Sunday Nibble #5

One of the nice side benefits of my current day job that wasn’t really in the description — although getting her approval was a part of the interview process — is that I’ve really connected with my boss’s wife, whom I’ll call Ms. R. That was probably inevitable, though, because she’s a stylist by profession, but also an artist, talented painter (though not actively doing it now) just generally creative, and Jewish.

I mention all of those because I think that’s why we had such a strong and immediate connection.

I share the creative bits with her and, while I’m not actually Jewish, I effectively went through middle and high school being the token goy among predominantly Jewish friends or, as I call it, lucky as hell, so that was the major cultural imprint on me in my formative years. If I were a menu item, I guess it would be an atheist curry of Catholic-Jewish cultural fusion. Spicy corned beef and kreplach served from Russell’s teapot.

One of the things Ms. R does is decorate the place per season and holiday, and by this point I’ve been through all of the major post-Labor Day holidays. Oh… I should mention that the “office” is the boss’s house, and my specific office is the living room. Since Ms. R spends most of the time when she’s not at her salon in the kitchen, dining, and living rooms, she and I interact a lot.

However, I didn’t really get involved in the whole design and layout thing until the last few days. They’re hosting a Valentine’s dinner on the Sunday after for a group of old friends of the boss — people who’ve known each other since they were kids, and now it’s grown to the originals, plus their spouses, kids and, in some cases, grandkids.

Her party set-ups can be a multi-day process that I get to watch from my desk, and this was one of them, but the Monday before the event, Ms. R started asking for my opinion on her table arrangements. At first, my thought was, “Okay, I’m gay, but I’m not that gay, so I can’t help you,” but then I realized, “No, wait, I’m also kind of obsessive, I do graphic design, and holy crap, let me at it.”

So it suddenly became all about symmetry, as in figuring out how to distribute not quite enough of each kind of plate, glass, napkin ring, etc., between two tables to accommodate 20 guests when all of the setting stuff only came in units of 6, 8, or 12.

The second she asked it, goddamn… my one kind of non-debilitating psychological quirk kicked in, and I managed to arrange the hell out of those tables and impress the hell out of Ms. R even more.

See, the kind of obsession I have has to do with regular patterns of things. Toss me something that looks symmetrical and I am damn well going to count rows and columns just to figure out how many divisions there are.

If you ever saw the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, then you’ll understand, because for a lot of the time the entire set was covered in a projected grid (pictured in this article), and during the pre-show, you can be damn sure I figured out how many squares there were by counting the rows and columns and doing the math.

By the way, it was a brilliant book and a brilliant adaptation, and one that sneaks up on you. All I’ll say is that one very important detail about our narrator is never stated, but rather slowly revealed, and it’s up to us to figure it out.

I won’t leave you anything to figure out. While I can be compulsive in the pattern counting thing, I’m not obsessive, so if I can’t manage to do the count I won’t feel like my universe will end.

However… if something isn’t quite symmetrical, likewise I am going to start rearranging in my head, and that’s exactly what I started doing for my boss’s wife. And it kind of was a revelation to me because, while I’ve had experience as a graphic designer (major symmetry concerns) I have never had any kind of experience in what is essentially interior or set design, but realized today that I might actually have a natural knack for it.

And so with a few simple suggestions, I suddenly made Ms. R very happy by perfecting the layout of two separate dining tables meant for twenty people. I’m still not sure how I did it, but apparently I did.

Still… cool boss, fun wife, great job, and I get to be both intelli-gay and designo-gay. Plus I can’t wait to see what happens for St. Patrick’s Day (¡mi gente!), all the May and June stuff, Independence Day, then my repeat cycle when we hit Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Baby Jesus Day, and back to New Year’s repeat…

Of course, this year we have the bonus of the Olympics and Election, and I’m sure that those events are going to be memorialized, too. Ms. R is a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and that’s where the Olympics are this year. She’s also a political junky, watching the news every morning on the kitchen TV as she prepares for the day — luckily, our politics align — but I suspect that there will be an election night party of some sort as well.

Whether it turns out as a celebration or a funeral is still anyone’s guess, but I can be optimistic at least. Especially working in such thoughtfully designed surroundings.

Sunday Nibble #3

At various points in my professional life, I’ve been a heavy user of spreadsheets, Excel in particular, and as I’ve indicated in occasional pieces on things like using index and match together, or sneaking IF into unexpected places, that I like to stretch what Excel can do so that I can automate data processes as much as possible.

Currently, one of my job functions involves entering commission statements into spreadsheets, and when I got there, the method had been to print the things out and then manually enter the data, and that just would not do — especially not when some of the statements would run to more than 20 pages, with hundreds of entries.

I eventually figured out how to suck the data out of the PDFs, paste it into Excel, use consistent quirks of how that data came out in order to correct it en masse, pass it through Word in order to tab delimit it, then put it back into Excel for a few more tweaks until the data was ready to transfer, either via cut and paste or, as I’m working towards, using a formula to have the destination spreadsheet update directly from the data.

Of course, there’s one very important factor here, and it’s one I build into every single step. I am constantly verifying that the balance of the data I’m working with at the moment always matches the total on the original to the penny. If it suddenly goes off, I know that something didn’t go right, and I can catch and fix it immediately instead of having to go through the tedious balancing process at the end.

And trust me, I’m over that. It used to take me two or three days to go through the entire process of entering and balancing a huge statement. Now? Maybe an hour or two — time much better spent.

But the moral of the story is “Verify constantly.” One time, when that didn’t happen, it led to a very costly mistake. You may or may not have heard of or remember the London Whale. He was a trader who made a little boo boo in his spreadsheet formula, leading to a loss of six or seven billion dollars to JP Morgan, with additional fines in the hundreds of millions.

How did it happen? Forensic analysis showed that he used a series of spreadsheets, and data had to be manually copied and pasted from one to the other. It was a process that should have been automated but never was. Ultimately, a formula was messed up at some point, and it started dividing the difference between return rates by their sum instead of their average.

This figure led to the London Whale making increasingly aggressive trades, causing other traders to place put calls against them — i.e. betting that he was making the wrong decision. Guess which group was right?

And in case that division error seems trivial, here’s an example with real numbers. Let’s say that the old rate was 15% and the new one was 25%. The difference is 10%. But here’s the outcome when you divide by the sum and the average. Ten percent over the sum of 40 is .25. Ten percent over the average of 20 is .50.

In other words, one number is half of the other, and that is consistent for any combination of new and old rates you pick. The error is always a factor of 200%, Imagine that kind of error in construction — “Oh. Your doorways are all three feet wide, but we ordered eighteen-inch wide doors. Sorry!”

“The minimum safe height for skydiving out of this plane is 5,000 feet… Oh, crap. He jumped, and we’re at 2,500.”

As the old carpenter’s adage goes, “Measure twice and cut once.” When it comes to dealing with numbers, always be verifying.