My Olympic predictions: How did I do it?
I’ve just pulled off the most audacious stunt in a life littered with audacity. And I say this as a man who’s first TV appearance was doing an unrehearsed piece to a live audience of 9.5 million viewers on BBC One News Year’s Eve. I’ve also unthinkingly answered “yes” when girlfriends have asked if the dress they were wearing made their actually perfect derriere look fatter than it truly is and once I even bit into a McDonalds Apple Pie a mere hour after it left the oven narrowly escaping third degree burns.
What I’m saying is – I take risks. None more so than the adventure of the last few days.
You see, while you’ve all been cheering on Tom Daley and co. I’ve been watching the Olympics results with a growing anxiety, because I predicted the final medal tally on 2 August, sealed the prediction into a box, hung the box in a public place and effectively gambled my reputation and career on getting it right.
For those who don’t know I’m a comedy mind reader and I have a show at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe and (again, for those who don’t know) the Fringe is effectively the Olympics of the entertainment world – there are 2,695 shows in 279 venues made up of an estimated 22,457 performers. Careers are made and lost here and this year there’s a problem.
The problem is this: The Olympics ran 27 July to 12 August and the Edinburgh Fringe runs 2 to 27 August – The two Greatest Shows on Earth are in the same country at the same time but 410 miles apart.
It’s been the elephant in the room since last year and everyone at Edinburgh has tried to deny it but the truth is, as expected it’s had a huge effect on ticket sales.
Now, this bothered me greatly as this year was to be my “big break”.
A year ago I took my first ever Ed fringe show up to perform as a free show in a tiny grotty room above a pub and the Cinderella moment happened for me – I was spotted by the biggest and best comedy promoter on the planet, Mick Perrin, who basically said “let me take you away from all this.” And so I found myself with a terrifyingly huge room to fill in the world famous Gilded Balloon Venue.
This is my big break and I was damned if I was going to let trifling things like being a total unknown competing for the attention of Olympic sapped dwindling audiences against huge names like Paul Merton, Richard Herring and Reg D Hunter spoil it.
I needed a plan. I needed a stunt. I needed some way to bridge that 410 mile gap between Stratford and Bristo Square in Edinburgh.
The answer for a mind reading act like mine seemed really obvious – I’d just perform a miracle and predict the final medal tally of the Olympics then persuade the BBC to let me open the predictions on one of their flagship shows – Simples! As that irritating meerkat says.
So a year ago I told my PR team that was the plan and then set about trying to figure out exactly how on earth I was going to do it – like I said: audacious.
As I say in my show, there’s nothing spooky or psychic about what I do, all I’m doing is using one or more of the following skills from my background in psychology and advertising:
- Persuasion techniques
- Subliminal influence
- Observing people
- and two key advertising skills of: Cheating & Lying.
I was talking about what I was trying to do to one of my old advertising friends who now lectures in statistics and he told me about a friend of a friend who had heard about a Ukrainian computer scientist who predicted complex weather systems using Measure-theoretic probability theory, Convergence of random variables and a bunch of other stuff I barely followed.
A complicated sequence of cagy introductions followed using email addresses set up just to connect and then eventually instant messenger services using one off “handles” and I found myself explaining my tawdry notion to “Sergei” (now Sergei’s not his name, neither does he live in the Ukraine but as you’ll see later, Sergei doesn’t want to be identified) incredibly when I told him what I wanted to do he said “Yes. I predicted the scores of the 2010 Superbowl play off matches as an intellectual exercise”.
I nearly fell off my chair – This was exactly what I needed. Granted the Olympics is far more complex a structure than ten games of American Football, but I had some ideas of my own about how to structure that, so I asked him.
And he flatly refused. You see although Sergei doesn’t live in the Ukraine anymore, he has family who do and there are gangsters in the Ukraine, gangsters who if they knew they had a foolproof (or at least pretty likely) way of predicting the results of major sporting events….. Well let’s just say Sergei didn’t like the idea of them knowing.
He also pointed out I’d be in danger too. I didn’t like that.
So the next month was spent trying to persuade him and find a way it’d be safe for all of us.
These were the rules.
As it stands I don’t know Sergei’s real name or anything beyond the fact that he lives somewhere in North America. Likewise the only thing he knows about me is my name and what I intended to do.
He would create the algorithm using data I supplied him but I would have no access to the algorithm which he would delete the second it finished running. There would be no record kept.
This is strictly a one off event.
The email addresses and IM names we used would be deleted. I have no way of contacting him ever again.
I was not allowed to bet using the prediction nor was I allowed to reveal the prediction until at least a day after the last Olympic event.
We set to work and for a while it all looked fine until Sergei said “There are over 20,000 data points here. You know we don’t have enough computing power for this to be anymore than a theory right?”
Then I remembered Sergei explaining to me about Distributed Computing. This is where the general public donate the downtime on their home computers to important scientific projects, in effect creating a super computer.
Now, I don’t want to go into details because this bit of the story is a little murky but let’s all just say a big “thank you” to the 630,000 people who “lent” me a little bit of their downtime every day. The quest to understand how proteins fold can now continue unabated.
So eventually we were there – We had to wait until the Olympics had been running for a day or two to ensure the weather data was as accurate as possible but at exactly 4.53pm on 2 August “Sergei” emailed me three lines, wished me goodbye and good luck and melted into the ether.
I took a 20 foot long scroll, wrote “Prediction: 1st USA: Gold = 46 Silver = 29 Bronze = 29 | 2nd CHINA: Gold = 38 Sliver = 27 Bronze = 22 | 3rd GREAT BRITAIN: Gold = 29 Silver = 17 Bronze = 17 Just kidding! Bronze = 19”, sealed it into a spaghetti jar, put the spaghetti jar in a box locked the box, deleted the email and made my way up to the Gilded Balloon press launch.
Seconds later, on stage, in front of the entire assembled press a terrifying thought struck me – What if it was all a joke? What if there was no Sergei? What if it was just one of my friends playing an elaborate practical joke on me?
I’d felt so smug as I confidently scrawled “just kidding” but I could look like a total idiot.
We then took the box, wrapped in cling film and sealed with signed A4 stickers, and hung it on public display in the Gilded Balloon box office.
And then I waited. I waited a very long 10 days.
Yet the box dangled literally over my head like The Sword Of Damocles.
Finally the Olympics ended and – IT BLOODY WORKED!!!
We opened the box today on the Fred MacAulay show to rapturous applause and hopefully more press will follow.
I’ll tell you this though. Next year I’m just buying some posters.
Doug Segal – How to Read Minds and Influence People – Gilded Balloon @ 19:00, Edinburgh Festival
Image credit: Mihaela BodlovicTagged in: comedy, edinburgh festival, Olympic predictions
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