Tim Harford has an interesting long read on spreadsheets from its origins in the late 14th Century Italy to modern Excel with diversions into smallpox, Enron, Covid and even teasing Bill Gates.
The Tyranny of Spreadsheets is on the Financial Times web site. It’s usually firewalled but the link should, hopefully, show the article. Harford is an economic columnist for the FT and presenter of the excellent BBC show/podcast More or Less, which has been a beacon of rationality throughout the Covid crisis.
Spreadsheets, he argues, started in Italy in the late 1300’s with the development of double-entry bookkeeping. We had to wait until 1979 and the release of Visicalc which begat Lotus 1-2-3 which begat Excel.
Mistakes compound in Excel
One useful item in Tim’s article is the problem of mistakes in spreadsheets. An analysis of spreadsheets used by Enron reveals that about a quarter of the workbooks had at least one error. If there was one error, the risk quickly rises that there’ll be other problems.
Enron’s Spreadsheets and Related Emails:A Dataset and Analysis is a dense read but introduces the wonderfully named concept of ‘spreadsheet smells’ or “weak spots in a spreadsheet’s design and test behaviours of spreadsheet builders.”
Harford also mentions two issues we’ve covered in Office Watch.
- The Gene Markers problem were gene tags like MARCH1 were mistaken for dates by Excel. As we pointed out in Gene names changed to stop confusing Excel the problem wasn’t Excel but people importing text files the wrong way.
- Last year, UK Covid statistics were messed up because they were using the old and limited XLS What happened with UK COVID tracking and Excel? The explanations didn’t make sense.