Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Joy of Ex(cel)*

Here comes a real nerd confession.

I hate to say it, but sometimes it feels really good to get a nice spreadsheet going. I've somehow become "the guy who knows a lot about Excel" among the Japanese 201 T.A.s, and honestly, I must say, it feels pretty good to known as a person with these skills.

We do some pretty cool stuff with our spreadsheet, not just tracking grades, but having it calculate percentages, and percentages of percentages of their total grades, having the spreadsheet automatically drop their lowest two scores, fun stuff like that. I like copying formulas. I like using "Paste Special." I like formatting the number of decimal places that are to be displayed. It's just fun. But I didn't always feel this way. Oh no.

I used to HATE Excel. Back when I worked at HappiCo, (now-defunct Indiana-based Japanese automotive parts supplier that had a horrible, ironic name) the Japanese guys I worked with loved Excel. They would brag about how they were black belts in Excel. They actually had cards they carried around showing that they had passed this certain level of Excel certification. I thought this was weird, and this is probably what initially made me weary of spreadsheets. I was all like "It's just a bunch of numbers, who cares?"

The thing is, for them, spreadsheets were for so much more than just numbers. Spreadsheets were a way of life. The Japanese guys at HappiCo would use Excel for things that had nothing to do with numbers. They would use it to make flowcharts, to make signs telling people not to do stuff, for birthday cards for their daughters, whatever. As a creative type, this annoyed/amused me to no end. In my mind I tried to develop theories as to how this related to Japanese culture.

"They like things that can fit into compartments." "They like the columns and rows because it reminds them of the small apartments they live in." "The compartments are regular, like the syllables** in their language." "They like rules that don't have exceptions, just like their language." "All of the cells react to each other in harmony, it fits in well with their notion of wa (和)."

Anyway, I carried this distant philosophical curiosity/actual disdain for spreadsheets with me up until I started teaching Japanese here at IU. A few years earlier, I had a few positive run-ins with numbers, such as using numbers to learn about acoustics in audio recording, using numbers in Max/MSP, using numbers to count how many bananas I had, etc. It was learning Max/MSP in particular that really turned me on to the power of number manipulation, there was something about it that jived with the way that I think. So when it came time to work with the spreadsheets, I decided to think of it as being like Max/MSP, and it kind of made it fun. Instead of patch cord lines, you would just refer to a cell's number to link it up. Instead of objects, you just write some formula that tells it what to do. Suddenly, I was starting to feel the magic of spreadsheets.

You know how when you learned math in high school and they told you that the parenthesis mean "do me first." And then everyone laughed because the teacher just said "do me." Well, it turns out that parenthesis stuff is actually important. You say "I'll never have to use this stuff in real life" but then it turns out that you do! It's totally classic.

So now I am left loving spreadsheets, partly because people tell me I'm good at them, and partly because I actually feel like I am good at them. They are quite handy. But does this mean that I have become one of them? Am I a total square? Luckily the answer to these questions has been manifest in several internet-famous forms in the last couple of months. Spreadsheets have been experiencing a real renaissance of cool (or is it just a naissance?). There's art made with Excel, an AC/DC video done in Excel, a Thanksgiving calculator spreadsheet, or you can even do cellular automata on a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is really getting the rock star treatment. It's ok.

* And I use the word Excel to mean all spreadsheets, the same way that Kleenex refers to all facial tissue or ProTools is used to refer to all recording software.

** I know, I know, they're not syllables, they're mora.


rachel said...

For the Excel proletariat, would you mind explaining what "Paste Special" does? I haven't gotten much farther than merging cells.

Kino said...

pivot table love. regression analysis is also way fun.

hey, i'm loving the new record, about 5 songs in now. where can i order an lp?

Davor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Davor said...

I love excel too! I used it to organize the department I ran at work during the spring and summer, and I too became known as an Excel dude.

Thought I must admit I was literally crestfallen when I saw that someone else beat me to Excel art (I mean it, my cube neighbor was like dude, your crest just fell). I thought I thunk that up on my own like in June or something. Fudge.

keepon said...

you can write a love letter with excel, too.