Category Archives: Sports

England’s World Cup Failure: A nerd explains why all the pundits are wrong

worldcupfootballEvery time I hear another pundit explaining their theory behind England’s failure at the world cup I get all hot and bothered. My wife could literally not care less about football or my feelings on the subject, so I thought I would share my them with you ūüėČ

You see, it seems that football does not benefit, as cricket and baseball do, from that important type of pundit, the statistician.

For if they did, they would realise that failing to make it into the last 16 this year is not a failure at all.

Why? Because we have to remember that there are, at time of writing, 209 national men’s teams registered with FIFA – and that FIFA estimates that 250 million people play the beautiful game. So just getting to the finals is a real achievement.

On the other hand you can argue that England should be in the top flight – it has a decent population, it has money to spend and many aspirational heroes.

Well.. it does do well, currently, England is ranked 10th in the world, and has often been higher. But does that mean it should always reach the last 16 of the world cup? No.

Take a step back. Even with so many teams, that world ranking should mean a team like England should make it ‘usually’, but certainly not always. Indeed, it has made the last 16 every time since 1958, indeed it’s a surprise to me that they have run so long without missing out.

It has always been known that football has a ‘luck factor’ indeed this is one of its best features – upsets happen – and that is why the league has a round-robin design, and also why some tournaments are done by knockout – the league aims to find the best teams, tournaments aim to find the best moments.

England did not play badly this world cup. The goals conceded were really pretty darn good, and England had more shots on goal than their opponents. But for the rub of the green, they could have been through and lauded by all. So how can the pundits have such strong opinions?

Easy. Because it’s their job to sound like they know.

WorldCupRankingsPlot

Addendum
So how have teams like Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands managed to spend so much time in the top 3? If it was all luck, they would not. Well, this means that there are actually recipes for better performance, elusive but real…

However, just as the government would hate for you realise they do not control the economy, football pundits and administrators alike would not like you to know (or indeed to know themselves) that this recipe is largely outside of their control – the biggest factors being: population size, other games to play, weather, virtuous circles (inspiration, promise of fame, etc) and last but certainly not least, luck.

Energy Drink Misinformation

Zero calorie ‘energy’ drinks piss me off. Why?

A zero calorie energy drink is a flat-out contradiction. 

Think about it. What is a calorie? If you don’t know, look it up. Yes, exactly, it is a measure of… energy content! WTF?

What I want to know is this: how come we let big business redefine our language to their own greedy ends? I mean the people who make low-calorie energy drinks know they have no energy in them, so why are they called energy drinks?

I think its because energy is a misunderstood concept and they are taking advantage of this.

Understanding what energy is (and more importantly isn’t) will allow people to more accurately decide things correctly – like whether it’s a good idea to try hike 100 miles across a desert armed only with zero calorie energy drinks.

So for background, please take a look at my article on energy designed for people with too little time to read a whole book, or even a pamplet.

Now, the specific issue here is that people are confusing energy sources with stimulants. Sure, the sugary versions do actually supply some energy, but no more than a can of Coke Рbut these guys are not charging those absurd prices for sugar Рthose prices, and claims, are for the drugs. Compounds like caffeine affect our nervous system and interfere with our built-in protection systems, systems that make us feel tired after effort, mechanisms that force us to get the sleep we need in order to rest our muscles and reboot our brains.

The issue here is that the word stimulant is not as easy to sell as ‘energy’, and the English language does allow us to mix up feeling ‘energetic’ with feeling alert and ready for action. ¬†The nerdy scientific truth issue here is that tired people actually still actually have plenty of energy (especially if they are prosperous about the middle) it is just their inclination to use that energy that changes.

So next time you feel tired but need to keep going, by all means get a ‘so-called’ energy drink but remember it is mainly just a drug. The next time you hit a wall 20 miles into a marathon, remember to get some real energy.

