Sunday, 26 December 2010

Hell on Earth

Prompted by the missile incident that occured on 23 November 2010 and the recent rigged presidential election in Belarus, I began reading about authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The one which gripped my attention most was North Korea – the most isolated country in the world and the last Stalinist regime on the whole planet. While reading through some articles, I ran across mentioning in passing a Polish documentary depicting the regime - Defilada, by Andrzej Fidyk.

The short (65 minutes) documentary was shot in 1989, when North Korea was celebrating 40 years of its existence. The festivities coincided with Olympic games in Seoul in 1988 and were meant to outshine the sporting event. The director was allowed in North Korea and shot a striking film. He deliberately shot it and left to the audience. Not a single word of comment has been added, a sinister picture of life in the country is being shaped in a viewer’s head. Shots of lavish parades are interspersed throughout scenes from daily life and utterances of North Koreans who speak about their lives dedicated to Kim Il-Sung, hereinafter “the Great Leader”.

The most shocking phenomenon that permeates everything in North Korea is the cult of personality. Ubiquitous Great Leader’s presence is felt at every corner. What the North Koreans speak about The Great leader is nothing but gruesome twaddle, similar to the one known from Stalinist Poland, but much worse.

The North Korean’s mindset is a result of years of brainwashing which has its onset short of after the moment of birth. From the age of around 3, children at nursery school study childhood, early life and accomplishments of the Great Leader. Belief that Kim Il-Sung is a half-god is instilled in children from the earliest stage of their life, when they take in everything they are told. The regime’s excellence at social engineering is truly dreadful. Further on, the indoctrination continues to turn out fairly deranged citizens who venerate the Great Leader.

The right word to use in the context of cult of personality in the country is reverence. The Great Leader is revered. North Koreans would be even ready to go on pilgrimage to a toilet bowl on which he sat (this is not said in the film). The description of the Great Leader, spread by omnipresent propaganda apparatus, reminds of Chuck Norris jokes, which spurred peals of laughter in Poland and across the world some five years ago. The most disarming one was that of the Great Leader who came to an institute of technology and solved problems too difficult even for most outstanding scientists.

According to official propaganda, North Korea is a land of milk and honey. No wonder the authorities want to spare its citizens suffering caused by seeing the outer world and do not allow them out of the country. The land where things go on much worse is the neighbouring South Korea, a fascist country enslaved by imperialist occupiers from the United States.

Just after the armistice was signed in 1953, the demilitarised zone between two countries was created. The border between two Korean countries is said to be the best protected border in the world. The existence of Korean Wall (not as notorious as Berlin Wall) remains a subject of disputes, but it surely has its place in North Korean propaganda. Before the wall was erected, some despaired South Koreans battered by American occupiers fled their country to seek asylum in the land of milk and honey. Now the concrete wall is the obstacle and helpless South Koreans have to stay imprisoned by cruel capitalist regime.

It cannot sink in to me that North Korean really believe in the whole shit there are told about their Great Leader and the country they live in. In socialist Poland virtually everyone, including comrades from the PZPR knew that whole “superiority of socialism over capitalism” is just an ideological rubbish. No other totalitarian country has managed to shape mindsets of its citizens as expertly as regime of North Korea has done.

Post-stalinist Poland, run by Mr Gomulka, Mr Gierek and Mr Jaruzelski, in comparison to North Korea appears as an oasis of freedom (therefore I argue it should not be called totalitarian, but authoritarian country). And socialist Poland was a part of the Soviet bloc, its bad fate after WW2 was a result of political decisions of movers and shakers (the main player in the game of dividing Europe was Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt succumbed to his demands). Poland could not leave it for political and military reasons without running the risk of being brought to a heel by fellow bloc members; while North Korea’s torment results now, after the Soviet Union fell apart and China rejected Maoism, from the decisions of its own leaders (or to put it bluntly some obsessed mobsters).

I wonder if fear is an indispensable element of life of North Korea. For us, no doubt, it is, but we must not forget North Koreans were brought up in the system based on fear and their perception of reality is so distorted that they may not realise what they feel is fear (a vague concept I am trying to convey, I know it is hard to me to put it in words). I will not hazard a guess they have learnt to get on with fear. Fugitives from North Korea have to undergo a long-lasting process of rehabilitation to function in a normal society properly.

This brutally proves the cruelty of North Korean regime. How inhuman the Great Leader’s son must be to spent millions of US dollars on uranium enrichment programme, while millions of North Koreans are starving?

The only explanation of how people keep on living in North Korea is that they get by because they have never experienced freedom and have never seen how a normal country functions. They take all absurdities and degeneration as natural. Maybe some of them even experience some kind of happiness drawn from family life. Surely the unawareness of living standards in civilised world eases their pain.

The question how to handle North Korea is a pain in the world’s neck. World leaders cannot shrug off its existence, as long as it threatens to use its alleged nuclear weapons. The cruel tormentors who run the country could, in the most simple view, be wiped off this world with the benefit to everyone. Even in case of (Heaven forbid) nuclear war, resorting to use of bombs to annihilate leaders of North Korea (probably in vain, as they would stay safe in bunker hideouts) would mean killing thousands (or millions) of innocent people. A few times it occurred to me that wiping North Korea off the map would put 23 million of citizens of the country out of their misery. I know it is cruel, but faced with a choice of living in North Korea as a native, I think I would consider putting myself out of misery.

Bringing down (somehow) the totalitarian regime would not translate into freeing the country. The problem would remain and apart from economic costs of aid for North Korea, the goal to teach North Koreans, dehumanised by years under the Great Leader’s and his son’s rule, how to function in a normal society could be unattainable. Those people do not await liberation, but we can hold out hopes for economic crisis that would topple the government. All communist regimes fell down because of economic difficulties and North Korea has to follow the same path, although it will be much more complicated.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


This year, the time has come. In the past years, before Christmas I promised myself to share some of my wealth with the ones in need. I know, it is a but hypocritical, it is done only around Christmas, because everyone else does it and later people forget for the rest of the year. In the past years my low income was a lame excuse to confine to a few zlotys, this year I decided it was high time to endow some foundations and charities. I began to earn some “real” money, next year my earnings will be really decent, so apart from paying taxes which are aimed at redistributing wealth, I should help my fellow men off my own bat.

In the past days, when I had some free time (scarce commodity) I have pondered upon this issue. The topic triggers a lot of questions, concerning legitimacy, percentage of income that should be shared with others, discretion, moral duty and many more.

Virtually everyone agrees the disadvantaged should be given aid. Opinions how to do it wisely vary. In socialists’ view, the state should be solely responsible for redistributing wealth. The richer should under constraint pay not only higher taxes, but should also give to the state apparatus a higher percent of their income. Liberals, in turn, claim it should be the civil society that takes over function of helping the poor. People, as they say, can set up foundations and charity organisations and endowing them should be a moral duty.

Both approaches have substantial downsides. The statist one assumes the state is omnipotent and will allocate the collected resources effectively. This is impossible – the whole bureaucratic apparatus costs too much and will never be effective – once we had such system in which the state oversaw everything and it failed. The liberal one carries a naïve assumption people will be ready to share their wealth with the worse-off, which is overtly false. Most people are greedy and even if they do it, they will give out only a tiny percent of their earnings. Here there is a fix for it. In many Anglo-Saxon societies donating large sum to charities is a benchmark of one’s social status. There is some bit of pressure from society. But if it was not about boasting about the endowment on a party, would they be ready to give their money away that eagerly? I realise it is better that giving no money at all; no matter if the well-off outbid one another who donates more, the disadvantaged benefit from this. My take on the issue is similar to my view of CSR – most companies do it to maintain a good image, not because they care about those parentless children. Mechanics of the endowment is identical – people do it because they care about their prestige, benevolence is just a side effect.

And I have also realised that even if I was most open-handed I could afford, my contributions would still be hypocritical. I could not sympathise with beneficiaries of my help, just because I have never experienced homelessness, famine, shortage of money, severe illness or any other kind of misery. No big tragedy has affected me yet, my family have, thank God, never been destitute. But on the other hand, as I have also never experienced luxuries, I feel I am in between. Much above me are those whose opulence would dazzle me, much below are those whose poverty is beyond my comprehension. Probably the bigger the gap is, the harder it is to take in a fellow man’s woe.

