Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Going down to Numberland.

I've been out of my comfort zone for most of the last two days.  I've been living in Numberland, Digitopolis, call it what you will.  I've been getting my tax return done for last financial year and also preparing the first business activity statement relating to the collection of GST (that's the goods and services tax for readers who don't live in Australia.)

As someone who just didn't get around to dealing with my tax for more years than I'm willing to disclose here, I now find it equally terrifying and satisfying.  I'm hoping to change the balance and eventually rub out the terror side of the equation all together.  If you've seen the BBC comedy "Black Books" starring Dylan Moran as Bernard Black, I was like Bernard when it came to tax - I'd rather sort socks, clean the oven or invite the religious zealots at the door in for a chat and a cuppa.

I've changed.  I now have a System.  It does not involve a big pile of scrunched up receipts in a shoebox.  It involves the wonders of Excel spreadsheets.

Prior to the System, I used to arrive at the accountant with piles of paper.  To the casual onlooker, it was a cliche.  I was the person with disorganised piles of paper.  The casual onlooker was wrong.  These were highly organised piles of paper.  I used to pay the accountant to add up the numbers in these piles of paper.  This was necessary expenditure, a survival mechanism in fact, to get me through many years' of tax returns.

Under the rules of the System, I still have highly organised piles of paper, but I add them up as I go on a spreadsheet and I don't need to take them out of the house.  Today I achieved something significant.  I devised a spreadsheet - with the help of my accountant - which tracks business expenses for the financial year and tracks the GST.  It's taken hours and hours to get it right this time, but next time I have to think about tax and numbers and money I will just press some buttons!

I can hear you rolling your eyes you know.  Number people think differently from word people like me.  They get excited about the numbers and can instantly see how to lay out a spreadsheet logically and how to reduce the world to a series of equations that can be solved.  Weird.  Alien, even.  After the accountant gave me instructions for the spreadsheet, I had to repeat back to her my understanding of the big picture concept to make sure I could answer the question, "what's it all about?"  I got it right, but the words we used and the shape of the description were very different.

These kinds of differences have led to misunderstanding from my very early days.  I think I was in about grade one or two.  Mrs Perriman was my teacher and we were doing maths, learning the rudiments of basic equations which were referred to as "number stories".  For example  1+2 = x or  4 + x = 6.    We'd spent the whole morning on this stuff and then Mrs Perriman instructed us to write a number story of our own.  At last!  Back to the words.  And so I wrote.  "Once upon a time there was a man called 8.  He had a family.  His wife was called 5 and the dog was 9.  One day.... ".

I got into a lot of trouble.  I was accused of being naughty and told that I was cheeky.  Why couldn't I follow the simple instruction and write a number story?

I think about this occasionally.  I wonder what difference it would have made if the teacher had congratulated me for my version of the number story and recognised the ambiguity of her language for the children who were wired for words rather than numbers?  Punishment seems to be a completely wrong response.  I was sent to the headmistress's office where I was a regular visitor.  I wasn't bad, just bored and obviously my natural talents and inclinations were not being acknowledged.

Being as numerically disadvantaged as I am, there are some things I can do really well.  I'm really good at mental arithmetic.  I can sight read and play complex music on the piano.  I can knit complicated patterns and keep the pattern in my head.  It's weird.  I think I might just suffer from a lack of interest, but I also think that I can follow a process really easily, I'm just not great at working out what the process should be.

Have things improved for kids these days?  I hope so.

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