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Category archive: Technology
Indeed. Today was a lot colder than of late, and a lot brighter than of late. I guess that happens when the clouds go away, in November. I was on my way out around midday today, and took these, the last one through a train window:
The first two are looking across Vincent Square, towards Victoria Street and at Westminster Abbey. The next three are of building work at the top end of Victoria Street, where there is not a lot of building work going on. And finally, Big Things, from the train out of Victoria.
I was very pessimistic about all the new stuff around Victoria Station, but that big spikey thing is looking very cool.
The first picture is the odd one out. No cranes.
A few months ago, when the sun was shining and I was in the habit of leaving my home and wandering about in London, I took what i thought at the time was a photo of a bald bloke taking a photo:
I cropped half the guy’s face out of this photo, to make him non-machine-recognisable.
But looking at this photo again, I realise that the real mystery is what the guy has on his left wrist:
As so often, my camera saw more than I did.
When I started googling, to try to find out more about that device, I was pretty confident that I would soon learn. But, I couldn’t find anything called that that looked like that. Presumably it is some sort of Androidy iPhoney Watchy Thingy. But I was unable to go beyond that vague presumption.
Because of the uncannily precise weather forecasts with which modern civilisation is blessed, I know that today will be a great day to be going out, which I have not done for a while. And I intend to check out this, which is a gas holder that has been tarted up into a big old public sculpture stroke small park inside:
There are mirrors. I like mirrors. Mirrors make for fun photos.
Also, notice how, in this other picture, …:
... it would appear that they (Bell Philips) will be inserting a block of flats into another nearby gas holder. Cute.
I’ll let you all know how it is all looking, at the moment. Assuming I manage to find it and it’s not still a building site behind barriers. With these kinds of things, the internet can only tell you so much. By which I mean that it could tell you enough so that you wouldn’t have to go there to check it out, but it generally can’t be bothered. So, since it’s only a short Victoria Line journey, I will go there. To check out not only the Thing itself, but to see what other Things I can see from inside it, framed by it.
Recently I have become very interested in taking photos through my kitchen and toilet windows, my kitchen being where most of my toil (hah!) is done. (I said that that earlier photo was taken from my kitchen, but I now realise it’s taken from the toilet, through an open window rather than a grubby kitchen window which is too hard to be opening and shutting.) I am doing this because there is building going on across the courtyard, and I love to photo building work. The temporariness of everything. The scaffolding, and more recently the translucent blankets they now often drape over scaffolding, catching shadows of the scaffolding.
But over the years, I have taken photos through this window for other reasons. I especially like this one, which I just came across when looking for something else, which I took in 2010:
That netting has since been repaired, but it continues to add a layer of visual oddity to all the pictures I take from this window. It is there, as I said in that earlier posting, to stop pigeons crapping all over the courtyard.
I especially like the white dots against the black background, at the bottom. Each dot is a droplet, at each point in the netting where the strings join, or cross, or do whatever they do when they meet. The bigger, nearer droplets are on the outside of the window.
I’m guessing I was very struck by what I saw that day, because where I live, in London, rain is quite rare.
Most clichés are true. Being true they get repeated and repeated, which is how they became cliches. But the cliché that it rains a lot in England is not true, at any rate not in my part of England. Rain in London is actually quite rare, and when it does rain it seldom lasts long. Heavy rain is very rare, which is why, when it happens, it causes excited headlines.
But, the weather is often cloudy and overcast. Thus for the last several days it has been almost entirely overcast, and very occasionally wet.
I have been mostly indoors, having one of my periodic attempts to tidy up. Photographically, I have done little, except remember sunnier days earlier in the year.
Here are four photos taken in June and July of this year, all of which involve sunshine in one way or another:
I love that weird effect you see when someone has been destroying reinforced concrete, combining jumbles of twisted metal rods and what can look like ancient rocks but which are really bits of concrete. The sunniest thing in that photo is me, in the form of my shadow. Nothing says bright light like a strong shadow.
