Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Technology

Monday May 22 2017

Time was when I think I did more bridge postings here than I seem to do now.  Maybe it’s just that I have seen, and said things about, most of the world’s bridges that interest me.  But I have the feeling that rather fewer new bridges are being built these days, and that those that are being built tend to be rather smaller.  Footbridges, in other words.  There’s nothing at all wrong with a pretty footbridge, but there is something super-splendid about bridges like the mighty Millau Viaduct.

Or the mighty Forth Bridge.  Which has been photoed a million times.  What more is there to say about this wondrous structure?  What more is there to see of it?

Well, feast your eyes on this photo:

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This was first posted here, and was there noticed by Mick Hartley, to whom thanks.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a more perfect example of the modified cliché photo.  Photoes of the whole of the Forth Bridge are everywhere.  But I have never before seen a photo of only the top bits of the Forth Bridge, with cliché Scottish countryside blocking out the bottom bits.  Brilliant.  It even includes a cliché tourist steam train at the bottom.

I wonder, was this photo taken with a drone?  If so, we can expect to see many more such familiar-thing-photoed-in-an-unfamiliar-way photos.

A big reason I have loved all the twiddly screens on all my cameras is that they have enabled me easily to take pictures from both above and below my usual height.  A drone is like the ultimate version of that, because with a drone you can hold your camera hundreds, even thousands, of feet up.

Which I can only do when I’m in an airplane.  (See Millau Viaduct link above.)

Tuesday May 16 2017

This looks like an everyday urban scene, towards the end of a rather gloomy and cloudy day, with nothing much of any great interest to see:

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But observe that cluster of chimneys, to the right of and a bit higher than the bus stop sign.

I’m talking about this:

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I’ve lived a walk away from this delightful urban sculpture for about a third of a century, but I never noticed it, until today.

I’ll bet you anything there was a time when most people thought that the plague of chimney potted brick buildings that was marching relentlessly across London was the quintessence of ugliness, the way people think traffic jams are ugly now.  But now that such chimneys are no longer being built, but are instead merely being destroyed from time to time, we can relax and enjoy them.  And in a fifty years time, when the traffic jams start to retreat, people will realise that they look rather cute also.

Saturday May 13 2017

I can’t remember how I came across the blog Sleepless in Barcelona.  But I did, and was intrigued that, like London, it seems that Barcelona likes to advertise itself with an assemblage of its most recognisable buildings:

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I visited Barcelona in 2005 (I got the date from this posting), and I remember thinking then that, like London, Barcelona was an obvious candidate for this sort of graphic promotion.  Like London, it used to have an upper limit to the height of its buildings - caused by religiously motivated legal restrictions, perhaps?  But now, whatever those height limitations were, they had been overcome or set aside, and the occasional bigger building was sprouting up, in the new “recognisable”, “iconic” style.  Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia used to dominate the city in splendid isolation, the way St Paul’s Cathedral used to dominate the City of London, but for a while now, other, secular Big Things have being permitted.

More Barcelona graphic assemblages here, and in lots of other www spots too, if google images ("Barcelona skyline") is anything to go by.

Here is another such piece of graphic promotion, this time more colourful:

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Just as with London, and with quite a lot of other cities, two of the key breakthrough modern Big Things were telecoms towers.  Montjuïc Communications Tower and the Torre de Collserola.  Both are to be seen on the left side of the above graphic.  I remember noticing both of those very dramatic buildings when I was there, but I also vaguely remember failing to photo them at all successfully.  My camera didn’t have anything like the zoom that my current one does.

Maybe I should pay Barcelona another visit.

Telecoms towers have a typically rather unacknowledged place in the history of modern architecture.  Dating as many of them do from the concrete monstrosity era, they proved, with their popularity and their popularity in particular with picture postcard sellers, that the public vastly preferred amusingly shaped buildings to the usual concrete monstrosities of the boringly rectangular sort.  This caused the Big Thing style to erupt quite a bit earlier than it might otherwise have done.

Thursday May 11 2017

GodDaughter 2 and I meet up every so often, so I can be brought up to speed on her progress as a classical singer.  The last two times we’ve met, we’ve visited posh shops.  She likes viewing their contents.  I just like photoing whatever amusing things happen to present themselves to me, including, sometimes, the contents of the posh shops.

Here are some of the photos I took on the most recent wander around that we did (just after I took the photo in the previous posting).  These photos all having been taken in the Burlington Arcade:

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1dot1 is the view everyone thinks of, if they think of anything at all, when they think of the Burlington Arcade.  1.2 is the rather elaborate floor, which I rather like.  Then things liven up a bit.  2.1 is someone who managed to look ultra-posh, even when seated in a wheelchair.  2.2 … well, you can see why I would like a posh box for putting posh things into, with decoration on its lid like that.

