Why can’t I produce a report from a spreadsheet?

I’ve been scheduling interviews for the last few days, and part of that job has involved taking a spreadsheet exported from Typeform (where we collected responses to a questionnaire from candidates) and trying to find a way to make a report from it.

You’d think this would be easy, the kind of thing people do in offices all day long.

All I want to do is take this:

First Name,Last Name,City,Start Date
Sully,Sillerson,New York,2024-05-01

And turn it into this:

First Name:  Peter
Last Name:   Rukavina
City:        Charlottetown
Start Date:  2024-04-01

With one person’s details on each page.

I can sort of do that by loading the spreadsheet into Numbers and selecting Table > Transpose Rows and Columns. This gets me halfway there; from that point, I can selectively hide and show columns, print each, and get where I want to go.

Screen shot of Numbers, showing four columns and two rows, with one person's responses to a form in each row.

A screen shot of the same spreadsheet, but with rows and columns transposed.

Screen shot of the same spreadsheet, but hiding one column, so we're just seeing one person's response.

But surely.

My second real computer job, when I was 16 years old, was at the Canadian Tire store in Burlington, Ontario. I started off working there on the sales floor, selling Commodore VIC-20s to the unsuspecting; eventually I was moved upstairs to the comptroller’s office, where a copy of the newly-released Lotus 1-2-3 had recently arrived. 

Lotus 1-2-3 was amazing. It’s hard to convey just how amazing it was to my teenaged eyes, but I loved it, and loved figuring out how to make it do all sorts of amazing things. Canadian Tire was able to learn much about itself because of my work, from how productive their mechanics were to gaining insights into wages vs. sales. Along the way I learned a lot about Canadian Tire, and business, about spreadsheets, and about how to be a computer consultant.

Using Numbers, more than 40 years later, isn’t much different than using Lotus 1-2-3 back then. There certainly hasn’t been 40 years worth of innovation or creativity applied to the category.

The underlying issue here, of course, is that Numbers is a spreadsheet, whereas what I really want is a database manager. Indeed, I made a good living from being a dBASE manager for much of my 20s. 

Producing reports was one of the things dBASE did well, and what I really want is its modern equivalent.

But apparently there isn’t one. Whereas VisiCalc begat Lotus 1-2-3 begat Numbers, it seems like FileMaker and dBASE and their ilk are a category of consumer software that died on the vine.

(Technically FileMaker didn’t die, it just became something else: an $800 piece of enterprise software that can, indeed, produce a report from an imported spreadsheet.)

What do people do these days when they want to keep track of generic things, search for those things, report on those things, share those things?

When did computers on our desks stop being able to do that?

Stronger Than You Know

The East Pointers released Stronger Than You Know a couple of years ago:

The sound when the power goes out
Is so quiet and so loud
The wind’s blowing in some hard
It could knock your house down
Big waves and murky waters
Snow beaten sons and daughters
Hold on a little longer
You’re stronger than you know

Last year they released an acoustic outdoor version of the song, and this week brings an acoustic indoor version (I’m fairly certain these are not formal terms of art).

I love all three versions: it’s a hopeful song at a time when hopeful songs are helpful.

It’s the second week of deer camp

Almost forty years ago I drove across North America with my friend Joanna, from Peterborough, Ontario to Vancouver, BC. 

We crossed over from Canada to the US in Sault Ste. Marie, and as we made our way through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it became evident that it was deer hunting season: not only was everyone and their brother wearing bright orange vests, but there was a show on AM radio that consisted, in that pre-cell-phone era, entirely of messages sent from home to hunters in the field. “This goes out to Bobby and Jake up in Marquette, from Jeanny and Lou. Happy hunting!”

Also on the AM radio was a novelty song, in heavy rotation, by Da Yoopers called Second Week of Deer Camp, the chorus of which went like this:

It’s the second week of deer camp
And all the guys are here
We drink, play cards, and shoot the bull
But never shoot no deer
The only time we leave the camp
Is when we go for beer
The second week of deer camp
Is the greatest time of year

That chorus was catchy enough—and we listened to the song enough times—that it wormed its way into my ears, where it’s been resident all these decades.