All the other snaps involve - what else? - cranes. I especially like how bright light often strikes cranes. Usually, when I photo this, I get disappointingly toned down results. My camera presumably thinks that by eliminating dazzle it was helping, but dazzle is what I am often trying to photo. I want the light to be out of control and sloshing about all over the place. Bottom left is a rare exception to that tendency.
Bottom right is looking down Tottenham Court Road, at a crane and a Wheel, lit by sun, backed by dark cloud, a favourite effect. The strange and rather misshapen green house thing (which I like) is (I think) the top of the new Tottenham Court Road Crossrail-Tube Station.
Today, however, it’s practically in the air. I could flick through a copy of em>Wired magazine in a supermarket, or see the statue of James Watt in St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovation is unstoppable, but not because the Internet has innumerable nodes of useful information, as Ridley claims. It’s unstoppable because across the world, innovation is so deeply rooted in our speech, thought and culture. And we don’t even know it.
Innovation is, at root, the idea of innovation! And the idea that innovation is a good idea!
Anton Howes is making good progress as a scholar, his latest little victory being that he has been invited to present his findings at this event at Columbia University. My thanks to Simon Gibbs for alerting me to this latter happy circumstance.
It seems that I am not the only one reminiscing about photos taken nearly a decade ago. The Atlantic is now doing this, with the help of NASA and its Cassini orbiter, and the Cassini orbiter’s oresumably now rather obsolete camera:
Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus (504 kilometers or 313 miles across), is the subject of much scrutiny, in large part due to its spectacular active geysers and the likelihood of a subsurface ocean of liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter has studied Enceladus, along with the rest of the Saturnian system, since entering orbit in 2004. Studying the composition of the ocean within is made easier by the constant eruptions of plumes from the surface, and on October 28, Cassini will be making its deepest-ever dive through the ocean spray from Enceladus - passing within a mere 30 miles of the icy surface. Collected here are some of the most powerful and revealing images of Enceladus made by Cassini over the past decade, with more to follow from this final close flyby as they arrive.
Here is a picture of Enceladus taken on June 10th 2006:
That is picture number 25, or rather, a horizontal slice of it.
Beyond Enceladus and Saturn’s rings, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is ringed by sunlight passing through its atmosphere. Enceladus passes between Titan and Cassini ...
That’s right. Those two horizontal, ever so slightly converging white lines and the edge of the Rings of Saturn.
Picture number 10 is even more horizontalisable:
A pair of Saturn’s moons appear insignificant compared to the immensity of the planet in this Cassini spacecraft view. Enceladus, the larger moon is visible as a small sphere, while tiny Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers across) appears as a tiny black speck on the far left of the image, just below the thin line of the rings.
That one was taken on November 4th 2011.
From the Washington Post, yesterday:
The piece also asks if it is only a matter of time before regular driving is banned. I think this will happen in lots of places, and driving a car will become like riding a horse. It will be something you do only for fun. I probably won’t live to see this, but I probably will live to see it quite widely discussed.
So I had gathered together a little clutch of photos of photoers that I took in 2007, about a dozen of them, and I was going to shove them up here, and call them something like: Photos of photoers taken in 2007. But then I noticed that five of them - five - were all taken on 18/07/2007. In English: on July18th 2007. And apparently all within the space of a few dozen minutes.
So I dug up the original directory I’d got (quite a while back) those five pictures from, and here are (insert how many (it’ll be a lot (42))) of them, all taken between 6pm and 7.30pm, from outside Westminster Abbey to Westminster Bridge:
And note this. These were only those pictures which did not feature computer-identifiable faces. There were that many again that were just as nice, but with clearly recognisable faces. By that I mean both eyes and the nose and mouth all simultaneously visible.
And there you were thinking I had got bored with showing you photos of photoers. Well, I have got a bit bored with taking such pictures, and have been taking rather fewer of such snaps lately, although maybe my interest in snapping snappers may reignite. I don’t know. But I now have a huge archive of such photos, and as the cameras in them get more and more obsolete, and as fashions begin to change, these pictures become ever more enjoyable with the passing of time, like good wine or so everyone says.
