An Applications Commentary
Gregory R. Glau
Well, there it sits: your computer. You've spent the past few months learning BASIC, writing all kinds of programs and learning how to use and interact with the computer and its tape or disk storage system. And, if you do say so yourself, you've turned into a pretty darned good programmer!
But gosh — after all those months — there it sits.
Sure, it's still fun to demonstrate a game or two if a friend stops by, or perhaps you've invested in a modem and can access a Network...but by and large, if you made a list of the reasons why you bought your computer in the first place, a list of 'all the things I'll be able to do,'...well, you've done them. You find yourself spending a half hour or so a day working on the computer, perhaps keeping your checkbook up-to-date, or making a budget listing, or keeping track of the amortization for the new car...but it mostly just sits there!
Suddenly it dawns on most of us that finding the answers is not the problem — we understand BASIC enough and disk data files and tape loading that we can figure out an answer to a problem. The difficulty is in finding the problem itself, in asking the questions, in figuring out things we can have the computer do. And not just ideas that take ten minutes and display a cute drawing on the screen, or a program to print all odd numbers between ten and a thousand. The whole purpose of any computer is to save time and make us more efficient in our work and/or home affairs.
But where do you get ideas to — as the ad says — simplify your life?
The first place to look is to examine any and all paperwork you handle, whether you use your computer in your home or business.
The businessman has some obvious needs — invoicing, monthly statements, payroll. We've found that our APPLE II saves an hour or so every week by figuring and printing payroll checks. So-so. But it also automatically balances all the figures and keeps them on a disk for all employee's year-to-date totals. The old way, balancing those figures by hand every quarter, literally took hours and hours. Here's a case where the initial time-saving didn't seem too terrific, but since everything is always 'in-balance' and up-to-date, over a period of a year it'll save hundreds of dollars in labor costs.
Accounts receivable and accounts payable are obvious savings, compared to the way we used to do things (and many small businesses still do) — by hand posting. Right out of the Middle Ages! Sending statements used to take a day...now it takes two hours.
But the businessman has to take a closer look at the other paperwork he's involved with.
How about keeping mileage and cost-per-mile records for any vehicles you own (the homeowner can do the same)?
While the businessman is making sales projections on his computer, the homeowner can project a budget/expense program on his.
The businessman can keep a running record of each employee's job efficiency (is he making or losing money for you?)...and the homeowner can keep a record of what his wife (or husband) spends!
The businessman is able to project what a major investment will do to his cash flow and net profit, and the homeowner, with the right program, can readily tell if he can afford that Coleman tent-trailer.
The businessman can see exactly what will happen to his profits if sales drop ten percent. If the housing industry stays in its slump. If the Summer gets hot and his air conditioning units sell like crazy. And the homeowner can predict his cash situation nine months from now when the new arrival is due (they don't let you take babies home unless they're paid for!).
Could you forecast the weather based on past trends and current data?
Would you like to know who's got the best chance of winning the second race tomorrow?
Are you interested in your youngster's projected SAT test score?
Could you plan what you'd do if your health insurance costs increased 15% next month?
Would it help to know that if you spent X dollars for insulation that you'd save Y dollars on air conditioning costs? Or if you install that solar water heater what effect it'll have on your tax return?
Is it useful to understand that if you could somehow save so many dollars per month over the next so many months that you could save X dollars in interest for that awning/cooler/television/exercycle you wanted, by paying cash instead of financing it?
Wouldn't it be interesting to program your computer to analyze the miles you and your next-door neighbor and Joe (he lives down the block) and your brother-in-Law around the corner each drive to work every day? To perhaps route a carpool for the four of you? To get an exact projection of the gas you'd save? To perhaps do the same thing with you wife and her friends... who all drive their kids to school? To program your computer with the basic items your family uses (Cheerios, ketchup, kleenex, soup, whatever), along with the average rate of usage...and then printout a grocery list before you ran out of anything?
Anything that you now do with data can be adapted into a simulation, a projection of the future and its results on you.
This — the area of simulation — is perhaps the most powerful thing a computer can do for any of us. Yes, it's wonderful to have the computer keep track of our monthly bills, to have it do the mundane record-keeping chores, but how much more invaluable it becomes when we project the future with our ideas!
