Friday, 30 December 2011

What is job security?

Umbrellas - not doing a lot of protecting
With all the sad news of job cuts and redundancies I feel a strange reversal of role coming over me.

When I left British Airways around 17 years ago to work for myself, lots of people said 'I couldn't do what you're doing. I'd love to be my own boss but I couldn't cope with the lack of job security.' It was a scary thought, coming out from under the protecting umbrella of an organization that paid your salary with satisfying regularity at the end of the month.

It's true that over the years there have been times when things have been very tight. There are no guarantees when you work for yourself. Your next bit of earnings won't just come drifting in, you've got to go out and find it. And yet the whole idea that I was doing something risky compared with those who stayed working for a company, or a public body, assumes that there is such a thing as a guarantee.

But now when I compare myself with someone who has been made redundant, I feel strangely secure. They suddenly have nothing come in. I don't doubt it's harder for me to get projects going at the moment, but on the whole I can find ways to keep going. In a sense I have more security because I can't be made redundant. There isn't a circumstance where I would have to start again from scratch. What a strange reversal.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Exceeding expectations

If I'm brutally honest, I've never really understood the attraction of Dickens. Those of his books I've read have been overlong, often dull, filled with ridiculous character names and caricatures, and mawkish. But I have to confess I so far have found the latest TV adaptation of Great Expectations a delight.

This is not harmed by having the wonderful Gillian Anderson in the Miss Haversham part, which she endows with a wondrous mix of otherwordlyness and downright nuttery.

But it's more than that. The whole thing is both gripping and engaging. There's really only one truly silly Dickens character, the uncle with the stupid name. Bumblewick or some such gobbledygook.

So maybe I was a bit premature writing Dickens off. At least in TV adaptations.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Do we live a charmed life?

I am puzzled by a statistical blip. Quite a high proportion of our children's friends have parents who have split up. Not that surprising you might say. Yet when I look at our own friends, none of our close friends, and only one or two friends in the 'go for a drink occasionally, but not what you'd really call mates' category are divorced. All the rest just got married and got on with it.

The last thing I want to do by saying this is jinx things, but luckily (?) I don't believe in such superstition, magpie greeting apart. It is quite interesting, though. Does it reflect the kind of friends we seek out, the circumstances in which we meet people, a statistical outrider or a whole combination thereof? Probably. Dunno. But it's interesting to think.

And finally, as they say on the news, I gather from the excellent Mark O'Donnell on our local radio that the chimpanzee that played Cheetah in the old black and white Johnny Weismuller films has died. He was 80. I don't know why, but that's something I find interesting too.

Ain't statistics wonderful?

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

In praise of girls and women

Although the title of this post could be general, I had something specific in mind - cathedral choirs. This time of year we get more than usual exposure to cathedral choirs and their college equivalents, and they look as if they're preserved in aspic. But recently there has been a small revolution which I heartily welcome.

Traditionally such choirs have been all male, with boys taking the top treble part. There are choirs with women at a good few of the cathedrals, but they tend to be a separate, 'second league' choir. Some believe that boys and men provide the best sound there is. There's even an organization dedicated to preserving the traditional cathedral choir. But I think it's a load of tosh, which is why I very much welcome the fact we're seeing the occasional female singer joining first rank choirs.

What the anti-women brigade argue is that women's voices don't have the same clear purity as a boy's. And actually, on the whole this is true. In part this is because most good female singers will have been trained by a wannabe opera singer and will have had vibrato introduced, which is all wrong for a cathedral choir (take note, Oxford). And in part this is because women's voices do break, just less obviously than men's - and women don't have the same sound as boys (or girls).

However I think there are two ways we can and should see mixed choirs flourishing. One is that the boys should be joined by girls, with the same age limits. I defy anyone to do a blind test between well-trained boys and girls of the same age and tell which is which, as long as there is an age cutoff. Younger girls also have that clear purity. And the other aspect is that I think we are long overdue replacing male altos with women.

Cathedral choirs traditionally use male altos. I'm not biassed against them - I was one for a while. But their tone is very harsh. They work well in medieval music, but for practically everything else a female alto (provided she doesn't have too much vibrato) has a much better, blending tone. So I not only think we should allow women to sing alto, but we ought over time to replace all male altos. Sorry guys.

With these changes cathedral music would be significantly better. Then all we have to do is work on the FA/FIFA to allow football teams to be mixed...

