4 fascinating uses of Microsoft Excel: artistic, uber-geeky, life-saving, and paranoid

What if you could only have one productivity software program? It might surprise you that your most versatile electronic tool is already loaded on your computer. Yes, it’s Excel, the spreadsheet program you probably think of as mind-numbingly unexciting. The software engineers at Microsoft loaded Excel with so many features and gizmos, that imaginative end users have found very interesting ways to express themselves, going far beyond long lists of data and number crunching.

Vector Graphics

Included in Excel are layered graphics, an autoshape function, and the full spectrum of colors that allow talented and inventive artists to create artwork that rivals that of far more expensive dedicated graphics programs. The title image is by Chilean artist Felipe Velasquez, who goes by Shukei20 on DeviantArt.com and Shukeiart on You Tube. If you don’t believe artwork like this is possible on a spreadsheet program, you can observe its creation on a time lapse video here.

Another example but with a different style is that of a Japanese traditional artist who blew away the competition and won the 2006 Excel Autoshape Art Contest. Excel is his preferred medium since it allows editable shapes, flexibility, ease of use, and bold color.

The Golden Pavilion by Tatsuo Horiuchi, drawn using Microsoft Excel.

Kegon Falls by Tatsuo Horiuchi, demonstrating vector wires frames during the creative process.

Calculation of Pi

There is nothing geekier than calculating Pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) and Excel does a marvelous job of it. The geometric method is explained in this YouTube video submitted by MathWithoutBorders.com. Long ago and without a computer, Archimedes (287- 212 BC) figured out how to do it using the theorem of Pythagoras (570 -495 BC).

Diagram from the MathWithoutBorders.com YouTube Video.

Straight lines are easy to measure, but the main problem in calculating Pi is that the curvature of a circle is hard to measure. Imagine a hexagon inside a circle. The sides of the six-sided figure are easily summed and the first approximation of Pi is 3.00, which is close but does not end there. If you add more and more sides to the polygon, it becomes closer and closer to the shape and circumference of the circle.

The infinitesimally shorter and shorter sides can be calculated using the basic formula a2 + b2 = c2 and summed. Excel is much more than just listing of data, since you can also enter formulas. With easily implemented recursive capabilities, data from one cell can be used to calculate data for the next column or row. If you follow the instructions in the video, you can program Excel to calculate Pi to high precision with the resulting output below.

Calculating Pi: Using the diagram and Excel formulas in the video, Pi can be approximated to 15 digits.

As any geek knows, Pi goes on indefinitely without repeating a number sequence. By exponentially doubling of the number of polygon sides, a very accurate estimation occurs by the 23rd row with more than 25-million sides. Beyond that, the estimation of Pi does not change and matches the constant for Pi supplied in Excel. This exercise points out an interesting limitation of Excel (at least with my 32-bit version in Windows 7). Number calculations in Excel are limited to 8-bytes and 15 digits, so the numbers in the final column have zero for the 16th digits (not correct). Included is Pi typed out to 32 digits which is a good place to stop since the next decimal place of this infinite number is the first real occurrence of zero. To show all of these digits in Excel, this cell must be in text format.

Motor vehicle deaths

Patterns buried in numbers can be seen with Excel by using graphical color depictions of massive amounts of data. Motor vehicles accidents cause tremendous morbidity and mortality and now the densely populated countries of India and China are abandoning the bicycle for the automobile. Expect the number of worldwide automobile fatalities to rise. Such is the cost in human life for doing business in the industrialized world. John Nelson of IDV Solutions took five years of released US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data and condensed it with Excel. The result shows the effect of alcohol and dawn/dusk visibility on the lives of American drivers and pedestrians. Data like this may change laws or driving technology and thus save lives. Another statistician has calculated that the dramatic drop in the price of gasoline will result in higher speeds, higher driving mileage, and more traffic deaths.

Five years of US traffic fatalities condensed into color graphics by John Nelson using Excel.

Excel can find solutions buried in mountains of data. If the organizations and scientists who study climate change would release their data to the general public, maybe we would get better answers about the human effects on global warming. Currently CO2 is steadily rising but outpacing measured global temperatures, pointing out errors in climate predictive models. Summer Arctic ice has not disappeared as Al Gore predicted in his overly alarmist Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and Antarctic ice fields are growing according to NASA satellite imaging. Scientists on both sides of the climate debate are basing their careers on their theories which introduces bias and encourages data manipulation. This the type of problem that talented Excel data specialists might be able to solve.

Over watch of citizens

Whether we know it or not or like it or not, we are being monitored by government agencies who maintain enormous data bases to keep tabs on the citizenry. In some undisclosed server location, each of us likely has our name, personal information, and activities logged in some giant spreadsheet. The amount of data is so immense that it is not typed in by hand, but electronically gathered and accumulated. It could include our bank transactions, telephone records, GPS locations, online purchases, retail activities, credit/debit card purchases, car rentals, electronic associations, email address books, passport records, medical records, business activities, tax records, and web browser searches.

Although democratic countries have laws to protect individual privacy, the expectation of individual rights is countered by the growing risks of terrorist and criminal behavior and the intrusive requirements of national security. Electronic data mining is the only feasible way to highlight suspicious behaviors of millions of people, with any hope of preempting terrorist attacks. For example, by cross referencing who is buying chemical fertilizer and remote control toys (bomb making ingredients) and also visiting suspicious web sites or countries, government officials can focus on people who need closer surveillance.

When a sensational terrorist event occurs, subsequent news stories reveal a trickle of data about the suspects, most of which appears to be gathered after the fact with warrants. But to be truly effective, government agencies and police will want to know this information a priori, in order to thwart crime and save lives. By necessity this in-advance monitoring will have to be kept in secret or else criminals and terrorists will find ways to sneak under the radar. However, in the modern age it is more and more difficult to do anything without leaving a digital footprint. It is almost like there is an electronic God who keeps an eye on our morality, or an electronic omnipotent Santa Claus who knows who is naughty or nice. Law-abiding citizens should not have much to worry about and may feel safer that the bad guys are being watched. However, if you really think about it, you can’t help but feel a little paranoid.

Monica Lewinsky at the 2014 International Documentary Association Awards held at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Image by Mingle Media TV via Wikimedia Commons.

The US government exposed itself as an intrusive snoop in a 1998 White House sex scandal, which seems quaintly innocuous now considering our current concerns. When then President Bill Clinton denied an inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, data was collected on Lewinsky including what books she had purchased through a retail book buyer’s club. Her purchase of an erotic phone-sex book (Vox by Nicholson Baker) was used as evidence by the Ken Starr federal investigation that the two suspected lovers had exchanged gifts. In Jeffrey Rosen’s book The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, “Lewinsky pointed to the bookstore subpoenas as one of the most invasive moments in the Starr investigation.” If a government can invade privacy on the basis of consensual sex, imagine what they feel justified in doing to prevent the next terrorist attack.

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