Tag Archives: microsoft

When not to Excel

Back in about 1993, I was doing the bookkeeping for a big project being undertaken by my local church. Donations were flooding in, and we needed to keep track of everything, send out receipts, forms and letters of thanks, and note whether each donation was eligible for the UK tax relief known as ‘Gift Aid’.

I was keeping track of this using on a PC running the now long-gone Microsoft Works, which, for those less familiar with last-millennium computing, was a software suite incorporating basic and much cheaper versions of the things you found in Microsoft Office: a word-processor, database, and spreadsheet. If your needs were simple, it worked rather well.

Anyway, at one point I was printing out a list of recent donations on my dot-matrix printer, and I noticed what appeared to be some data corruption. In the midst of the sea of donors’ names, there were a couple of dates being printed out. Was this a software bug, or was my database file corrupt? I started investigating, while wondering just how much data I’d entered since my last backup and whether I could recreate it…

In the end, the answer was simple, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I tried recreating the entry for one of donors and the same thing happened again, at which point I dug a bit deeper and discovered a ‘feature’ of the app. The lady’s first name was ‘June’, and, though it displayed just fine on the data-entry screen, behind the scenes, it had been turned into 1/6/93! I skimmed quickly through the congregation to find the other problematic record, and found it was for a donation from a lady named ‘May’!

When I came back to doing some scientific computing in academia a few years ago, I was surprised and slightly worried to see several of my colleagues processing their data with Excel. It’s a wonderful program and very appealing, because of the ease of viewing, checking and plotting graphs of your results, but it comes with lots of problems of its own and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a proper database (if you’re a church accountant), or for something like Jupyter Notebooks, if you’re a scientific researcher, unless you’re exceedingly careful. Last year, more than a quarter of a century after my issues with May and June, 27 human genes were actually renamed because of the number of errors caused in scientific papers by the use of Excel by researchers. The genes’ previous names were things like ‘SEPT1’.

All of this came to mind when reading Tim Harford’s enjoyable piece in yesterday’s FT, The Tyranny of Spreadsheets. Harford follows the origins of spreadsheets, double-entry bookkeeping and other ways of keeping track of things, up to the famous case last year where 16,000 people weren’t promptly told they had positive Covid test results, because somebody had used Excel’s old XLS file format, which can only store about 64,000 rows of information, instead of the newer XLSX. That’s not really a problem; the problem is that Excel doesn’t give you adequate warning when it’s discarding data, or changing it in an attempt to be helpful. And the results can be serious.

To quote the article:

Two economists, Thiemo Fetzer and Thomas Graeber … decided that no catastrophe should be allowed to occur without trying to learn some lessons. They combed through the evidence from Public Health England’s mishap. And by comparing the experiences of different regions, they concluded that the error had led to 125,000 additional infections.

Fetzer and Graeber have calculated a conservative estimate of the number of people who died, unknown victims of the spreadsheet error. They think the death toll is at least 1,500 people.

Think about that, as you click ‘Save As…’ and pick your data format.

(Thanks to my sister-in-law Lindsey for the link to the Harford article, which also traces some of the origins of spreadsheets from the 14th century; that’s before even I was using them!)

Looking backwards at the future

Searching recently for emails from one of my academic colleagues, I came across one or two that appeared to have the address written backwards. He works in the Computer Lab at Cambridge, and the email was from user@uk.ac.cam.cl. What was going on?

Well, the simple answer was that my mail archives stretch back quite a long way. I have emails I received from my friend Peter just last week, but I also have some from him that arrived in the early 1990s, and this was just about the time that the UK’s academic networks were switching from the Name Resolution Scheme (NRS) they had used up to that point, over to the Domain Name System (DNS) which was becoming the standard in other parts of the world. NRS addresses started at the more general, and worked down to the more specific. Hence uk.ac.cam.cl.

Actually, email addresses in general tended to look like USER@UK.AC.CAM.CL because on mainframes EVERYTHING TENDED TO BE IN CAPITALS. But Peter was fortunate enough to be an early user of Xerox and Unix-based systems, which were more lower-casey; more cuddly California, less corporate IBM. By the start of the 90s, I too had an email address that looked like quentin.stafford-fraser@uk.ac.cam.cl.

