A Colombian reads a newspaper the day after Germany beat Brazil with a record 7-1 victory in their World Cup Brazil 2014 semi final. Photo: Getty Images
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Football is all the easier to love, or hate, because it is unquantifiable

Brazil's disintegration against Germany was shocking because it so utterly exceeded our expectations of what was likely to happen - and we enjoy football more because it resists predictability.

Sometime around the fourth goal, I descended into hysterics. No exaggeration - as Toni Kroos nicked the ball from Paulinho on the 25th minute and slotted the ball into the back of the net, almost from kickoff, moving and passing around Brazil's backline like cones laid out on a training pitch, I convulsed with hysterical laughter. When the rational disappears, we must confront the irrational and unexpected, and there was little as unexpected as Brazil capitulating as they did last night. When the fifth went in I had to leave the room.

My Twitter timeline was a series of exclamations, as close to an immediate, unmediated stream-of-consciousness as it ever has been, in fact. WOAH. WHAT. NO WAY. WHAT. WHAT. WOW. WHAT. FUCK. HAHAHA. MY GOD. For the first time in years it felt like Twitter wasn't immediate enough for us - not even during the 2012 Olympics, not even during that one hour period where Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford all won gold and the UK went delirious, had Twitter struggled to convey exactly how poorly we were understanding what we were seeing.

People calmed down and started making jokes again, though, of course, and my favourite was this:

Silver, of course, is the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, an ESPN-owned site with around a dozen full-time staff members who specialise in data journalism and "crunching numbers". They've been following the World Cup, generating probabilities of success for each match; before yesterday's, they had Brazil with a 65 per cent chance of beating Germany (and if Neymar and Thiago Silva had been available, that would have been scaled up to a 73 per cent chance).

Today, with hindsight, Silver has written a sort of mea culpa: "Time to eat some crow. That prediction stunk." He calls it a "black swan", a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his bestselling book of the same name. Silver writes: "Statistical models can fail at the extreme tails of a probability distribution. There often isn’t enough historical data to distinguish a 1-in-400 from a 1-in-4,000 from a 1-in-40,000 probability." Predicting the future based on past results and rankings is all well and good, but when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

His discussion of why that prediction was wrong, and what it missed, is interesting for what it shows about how suited data journalism is to a sport like football. That is, when you can't quantify every factor relevant to a prediction, you're not only limited in the accuracy of your prediction - you're limited in your ability to understand how you are limited. Silver points out that the betting markets were better than the official stats in predicting what would happen; he also ponders whether the loss of Neymar and Silva had more of an impact, and whether certain players (like goalkeeper Julio Cesar) underperformed to an unusual degree. What he doesn't appear to consider, though, is what almost every single pundit was talking about before, during and after the game: the pressure of the occasion getting to the Brazilian players, haunted by the significance of the national team's defeat in the 1950 World Cup, the infamous Maracanazo.

Silver's reputation comes from outstanding work in analysing baseball and politics. He was a prominent advocate of "sabermetrics" (as popularised by the book Moneyball), breaking the individual actions of players into statistical data that could be used to scout, coach and play more effectively than was ever previously possible. His political work was incredibly fun, too - fully aware that pundits might as well be have been picking through chicken guts when analysing the 2008 US presidential election, his blog (the original 538, not the current one) calmly, coolly, without partisan preference, did the maths and predicted the winner. By 2012, not only were many pundits angered by his repeated assertion that the race was anything other than "too close to call", there had emerged an entire counter-Silver part of the blogosphere - mostly Republican - which openly freaked out about his (correct) prediction of an Obama win. Silver's work was refreshing for its honesty - no more blowhards with agendas picking over the ramifications of this gaffe or that policy announcement, instead simple, clear polling data.

Baseball and politics, of course, are not immune from black swan events - but they're also mostly very predictable, at least at the highest level. Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess; sampling and polling techniques are now so sophisticated that a statistician can remove almost all doubt from an electoral race. This is not a piece that argues that football is "better" than baseball or politics as a sport because it wriggles out from under any microscope that is applied to it - but instead, this is about how loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity.

To illustrate this, we can turn to physicist Stephen Hawking. In May, before the World Cup began, the betting firm Paddy Power invited journalists to the Savoy hotel in London to see him deliver "an exclusive research presentation of HOW ENGLAND CAN WIN THE WORLD CUP (sic)". Hawking may well be a hack - and as much as, eg, his Specsavers ad is ridiculous, turning a career in physics into lucrative endorsement opportunities and pop culture notoriety is no easy feat - but he actually produced a report, with facts, and numbers.

You can download it here. It's very clear why Hawking didn't submit it for peer review - his data sets are small and unlikely to produce results which are statistically significant, for a start - but I still like to bring it up because it's not that much more silly than FiveThirtyEight's football coverage. The factors Hawking considers in his analysis - distance from home nation to host stadium, temperature on game day, stadium altitude, kick-off time, colour of shirt (seriously, it's a factor in many competitive sports), player ages, age of captain, referee nationality, continent of origin for opposition team, team formation - are all things that do play a part in influencing the likelihood of a football match.

It's in the generalisations, though, that we can see just how hard it is to quantify this sport. Players having to travel long distances to a game obviously changes how physically prepared they are - but how much, exactly? Does it matter if they're travelling across time zones (England to Brazil in 2014) or not (England to South Africa in 2010)? What if some players are travelling further than others because they play club football in a different country? Players in their mid-20s are going to be more dynamic, faster, quicker to accelerate than players in their 30s - but has the "prime" of a professional player changed over the decades as sports scientists have improved their understanding of how to train the human body? A referee from a certain country might be biased against or towards a team in 2014 - but what if changing geopolitical circumstances change that bias over time?

It's like trying to draw an outline around your own shadow - every move of the arm changes its shape, reveals that the shadow is an ever-changing thing. There was no way to quantify the emotional state of the Brazilian team in Belo Horizonte last night before the game, nor the atmosphere created by the crowd, nor the significance of the occasion, nor the pressure David Luiz must have felt as he led his team out for the first time as captain in a World Cup semi-final and the no-doubt nagging worry in his head that something might go wrong.

This World Cup is already being spoken about as one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all, because of its shocks. It's a competition of contradiction, in this regard. Every day brought matches which ignored predetermined narratives of who "should" win and who "should" score, and yet the sum total of our surprise has been four semi-finalists who are possibly the most predictable imaginable - Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina. In turn, we got to see Brazil taken apart by Germany more readily than any match between a giant and a minnow in the knockout rounds; it was the kind of result that should befall Costa Rica facing Italy, or Iran facing Argentina. It has been both shocking and predictable simultaneously.

I was amazed recently to discover that there isn't even an agreed-upon best way to measure possession. Football - like basketball, or hockey, and any other sport with a similar kind of freedom of expression - demands an acceptance of uncertainty in exchange for its love. The shock is the joy.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Westminster terror: Parliament hit by deadly attack

The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident". 

A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, plus the attacker, and injured at least 40 others. 

Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.

At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers. 

Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.

The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released. 

Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."

After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed. 

Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups. 

The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."

The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."

George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:

From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.   

According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack. 

A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.

MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned. 

Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."

Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy. 

While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations. 

Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament. 

In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings. 

A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."

Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition. 

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.