In addition, giving money is taking the path of least resistance. I may have fewer banknotes in my wallet, by bank account may be credited and the strain is over. Good deed is done, conscience is clear. It is not that simple, as long as I still avert experiencing misery.

Also a man’s wealth determines his problems. For people who struggle to make ends meet, the problem might be if they will not run out of cash to buy bread for children. For those a bit better off, who surely can afford to stock up on bread and smoked hams, the problem might be paying for a child’s school trip abroad. The richer you are, the further from scraping along your problems are. A reason to complain for my colleagues might be that they can afford only a suit for 1,000 PLN rather than five times more expensive one. Or, as this year, that the Christmas bonus was not an equivalent of new compact car’s value, as it was in the years of prosperity (2006 or 2007).

Yesterday I had a Christmas party in my office. It was thrown in an empty unfinished sizeable room in our office building in the very centre of Warsaw. Looking outside the windows could you see Palace of Culture, hotels, busy streets full of well-off people running pre-Christmas errands in haste. Food and drink was in abundance, everyone was pleased to get together… I wonder if I was the only one who thought about families who cannot make ends meet during the party. Once again the Band Aid’s song reverberated in my head…

It's Christmas time
There's no need to be afraid
At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmas time it's hard, but when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all
Here's to you raise a glass for everyone
Spare a thought this Yuletide for the deprived
If the table was turned would you survive
Here's to them underneath that burning sun
You ain't gotta feel guilt, just selfless
Give a little help to the helpless
Do they know it's Christmas time at all
Feed the world, feed the world, feed the world
Feed the world, feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time again

Does anyone hear “the clanging chimes of doom”?
Is anyone thankful “tonight thank God it's them instead of you”?

But Polish bankers are not as spoilt as their counterparts from the City or Wall Street. Here the banking system is totally different (in Poland investment banking is just fledging and will never develop for good after Mr Crisis spelled the death of it) – there is no such depravity, earnings and bonuses are not sky-high and expectations are different. More about one depiction of London’s bankers circle in the New Year’s Day post!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Another happy return

Those yearning for a longer weekly piece, please get on to Polandian, where I’ve enumerated some things that get on my nerves. Now I’m awaiting some mud slung at me by unfailing commentators. The post on Polandian is not actually very optimistic and as all my postings was written on the spur of the moment, left for the posterity after a brainwave had come over me.

What can cheer one up in a period when daylight is so scarce? Mikołajki - a Polish custom of giving token gifts to your near and dear is still alive. For five years of studying of SGH, where there are no fixed student groups I’ve forgotten how it feels, but this year I got caught up in the exchange of gifts in my office. My boss drew a person on my behalf and handed me a slip of paper containing the name. At the beginning I thought it was a considerable nuisance, as deciding what to buy to a twenty years older woman seemed a hard nut to crack. But then I used my brains, found my colleague’s profile on Goldenline and discovered we both are fond of U2 music. After a short research in the Internet I ordered a book “The Name of Love” about the band’s lyrics. Another colleague watched her reaction on Monday, when the gifts were handed (I was absent) and said she had been pretty delighted. I picked up my present on Thursday. I think the hand-painted bauble will be a nice decoration, but surely also proves someone had no idea what to buy (I was tipped off that one guy from sales (rather reticent) does it in his spare time). Next Friday we have a Christmas party – something I haven’t enjoyed since 2005. SGH is not really conducive to socialising…

The centre of Warsaw is lit by Christmas decorations. To the right – ul. Emilii Plater, modernised this summer is designed be the high street of Poland’s capital to bewitch Warsaw’s inhabitants and tourists. There are always some people who stick around there every day and who don’t take notice of its brilliance. I took a few snaps in the dark, without a tripod, on the display of my camera they seemed sharp, but after transferring them to my computer the photos turned out to be a bit blurred. Maybe next week I’ll take the camera again to get it right.

A widely publicised event held yesterday was a Złota 44 construction reopening ceremony. Orco (property developer), after a court handed down a ruling favourable to the developer and thus brought the dispute over the building to the close, is going to resume construction works in January. Façade of the building should be finished by Euro 2012 and the building will be finished by the end of 2012. Time will tell if the splendid edifice will overlook Warsaw, but yesterday’s ceremony was nothing but a misfire. I don’t understand what the whole hype about the whole 15-minutes long event was about. They played some music, lit the building with flashy spotlights and thus thanked Warsaw for patience. Some people stopped by to watch the so-called show, but majority remained indifferent.

A step in good direction is the new timetable of suburban trains. Substantial improvements in transport links from my suburb to Warsaw will come into effect tomorrow and I’m glad to learn about it, as from 1 February 2011 I plan to commute by train. From tomorrow on, there will be five trains between 7:00 and 8:15 (including three double-deckers) and eight between 6:30 and 9:00 (four double-deckers). I only wonder whether the services will be reliable. During last two weeks cards were stacked against them. In the long run I plan to commute by car and leave it on P&R Okęcie (currently under construction), next to W-wa Okęcie bus & tram terminus and then take a tram to the centre. The only problem is how to get there before the dual-carriageway bypass of Warsaw is built… I’ve heard local roads between Dawidy and Raszyn are jammed in the morning. And if more trains run in the morning, will it mean more people will drop their cars and go to town by train? Will the carriages be packed?

Now a small request to Mr Santa Claus. I bought some stocks in late November? Please bring me a substantial rally and keep all skeletons in the cupboards locked up until the end of the year.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Was it really about trust?

A follow-up to the story from late August. Not a breakthrough hitherto, although things have moved on a bit. I still haven’t got back a single zloty out of one thousand I had lent my ex-classmate over six months ago.

I tried to get in touch with Karol a few times, he wrote back to some text messages, but never picked up a phone. Once, in mid-October he claimed he had made a transfer to me a month earlier. When I told him I hadn’t received any money he couldn’t believe it, but also couldn’t submit any receipt of bank transfer executed. Funnily enough, not only didn’t he have any confirmation slip, but also he didn’t know to which bank account he had transferred the money. The next day he dropped me another text in which he asserted he had just transferred money and asked for a reply when I got the money. Needless to say I once again I didn’t see a single zloty.

On 19 November Karol’s mother called me. To my surprise it turned out he had told his family about much more transfers sent to me. She also added he wouldn’t return any money to me because he was “undergoing a therapy” and pledged to take over his debts. We also arranged a meeting next day, in the evening. I met up with her in her house in Piaseczno. Once well-furnished and well-maintained flat has lost its finery. Karol’s mother was quite jittery (they still have some other problems in the family) and explained she was desperately trying to borrow some money to straighten things out. I think I managed to talk her out of turning to a loan shark (who the f*ck invented the name of the company which surely doesn’t cater for provident people?) and suggested she should apply for a regular cash loan in a bank. She also asked me not to call Adam (Karol’s brother) because his nerves were frayed after months of sorting out his brother’s problems and having two full-time jobs for a few months to earn more money.

The sentence about the therapy was the most puzzling. The first supposition that occurred to me was that he had got addicted to gambling and lost all his money as a compulsive casino-visitor. Then I began putting the pieces of jigsaw puzzle together, all goings-on from the day I had lent him the money and the possible sequence of events began to unfold it was even more frightful than gambling.

Schizophrenia is a quite possible explanation. Did he lie he was a chairman of a student organisation or did he think he was? Did he have a job or did he think he had a job? Did he think he had had ordered those transfers and was he really baffled because he couldn’t find any documents to prove it? Was his strange behaviour at home, before he moved out, about which his brother told me, a sign of developing mental illness? Probably I’ll never find out the truth about what has happened, but if it’s really schizophrenia, it’s a tragic story. Karol and his family might have met a tragic fate. He was an up-and-coming lawyer, now, regardless of what he’s being cured from, he’s not going to finish his studies. His family, once well-off are now almost destitute. Will they manage to give him a helping hand after they lost all their ample savings getting him out of troubles? A fellow blogger’s wife, who is a psychiatrist, told me care from family and friends is essential to return to a rather normal life after symptoms of schizophrenia recede. Or will he be left to his own devices on account of his misdeeds?