 

 

Postscript

So is messing with you body’s tiredness systems bad?¬†Not necessarily! We must also resist overreacting and committing another crime – resorting to the¬†naturalistic fallacy that messing with nature is fundamentally a bad idea. I quite like it when medical science messes with natural things like smallpox and malaria for example.¬†Stimulants are not all bad, keeping alert can keep us safe when driving, and used in moderation can actually help us focus through tedious study or exams.

The compensation factor – or why shoes might just be bad for your feet

There are many modern innovations around which we take for granted as good, that are, indeed, not.

Some interventions, such as seat belts, are shown by statistics to save lives, and as the cost of strapping in is not too high, so the case in favour is strong.

But what about modern running shoes? It may be turning out that nice cushiony running shoes actually cause more injuries than they prevent Рand for a similar reason that taking out all the safety features from a traffic intersection may actually make it safer.

Why is this so?

It seems in these latter cases that making people safer only leads them to take more risks, sometimes cancelling out the benefit completely – this is has been termed “risk compensation” – but how does that apply to running shoes?

It turns out the cushioning makes us feel safe – safe to slam down our heels without feeling the shock. It also turns out that while it may feel ok, it allows us to use our foot in a way it was never intended, and results in far greater forces going up our legs.

Think for a moment about the foot of a cheetah, or a deer, or a dog. Ask yourself, where is the heel?

Of course, it is clear once you think about it, it’s way up the leg, far from the floor! And do you think a cheetah has thuds of force going up its spine? I don’t!

Ok, so someone could point out we did not evolve from gazelles and they could also point out that no other primates show a raised heel; true enough Рbut primates started off as rubbish runners, and it was only the humans that  started down the road to better feet for running during all those years hunting on the African savanna. Whenever there is selective pressure to run, that great engineer (evolution) eventually finds that a raised heel is the optimal solution Рremembering of course that the engineer has only the stump of a redundant old fin to work with. Of course, the invention of shoes (and ultimately cars) has completely removed the shaping forces, so I guess our heels will fall once more.

Don’t agree? Ok, pop on those big comfy shoes, and just like a beemer driver cruising at 100mph, tell yourself its safe to slam down those heels ūüėČ

Some interesting sources:

  1. Walking robot Рgee look, to make it work, they abandoned heels: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sv35ItWLBBk
  2. Walking robot “with heels” seems to need bizarre extra hip mobility:¬†http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67CUudkjEG4&NR=1
  3. Even Nike, they who started the whole thing now seem to admit openly that bare is best, and sell you the shoe that does it for $90: http://inside.nike.com/blogs/nikerunning_news-en_CA/2009/07/12/engineering-the-nike-free-50
  4. Take a sneak-peek into the barefoot community: http://www.barefootted.com
  5. Oh, and I got put on the scent of this by Christopher McDougall’s excellent book, Born to Run: http://www.chrismcdougall.com/
  6. In the wiki for Risk Compensation it interesting to learn that in Sweden, traffic collision rates dropped for 18 months after they changed which side of the road they drove on. Wow!
  7. The classic tale about how making roads seem more dangerous made them safer: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html

The Amgen Tour of California – a few pictures

I though I would pop up a few pictures I took today watching the tour of California. My wife (the professional) suggested I should have stopped after the first one. And she could not repress the hint of a sneer as we scrolled down past #3. I could read it in her eyes: photoshop filters, she was thinking, should require a license. I guess I’ll need to keep my day job ūüôā

On the plus side, the bottom one actually seems to get a little clearer if you blur your eyes. Especially the front wheel which comes into shape. Prizes for anyone who explains it!

The ref’s word is the law: pragmatism in science and the legal system

The Silent Contract

If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is good chance you have experienced a blatant error by the referee. If you are anything like me, and if the game is balanced on a knife edge, there is a good chance your blood pressure shot right up and you had some kind words to say about the ref’s eyesight and quite possibly the ref’s mother too.

