Excel

A couple of weeks ago, the UK government discovered it had missed reporting 16,000 cases of coronavirus to the British public—the culprit? Our trusty friend Excel.

Let me take you for a spin down memory lane.

The Microsoft suite of productivity applications has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t always king of the castle.

The names were brilliantly chosen—the text (or word) processing application was called Word, but the big boys in the 1980s were two other packages: WordStar and WordPerfect—both of them are more or less consigned to the dung heap of silicon, although the Canadian company Corel, which trawls the software trash landfill like an eight-year-old Filipino child, still sells the latter.

The law of unintended consequences: while hunting for an IT trash pile, I spent a hideous quarter of an hour shivering at images like this.

Along with the writing software came a sister app for propeller heads—once again, the pioneers were VisiCalc for the Apple IIE, soon followed by the blockbuster Lotus 1-2-3. These were killer apps predicated on the simplest of concepts—enter one number into a cell on a table, do something to it in another cell—for instance multiply it by five—and when you change the contents of the original cell its sibling automatically updates.

Lotus 1-2-3 was the brainchild of Mitch Kapor, who later went on to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla, the parents of Firefox—the browser that killed Internet Explorer.

Excel was a timid competitor, but it had the better name. It was also unusual for a Mickeysoft product in that it was relatively bug-free—where Word and Powerpoint had more bugs than a termite mound, Excel rarely crashed.

As Microsoft increased its world dominance, the Office suite won the day and Lotus vanished, along with tentative offerings such as Borland’s Quattro. Borland went bust, but Corel still offers the package in its cobweb-laden dungeon of Office clones, and you can even download an MS-DOS version—I bet it still works!

These were top-class apps written by excellent programmers—folks who had to fight against the main limitations of the day: computer memory, disk capacity, and screen resolution—none of these are a headache today.

Quattro Pro had two features that took a while to come to Excel—tabbed worksheets (forming the concept of a workbook), and the ability to handle a million rows.

The reason for the worksheets is obvious—due to computer memory limitations, spreadsheets only had 256 columns—and back in 1995, when I was beginning to get onto the internet, Excel only had 16,384 rows. By 2002 it had 65,536 rows but still only 256 columns.

Why all these geeky, weird numbers? You obviously don’t know any computer programmers! All these are the result of 2 multiplied by itself repeatedly. You get 256 by multiplying 2 eight times, the other values by multiplying it fourteen and sixteen times.

Finally, in 2007, Excel took advantage of the appearance of 32-bit microprocessors, which can deal with much larger numbers, and it bumped up the number of rows to 1,048,576 (or 2 multiplied 20 times)—for ordinary folks like you and me, that’s a million rows. It also bumped the columns to 16,384.

When you save an Excel file, it gets given an extension. The problem is your PC likes to hide extensions—if, like me, you want to see them, you have to ask. The Mac always hid extensions and the PC always suffered from Mac envy—the Mac was the handsome kid at school who got all the girls and the PC was the nice guy with acne and greasy hair who worked hard at sports to try to be popular.

If you use an older Excel file (the extension is xls)—and I still get these all the time—then you’re stuck with 65,536 rows. If, on the other hand, you use the updated version, which has an extension called xlsx, you can handle a million rows.

The UK government outsourced their COVID work to a company called Serco Test and Trace. On the Companies House site, this corporation is called Serco Limited—it changed its name from R.C.A. Limited in 1987.

It isn’t immediately clear to me what skills Serco has that make it invaluable to the job at hand, but there we are—the Johnson government obviously knew better.

What we do know is that they were using Excel with the older file extension, and almost 16,000 case files fell off the pier, with a nasty knock-on effect for contact tracing.

An article in Foreign Policy reviews this cock-up and sums up the dangers of Excel beautifully.

Excel is almost universally misused for complex data processing, as in this case—because it’s already present on your work computer and you don’t have to spend months procuring new software. So almost every business has at least one critical process that relies on a years-old spreadsheet set up by past staff members that nobody left at the company understands.

I have personally seen this time and time again—Excel is a magnet for human error, the digital corollary of the law of unintended consequences.

The main conclusion of all this is that governments, and any other institutions dealing with large numbers, must never entrust data to a spreadsheet package. And never, ever for public health, let alone a pandemic.

Just as in accounting you need a double-entry ledger that performs its own calculations, so for archiving patient test data—particularly on a nationwide scale—the only solution is a database into which test results can be entered directly, much like an Amazon purchase—when was the last time you bought the wrong product?

Pretty sad stuff, all in all, and terrible for the credibility of the government ‘strategy.’

In parallel, British chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, struggling to resuscitate the economy, promoted an Artificial Intelligence site designed to facilitate job search. The website, https://beta.nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/assessment/short/ is available for all to try, so I did.

This was partly triggered by a UK government ad.

Is stupidity more contagious than coronavirus? Curious minds want to know.

The ad predictably upset many artists, who are struggling to survive in these terrible times, and led to this brilliant spoof of Dame Judi Dench.

For my part, the AS (Artificial Stupidity) site ran me through a range of questions before telling me my future prospects. In construction, it recommended a new life as a dry liner or shop fitter. In beauty and health care I was selected as a nail technician or hairdresser. However, if the uniform holds more of an attraction, I am well suited to becoming a soldier or security guard.

Since the test does not take into account age or sex, M was just the choice to become a scaffolder at the ripe age of eighty-five.

We can all be excused for going a little bit nuts at the moment, but the only solution we have is to borrow money and support the economy while we wait this one out.

If we can borrow gazillions to fight wars, win elections, and bail out banks—all shitty reasons to borrow—we can do the same for the pandemic, and pay those who are distressed.

There is no ambiguity here. The mission of the moment is to save lives, not livelihoods.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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