Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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Day Two of the Basketball 2.6 Challenge: Progress is many a splendoured thing.

Yesterday’s modest tally of eight baskets after 26 minutes was nothing if not a baseline. 

We’re used to baselines in education: in order to know how much we’ve progressed we need to know where we’ve started from and a data baseline (whether this be of fronted adverbials,   adjective declensions or educational attainment in general) is pretty much as good a starting point as any.

So, OK, eight baskets after 26 minutes may not count for much, but it does at least give you a baseline figure of 0.30769231 baskets per minute. (Doncha just love figures to eight decimal places?  They remind me of population statistics that state things like ‘2.4 people live In a normal household’.  Ever seen 0.4 of a person?  No, me neither unless you count those people lying comatose in the streets after a Covid-lockdown-release pub crawl.)

But I digress. 0.30769231 baskets per minute  (or BPM – note the immediate adoption of an acronym when it comes to measuring success) may or may or may not be a measure of success, but it is certainly a baseline.  And something to build on, as football managers are wont to say after the 15-0 thrashing of their side by their league’s minnows.  ‘We may have just been humiliated, Brian, by a team which is holding up the whole of the English football league, but our attacking spirit gave me hope and is something to build on.”

 So today, I was determined to build on that baseline of Day One and achieve success.  However, what often happens when you start to measure success, you find yourself with an overwhelming desire to measure all sorts of other things which you hope will indicate whether or not you are actually achieving anything, in what context you’re achieving it, whether you’re getting any better, or whether the whole endeavour is a complete waste of yours and everybody else’s time.

Today was a case in point.  Not content enough just to measure BPM  (Baskets per minute, do please keep up at the back), it struck me that it would be really useful not just to measure balls that followed a trajectory of hand air basket swoosh bounce and a triumphant yeh, but to measure how much effort this took. 

I arbitrarily decided that Yvonne, my independent invigilator, also now needed to start counting how many attempts I had made at causing that trajectory.  My feeling was that effort could be determined by calculating the ratio of the number of balls thrown to the number of successful baskets.  Logically, if every effort succeeded in achieving a basket, then my effort would be 100%. Note how one’s feelings could soon be legitimised by expressing an event in logical terms.  This gives one a curious sense of intellectual satisfaction, even if no-one else has been involved in the calculus.

So, count the number of attempts as well as the number of successes she did.  After 24 attempts I had scored precisely nul point meaning my effort was precisely zero.  However, on the 25th attempt I actually shot one basket meaning that my effort had increased dramatically to 0.04 exactly.  An infinite improvement on the situation I had found myself in just seconds before.  This was a very satisfying moment and gave me (if not Yvonne) confidence that we were moving in the right direction.  Something else to build on if you like.

Before I knew it  (well, actually after 26 minutes in fact) we stopped the challenge and counted up the ‘scores on the doors’ as Brucie like to chuckle in The Generation Game. 

15 hoops over 194 attempts over 26 minutes.

0.57692308 BPM.  Up from 0.30769231 BPM from the day before. An increase of a massive 87.500000%.

An effort score of 0.07731959 BPA. Good? Bad? Indifferent?  It is at least another baseline and something I look forward to building on over the remaining 24 days of the challenge. 

And BPA?  Baskets per Attempts of course.  Where would we be without our acronyms? Struggling to determine whether we were making any progress at all, that’s for sure.

You can find out why I’m involved in the 2.6 Challenge – and how you can help – here.

Thanks to the Sunday Night Quiz Gang for the graphic!


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Day One of the Basketball 2.6 Challenge: when in doubt, change the rules.

Like so much in life, I started with good intentions.

I’d planned (if that’s the right word) to throw a basketball hoop from a line, the regulation 15’ away from the hoop, 26 times and to time how long this took me.  And do this for 26 days with the intention to shorten that time on a daily basis. 

The first challenge was to find a basketball hoop and fortunately for me, our new neighbours had one stuck on the side of the kitchen wall, facing their driveway the width of which is about 18’.  They willingly agreed for me to use the hoop – probably because they’re away for much of the day and were probably privately relieved that they weren’t about to witness the bounce bounce pause thwack bounce bounce missed again dammit monologue that was to follow.

So, the first challenge was rapidly met and soon after the challenge of having independent verification was addressed too.  Our neighbour, Yvonne, volunteered to adjudicate the challenge and I gratefully accepted her offer. 

So, Day One dawned and all seemed straight forward enough.  I measure out a throw line 15’ from the hoop (informally known as the ‘Charity Stripe’ I’m reliably informed) with a measuring stick. Yvonne switches on her stopwatch. 

I remember the advice from Tahir about how to throw a basketball: BEEF, an acronym for “Balance” (yep, got that); Eyes on the target” (doddle); “Elbows at right angles”  (er… what?” “Follow Through” (of course, what else, it’s just like tennis. What could possibly go wrong?)

What could go wrong was of course pretty much everything.  Balance isn’t helped by running after a stray ball and then running back to the charity stripe to try again without stopping. The eye on the target is all very well if you completely understand which target it is you’re meant to have your eyes on.  The board?  The back of the hoop? The front of the hoop? The little logo half way up the board? Placing your elbows at right angles is all very well if you don’t expect to hold the ball in a particularly meaningful way. Follow through leads to a constant arc of optimism turning to disappointment as the ball repeats its trajectory of bounce bounce pause thwack bounce bounce missed again dammit.

After 10 minutes Yvonne is clearly worried about whether or not she has an evening to look forward to.  I have some managed to throw 4 balls into the hoop over this time and managed at least ten times more ‘ah, nearly’ moments. It looks like we might both have to stay about another hour or two if I’m to achieve the deceptively bland target of 26 hoops before retiring gracefully with a gin and tonic to assess how long it took me to do it.

After 20 minutes the success rate isn’t much better.  A further 4 hoops and a slightly lower proportion of “ah, nearly” moments.  A much higher ratio of “WTF is going on?” moments.

It’s at this point that I decide to follow all the best professional sporting advice and to decide to change the rules of the game.  Instead of timing how long it will take to throw 26 balls into the hoop, I’ll see how many I can throw in 26 minutes.  That way, we can see an end in sight and can thankfully retire to the comfort of a gin and tonic knowing that we shall live to confront another day of BEEF. The following six minutes yielded no more moments of success other than a relief that we could both get back to having a life that evening.

So, the final score on day one is 8 hoops over 26 minutes.  It does at least count as a baseline and if and when I get to throwing 26 hoops within the new target of 26 minutes, I will take heart that there has at least been some element of progression: especially if I can achieve it over the next 26 days.

Sport can quickly make a fool of you in a very short space of time and I have a feeling that this won’t the last time I remember that particularly embarrassing lesson.

You can find out why I’m involved in the 2.6 Challenge – and how you can help – here.


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No Room at the Inns (x8)

We’re waiting for the 43 bus to take us into Nottingham, on the look out for some timely retail opportunities when we become aware of a dishevelled elderly man muttering into a mobile firmly attached to his jaw courtesy of a scarf he has secured around his head.  His muttering continues with a range of expletive deleted’s and it becomes clear that he’s very confused and very distressed.  His challenging, cajoling, arguing of his phone companion means that he keeps repeating the same phrases again and again, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly to himself but all the while into the mobile and the invisible caller at the other end.

Thankfully, the bus arrives to carry us away to the land of retail interventions and away from the old man who has no idea where he is, where he’s going, or what day of the week it is.

When he tries getting on the bus, he can’t say where he wants to go, doesn’t know where he needs to be, and to cap it all, someone’s taken all his belongings and he has no idea what’s become of any of them.

He’s unsteady on his feet and the bus driver sympathetically asks him to sit down, otherwise he can’t let him on the bus.  The instruction eludes him and he continues to sway unsteadily, whilst a few passengers try to help him take some steps towards the seats so that the bus can continue its travels to the shopping nirvana to which we are all headed.

Physically unsteady he might be, but our neighbour has other ideas and is rock steady when deciding where he wants to stand on the bus:  not with the other passengers, some of whom are getting tetchy and cat calling him, but next to the driver, lurching to and fro as the bus tentatively negotiates the busy Nottingham city streets.

Our fellow passenger soon becomes so distressed, that we have to get off the bus with him in Hockley and try to find out where he’s going and what help he needs.

It turns out that his name is Robbie. But he can’t speak coherently about much else.  I suggest phoning the friend he has just been talking to so ferociously so he agrees and lends me his phone.  There are just five numbers on his phone contact list: two of which look like agencies who might be able to help. I phone the first, but there’s no answer.  They might be out at the sales too I reason, so I try the second number, Bentinck Road, and with some relief speak to someone who helpfully advises me to take him along to Sneinton Hermitage where he will be welcomed and given a cup of tea.  He’ll then be picked up by the local outreach team who would be heading down there later that afternoon.

So far so good.  It also turns out the 43 dropped us off near Emmanuel House, an agency which specialises in working with homeless and vulnerable people so my friend pops over to establish whether they are open and to fix him up with a meal.