For two weeks they Karol’s mother didn’t call me. If she fails to do it for a while, I’ll get in touch with her in January. Her assurances to pay me off sounded credible, so I’ll give them at least a bit more peaceful period before Christmas. I told her the repayment wasn’t urgent for me and I could wait for some time, but in the long run I wished to get the money back. I hope we’ll agree on a repayment schedule and I mull over what then. Given their situation and mine, I think it would be wise to write down a part of the debt, but only when they repay more than a half of it in time.

Another question is if I’ll every lend any money (except small change everyone can afford to lose) to anyone. I think lending some money (no more than a few hundred PLN) to friends I keep in with regularly doesn’t have to be ruled out. The other thing is securing the loan by signing a loan agreement, which enables me to claim my money in a court. But if I had signed a valid loan agreement with Karol on that hapless day, would I be better off now? I could sue him, I would have to lose time for wrangling with Polish judiciary system and quite probably the court would hand down a ruling favourable for me, but what would the ruling mean in a situation when my debtor is out of cash and, moreover, insane? Maybe his family would go to a great extent to repay the debt? Who would cover the litigation costs? Finally, I’d have to listen the whole sanctimony…

Hmm… I know by dint of age I’m wet behind ears and maybe I don’t handle the matter properly… So what do you make of it?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

On broken promises

In 1990, before presidential election, Lech Wałęsa promised to turn Poland into “second Japan”. In 2007, before parliamentary election, Donald Tusk promised Poland would follow the path of Irish economic miracle and would become “second Ireland”. Both politicians have gone back on their promises and Poland has not taken a leaf from Japanese, nor Irish book. Now do not grumble, we should be grateful they have failed to put those economic miracles into practice.

What do those two countries have in common? The lie on different continents, both experienced periods of long lasting economic growth, both were held up as examples of excellent economic performance, both made quantum leaps, both have been going through severe crises and even despite being hit by them are now far higher developed then the moment they were in “square ones” of their growth path.

Japan got up of its knees over ten years after WW2. Thanks to easy borrowing terms, support from the government and protectionist measures Japan’s industry began to grow rapidly. Japan corporations relied on cutting-edge technologies and were highly efficient what helped the country boost its exports and flood markets of developed countries with high-quality and reasonably-priced products. In 1960s annual GDP-growth rate was running at above 10%, in 1970 it slowed down due to oil crisis, but Japanese economy soon adjusted to rising demand on energy-saving technologies and not only rode out the crisis, but even emerged from it stronger. The period when interest rates were low, pace of economic growth remained high and inflation low lasted until 1990. The last five years of boom were marked by surging stock and property prices – both tripled between 1985 and 1990. Companies and individuals eagerly borrowed money from banks to buy assets, since interest rates on loans were far lower than returns on stocks or properties. The bubble burst in 1990 and the economy of Japan slipped into a period of sluggish growth for a decade. Banks were hardly hit by write-offs on non-performing loans, individuals and companies struggled to repay the debts they had run up in the times of speculative frenzy. Customers were reluctant to spend, what caused the domestic demand to decline. Firms instead of investing in capital stock were paying back its debts. Interest rates were slashed to near zero to stimulate the economy, but neither banks could grant new loans, nor were the enterprises keen to take them out. GDP growth rate averaged out 1% in the 1990s. Adverse effects of bursting of sizeable economic bubble are felt until now.

Ireland in a relatively short period of time turned from backward agricultural country into one a modern, fast-growing economy. The economic miracle is often put down to Social Partnership under which government, employers and trade unions settled on taking a concerted effort move the country forward. They did bring it off, inflation was on decline, growth rate was on the rise, the country attracted outward direct investments owing to corporate tax cuts. For many years Ireland ran budget surpluses and consequently its public debt was decreasing. Good economic performance was fostered by low interest rates and deregulated financial industry, which caused the property bubble to arise. Banks were lending recklessly and bubble grew splendid before it burst. From then Irish banks reported huge numbers of defaults among borrowers, their capitals shrunk as a result of losses on non-performing loans, the government had to bail out most banks and the bail-out programme has caused the public debt to mount. Now not only Irish banks but also the Irish state is on the verge of insolvency.

So what do they have in common? Economies of both countries have been hurt by bursting bubbles. In both countries interest rates were abnormally low for an extended period of time (there was no need to raised them as there was no threat of rising inflation), banks loosened their lending criteria and foisted loans upon almost everyone. In both countries prosperity was brought to a halt by bursting bubbles.

But brush aside economic aspects of economic bubbles, take a look at them from psychological perspective. Bubble (as any other misfortune) inflates when people take for granted nothing bad can happen. Japanese and Irish banks took for granted the property prices would only go up, so even if a borrower failed to repay their debt, they would foreclose a property and recover the money. Individuals and firms also took for granted asset prices would only go up. When an economic bubble is robust almost everyone believes the boom will last forever. Voices of sceptics who claim the disaster is imminent are drowned out.

It is very hard to crack down on the bubble, because as long as it swells, it is convenient to everyone. Government gets higher proceeds from property taxes, property developers count up sky-high profits, banks make lots of money on mortgage loans, property owners are happy because their wealth is increasing, flat broke non-owners are over the moon because banks are leaning over backwards to give them 40-year mortgage for a tiny, dilapidated 30-square-metre flat. And the unemployment is falling, because construction sector needs more workers, who do not get paid worse than qualified workforce. And bear in mind efficiency in construction sector is low, so economic growth generated by it is in a way delusive.

Lessons to be learnt? Do not let property bubbles happen. In the long term they always do more harm than good. Imbalance in an economy will sooner or later cause a turmoil and those to pay for any possible bailouts will be taxpayers. Interest rates on mortgages should not be low (cheap corporate loans have positive impact on the economy in the long run)! Lending for housing purposes should be under supervision! Poland escaped the scenario of bursting property bubble. Property prices did double in some cities between late 2005 and late 2007, but the boom was not followed by bust. Interest rates were never too low, Polish financial supervision did its best to curb lending, particularly in foreign currencies. Banks’ profits in boom period were not as high as they could be, some applicants had their mortgage applications rejected, but Poland averted a much worse scenario. May we never try to repeat any country’s path to economic miracle. Mr Wałęsa and Mr Tusk did not know what they were saying. Their promises were made just before bubbles in Japan and Ireland burst.

Funnily enough, Poland was going through a property boom when Prawo i Sprawiedliwość was in power…

More on economic bubbles in 2011, after I graduate (in my MA thesis I explore the topic, some excerpts to be translated into English and published here after I “defend” it).

Saturday, 20 November 2010

So when can you say you speak a language – part 3

I’ve drawn inspiration for writing this post from another post, dated 5 November 2010, which had come out on The Economist’s Johnson blog. The author touches up on an issue that I’ve pondered upon many times – describing one’s command of a foreign language. Any assessment of someone’s linguistic competencies is a very difficult task and the outcome will probably never be objective. Definitions vary, depending on who you ask. Some people say you speak a language if you can communicate in basic everyday situations, others point out you can claim to speak a language if you’re (almost) as fluent as a native speaker.

This discrepancy is emphasised in Johnson’s short article, the author leaves room for coining a definition to the commentators and puts forward his own definition. In his view, he can say he speaks a language, if he can go to a country and work there as a journalist. In Johnson’s definition it means a person who declares they speak a language should be able to communicate without awkwardness in typical situations in understands most of what they are told. However, when I first read the post I wondered what his work in the capacity of journalist meant. After all I’ve inferred it meant he had to garner information in a foreign language and then to write an article in English, so he didn’t have in mind mastery which would allow him to write an article in a foreign language, to a foreign newspaper.

I, in turn, distinguish between “knowing a language” and “speaking a language”. Knowing is about passive command – if you know a language you understand written word, can read newspapers and books in a foreign language and can understand what is being said, so it doesn’t make a problem for you to listen to radio broadcasts or watch films in a foreign language. Speaking involves active use of a language – speaking it in everyday situations and using a language at work, writing e-mails, reports, letters, and even a blog. Hardly ever can a learner afford just to know a language, this competency may prove sufficient only to translators who translate into their native language and probably to no one else. The rest have to speak a language to be able to express their ideas in a foreign language.

The problem of describing linguistic competencies has been solved quite effectually by the Europe Council. Its officials have worked out a framework which sets out six levels of linguistic competencies, which has become a standardised and widely-accepted method of measuring one’s command of a language. It may solve the problem, but you have to be aware such a grid exists. Most people are still oblivious of it.

Actually I can’t tell the difference between myself and someone who struggles to string together a sentence in English, but somehow gets by. They know English and I know English, consequently “know” appears to be a very imprecise word. The most frequent occurrence when the sentence on(a) zna angielski is when a Polish company needs to have its website translated into English and an employee who knows English best is assigned this task. If you happen to read some drivel consisting of manifold English words put together without rhyme or reason and can’t make head nor tail of it, such situation has probably happened.

I’m a sluggish blogger, so before I set about compiling this bunch of reflections on learning languages, another blogger, whose attainments usually pass unnoticed, has come up with another theory. His concept is a brilliant combination of complexity and simplicity – in his view you can say you speak a language if you have command of a language comparable to a command represented by a five-year-old native speaker of a language. I read this a few times and was deeply enchanted by the theory. Read between the lines and you’ll grasp what it takes – spontaneity. You speak a language and it doesn’t seem it’s rehearsed, your feel comfortable using it, you express your thoughts at ease and with pleasure, you switch smoothly to that language without discomfort (even when being woken up in the middle of a night), you can hold conversations on all topics you are familiar with in your mother tongue. I could add that you should also think in a foreign language.

In Polish there’s a vexing phenomenon that makes my hackles rise. Take any ten CVs of job applicants and I bet you’ll fish out at least one in which an applicant would describe their command of English angielski – biegle; sometimes to prove it they add information about a certificate they hold (if they claim to be proficient, it’s usually FCE or CAE, neither confirms proficiency). Being very critical towards Polish nation’s linguistic skills, I find it hard to suppress my displeasure with this complacency. Do those “masters in English” realise that proficiency means mastery comparable to an educated native speaker of a language? Do they realise among Poles born and bred in Poland, who still live here, there are few are far between who are really proficient in English?

I don’t claim to be proficient in English (funnily enough nor in Polish), I describe my command of English as “fluency”. This involves some inaccuracy, but leaves far less room for a possible letdown. I rarely have problems understanding written word (I still encounter some new words but I usually can make out their meanings out of context), for some time I haven’t had any problems understanding English speakers in face-to-face conversations, regardless of their accent, but watching films in English is not always easy for me. I’ve been developing my writing skills as a blogger, but I surely need more opportunities to speak…

As Johnson points out it takes immersion to become proficient, for this reason you can’t expect to master a foreign language without working on four key competencies (reading, listening, speaking, writing) and you won’t be considered a master if you make grammatical errors a native speaker wouldn’t make. And there’s another aspect – it takes long to master a language, but much, much shorter to forget it (at least in the active aspect), maintaining high linguistic is a challenge comparable to acquiring them. So let’s face it – use it or lose it (faster than you think)!

Over. Off to brush up on my English!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Turn on your printing machines

This post may be treated as a follow-up to my short essay on monetary policy from December 2009. On 3 November Mr Bernanke, the governor of Federal Reserve Bank, announced the launch of QE2 programme under which the central bank of USA will buy up government securities in the total amount of 600 billion dollars to kick-start US ailing economy.

Almost two years after Fed’s discount rate was slashed to 0.00% – 0.25% range US economy is still in the doldrums. Unemployment rate fluctuates around 10%, figures of economic growth are positive mainly thanks to large-scale stimulus programmes which slowly peter out (the two factors above combined give a new buzz-phrase “jobless recovery”), consumer prices also levelled off, but central bankers say despite extremely loose monetary policy deflation is still a much bigger threat than inflation.

The recent crisis has changed American consumers’ habits. Before the meltdown an average American household had negative savings and consumers generally tended to consume more than could afford, thus propelling world economy. This was easy to attain, as banks were eager to provide them with lending and turned a blind eye on creditworthiness criteria many borrowers didn’t meet. Much has changed since then. Consumers are now reluctant to part with cash they have, their propensity for spending and borrowing has declined. The tough lesson of crisis they have learnt will probably bring about a gradual shift from spending and borrowing towards saving.

Also banks, severely hit by write-offs on bad loans have modified their credit policies. Gone are the times when credits were foisted upon not creditworthy borrowers, these days bankers think twice before the grant a loan. Just think what happens when a loan goes bad. Can it be prevented? Can financial standing of a debtor be monitored effectually? Probably not. How long does it take to recover money? Sometimes years. What the recovery ratio will be? No one knows – a bank can recover principal and interest, a principal only or nothing, and costs have to be borne to wrangle with bad loans. Is there any alternative? Is something less risky?

Regular readers of this blog surely remember the story of 1,000 PLN lent to an ex-classmate. I still didn’t get that money back. For a comparison, on my worst speculation on stock market I lost 23%, so out of 1,000 PLN put in I still could put out 770 PLN (minus transaction costs), so it’s much more than zero. Stock markets look like an alternative. Stock indices reached their many-year lows in late winter 2009, bottomed out and since then have risen by 50% - 100%. The bull run was spurred on by loose monetary policy. Ample liquidity provided by central banks was not directed at lending activities, but at stock and commodity markets. Yes, the capital markets are said to anticipate changes in real economy, but this time market valuations discounted a rapid recovery owing to a flow of newly printed money. Just look at it from the perspective of a bank. A central bank gives you an unlimited credit facility, you begin to buy fundamentally undervalued stocks. If you don’t have power to drive the market up, you just pull back. Such a scenario is unlikely, so the prices do go up and because you are obliged to comply with mark-to-market accounting rules, your profits also rise. You report profits to shareholders and get a generous bonus from them. This is how it works… And there’s no need to grapple with bad debts, positions can be closed as quickly as they were opened and after all at the end of the day stocks will be distributed to some nitwits who will believe the prices will be rising forever and eventually will be end up duped. Stocks seem riskier assets than loans, but for the reasons I delineated above I think this is where the money from QE2 will go.

I forgot to mention the mechanics of the programme. Fed will not be buying up securities from individual holders but from financial intermediaries, i.e. banks, with a view to provide them with extra liquidity that should buoy up the economy through bank credit channel. However, the Fed is not in the authority to tell banks to turn the new money into corporate loans. Bank are free to do with that money whatever they won’t and this money in the long term will cause lots of bubbles on asset markets (excluding real estate market) to arise. The beneficiaries of the programme will be mostly financial institutions and other speculators who might strike it rich on increasing market prices. The programme might result even in hampering recovery, mostly if prices of commodities (crude oil, copper, even food) shoot up. Finally, it will cause US dollar to depreciate against other currencies and make US exports more competitive. And in the long run the rising money supply will result in higher inflation. I surmise Fed in liaison with US government were absolutely aware of long-term implications of this decision, mostly because it will allow US government to pay off its whopping debts, at the expense of its creditors, at the expense of the rest of the world actually.

Markets have witnessed a substantial rally from the beginning of August as speculators have anticipated the move of Fed, they could only bet how big the scale of the programme would be. Fed met their expectations, but hopes for a continued rally in the coming months might be dashed. Markets have priced the programme before, another price surge will ensue soon as the new money has to be allocated somewhere, but a significant correction should not come as a surprise. How long can stock prices rise if the economy is on its knees and even near-zero interest rates and printing money fail to bolster it up?

The experts tear Mr Bernanke’s move into pieces. One of the most eminent investors, Jim Rogers said the governor of US central bank “doesn’t understand economics (…) all he understands is printing money”. I would like to remind you mustn’t turn on your printers and print as much money as you want because you or your friends are hard up for cash. It is a crime! But Mr Bernanke can do it and he is not dubbed a criminal.

For the past few days I’ve been mulling over a concept of economic crime. Is there anything like this? In Poland we have police departments that deal with przestępczość gospodarcza those are economic crimes, but I’d prefer “business crimes” term. In Polish public discourse there is an insult szkodnik gospodarczy (economic pest), used by Andrzej Lepper and his fellows to describe Leszek Balcerowicz and his fellows, or conversely, by liberal intellectuals to name statist populists. But I don’t recall hearing about zbrodnia ekonomiczna.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski chose the lesser of two evils and declared martial law, many Poles have forgiven him. Current prime minister failed to carry out painful, but necessary reforms, but if he had had more courage, many Poles with hindsight would forgive him. Will the world forgive Mr Greenspan and Mr Bernanke their thoughtless decisions?