Friday, 23 December 2011

I don't know much about art... but I ought to

'LOOK WHAT THE DOG DID' Pixels on screen
Brian Clegg - 2011

Although I earn my living as a writer I see this more as a craft than an art. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to the arts. Not that I don't appreciate music or painting - I just don't understand why it needs to be subsidised. But really when you look at the letters after my name, I ought to know what I'm on about.

I very rarely use these - who does these days? But technically my name should be followed by M.A., M.A., F.R.S.A. Three sets of letters - and every one of these has an 'A' for art.

In the first place I'm a Master of Arts in the original sense of being a 'magister artis'. There are those who moan about the fact that Oxford and Cambridge graduates only have to sit around for a few years and not go to gaol (I think the Oxford lot have to pay as well) to have their B.A. transform into an M.A. - but this misses the point. That's how it's meant to be. After all, these two establishments started the whole university business in the UK. A magister is someone who can teach - the idea is that after a few years you have gained the experience to be able to pass on the subject.

That first M.A. is in natural sciences. Why a master of arts for a science degree? Because 'art' didn't orginally mean just painting and such. It was the work of man as opposed to the work of God. So everything other than theology was arts. The second M.A. is in Operational Research, effectively applied maths. But at least it's a masters in the modern sense.

And then I'm a fellow of what many would call the Royal Society of Arts - but the clue as to why I'm there is the full title: The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Aha. Yes, I'm from the common end of the title.

So there you go. I may not know much about arts, but the letters after my name don't agree.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Colour me yellow

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

I had quite a lot of fun with this one, which has had the biggest response on Twitter of any podcast I've done. It's about the dye tartrazine. Chemically it's one of the azo dyes, which are by far the most commonly used dyes, but of course it also has its controversy as a food colouring, which is why I got the Twitter flood.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the RSC did a slightly flippant tweet about it saying Tartrazine might send kids crazy, but it's definitely a pretty colour - now if you actually listen to the podcast I was a lot more measured about its potential effects, but this introduction was enough not only to get significantly retweeted but also to cause the wroth of one individual who posted 7 tweets mostly along the lines of 'Ever read Nerves In Collision by Walter C. Alvarez, M.D. about the many epilepsies?' Well no, Mr Wild (with excellent nominative determinism that really seems to be what he's called), I haven't.

I don't know about anyone else but as soon as someone puts 'M. D.' after the name on a book spine I think that they're either a boy called Doogie Howser or they are not exactly producing scientific fact. Sadly most of Mr Wild's academic references were to a Yahoo group, which doesn't exactly raise confidence either. I knew E numbers caused concern, but I hadn't realized how knee-jerk the reaction would be.

However, the mini-tweetstorm isn't the subject of this post, it's tartrazine - so why not take a listen and see if Mr Wild was right?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

E books can get physical

A book selling online recently
I see from a YouGov survey, via a report in the Bookseller than books - real, solid paper books - are 'among the most popular online buys.'

I must admit, I don't find the results of the survey particularly surprising. For example we are told that customers are 'likely to use a different retailer for electronic and bricks and mortar shopping' - well, yes. It's not exactly a surprise, for example, that a lot of people buy online from Amazon and don't on the high street for obvious reasons. (Amazon really ought to buy out Argos - it would be a great fit.) Similarly, my daughters buy quite a lot of clothes online from retailers like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch that don't have stores in our town, so it's not surprisingly that they rarely visit these shops in the brick and mortar form.

As an aside, just as the next generation has a different view of electronic communications to us oldies, they also buy remotely in a different way. If I buy stuff online, it's stuff I want. I may occasionally send it back if there's something wrong with it, but otherwise I keep it. They will buy a bunch of clothes with the intent of sending up to 50% of it back. They regard online shopping more as a visit to a changing room than a visit to the till. (In this regard, BOO HISS to Urban Outfitters, which is about the only online shop that doesn't pay the postage on returns. So guess which mug does.)

But my main theme was the observation that books are amongst the most popular online buys. This makes a lot of sense. I know it's lovely to browse through a bookshop and thumb through books (though it is less pleasant then buying some of those thumbed-through books - some of the stock on the shelves is in terrible condition). But a lot of book purchases are either a gift or another book from an author you already know and trust. It's an ideal type of product to buy online. (And it's the right shape to post.) And long may people continue to buy this way - as well as through traditional bookshops.