Normally I don’t go on about what sort of camera I used for a picture or for a bunch of pictures, but I must say I am impressed with what my Canon PowerShot S5 IS was doing, with its x12 zoom, all those years ago. This camera has of course been discontinued, but as of today, you could get a “used - good” one, not boxed but in good condition, for fifty quid.
The week’s latest manifestation of the Michael Portillo Train Journey Show took us to Austria, and featured a spectacular viaduct, which made it possible for trains to go from Vienna to Trieste, the one big seaport of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is the Kalte Rinne-Viadukt, which gets the trains through the Semmering Pass. I think I have that right.
Here is what it looks like, from above:
The man who designed and supervised the building of this railway would appear to be a very big cheese in that part of the world.
Now for another picture which tells you about something else that is going on in that part of the world, something Michael Portillo did not mention.
They’re building a tunnel:
As part of an on-going programme to improve national and international railway links for the year 2000 and beyond, Austria embarked on excavation of a 9.8km-long pilot tunnel ahead of full construction of the planned 22km-long Semmering base line tunnel through the Alps. The new tunnel is on the domestic route between Vienna and Villach, which is on the main Trans-European railway route between the states of middle and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean harbours in Italy. The new alignment will supplement the existing 41km-long route, which was built more than 100 years ago and winds slowly and steeply up and over the Semmering Pass. At the lower elevation the new tunnel will allow for higher train speeds, ensure continued services through severe weather conditions and reduce travel times substantially. When complete, the new ‘fast’ track will carry high-speed passenger services and heavy freight trains while the existing mountain pass railway will continue as a local community service and as a tourist attraction through the spectacular Alpine landscape.
Work began on the tunnel in 1994, checking out the route, preliminary drillings, that kind of thing. Amazingly, the tunnel only got the actual green light to be actually made, constructed, dug, drilled, built, tunnelled, in May of this year. The present schedule says that the thing will only be finished in 2024.
In other words, it’s going to take thirty years from first use of a digger in anger, so to speak, to the last. That sounds to me like a lot of years.
Vanity Fair piece about Frank Gehry. Key paragraph:
Things progressed slowly from there, as the architect continued to work more audacious swooping and compound curves into his designs. Eventually he found himself hitting the outer limits of what was buildable. This frustration led Gehry on a search for a way to fulfill his most far-reaching creative desires. “I asked the guys in the office if there was any way they knew of to get where I wanted to go through computers, which I am still illiterate in the use of,” he explains. Gehry’s partner, Jim Glymph - “the office hippie,” in Gehry’s words - led the way, adapting for architecture a program used to design fighter planes. As Gehry began to harness technology, his work started to take on riotous, almost gravity-defying boldness. He dared to take the liberties with form he had always dreamed of, fashioning models out of sensuously pleated cardboard and crushed paper-towel tubes. He always works with models, using scraps of “whatever is lying around” - on one occasion a Perrier bottle. “I move a piece of paper and agonize over it for a week, but in the end it was a matter of getting the stuff built,” he tells me. “The computer is a tool that lets the architect parent the project to the end, because it allows you to make accurate, descriptive, and detailed drawings of complicated forms.”
“Frank still doesn’t know how to use a computer except to throw it at somebody,” ...
I smell a classic two-man team there. Gehry dreams it. And this guy called “Glymph” (ever heard of him? - me neither - I got very little about him by googling) works out how to actually get the damn thing built. To quote myself:
Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man.
Glymph now seems to be on his own, although you can’t tell from the merely institutional appearances.
In general, the role of the Other Sort of Architect, the one who turns whatever some Genius Gehry figure wants into something buildable, and which will not be a mechanical disaster, seems to be growing and growing.
I found that picture of Gehry’s epoch-making Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao here. The VF piece identifies this as the most “important” building of our time. Architects love it. The public does not hate it.
A house, said Modernist Architecture Le Corbusier famously, is a “machine for living in”. Something very similar can be said about all buildings. They are machines to do stuff in, and their number one requirement is that they should work properly. Do the job. Not break. Not leak. Not collapse. Not be a struggle to occupy, work in or live in. They should be nice for people to be in.
