The internet wouldn’t exist without porn

Symbiotic smut.

“The internet is for porn”, as the cheeky Avenue Q song reminds us. And the statistics back that up - around 30 per cent of worldwide internet traffic is porn, and 12 per cent of all websites are dedicated to the dissemination of smut.

There’s a good reason for that – it makes a lot of money. Lobbyists campaigning to ban or restrict access to internet pornography need to be aware it has a symbiotic relationship with the technology itself, funding its very existence.

It is natural human instinct to turn every newly available medium to the sharing of the lewd. You can bet it didn’t take long for cave painting to evolve from hand prints and woolly mammoth hunts to unnaturally priapic self-portraits.

In a former life as an IT consultant, I worked for a number of telecoms giants whose shiny new networks and successive generations of mobile services were partly funded by sex lines, often run out of unlikely locations like Peru. One mobile services company boosted the profits of its promotional SMS business with TV dial-a-babe offerings. 

But the internet has made pornography available on a whole new scale without hard to explain telephone bills or visits to out-of-town newsagents. I completed my IT degree the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and overnight bedroom-bound lads evolved from play-by-email Dungeons and Dragons to the painfully slow line-by-line downloading of pictures of naked ladies over shonky modems (“What’s that…? Eww!”).

Despite the claims by certain public figures, internet pornography doesn’t arrive on our screens unbidden. Even Googling “internet pornography” for this article didn’t offer me anything the least bit titillating on the first page of results.

That’s not to say it’s hard to get hold of online pornography if that’s what you’re looking for, far from it in fact, and internet giants are coming under increased pressure to make it harder for children to access it.

Part of the answer is to use automated internet parental controls. According to web security specialists Kapersky 23 per cent of blocked searches in the UK over the first five months of 2013 were for porn. But parents need to be educated that these sorts of content filters must be used alongside parental supervision and education for full effect.

But more widely, if we make legal pornography harder to access by consenting adults, will we hamper the march of innovation? It’s a little aired dirty secret of the telecom and internet giants that the recession-proof profits of pornography are what fund the evolution of technology.  

Diane Abbott, Labour MP and shadow minister for public health, says: "Porn is the biggest driver of traffic to Google. You cannot allow the industry to drive the pace of change. So much money is riding on what happens."

While kicking internet companies in the bank balance will get their attention as far as illegal content and access by minors is concerned, a wider clampdown on internet pornography may just hamper the arrival of the next internet. Bring on the smut.

Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.