I love a good bookshop, but I'm not one of those book police types who think if you don't buy from their favourite little indie store you are a philistine. I just want people to buy books!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas slow-down

As happens every year, I'm afraid blog posting is going to get rather erratic over the next couple of weeks. Many apologies - but I will try to appear as often as time is available. The trouble is, with the dual requirements to

a) Rush around the house like mad clearing up because 'Someone* is coming round.' and

b) Indulge in far too much eating and drinking and watching TV that would be painful the rest of the year but is somehow right at the festive time

there really isn't enough time to blog as well.

So, in honour of my choir, which did an excellent job of the carol service on Sunday, I'll leave you with one of my favourite carols instead (this, incidentally isn't my choir):



* Not a euphemism for Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Just someone.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Science jokes bode well

There's been quite a lot of physics in the news lately, what with the faster than light (ish) neutrinos and the possibility of a sighting of the Higgs boson (not to mention a rumoured sighting of Brian Cox). It's rather nice - it even makes up for the BBC's nautical version of the goings on at CERN, repeatedly calling the elusive particle a Higgs bosun. (It's named after a guy called Bose, folks. Get with the plot.)

A very welcome sign of the interface between physics and the real world are the physics jokes doing the rounds, no longer confined to geeks and nerds.

You will all have seen (ad nauseam) A barman says 'We'll have no faster than light particles in here.'
A neutrino walked into a bar.

... But how about (via Calum Scott) this?: Argon walked into a bar. The barman says 'We don't serve noble gasses.' Argon doesn't react..

And thanks to Mark O'Donnell at BBC Wiltshire for this cracker: A Higgs boson goes into a church on Christmas Eve but the vicar says: 'Sorry, we don't allow Higgs bosons into our service.' The Higgs boson replies: 'But how else are you going to have Mass?'

All in all excellent stuff, though I have to say there's a lot of exclusion going on in these jokes...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Off the shelf makes sense

A shelf something could easily be got off
We hear in the news that our military has wasted around £1 billion failing to come up with an armoured vehicle so had to buy off the shelf. That piece instantly transported me back to my days at British Airways.

We got involved in an EU project to design a better check-in system. Great idea - check-in systems were incredibly fast, but had a terrible user interface. We went through months and thousands of pieces of paper in the set up process and finally got to the first real stage. And the Euro-powers-that-were told us the first thing we needed to do was design a computer terminal. From scratch. So that we had the best equipment for the job. We pulled out. If you want a way of interacting with a computer you grab a PC of the shelf. To design such hardware from scratch was ludicrous.

Firstly it would have been extremely expensive. I think the cost per unit was four or five times that of an off-the-shelf PC. Secondly all this time, effort and money could at best produce maybe a five percent enhancement in terms of matching our exact requirements. And most important of all, that 'at best' was never going to happen. The fact is that after years of deliberation by committee we would end up with a worst of all worlds device that was worse than the PC was back when we first started, let alone today's model.

Of course there are circumstances when off-the-shelf isn't the answer. But my experience with BA and other organizations (particularly public ones, or ex-public ones) is that many people have a ridiculously strong urge to build something bespoke that provides nowhere near the benefits that would be needed to outweigh the vast increase in cost over off-the-shelf. It wastes time, it wastes effort and very often you end up with something worse. My suspicion is that this is true of most MoD purchasing.

Now, time for my cup of coffee. Should I use an off-the-shelf kettle, or design something myself that will end up taking three months to build, will cost £527.47 and will start leaking after two weeks use. Hmm. Difficult one. Better get a committee together...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Get drawn into a book

Another of the books in the series
We all like the feeling of being immersed in a book that we're reading. You could say that you get drawn into the book. Now there's a chance to have this happen literally.

It's a rather fun idea from my UK publisher Icon. They produce the pocket-sized 'Introducing, a graphic guide' books, which combine punchy text with artist-created illustrations. You can see the kind of thing in this sneak peak of Introducing Relativity, though I have to say that the illustrations in the new book are much crisper and better drawn than these appear to be in the sample. Icon is running a competition to get a cameo role by being drawn in a new book by a well known popular science author (ahem), Introducing Infinity. So the winner will have themselves drawn as one of the figures in an image illustrating one of the pages.

