July 14, 2010

World Cup Review: A Look at Paul the Prognosticating Octopus and the Jubulani Ball

Before I dive into some talk about the World Cup, I'd just like to briefly announce that I am proud to have Thoughts Explained join the Atheist Blogroll, to which a link is now permanently added to my sidebar. The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service on which many blogs with subject matter like this one can be found. If you have a blog that would like to be a part of this community then visit Mojoey, at the Deep Thoughts  blog to get the information needed to join. I encourage you to explore and join the community.

That being said I'll get right into the great spectacle that was the World Cup, but this isn't a sports blog, so I'm going to talk about the two related subjects that really interested me, the Jabulani Ball and Paul the Octopus. These two topics are interesting for individual reasons. The Jabulani Ball is interesting because of its relation to physics and expectations, while Paul the Octopus is interesting though probability and psychic power. 

I'll start with the Jabulani Ball because of the number of complaints that were made about it.  Keepers through-out the tournament have complained about the ball. Englands keeper let in a howler of a goal against the USA in opening game and the players blamed it on the movement of the ball.

Despite the criticism Adidas says that the ball is the culmination of years of scientific excellence, made with bonded 3-D panels. It is also touted as the roundest ball ever and by, "Being towards the higher end of the allowed [weight] scale means the flight will be truer and more predictable making keepers happy, but also rewarding accuracy for strikers."

So why then does the ball fly in an exactly opposite manner? This freekick by Diego Forlan is an example of that as it shows the ball moving back and forth as it moves toward the goal (Sorry about the music in that video, but it was the best one I could find of the balls flightpath).After the goal the keeper motions with his hands that he was fooled by the movement of the ball by moving his hands back and forth in a motion to his teammates. There is also more too this than some video evidence and the comments of the players who used the ball. Scientists have actually shown the the 'roundest ball ever' is too round. It is too round because when the foot hits the ball, the ball ends up with a tendency not to spin. Further problems of perfection exist in the internal stitching of the ball. The internal stitching causes no impurities on the balls surface to create a regular motion. 
This all adds up to the ball not flying in a predictable motion like a football spiral, but rather like a baseball pitcher throwing an unhittable knuckle-ball. That video of the knuckle-ball is great because you can actually see the laces of the ball and how the ball is not spinning at all, all this from the master of the knuckle-ball Tim Wakefield.  The lack of spin causes the ball not only to dip and dive, but move side to side and in an erratic manner making impossible for the pitcher to control and the hitter to know where the ball is going to go. When Adidas was thinking about making a perfectly round ball without any stitching they were making a ball made to knuckle, this was a huge oversight by them. Adding to the problems people had with reffing, was a ball that was made almost perfectly horrible for soccer.

From the unpredictable comes the one thing that did seem know the future, Paul the Prognosticating Octopus. Going 8 for 8 in the final stages of the Wold Cup and 10-12 total Paul did seem to know about what the result of future matches were going to be and has even went on to become the inspiration for an application that makes yes or no choices on the Iphone, and that isn't his only opportunity as he is said to be able to make millions. Yet, he is near the end of his life span and has retired from predicting anything further.

Yet how remarkable is Paul? I can say that he did better than I did, but how hard would it be to go 8 for 8 in guessing something that only has 2 outcomes. The answer is that the chance of going 8 for 8 is one in 256, which isn't that hard to do. So if different animals each make one of the possible 256 outcomes than one has to be right, which really wouldn't be too big a job for any one person with a farm to do. Each person could have their very own animal soccer predictor that always gets the answer right, so long as they did it in streaks of 8, when you start getting higher the odds really raise at a dramatic level (For instance if you wanted to try this in streaks of 12 instead of 8 you would need 4096 animals to ensure that you had one that had the correct outcome).

In doing research for this post, I came across a blog post from Propter Hoc entitled 'Flipping Our Coin'. Which does a great job at talking about probability and coin flips. It points out that any ordering of coin flips would still be 1 of 256 and that people only take into account patterns that are special as interesting because they are poor judgment makers of probability. When someone gets all the predictions right or all wrong then something miraculous has happened, but when they get a few wrong and a few right then, it seems to be ordinary. The problem is that getting a specific set of 4 wrongs and 4 rights is just as likely as getting all of them wrong or right, but we only attribute meaning to the latter.
Paul is a lucky mollusk (Great ween album), because we see his predictions as special, and not any of the other 256 possibilities.
Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. Derren Brown demonstrates this octopus thing in THE SYSTEM to beat the horse races. To explain how he did it, he does a coin toss of 10 coins, all of which land heads:


    Later in the show, he explains how he did it.


    Great post, and cool blog. :)

  2. Thanks for the compliments on the blog and for the link. The video is really just using probability and then hiding it, only to reveal it later.

    It does a good job showing how some scams work.