Anyway, the fact that I still have emails from 30 years ago made me reflect, once again, on how extraordinarily successful email has been, not just as a communication medium, but as a storage format.

When I think back on other electronic documents of the time, few, if any could be read now. The companies behind my early ‘desktop publishing’ programs are no longer in existence. Microsoft Word long ago lost the the ability to open documents it had created in the past. And I imagine my documents from WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works and others would be just as challenging, if I could even find them.

But my email messages I can find. And I can read them. This is despite the fact that they have been through dozens of different email systems, created by a wide range of apps on multiple operating systems, stored on servers around the world and hard disks in my various homes and offices, and accessed through a range of different protocols (IMAP, for most of that period). Not only is my email readable, but it’s easily searchable from multiple locations using a choice of apps on any of my devices. It’s tagged with helpful metadata about authorship, time of creation and receipt, etc. I can choose to store it myself or pay others to do so. And so on. Almost no other digital storage system has proved as powerful and flexible as IMAP-accessed email.

Much of this comes, of course, from the fact that email is governed by open standards, accessed through open protocols, and often stored in non-proprietary formats. Because it is fundamentally about inter-operation, email providers have had no choice. It bugs me that I don’t have my pre-1991 emails, but that was probably because of an inadvertent slip on my part, or a hard disk crash, or something, rather than because of a fundamental limitation of the technology. If I do ever find them on some backup, I’m confident I’ll be able to include them in my archive.

This explains why, like some of my colleagues, I’ve resisted my University’s recent attempts to migrate our email accounts from our existing Open-Source-based system to Microsoft Exchange Online. It’s not because I dislike Exchange per se; after a rocky first decade or two it seems to be settling down quite nicely. But I don’t want to use a Microsoft email reader on all my devices — my own are much better, thank you — and Exchange has repeatedly shown an inability to support IMAP reliably. The messages are also not stored anywhere on a server where I could extract them by any other means in a standard format when I want to move them elsewhere. And I will want to move them elsewhere at some point; history shows me that. Fortunately, I have that power. If my email shows any danger of being locked into proprietary formats, I can simply arrange for it to be forwarded to my own servers and handle it however I like there; that’s what I’ll do if the University turns off the old system completely. And since almost everything does support IMAP, I can move emails around the world to my preferred location with a simple drag and drop.

One of my colleagues said in a recent meeting that his children don’t know what the fuss is about. Email is just something they glance at once a week to see if they’ve had any. As long as it works, they don’t mind where it comes from. Well, they may be right; perhaps it will be less important in future. But this may also be a natural tendency of the young just to focus on the immediate here and now, and the immediate future.

To me, and occasionally to other people, my email archive has turned out to be important. Something I wrote 20 years ago becomes relevant to a patent case now and earns me money because I can look back at the records. Interviewers ask me about the technologies used in a particular project and I can search back to find the answers. I forget the name of a good B&B or hotel in a particular city; email allows me to find it again. I generally had no idea, at the time, that these communications might prove to be important. But they’re a key part of the history of my life.

So here’s my question: If the things you’re doing today turn out to be important a few decades from now, what sort of digital archive would they need to be in for you to find and make use of them then? Best to start using that today, before it’s too late.

Alas, poor PC… I knew him, Bill…

An IDC press release, out today, reports that PC sales have fallen again. That’s expected now, but they’ve fallen noticeably faster than predicted: the last quarter was a surprising 14% down on the same time last year.

“At this point, unfortunately”, says an IDC staff member, “it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market…” And it’s not just Windows – Apple’s desktop/laptop sales are down, too.

A big contributor, I’m sure, is that we’ve finally reached the point where operating system manufacturers and other software developers can no longer convince users that it’s worth buying a new machine just to run their latest offerings. I’m currently a software developer, for heaven’s sake, and even I am feeling no particular desire to replace my four-year-old iMac in the near future.

But a lot of it also comes from the fact that fewer people need to do, on a regular basis, what PCs were designed to be good at doing.

Phones and tablets don’t replace a PC, but if you drew a Venn diagram of

  • What PCs do
  • What mobile devices do
  • What people do

over the last few years, it would resemble a lapsed-time animation of plate tectonics. And my point is that ‘What PCs do’ would be largely stationary, while the others moved around it in ever-more-overlapping zones…

I write quite a lot, but I use a word-processor about once a month. I manage my company accounts, but much more of that is done on a web service than on a spreadsheet. I give talks, but the days when PowerPoint was the only game in town are long gone. And I read emails… while I’m walking the dog.