I believe one day we’ll bear the brunt of what is getting under way now. The next financial meltdown will be much more severe because indebted government will not be able to step in and bail out financial institutions on the verge of bankruptcy. I don’t claim to have come up with this scenario. Many far wiser people have spoken about such scenarios much earlier, it is estimated to come to a pass in 2014 or 2015. Before it happens we will witness era of super bubbles, so take advantage of it before the whole machinery goes under :)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Forecasters got it wrong, again

If my memory serves me right it was around the middle of September when first warnings of extraordinarily harsh winter appeared in the media. According to some long-term forecasts (based of mathematical models) published round about two months ago, the coming winter would be extremely frosty and snowy in Europe.

Predictions of met offices across the world, all heralding severe cold in the coming winter were picked up by sensation-chasing media in Poland and abroad which launched out into scaremongering campaign. The fear of imminent harsh winter led to many misrepresentations, including the most widespread one, which credits Polish meteorologists with predicting the coldest winter in 1000 years on the assumption that the Gulf Stream has weakened… This shows how gossips are put about. One Polish meteorologist said the Gulf Stream held up well and did not seem to abate at all and somebody mistranslated it and sent out into the uncritical rest of the world.

Articles heralding the harsh winter give two reasons why such scenario is conceivable. Firstly, the alleged demise of the Gulf Stream, caused by the oil spill in Mexico Gulf. Not confirmed officially piece of information, disseminated by conspiracy theorists. The other cause is far more plausible, as we already experienced it last winter when most of the Europe was in the fetters of winter and during this summer’s heat wave. Those are disruptions in air circulation that may prevent the masses of warm air from getting into Europe and may draw in arctic and continental air from north and east.

I don’t remember much from the forecasts for the last summer, but according to meteorologists this September would have been cold (partly right) and rainy (right), October would have been chilly (right) and wet (wrong). The last decade of October was said to bring first snowfalls. And here forecasters parted with their luck. The last days of October brought beautiful sunshine and warmth blown in from over Sahara. Hot spell continued on the first day of November, when temperature in the afternoon hit +17C. The consecutive days were balmy – in the evenings on last weekdays temperature still hovered above +10C, yesterday day-time high hit +15C and even despite gusty wind one could feel pleasant warmth (no wind chill!). Today the weather was rather inclement, next days will probably bring gloomy and grey Polish autumn, but no winter on the horizon. But according to long-term forecasts, November would bring typical winter with snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures (at the present wide of mark). Well, those forecasts are fallible. Now let’s look at what Polish long-term predictions say about the weather in the coming months…

December – winter in overdrive, sub-zero temperatures will cause snow to linger, to boot Poland will be plagued by gales.

January – some thaws and hot spells will give us some occasional breaks between attacks of winters

February – dry and frosty, I surmise this means inflow of chilly continental air

And spring will come later than usual, will be cold and dry.

Funnily enough, German long-term forecasts predict early winter followed by… early and warm spring. I believe my western neighbours :)

According to predictions I’ve read this winter will resemble the last, 2009/2010, one, which went down in history as snowy and cool. Do two harsh winters in a row happen that often? Data for Poland do not bear out absolutely any correlation. How about past winters?

2009/2010 was remembered as cold (actually temperatures in December and Febauary were normal, January was very frosty) and snowy (not because of high precipitations, but because the snow didn’t melt).
2008/2009 was normal in terms of temperature of snowfalls.
2007/2008 was warmer than average with almost no snowfalls at all
2006/2007 was one of the warmest in the history and lasted from the third decade of January until the end of February
2005/2006 was cooler than the last winter and kept Poland in its grip until late March
2004/2005 saw a brief cold snap in late November and then proper winter hit around 20 January and refused to let up until mid-March.

First snowfalls in Warsaw were respectively on: 14 November 2007, 22 November 2008 and 14 October 2009. Winter has failed to turn up as early as in the previous year, but it seems unlikely that we’ll see Warsaw brought to a standstill by a layer of white flakes earlier than in 2007 and 2008. Time will tell. I want white Christmas and then winter may go away.

How about short-term predictions. If there are any prophets (of doom) among the readers, please mark your presence somehow. I have two questions.

1. On 9 November stocks of Warsaw Stock Exchange will be floated on… Warsaw Stock Exchange. They were offered for 43 PLN per share and after reading “The Intelligent Investor” and having done a brief research, I deemed them to be overvalued and settled on not subscribing for them. Then it turned out the demand from institutional investors had surpassed 25 times supply. What will the open price on Tuesday be? Will it fetch profits to subscribers?

Update, 10 November. Open price was 50.75 PLN (I do not regret not subscribing for GPW stocks. I still think they are much overvalued, but I'm glad the Polish treasury made a good deal on taxpayers' behalf, in the meantime I struck another, more profitable deal with use of money I would have had to freeze), close price was 54.00 PLN (ever-time high till now).

2. Bulgarian clairvoyant Baba Vanga is said to have predicted the outbreak of Third World War for 10 November 2010. Finally a prophecy that can fulfil quickly, I don’t have to wait until December 2012 :)

Update, 10 November. Not a WW3 in sight. But conspiracy theorist claim the puzzling California missile case might indicate the prophecy is fulfilling.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Intelligent Investor

The book my colleagues bought me a month ago is one of those which trigger the perennial question “who am I”? It may seem at least weird that a book about managing your personal finances can make you ponder upon a part of your identity, but this particular one definitely does it.

So who am I as a market participant? On the market there are two major groups of participants: investors and speculators. Usually market commentators call everyone who trades in securities an investor, which is a palpable insult to all true investors. Those two terms must not be used interchangeably, as their meanings are worlds apart. In short, an investor is someone who seeks out profitable companies, analyses their financial statements, the way they are run, industries in which they operate, estimates their fundamental values and puts his money into companies he picks out for a long period of time. Hence, an investor feels and acts like a co-owner of a company. A speculator in turn seeks quick profit, doesn’t care much about fundamentals of companies he buys and sells, falls back on various sets of rules that, as he believes, will enable him to reap profits. His only goal is to earn as much as possible in a possibly short period of time. Money never sleeps…

So who am I? Both. Impossible? I bought some stocks a few months ago and still hold them, but I also trade in stocks on a daily basis. I have to plead for some time now I have been faring better as an investor than as a speculator. Whenever buying companies for a long time I sought out those markedly undervalued and settled on middle-term investments in them. The strategy proved right and bore robust fruits. Most of my profits actually come from proper investments. How about speculation then? Here I have to confess I made an error almost everyone makes just before starting to run through money on a stock exchange. My over-confidence led me astray. I thought nothing bad would happen to me and eventually I sank around 1,000 PLN in risky, volatile stocks. It was still wiser than lending it to the ex-classmate, but has taught me a lesson of humility, a very precious one.

Speculation means risk – the odds to reap a quick profit are lower than to cover a position with a loss. Why is it more probable to incur a loss even if we assume stock prices follow a random walk? The answer lies in transaction costs. At my brokerage firm fee for a transaction is 0.39% of its amount. Hence, to let me break even, a price of a security has to go up by over 0.78%, if I buy a stock for 100.00 PLN and sell it for 100.50 PLN I lose. I even dread to tot up how much I have spent this year on brokerage fees. The sum is unfolded when the tax report (necessary to fill in the tax return on which traders report their capital gains on security trading) from my brokerage firm is delivered to me.

I think my colleagues had discerned all perils and traps of speculation and gave me that book to dissuade me from trading strategies which sooner or later would do me out of money.

Has reading the book changed my investment “mindset”? It was a kind of eye-opener, but I remain critical about some theses set there.

Firstly, I began to look at myself as at a co-owner of companies I invest in (or even just trade in). Those are not just securities which I buy to sell later at a higher price. I own a minuscule part of a company so I should have a stake in it.