To enter all you have to do is summarize a topic that the Introducing series covers in 100 characters in a tweet which contains both the hashtag #beinabook and the link http://tinyurl.com/bpal8od (that's just a link to their competition page). Simples, as all the best meerkats say. The closing date is 5pm GMT on Thursday 5th January 2012. The winner (judged most amusing and accurate by Icon Editorial Director Duncan Heath and me - sadly bribes are not allowed) appears in the book, while the 25 runners up get a free copy of an Introducing book.

That should be enough to enter, but to find out more see Icon's page on the competition, and to see the range of topics, here's a list of their books.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Turner tat

They thought if they did it in Gateshead no one would notice
Last week was Turner Prize time again (sorry for the delay in commenting on this, but another artform, Playboy, seems to have got in the way). Yes, it was that annual opportunity for those who have the suspicion that much of the arts is pretentious claptrap to have a field day.

The slightly surprising discovery was that I really liked Martin Boyce's winning exhibit Do Words Have Voices. Admittedly I haven't seen it for real, but from what I've seen in photos/ on the TV it is very impressive, and certainly no pile of bricks or dirty bed.

However the arts community can't yet emerge from its bunker grinning with relief. ('I say, Brian Clegg liked it. Can you believe it? Now we can have a happy Christmas!') Because I still heard a load of posing garbage spouted about it on the TV and radio.

What particularly got me was the way the arty types were saying of various entries (including the winner) 'Of course, only those in the know will appreciate this.' Apparently you have to be one of the cognoscenti to get anything out of these 'art works' because understanding them is all about spotting subtle references. If that is true, then what we are dealing with is not art, it's an in-joke. The whole point of art is to communicate. If the art doesn't do that unless you get the in-jokes, it's crap art. End of.

Picture from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

My photo is in Playboy

Don't get too excited now, but my photograph has appeared in Playboy magazine. (December issue if you're interested.) Here it is:
Okay, not necessarily what you were thinking of, but that's definitely my photo and you can take my word for it that it's a cutting from Playboy, specifically the edition shown here.

I must confess that I have never bought a copy of Playboy (no, honestly), so I was always very dubious about those people who claimed that they only bought it for the articles - but I must admit there was a lot more text in it than there were dubious photographs (and they were relatively tasteful). And, of course, all the great writers had pieces published in this august journal.

As the 'playbill' intro suggests, what is featured is a piece adapted from How to Build a Time Machine, so if you're a regular Playboy reader (for the articles, of course), you can get a bit of a preview of some of the material on offer. They've done quite a dramatic job with the opening spread, as you'll see with part of it below (though the real thing looks more impressive). I don't know if they have different versions of the magazine worldwide, but it's certainly in the US edition.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Goodbye Mr Higgs

The only Higgs definitely spotted
Or not. There have been a lot of rumours flying around the physics world as to whether or not the latest batch of info from CERN, released tomorrow, would include a sighting of the infamous Higgs boson. Frankly, as rumours go they don't have the same bite as a good sex scandal, but, hey, this science.

The search for the Higgs is, of course, one of the main justifications for building the LHC. This is a hypothetical particle that may be responsible for giving some of the other particles their mass. But something that the newspapers don't seem to grasp is that the LHC would be just as much a success if it showed that the Higgs doesn't exist. Personally, I'd prefer it if it doesn't.

There are bits of physics which have a kind of neat, natural simplicity. This doesn't necessarily mean that the maths is simple. I would include the notoriously tricksy general relativity in this class. But quite a lot of the more recent physics depends very heavily on complex, intertwined sets of mathematical conjecture - and I really don't like that. My not liking it doesn't make it wrong, but I would prefer it if the whole tangled structure was brought crashing down and someone came up with a more satisfying solution.

So part of me will be happy if the Higgs gets pinned down, because at least we will be making progress - but that happiness will be accompanied by a deep sigh. Because the alternative, whatever it turns out to be, could be more exciting - and much more approachable. Is that irrational? Quite possibly. But it doesn't stop me hoping that they don't find the Higgs boson.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 9 December 2011

Reach for the aqua fortis

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

Although chemists can devise some impressively catchy names –‘photon’, for example was coined by the chemist Gilbert Lewis – the standard naming conventions of chemistry can be a little dull. Nitric acid seems an uninspiring name for such a powerful compound. The old name ‘aqua fortis’ – literally strong water – has a much more appealing ring to it. Have a listen to find out more about this hugely important industrial compound.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Back to the Future

I know I've mentioned it a bit already, but I'm delighted to say that my latest book, How to Build a Time Machine is now published in the US and available in all good book stores/online. You can read more about it/buy a copy if so inclined at its web page. It also has a Facebook page for those interested/who want to discuss it and the physics of time travel.

