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June 8, 2011

Filed under: tech

Soft Cell

Summer is here, bringing with it 100° weather and a new series of CQ data projects--which, in turn, means working with Excel again. Here is a list of all the things I hate about Excel:

  1. Dates.
Excel's dates were designed by crazy people who thought that nobody would ever try to track anything before 1904, but other than that it always puts a smile on my face. In fact, it's probably my favorite software package of all time. If someone made a computer that only ran one program, like ChromeOS, but that program was Excel instead, I would snap that puppy up in a heartbeat. Maybe that sounds a little crazy to you, but to me it makes perfect sense.

Why have I rediscovered my enthusiasm for Excel? It's kind of funny, actually. In the past couple of years, fueled by a series of bizarre experiments in Visual Basic scripting, I've often solved spreadsheet dilemmas using brute-force automation. But now that I'm working more often with a graphics reporter who uses the program on OS X, where it no longer supports scripting, I'm learning how to approach tables using the built-in cell functions (the way I probably should have done all along). The resulting journey is a series of elegant surprises as we dig deeper into the Excel's capabilities.

I mean, take the consolidate operation and the LOOKUP function. If I had a dime for every time I'd written a search-and-sum macro for someone that could have been avoided by using these two features, I'd have... I don't know, three or four bucks, at least. Consolidate and LOOKUP are a one-two combo for reducing messy, unmatched datasets into organized rows, the kind of information triage that we need all too often. I've been using Excel for years, and it's only now that I've discovered these incredibly useful features (they're much more prominent in the UI of the post-Ribbon versions, but the office is still using copies of Excel 2000). It's tremendously exciting to realize that we can perform these kinds of analysis on the fly, without having to load up a full-fledged database, and that we're only scratching the surface of what's possible.

I find that I don't miss the challenge of coding in Excel, because formula construction scratches the same problem-solving itch. Besides, spreadsheets are also programs, of a sort. They may not be Turing-complete, but they mix data and code in much the same way as a binary program, they have variables and "pointers" (cell references), and they offer basic input and output options. Every cell formula is like its own little command line. Assembling them into new configurations offers the same creative thrill of a programming task--at smaller doses, maybe, but in a steady drip of productivity.

But honestly, efficiency and flexibility are only part of my affection for Excel. I think on some level I just really like the idea of a spreadsheet. As a spacially-oriented thinker, the idea of laying out data in a geometric arrangement is instantly intuitive to me--which, for all that I've grown to like SQL, is not something I can say for relational database queries. "We're going to take some values from over there," says Excel, "and then turn them into new values here." A fully-functioning spreadsheet, then, is not just a series of rows and columns. It's a kind of mathematical geography, a landscape through which information flows and collects.

By extension, whenever I start up Excel and open up a new sheet, the empty grid is a field of undiscovered potential. Every cell is a question waiting to be asked and answered. I get paid to dive in and start filling them up with information, see where they'll take me, and turn the results into stories about the world around us. How could anyone not find that thrilling? And how could you not love a tool that makes it possible?

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