Power of the Pivot Table

If You Turn It On The Side, You See Something Else

A vast majority of people all start with the same cards: general levels of intelligence, lifestyle somewhere around and (hopefully) above the poverty level, adequate amount of energy and curiosity, supportive home life and a general desire to do good deeds. And for every child born into abject poverty or possessing a dehabilitating handicap, there are one thousand children enjoying a standard number of life challenges with the same useful tools as the next kid. Usually, the chaff/wheat separation doesn't occur until the middle of grade school when faced with the basic arithmetic and grammar tools, some begin to get it, some begin to fall back and some don't try at all and begin to look out the window. The general theory is that if one applies themselves, shows up on time and tries to pay attention, they will demonstrate an adequate and sufficient understanding of all things necessary and useful.

Most eight year olds are introduced to the general concept of fractions but only a few of the youngsters grasp the concept and move forward with it. The bottom half of the class dutifully reguritates the basic precepts of fourths, eighths and the ocassional sixteenths but the top half of the class immediately see the application of such knowledge. Ranging from drug dealing to pre-pubesent statistics, the engaged will see numerous paybacks with whatever occupation that pursues them. The days of rote memorization of fractions was dealt a fatal body blow with the advent of the handheld calculator but the funeral did not occur until the computer spreadsheet came on the scene. Today, fractions are auto-calculated each time the user replaces a cell formula and again, people either realize the strength of such knowledge and some people don't care. A few old holdouts would talk lovingly about logarithms and slide rules and declare that the young punks today wouldn't know a change of base if it bit them in the ass but presently, no one is afraid of basic addition and multiplication anymore.

All the tools are available for every one who possesses basic mental compentence. We all are sitting in front of the same instructor, seeing and hearing the same information unless you are hard of hearing or suffer from poor eyesight. If you are hard of hearing or suffer from poor eyesight, accomodations can be (and are) made every day to allow all of us the same chance to hear the truth. However, some folks choose not to do so; they chose to continue look out the window or at Debbie White's ankles or at the top of their desk. But for a brief moment, the words uttered by the teacher land on the same ears at the same time but some folks don't choose to embrce the same sounds as they hit their ears. The rows of students, in varying levels of engagement, are all equally sprayed with the vocal stylings of some well-meaning instructors as they stand in front of the variety of faces receiving these insights at their own level of self-reception.

The introduction of the personal computer and the supporting software gave the great unwashed the illusion that a great levelling was on the horizon. The computer, complete with an electronic brain (their term, not mine), was going to allow the folks who never engaged before the opportunity to finally catch up. All individuals were now at the same level; people only had to possess rudimentary typing skills and the computer was going to take care of all things: spelling, grammar, calculations and all things learned from grades 1 through nine. Most people jumped into the use of computer with noticable enthusiasm but were dulled once it became apparent that the end user had to know something before the journey began. People used the word processing software very simply, spreadsheets were visited quickly and abandoned and the presentation software was viewed as a magic movie maker but unfortunately, jettisoned after a few attempts at allowing the magic to happen. Unfortunately, the computer was not created by Batman; all he had to was ask a question and the Bat Computer™ would throw up an IBM punch card with the answer neatly printed on it.

The one computer application which summarizes at least nine years of public school mathematics is the spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are grids, similar to the game of Battleship™, where one places numbers (or values) in different locations called cells. In the uppermost left corner is A1 and in the lowermost right corner is something like ZZZZZZ99999999 (I am guessing). One places numbers in individual cells and then use nearby cells to establish an equation. If you wanted to add the numbers in A1 and B1 and place the answer into C1, the formula in C1 would read something along the line of (=sum a1+b1). Not exactly quantum physics but you get the general jist of the tool. Obviously, using this as a foundation, the spreadsheet allows the user to add, subtract and perform a wide variety of numeric functions ranging from depreciation, simple counts, averages to something more exotic, like earned net value. One can, with the ease of a few keystrokes, can master basic mathematics but, just like extra credit and geometric proofs, so much more lies just underneath the surface. But the simple use of the tool is still standard mathematics: adding, averaging, counting and multiplying large columns (or rows) of numbers covers a majority of the daily workload. No more carrying the number or counting with your shoes off; the spreadsheet is like having the smartest kid in tenth grade sitting next to you.

The most powerful secret within the powerful spreadsheet is the pivot table. Trademarked by Microsoft, a pivot table is a data summarization tool found in all spreadsheet programs which not only sorts, counts, and totals the data stored in one table (or spreadsheet) and create a second table displaying the summarized data. Pivot tables are also useful for quickly creating cross tabs, or different views of the same statistical data. The user sets up and changes the summary's structure by dragging and dropping fields graphically. This "rotation" or pivoting of the summary table gives the concept its name and is one of the only useful descriptions within spreadsheets because the description and the name are elegantly representing the same thing. If John Keats worked for a big 4 firm, he might have coined his "thing of beauty" quote while looking at two different views of the same group of numbers.