I thought of the song this morning while I was shovelling the stairs here at the north-of-Euston branch of the Rukavinas where we are in residence for “Cat Camp” for five days while my brother and sister-in-law take a much-deserved vacation. Our nominal roles here are to support Mom, who lives downstairs, and to feed, water, and inject the cats, who live up here, in the upstairs apartment where I write.

Photo of two cats, a stripy one and a black and white one, sitting on a cushion.

Cat Camp has happened to coincide with a weekend of a lot of snow. It’s not quite “snowmageddon,” but it’s close. It started snowing on Friday, and it hasn’t let up since.

This morning, fearing an accumulation of snow on the roof back at home base, I maneuvered the Kia Soul EV over very icy and snowy roads down south-of-Euston, and spent 30 minutes shovelling and roof-raking. The back roof—the usual problem spot for ice dams—was almost snow-free, but the front roof had about a foot of snow on it, and I managed to rake off a good chunk of it from the edge and back a few feet.

When I was done, I was able to power Lisa’s more-snow-capable 4WD out of the driveway, and the Soul back into the driveway, and returned to Cat Camp chastened by the weather. I suspect won’t be going back out.

A photo of the window here at my brother's apartment, looking outside through an almost-perfect circle of snow.

Meanwhile, the cats are good. Mom is good. We have food, and a warm apartment.

It’s going to keep snowing until at least tomorrow morning; my weather app says we’ve received 19 cm of snow so far, and will receive another 26 cm in the next 24 hours, meaning we’ll have almost a foot and a half on the ground in total.

It’s the second day of cat camp, and all of us are here.

Help us Support Olivia

TL;DR We are recruiting for two positions to help support Olivia: a Supportive Roommate (details) and an Autism Life Skills Coach and Case Manager (details). Maybe you’re interested? And please share these opportunities far and wide.

Just under a year ago, Olivia moved into her own nearby apartment. Her capabilities meant that she needed some support for her move toward independence, so we cottoned on to the term “supportive roommate” to describe people who might live with her: roommates, but with added responsibilities to fill in some of the practical gaps in her daily routine. It was a long and multi-faceted process to get this off the ground—we needed to figure out how to compensate the roommates, how to pay the rent, what insurance would be needed, how groceries would get purchased, and 57 other things. We rented the apartment on December 1, 2022 and Olivia and her roommates moved in on March 1, 2023; the three months between were a full-court press to get everything in place.

We found roommates. We figured out the myriad issues, as best we could. We were aided by an incredibly helpful landlord and a cooperative case worker in the AccessAbility Support program. Lisa was instrumental to the conception and execution of the project; without her tenacity and work, it never would have happened. It was, and is, a part-time job for us to manage all the moving parts, but it’s all in service of Olivia’s thriving.

But it worked. It’s working. Olivia’s still there.

There have been ups and downs, twists and turns, and we’ve all had to adapt. But this model of non-institutional housing is emerging to hold promise for a way to support Olivia now and in the future (“in the future” for a parent of an adult child with a need for support is code word “after I’m gone”).

We’re now ready to launch Version 2.0 of this project, and this involves recruiting for two roles, one brand new, and one a backfill:

First, we’re looking for an Autism Life Skills Coach and Case Manager, an admitted mouthful of a job title that packs in a lot. The job ad for the position has much more information, but what it boils down to is this: we’re going to hire someone to help Olivia build on her strengths, route around her challenges, in a focused, systematic way, so that she can take on more independence, more responsibility for her daily life, more agency for what comes next for her. We’re looking for someone who’s a skilled teacher and a creative and dynamic coach, someone who will have the time and resources to go on deep dives with Olivia with a patience, flexibility, and focus that neither her harried parents nor her under-resourced educators have had the opportunity to do. We’re working with an HR agency to recruit for the position; it would be a big help if you could help share the job ad far and wide, as we know in our heart of hearts that the right person for Olivia is out there, but they might not live next door. The role is compensated with a salary and benefits.