Until recently, travelling through time seemed little more than fantasy. But quantum theory and particularly relativity open up ways to make time travel possible - and I still find it remarkable that no physical law prevents it.

How to Build a Time Machine explores our best understanding of time but really concentrates on how to manipulate it. There's the story of a time traveller's convention where no one turned up, and a tour through the remarkable possibilities of real time travel that emerge from quantum entanglement, superluminal speeds, neutron star cylinders and wormholes in space. There's even a physics professor who believes it's possible to build a working general relativity time machine on the desktop. I think it's just a fascinating subject.
If anyone in the UK fancies a copy, I'm afraid it doesn't come out here until January (as Build Your Own Time Machine) - but it can already be pre-ordered from Amazon, via the book's web page.

It's a bit soon for reviews (except those sent through a time machine), but here's a couple of early comments:

Brian Clegg conjectures on the world of time and space travel and brings it all beautifully down to earth. Brilliant. - Johnny Ball 
A solid overview of some of the quirkier corners of physics, with an entertaining connection to pop culture. - Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Spot on Monbiot

If I'm honest,George Monbiot has not always been my favourite environmental writer. Sometimes in the past he has come across as po-faced and impractical in his ideas. But I wholeheartedly support his Guardian article on Tuesday supporting nuclear energy.

He points out the vast damage the anti-nuclear lobby is doing to the environment. How, for example, the knee-jerk panic of the Germans shutting down their nuclear programme will result in an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere between now and 2020 alone.

He is also brave to point out at least two significant examples of totally spurious information being used to bolster the anti-nuclear cause. One is from an individual selling 'anti-radiation' pills whose claims have been exposed as false, yet whose 'findings' are widely used by anti-nuclear protestors. Another is the ludicrous statistics from Chernobyl, again brandished by the campaigners, claiming amongst other things that deaths from cirrhosis of the liver were caused by the nuclear accident. I was a trustee of a charity working in Belarus, and I can assure you that a much more obvious cause is by far the biggest medical threat there, not radiation.

I love the way Monbiot aligns anti-nuclear protestors with supporters of homeopathy and anti-vaccine campaigners. When misused it's exactly the same kind of dangerous woo. Great stuff, George.

He finishes with details of a fantastic sounding reactor that can produce energy safely and in large quantities from nuclear waste. While I can't believe it's quite the no-brainier he suggests, it sounds amazing. My suspicion is that it will be expensive, as otherwise the government would be biting people's hands off to get it. Yet it certainly sounds the way forward.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

It's too soon

A Christmas tree (not this year) plus reindeer substitute
I can't say I'm overwhelmed by the way people seem to be decorating their houses earlier and earlier for Christmas. I must admit I'm extreme. Given a free hand I wouldn't put anything up until a week before, but I have to give way to family pressure and go for a fortnight before. However I was quite surprised how many Christmas decorations I saw on houses in November.

Days-to-Christmas-ometer
It's not that I'm against Christmas jolity. And I must admit our days-to-Christmas-ometer does go up at the start of December. But I think there are good arguments for not decorating too early:
  1. If you do, you've given in to the shopkeepers. There was a time when no one would have decorations up this early. But as shops have pushed back the point they go into Christmas mode sooner and sooner, so houses have started to get their fairy lights out of the loft at an earlier date. I think we should stand up for our right not to be hustled into Christmas decor too soon.
  2. If you have a real tree it will be looking pretty sad by Christmas Day. This is, after all, the start of Christmas, and more to the point, the day when you are likely to spend more time in proximity to your Christmas tree than any other. Remember it has to last another 12 days after this. Get it at the start of December and it will be balding by Christmas Day.
  3. You can only sustain so much 'specialness'. If the decorations are up all through December they have become everday by the 25th. The whole point is to make Christmas special, but there's a real danger it just becomes part of the wallpaper.
So give it a thought. Let's have a campaign for a real Christmas and not an extended retail period.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Strangely pleasant

Now here's a challenge. I quite often write a bit of a blog post when an idea occurs to me, then fill it in later. Thanks to Blogger's mobile app, I can do this anywhere, tapping it in on my phone. So I'll write a title and a couple of lines of text that summarize the idea, then fill in the details later.

