The consolations of clothes pegs

'Housewives forecast a victory for the wrong end of the clothes peg; agnostics didn't care either way'
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Not long ago I found myself sitting opposite an old man on a train. When I had finished my daily paper, and discovered that I had brought the wrong book with me, I decided I could do worse than try a conversation with him. As a pretext, I made a comment on the announcement that had just been broadcast inaudibly by the guard.

Not long ago I found myself sitting opposite an old man on a train. When I had finished my daily paper, and discovered that I had brought the wrong book with me, I decided I could do worse than try a conversation with him. As a pretext, I made a comment on the announcement that had just been broadcast inaudibly by the guard.

"You'd think that a man who had been trained to punch a thousand tickets without error would be taught how to address the public accurately, wouldn't you?" I smiled at him.

He regarded me gravely.

"If that patronising remark is an attempt to get into conversation with me, young man," he said, "I should warn you that I am not good at small talk. Broader topics are more my game."

That shook me, I can tell you, but it was a long time since anyone had called me "young man", so I pressed on.

"And what is your broadest topic, sir?"

"What is my broadest topic? The nature of life itself."

"You are a philosopher, then?"

He half-nodded.

"But it all started with clothes pegs," he said.

I stared out of the window for a respectful while.

"Clothes pegs?" I said.

I knew that, given time, he would respond. He was bored, too, after all.

"Many years ago," he said, "I was doing a postgraduate project on the nature of probability - you know, the laws governing chance and all that. Well, on a visit home, I happened to be chatting to my mother as she hung up the laundry on the washing-line. She broke off at one point as she took a clothes peg out of her peg-bag and said: 'Isn't it funny how they never come out business end first?' I asked her what she meant by that, and she said that when you dipped your hand in a peg-bag for the next peg, it was a great help if you picked up the wide end first, the action end, and a great nuisance if you didn't, and mostly you were fated not to. It was against the odds, she said.

"Well, I pricked up my ears at this because it sounded like exactly the kind of thing I should research for my study of the laws of chance. So, I got a grant for a study of clothes-peg probability, and my old professor said it was quite an interesting idea, doing a study on clothes pegs coming out of a peg-bag, as long as the press didn't get to hear about it, and as long as I took expectations into account.

"'What do you mean, expectations?' I said.

"'Well,' he said, 'before you establish which comes out first, you should study people's expectations of which end they think will come out first. Get the perception of the probability first, and then the reality. Then collate them.'

"What he meant was that I should find out what result people expected from my experiment before I actually did it. So I did. I did a survey on what people thought the result of my experiment on clothes-peg removal would be. But then I encountered a problem."

He fell silent for a moment. The ticket-collector came on the intercom and told us about the next station stop. Then he started again.

"I found that people's expectation of the result depended on their cast of mind. Gambling types forecast an exact 50/50 result. Scientifically minded people thought that you would grasp the right end more often, simply because it was bigger and came to hand more easily. Housewives pessimistically forecast a victory for the wrong end. Agnostic types thought it didn't much matter either way, and didn't know or care what the result would be...

"Then I got to thinking about the categories of people that I had assumed for the purposes of the study, and wondered if there was any validity in them. Is there a 'gambling type'? Is there really such a thing as a 'scientifically minded' person? More broadly, is there really such a thing as the 'scientific community' that we hear so much about? So, before I got down to my clothes-peg study, I found myself doing a project on the variability of human attitude."

He paused again.

"Before I knew it, I was embarking on a lifetime of study of human nature, which took me into the nature of the brain and our neurological impulses."

"And what have you found?" I said.

"To be honest," he said, "whatever I have found out in a lifetime of research, my chief discovery is how much more there is still to be discovered."

"And which comes out first more often, the big end of the clothes peg or the small end?"

He looked at me, a bit sullenly.

"I can't remember," he said.

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