Second, we’re looking for another Supportive Roommate to live with Olivia and her other supportive roommate. We’re recruiting for this position all by ourselves, and trying to spread the word through a Facebook post, with hopes it too will be shared far and wide (Facebook, for all my misgivings about it, is amazing for spreading this kind of thing; it was the route to finding her first two roommates last year). The apartment has been down to one supportive roommate since October, and we’ve all rallied to keep things humming, but it’s an arrangement that really requires two, so we’re eager to find someone new who will be a good fit. While there are some “functional” elements to the role—ensuring Olivia takes her meds, for example, and helping with meal preparation—what we’re looking for is an emotionally resilient person, comfortable living with others, who will help provide the sort of workaday social connection and community that Olivia craves. The role is compensated through no-cost housing and a stipend.

Again, we’d all appreciate it if you would give a thought to people in your network for whom one of these roles or the other might be a good fit, and take a moment to connect them with more information.

Thank you.

Letterpress Numbering Machine Cheat Sheet

One of my prized pieces of equipment in the print shop is a numbering machine. It’s an ingenious piece of kit: every time the press makes an impression, the number increments. I’ve used it for raffle tickets and trading cards and, this season, for our This Box is for Good boxes.

There’s one right way to orient the numbering machine on the press, at 90° to the lockup, positioned so that the rollers strike the No. last. Orienting it some other way results in incomplete inking, and/or skipped numbers.

To help me remember this, I made a cheat sheet.

Three Chances to Learn New Things

Three items in my inbox this week, all opportunities to learn something new.

Climbing Toddlers

At Red Rock Climbing Wall, there’s a new Toddler Power Hour every Friday from 4:30 to 5:15, starting February 16th, 2024. From the announcement:

An action-packed session of supervised climbing and games led by our very own, Matt, Nicole, and Audrey. Designed specifically for toddlers, this program will provide a fun and engaging experience that will leave your child wanting more.

I can attest to awesomeness of Red Rock. Last summer I climbed there myself, and Matt made the experience fun, safe, and challenging. Matt is also Lisa’s trainer, and by virtue of my own trainer being away for a few weeks, I worked out with Lisa and Matt twice, and had my ass pleasantly kicked both times: Matt’s a funny, caring, compassionate person, and one of the most engaged dads I know. Your toddler will be in good hands.

Audrey the toddler climbs at Red Rock Climbing wall.

Audrey climbs at Red Rock Climbing Wall.

Writing Pastiches

The Al Purdy A-frame Association is holding a two-date online workshop with writer John BartonA-frame Pastiches: Writing in Tribute to Al Purdy, on March 23 and April 6, 2024:

Together we’ll illuminate various ways we can respond creatively to the work of another poet, with Purdy’s poems in the hot seat. To illustrate, John has written examples of five forms to get the ball rolling and the pens moving: a pastiche, a glosa, a cento, a sonnenizio and a remix, each using lines from Purdy’s work.

Here’s a stanza from Purdy’s Listening to Myself to get your started:

— the loss of love
that comes to mean more
than the love itself
and how explain that?
— a still pool in the forest
that has ceased to reflect anything
except the past
— remains a sort of half-love
that is akin to kindness
and I am angry remembering
remembering the song of flesh
to flesh and bone to bone
the loss is better

See also 3 Al Purdy’s, one of my favourite songs by Bruce Cockburn.

A photo of the Al Purdy A-frame house. From Prince Edward County Arts Council.

The Al Purdy A-Frame cottage, from Prince Edward County Arts Council.

Making Magazines

magCulture, a London-based blog cum magazine shop cum consultancy cum magazine event planner, is holding an online magazine-making masterclass called The Flatplan on March 2 and 3, 2024:

We’ve brought together again some of the best indie magazine-makers to provide a complete introduction to creating a successful publication, along with specialist printers and distributors. You’ll leave with the knowledge needed to nurture an abstract idea into a real-life magazine others will want to buy, read and enjoy! Ticketholders will also have exclusive access to videos of both days of talks for future reference (and so that people in other time zones can still benefit from the sessions).

