Blackberry's famous, desperate last stand

Blackberry-worshipper Nicky Woolf is begging RIM not to sound the death knell on the device he loves so much.

Ever watch someone you love slowly go to pieces? It's not a pleasant experience, but it's one that I've been having with Blackberry these last few years.

I love my Blackberry. I use it to write. I write articles on here. I am writing this article on my Blackberry. I write long, rambling emails. I take long, rambling notes on memo-pad. I have long, rambling conversations with friends and family on BBM, that lovely little exclusive club to which only crackberry-addicts can belong. I tweet from my Blackberry. I send more than twenty thousand texts a year. Dear Blackberry: your red flashing light is my comfort in dark places. You are my life.

I don't want gimmicks, and I'm uninterested in bells and whistles. I want a phone that gives me the basics. I communicate with people. The email system on my Blackberry is perfect. I couldn't give less of a crap that your iPhone has a spirit-level app. I already own a spirit-level, somewhere. I have never used it. I rarely browse the web. I do not play games on my phone; I have a console for that. I don't care how angry that makes your birds.

I am a man of simple tastes.

It's not like I haven't tried the alternatives. Last year I bought a Samsung Galaxy, and after the initial rush my relationship with it turned to loathing. Frustrated by how much I had to keep correcting my output on the touch-screen, I tweeted less and was brusque in texting. Sure, I could play Draw Something or Words With Friends, but I never did, because that's not what I want a phone for. I want a phone so I can efficiently and satisfyingly input and output words. That's it. The Galaxy wasn't any good for that.

On top of that, it had a malice I never sensed from a Blackberry phone. I am guilty of anthropomorphic projection here, but I am convinced that phone hated me as much as I hated it. In the end, in a fit of rage, I snapped it in half. The big fragile screen screen cracked like burnt toast. Afterwards, I felt cleansed.

Before you start, ye false-idol-worshipping cultists of iPhone, your beloved sugar-glass monolith is no more user-friendly than my hateful Samsung was. There are whole websites devoted to the hideous travails of your auto-correct. I refuse to take spurious spelling corrections from a gadget with the obstinant self-satisfaction of a traffic warden. Without auto-correct on the other hand, typing is practically impossible for human hands on a touch-screen phone. It's just untenable.

But poor Blackberry has been battered by the economic storm, crushed up against the hulls of bigger companies like Samsung, Google and Apple, sitting lower and lower to the waterline like an old rusting tramp-steamer, all hands to the pumps. Some of its output has been bizarre, and it has driven its customers – even its loyal business base – away. The "Storm" – what was that? A bizarre and ill-fated stab at touch-screen phones that nobody wanted and nobody bought. The "Torch" – as badly made as a Nineties Cadillac, and twice as ugly. Trackballs that got sticky. Keypads that shed keys. Those blackouts that forced us all to go cold-turkey on data for days on end. It's no wonder that today's release is being thought of as the last ditch effort for RIM.

But please. On the day of your famous last stand, I'm begging you. Stick to the fundamentals, and get them right. There are plenty of us who love our Blackberries for what they can do, and don't envy iPhone users their gadgetry one bit. I don't need streaming video, I don't need Spotify, I don't need games. I need a keyboard, a notepad, a solid browser maybe and a decent email system, and I need it to be bug-free and crash as little as possible, if that's not too much to ask. If the X10, the new keyboarded handset you announced today, is the spiritual successor to my little Bold, then I know I will love it.

There are many more like me. Don't let us down.

 

The Blackberry: in Nicky's eyes, infinitely superior to anything Samsung or Apple try to sell you. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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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.