And if you are like me you would look back later and realise you were somewhat out of order. It was, after all, at worst an error, and no ref is perfect.

However, in those moments of blind frustration, ¬†that rule: “the ref’s word is final” seems so wrong. In big-brother/1984 style, once the ref says it was a foul, it was a foul and unless he changes his mind within a few seconds it will be forever recorded in¬†history¬†as a foul. The real true events become an¬†irrelevant¬†fantasy.

This policy clearly does not serve the ‘truth’, so why has it developed in so many sports?

Most footballers understand why – and most judges understand why.

Let us consider what would happen if the ref’s word were not final.

Imagine a system of democratic debate and judgement over all close-calls at a sports event. Recall that all contenders and most of the audience are highly partisan. It would not be football, it would be a debate. It is obvious you need someone impartial, and you need something quick.

So what actually happens is that all stakeholders enter a¬†silent¬†contract to accept the ref’s errors in order to keep the game lively.

Implications in Law

So we have an example where we in society are willing to accept that the truth is not the priority. I am OK with this on the football field, but this type of pragmatism is actually used every day in the legal system, which is rather scary to me.

There is a lot in common between a ref and a judge, or indeed a jury. It falls on them to decide the official version of truth based upon the available evidence.

However, because the consequences of legal judgement are routinely more extreme than a free-kick, a more considered system usually develops. In most western courts, there is now a ‘threshold’ (called ‘reasonable doubt’ in the US) beyond which ‘the probable” becomes ‘the fact’. If this sounds rather crude, its because it is – they are saying that after they look at the evidence, and place the judgement on a scale of probability (0-100%) that they will set a number, above which the person is guilty and below which they are not – giving our grey world a little more contrast.

If they set the threshold at 100%, to ensure that no innocent man is ever convicted, you would convict no one. If they lower it to get more practical conviction rates, they will soon start to convict the innocent. Thus a compromise needs to be reached Рthe exact level will be a moving feast, but will generally reflect the culture and the Zeitgeist.

The Alternative…

Who else has has to make a call about truth?

Scientists are also trying to discern ‘truth’ – about magnetism, about cellular function, about ¬†black holes, well about most everything really.

Yes, they do use pragmatism – we, for example, continue to use Newton’s Laws in most calculations because we know they work well enough for most practical¬†purposes. We also continue¬†to build on theories that have inherent contradictions (meaning that are probably flawed), because history has shown that such pragmatism still ¬†moves us forward and is better than getting ‘stuck’. Yes, it does lead to some waste, some researcher’s entire lives are built on earlier mistakes that were ‘pragmatically’ ignored (think of homeopathy).

However, in the end, the scientist has to keep record of all pragmatism and return to it and root it out, because in science, the truth is the target, and no compromise can be left on the books.

This raises an interesting tension when a scientist is brought into legal proceedings to provide ‘opinion’. Judges (and politicians) mistakenly think that science deals in facts (not probabilities), and would also ask a scientist to make a pragmatic call ‘yes, this is the suspect’s DNA’. A good scientist would leave judgement to the judge and sprinkle their statements liberally with the word ‘probability’.

But can a legal system make judgements with probabilities? Without thresholds and verdicts? Could we dole out punishment in proportion to the probability of guilt? Could we¬†punish¬†several people for one crime if we know one of them did it? I don’t know if we could.

Has such a system cropped up anywhere? I don’t know if it has.

Open Verdict

So science can leave matters undecided on the basis that more evidence may come, but science too, from time to time, may benefit from a little pragmatism – because just as in the law-courts, we have the power to set potential¬†killers loose with our inability to be decisive. Think of ¬†two words:¬†‘global’ and ‘warming’.

Winning the toss

WARNING: Please do not even try to read this unless you are cricket fan. If you are not it will only irritate you ūüėČ thx.

