All I want for Christmas is… presents that aren’t bloody pink

The rigid gender division of toys is a problem for both boys and girls.

Many things terrify me about having children -- no day that involves an episiotomy can be a good day, I feel -- but there is one which stands out. If I had a daughter, what would I dress her in? What toys would I buy her? What would I do if she turned to me and said: "Mummy, when I grow up, I want to be a pwetty pwincess"?

I got a preview of that future when buying a present for my four-year-old niece this Christmas. My sister had vaguely suggested I get something for her doll Baby, but I find Baby deeply sinister. (Its eyes roll back into its head as if it's had an overdose, and there's something about the plastic toenails which tips it into the Uncanny Valley.) What else is there that she would like, then? The answer is: pink. Yards of it, stretching off as far as the eye can see.

Now, if you've been following Pink Stinks -- the campaign which raises awareness of the limited range of toys marketed to girls -- you'll know why I have a problem with pink. The "pinkification" of toys has led to such horrors as these "Science Kits for Girls" (will it be the beauty salon or the perfume lab?). Because, you know, girls don't do "proper" science, only girly science: even though a good proportion of those in the cosmetics industry, and perfumiers, are men.

And it's not just a problem for girls: one mother on Twitter told me recently that her son would love a diary and a craft kit this Christmas, but the only ones she can find are pink. Male child, know your place! Feelings are for women! Also macramé!

OK, how about some Lego, the beautiful construction toy of my childhood, and the creator of possibly the sweetest advert ever created? My niece happily plays with her brother's collection, after all. (Don't worry, I'm not spoiling her Christmas: she prefers to read the Spectator.)

But even Lego has let me down, launching a special "girl-friendly" range of figurines, with big dopey eyes and delicate blush skin, instead of the yellow heads and dot pupils I remember strewing round my bedroom as a child.

It seems like a backwards step for the company, which has largely resisted the rigid gender divisions that affect other toy brands. (Yes, there have been previous girly ranges, but a search for "LEGO for Girls" on its website yields pirates, zoos and camper vans.)

According to the Stylist's report, "Researchers for the company found that girls aren't massive fans of the traditional yellow faced 'boy' figurines". I'm going to call bullshit here, for two reasons. The first is that the yellow-faced figurines aren't unarguably male: with those snap-on bowl cuts, they remind me heavily of myself as a nine-year-old. That's just a bad haircut, not a statement of gender. The second is that -- and I don't know if anyone has pointed this out before -- children are malleable, responding to the stimuli they are exposed to and the cues they are given. If they truly don't like the yellow figurines, it's unlikely to be an immutable facet of having a second X chromosome.

There's always an attempt with these stories about toys to come back to an essentialist view of gender: "look, boys just like trucks, OK? And blue. And girls like pink and dolls. That's NATURE!" The trouble is that the picture is a lot more complicated than that. As smartarse QI-loving types like me never tire of pointing out, the association between pink and the feminine is, in the history of humanity, an incredibly recent one: it arose within the last century. Cordelia Fine and others have made a convincing case that many other supposedly "hard-wired" differences between male and female brains have been overstated, or are heavily affected by social pressures.

This last point explains why many anti-feminists are so keen for toys to remain gendered: because if it's not really "natural" for boys to play with soldiers and girls to play dollies, then what other "natural" differences between the sexes (and the iniquities which arise from them) are no longer supportable? Perhaps it's not really "natural" for women to be under-represented on boards, or get paid less, or do more domestic chores even when they work the same hours as their male partners.

You can see this tactic at work, if you can bear it, in the comments on the Telegraph's report of Hamleys' decision to scrap having a blue boys' floor and a pink girls' floor, and instead order toys by type (dolls, computers, traditional etc).

Although a feminist blogger, Laura Nelson, claimed this was down to her writing letters to the chief executive, a Hamleys spokesperson said at the time: "The changes to our signage were not due to any campaign." And I believe them: it seems a sensible commercial decision not to stigmatise your customers. If a girl wants a construction set, how is making her feel abnormal going to encourage her -- and her parents -- to spend money at your store?

The majority of the Telegraph commenters, however, thought differently, and many engaged in that angry two-step that feminists should be familiar with: "Why are people bothered about this -- it isn't important! I'm going to boycott Hamleys!" It's a classic tactic: get fumingly angry in support of your own position, while calling your opponents pathetic for asking for a debate at all.

Amid a fiesta of insults and hatred directed personally at Nelson for daring to voice an opinion, and the usual "WHY DID THEY BAN GOLLYWOGS?!? WE CAN'T SING BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP NOW" nonsense, there were some real corkers. Two classics of the genre: "The woman who caused this is a disgrace to mankind. Wait, can I say mankind? That might be too sexist" and "When Tampax will be sold in chewing gum section, the mission will be accomplished". (Nope, me neither.)

Clearly, it matters a great deal to lots of people what toys are given to children. Let's not deny it. It matters to feminists because many "girly" toys give the impression that life is about being, not doing, which does nothing to create the next generation of Rebecca Adlingtons and Angela Merkels and Zadie Smiths and Jane Goodalls. And it matters to those who want to keep the status quo because if they win the battle of the toys, they can tell us it's our fault we're not succeeding. Because women are just built that way. Pass the pink sick bucket.

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Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.