Saturday, July 11, 2015

The cashflow that ate Toldeo

Mid-March 1996

I remember clearly when it all started. My banker leaned across his desk and handed me a large yellow sheet of paper covered with columns and lines.  "John", he said, "We'd like for you to fill one of these out this year."   I eyed him suspiciously. It hadn't been that long since the infamous Tap Dancing Incident, whereupon at a similar time he had asked me to do a short soft-shoe number in the lobby while yodeling a show tune. I was halfway through what I thought was a rather charming rendition of "My Baby Just Cares For Me", when I realized he was kidding, inasmuch as he was laying on the floor holding his sides with tears streaming down his cheeks, and quivering like a dog on the way to the vet.

Despite the fact that he sort of apologized ["Jeez, John, I never thought you would actually do it!"], and that I did appreciate the pocket change tossed by the other patrons in the bank, I had since sagely adopted a “you-can't-fool-me-more-than-six-or-seven-times” attitude. I carefully examined the document while he explained what a cashflow projection was. Farm magazines were plastered with helpful articles about this sort of analysis tool at the time, so I gingerly picked up the paper and dutifully trooped home to smear my figures across it.

Much to my surprise, I kind of got into the game. Even though I wasn't farming much, and the dollar numbers were minuscule compared to today, I found the exercise both helpful and revealing. I totaled up columns and rows and discovered I had actually created a sort of window to the future. If my numbers were fairly accurate, then this over here would be how things would come out. Cool!

The hook was set. The next day dawned and with it new ideas and plans. I decided to change some tentative spending and selling decisions before turning the form in. No problem. Just erase a few entries - but wait.  Changing this number meant changing all these, and these over here, and all the totals, and so on. Soon eraser holes began to appear all over the later months and annual totals. I applied multiple layers of correction tape until the document resembled a sort of financial chocolate chip cookie.   

My banker was not amused when I handed my homework in, but sympathetically declared my offering sufficient. His reaction was no longer important to me. I was now obsessed with the power and possibilities of a cashflow to tell my future. Meanwhile, as fate would have it, in a garage in California, young nerdlings were hard at work inventing the Tool of My Undoing.

The first time I saw a spreadsheet on a personal computer was like the moment in seventh grade when I realized that Phyllis Bishop was not just a lumpy guy. I knew I was looking at something great, but couldn't quite figure out what to do with it.

This was the turning point in this sorry saga. Once planted on the fertile soil of a spreadsheet program, my cashflow took on a life of its own, like a Crystalline Entity on Star Trek, expanding and evolving its way to sentience.  No longer a simple across and down table of estimates, it began to demand more detailed input numbers from me before it would spit out the prophesy.   As the what-if possibilities unfolded, separate versions became necessary, spawning entire families of possible futures. My time at the Keyboard Altar of High Technology soared, as raw data requirements grew exponentially.

Hardware, software and time passed. "Big C" was now on multiple pages and consumed continents of hard disk space. Not just content with an estimated price for future sales, it now could calculate the most probable number from weather, political, and consumer attitude data. Would the Republicans get the budget balanced? Was Madonna dating Bigfoot? Insert a probability and calculations for interest rates, beef consumption, and ski-lift prices responded appropriately, altering the outcome of ratios measuring everything from Debt-to-Equity to Waist-to-Inseam. 

Every morning it would call to me, hoping to be fed fresh data. I began reading the paper to it, typing in statistics from orange juice prices to turnover ratios. In the evenings, I would calculate new relationships, enabling Big C to estimate the influence of fluctuations in the pfennig on the rainfall in central Missouri. The sheer size of the program became prodigious - lights across a six square mile area would dim as it went into recalculation. 

But the futures it revealed! Big C became my Delphic oracle, revealing possible outcomes ranging from absolute financial disaster to (my favorite) my eventual buyout of Bill Gates and subsequent enthronement as Absolute Monarch of the Galaxy. The present became a pale pathetic shadow of a splendiferous future. Big C started sucking info straight from the Internet, creating more and more accurate predictions. I was hurtling across the line between foreknowledge and predestination, not so much seeing the future as actually creating it. We were becoming invincible. YESSSSS!!!

They took my computer away the other day. Jan tricked me with my favorite dessert while a Dweeb Swat Team immobilized Big C. Time and massive amounts of medication have started my healing process. I'm feeling much better now. Besides, I knew they were going to do that.

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