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Jocelyn Paine

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Spreadsheet Humour

July 20, 2008

Denigration is capital fun, so long as you're not the entity being denigrated. Here's one man's view of Visual Basic:

VB interfaces are like dogs.

To implement a VB interface you take the dog, skin it, remove all the useful bits, and are left with something that sort of looks like a dog, but can't actually do anything. After a short interval it will smell. Then maggots and other types of bug will crawl out. That is a VB "interface". 

This is a quote from Dominic Connor's account (click here and search for "VB interface") in Wilmott Forums about Microsoft's launch of Visual Studio 6. Where, apparently, the visiting reporters were each handed a five inch squishy brain, complete with bodily fluids, as they entered a large and very expensive room decorated so as to contrast the "creative" half of our brain (symbolised in the decor by sandpits where the journalists were invited to paint and express themselves) with the "logical" half (symbolised by lots of shiny stainless steel). As the journalists and Microsoft staff huddled amongst the stainless steel, the public-relations hacks — not approving of this retreat into logic — told the bar staff not to serve them beer unless they asked for it in a "creative" way.

I find this a bizarre story, but then, I don't go to many product launches. I came across it via a reposting of the VB quote to the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group mailing list. Which I mention because of a mail to the same group entitled Concrete Spreadsheet Errors, found in my inbox as I write this, by Anthony Berglas of the Australian firm Southern Cross Software. They sell Spreadsheet Detective, a spreadsheet auditing program. Now, Spreadsheet Detective generates nifty displays to help spreadsheeters understand formula use, and find errors, in their spreadsheets; and has been given a very complimentary review by Philip Howard of Bloor. Nevertheless, Anthony neglected to run it over one of his own spreadsheets. Which was a big mistake, because it was a spreadsheet he'd written to calculate the amount of concrete needed while renovating his home. So he ordered too much, and:

You will appreciate that once a concrete truck arrives there is no getting a bit more or putting a bit back. […] But whatever the excuse, when the truck arrives, all the form work is filled, but the concrete keeps coming, and coming, and coming, then the error becomes very ... concrete.

Which is the trouble with spreadsheets; and which, I think, justifies this riddle from spreadsheet consultant John Walkenbach's A Bunch of Riddles

Q. Why didn't Microsoft implement multithreading in Excel 97?
A. The designers decided that one bug at a time was enough for most users.

John has probably collected more spreadsheet jokes than anyone else on the Web, and I recommend a thorough browse through his navigation bar.  (If you can find a bigger collection, do tell me.) His The Aspiring Writer gives us this sad history:

There was once a young man who, in his youth, professed a desire to become a great writer. When asked to define "great" he said: 

"I want to write stuff that the whole world will read, stuff that people will react to on a truly emotional level, stuff that will make them scream, cry, wail, howl in pain, desperation, and anger!"

He now works for Microsoft, writing Excel error messages.

And in Are You a Spreadsheet Junkie?, John tells us that you are one if: Your doctor recommends an IV — and you think of the last column in a worksheet; you think the song "Home on the Range" refers to cell A1; and your dog's name is "Macro."

Which brings me back to dogs, and reminds me of a Dutch joke I found on the Nederlandse moppen mailing list. If you read Dutch, you may like to know there's another copy, with many other jokes, at H.M.V. Gerritsen's humour site; otherwise, here's a translation:

A business had a sandwich board outside their front door, with an advert reading: "Employee sought. Must be able to type well, handle a computer, and be bilingual. (We are an equal-opportunity employer)".

A dog saw the board, picked it up it, walked inside, stopped by the receptionist, and began to bark. The receptionist, who found this very funny, took the dog to the manager's office and said: "Here is an applicant". The dog jumped onto a chair and started staring at the man. He said: "Sorry, I can't take you on. You've got to be able to type".

The dog walked over to a typewriter and produced a letter, impeccably composed, spelt, and laid out. The manager was amazed, but then said: "Sorry, but the advertisement also says you must be able to handle a computer".

The dog then walked up to a PC, and in no time at all had coded an intricate spreadsheet and an enormous database. This stunned the manager. He looked at the dog and said: "I do realise you're a really intelligent dog and have great ambitions, but I just CAN'T give you the job".

The dog ran to the sandwich board, picked it up, put it in front of the manager, and pointed with its tail to the sentence: "We are an equal-opportunity employer". At which the manager retorted: "Yes, OK, but it also says you have to be bilingual!"

The dog looked him straight in the eye, and said: "Miaow!"

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