So, if I’m at all typical, where does that leave Microsoft Office, the core of most PCs’ raison d’être? And remember, I’m an old guy. For most people under the age of 25, it probably never was that important. The office suite is dead, and has been for a long time. Long live the browser. On whatever device.

On which note, I should shut down the browser on this iPad and go to sleep…

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the IDC link

A quick retrospective

It’s 12 years today since my first blog post — the first post, at least, on a publicly-readable system that we’d recognise as blog now. I had registered this ‘statusq.org’ domain a couple of days before, and started tapping out miscellaneous thoughts with no particular theme, and no expectation of an audience.

I was using Dave Winer’s innovative but decidedly quirky ‘Radio Userland’ software, a package which is long since deceased but was very influential in the early days of blogging and RSS feeds. Over the years I’ve moved the content through a couple of different systems but I think — I hope — that all the URLs valid in 2001 still work today! Most of my early posts do not have a title. The convention of giving titles to what we thought of as diary entries wasn’t yet well-established.

Things that caught my attention in the first couple of months included:

  • An appreciation that Windows 2000 was really rather a good operating system. Certainly the best Microsoft had produced so far. (It was also — though I didn’t know it at the time — the last version I was to use on a regular basis.) Microsoft were pushing an idea called the ‘Tablet PC’, which was marketing-speak for what had previously been called WebPads, and something called .NET, which was marketing-speak for nobody-knew-what!
  • The importance of this new thing called XML, which was giving the world a standard way to store and transmit structured data. I was at a conference where Steve Ballmer described the major revolutions in computing as The PC, The Gui, The Web, and XML. Well, the brackets have become a bit more curly since then, but it was indeed a major change.
  • Astonishment that, with the upcoming launch of Mac OS X, the world’s largest Unix vendor was about to become, of all people, Apple! I’d been playing with the early beta versions. It’s been my operating system of choice ever since.
  • The bizarre level of press coverage when we announced the impending shutdown of the Trojan Room Coffee pot.
  • A survey saying that less than half of US college students were taking hi-fi systems to college, because they were now listening to music from their PCs instead! It was still nearly a year before an amazing thing called the iPod was to appear, and surprise us all.

Here’s a snapshot of Status-Q captured by the Internet Archive in early May 2001

The King is Dead; Long Live the King

This came out a week ago, but I think it’s worth noting for those who missed it. There’s a piece in Business Insider based on an interesting fact first noted by MG Siegler. It’s this:

Apple’s iPhone business is bigger than Microsoft

Note, not Microsoft’s phone business. Not Windows. Not Office. But Microsoft’s entire business. Gosh.

As the article puts it:

The iPhone did not exist five years ago. And now it’s bigger than a company that, 15 years ago, was dragged into court and threatened with forcible break-up because it had amassed an unassailable and unthinkably profitable monopoly.

My name is Ozzie-mandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair…

What goes around comes around…

It’s – wow! – almost twenty years since we set up the original Trojan Room coffee pot camera.

Now some cunning Danish developers have a demo of how you can monitor the level of your coffee using a Management Pack plugin for Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007, which is quite fun, and I imagine is even more useful if you’ve ever actually heard of Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007…

Why is it called ‘Windows’?

Using virtual machines on my Mac and Linux computers allows me to fire up a copy of Windows on the very rare occasions when I need it. (Typically about once a quarter). And then shut it down again before anything bad happens.

And then the light of understanding and enlightenment dawned upon me, dear friends, so I share it with you, with apologies for the grammar:

    It’s called Windows, because that’s what you should run it in.

Curvaceous Computing

I miss being in UI research.

About 10 years ago I put together a plan for a cubic computer, where every side of the cube would be a touchscreen, and it would also contain accelerometers so you could scroll around maps and things by rotating the cube. The only imperfection would be a small power socket in one corner so you could recharge it. That, at least, was the idea. I had to abandon the project when I couldn’t find a manufacturer that would make square touchscreens at any sensible price, even for research purposes.

Microsoft, however, have gone one better, with a spherical multi-touch interface. I hadn’t seen this until now, but I think it’s beautiful.

More info on the Sphere project home page.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser