The Tree of Numbers
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This is Marc Porter Zasada with The Urban Man for KCRW.
Recently, while working his day job, the Urban Man almost set off yet another global financial crisis. Really. All because of cell H33 on page 5 of a spreadsheet I was constructing.
Fortunately, at the last minute, I was granted a mystical vision that spared the world further catastrophe.
Now surely, spreadsheets are the cause of our present troubles. I mean before the spreadsheet, no one could possibly have constructed so many "cascading relationships." You know, where cell C53 depends on T57 which depends on J46.
It all seems great until you realize there's an H33 that secretly underlies, well, everything. Maybe it's the "assumed multiplier." Maybe it's "imagined demand." Maybe it's "pure nonsense." In any case, some hidden H33 is always the tiny seed from which grows the whole magnificent Tree of Numbers, the tree from which a lucky Urban Man plucks a ripe apple way up in Cell A2.
Me, I was trying to attract money to a new project, so I constructed a spreadsheet showing how a mere $500,000 would inevitably lead to a $5 million revenue stream in two short years. It was, as always, so easy: I copied a multiplier out, month to month, loss to income, cell to cell, and soon my laptop displayed many rows of digits in glowing boxes, each marked lovingly in pink or teal. It was so perfectly organized, so intricately linked, I figured anyone would buy in.
I even figured it was true.
But when I took my laptop to show a colleague, he looked at A2 and laughed: "Five lousy million? You have to construct something big enough to get people's attention." And lo, right before his eyes, I reached out an index finger and adjusted the value of cell H33. Now I had a plan that would gross ten million.
"Better," said the exec, "but how about twenty?"
At that I took my laptop back to my office, which looks south across the endless L.A. grid and the unending stream of the 405. I made myself coffee, two lumps. I knew that if I were willing to change one more tiny digit in H33, I could set in motion something that didn't have the slightest reality…but would keep me profitably employed for months… until, you know, things became obvious.
Evening fell. My finger hovered above the keyboard, but lo again, as I looked out over the city, I was granted a great vision of our new life on earth. Suddenly, I no longer saw homes and offices where people lived and died, loved and desired, suffered and dreamed, only a vast spreadsheet of colored boxes, laid in giddy rows, each value rising and falling…okay mostly falling…but inextricably tied one to the next, and somehow, ineluctably, to my sheet number 5. I mean, if I fudged H33, some other company would think there really was $20 million on the table, and some bank would add that figure to some other spreadsheet and on and on out into the night of exponentially multiplied and unsupported values. Soon my little fudge could lead to trillions of miscalculation.
"Wow," I thought. ‘For centuries, the mystics have been trying to tell us that all humanity was linked together in some kind of global ‘soul.' But only now, thanks to Microsoft Excel, has it really come true. By messing with H33 I could destabilize a whole orchard of numbers, right up to everyone's A2."
And lo, this second time, The Urban Man did not press the key, and the money people did lose interest, and if, by some miracle, the whole global spreadsheet does re-stabilize, I definitely want some credit, somewhere.
Maybe on sheet 7, cell G21. You see that little box marked in purple?
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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