, we will learn about those shared spiritual feelings that bond humans to their history, those atavistic resurgences that link us to where we are from, and help indicate where we are going.

UPDATE: I've started re-reading it. Going over the text a second time, pencil in hand, helps cement notions, names and sequences of events. This book is too significant to skim-read.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Seeking the highest snow mound


Since the middle of last week, after the last heavy snowfall, the city authorities have been either removing large amounts of snow from roadsides and pavements in eight-wheel trucks, or creating ever-higher piles of snow at bus stops. Above: Plac Trzech Krzyży, yesterday. Right: Edmund makes it to the top of a snow mound at the bus stop on ul. Puławska (Pelikanów, across the road from the Scottish Restaurant where the two of us dined today. Place was packed.) There's been visible activity in terms of removing snow from flat roofs and removing icicles from guttering. Temperature today averaged around -7C.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Views from footbridges

Ul. Książeca, running up the Vistula escarpment from Powiśle to Plac Trzech Krzyży, earlier today...

And how it looked in May last year. And how it will look in May this year - in just four months' time. Photos taken from footbridge crossing ul. Książęca. Note absence of parked cars, caused by last July's extension out to Powiśle of paid parking, plus snow on roadside.

Below: Taken from the footbridge crossing ul. Piękna, looking down ul. Górnośląska.

The building further down Górnośląska (centre, in distance) prompts some family history. Before the war, this was a girls' lycée (high school). My aunt, Ciocia Dziunia, had won a place to study here. She was at home in Horodziec (eastern Poland), packing her things, ready to set off to the station on her way to Warsaw, when her father (my grandfather) said that she would not be going. He'd received a tip-off from the German owner of the nearby distillery, named Knipfelberg, that war was imminent, and that she should not go. It seems Knipfelberg was a 'resident', in short-wave radio contact with the Abwehr, and had passed on the information as a matter of personal loyalty to a friend. She would have started school on 1 September 1939.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Another haul of winter wonderfulness

To my lunch appointment I go on foot across the Łazienki Park. Splendid views abound; I never miss an opportunity to visit this magic place. Above: The Temple of Diana.

My afternoon meeting is postponed by an hour - an excellent excuse to revisit the park. Over lunch, the sky has cleared; for the first time this year there's sunshine.

Right: Al. Ujazdowskie. When the sun appears in winter and shines on crisp new snow, the effect on the soul is immediate and wonderous. Below: Sunset is 25 minutes later than on the year's shortest day.

Right: The Zamek Ujazdowski (Ujazdów Castle), built on the Vistula escarpment, which today houses the Centre for Contemporary Art.

Below: Trasa Łazienkowska dipping down towards the river, looking down from the footbridge. In the distance, the tower blocks of Praga, Warsaw's right bank district, bathed in late afternoon sunlight.

Below: Across the road from my destination, the corner of ul. Krucza and Wilcza. Krucza has some impressive examples of socialist realist architecture, though not on the same scale as Plac Konstytucji. Dirty snow is piled up on pavements in heaps over a metre high.

In the afternoon, temperatures plunge. After a week of oscillation between -2C and -4C, we're suddenly down to minus ten.