Book review – Excel Annoyances

Whether you think Excel Annoyances, written by Curtis Frye and published by O’Reilly, is wonderful or terrible will ultimately depend on one thing – does it resolve your specific issue? Essentially, it’s a ‘hints and tips’ book for using (not programming) Excel. It’s ‘angle’ is that each tip is first presented as a problem, such as “I’m so tired of entering regular sequences of data into cells. I mean, typing 1 in cell A1, then 2 in cell A2, then 3 in cell A3, then 4 in cell A4… up to 100 or 200. This isn’t a good use of my time! Isn’t there some way to extend a data series automatically so that I don’t get carpal tunnel typing row headings?”, followed by an explanation of the Excel feature that solves the problem (the Fill Handle and/or Data > Series dialog).

At 226 pages, the book is fairly easy to read through and most of the annoyances are probably relevant to most people, so you’ve either encountered them already, or are likely to in the next few years (depending on how much you use Excel). I hope, though, you’re more likely to think positively about them as features of Excel (“Great, I can zoom my worksheet in/out”) rather than the negative tone used in this book (“Why can’t I see all my data?/Why is the font too small?”).

Most of the explanations are actually quite good (and accurate), though very specific to the problem and often without any ‘background’ information. I quickly tired of the whining tone used to describe each problem (e.g. “I’ll be sacked if I don’t get this chart right before the presentation”) and the jocular nature of some of the answers (e.g. “Do x, y and z and your job is safe!”). After answering questions in the newsgroups for eight years, I was surprised that I didn’t recognise many of the annoyances. I’ve no idea whether they’re all genuine, but I frequently got the impression that the ‘problem’ was invented to introduce another tip (e.g. “My boss told me to make a pivot table out of the data, but I don’t know how…”).

I couldn’t work out who the book was targetted to – was it the Excel beginner, or someone who knows VBA (and by implication knows Excel well)? For example, page 8 includes the useful beginner tips of using Alt+Enter to put a line-break in a cell and Ctrl+Z to undo AutoCorrect changes, but page 10 includes a code snippet (from Dave Hawley) for the obscure problem of fixing up the default formatting you get when copying a table from Word and pasting it into Excel 97, with a comment of “select the list and run this macro to clean up your data”!

The index is pretty good, but I don’t think it would ever be used; the format of the book is such that if you had a problem, you’d look to see if it was mentioned in the Table of Contents, rather than scan the index. A the answer/tip given for each problem is so specific, if your problem isn’t in the TOC, it’s unlikely that an answer to a different problem is going to help you much.

[The following paragraph was changed from the original text, at the request of Dave Hawley]
One aspect of this book that I found somewhat annoying was the recommendations for the reader to purchase expensive addins to solve some of the annoyances. That’s not a problem in itself (assuming the addins prove useful), but the recommendations are heavily skewed towards the addins sold by OzGrid.com (Dave Hawley’s site), rather than the many free alternatives that could probably found on the ‘net with a little more research (and perhaps bundled into a free download). For example, the book fails to mention the three (free) addins most commonly recommended in the newsgroups – Bill Manville’s FindLink, Rob Bovey’s Chart Labeller and Jan Karel Pieterse’s Name Manager – even though the book contains annoyances that they’d easily resolve.

Bottom line: Don’t buy this book online. Have a good look through it and see if the annoyances ring true and check that you can stand the writing style. If so, you’ll love this book. If not, you’ll hate it.

Regards

Stephen Bullen

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19 thoughts on “Book review – Excel Annoyances

  1. I saw this one in a bookstore. I agree that the tone was too whiny and many of the annoyances seemed contrived. Many of them simply struck me as someone complaining without taking the time to see how something worked or to try to actually figure it out. I didn’t notice the strong Ozgrid connection, but that’s another reason to be skeptical.

  2. This book was next on my list to review (after I have finished “Excel 2003 programming, A Developer’s Notebook”).
    But I have lowered itspriority after reading your review Stephen .

    The Book I mentioned above looks quite good so far.

  3. “I didnít notice the strong Ozgrid connection, but thatís another reason to be skeptical.”

    What?!?

    Oh, sorry, I forgot you guys generally trash anything non-MVP, no matter how many people it might help. Shame.

  4. Hi Will

    “you guys generally trash anything non-MVP, no matter how many people it might help.”

    I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t speak for the MVPs, but in my opinion, the MVP ethos is simply to altruistically provide high-quality assistance to whomever needs it, at no cost. You can think of it as charity work, or of giving something back to the community that helped our own development.

    It is human nature to embrace those who share ones own beliefs, be they MVPs or not. Jamie Collins and Rob van Gelder are two non-MVPs that spring to mind, and whose contributions to the online Excel community are very much welcomed. I imagine that, in time, they will also be given the MVP award in recognition of their willingness to help others.

