All the stupid things people have said today

And I’m looking at you, Malcolm Rifkind, and you, John Redwood.

There's nothing like a political thriller to get the pundits out on College Green selling their wares to the lowest bidder and spouting a fury of nonsense on rolling news. Somebody has to fill those long and languid hours, I suppose, as everyone runs around chasing anyone in a suit who looks like he might be negotiating something.

Rumour has it that a Sky reporter found himself in Caffè Nero filming a negotiation over the price of a blueberry muffin and yelling to the camera, "It's looking good for a deal, people! BREAKING NEWS!!!!!" Well, not quite, but almost.

Anyway, there have been a couple of real hype-whippers today, stirring up as much trouble as they can, scaremongering in that delightfully cool-headed way that slightly redundant right-wing commentators will.

First up, and definitely the prizewinner, is Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

The idea that the two parties that suffered most in this election, that were rejected by the electorate, that in the case of the Labour Party lost a hundred of its seats, should put together an illegitimate government, this is the Robert Mugabe style of politics . . .. It's exactly what Mugabe did, you know -- he lost the election and scrabbled to hold on to power.

You know, he's got a point. Whenever I look closely at Labour and the Lib Dems, all I can really see is Mugabe-style politics. All those violent bullying tactics, murder attempts and house demolitions. I can't believe no one has made the comparison before. That's searing political insight in action, that is.

Next: the Conservative MP John Redwood, who said that the current situation is "a disaster for British democracy".

It's all that some of us feared about hung parliaments. There's complete chaos and confusion.

How is it a disaster for British democracy when what we are experiencing now is precisely its outcome? How could you have prevented this hung parliament that you so "feared"? (Mental image: Redwood sitting up in bed with his duvet round his ears, whimpering and repeatedly counting seats in his model House of Commons.) Well, by getting a clear majority. WHICH YOU DIDN'T.

Of course, it's the news channels' fault, really, isn't it? If you interview someone 43 times about the same subject within half an hour when there is actually nothing new to report apart from a series of wayward and hazy possibilities, you are bound to get some interesting interpretations.

Solution? To pass the time, set up Adam Boulton in a series of wrestling matches with suitable opponents (first: Ann Widdecombe).

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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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.