But merely working is not the only thing that this strange thing called “architecture” must do. It may also be required to decorate, excite attention, amaze, astonish. It may also be required to be, as they now say, an “icon”.
These two distinct sorts of working - working as a machine, working as a means of exciting admiration and awe - described in my two previous paragraphs, often conflict. If all that architecture had to do was tick over successfully, without problems, then building would evolve, cautiously. There would be no grand gestures, no new styles.
But new styles there are. And when they first get started, new styles often involve lots of dumb mechanical decisions. What can happen is that the architect is so concerned to make his icon look iconic that he forgets to, I don’t know, stop the windows leaking. New styles cause mundane stuff to go wrong.
Illustration, this piece of early post-modernism:
This iconic Thing is the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. But, it now faces demolition. Reason? It doesn’t work, as a machine for working in:
“This building is ineffective,” claimed governor Bruce Rauner in a news conference. “For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy. It’s hard to meet with your colleagues. It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices.”
The 17-storey, nearly one-million-square-foot (92,903 square meters) government centre opened in 1985, and is known for its canted and curved glass exterior and massive interior atrium containing a food court and transit entrance with offices arrayed above.
“Hearkening back to the grand domes of earlier government structures, such as the state capitol in Springfield, the southeast profile is a slice of a hollow sphere, clad in curved blue glass and salmon-coloured steel,” said the Chicago Architecture Foundation in its listing for the building. “The populist Postmodernism continues inside.”
The structure serves as the state government’s Chicago headquarters – the Illinois state capital is Springfield. But maintenance problems, high operational costs, and functional issues have plagued the building since it opened.
Rauner estimates the building needs $100 million (£64.7 million) worth of deferred repairs. In 2009, a large granite panel fell off one of the pedestrian arcades, prompting the removal the remaining slabs. The building has also been infested with pests.
Libertarians often claim that cock-ups like these are a classic public sector problem, and that observation has merit. The public sector is notorious for overspending on the buildings themselves, and then imposing foot-shootingly false economies on maintenance. Public buildings where the political will to maintain, so to speak, has wavered, can end up looking very run-down, as does much publicly owned space generally. This is because no one person or organisation owns the thing. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear gains if the building continues to look its part and do its job. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear losses if maintenance is skimped on. No one is accountable, to use a word constantly used by political people, because they so regularly feel the lack of it in the arrangements they nevertheless keep on recommending.
Further evidence comes from industrial innovation, largely now done by the private sector (albeit often heavily regulated), where innovation is done with a combination of determination and caution, with an awareness that innovation must happen, yet is hazardous. But even there, this trade-off is often mismanaged. The private sector doesn’t avoid error. It is merely better at liquidating it than the public sector is.
There may be sufficient political will to preserve this Chicago Government Center, more than there might have been if it was privately owned and hence costing an owner a not-small fortune. But it if is preserved, will the will to maintain continue to be inadequate? Very probably.
A key question to be asked about this building is: If it must be preserved, is the building worth anything at all? If it isn’t then there will be no buyer for it if it must be preserved, and the Chicago taxpayers will have to go on maintaining it. And Chicago’s taxpayers right now face other and bigger problems.
Busy day, by my unbusy standards. Inability to contrive clever words. Search through recent photos. One jumps out at me:
Begin to write something clever, but it doesn’t cohere. Give up. Good night.
“Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight-efficient by virtue of their architectures,” commented Bill Carter, manager of the Architected Materials Group at HRL.
“We are revolutionising lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the materials level and designing their architectures at the nano- and micro-scales,” he added.
In the new film released by Boeing earlier this month, HRL research scientist Sophia Yang describes the metal as “the world’s lightest material”, and compares its 99.9 per cent air structure to the composition of human bones – rigid on the outside, but with an open cellular composition inside that keeps them lightweight.
All of which has obvious applications to airplanes:
Although the aerospace company hasn’t announced definite plans to use the microlattice, the film suggests that Boeing has been investigating possible applications for the material in aeroplanes, where it could be used for wall or floor panels to save weight and make aircraft more fuel efficient.
And it surely won’t stop with wall and floor panels.
These are the days of miracle and wonder.