Why we shouldn't deride Liz Jones for her sperm-stealing revelation

If these columns represent reality, rather than calculated provocation, they should be met with comp

Liz Jones has got Twitter angry. No, that won't do at all; it hasn't narrowed anything down for you. She's got Twitter angry about something she said in the Mail, about women. No, that still doesn't do it. OK, it's something she wrote about women being sperm-snatching desperados raiding their lovers' condoms for testicular emissions. Ah, now we know where we are.

Billed as "her most shocking confession yet", today's article details Jones's quest to get herself pregnant, in which she claims: "I resolved to steal his sperm from him in the middle of the night. I thought it was my right, given that he was living with me and I had bought him many, many M&S ready meals." Well, I suppose if you have gone to the trouble of making someone a posh dinner in a plastic tray, you can pretty much stake a claim to whatever bodily fluids they've got going.

It's easy to mock. Sometimes it's right to mock, and sometimes it's not. I don't know what to think of these rather boggling revelations, other than to see why it has got others more than a little steamed up. Jones writes: "But I do believe that any man who moves in with a woman in her late 30s or early 40s should take it as read that she will want to use them to procreate, by fair means or foul, no matter how much she protests otherwise."

Now, as a man who tends not to get his advice about sex and relationships from the pages of the Daily Mail, I might take this advice with a pinch of salt. I won't turn into the Rick Moranis character in Parenthood, who checks his partner's diaphragm every night to ensure she hasn't sneakily put holes in it. But I suppose this kind of overly sweeping statement gets people irritated by the way in which it reduces a whole generation of women into deceptive sperm-harvesting condom raiders, man-milk snatchers on a mission to get themselves up the duff by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there's more than one way to look at Liz Jones. We could see her as a brilliant creator of a ditsy comic persona who ends up being the butt of every joke and on the wrong end of every story. That's comforting, because it means no-one gets hurt if we slag her off, because we're essentially just finishing off the effacing that she's already started; and besides, it's just a character, rather than a human being in these columns, maybe with elements of truth and elements of fiction.

But is that right? Let's assume that the Liz Jones who appears in print is not some confection or caricature, and that every word is true. Here's someone who was so desperate to have children she stole sperm from her lover's condom while he wasn't looking; and not only that, she has written about it in a national newspaper, exposing herself to ridicule and contempt. Here's someone who has, in the past, run up huge debts through overspending, over and over again, so much so that readers sent in scratchcards to give her a helping hand. Imagine that person is someone you know rather than just a byline in a newspaper you don't particularly care for. Would you think of them as someone who needs help, rather than a bunch of strangers on the internet taking the piss out of them?

I've said it before, but fun as it is to stick the boot into someone like Liz Jones who sets herself up as an Aunt Sally (or is set up as one by others), I can't really bring myself to do it anymore. If it's not true, it's just a bit of trolling, designed to light up the Twitter mob's flaming torches and get them to drive huge amounts of traffic towards the Daily Mail website -- there's nothing the Mail Online likes more than a bunch of angry liberals to boost those unique visitor numbers.

Look at a sentence like "As a feminist, I looked down on mumsy types" and you have to wonder. Is that really what she thinks, or is it rather more cynical red-rag-waving? I suppose we shall never know, and I certainly don't claim to have any particular insight. But the way I look at it is this: if there's a chance that these columns represent the reality of another person's life, instead of a calculated bit of provocation, then the person who has been brave enough to share such negative aspects of their personality should be met with compassion, rather than animosity or ridicule. Fine, the sweeping statements about whole groups of people aren't helpful, but they could be seen as justifying the author's own behaviour by imagining it to be commonplace.

You can argue whether it's really in that person's best interests to share such deeply personal insights with thousands of others, but it's their decision. And, if it is all true, I just feel sorry for the person who wrote it, rather than thinking them worth of derision. It's just a sad, sad story.


Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.