But then, my eye wandered a little, and I noticed that although we were in the Burlington Arcade, there was still – wonder of wonders - roof clutter to be seen, through the windows above us.  I hoovered up roof clutter views, and here are a few of those:

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The more I wander around London, the more I notice this contrast between the stage, the places where London is trying to look its best and is all primped and permed and made-up, and the behind-the-scenes areas.

Here was a circumstance where, behind a very posh piece of retail scenery, there was still backstage clutter to be seen, just by looking upwards, through the ceiling.

Monday May 08 2017

For the last few days I haven’t been out much, and today I was confined to my barracks by email malfunction, and then by being required me to wait next to my computer, waiting to be told what was what by The Guru, after I had failed to make sense of it.  If you can’t send or receive email, modern life doesn’t work and all else is insignificant.

So, once again, my posting is about remembering sunnier times, this time those sunnier times being this time last year.  In France.

And nothing says France quite like an entire shop, in an impossibly picturesque seaside town, devoted in its entirety, to tinned fish:

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Here, for the benefit of those who can read French, is a closer-up view of the sign:

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Sardines, the queens of … well according to the internet, “conserverie” means: canning factory.

I bought fish paste:

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The fish paste is long gone, but I have kept the cans as souvenirs.

Things like this are utterly ordinary, if, for you, they are ordinary, which they would be if you lived in France.  But I live in London SW1, where I cannot buy such things, and I find them beautifully exotic.  If I could buy these exact sorts of French tins in Sainsbury’s or Tesco, they wouldn’t be worth a second look or a first mention here.  But, I can’t.

Saturday May 06 2017

I like to photo London taxis, of the sort that have big elaborate multicoloured adverts all over them.  Not so black cabs, you might say.

I encountered this unblack cab in the Cromwell Road earlier this evening, just as it was getting dark.  I like how its colours shone out, in contrast to all the greyness and gloom by which it was surrounded, as if photoshopped:

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But there was something else I especially liked about this taxi and its all-over advert.  Here is a detail from the above photo:

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What I like is how that little orange light in the side of the taxi has been incorporated into the design of the advert, by becoming the point at which about eleven cake slices of colour meet.

I’ve not seen anything like this before.  That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been out there.  It just means that if it has, I haven’t noticed.

Wednesday May 03 2017

I have begun reading Lincoln Paine’s very big book of maritime history, and it is heavy going, by which I mean that it is heavy.  My eyesight is deteriorating, and I now have to hold books with quite small print, such as this one is, close to my face, and holding this very big book is rather exhausting.

The first chapter concerned Pacific canoeists, whose navigational achievements were stupendous, and pre-USA Americans.  It was no fault of Paine’s, but I wasn’t that gripped, because I had no questions about such things hat I wanted answered.  But then Paine moved to ancient Egypt, and things started livening up (pages 37-38):

In the spring of 1954, employees of the Egyptian Antiquities Service were removing debris from around the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The effort was a routine bit of housekeeping and there was little expectation of uncovering anything of significance in a place that had been worked over by tomb robbers, treasure seekers, and archaeologists for forty-five hundred years. As they cleared the rubble, workers came across the remains of the southern boundary wall. This was hardly extraordinary; boundary walls had been identified on the north and west sides of the pyramid as well. What was unusual was that this one was closer to the pyramid than the others. Because the archaeological record had long since revealed the Egyptians’ fastidious attention to precise measurements and symmetries, archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh suspected that the wall covered a pit holding a boat connected with the funeral rites of the pharaoh Khufu - or Cheops, as he was known to ancient Greek writers living about midway between his time and ours. Archaeologists had found such pits around various pyramid complexes, including that of Khufu, although all were empty at the time of their modern discovery. Further excavation revealed a row of forty-one limestone blocks with mortared seams. El-Mallakh chiseled a test hole in one of the stones and peered into the impenetrable darkness of a rectangular pit hewn from the bedrock. As he could not see, he closed his eyes.  “And then with my eyes closed, I smelt incense, a very holy, holy, holy smell. I smelt time ... I smelt centuries .... I smelt history. And then I was sure that the boat was there.” Such was the discovery of the royal ship of Khufu.

