"Is my dog gay?" Well, how could you even tell?

Jane Fae ponders the lessons a gay dog from Tennessee can teach us all about human sexuality.

Phew! The world breathed a sigh of collective relief last week, as the Tennessee pooch, under sentence of death after its owner decided it might be gay, found a new home.

The tension may have been short-lived: it took little more than a couple of hours between the story breaking on the interweb and a kind soul coming forward to rescue the condemned canine. Still, it set me thinking. A dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do: can it make any sort of sense to accuse him – or indeed, any animal – of being gay just because he gets a little frisky with another same-gendered mutt?

What, after all, is “gayness”? Is it as simple as who you shag? Who you are attracted to? Or something infinitely more sublime?

I have a friend who identifies as lesbian. Likes women, sleeps with women, has recently ended a long-term relationship with ditto. Definitely “one of them”. Except for the occasional lapse: the one-nighters where – she is shameless in owning this – she has gone out with the express intent of finding a man for carnal purposes. Still, she reckoned, that didn’t make her straight. Or even bi.

I didn’t get that at all – until I did. I, too, identify as lesbian: can count on the fingers of one hand the men I’ve fancied: all three, very girlish boys.

Girlish boys – and boyish girls. I still drool over images of a leather-jacketed Judith Butler speaking her mind politically. Obviously I am turned on by post-structuralist philosophy! And a certain type of woman.

But there are those moments – usually late night ones – when the body plays funny tricks. When it twitches and gaps and, unbidden, my thoughts turn toward the darker side. More precisely, towards the fantasy of a jolly good rogering, even if – my friends think I joke on this: I don’t – my good-natured, attentive rogerer wears a paper bag on his head, and leaves politely, wordlessly, at the end.

“Tell us about it, Jane!”

“I've never...never...”

Not for nothing is my favourite Rocky Horror persona the virginal Janet “slut” Weiss. Toucha-toucha-toucha-touch me: I want to be dirty!

I’d also quite like to curl in the arms of that ultimate father-figure, Valjean. Physical attraction? No: just comfort.

If its difficult to pin down us human apes with a simple label, how much more so to categorise animal attraction? Does it even make sense to talk of gay and straight animals? Apparently some humans think it does: for instance, the lady who attempted to foist her own heteronormative values on her dog and our’s, the other day, with excited cries of “stop that! Its dirty”.

Presumably, rather than seeing two dogs engaged in some pretty banal doggy bonding, she felt duty bound to intervene to prevent an outbreak of bestial tonguing. The shame!

Though this starts to turn the argument full circle – and not necessarily in any direction that offers solace to your average homophobe. Whisper it low, but: I’m also a fan of evolutionary psychology – at least as study. I know that’s considered anathema in some quarters: but then, unlike some (reactionary) journalists, I actually studied the subject, the techniques. I’m well aware of its limits and would certainly hesitate to make broad generalisations about what is “right” for humans based on some spurious interpretation of “natural laws”.

Except. I can be mischievous, too. Standing back and observing human society: assuming, as some folks have, that alpha-male led polygamy is somehow the natural order of things; one ends up with a most uncomfortable conclusion (for some). For in such a society, not only would gayness be “natural” for the vast majority of males: it would be virtually de rigueur.

Oh, my! That, perhaps, highlights the difficulties of trying to write human experience over onto the animal world – and vice-versa. Sometimes, two dogs, licking each others’ nether regions are just that – and no more. Neither example for us humans – nor creatures acting in any way unnaturally.

Though, at the end of this sorry tale, I can’t help wanting to find the heartless b*d who set this story off in the first place. “Do you believe in God?”, I’d ask.

“And if you do, how do you know that a 'gay dog' deserves to be killed for no other reason than that it is true to its nature - and not a sign from God that you got it wrong.

That in this 'mixed up, muddled up, shook up world', gayness is as natural a state of being as any other?”

A dog takes part in a rally celebrating equal marriage in Mexico City. Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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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.