Magic number: a bar owner celebrates his big win near Barcelona, 2010
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The day I (almost) won the lottery in Spain

William Cook was on his way to buy a ticket for “El Gordo” in a small town in Tenerife but changed his mind at the last minute. It’s a decision he’s lived to regret. 

I've got a good idea,” I told my wife, as we lay in our hotel bed in Tenerife on a holiday we couldn’t possibly afford. “Why don’t we do the Spanish lottery?”

“But you said you don’t agree with lotteries,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t. I still don’t. But now I’m willing to try anything. What I agree with or disagree with doesn’t matter any more.”

We were watching Spanish breakfast TV and the lottery was everywhere. Tomorrow’s draw was el gordo, “the big one” – one ticket, one prize, worth €3m. It was the perfect amount of money, just about enough to make all of our financial problems disappear.

We were in a small town called Garachico, a windswept place on the rocky north coast, a long way from the big beach resorts in the south. Only a few thousand people live here but there was a lottery shop on the same street as us, barely a hundred yards away. After breakfast I slipped out to buy a paper and a winning ticket.

I walked past the shop several times. It was the only place you could buy the tickets – a little hole-in-the-wall office, reminiscent of a bureau de change. Unlike the paraphernalia of the British National Lottery, the window display wasn’t garish; it was dull and bureaucratic. I’d never played the lottery before but here it felt quite different, as if it was the normal thing to do.

I still can’t work out why I didn’t go inside and buy that ticket. Maybe it was my useless Spanish that stopped me. Maybe it was my middle-class angst. When I was a child, it was always drummed into me that gambling was wrong, even sinful. Betting shops were like sex shops. Their windows were boarded up for good reason. What went on inside was shameful, something unfit for public view. When John Major launched the National Lottery, I looked on with pious condescension. It was a tax on stupidity and, like most know-alls, I heartily approved of it – for other people. Let them waste their hard-earned money. I didn’t need luck to make my pile.

Now, in my mid-forties, I didn’t feel quite so optimistic. I’d been scratching a living as a journalist for 20 years and the rates were the same as when I started. I made enough to get by but I’d never get rich doing it and I knew it. I’d come to understand the mindset of those poor saps who queue up for their Lottery tickets every Saturday. It had taken me 20 years to learn what they’d always known: that for most people, people like me, with no particular talent or application, the only chance of becoming rich is to get a lucky break.

The news broke early the next morning. The whole hotel was agog with it, buzzing with raw adrenalin. The winning ticket had been bought right here, in little Garachico. I went out with my seven-year-old daughter to see what was going on. The narrow street was thick with people. The lottery shop was hemmed in by Spanish journalists, interviewing anyone they could find – or, if all else failed, each other.

The shop was shut but the winning ticket was posted up behind plate glass, like a sacred relic in the window. People surrounded it as if they hoped some of its magic would rub off on them. The alley was littered with confetti. My daughter scooped up two dirty handfuls and threw them over me like a bridesmaid at a wedding. A camera crew pounced on us, beaming the surreal scene to Madrid and Barcelona. We must have made a pretty pair, both of us covered in confetti, my daughter giggling with pleasure while I wore the shit-eating grin of a sore loser.

The winners were already holed up in La Quinta Roja, a grand old hotel on the main square. I joined a throng of sheepish hangers-on, hoping to find a way inside, to no avail. This was a private party.

Over dinner at our favourite tapas bar, I tried to look on the bright side. Even if I’d bought a ticket here, I told Eduardo, the proprietor, I never would have guessed the winning number. I should have kept my mouth shut. The news was far worse than I’d assumed. Unlike the British lottery, in which punters pick any numbers they want, the Spanish lottery (at least this one) was all about the actual tickets. Each shop gets an allocation of them, each with a unique, preprinted number. You wouldn’t need to guess the winning number. All you needed to do was buy the ticket.

“Never mind,” I said, seeking reassurance. “They probably sold the winning ticket months ago.”

“No,” said Eduardo, with a rueful grin. “The winner bought his ticket yesterday.”

The last few days of the holiday didn’t feel quite the same. What had begun as a mild folly now seemed like an insane splurge. I agonised over every euro, double-checking every receipt, counting and recounting every handful of loose change.

All I could think about was how much €3m would have changed me. No more haggling or scrimping, no more hustling, unless we wanted to. We’d finally have the same lifestyle as the folk I’d known at university who’d had the guile to get their head down and stick at a sensible career. At 45, I knew I was too old to make it happen any other way.

Back in Britain, queuing up to buy a paper, I had to wait while the man in front of me fussed over his National Lottery numbers. No, I wasn’t tempted. I’d had my chance. Yet something else had shifted. Previously I would have dismissed him as deluded. Now I found myself waiting for him with far more patience than before. His chances of becoming a millionaire may be small but mine are surely even smaller. His pound had bought him a precious sense of hope, a sensation I know I’ll never share.

As I handed over a pound for my boring newspaper, I found a few pieces of confetti in my pocket and wondered, for the millionth time, what I would have done with €3m. 

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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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.