The mysterious powers of Microsoft Excel

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Generic image of a man looking exasperated at his laptop computer

After two Harvard economists admitted a faulty spreadsheet calculation caused errors in a study used by numerous politicians to support their austerity policies, writer Colm O'Regan pays tribute to the power of Microsoft Excel.

They called it a "coding error". This made it sound like they were sequestered in a bunker surrounded by black screens on which a continuous parade of figures flickered past.

Instead it was just someone using Excel on a laptop who was highlighting cells for a formula and released his index finger from the left-clicky button of his mouse too soon.

The debate has raged - well raged is a strong word, perhaps sulked? - since Monday about the significance of the calculation mistake made by Reinhart and Rogoff in their 2010 paper for the American Economic Review, Growth in a Time of Debt.

Did the conclusions about debt, growth and need for painful correction send the politicians of the world to the special cabinet to dust off the scourges?

That debate is meaningless because the last five years of economic prediction have told us one thing: No one knows anything any more and the people who say they know something know even less.

The main point to take from this debacle is the truly awesome power of Excel. Not its processing ability, just its ubiquity.

As much as oil and water, our lives are governed by Excel. As you read these lines somewhere in the world, your name is being dragged from cell C25 to D14 on a roster. Such a simple action, yet now you'll be asked to work on your day off. It is useless to protest. The spreadsheet has been printed - the word made mesh.

Speaking of printing, this is another area where Excel does not give up its mysteries too easily. Everyone remembers the first time they clicked "Print" and naively expected the outcome to resemble what they saw on the screen.

There followed an awkward wait at the printer as, necks reddening with shame, the spreadsheet came out with its data scattered across a sheaf of paper - information that was key to understanding page one was located on page 72.

In between there were dozens of other pages, blank apart from borders on some of the cells so that it looked like plans for the design of a wire fence.

Only very few of us will truly harness the full capabilities of the 31-year old machine. Most people will only tentatively sum up the odd column but there are others who can really make that the old engine fly.

Image caption,
Careful you don't get caught with a circular reference

I still remember looking over a colleague's shoulder at a spreadsheet which had a button in the middle of it. A BUTTON! Raised above the plain of the worksheet like a ziggurat. Instantly I fell to my knees in worship.

Try it now - take some time to play with formulas and Excel will reward you generously, with magic. There are hundreds, from the simple IF, to the rather rude CUMIPMT, all the way to MIRR - the formula for operating a space station.

Of course, Excel will not always reward you. You may have made a mistake in the formula. Your hand may have shaken as you tried to remember if "col_index" was the one on the right or the left.

Excel won't tolerate this. It will send you packing, Worse still you may have a "circular reference" and you will get a lecture. Or you've inserted a chart where everything is zero apart from one thing which is infinity, and Excel will say nothing.

There are many unanswered questions, like what happens if you start everything from cell XFD-1048576? If you summed everything in a spreadsheet, where would you put the answer (ok, in another worksheet).

Excel fans are often treated pejoratively. "'You can't learn this is in a spreadsheet, kid,' said the old man, his weather-beaten face grimacing as he swiftly removed the caribou's entrails" is a line found in many books. But spreadsheets have a beauty all of their own.

They speak to a need deep inside of us to arrange things in rows and columns. Ever since the first town planners pored over drawings of grids in the Indus Valley, man has wanted to locate points by how far over and up they were.

And now these rows and columns are used in spreadsheets processing billions of dollars of trades - often wrongly, as seen in the London Whale incident. But spreadsheets don't cheat people. People cheat people.

Yet despite this, Excel is under threat. Its processing power is not enough for the requirements of the sinister organisation known as Big Data. The Force that has been quietly watching and gathering details about your every move and now is in a position to guess what you're going to do next, once it finishes running the numbers.

Excel wouldn't do that. It would hourglass for a while before eventually coming to the rather plaintive conclusion that there weren't "enough resources".

If Excel ever goes, we will miss it. In times to come we will look at old Excel spreadsheets, our eyes growing damp with nostalgia. We will trace our mouse across its clunky yet sturdy workmanship, as we would now lovingly stroke the nameplate of a Victorian machine: "Ah… pivot tables. You see, they built stuff to last in them days, knowwhatImean?"

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