    It is also human nature to disapprove of people who exploit the vulnerable members of society. In the Excel community, that equates to people who try to charge new users for advice and tools that they could easily obtain for free, if only they asked/looked in the right place.

    Regards

    Stephen Bullen

  5. Hi Stephen,

    I have no objection to the idea of free advice at all. In fact I spend a great deal of the spare time I have giving it where I feel my skills allow me to do so.

    I simply found it a little sad that recently there have been a number of “Ozgrid Bashing” comments made on this site (and I am talking cooments rather than your review(s)). Being fair, Ozgrid contains a vast amount of free information, utilities and examples of both formula and code – I would also say that it hosts one of a handful of pretty good “non-newsgroup” Q&A forums and that people reading the comments might get completely the wrong idea. I certainly find it difficult to agree with the idea that Ozgrid should/might be accused of “exploiting the vulnerable members of society”.

    Don’t get me wrong and don’t take this personally OK, as i am not attacking the MVP ethos at all. There just seems to be a recent theme here from a few of “you guys” that is not particulary charitable towards a site that whilst being commercial – I guess Dave Hawley has to make a living! – contains some pretty good free advice. I would imagine that there are numerous links to MVP pages such as yours, Jon P’s Chip’s and others…

    To be honest, unless I missed them, I have yet to see references to any of the addins you mentioned in an Excel tome I have read (including your excellent collaborative VBA reference& others). That’s not to say that they aren’t there, but i can’t remember them. Like most people, I found thos addins by visiting sites such as this or from posts in forums & newsgroups, soit seems a bit unfair to have a pop at Ozgrid over it…

    Regards,

    Will

  6. Hi Will,

    I tend to avoid confrontational situations, but a search of the Google newsgroup archives will quickly expose the animosity felt between Dave Hawley and specific MVPs (and which quickly degraded to the level of trading personal insults). I imagine that references to Dave and OzGrid remind people of those altercations. Yes, it is a shame that people can’t forgive and forget. Let’s not blow a throw-away comment from Jon out of all proportion, though.

    Just to answer a few specific points:

    “I would imagine that there are numerous links to MVP pages such as yours, Jon Pís, Chipís and othersÖ”

    I would have thought so too, but within the 9 pages of Dave’s links, the only MVP-owned sites to be mentioned are John Walkenbach’s and Colo’s. Searching the OzGrid site shows numerous references to the three sites you suggest in forum answers, but none outside the fora. I guess it goes both ways.

    “I have yet to see references to any of the addins you mentioned in an Excel tome I have read.”

    It seems extremely rare for any book to recommend other addins, particularly ones that require payment, which was why the frequent OzGrid recommendations in this book stuck out so much.

    Regards

    Stephen Bullen

  7. Hi Stephen…

    No I don’t want this to get out of proportion. I generally only trade insults with my two year old daughter – it’s more fun :lol: !! I was just wondering why there seemed to be this thinly veiled animosity – I guess you answered that – old wounds eh?

    As for Curtis & his book. I take your point – it is rare (but not unknown) to recommend so-called commercial software – maybe I’ll pop into Waterstones & see just what all the fuss is about.

    :)

    Will

  8. Old wounds, maybe, but for me it’s all about reputation. It’s not that I have dark thoughts whenever I see the words Dave Hawley or OzGrid, but I have the impression that his reputation is slightly tarnished. That said, I’m sure the help the man has given over the years would outweight any past misdemeanour.

    We can naturally assume there is a lot of support between members of the MVP program. I seem to recall Chip Pearson saying one of the best things for him about being a MVP is that he has the email address of all the other MVPs. Implicit is that, say, Stephen Bullen is more likely to respond to an email from Chip Pearson asking for help with a small Excel problem than one from a non-MVP.

    However, any intra-MVP support network that may exist would take nothing away from the very real support the rest of us enjoy from MVPs. I have often received personal help from MVPs via email (I won’t drop names, they know who they are ) and I’m not alone in that. And bear in mind I too have a somewhat tarnished reputation; I am constructively critical of MVPs in the newsgroups (I find it particularly frustrating when an obviously biased or flawed answer from a MVP is taken as Truth) but my strange personal style means the constructive element is often unintentionally lost. [Thanks for the mention though, Stephen – I try ]

    For me there are many interesting topics for discussion relating to the MVP program e.g. how are potential candidates chosen? are MVPs ever de-selected? how can a MVP justify a low or non-existent ranking on the newsgroup posting frequency lists? However, these discussions do not see the light of day because those in the know (the MVPs) would not participate (again, a natural consequence of being a member of a privileged and slightly secretive association) or could not due to NDAs. Also, for the person starting the discussion it would look a bit too much like ‘sour grapes’ :-o

  9. Jamie

    1 How MVPs are chosen is a mystery and far from consistant. Which is probably good, one can’t just get an award from calculated actions.