This particular post started that way, but with a difference. All I wrote was the title. And I can't for the life of me remember what it was supposed to be about.

It certainly wasn't about the sensation you get when you pull a piece of dry skin off yourself, though I do find this strangely pleasant. (I still remember when, age 10, I broke my arm and after the plaster came off the entire arm was covered in dry skin. Heaven.)

Nor was it about the slightly related pleasure that comes from an unopened jar of instant coffee. You take off the lid and there underneath is that pristine seal, waiting to be broken through. For some reason I remember discussing this with someone I used to work with at British Airways (I don't suppose you remember, Sue), well over 20 years ago. We both agreed about the pleasure, but then discovered it was from a totally different action. Mine was to run the end of a spoon around the edge, crisply slitting it open. Hers was to attack it with a spoon, bashing dramatically through. (Freudians have a field day. But remember psychoanalysis has no scientific basis.)

So what did it concern? Junk food? The peace that sometimes unexpectedly turns up during the day? Cadbury's Whole Nut? I really have no idea. Perhaps you have some thoughts...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Some different Christmas music

It's that time of year when, should you venture into a shopping mall or supermarket, you will be bombarded with Christmas music. Similarly the radio stations be increasingly groaning with Christmas tunes. Now, I like Christmas music. And I can't be humbuggy enough to point out that it's currently Advent, and Christmas doesn't start until December 25th. For some reason, Christmas music is all about anticipation. But I just wish they pumped out a bit more variety.

There are about 10 Christmas carols and 10 Christmas songs (please, not Slade!) that will get circulated over and over again. But it really doesn't have to be like this. I try to buy myself a new CD of Christmas carols every year, and this year went for this one - Fear and Rejoice, O People. It's mostly quite modern stuff (in the sense of post 1900), but nothing too weird.

There's a good mix of really top notch numbers, from the moving Howells Sing Lullaby that opens the disc to Tavener's hypnotic A Hymn to the Mother of God at the end. Generally the performances from St John's College Cambridge under Christopher Robinson are excellent, though the solo trebles are perhaps lacking in a little welly. The inevitable Rutter is one of his most subtle, There is a flower. There are two of Robinson's own carols - I preferred his traditional Hereford Carol, though Fear and Rejoice is interesting. Two lesser known treats are Geraint Lewis's Howells-like A little hymn to Mary and Arthur Oldham's Remember, O thou man, which has become one of my favourite choir carols since singing it at the Oxford University Physics Department Carol Service a couple of years ago.

Overall I really liked it. You can hear samples of the tracks at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. If you want to stretch your Christmas music experience there's a whole range of recommended CDs here, from traditional carols to quite challenging modern stuff.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Flipping coins!

Thanks to Peet Morris for this excellent example of probability running counter to common sense.

Imagine I have a huge stack of coins and flip them one after another. These are fair coins, with a 50:50 chance of coming up heads or tails.

First of all I flip the coins one after another (leaving the flipped coins on the table) until the sequence H T H comes up. At that point I stop and count the coins. Then I repeat this experiment many times.

For the second part I again flip the coins, leaving them on the table, until the sequence H T T comes up. At that point I stop and count the coins. Then I repeat the experiment many times.

On average would you expect it to take more flips to produce H T H, more flips to produce H T T or the same number of flips?

Common sense says this is pretty obvious. It's the same number of flips. And certainly if I take three coins and flip them, there's the same chance of H T H or H T T coming up. But, remarkably, things are different in the experiment above. On average you will take fewer flips to produce H T T than you would to to produce H T H.

Just take a moment to think how that might be possible.

Here's the sneaky probabalistic component that isn't obvious: in both cases, you need the sequence H T to come up first. Now imagine that you then get the wrong face on the next flip. So if you were looking for H T H you actually get H T T and vice versa. With this starting point, H T T has an advantage. If you were looking for H T T, and actually got H T H, then the last coin in the sequence is H. So you only need T T to complete your sequence. If you were looking for H T H and actually got H T T, then the last coin the sequence is T, so you need all three of H T H to complete the sequence.

The reason H T T does better is that the sequence of faces that isn't correct ends in the face that starts your sequence. For H T H, the wrong result produces a bad starting point, so you have to run the exercise that bit longer.