I love the magCulture blog; second only to Frab’s, it’s my go-to source for what’s new and scintillating in the world of print magazines. The list of speakers at the masterclass is impressive. The world needs more magazines. Maybe the you’re the one to start a new one?

A poster for The Flatplan, showing the speakers.

Of Readwise Reader, Diaries, Barbara Hinds, Elephants, and Balakrishnan

I’ve been using Readwise Reader since it was released in beta, and I love it more than a little: it’s an all-on-one reader app for RSS feeds, email newsletters, PDFs, and ebooks, with helpful tools for annotating, sharing, summarizing, filtering, and searching. Here’s what it looks like:

A screen shot of Readwise Reader running on my MacBook Air showing the "Feed" section and three RSS posts.

This morning in my Reader I found Re-Noted: 6 Ways to Use a Diary, a rumination by Jillian Hess on the ways we diarize. I loved the scans of sundry diaries—Alan Rickman, in particular—and the link to  a YouTube tutorial from Lynda Barry about “a method of remembering.”

Another item in my Reader this morning was from Readwise itself, an issue of Wisereads, the project’s newsletter—an uncommonly rich and useful newsletter—that showcases things you might want to use Reader to read. Among those was Dan Wang’s 2023 letter, a letter that starts:

The trunk of an elephant might feel cool to the touch. Not what one expects, perhaps, from 200 pounds of writhing muscle, strong enough to uproot a tree, which tapers down to two “fingers,” giving it enough delicacy to detect the ripest berry on a shrub, and pluck it. Feeling an elephant’s trunk draws you to her other great feature: melancholic eyes that are veiled by long and dusty lashes. This combination of might with the suggestion of serene contemplation is surely the reason that elephants seem to embody a special state of grace.

I encountered several of these big beasts on a trek through the mountains of northern Thailand in December. The occasion was a “walk and talk” organized by Kevin Kelly and Craig Mod, who launched a dozen people on a 100 kilometer walk over seven days from Mount Inthanon to the center of Chiang Mai.

Yet another item, also from Readwise, was an update on Reader itself. One of the new features announced therein was the ability to create “Bundles” in Reader, a collection of links to things that you can then one-click publish to a public URL:

Somewhat experimental: You can now create themed collections of documents (aka “bundles”) with pretty landing pages for easily sharing with others. To create a bundle, first save a filtered view in the web app, click the down chevron next to its name, and select Enable public link. You can optionally add a description and a cover image to spice up the public landing page. When a recipient hits the Open in Reader call-to-action, a filtered view will be created in their account populated with these documents.

To illustrate a use of the feature, there was a link to one such bundle, Dan & Meghan Sabbatical. The image illustrating that bundle? An elephant. And one of the stories in the bundle, Where have we been?! Chiang Mai, Thailand, explained:

Chiang Mai is known for its beautiful landscapes and mountainous terrain. It’s also the home of Asian elephants! Ever since I was a little girl and found out that my brother got to ride elephants in Taiwan (where my mom is from) before I was born, I’ve always wanted to go for an elephant ride. Elephants are such majestic, enormous creatures that it seemed like one of those things you have to do in a lifetime. So we signed up to spend a morning with the Elephants at Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Centre. They had a great mission to save and care for elephants that have been victims of cruel treatment while working at logging sites and the like.

Dan was a little less excited than I was to see and ride the elephants, but once we got there he was just as wide-eyed as I was! They are amazing creatures, so giant yet so gentle.

This brought to mind our own trip, 21 years ago, to Chiang Mai where we too rode an elephant.

Photo of me and 18 month old Olivia, at an elephant camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Suffice to say, I had elephants on my mind this morning.

During a brief lull in my Reader reading, a question occurred to me: where is the nearest elephant? 

In other words, if I wanted to lay hands on an elephant right now, how far would I need to travel.

There is a thing for every happenstance thought, and elephants-in-captivity is no different: The Elephant Database came to my aid, a result of a search for “elephants in Eastern Canada.”

