There’s only five days to go now and the beauty of numerical modelling means that rather than having to go outside and risk catching Covid-19 (despite what the stats tell us) , I can lay underneath the warmth and comfort of the spreadsheets (it’s a shame Excel don’t make duvets) and predict what’s going to happen today.
Five days ago, y = 1.8393x + 2.019. This was, as you can appreciate, was a bit of a surprise. A pleasant surprise I grant you, but still a surprise. So, imagine my response the day after when y = 1.9618x + 1.325! This was obviously not a flash in the pan. It’s always an adventure at the free-throw line as they say in basketball circles.
And guess what happened next? Yep, you’ve guessed it: y = 2.23x – 0.2426. You could have blown me down with a feather. Clearly a matter of now having a hot hand. As they say.
Followed by amidst much Shakespearean sturm und drang y = 2.24727x – 1.8235. Nail that trifecta!
And today I’m looking at y = 2.8649x – 4.4386. Say no more. We’re really gonna light up the scoreboard today.
Unfortunately, through all the euphoria of smashing targets left right and centre, what’s getting forgotten in all this is the effect on the hoop. The net gave up the ghost a long time ago and is pale imitation of what a basketball net should be like: a hint of web, a trace of original function and fading memories of the joyful ‘whoosh’ sounds is all it has now. Its misery is palpable.
The hoop on the other hand has been a bit more resilient but all those near misses, the thwack of the ball against the backboard, the pinging off the rim, the rattle of reluctant metal struggling with a spinning basketball; all these things are taking their toll on the poor old hoop.
If it makes it until Day 26 of the Challenge we shall be surprised and not a little relieved. All it needs is for someone from the RSPCH (the Royal Society of Protection against Cruelty to Hoops) to turn up and place an embargo on the whole proceedings, confiscating ball, hoop, net and soggy trainers to boot. With some gentle pleading and some prayers to the God of Gravity to be lenient with the forces of nature, we should make it through but I’m not holding my breath.
In the meantime though, three rounds of 26 beckons…
“You’re in unchartered waters,” remarked Yvonne, my independent invigilator as my PB was passed in record time. My PB, for those that haven’t been following is 37 baskets in 26 minutes and today saw that milestone fade away in the mists of history.
I nearly remarked that the whole last 18 days has been unchartered waters for me but decided to concentrate on the job in hand. Not unchartered in the way that an ice breaker ploughs through Antarctic ice floes in search for unknown uranium deposits I grant you, but there have been moments of physical and emotional challenge, that’s for sure.
Sporting prowess was never something I’ve been able to claim with much authority over the years. I was too slow, too short sighted, too asthmatic or just too bored with the whole damn thing when it came to being last in line at school to be chosen for a football team only to be stuck in goal on miserable November afternoons with nothing to do but carve your name in the mud with your outsize football boots, plotting your revenge.
Ironically, picking up a medal at school for playing in the Colts rugby team (for my enthusiasm I found out afterwards) was about as good as it got until much later on, much to my surprise again, I was named ‘Player of the Year’ for the eighth division squash team which played out of Liverpool Cricket Club.
Again, the reason alluded me at the time. Contrary to what you might expect, we called ourselves the ‘Oxford team’ as that was the pub where we tended to gravitate after Thursday night league matches to celebrate our occasional success but more frequently to tend to our emotional wounds of hurt pride, embarrassment or just sheer frustration at what was, woulda, coulda, shoulda been that night.
But despite the squash lows, there were many team highs, and the camaraderie was something I’ve long since treasured. Perhaps it was that, in the knowledge that my PB was probably at the end of a long list of sporting achievements in the league table of the club’s best performing athletes which led to them to offer a vote of sympathy with the POTY trophy.
But whatever the reason, it was a great night to be alive that evening and one of my PB memories of how sport can bind us and forge a community, despite its fundamental tenets of competitiveness, winning, losing and tribal loyalties. In the arts, we like to think that the arts are fundamental to building community, new relationships and a sense of civic duty which of course they are: but we shouldn’t forget that sport can achieve that too, without needing to be faster, higher or stronger than anyone else.