The forty-four-meter-long disassembled vessel had been superbly preserved in its airtight tomb for approximately four and a half thousand years. According to one investigator, the boat’s timbers “looked as hard and as new as if they had been placed there but a year ago.” The boat was almost certainly built for Khufu, the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. The Great Pyramid was his tomb, and the cartouche of his son, Khafre, was found on several of the blocks sealing the pit. More than twelve hundred pieces of wood were recovered, ranging in size from pegs a few centimeters long to timbers of more than twenty meters. About 95 percent of the material was cedar, imported by sea from Lebanon; the remainder included domestic acacia, sidder, and sycamore. After the pieces had been documented and conserved, the complex work of reconstruction began. The pieces had been arranged logically in the pit: prow at the west end, stern to the east, starboard timbers on the north side, port timbers on the south, hull pieces at the bottom and sides of the pit, and superstructure elements on top of the pile. Carpenters’ marks in the form of symbols in the ancient hieratic Egyptian script gave additional clues about how the pieces fit together. Even so, it took thirteen years before the reconstruction was complete; and it was not until 1982, almost three decades after its discovery, that the Khufu ship was opened to the public in a specially built museum alongside the pyramid.

By any measure, the Khufu ship was an astonishing discovery. The largest and best-preserved ship from antiquity or any other period for the next four thousand years, it reveals the technological sophistication of the ancient Egyptians on a far more intimate and accessible scale than do the pyramids or the more arcane arts of embalming and mummification. Like these practices, the burial of the Khufu ship was clearly linked to death rituals in some way, and there is no clearer indication of the central place of boats and ships in Egypt of the third millennium BCE than their honored place in the sacraments of the afterlife. Together with the other twenty-one Egyptian vessels thus far discovered by archaeologists, to say nothing of the hundreds of models, tomb paintings, and written descriptions of ships and boats, as well as records of river and sea transport, the Khufu ship forcefully highlights the importance of watercraft to a civilization that flourished along a fertile ribbon drawn through an African desert.

Monday May 01 2017

I have become very fond of the cranes that sprout out of London’s Big Things to clean all the windows.  Architecture itself will never be purely “functional”, because it is anyone’s guess what precise function this or that building is there to perform, this being especially true of the biggest Big Things.  Are they machines for … whatever they do?  Or are they there to impress?  Both, of course.  So, what exact shape should the Big Thing be?  The architect can’t discover this.  He has to decide it.  Form does not rigidly and inexorably follow function.  Form follows function as determined by the dictates of the architect, and is as conventional and cliché ridden, as daring or as counter-intuitive, as the architect chooses to be.

But, out of these monuments to whim, these arbitrary sculptures, these three-dimensional illogicalities, there sprout these cranes, cranes which are impeccably functional.  They are what they are because what they are is what does the job best.  They possess an aesthetic purity that the buildings they are installed in quite lack.

So it is that, when trawling through my photo-archives, seeking quota photos, I look at photos like this one with new eyes, seeing things I hardly noticed when I first photoed them:

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That’s the Walkie Talkie of course, photoed two years ago.  In front of it is the Blackfriars Station/Bridge.

The more and more eccentric are the windows, the more cranes are needed to clean them.

Saturday April 29 2017

Spent the day doing pretty much nothing, frollowing the meeting I had in my home last night, having spent the whole of last week fretting that there wouldn’t be enough people.  There were, just about, but it was close.

So, quota photo time.  This will do, taken from Low Hall Sports Ground (near to Blackhorse Road railway statnion (which is how I found my way there)), in June 2012:

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I went to this place to try to photo the Gherkin and the Shard directly in line, and as you can surely guess from the above photo, I succeeded.  But this not-quite-aligned version come out nicely too.

Saturday April 22 2017

Indeed:

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The history of this particular picture is that GodDaughter 2 and I were in Waterstones, Piccadilly, which is one of our favourite spots.  She loves all the books.  I like the books too, but I love the views that I can photo from the cafe at the top.  This is not very high up, but it is high enough up to see many interesting things, and familiar things from an unfamiliar angle, of which, perhaps or perhaps not, more later.

So, anyway, there we were in Waterstones, and we were making our way up the stairs to the top, rather than going up in the lift, because I needed the Gents and GD2 needed the Ladies.  All of which caused me to be waiting on the book floor nearest to the Ladies, and that was where I saw this book.  I had heard about it, via a TV show that Hockney did a few years back, and I did a little read of the bit that really interested me, which was about how very early photography intermingled with “Art”.  I wouldn’t have encountered the book itself had it not been for GD2 and I both liking Waterstones, and had it not been for nature demanding GD2’s attention.  So, this is another picture I owe to her, to add to this one.

The way Hockney and his art critic pal tell the story of how early photography and the Art of that time intermingled is: that all the other Art critics say that the Artists were zeroing in on a “photographic” looking style, through their own purely Artistic efforts.  Nonsense, say Hockney and pal.  The Artists were already using the early stages of photography, and if my recollection of that television show is right, that this had been going on for quite a while.  They were using photographic methods to project a scene onto a surface, and then painting it in by hand.  These paintings look photographic because, in a partial but crucial sense, they are photographic.  Later, the photo-techies worked out how to frieze that image permanently onto that surface, by chemical means rather than by hand copying.  Those Art critics want to say that the Artists lead the world towards photography, but the influence was more the other way around.  Photograhy was leading the Artists.

This fascinating historical episode, assuming (as I do) that Hockney and pal are not making this up, shows how complicated and additive a technology like photography is.  It didn’t erupt all at once.  It crept up on the world, step by step.  And of course it is still creeping forwards, a step at a time, in our own time.  Early photographers couldn’t shove their pictures up by telephone onto your television screen, the way I just did, if only because television screens didn’t happen for another century.

Meanwhile, the book trade is creeping forwards.  In the age of Amazon, am I the only one who sees an interesting book in a bookshop, looks at the price, says to himself: I can do much better than that on Amazon, and contents himself with taking a photo of the book’s cover?  Are we bad people?

For this book, the difference is thirty quid in the shop, but twenty quid or even less on Amazon.

In that talk I did about the impact of digital photography, one of the uses I found myself emphasising was using digital cameras for note-taking.  How much easier and more exact to make a picture of this book’s cover with one camera click, than to record its mere title with the laborious taking of a written note.

Monday April 17 2017

Then being five and a half years ago, with a sunset behind it and some birds in front of it:

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The structure in the foreground there is …:

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… which is on the other side of the River from me, across Vauxhall Bridge Road and turn ride along the path next to the River.

Right now, Battersea Power Station is in a rather different state, which you can actually see rather well in that famous view from Ebury Bridge Road, looking out over the railway lines that leave Victoria to go south over the River:

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The whole area, in it and around it, is being turned into apartments.  They’re even going to have their own new tube station, at the far end of a new bit of the Northern Line.

On the same day I took this photo (and all the other photos mentioned in that posting (most especially these ones)), I also took these photos of what is happening in and around the Power Station:

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The first one there was taken from Battersea Park railway station, the other two shots from nearer to all the building.  That fake-up of how it will look tells you ... how it will look.  If you are a helicopter traveller.

What’s happening in Battersea is the one great exception to the otherwise inexorable drift of London’s centre of gravity eastwards.

Sunday April 16 2017

Lincoln Paine is an admirably ambitious historian.  Here is the first sentence (to be found on page 3 of my paperback (but still very big) edition) of the introduction of Paine’s very big book, The Sea and Civilization, which is 744 pages long and which I have just started reading:

I want to change the way you see the world. ...

Good, because I bought this book in order to do exactly that, change the way I see the world.

In the following specific way:

… Specifically, I want to change the way you see the world map by focusing your attention on the blues that shade 70 percent of the image before you, and letting the earth tones fade. ...

Hurrah for the internet.  I went looking for a maritime history of the world and found this, which I might never have done if I had been relying on merely physical bookshops.

… This shift in emphasis from land to water makes many trends and patterns of world history stand out in ways they simply cannot otherwise. Before the development of the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. The opening of sea routes sometimes resulted in immediate transformation, but more often it laid the groundwork for what was later mistaken for sudden change. ...

Here is an example of what you notice when you think like this.  On page 7, we read this, about the USA:

A maritime perspective complicates our understanding of the “westward” expansion of the United States. California achieved statehood in 1851, two years after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, when the territory was virtually unknown to Americans back east and the number of United States citizens on the Pacific coast numbered only a few thousand. Thanks to the extraordinary capacity of the American merchant marine of the day, tens of thousands of people reached San Francisco by ship, a mode of transportation that was faster, cheaper, and safer than the transcontinental journey, although the distance covered was more than four times longer. The United States conquered the interior of the continent - what are today known as the fly-over states, but at the time could aptly have been called the sail-around territories – in a pincer movement from both coasts, rather than by a one-way overland movement from the east.

On my TV I have just recently been watching Michael Portillo investigate that very “westward” expansion of the USA, with plenty of wagons and locomotives involved, but no mention at all of any ships.  So I know exactly what Paine means.

Paine goes on to assert (on page 9) that there have been …:

… changes in the public perception of the maritime world, for the merchant marine and naval services no longer hold the attraction for people that they once did, when ocean liners and freighters crowded the piers of Manhattan, Hamburg, Sydney, and Hong Kong. At the start of the twenty-first century, ships and shipping lines are the warp and woof of globalization. Ships carry about 90 percent of world trade and the number of oceangoing ships has grown threefold in the past half century. But the nature of shipping has led to the relocation of cargo-handling facilities to places remote from traditional port cities, ...

