TLC Matrix

My father crunched numbers in the civil service.

He would bring huge leather bound ledgers with red cloth-bound spines home, clear our dining room table after supper, and start his overtime. The layout of the ledger was as it had probably been for hundreds of years: Heading at the top, totals at the bottom, Grand Total at the furthest bottom right corner. Page totals were brought forward. What fascinated me watching him was that he displayed a bidirectional calculus mastery. I never knew anyone else working with ledgers in the fifties, but over the years since, nobody I saw would tot figures in the way he did. He started on the left and moved toward the right. Very differently from the present day, each column was actually three sub columns:

| £ | s | d |

(Pounds | Shillings | Pence). For some reason, accountants referred to this as LSD, not PSD.

He started from the left and totted the first column downward. Then he moved swiftly to the right, and totted the next column from the bottom upward. At the top of that, he would move, again, swiftly to the right, and tot the third column from top to bottom. I had no need to ask why he did it that way: it just made sense. Ledgers are large and heavy. To move them to suit only top to bottom calculating was tiring and awkward, and sometimes the desk or table was too small to move them.

Perhaps seeing this made helped influence me to learn alternative positions on trombone. Why close the slide from a long way past the bell of the horn (effort and time!), when you can use the next position a centimetre away, in the same direction you were going? Economy like this makes for happiness at work. When firing steam locomotives, firing light and often was the same: easier, more nimble, and rewarded with a glow of pleasure at the intelligence.

Geeks lurk everywhere.

Frank Smith, a few years older than my dad, famous for curing his appendicitis with 'vrot' bananas, for twenty years as a bowler in the Natal cricket team, and for completing his first ever Dusi Marathon after he had turned sixty, was for years a bookkeeper at a PMB hardware store. He worked in the same way, top to bottom, then bottom to top. His ledgers were on a wide, tall-legged desk in a corner of the shop. Though there was a tall stool nearby him, which he must have sat on sometimes, I never saw him do so. He worked standing up.

Dan Bricklin wrote VisiCalc in the 1979. It was the ‘killer app’ that made the Apple IIe, changed the world and started the ‘PC revolution’. It was followed by other spreadsheets, most notably Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro, and Excel. I needed day jobs to pay for my music habit, and spreadsheets were in demand.

In that way, I followed in my dad’s footsteps: he was by nature a creative, but both he and Frank Smith needed, in their youth, to pay for their sporting habits. “Books” were the answer. There was endless demand. There still is.

Naturally, software doesn’t care whether you are the type who calculates upward, downward, left or right, because we no no longer do the maths anyway. Everything in spreadsheets (even a single cell) is a range, and ranges are all that one works on, left to right, up to down, or matrices, rectangular or square. You pass the software a range, and a method, or formula, to work on that range. Talent for calculus has become talent for analysis. Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth, arguably SA’s most famous person-exports, made their billions from systems thinking, not from their calculus skill.

I wonder how much the British Civil Service contributed to every day systems analysis, and think that it is debatable which of the Church of England and the British Civil Service had the greater civilising effect. South Africa had an amazing record of innovation especially in the 20th century. Some of my favourites (if we ignore Lancelot Hogben’s pregnancy test) are:

Amongst my least favourite are:

Note: only a few of these arguably came particularly from government: arms and the rail bogie.

Kenya, another beneficiary of the British Civil Service, has arguably overtaken us. Apart from their M-PESA phone-based payment system (another scrawl on the wall for banks), you can hail a ride there with a basic phone, via SMS in place of the internet.

Here I wish to nod my head in respect for the “calculating” sportsmen of the past: their ledger columns were actually 3-in-1. They totted the pennies (twelve to a shilling) first, carrying multiples of 12 pennies to the shillings column, where they totted the shillings (twenty to a pound) next, carrying multiples of twenty to the pounds column. Their directional dexterity worked here too: tot the pennies downward, the shillings upward, and £ downward. I suppose one could invert that order, but I can’t remember them doing so.

There was a parallel mental process going on, too: checking, but the first check was the rightmost column of pennies. They did not use leading zero for pennies, so the pennies column looked curvy like a rat tail. Wrong pennies meant the entire ledger page needed recalculation. A few rules helped with checking. A number is divisible by

There are other helpful rules, too, but these were the most used.

There was no simple movement of a decimal point left or right in those non-decimal days. It was a (as my dad would say) real job, not (as he would sniff) like trombone playing!

When I made my main living for a decade or so creating, maintaining and programming spreadsheets, I crept up on a style of my own. I loved my modus operandum. It strolled out of my mind, through years of deadline driven pressure. The result was what I realise now was essentially the same spreadsheet, every time. Only the cell values changed. Neither formulae nor structure changed ever. If I could have R100 for the look of mistrustful surprise given me every time I produced a worksheet in less than ten minutes, I would be comfortably off. Those were bread and butter plain jane sheets. Programmed ones (people call the programs macros, but that is reductionist: they were often non-trivial) took days or weeks.

TLC-A4A

Top Left Corner

was the approach. I also called it A4A, for ’A4 All the way’, because the aim was to restrict all sheets to be no bigger than an A4 page, about 20 rows and 4 columns. You probably see a pattern emerging here. I hate scrolling. Apart from the scraping noise it makes, scrolling is deadly because of the precious seconds lost, and also because scrolling has surely knocked more coffee mugs over than anything else in an office. IT is coffee-driven and we can’t have that!

I accept the need for huge spreadsheets, for specialists, like merchandisers, but most office workers don’t need mall-sized monsters.

Bye bye traditional layout. Since software doesn’t care, my new rules were:

That’s about it, really. Easy as 1-2-3.

Why?

Because smartphones have small screens. My sheets work very easily on both big PC screens, and tiny smartphone screens. Here’s the same spreadsheet, top left corner on my large PC screen:

PC Image

and on my smartphone screen.

Phone image

Why be so concerned with smartphones? Recall, we quoted a man named Lancelot Hogben in the Hanglip Farm blog:

“I think that sex is necessary and bankers are not”.

He knew that banking had to change. It has. Three recent South African banks are digital-only banks. By design, they are phones only. Some have websites, but at least one doesn’t use one and does not even plan one.

AFAIK my approach was way ahead of the game. It worked for me in the teens. It still works for me now.

If you want to try my spreadsheet MO, email info@toverview.co.za and let us know. If there is enough demand, I will knock up an (A4 page, of course) instruction sheet to reside on www.toverview.co.za.