A PB of 48 shots into a basketball hoop which is beginning to physically suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously tossed basket balls doesn’t quite capture those emotional heights of the POTY trophy but it does bring another kind of satisfaction, even if it is about revelling in the statistics of an Excel spreadsheet.
Some wag by the name of William Bruce Cameron is quoted for this rather pithy quote about numbers: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Whilst originally a sociologist and not a basketball player of any great note, Cameron’s point is referred to in a wide range of contexts; business improvement, pain analysis, haemoglobin levels and more recently, basketball throwing charity campaigns.
When it comes to the trial and tribulations of taking pot shots at basketball hoops on these early sunny May mornings, what seemingly has mattered is the number of basketballs falling through the hoops, the near misses, the total effort and in recent days, the time it’s taking to reach the first target of 26 successful shots. These have all be diligently counted by my independent invigilator, but do they count? Do they matter in the broader schemes of life? What impact are they having in the big wide world beyond the neighbour’s driveway?
The answer is at first glance hard to come to terms with: in the wider scheme of life, this counting isn’t counting very much at all; unless you accept that there are other unseen consequences to the effort and the telling of the effort which are not noticed by many, not counted by any, but could be counting quite a lot if we could just witness it.
If this story and its numbers are giving you the reader, any kind of pleasure, if only for a few seconds, then perhaps that counts (although it’s not been counted as far as I know). If the cash raised through the campaign can go on to generate some curiosity, achievement and pleasure by the eventual young people who engage with the Let’s Create packs, then that too will count (although counting it will be a challenge in itself).
Another wag, the psychologist Robert Sternberg (also not a basketball player) is a long-standing critic of standardised tests in education which measure what is measurable rather than what really matters: another take on the ‘counting what counts’ exhortation.
He’s written widely on the relationship between intelligence and creativity, coining the term “successful intelligence” to convey the idea that achievement comes not necessarily from IQ scores and education, but from what he calls the “WISC” model of liberal education – Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized. You can read about him here.
Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized: these are perhaps the things I should be looking out for next time I stand in front of that basketball hoop with ball in hand, wondering what to count next.
But in the meantime, just check out THESE figures!
Not content with plotting the past, the numbers are now encouraging me to predict the future.
The genius of Excel allow you calculate a trendline based on past achievements, and plot your future with a high degree of mathematical certainty. I’d say a precision level of certainty, found only in the Rolls Royce factories of Derby and the East Midlands.
This now means the end of idle guess work and those moments of anxiety fuelled by What the Heck? (or worse); Why On Earth? You’re ‘avin’ a laff’ can be replaced by the cool scientific endeavour of the linear forecast equation.
y = 1.8393x + 2.019
If you’ve been following the rather tortured trail of the last 15 days, you’ll have spotted the ever-increasing mountain of statistics which have led to the above statement.
It means in short, that I can be guaranteed that on day 20, I will have shot 39.8976 baskets; and by day 26 (the pinnacle of this challenge) I can safely predict a final score of 51.26118 baskets. There’s a thought! What 0.26118 of a basket consists of still has to be figured out but I’m guessing it’ll be something to do with those balls that spiral downwards, only to leap out again when you least expect it and when your invigilator has ticked it off as a score.
Praise the Lord for the Linear Forecast Equation and for the glimpse of the future it predicts!
It’s taken 15 days to reach the target I set myself, and now of course will go on to set new targets of double the number of shots, seeing how long it will now take to reach 26 shots and who knows what else? I’m open to all sorts of other configurations of challenges which involve basketballs, hoops and the number 26. As long as it’s all completed by 23 May.
On another level though, figures don’t really speak for themselves do they? They need interpreters or mediators: figures in authority who can tell you what they really really really mean. The rhetoric of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been driven by the exhortation that we should follow the data; that the data tell us all we need to know when it comes to designing and implementing new public policy relating to social distancing, economic shut down and preserving the NHS. Arguing with the data – or more accurately with those who supply and communicate it – is only likely to end in tears and insults on Twitter.
So we need to step carefully when making any public comment on basketballs converted, numbers of near misses, the time its taken and other factors which look indisputable to those with an eye on the numbers. The data may look like they’re speaking for themselves but more often than not they’re the dummy to some-one else’s ventriloquists act.