The beautiful idea of a pivot table is to allow the viewer to see some known, familiar information in a completely new way. It is similar to see one's birthplace from a different direction; it is like seeing a picture of your house from space. You see all the landmarks and well-worn paths but seen from a completely new plateau. The main concern is not that folks would enjoy seeing a landmark or favorite location from a different view or angle but the fact that many people have no inclination to ever ask the question. For every thousand students who rotely memorize a piece of learning without joy or curiosity, there is one student moving miles past the memorization component and immersing themselves in the pure joy of learning, expanding the world by expanding their mind. A comedian once said a concept (his joke so I will leave it vague as all I wanted was the simile) was so new to him that it was like learning that a car he owned for ten years also could fly. This can easily be expanded to the millions of people using simple spreadsheet functionality with no comprehension that right below the surface was tools so powerful that it would make their rudimentary column summaries into ecumenical gifts from above.

While the description "pivot table," is an excellent coined phrase, it also enjoys signficant potential as an geek-fueled euphemism. While the concept of a pivot table seems straightforward, the ability to mix and sort numbers in a variety of different methods cannot be sold short. Too often we see lists of names and numbers and we mentally keep them lined up in their little silos because they have always been in their little silos. The ability to cut across the silos and move each grouping to whatever you wish is heady stuff indeed but the overall coolness of pivot tables has to take the backseat until the person looking at the silos decide it is time to look at something in a different way. The trouble with new found insights starts and ends with your audience. There are too many poor artists and performers who were burdened with the "ahead of their time" yoke too early in their career and while they have to be appreciated for their desire to stretch their audience's thought process, they are usually starving and forgotten while individuals with a small fraction of their ability grow fat and happy by providing simple, derivative pabulum to the lazy, small minded majority. Pivot tables are an intelligent and fascinating application of a known technology but more often that not, when faced with the ordeal of spending ten minutes to complete a tutorial or read a paragraph, would rather just sum the column and then go to lunch.

In a world of static information, anyone runs the risk of confusion when introducing a strategic solution; or a solution which is not needed immediately but will pay significant dividends down the road. In other words, when the classroom full of children hear "you don't need to know this information for this problem, but it will come in handy someday," some of the children immediately turn off while a smaller but eventually more useful group perk up their collective ears to pick up a handy nugget of knowledge to squirrel away for another time. While the first group still slogs through the daily work without incident, it becomes apparent that their lack of interest in complimentary knowledge will keep them from embracing dynamic concepts which will truly make their lives easier... just because it isn't needed today. The short term behavior may imply a lack of curiosity, lack of context when it comes to rudimentary learning or a general intellectual laziness may be the root cause but these optional pieces of enlightenment are opportunities to separate the ignorant from the ones who will be exempt from overtime as they grow older.

However, Ryan Christensen was not someone who would be destined to the fate of punching in/out of a time clock. Always more curious than interested, Ryan was introduced to PC spreadsheets during a required general commerce class in high school. Taught by the ex-typing teacher, the class skimmed over business law and general commerce course work with a brief stop at personal computers and their applicability with running spreadsheets. The teacher, just a few years away from forced retirement and her forty years, would provide the classes a superficial overview of spreadsheets including basic commands as averages, sums and counts. She would never leave the standard screen so her examples were easy to understand and even easier to master. The one variable was Ryan; he knew what Excel™ sheets could do and wasn't interested the pedestrian calculations and he wanted Pivot Tables.

"Ms. Levitt?"

"Yes, Ryan?"

"What is a pivot table?" "A what table?"

It was going to be a long day for both of them but the entire class knew neither would back down. Several weeks earlier, Ryan had presented his required class project on the "secret" formula of television screenplay mysteries. Before starting, he warned all attendees that the presentation would basically ruin their watching of all televised mysteries and he wanted to allow any students the opportunity to opt out of the presentation, or as he put it, "I have no intention ruining someone's entertainment choices just for a stupid grade."

Mrs. Knopf took offense to the comment and walked Ryan directly down to the Principal's Office. After a healthy three-way conversation, Ryan convinced both adults that he would do the presentation for the both of them before the students saw it. "Certainly," Ryan emphasized, "two educated adults would be immune to his adolescent theories." Unfortunately for Mrs. Knopf, a long-time lover of Mystery, She Wrote and Matlock, she saw those shows go down the toilet once Ryan completed his theory on the inane formulatic cookie-cutter scripts. These scripts, which up until that moment, were viewed by her as outstanding creative prose and now, just drivel to be ignored. His theory stated that the murderer would be presented within the first five minutes of the show and he further hypothesized that the viewer must be introduced early enough to create the tension until the reveal can relieve the tension. Mrs. Knopf went home that night and for the first time in her life, suffered through her favorite shows thanks to that little smartass, Ryan Christensen. She never knew if her hate for Ryan or her loss of a loved pastime of television mysteries was the main reason for her attitude but this whole pivot table seemed to be heading in the same direction and she didn't like it. Not one bit. She was forced to give him an "A" and decided not to have him present to the class. His non-presentation became a story of legend; much like a lost song or masterpiece and his stature had grown significantly at the high school. She was not going to have a repeat performance when dealing with a pivot table....whatever that meant.

It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.

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