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Open Thread: How are you using Excel?

Yesterday, I mentioned I'd been talking with someone who's looking at interesting things people are doing with Microsoft Excel. I talked to her again yesterday, and with her official okey-dokey, I'll virtually introduce Tralee Pearce (*waves*), a reporter from Toronto's Globe & Mail whom you might remember from a very swell article about the Hipster PDA.

So, by request -- and to help Tralee with fleshing out her fun-sounding article -- I hope you all will jump in here: What kind of cool, novel, and non-obvious stuff are you doing with Excel? What's the wildest, most obsessive, most nerdy thing you ever saw someone do with our favorite spreadsheet program?

gavin hurley's picture

Back in the late 90's...

Back in the late 90's I was in college and doing programming work for a small computer company in Pasadena. The client that I was working with at the time was a doctor who specialized in interpreting EEG data. Basically, he could look at an EEG, combine it with other patient information and decide appropriate treatment. Apparently, part of the EEG data analysis was automatable and this doctor had written a program to do just that. It was written in Excel and it was the worst thing I've ever seen.

If you aspire to write convoluted and inscrutable programs you will never do better than this. It put perl programs to shame. In terms of sheer incomprehensibility, about the only thing I've seen since that comes close is BrainFuck. To give you some idea of why Excel was so unsuitable a tool consider that it's input consisted of raw binary files and it's output consisted of PDFs.

Variables were arbitrarily chosen cells and did not make use of Excel's naming abilities. An accumulator then might be t:47. Function were just wickedly complicated formulas. It was huge and a total mess. Most amazing of all, it worked. Flawlessly.

You would saddle it up with some raw EEG data and then just walk away. This is the only Excel spreadsheet I've encountered whose runtime was measured in minutes. It took between 20 and 40 minutes to process all the data and output a PDF. Part of our job was to write supporting software that fed our insatiable black box a steady diet of virgin EEG files. I came to think of it as the labyrinth. We threw an endless stream of virgins into the pit and out came Minotaur droppings.

The doctor fully realized his creation was unmaintainable and knew that part of the reason for its excruciatingly poor performance was that it ran in Excel. He wanted us to tack a crack at rewriting it in an actual programming language. We tried but gave up in howling pain after just a few days.

I hadn't used Excel for much by the time I took that job. It took me years to cleanse the bad associations and learn to love Excel.




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