Let's see... if we're making X number of dollars per year now, and inflation will average Y percent over the next so many years and my raises will give me a total income of X dollars at that time...will the kids be able to go to College? Will the wife and I be able to buy that motorhome?
The whole idea is to project — and thus predict — the future.
Now what if I get laid off work for ten days over the next year? What if the wife could find a part-time job (perhaps running ammortization schedules for banks in your area on your Computer?) — what would her income do to our net total? How about that duplex we've been wanting to buy and fix up? If we pay so much for it and it costs us this much to fix it up...we should be able to rent it for...And what will it do to our income tax situation to get all that depreciation from it as a rental? How much would I have to save every month to have enough to pay cash for a new car, say, in twenty months?
Well, you get the idea — simulation on your computer can help you find out what the future will bring, and perhaps in time to allow you to change things, if you don't like what it displays for you on your CRT!
Most simulations, by the way, can be generated from past data. The businessman can project labor costs based on the jobs he sold last year. The homeowner can predict what his salary needs are by basing his estimates on last year's budget printout (My God, Helen, did we spend that much on shoes?)
Once you've exhausted all the record-keeping and paper-work handling and forms-filling-out things that you once did by hand (but now your APPLE II or TRS-80 or OHIO SCIENTIFIC or PET does better and faster), the logical place to turn to is this area of simulation. And after all, there are only so many record-keeping chores we have to take care of, and once they're accomplished — and the computer is being used only an hour or so a day — the ideal place for one's creativity is in simulation.
And the best part is that you'll quickly discover that one idea leads to another — you might start projecting your net income and end up looking at life insurance values in relation to education costs ten years down the road. This in turn might lead to new record-keeping ideas, which will give you more simulation directions ...
So, here are a baker's dozen ideas for simulation in areas the average programmer should have an interest in (after all, it's your money) in addition to the ideas already mentioned, so that perhaps a few will sound good to you and be of some help in your own financial planning:
- Design a program to show you how much money you'd have to save weekly/monthly/yearly to end up with X dollars Y number of years from now. By being able to change every combination, you'll soon find a plan you can afford that'll give you the cash you need...when you need it.
- Project the cash savings by replacing your present air conditioning system/furnace/water heater/ cookstove with a new energy-savings one. How long will it take to pay for itself at the present gas or electric rates? What if the rates increase X percent?
- Printout the values of your stock portfolio if inflation goes up so much percent while the market goes down X percent.
- Compare the overall costs of remodeling the basement vs. the cost of a new home.
- Figure out what salary you'll need with an annual raise of X dollars, an inflation rate of Y percent...when you son starts college in 19—.
- Estimate the cost savings of adding an evaporative cooler to your air conditioning system.
- Find out what's best for your own situation by comparing the net cost of life insurance: whole life gets cash value plus dividends while term insurance doesn't. Which costs less?
- Find out how much of a raise you'll have to ask for based on X percent inflation this year.
- Get a budget projection comparing the number of movies you go see (the cost of tickets & popcorn) to what that new cable TV deal costs.
- Discover what your annual car expenses are over the next five years if you either (A) keep your present car or (B) buy that new gas-saving model. Factor-in different per-gallon costs, and don't forget the new one costs more for insurance and license plates.
- Figure out exactly how much life insurance you need right now — determine how much income your wife will need for how many years.
- If you can save so many dollars per month, display or printout the various options you might have (money market funds, regular savings, certificates of deposit, mutual fund programs); which is best for you?
- Find out exactly what happens if you buy a rental unit, by using forced inflation. The duplex might cost you X dollars, but if you spend Y dollars to fix it up, how much will it increase in value? Compare this duplex with that triplex. Which is best? If you fix a place up and then keep it, how much can you raise the rents? What does it do to your tax return?
Somewhere in all these ideas is a problem that you need a solution to. So...get your programming pad out and get to work...and all of a sudden you'll find your computer in almost constant use...and not just sitting there any more!
Editor's Note: Once you have one of these programs up and running, write a tutorially descriptive article to go with it, and send it in to me at COMPUTE! We'll look forward to it, and so will all our readers who aren't quite programmers yet. RCL.