Secondly, it changed my perception of investment horizon. As a young person I still find it hard to imagine that I could freeze money for thirty years in stocks. Alright, it might not be the best choice to buy stocks and sell them after a few days, but my plans have never reached beyond five years…

I remain wary of long-term investments. OK, I may stay on the market (provided my portfolio is made up mostly of blue-chips) during the whole bull market, but I feel it is wiser to sell stocks when the next bear market is imminent. It is not a stupid strategy, because everyone buys then and pays over the odds for stocks. Benjamin Graham has a recipe for bear and bull markets – you should always buy stocks for the same amount of money every month. If market prices are high, you buy fewer stocks, if they are low, you buy more and in the long run you will rake in profits. Surely an ideal recipe would be to buy in the dead of bear market, but who can grasp the moment when it cannot be worse?

I see two major drawbacks of the book. It was first released in 1949, then had several updates with the last one dated 1970. The Polish edition (unfortunately they would have to spend more and take some extra effort to get the paperback in English) includes commentaries made in 2003, after the burst of dot-com bubble which triggered the worst (until then) bear market in post-war history of NYSE. But… it has not been updated in the ongoing financial crisis in which the bear market wiped out profits from the whole previous bull market. From mid-2007 to March 2009 the peak-to-trough decline of S&P 500 was 57%. On Warsaw Stock Exchange indices fell by 67%. Was there any investor not put to a very tough test? The bear market of 2007 – 2009 was unprecedented in its scale, some economists predict an even more severe meltdown around 2015. In the light of the recent events, the book seems a bit outdated, even despite the fact its author rode out the Great Depression and came burnt and bruised, but stronger out of it.

The second downside is that it is relevant to developed American capital market. Warsaw Stock Exchange is not yet twenty years old, Poland remains and will remain for some time an emerging market, it is not possible to find companies listed on WSE that meet all investment criteria set out by Mr Graham. Polish stock market is totally different from the American one, so it ought to be handled in a different way, although many principles outlined in the book will always apply.

The book condemns speculation, but doesn’t get with the times. Today speculation is far is easier. When everyone has access to online brokerage accounts and transaction fees are much lower (in Graham’s times they stood at 4%, today they are below 0.5%), cost-effectiveness of such actions is higher, but it is hard to determine whether the risk has also gone down.

Finally, the author advises the readers to keep away from short-selling. This makes another difference between investors and speculators. Only the latter indulge in and profit from “betting against the stocks”, but I do not denounce it. Short selling after all only improves market efficiency because it allows market participants to bring the market value of a security down towards its fundamental value. Of course going short entails a far greater risk than taking only long positions, but hang on. The risk is what stock market is also about!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Who couldn’t care less...

Apologies for not posting last weekend. The profound reason for that negligence was coming down with some undiagnosed illness. It came to me as a surprise. The last time I had been ill in March 2001 and from then on I managed to forget how to feels to have fever or sore throat. Luckily, I’ve almost recuperated (still suffering from some irksome irritation in the throat), so it’s time to catch up…

Prior to coming down with no one knows what, I finally saw the (in)famous public debt meter installed in the very hub of Warsaw. I took the photo to the right on 13 October, so the outstanding debt of the Polish state has risen within ten days by probably some few hundred million PLN. “It’s not the matter how much you owe, the point is how much you earn”, some economist argue. Indeed if you earn one million PLN a year and have to repay a loan of 100,000 PLN you are better off than an unemployed couple with five children who can’t make ends meet and have 1,000 PLN to repay. When it comes to a state an indicator of relative indebtness is debt-to-GDP ratio. In Poland it runs at around 54%. Is it a lot? Japan’s debt has almost reached 200% of its GDP, the country’s economy is stagnating, but nothing heralds an imminent collapse of Japanese public finances. Greek debt-to-GDP ration exceeds 110% and in May 2010 Greece faced serious problems rolling over it. At the same time the same ratio in Italy was five percentage points higher, but financial markets perceived default of Greece as much more probable than Italy’s. In United States public debt accounts for around 80% of its gross domestic product and US bonds are still rated AAA. German public debt has reached record-high levels, but yields on German bonds are the lowest in the history (what makes borrowing very cheap for German taxpayers). Is there any logic in it?

So is 54% a lot? Much depends not only on how much revenues the state collects, but also on how much it spends structure the spending. In Poland rigid government expenses determine the growth of public debt.

Is 54% a reason to worry? Thousands of people pass the display with the meter by every day and they don’t care. Who’s going to pay it off? They? Their children? The state? If the state then who? Who is the state? The prime minister Tusk? The finance minister Rostowski? Do they realise majority of them are Polish state’s creditors? Most of them obligatorily put aside money in pension funds, which are obliged to hold at least 60% of their portfolio in Polish gilts. Some of them put their savings into bond funds (which hold mostly government bonds), some buy government bonds directly. Have they ever thought Polish state could one day go default? Do they realise interest they earn is nothing else but taxes paid by their relatives, friends, neighbours and by… themselves?

Does the government care about the meter? They say in comparison to other, wealthier states, our relative indebtness is negligible and there is no reason to worry. If the European Commission gives consent for not counting government bonds bought by pension funds into public debt, our debt-to-GDP ratio will plunge by around ten percentage points. I dread to see the complacency of minister Rostowski’s face when this creative-accounting decision is passed.

Does the opposition care about the meter? No, they have other stuff to gripe about. Besides, the thoughtless economic policy PiS-led government pursued when they were in power only exacerbated out debt problem. When the economy was thriving, instead of amassing a budget surplus, not only did they fail to reduce the public debt, but they cut revenues and raised spending. Thanks to that pro-cyclical move we are where we are and we wasted the chance to carry through some unpopular reforms when their negative effects could have been mitigated. Minister Rostowski was right to say someone from PiS should apologise to Poles for what their misconduct.

And ordinary people don’t care even if they see the “debt per capita”. Every Pole, including infants, disabled, pupils, senile old men owes 19,267 PLN. Whom do they owe? Partly themselves (individual bondholders), partly banks and investment funds from Poland and abroad. What if there was an initiative to crack down on the problem, chip in and pay it all off? I would join it. I would fork out 19,267 PLN of my savings if it could only help solve the problem. But let’s face it, the idea is completely unfeasible. Many Poles don’t even have so much money put aside, the stats include millions of people who don’t earn any money because they can’t. Most people wouldn’t agree to chip in and pay off our debts. Debts can’t be paid right away because bond holders wouldn’t agree to be paid off before bonds mature. Money would have to be collected and invested somehow, the whole process of paying off would last decades. And finally this one-off move wouldn’t solve structural problems, the debt spiral would just start over, after a few years with no incentives to cut spending the problem would relapse.

I wonder how financial markets would react to the decision of Polish government not to refinance its debt. In practice it wouldn’t be a decision not to issue new bonds, but the bonds would be issued on terms set by the government. It would be them who would beg us for issuing bonds, not us begging them to finance our debt. Interesting!

This burning issue could be addressed by some academics from my school, but I don’t believe it will ever happen. Students are believed to be have in innate tendency to bunk off, but from what I’ve noticed that affliction is rubbing off on lecturers. The fact that students are lazy is commonly known, but the fact scholars are lazy and don’t even bother to pretend they aren’t becomes embarrassing. I observe how laziness and ignorance are becoming a virtue. This is how the Polish higher education system is going downhill. Students want to put as little effort as possible and lecturers simply play along with them, because they find it convenient. Soon no classes will be held, students won’t have to attend them, lecturers will be paid anyway, in the exam period easy exams on which everyone cheats will be held. Happy students will get their diplomas, a bunch of wankers will get paid and thus will also be happy, nobody will get tired and that’s the point!

Within last two weeks I found out that:
1. If a lecture starts ten minutes later, it is a sufficient reason to finish it ten minutes earlier and have a fifteen minutes long break. Ninety minutes shrink to sixty five. And everyone is happy.
2. The blue chip index of Paris Stock Exchange is CACK 40. And Mr Lecturer thought it very clever of him to hit students with such an English-language joke.
3. And last but not least during the workshop I found out I even can’t lie so I don’t deserve to be called a student. („pan oszukiwać nie umie, co z pana za student?”)

I’ve felt like a sucker many times in life, given that I’m generally straightforward this feeling will be haunting me, but this time it wasn’t just an insult to me (I couldn’t be even assertive enough to respond to it without striking back), but it bore testimony to what set of values is instilled in students. Appalling. And, to make it worse, no one will stand up to it!

