The other side of Excel advocacy



  • As may have been previously noted here, I'm a big advocate of the right tool for the right job, and in a lot of cases that's Excel. Not being an idiot, though, I'm also well aware of the danger of continuing to use Excel long past the point when it's time to switch to something more capable, and half what I do (related to Excel, at least) is persuading people it's time to move on.


    Today I sat in on a meeting where one of the items on the agenda was finding out the right way to phrase a warning for photosensitive epileptics to pop up before a particularly gruesome spreadsheet loaded. Pleasingly, when I pointed out that this is an absolutely certain sign that the underlying platform has been extended further than it should go, I found some traction. Less pleasingly, the traction I found was that the issue had arisen following an actual seizure triggered by the spreadsheet in question, so there was real acceptance of the existence of a problem, if not necessarily the need to change.


    Hopefully I've now firmly established with the client that when your spreadsheet actually starts hospitalising people, it's time to look at alternative technologies.



  • @TDWTF123 said:

    a particularly gruesome spreadsheet
    What could make a spreadsheet "gruesome"? Weird colors? I don't get it.



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @TDWTF123 said:

    a particularly gruesome spreadsheet
    What could make a spreadsheet "gruesome"? Weird colors? I don't get it.

    Sorry, I thought I'd covered that with the bit about warning photosensitives, but I left something out. It was generally as gruesome an abuse of Excel as you could wish had never existed, but the specific problem was that the screen flashed with vanishing and reappearing worksheets and so-on while it ran its onload macros, to such an extent that it triggered an epileptic fit.



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @TDWTF123 said:

    a particularly gruesome spreadsheet
    What could make a spreadsheet "gruesome"? Weird colors? I don't get it.

    Maybe the spreadsheet is using Excel forms? That would qualify as gruesome.



  • @TDWTF123 said:

    the specific problem was that the screen flashed with vanishing and reappearing worksheets and so-on while it ran its onload macros, to such an extent that it triggered an epileptic fit.
    It never occurred to me that someone would do that. I guess I'm not as much of an Excel expert as I thought.



  •  Now this is the sort of story that belongs on the front page. Spice it up a little with some fluff about the poor guy who seized up and some heated arguments between the curmudgeonly expert who wrote the spread and the young whippersnapper who wants to move to some other reporting solution.



  • This might be the worst case of bad programming I've ever heard.



  • This is the worst I'm aware of. Although given the economic value of the lives involved, it's arguable that the Mars Climate Orbiter fuck-up was more damaging.


    In terms of actually causing harm using standard computer equipment in a fairly ordinary way in an office, though, this is unique in my experience. That said, photosensitivity warnings are fairly normal on computer games, so it's more that it's an unexpected consequence of an office task than something particularly difficult to do if you try.



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @TDWTF123 said:

    the specific problem was that the screen flashed with vanishing and reappearing worksheets and so-on while it ran its onload macros, to such an extent that it triggered an epileptic fit.
    It never occurred to me that someone would do that. I guess I'm not as much of an Excel expert as I thought.

    Did I mention that it took maybe a minute to load on bank-trader-quality hardware? I'm mainly going by what I could pick up through persistence of vision, the one time I saw it in action. I'm not sure, but I also got the impression that whoever wrote one part of it hadn't been happy with arrays, so kept writing them out to worksheets to work on, before reading the data back in and closing the sheet.


    The irony is that Excel is the right thing to be using for the interface, given the environment. It's just way past time that most of what it does was hived off to something central.



  •  You could just turn off screen updates at the start of the Macro; not only would that stop the flashing, but it would improve the performance of the Macro as well.



  • @Medezark said:

     You could just turn off screen updates at the start of the Macro; not only would that stop the flashing, but it would improve the performance of the Macro as well.

    Too obvious. Come back when you have a worthy solution.



  • @boomzilla said:

    @Medezark said:

     You could just turn off screen updates at the start of the Macro; not only would that stop the flashing, but it would improve the performance of the Macro as well.

