Unexpectedly Intriguing!
October 14, 2020

Microsoft Excel is one of the most useful computer programs ever developed. The electronic spreadsheet program, which is bundled with Microsoft's Office suite of productivity software targeted to businesses, was estimated to have as many as 1.2 billion worldwide users in 2016, with 750 million using Excel.

But not all use the same version of Microsoft Excel. The spreadsheet software has been around since 1985 and has gone through multiple upgrades and editions during its 35 year history. Recently, in the United Kingdom, the differences in capabilities between the versions of Excel became an issue when the government lost track of 15,841 test results of people who tested positive for COVID-19. SNN's Matt Parker explains how that happened in the following 16 minute video....

With such a large, installed user base, lots of people have come to use Microsoft Excel in ways that stretch its capabilities, sometimes to the breaking point. In this case, reaching that breaking point resulted in the UK's National Health Service temporarily losing track of 15,841 positive COVID-19 test results.

If you're into big data analysis, you probably want to become familiar with Julia. But if you know how to program an application like Microsoft Excel to do what you want and you can keep within its capabilities, you certainly can use it. The trick is knowing its limits.

It's like the old saying: "To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer." And if you want to guarantee failure on a grand scale, get the government involved.

Elsewhere on the Interwebs

In addition to being awarded the 2020 Christopher Zeeman Medal for his role in promoting maths to the public, Matt Parker is the author of Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors. So not only does he know what can go wrong with a spreadsheet, he knows what can go wrong with all kinds of maths! If you know someone who can benefit from that kind of knowledge, you now have a gift idea for them for Christmas....

Previously on Political Calculations

  • Microsoft Excel and the S&P 500, in which we discuss the unexpected reason why Standard and Poor only makes data going back to 1988 available in a spreadsheet format for its signature S&P 500 index.
  • The Maths of Love, in which we used Excel in a way that it really isn't optimal to use. Because we could....

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Welcome to the blogosphere's toolchest! Here, unlike other blogs dedicated to analyzing current events, we create easy-to-use, simple tools to do the math related to them so you can get in on the action too! If you would like to learn more about these tools, or if you would like to contribute ideas to develop for this blog, please e-mail us at:

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