The entry that immediately jumped out at me was the elephant at Anil Canada Ltd. hardboard plant in East River, Nova Scotia. Because, well, that didn’t make any sense to me at all.

My East River elephant curiosity led me to the Barbara Hinds fonds in the library at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, and specifically to the section labelled File MS-2-130, Box 3, Folder 3 — Newspaper clippings and other material about the Anil elephant:

A screen shot of the Anil elephant section of the Barbara Hinds fonds section of the Dalhousie University library website.

Barbara Hinds was a Halifax journalist. She worked at the Chronicle Herald and Mail Star for 33 years, and those documents, all related to her reporting, tell the story of how, in 1967, an elephant named Balakrishnan was brought from India, with its mahout Sankunni, as a cruel publicity stunt to mark the opening of an India-backed hardboard plant:

Before being brought to Canada as an advertising gimmick, Balakrishnan worked in South India. When he was selected for emigration to Canada, his mahout, Sankunni had to go with him. They trained and worked together for five years, and traditionally, an elephant and his keeper stay together until death separates them. So, Sankunni, speaking the little known dialect of Malayalam, left his family behind and brought Balakrishnan to a life of leisure in Nova Scotia. To embark on board ship for the trip to Canada, the team of giant animal and small, lion-hearted man walked 110 miles across the hot India countryside. They took five days to travel the distance to the Bombay dockside.

After being moved from Halifax, his port of entry, to East River, Lunenburg County, Balakrishnan lived in idleness. He did no work and he walked little more than a few paces. He was first chained to a great spruce tree at the edge of the woods near a railway crossing where the trains whistled their approach.

People were able to visit him and feed him bananas, which he relished during the summer of 1967. A neighbor Mrs. Raymond Meisner, used to warm his drinking water for him until he/ was moved away into a shanty near the plant’s main entrance (which was quieter) and where he was still accessible to an admiring public during the fall.

Balakrishnan eventually succumbed to either the harsh conditions, the Canadian winter, or something else—his cause of death wasn’t conclusive:

Balakrishnan, Anil’s white elephant, dropped dead in his shackles at 5 o’clock this morning in his shed at East River. The 25-year old former working elephant had been sick for a week and was
visited by a veterinarian surgeon during the weekend and given an injection. For the past seven days, Balakrishnan had not eaten, to the concern of his keeper,
Sankunni. Yesterday, he drank a lot of water, but still refused to eat.

The story of Balakrishnan and Sankunni is told well in a 2019 National Film Board film, Balakrishna, which uses the reminiscences of Winton Cook, 13 at the time of their arrival in Canada, with animation combined with archival video and photos to demonstrate both the cruelty of the endeavour, and how Balakrishnan played an important role in one boy’s teenaged life.

But back to Barbara Hinds.

Also in her archives, under the section Personal notes of Barbara Hinds, is a collection of her diaries, like this one. It’s fascinating: a view into the personal and working life of a Haligonian journalist living in my lifetime.

There is a page of Charles Darwin quotes:

A scan of a page of Charles Darwin quotes, handwritten, from Barbara Hinds' diary.

Dalhousie University Archives,
Diary of Barbara Hinds, Accession 2009-003

And a shopping list:

Scan of a page from Barbara Hinds' diary, handwritten, showing a shopping list, listing KLIM, CHOPS, BATTERIES and noting an request from the CBC to bring back tapes.

Dalhousie University Archives,
Diary of Barbara Hinds, Accession 2009-003

Notes from her reporting in the north:

General reporter's notes from Barbara Hinds' diary

Dalhousie University Archives,
Diary of Barbara Hinds, Accession 2009-003

Like Hinds, Jillian Hess noted Charles Darwin, in her Re-Noted post:

Some of you might remember my post on Jim Henson’s diary of single-line entries. But he wasn’t the only one to use this method.

Like Henson, Charles Darwin also kept a diary filled with one-line entries. From 1838-1888, Darwin recorded his life in a single diary. In general, he notes professional events on the left-hand pages, while he reserves the right-hand pages for personal notes.