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Test Cricket: Australia vs. South Africa: 6 tosses to ZERO, nada, nought. Time for a change in the rules.

by Jarrod Hart

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Winning the toss in cricket can be a very significant advantage, and lead to unfairness. Let me explain…

Firstly, I am going to admit that I am an avid cricket fan. And being a nerd too, this makes me doubly susceptible to a love affair with sports statistics.

I probably learnt most of my maths skills working out how many runs Graeme Pollock required to improve his season’s average, or calculating the run rate¬†required¬†by Clive Rice’s Transvaal team to win the Benson & Hedges night series final at the Wanderers.

So what is my problem with the toss?

In many sports there are environmental factors that skew the game – the sun shining in your eye when you serve, the dew on the putting green, the wind behind Jonny Wilkinson, and so on.

A cricket pitch is no different. Being composed of sand and grass, it is not wholly predictable – it is also prone to evolve over time.

It can therefore be a big advantage to bat first, or perhaps to bat second. The skilled captain can often tell what the pitch will do from looking at it. To make things fair, a coin toss is used to see who gets to choose who goes first. Fine. Over the course of years, all teams will win some and lose some.¬†However, with test matches taking five days each, the teams only play each other once every few years, so the ‘fairness’ may take a generation to arrive.¬†

The stats are clear. Winning the toss helps. Get the latest stats from wikipedia; at the time of writing 34.7% of toss winners had won the match. 30.8% of toss losers had won. The remainder draw/tie.

Some people will still say, oh, that’s not too big an effect, less than, say, the home advantage in football. Yes the numbers aren’t too dramatic, but what no-one seems to be pointing out is that that 3.9% difference is actually coming from a somewhat bigger difference in a smaller subset of the matches.

For example, many cricket tests are one-sided. That is to say, the favourite wins. In cricket upsets are fairly rare (rarer than in football for example). Draws yes, but complete reversals are not that common. This means that there have been lots of outclassed teams winning the toss (statistically, even the most outclassed team win the toss half the time). They have of course, mostly lost.

Secondly, there have been matches where the pitch really was constant. That is to say the toss didn’t help.

So we are left only with the matches between evenly matched teams on pitches that change. The 3.9% positive toss effect must be a stronger effect coming from this subset of the results.

I also have anecdotal evidence (all scientists, wince now). I have often watched a match, where the first team has scored 600 of a flat pitch, and then seen the second team face a ball that suddenly stays low or cuts around. We have recently seen some almighty thrashings, some by an innings plus. These by teams that were, just before the match, considered fairly equal.

Now we come to the present time. The #1 and #2 teams in the world have been locked in battle for several months. I am of course referring to the ongoing test series between South Africa and Australia. And Australia have just won their sixth toss in a row. They have won the last three matches, on ‘evolving’ pitches, and of course I am bitter, of course I am looking for excuses. But I am rational enough to see unfairness when it strikes.

I was not going to write about it. I knew it would come over as whining. Until a friend pointed out a simple solution: they could have one toss at the start of the series and then alternate the choices for the remaining tests, thereby preventing one team heaping the unfairness too high.

Today’s sixth win in a row for Australia was too much. We need a change in the rules. The South Africans have lost their #1 ranking to the toss, and it stinks.

The last 6 tests:

Test no. 1899 Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)

Test no. 1902  Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)

Test no. 1904  Toss won by Australia, match by Australia  (In Australia)

Test no. 1910 Toss won by Australia,  match by Australia (In SA)

Test no. 1913  Toss won by Australia,  match by Australia (In SA)

Test no. 1916 Yes, Toss won by Australia,  match ongoing (In SA)

Foot-note: Being a cricket stats nerd, it was of course sad news to hear that Bill Frindall, a peerless cricket analyst had died. He acted as the eye of a the nerd-storm that has been raging for years, about which most of the world was blissfully unaware. His death has left us all without bearing, little squalls in the night. ¬†CricInfo is not not quite the same. Yes, it’s rammed full of passionate staff, many of whom are nerds and scholars of the game, but it seems to lack the Frindall touch. I ask you this: who will care about this problem with the toss in this new world order? Bill would have.