In other words: out of sight, out of mind.

About that, I am not so sure.  Maybe it’s more a matter of degree than he says.  I guess I’m a bit different, in that I have been particularly noticing both what is happening to London’s old docks and waterways (they’re being prettied up for tourists like me and for the new gentry (really, mostly, just indoor and better paid proletarians) who now live next to them) and where London’s new mega-dock is now nearing completion, downstream.  I am definitely not the only one who has noticed shipping containers.  As Paine himself says, in his final chapter, containers are driving globalisation, and much of the globe has surely noticed.  Indeed, this might be why Paine’s publishers judged the time to be right for the switch in focus that he argues for.  On the other hand, I did have to go looking for this book.  Nobody else brought it to my attention, spontaneously, as it were.

Talking of focus, my eyesight has now reached the stage of me only being able to read a book by holding it about two inches away from my face.  Spactacles don’t do it for me any more.  Usually this is fine.  But this is a very big book, and it is going to be a very big struggle for me to read it.  But I am determined to do all the struggling that I must.

Or, I might go to the internet again, and buy something like this contraption.  If I do purchase such a reading aid, it will presumably be as cheap as it is because it recently crossed the world in a shipping container.

Thursday April 06 2017

Indeed:

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That’s the model of London in the foyer of the Building Centre, photoed by me last month.

In the foreground, all the new building in the Battersea area.

The small square green bit in the middle of the picture, on the other side of the river, is Vincent Square, which is a short walk from where I live.

London, especially on the south bank, looks like it’s flooded, doesn’t it?

Wednesday April 05 2017

A friend, one who evidently drops by here from time to time, recently noted that I am spending a lot of time in East London.  Indeed I am.

Given that what interests me is places that are changing, and all the cranes and commotion associated with all the change, and then what they finally turn into, this map, of London “skyscrapers” in the pipeline, explains why:

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I found that map in this report.

The reason I say “skyscrapers”, instead of just saying skyscrapers, is because I doubt whether all these … “skyscrapers” will really be of the sky scraping sort.  I suspect they’ll just be rather tall.  More like tower “blocks”, I suspect, most of them.  Or maybe something between a block and a true skyscraper.  Well, we shall see.

More interesting, to me, is that obvious hot spot there, in Tower Hamlets.  There is a London borough that is really living up to its name.  Just now, Tower Hamlets is also famous for being a hot spot of local government corruption.  There is a lot of news coverage of how former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman was bullying people to vote for him, than there is concerning mere money grubbing.  But you can’t help wondering if all those planning permissions were somehow a part of this story.

I remember, when I was a teenager, travelling through Croydon on a bike trip I was making around London, to get a ferry to Scandinavia.  (Ah how I wish there had been digital cameras then!) And the thing was, Croydon was then a brand new tower cluster.  I was amazed, as it came into view over the brow of a hill.  It was the nearest thing I had ever then seen to Manhattan, in this then green and cautious land.  And a year or two later, a whole bunch of Croydon councillors found themselves in jail.  I remember thinking then that if crooked councillors are what it takes for a decent cluster of towers to get built, then I’m for it.

It stands to reason that planning permission is going to go to the highest (in both senses) bidder, from time to time.

On the other hand, it could just be that the whole of London wants lots of towers in that part of town.  Greenwich is also heavily involved in that hot spot, and I am not aware of any above average degree of corruption there.  Comments from people better informed about such things than I am would be very welcome.

Throughout my decades of living in London (about four of them so far) I have been feeling the centre of gravity o

Tuesday April 04 2017

I find myself becoming ever more entertained by those cranes at the top of buildings, for cleaning windows.  The ones that look like this:

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Is it a crane?  Is it roof clutter?  It’s both!

The above photo was taken in March.  And then, in April, this month, I took this next photo, because, although not by itself very significant, it really adds to the story being told above:

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I did a bit of cropping on both these, to make them more identical, in all but the essential difference they illustrate.

For you see (which you now do), this particular window cleaning crane has the trick of disappearing into the (very visible) roof of its building like it’s not even there.

One moment: roof clutter, of the most obtrusive sort.  Next thing you know: roof clutter gone.

There is another such window cleaning crane, very near to the above window cleaning crane, in fact just across the road from it, on the big ugly building with the curved roof, from which a window cleaning crane with a curved bit of roof on it occasionally emerges.  And in February, I chanced upon this window cleaning crane in action:

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From form emerges function.  Function functions.  Then function disappears back into form, like nothing had happened.