So far so unfortunate.  We take Robbie into Emmanuel House only to be met with a firm rebuttal.  He can’t come here. He’s been banned before and there’s no room for him.  He has to go somewhere else.  This is a bit of a setback as we thought that the prime purpose of Emmanuel House was precisely to look after people like Robbie.  But ours is not to reason why, so a member of staff helpfully calls for a cab and we head down to Sneinton Hermitage where we expect to be met with open doors and a warm welcome.

So far so a bit worse.  We arrive at the Hermitage only to find it shut for Christmas and the opportunity to go shopping, and an apologetic caretaker who explains no-one will be there for several days.

This is a touch exasperating given Bentinck Road’s advice to take him there and meet the Outreach Team.  I phone Bentinck again who advise me this time that there was another house some doors away which would welcome Robbie.  This turns out to be a complete red herring.  The house a few doors away has one man who looks at us in complete incomprehension and then proceeds to slam the door shut and not open it again despite regular knockings and ringing of bells.

After some random searching of the local streets, we find another agency, Michael Varnam House, who were open – but not to Robbie, and not to people who were not referrals and certainly not to people who have issues.  And they don’t mean unreturned library books.

Another series of calls with Bentinck provides lots of other fruitless opportunities.  There was another agency – London Road Hostel – who might be able to take him.  No, they won’t take him either it turns out. He isn’t a referral, and in any case, he has a track record with them too so there’s no way he’s turning up on their doorstep for the night.

It also transpires that the Outreach Team can’t come and pick him up after all as they don’t work that way.  Robbie has to be out on the streets before they can do anything – and that was only if they bumped into him en passant, so to speak. There’s no way they could organise a later pick up. Clearly Uber technology has yet to inform Bentinck’s Outreach team’s modus operandi.  Given they were driving around the city later that night, and Robbie’s state of distress was increasing by the minute, the idea that he might be picked up at some point in a hypothetical future strikes me as ridiculous. He could well have died of hypothermia by then.

Bentinck then reveal that they expelled Robbie some 24 hours earlier and that there was no way that he would be allowed back on the premises given his track record. If he did turn up, then they would call the police.  My phone manner was becoming increasingly vocal at this point and when I echoed the word ‘police’, Robbie pricked up his ears and his distress rose visibly with them.  There was no way he was going to a police station.  They’d already beaten him up, already badly manhandled him, he said, showing us some bruising on his wrist.

So we have one more choice.  We debate about taking him home and soon knock that idea on its unsteady head.  We’re trying to help but we too have our limits and that there’s no room at our inn either. We realise too that we cannot spend the rest of the day driving Robbie around Nottingham in various Ubers or take him to the sales expecting him to help us spot a bargain in the haberdashery.

So there’s one final call to Bentinck.  We’re bringing him up to yours: you apparently still have all his belongings and if that means that you’re going to call the police then so be it.

We call the next Uber and before long, an incongruously large blue Uber Mercedes turns up, complete with DVD screens in the back seats, and we get in, and drive over to Bentinck Road.  On the way, we manage to speak to a friend of his, George, who’s one of the five numbers on Robbie’s phone.  He thankfully picks up the Robbie baton and says he’s making his way to Bentinck so that he can pick him up and find somewhere else where he can stay for the night.

We arrive at Bentinck to be met by a staff welcoming committee of three who are resolute in not letting him into the building.  Thankfully though they accept our off load and we scarper off back into town in the luxurious blue Merc, thankful at least that George will be turning up at some point.

On the way to the Victoria Centre I spot the poster from Nottingham City Council which states that ‘No-one need sleep rough in Nottingham this winter.  if you or someone you know needs help, contact local charity Framework…’

At this point, an abyss opens up for me when I realise that despite the Council’s claims, the reality is for some people like Robbie, the state has no capacity to help, the voluntary sector has had its patience exhausted and is up to its eyes in referrals and there is nothing left to do than rely on your own supply of dazed and confused resources.

For all our Christian shopping values and retail therapy opportunities, there will never be room at any inn – or in Robbie’s case, the eight combined inns of housing agencies, domestic homes or bus rides.  The image of just five contact numbers in his phone magnified the loneliness and loss he carried with him deep inside his threadbare duffle coat. It struck me afterwards that for all that earlier muttering into the phone which was locked to his jaw, it was more than likely that he wasn’t talking to anybody at all, but just maintaining a pretence of a connection with another human being.

Fortunately, later that day we hear that George has found room for Robbie in a Bed and Breakfast in Alfreton Road in Nottingham and that they’ll be going down to Housing Aid first thing in the morning which is a relief.  We just hope that he isn’t expelled from Alfreton Road in the meantime and that Housing Aid are able to open their doors to him and help settle his nerves, calm his distress and point him in the right direction.  God knows he needs it.

(First published in the Nottingham Post, 3 January 2018)