My father, who died in 2019, was also a single-line-entry diary writer. 

Once, a few years before he died, I asked him what he wanted done with his diaries after his death. “Throw them away,” he said. He didn’t think they’d be of any interest or value, and perhaps, though they don’t contain anything salacious or revealing, he didn’t like the thought of us knowing that on such and such a day he was pissed off at Mom.

After 1990, Dad switched from keeping a diary in pencil to using one long Microsoft Word file. When I found the file on his desktop after he died, I discovered he’d password-protected it. His frugality played to my hand in this regard, however: he hadn’t updated Word in a long, long time, so this file was of an era where cracking the password was trivial. Which is how we can, today, read his diary entries for the 28 years between 1990 and 2018, 2.2 million words in total.

This is how I know that, on January 29, 1990, he cleaned his office; on the same day a year later, in 1991, he “missed French class and used time to skim St. Lawrence contract terms of reference and discussed with Stephane by phone.”

In 1992, he “wrote monthly report”; in 1993 he was “home sick”; in 1994 he a Mom had dinner out while the computer backup at Mom’s library ran; in 1995 it was “some difficulty in getting the Compaq trackball mouse to work, finally resolved.”

On this day in 1999, Mom retired from her library position, and we all gathered at their house to surprise her; Dad noted “great dinner and chatted till about 2300 when we all went to bed exhausted.”

Two years later, “further on the polygon, the polygon coords used in the NAD83 maps of Trow cores when converted do not agree with the NAD27 coords from mplot,” an entry you could spend hours trawling Wikipedia to understand.

Dad’s 2018 entry for January 29, the last January 29 in the file, mentions some medical issues, a visit to the mall, cleaning up his email, returning a knife sharpener to Canadian Tire. He went to bed at 11:45 p.m.

I don’t learn much about my father by reading his diary. Looking at significant events in our family’s history, there’s sometimes a one-line mention, sometimes nothing. There’s scant introspection; nothing revealed. But I find them fascinating nonetheless; like wearing the L.L. Bean wool sweater of his that I keep in my closet still, when I browse them I feel a connection to him. There’s something about the workaday mechanics of his life being revealed that lets me invoke the memory of him more powerfully.

In her Your Daily Diary Will Teach You to Hear, Seem and Remember the World Around You, Lynda Barry describes what goes into your diary:

What goes into your diary are things that you noticed when you became present—that is to say when the hamster wheel of thoughts and plans and worries stopped long enough for you to notice where you were and what was going on around you.

I realize, reading this, that it’s that very thing that draws me close to Dad when I read things like “called Cas, more progress with the baby, Mike’s move went well.” These are contrails of moments of presence in his life: a call to my mother, a thought toward Olivia, an another for brother Mike, things he thought important enough to write down.

Perhaps, years from now, if these words survive, someone will take note that, on this day, I fell into an elephant and diary rabbit hole, and took several hours and 2,000 words to write about it. And maybe, if that person is you, you’ll feel a small kinship.


That’s what Joe Pete might have said…”

The Chaissons—seemingly all of them—are holding a monthly concert at The Pourhouse in Charlottetown to raise money to build new washrooms at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival grounds.

Lisa and I went yesterday, to a session featuring Dara Smith Macdonald and Adam Young. It was rollicking in the way that such things are. There were many impossibly adorable kids rambling around; step dancers were called up, some enthusiastically and some feigning reluctance; there was lyrically beautiful music, and scads of jigs and reels (we admitted to each other, later that night, that we didn’t know the difference).

The collective power of the Chaissonery had been mustered to form an impressive raffle prize that included everything just short of an guest spot on an East Pointers album: running with Stan, studio time with Brent, a fiddle lesson with Tim. Tickets were $40, and we convinced each other to invest. Our number was 836022; the winning number was 836020. So close.

On the way down the stairs at the end of the night, I overheard a couple coming down behind us: “That’s what Joe Pete might have said…,” one said to the other. If there had been any doubt, I knew then exactly where we were.