Osborne thinks we're a Mac. We're a PC

Our banks don't have a reset button.

I had a Mac well before they were cool. It was fine when it worked, but occasionally it would throw a hissy fit and leave me utterly helpless. Apple clearly knew full-well their machines were prone to problems. Their universal solution was to include a reset button, accessible by forcing a paperclip into a tiny hole on the side of the machine, which would override everything and restart the machine, wiping all your work in the process.

The problems with my Mac were so persistent that I used to keep a paperclip permanently blu-tacked to it.

But of course, Macs are perfect these days, and Apple is unassailable – the kind of business most companies could only dream of becoming.

And at the other end of the scale are the banks. They keep stalling. Every now and then they make worrying noises, and after five years on hold, the Help Desk (John Vickers), says it’s really about time we got a new one.

When George Osborne told us that 2013 would be the year “we reset our banking system”, I couldn’t help but imagine him walking around the impenetrable edifice of the Bank of England wielding a giant paperclip, trying to find the hole. Horrified city workers looking on, saying “I hope I’m not going to lose all my work”.

Yesterday he announced that he wanted to open up the UK banking market to increased competition. No doubt he sees Virgin Money and Metro Bank leading a charge of bright young banks, who will hit the high street with branches that look like the set of Big Brother and staff who look like the cast of Hollyoaks… All very “I’m a Mac”.

I’m sure, or at least I hope, that Osborne knows there is no easy-reach reset button, and no “turn-it-off-and-on-again” fix. I know it’s boring (don’t fall asleep), but the decision to increase competition in the UK banking system is not political or regulatory… It is about IT – it’s about enabling new companies to plug into the payments system.

And trust me, the payments system is not a shiny Mac with handy firewire ports. Our payments infrastructure makes Windows XP look cool. It’s a tangled, home-made mess that looks like the inside of Jackson Pollock’s brain. What forward-thinking, tieless entrepreneur would want to plug into that? Even in these straightened times, there are easier ways of making money, let’s be honest.

The fact is that Metro Bank, which provides customers with free dog biscuits in their branches, is the first new entrant into the UK retail banking industry for over 150 years. They have less than 20 branches, none north of Watford, and there aren’t many behind them in the queue for banking licences. Mobile phone companies are moving into financial services, for sure. But most of them struggle to keep our voicemails secure, and I’m not sure people are ready to let them look after their hard-earned cash.

Has he tried turning it off then turning it on again? Photograph:Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

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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.