Some ago I made a cultural exchange visit to Finland as part of the Culture for Cities and Regions project. Touring around the Helsinki region, our guides were charmingly equivocal about what looked pretty straight forward.
Whether it was golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends, as it turns out, on how you counted them. Our hosts were relativistic tour guides par excellence and thought nothing of giving the figures a good interrogation as we drove up hill down dale and into a lake.
For phenomena which you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.
Walking along the coastline of the Tooivo Kuulas park one morning you could see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; yet soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.
It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on learners’ lives.
And when it comes to counting basketballs falling through hoops, the same principle clearly applies. Does one successful shot equate to a ball falling into the hoop and then falling all the way to the ground? Or could you count balls that fell partially through the hoop, only to inexplicably spin out upwards a short time later?
Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children and indeed the number of occasions a basketball has properly fallen the requisite distance to qualify as a bona fide shot.
So, whilst today’s statistics might look like they’re disappointingly a bit shy of the target, we can find comfort in the spreadsheet when we realise that these numbers are not hard and fast things in their own right, but are subject to interpretation, imagination and the vagaries of the act of counting itself.
There’s just another 13 days left but still just two tantalising baskets to shoot before I hit target of 26 baskets in under 26 minutes. Mind you, what do you do when you hit target? Generate another one of course.
Not content with shooting 26 basketballs in under 26 minutes (something unheard of for me not 14 days ago), the target driven mind decides to up the ante and find increasingly intricate ways to move the metaphorical goal posts (see Day 11 for further reasoning on this process).
26 baskets in under 26 minutes? Meaningless. Better change it to the fastest 26 baskets in under 26 minutes. Better than that, aim for the maximum number of baskets you can shoot in 26 minutes. Better than that even, maximise the effort, minimise the feel good factor and aim for a ration of 1 basket per shot per second for 26 minutes: ie 1,560 consecutive baskets. This would give Anthony MIracola (see Day Seven) something to think about, even if it is an impossibly unrealistic target in the scheme of things.
But when did realism ever have anything to do with setting targets, hitting them and then resetting them with elevated levels of unrealism injected into them? There’s something about a target culture which is both alluring, frustrating but ultimately addictive.
Quite whether our broader target driven culture is actually making lives better for our children and young people is another matter, but you can be sure that as eggs is eggs (or until they become super-eggs), we won’t stop redefining them and setting ourselves increasingly ridiculous challenges, all for the sakes of some interesting statistics.
Which today, for those who are addicted to such things look like this:
Today started with an alarming statistic: the first ball went through the hoop on the second attempt. Granted it took another 30 attempts to score a second basket, nevertheless this moment of euphoria soon faded when the near misses kept building up. Just off the left-hand side, just off the right: bounce back at ya from the back of the board, bounce back at ya and over your head, just to spite ya. I then had what you might call an epiphanic moment: the hoop, taken aback by the success of the second shot decided to move itself, ever so slightly, at will. Its own will, not mine, not yours, not the invigilators but its own.
Now, they talk about moving the goal posts in football: but this is always in the sense that some human beings somewhere have tiptoed over to the goalposts mid-game and surreptitiously unscrewed the goal posts, unhung the net and then scuttled 5 yards up the pitch only to reverse engineer the entire process and mount the goal posts even further away from the opposition. Implausible it may be, but the phrase ‘moving the goal posts’ must have come from someone’s lived experience so we doubt it at our peril.
Tennis players will be also familiar with the natural phenomenon of the tennis net sagging ever so slightly during a game so that one minute you’ve served out, and the next you’ve served an ace. This leads to a false self impression of actually how talented you are when all along it was the net’s tendency to sag when you least needed it which was the actual cause.
But basketball is different. Whether this is because the hoop and the net are light and easy to manoeuvre, or whether the repeated hammerings they get from all those near misses causes them to contract, expand, take a step to the left or a step to the right in true Rocky Horror style, the fact is they move of their own volition. In their own time, in their own manner. All you can do as an itinerant basketball player is count to ten, take a deep breath, stick out your BUTT and lob the ball into the air in the hope that the hoop has decided to stay still for a while.
A successful basket can lead to you dancing a little time warp jig but you’d better be aware that the hoop is watching your every move and is only too ready to make a fool of you if you get carried away with your success rate.