Alright, the school is bringing me down, but I’ve got just three months left there. And what after I graduate? I should look out for a job…

It’s not an easy task, some people have more luck than others. For instance, this year’s graduate, daughter of current finance minister, aged 23, was fixed up with a cushy job in Polish Foreign Ministry. According to the Ministry’s spokesman, previous translators did their job poorly and minister Sikorski was dissatisfied with them (here I do believe it, after seeing korpus dyplomatyczny translated as “diplomatic corpse” and dziękujemy za gościnność as “we thank for your hostility” I know anything’s possible) and decided to fire them and take on his fellow minister’s daughter. Since then, all minister’s speeches and official writings have been edited by Ms Rostowska who ensures they are all written in impeccable English.

Ms Rostowska is not well-known public figure, so journalist paid by hostile media had to go an extra mile to find any photo of her. The only one they procured was her profile picture from facebook (right) which proves her impeccable credentials, high qualifications and fondness for modern art. This photo disappeared from all main news sites after Ms Rostowska filed several request to remove it and now it can be found on some niche sites only. For no apparent reason the news item also has been removed from most main sites, but what has once been put into Internet will remain there forever and info about Ms Rostowska career circulates around the Net.

I screwed it all up and can’t boast about no prior experience as Mr Rostowska (if she hadn’t worked during her studies, what they hell do they do in England?), but if it happens that I have to look for a job next year, I’ll have to set a new photo as a profile picture on facebook. In the foreground: me, wielding a bottle of plonk, in the background, a board saying “I feel like shagging a young piece of arse” (mam ochotę przelecieć jakąś młodą dupę). Will it boost my chances on labour market? If a recruiter from the company I worked for this summer had found my blog (I try to keep it rather anonymous, but I didn’t do so at the beginning), would it make a problem to find my profile on facebook?

Yes, I admit, I am nasty and malicious, but that’s the way of coping with absurdities.

Next week I’ll post a book review – will be nicer!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Far in the background

I promised not to write about politics, didn’t I? But surely that pledge concerned only current issues, including the most topical – tomorrow’s pilgrimage to Smolensk. Besides, another blogger did his bit in Polish (and happened to insult tens of mourners), but his view doesn’t overlap mine at all. Yesterday “Wyborcza” revealed some journalists’ phone billings had been collected by secret services when PiS had been in power. The article and comments (those about wiretapping, which had not been mentioned) referring to it reminded me of two years when Poland was ruled by PiS, but lives went on, days passed by, all of us had our ups and downs. I can’t deny 2006 was remembered by Poles as a good one, the only question is who should take credit for it.

In the autumn of 2005 I couldn’t vote in any of three elections held in September and October, as a result of which Prawo i Sprawiedliwość caught hold of power in Poland and Lech Kaczyński was elected president. At that time I was more worried about how I would perform on matura and decided to put in for an admission to SGH. Politics was a hot topic in our talks during the last year of my high-school education, but we didn’t deplore about the aftermath of low turnout in the past elections, but gibed at midget-president, moherowe berety, and remotely-controlled prime minister.

On 7 January 2006 I had a studniówka. Around the last dance of one of deputies of Samoobrona was detained just two hundred metres from our ballroom on charges of drink-driving. Politics passed by.

In late January 2006 I began cramming up for matura, soon three wise men saved the country from instability, signing the pact was filmed by the only righteous TV station.

On 5 May 2006 I took my matura in English. I returned home in the late afternoon to find out about a new ruling coalition set up with a guy who hadn’t pass any matura exam and with a national-catholic chap who had been appointed minister of education. Imagine how happy I was to have finished school just a week before Mr Giertych took charge of ministry of education.

On 14 July 2006 I got in to SGH. Jarosław Kaczyński was sworn in as a prime minister on the same day. The former was more meaningful – after all I’m still a student of SGH and Kaczyński had to step down as a prime minister after over a year.

26 September 2006 was the second day of my studies and the day the tape scandal came to the light. Four days earlier the guy without a high-school degree had been ousted from the government just to be reappointed a deputy prime minister three weeks later.

On 11 January 2007 I was bracing myself for the first exam period, on the same day a graduate of one American business school took over as a governor of Polish central bank.

In July 2007 my cousin tied the knot. Around that time another scandal broke out and triggered an avalanche that led to an ultimate collapse of so-called Czwarta RP.

In August 2007 I got my first (and lousy) job. In the same month the ruling coalition eventually fell apart, soon the parliament disbanded itself and ahead-of-schedule election was called.

The election was held on 21 October 2007. The weather was the same as today – after a morning frost the glorious sunshine heated the air up. It seemed beautiful weather gave off the heartfelt joy of Poles who couldn’t miss the opportunity to put the rule of PiS to the end. And then Donald took over as prime minister and hopes for big reforms were dashed, but the life, with all its ups and downs went on…

Why have I drawn this peculiar timeline of Czwarta RP? It occurred to me why so many people don’t take trouble to go the polls. Their lives, choices, daily routines, earnings, don’t depend on what’s going on in big politics. Personal happiness doesn’t hang on the ruling coalition, health has no connection with who the president or prime minister is, generally the links between ordinary life and the world of politics are rather invisible. Why should we care then? Our interest should be focused on what really affects our private lives and politicians hardly ever have any influence on it. Years when PiS was in power could be extraordinarily good for me, years when Platforma has been ruling could be extraordinarily bad for me, yet it’s not a reason to associate personal ups and down with politics. But when it comes to economy some less-educated Poles discern when PiS was in power the economy was booming, after PO took over, the pace of GDP growth slowed down, unemployment rate picked up and stock prices declined. If so, does it mean economic policies pursued by PiS were better than those run by PO? How many people think so?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Internship’s over, back as a student

Actually there was no other solution. I knew there was no vacancy at my Department, so it didn’t matter they wanted to take me on, but they couldn’t. I knew I had to go back to school to take all remaining courses, pass all due exams, write my MA thesis and finish off my studies. I fully realised combining studying and working would be a task I might not be up to. I knew the day of parting with my colleagues would be dejecting, even the weather let me down – gloom and chill have been overwhelming for the past few days and just exacerbated my mood. Right – Thursday, on my way to work, Heaven only knows if for the last time. Will I return there? If so, when?

I bought some sweets for my colleagues (right) to brighten up the gloomy day. I spent it toing and froing between my office and main Warsaw head office located around a mile away from Złote Tarasy (try going there by car, the odometer shows you’ve covered eight kilometres and the journey lasts longer than on foot), trying to obtain all confirmations for my clearance slip (obiegówka) and predictably I haven’t managed to bring it off. Therefore before I return it to the HR Department I still have an entry card to my office and I’ll surely have to visit my colleagues here and there, the time for last farewells is still ahead!

My colleagues probably appreciated my efforts and commitment because they chipped in and bought me a book (right), “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham. My supervisor even almost leant over backwards to come by a signature of the acting CEO of my bank under the dedication note. Maybe reading the book will finally convince me to shift from short-term, profit-chasing speculations towards long-term, well-thought-out investments. For sure I should give it a review on PES in a while.

On Monday I have my first classes at school. During three months of long vacation I wrote two subchapters of my MA thesis. Now, despite general, overwhelming numbness I’ll have to get round to writing in earnest, no leniency for myself. Plus yesterday I found out all one of my courses I have to get credit in has disappeared without a trace. Another stumbling block in my education process and another nuisance involving legwork and catching through the red tape. Back to school means also back to greyness, but next year when I graduate something will be over forever, the period, which lots of people call “the most beautiful in man’s life” will be over and so what then? Everything indicates I’ll dive smoothly into the corporate world. Hey, I begin to understand why some of my peers decide to take second studies only to feel younger? Do they do that to have those two diplomas and better chances on the labour market or is it a desperate attempt to extend the carefree years, put back the moment they become adult? I understand but I still steer clear of taking their path.