    2 MVPs are frequently thrown out. The last years the program has grown considerably, so more people have arrived than left. This is because they want a big MVP program, not because they feel sorry for anyone.

    3 The intra-MVP-community is far less exciting and mysterious than one might expect. But the Excel gang is a very nice bunch of people to meet in a bar.
    …Stay away from any Access group though, they can turn violent

  10. Harald, Thank you for your willingness to address these ‘taboo’ issues and for the heads-up regarding potentially violent types!

  11. Hi all,

    As the author of Excel Annoyances, I want to state emphatically that I receive no kickbacks from OzGrid. If you look through the book carefully, you’ll see that I also recommend software from ASAP Utilities, Mark Robinson, John Walkenbach, DJI Computer Solutions, ExcelTemplates.com, CrystalGraphics.com, and so on, sometimes in competition to the OzGrid solution.

    Sorry to have stirred the hornets nest. :-)

    Curt

  12. I would also like to state here as *fact* that all of Stephen Bullens allegations about OzGrid, Curtis and O’Reilly are false on all accounts. An email to either myself, Curtis or O’Reilly, prior to posting, would have given Stephen the facts.

    Those that know me, and the thousands that I have freely helped (and continue to both *privately* and publicly) know also that the other planting of ‘seeds of doubt’ about me or my business are also totally untrue on all accounts. Anyone that believes I have ever exploited anyone in anyway, shape of form is so far from the truth and likely has a hidden agenda.

  13. Folks:

    As editor of the “Excel Annoyances” tome and editor in charge of the Annoyances series, lemme add my 2 drachmas worth.

    First, yep, as Curt says, we got no kickbacks. We simply picked the best utilities to solve the problem.

    Second, utilities as part of a “fix” is indeed part of the plan. The solution hierarchy is pretty much: is there a workaround that solves the problem? (Or at least, solves enough of it?) If not, is there a patch or update of some sort? If not…is there free or shareware utility that will do the job? And yes, finally, is their a commercial tool that nips the problem in the bud? Not every fix follows this scheme exactly, but that was the aim. And as you know, some users definitely don’t want to roll up their sleeves with a long involved series of steps…$30 for a utility that solves the problem is well worth it to many. So…it’s a mix.

    Third, them Annoyances weren’t contrived. They came from the experiences we culled from many many people, from Excel mavens to newbies. In fact, the majority of these Annoyances (and some fixes) came from user groups that we queried. And the range of problems and user levels spanned the continuum…from newbies who’ve been using Excel for 3 months, to NASA engineers who can change the baby with the thing. That’s why you see annoyances that are pretty simple…and those that are pretty complex or arcane. We tried to order the Annoyances in a simple–>complex order, but…well, we’ll be more attentive to this next time around.

    Likewise, we’ll continue to ponder your critique and the reviews (both pro and con) of others, to make this and future Annoyances books better, more relevant, and more useful. That’s our pledge!

    –Robert Luhn, Executive Editor

  14. Hi Robert

    Thanks for the information. It’s always going to be an impossible task to organise the topics both functionaly and according to difficulty/complexity.

    Is the ‘whiny’ tone of many of the annoyances a considered feature of the Annoyances series? I can see how it would put some people off (like myself and Jon), but how other readers might relate to it. That’s primarily what lead to my ‘love it or hate it’ summary, and I guess would depend on the reader’s attitude to Excel itself.

    Let us know if you need any help locating free/shareware solutions from a wider range of sources for the next edition.

    Regards

    Stephen Bullen

  15. Stephen

    Can I ask why you feel the need to single out ozgrid when Curtis has stated he also suggests add-ins from many other sources?

    Seems to me that your point could be made without making mention of any company or person.

  16. Sure. Simply that his recommendations are heavily weighed in your favour; while your site is mentioned numerous times, none of the other sources are repeated. It’s not the fact that it’s *your* site that’s an issue, but the fact that there’s a bias towards *one* site reveals a potential lack of research.

    Imagine that you had bought a suite of addins from someone and were then asked to recommend a utility to solve a particular problem. The temptation is to recommend what you know, rather than what’s best for the recipient.

    Curt is obviously a fan of your site and your addins and that appears to be the first place he went to look for solutions. If he found a potential solution there, he recommended it, rather than widening his search to identify better/cheaper/free alternatives.

    It is, of course, possible that it’s just a coincidence and that Curt did an exhaustive search of the internet for a free answer to each annoyance before concluding that the only solution is to buy one of your (or the other sources he recommends) addins.

    Regards

    Stephen Bullen

  17. You don’t think it’s because we sell over 200 excel type products as apposed to the others only selling a few?

    I would have thought so, in which case, his recommendations, which you say are heavily weighed in our favour, is proportional to the others.

  18. Very old feed but worth an add Jack feels

    Anything You want to know ‘truth’ OzGrid please ask. I was Admin remember, until I was kicked out for matter nothing to do with me

    jiuk

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