    Too obvious. Come back when you have a worthy solution.

     

    Start of the macro is a VBA virus. It creates a superuser daemon and install it as a service. The service listens for an event that signifies the start of the Macro. The service then turns off the monitor (or at least blanks it out).  When it receives Macro End, it turns it back on.  It is up to the dev to put Macro Start and End events at the start and end of their macro chains, not each macro, or you'll just have a flashing screen.

    Also, if a macro ever crashes or doesn't finish running, the user's screen is blanked out until they reboot into safe mode and manually fix the display settings.

    Happy fucking friday.

     



  • @Lorne Kates said:

    Start of the macro is a VBA virus.
     

    Evil. I like it.



  • To paraphrase witchdoctor from another thread, "I'll just keep pretending that this [story is made up]. I know it's unlikely but my sanity requires it."

    An Excel spreadsheet that is so busy it actually causes seizures?!? 

    I've seen some busy spreadsheets before.  Jammed with too many columns, colors, fonts, macros, formulas.  I call them "eggshell solutions", because they're extremely delicate and fragile.  In fact, I've even made jokes about them causing seizures.  Its bad when your jokes become reality.

    At my last client, someone sent me an Excel spreadsheet they came across that did, among other things, "Test Estimation".  There were dozens of colors, worksheets, nested references, etc.  My initial reaction was, "What is this I don't even...  This nightmare is unusable."  At my next client, I met a guy who bragged about the "Test Estimation Excel solution" he had developed.  Yup...the very same.  Its good to meet your heroes.



  • @malaka said:

    Its good to meet your heroes.
    I met Batman when I was 12. He didn't know shit about spreadsheets.



  • @boomzilla said:

    @Medezark said:

     You could just turn off screen updates at the start of the Macro; not only would that stop the flashing, but it would improve the performance of the Macro as well.

    Too obvious. Come back when you have a worthy solution.

    Stop setting such high standards for my posts.  You'll only be disappointed.



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @malaka said:

    Its good to meet your heroes.
    I met Batman when I was 12. He didn't know shit about spreadsheets.

     

    He just said that to protect you. You wouldn't want to know the horrible dark truth.

     



  • @TDWTF123 said:

    This is the worst I'm aware of. Although given the economic value of the lives involved, it's arguable that the Mars Climate Orbiter fuck-up was more damaging.


    In terms of actually causing harm using standard computer equipment in a fairly ordinary way in an office, though, this is unique in my experience. That said, photosensitivity warnings are fairly normal on computer games, so it's more that it's an unexpected consequence of an office task than something particularly difficult to do if you try.

    Nobody expects a spreadsheet to be a Michael Bay movie. I really, really hope giving people seizures with standard office applications isn't ordinary.



  • @malaka said:

    I've seen some busy spreadsheets before.  Jammed with too many columns, colors, fonts, macros, formulas.  I call them "eggshell solutions", because they're extremely delicate and fragile.

    Interesting. In my experience, homegrown Excel spreadsheets from Hell are usually extremely resilient digital artifacts, taking a life of their own, wearing down generations of programmers and power-users. They usually not only prevent a company from upgrading their Office version, they also force IT to either support eternal paths (including mapped drives AND UNC paths) on all workstations or to build a Shrine (typically a VM) where the Master Spreadsheet will live forever. Clunky and obnoxious... not the same as delicate and fragile.



  • @Ronald said:

    Clunky and obnoxious... not the same as delicate and fragile.
    I'd say it's clunky and obnoxious and delicate and fragile all at the same time, since the slightest change in the environment will prevent the spreadsheet from working (properly).



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @malaka said:

    Its good to meet your heroes.
    I met Batman when I was 12. He didn't know shit about spreadsheets.

    I didn't meet Batman, but I did send a fan letter to Adam West inviting him to my eighth birthday party (it's a good thing it wasn't my ninth, because that was the day MLK was killed).