It has become an unquestionable fact – I have been going through a serious crisis. First symptoms were noticeable back in August, now it appears to be full-blown. Actually I don’t even try to conceal it, but everyone shrugs it off or stares at me with disbelief. Actually from the way I behave (that sense of humour, that self-confidence, etc.) no one can infer I’m afflicted with anything that resembles a crisis. Believe it or not, I’m at the crossroads – either I’ll pick up the pieces and get my act together or I’ll have to rename the blog into “PES without my neighbour’s rottweiler” or something like this. And I don’t know if anyone remembers, but in February 2009 when I became a blogger, I set a rule “nothing personal” for myself. When did I break it for the first time? Has anyone noticed the “unquestionable fact” from the first sentence of this paragraph is called into question by virtually everyone, except me? Next time instead of “you sound more like Pinolona every day”, I’ll find “you sound more like Kaczynski every day” in my comment box.

Observant followers of the Polish-English blogosphere have probably noticed we’ve been in decline for some time now. I suspended my blog in the late-spring exam period, from the beginning of July I set myself a rigid “one post per weekend” rule and I abided by it. In the academic year I’ll be keeping it up. My apologies, I’m too short of time and too busy to take care of my child more frequently. The same problem has affected other blogs – Travels without my spaniel is rarely updated, Scatts is bloody busy, but accepted a “sluggish blogger award”, Polandian has lost its charm – Jamie was moving and didn’t have access to Internet, Scatts and I were too busy to have time and energy to write. Will someone take the place of us?

Sink or swim! Time to get my act together!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Optimising the commuting

I do not remember if I made any resolutions at the beginning of the year. I somehow recall I felt it would be a good year for me and my sixth sense proved right! So this week, at the onset of autumn I made a resolution not to write about politics and I am intent on keeping away from political current affairs by the end of October. I think this will be a tough test for me, given that Mr Sane-As-Never is likely to step up his end-justifies-the-means insult campaign, paving the way to his party’s wipe-out in parliamentary elections in 2011!

In the summer commuting would have been a sheer pleasure, if it had not been for the high temperature, so frequent in the past two months. Now it is cooler, but time spent on journeys to and from work has gone up by 20% or even 50%. Right: 15 September (when I went by car for the last time), morning, queue before intersection of ul. Łabędzia and ul. Puławska. In July or August I just to had wait for the traffic light to turn green, now it queueing takes up to ten minutes. Walking and overtaking the frustrated commuters is much healthier.

The veritable hell on ul. Puławska will probably begin in mid-October, when the artery will be narrowed to only two lanes in each direction. Now, when all three lanes are occupied the traffic is almost stationary, no wonder commuters dread to think what happens when the one-kilometre-long section around the junction Puławska will become a bottleneck. I wonder how many of them will leave their cars in garages and on car parks and find an alternative way of commuting and what it would be.

Warsaw this summer was also dug up like almost never before. Ul. Emilii Plater (right), earlier paved with cobblestone has been modernised. Now drivers are able to use two lanes in each direction, bus lanes and cycling paths have been marked out, not yet opened. Construction works are still under way, new pavements for pedestrians should be laid soon, but we will have to wait a while for the DNA-shaped green belt with flowerbeds and benches designed for the space between the roads.

At the beginning of the second decade of September the most famous place in Warsaw became ul. Prosta, where the construction of second line of Warsaw underground kicked off. I took the photo to the right on 15 September around a quarter to nine in the morning. From what I have heard and seen, traffic is less dense than before ul. Prosta was closed, which sounds like a miraculous piece of news. Even streets parallel and perpendicular to ul. Prosta are less jammed than before. Everyone noticed, nobody can explain it. By the way, I stared at the green fence and wondered what it resembled. I did a double-take at the photo at home and I think I know – it brought to my mind the Berlin Wall. Am I the only one? The second photo to the right was taken after 11:00 as I walked to my office in Złote Tarasy. Ul. Prosta on its section east to Rondo Daszyńskiego was almost empty and looks like in off-peak hours this until today.

When using a car is ruled out and riding a bike is totally impractical there are two ways of getting into town left. One is a ZTM bus – they do not run as often as before the summer holidays, but still I do not have to wait for more than five minutes on a bus stop in Mysiadło for any ZTM bus to pull up. Then the journey to Metro Wilanowska terminus which starts at around 7:00 lasts around 35 minutes. It is that short just because bus drivers use the roadside as a bus lane. This means buses move much faster than cars, but journeys are more dangerous as vehicles pass lampposts and ditches by centimetres.

Actually what more can I say when I look at the traffic jam like the one right? I see a tractor with two trailers and the only thing that occurs to me is “everything except the kitchen sink”. I am of course wrong since I have not seen any horse-drawn cart on ul. Puławska yet. I can be grateful to my employer that it offers my flexible working hours. If I were to knock on at 9:00 as everybody does, my morning journeys would be around 20 minutes longer. And I still do not know which of available means of transport I should use from February 2011 when I return to work. Much will depend on the location of my office, but I am leaning towards something that does not involve using roads.

Even on the European Day without cars ul. Puławska was jammed, it was even more packed than normally, even in spite of the fact drivers were able to use public transport for free if they only had their vehicle’s registration certificates. The event was not publicised properly and, let’s face it – most people even if they knew about it would not have given up on using their cars for one day, it is a matter of habit, they cannot imagine having to travel inside a big vehicle with tens of other people. And another question that has just come up to me – how to persuade people who have company cars (company pays for the petrol and provides a car park) not to use cars? My colleagues who almost all have company cars cannot imagine commuting to the centre from Ursynów by the underground! One sales director who lives near the underground told me openly this June he had taken the metro for the first (and last) time in his life and had been really excited about the trip!!!

If not roads, then maybe rails. Unfortunately I do not have a suburban-zone ticket so I cannot board a Warsaw-bound train in Nowa Iwiczna without risking being caught by a ticket inspector. The only solution I have worked out is then to walk to Mysiadło, take any bus, ride two stops, get off and catch another bus that will take me to PKP Jeziorki and wait there for fifteen minutes for the train which according to the timetable arrives at 07:27. The journey from PKP Jeziorki to Śródmieście takes 35 minutes, so shorter than getting into the station, what actually makes the whole idea a tad absurd.

I treat it as a temporary solution because rare rail services to Warsaw are not an alternative for commuting into school where I start and finish classes at different hours and do not have flexible working hours. The thing which took my fancy on sunny mornings (if such arrangement of air pressure systems was in the winter, we would probably have –20C) spent partly on the platform of W-wa Jeziorki was the beautiful sight of all tracks coinciding in one point on the horizon, hidden in an early-autumn mist.

Commuting by train has one more advantage – given PKP Jeziorki station lies just next to the coal line, one can spot a coal train while waiting for a suburban train to town. Once I thought I would be given the pleasure of seeing and snapping one, however, the horn turned out to have been blown by a Radomiak - fast train running every morning from Radom to Warszawa, stopping only at some of the stations on its route.

Speaking about passing trains – I was tipped off that a train from Prague to Moscow runs through Nowa Iwiczna every morning around 9:20, so yesterday around 9:00 I cycled towards the level crossing in NI to snap a train. I was actually lucky to leave home earlier as the train also came earlier. I did not expect it to arrive so quickly so I stayed at the wrong, west side of the tracks which meant I could take photos against the sun only. I should have stuck around on the new P&R facility built next to the station from where I could snap the train lit by morning, late-September sun.

A pity this weekend were probably the last days of clement weather. I made the most of it by tidying up the garden on Friday, making a barbecue yesterday and washing the car today. Errr, is it a political topic that Polish parliament passed an amendment to the labour law on Friday, which declares the Epiphany (6 January) a bank holiday and takes away a paid day off which employers have to give employees to compensate for a bank holiday falling on Saturday? I should hold back from refraining on harping on about religion-related aspects of the resolution, although hitherto most people worked normally and if they wished, attended an evening mass. Now we will have a day off in the dead of winter, most people will not give a damn about going to the church or celebrating. From the comments I have read in the Internet I infer most people think the same as I do – we should have an additional bank holiday in spring (not on 10 April, I beg you) or summer when people can take a trip to the countryside, forest, cycle, have a barbecue, spend the day on their allotments. Most people have a rest on bank holidays, not celebrate them.

Meanwhile Polish president has a hard nut to crack – around a dozen Poles died tragically in a bus accident on the bypass of Berlin, Germany. Is it a reason to call national mourning as the late president would surely do?