Being a Swede, born and bred, I have rarely encountered Magic 8-Balls outside TV and movies. In those circumstances, a character holds a Magic 8-Ball, activates it somehow (we’re never shown; I’ve never seen it shaken) and reads aloud what it has to say. I also read about how a special effects technician on some movie wanted to know how Magic 8-Balls worked since he wanted a similar effect in the movie, but the company refused to divulge the secret.
Since then, I have seen a Magic 8-Ball. And it’s so obviously just a polygon immersed in a blue liquid. There’s no secret. Also, the device needs to be vigorously shaken just to get the damn polygon to change sides so you see another message, and it can certainly not be used to produce a random message by any stretch of the imagination. Acknowledging the possibility that the balls I’ve seen are cheap knock-offs or something I browsed the little web, finding this record of the 8-Ball’s inner workings. Exactly what I expected.
How could this possibly ever be a big secret? How could it be a secret at all? Is it possible to make a Magic 8-Ball produce a result random enough to fool a casual observer? If so, what am I doing wrong?
Being in the US we’ve had magic 8 balls as far back as I remember.
I don’t recall anyone ever being puzzled at how they work.
That’s like having a special effects guy trying to figure out how dice work.
Let me rephrase a little. I’m under the impression that Magic 8-Balls are well known in the US. A part of the American cultural landscape, of you will. Why, then, is it that cinematic and televised portrayals of the device deviate so drastically from reality? For example, there was a Spin City episode centered around the thing, and it would be literally impossible to get any kind of results using the methods shown there. No-one would have a car in a TV show and without explanation have it start without the use of a key.
Furthermore, given that 8-Balls suck in that they have to be so vigorously (and non-randomly) shaken to get the polyhedron (thanks, Bytegeist; English is my second language) to switch sides, how come they got to be so popular? Or is it, including the pretense that there’s a big secret, all a big joke that I’ve failed to get until now?
While the Magic 8 Ball is well known to many Americans, I would bet that a much smaller percentage of them have actually owned one. So the majority seeing it used in a tv episode will know only that you turn it over for silly messages while a smaller precentage will know that to produce a different message, the globe must be shaken. Of those who do know this fact, most will shrug their shoulders and accept the inaccurate use of the Magic 8 Ball as a plot device. This is particularly true when used on a sit-com, like Spin City.
The Magic Eight Ball was a bit of fad in the sixties. The advertising for it invoked mysterious powers of insight on the part of the device; sort of a fast food high tech version of the old ouiji board. People liked it, although they didn’t necessarily believe it. They joked about it. They still do.
I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of Spin City, and in particular haven’t seen the episode you watched. But I’ll offer a guess as to what’s going on.
You’re supposed to “ask” the Magic 8-Ball a yes-or-no question, especially one about your hopes or fears, and then turn it over. All of the 20 possible messages are responses that fit these kinds of questions. So although the 8-Ball will never say “Helga likes you; go ask her out,” it will perhaps say “Definitely not” when you pose the question “Does Helga like me?”
In this way, the 8-Ball can address almost every issue imaginable. In fact, it’s also limited to the human imagination, as you can see.
You don’t really have to shake it that hard. Turn it over most of the way, let the icosahedron settle for a second, then tilt it the rest of the way. Either that or roll it across a smooth table from one hand to the other, then pick it up. That will randomize it enough.