    And I once got to see Robin shooting a location scene in Griffith Park.

     



  • @da Doctah said:

    I didn't meet Batman, but I did send a fan letter to Adam West inviting him to my eighth birthday party (it's a good thing it wasn't my ninth, because that was the day MLK was killed).

    What do you think, Adam West would have left your party to go solve the crime? HE'S AN ACTOR NOT THE REAL BATMAN



  • @Ronald said:

    @da Doctah said:

    I didn't meet Batman, but I did send a fan letter to Adam West inviting him to my eighth birthday party (it's a good thing it wasn't my ninth, because that was the day MLK was killed).

    What do you think, Adam West would have left your party to go solve the crime? HE'S AN ACTOR NOT THE REAL BATMAN

    I was [b]nine[/b].  And actor or not, Adam West was and still is the kind of guy who would always strive to do good in whatever way possible.

     



  • @da Doctah said:

    @Ronald said:

    @da Doctah said:

    I didn't meet Batman, but I did send a fan letter to Adam West inviting him to my eighth birthday party (it's a good thing it wasn't my ninth, because that was the day MLK was killed).

    What do you think, Adam West would have left your party to go solve the crime? HE'S AN ACTOR NOT THE REAL BATMAN

    I was nine.  And actor or not, Adam West was and still is the kind of guy who would always strive to do good in whatever way possible.

     

    Still does not mean he would have gone and stopped the Black Panthers conspiracy to kill MLK. Only Shaft could have done it.



  • @da Doctah said:

    I was nine.  And actor or not, Adam West was and still is the kind of guy who would always strive to do good in whatever way possible.

     

    I'm sorry da Doctah but I had to do it.().

    Burt Ward wrote a great/hysterically funny/behind the scenes autobiography called Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights. Read this and you may find your opinion of Adam West slightly modified. Take special note of the chapters with titles of "On your knees, Girls, and stay in line", and "Keep an eye out for the big polynesian mama who looks like she got hit in the face with a plank" - yes .. they are the chapter titles .. I have the book in front of me as I type.

    But also read it for the hell of it. It is a great story with lots of background information on Batman and Robin as well as Burt's life post show.

    Plagiarized from the aforementioned book because I just had to upset the beliefs you had as a child. (also in reference to Adam Wests acting method (and similar to William Shatner) by which he stretched out his lines in order to get more screen time)



  • @OzPeter said:

    Plagiarized from the aforementioned book because I just had to upset the beliefs you had as a child. (also in reference to Adam Wests acting method (and similar to William Shatner) by which he stretched out his lines in order to get more screen time)
    As an adult I can appreciate this, knowing that before he was millionaire Bruce Wayne, West was the "fourth Stooge" in The Outlaws Is Coming! where he fit right in with the merry hijinks of Moe, Larry and Curly Joe.



  • @El_Heffe said:

    @TDWTF123 said:

    a particularly gruesome spreadsheet
    What could make a spreadsheet "gruesome"? Weird colors? I don't get it.

    This is a fantastically stupid question. Microsoft Office has one of the most flicker-prone user interfaces in the history of computing. This problem is only exacerbated by giving users the ability to script the process using a slow, hacked-up version of Visual Basic. The "human factors" problems associated with this disjointed rendering are real; the fact that it can trigger epileptic seizures is but one small manifestation of the dysfunction inherent to these programs. In fact, this has been a consistent problem with Windows for as long as I can remember. Microsoft has, of course, thrown the blame onto application programmers and their supposed failure to "pump messages", but this is fallacious. Basically any call into Kernel32.dll or GDI32.dll (i.e. about 95% of the stuff a Windows program does) has some chance of locking the GUI, and you can't really put [i]everything[/i] into a worker thread.



  • But that would totally break the screen-scraper...



  • @anotherusername said:

    But that would totally break the screen-scraper...

     

    How quickly they learn.

     


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