How to jump higher

Have you ever noticed that in order to jump your highest, you need a few preparatory steps and a preparatory hop? Have you ever wondered why?

Well, perhaps sadly, I have. I was wondering if this was mere mental preparation – because surely your ability to jump high is going to be dictated by a) the power in your legs on the one hand, and b) your weight on the other hand?

Turns out it’s not.

But why not? And what do the preparatory leg movements do?

If you think the steps are “warming you muscles up” in preparation for the jump you are, in some sense, right – right that you are preparing, but its not the muscles you are preparing but the tendons…

But what are tendons, and what do they do? Good question.

I used to think that tendons were there to help glue the muscles to the skeleton, like the ropes on sailboats glue the sail to the mast and boom. I later realised that they also help make the body more ergonomic by allowing the muscles to be positioned ‘out-of-the-way’ as is the case for your hands; if all the muscles used for your fingers were actually in your fingers they would be rather fat, and not particularly dexterous.

Likewise, if you had to carry your calf muscles in your feet, it would make your feet somewhat heavier and mean you would have to swing lots of weight back-and-forth, up-and-down when you walk and run. Although the calves and thighs still have to move a bit, tendons have allowed the movement to be reduced substantially by connecting these muscle groups to the feet from safer havens further up the leg. 

Interestingly (to me anyway), this also explains why some people can’t bend their little finger independently of the second (ring) finger – they are sharing tendons that go right up the forearm!

Ah, but none of that explains why we need to hop before we can jump. ¬†True enough – there is another property or function of the tendon that had never occurred to me – until I read “The new science of strong materials” by J.E. Gordon (which I must recommend to scientists of all disciplines, it s a lovely book, I wish I had written it).

So what does a book on material science have to do with tendons? Well, it points out that tendon is unique among materials for its capacity to stretch and in doing so, to store energy. In other words, tendons make remarkably good springs (and explains why animal tendons have been used to make crossbows for thousands of years). 

Springs can be thought of as batteries, you put a bit of effort into stretching them now, and the effort is stored there for later use – to shoot an arrow for example.

So, ¬†it’s simple really, your legs are like a pair of crossbows: if you pre-stretch the tendons before the jump, and then co-ordinate the energy release to coincide with the power stroke of your muscles, you will jump higher.

And finally, it turns out that a rather good way to pre-stretch the tendons is to hop before we jump. So there you are!

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You will probably have noticed that good basket-ballers and high jumpers have taken this further (whether understanding it or not). They run along horizontally at a fair speed (gaining kinetic energy), and then thump down their leg at an angle, transferring all that kinetic energy into their tendons, and then re-cooping it in a vertical jumping burst. I have not done the maths, but I am willing to bet the tendons do much more work than the muscles in the crucial powering phase of the jump.

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Something to try:

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do 20 jumps in a row rather than 10 jumps with pauses between each one? This is because the pauses between jumps force you to dissipate the energy in your tendons, and so every jump is pure muscle work.

It is also worth noting that even the task of dissipating the energy stored in tendons is tiring for your body – the muscles actually work against the tendons to turn the energy into heat, which is similar to the work your muscles have to do when you walk down stairs.

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Final word…

The really nerdy readers (those after my own heart) will have further noted that this all goes a long way to explain why PE teachers seem to be so obsessed with stretching. You thought it was just to prevent injury? Think again – while it is essential to warm up and down carefully and stretching once warm does reduce the risk of injury, this is largely because stretching improves the condition of your tendons.

So don’t rush through the stretching next time you go to the gym; stretching and flexing your tendons may well do more to improve your athletic performance than muscle work. ¬†Tendons deserve a part in any workout, please don’t neglect them – they are, after all, the forgotten workhorse of the body.