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ATPM 14.01
January 2008





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by Mark Tennent,

Sum Thing Dickered This Way Bombs

It’s funny how you can make a tiny change which on the surface seems innocent but underneath reaps enormous consequences.

Take, for example, our accounts database. It was created back in 1991 when the accounts were first computerized. FileMaker Pro 1 was the chosen software, largely because we had a copy and it came with a set of templates for an American-based business. In those days FileMaker was only a flat-file database but it had look-up facilities in a one-direction, relational sort of way. It is a big tribute to FileMaker’s creators that we were able to recreate a whole accounting package, working only from the online help files, but this is the nature of Apple’s software which “just works.”

A Little History

FileMaker’s first incarnation was in the early 1980 as a DOS program called Nutshell. When the Mac appeared in 1984, Nutshell was adapted for graphical interfaces, and as a result became far easier to use and was renamed FileMaker. At one point it nearly became a Microsoft program when they bought up FileMaker’s distributors, Nashoba. FileMaker was not part of the package and actually outsold Microsoft’s own database, imaginatively called Microsoft File, in its pre-nascent Microsoft Office suite. Shortly after, Apple bought FileMaker, renumbered it, and published it under their Claris label.

Over the years FileMaker has become one of the easiest relational databases to use, gaining features and rewrites, crossed platforms, and always had the ability to make changes on the fly. Which is exactly what I had done. A recent switch of car meant I was entering diesel costs into a field called “Petrol.” Being a neat and tidy person (ha!) I changed the name to “Diesel,” entered the last three months worth of receipts, and tried to do my VAT return.

Bigger Than Felix Dennis’s Tax Bill

Apparently I owe HM Customs and Excise eight million quid. I would happily pay this were it true, thinking what our turnover would have to be to accumulate a tax bill larger than Felix Dennis’s. Since I have no recollection of such wealth passing through our meagre accounts, something had gone horribly wrong. A moment’s delving into FileMaker showed the error. The “Petrol” field set up 15 years ago, was referenced in many calculations which, because of our lack of advanced maths, were done with simple additions, subtractions, and so on. Changing the field to “Diesel” had confused the rest of the database. A quick retyping of its name saw eight million become eight hundred. Which is just as unachievable, but at least we don’t have to skip the country.

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