Generate random numbers in MS Excel

A common requirement is to generate a set of random numbers that meet some underlying criterion. For example, a set of numbers that are uniformly distributed from 1 to 100. Alternatively, one might want random numbers from some other distribution such as a standard normal distribution.

While there are specialized algorithms to generate random numbers from specific distributions, a common approach relies on generating uniform random numbers and then using the inverse function of the desired distribution. For example, to generate a random number from a standard normal distribution, use =NORM.S.INV(RAND())

Another common requirement is the generation of integer random numbers from a uniform distribution. This might be to select people for something like, say, training, or a drug test. Or, it might be to pick a winner for a door prize at a social event. It might also be to assign players to groups for a sport tournament such as golf.

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Tushar Mehta

Excel corrupts certain workbooks in migrating from 2003 to 2007

I got a email from a client asking for help because Excel was “destroying,” to use his terminology, his 2003 workbook after conversion to the 2007 format. And, after analyzing the kind of change Excel made, I had to agree.

The following in 2003

badnames 1
Figure 1

becomes, in 2013 (and in 2010),

badnames 5
Figure 2

The basic problem is that names that are legitimate names in Excel 2003 may become unacceptable in 2007 (or later). But, a more devastating problem is with a formula using a name with a dot in it. Even though it is completely legitimate, Excel changes the dot to a colon. This causes the formula =SW1.SW2 to become =SW1:SW2. Don’t ask me why. It just does. The result is the formula is all wrong and destroys the integrity of the workbook.

It appears that the cause may be Excel trying to help manage the transition of a XLS workbook into the newer format. In 2007, Microsoft increased the number of columns from 256 to 16,384. Consequently, the reference to last column went from IV to XFD. So, a name such as SW1, completely OK in 2003, became unacceptable in 2007. On converting a XLS file to a XLSX file, Excel will convert such names by adding an underscore at the start of the name. But, it seems to go beyond that, converting formula references to certain names with dots in them to a colon. This happens if both the tokens to the left and to the right of the dot could be legitimate cell references. So, Excel converts the formula =XFD1.XFD2 to =XFD1:XFD2 but it will leave =XFD1.XFE2 alone.

To replicate the problem:

  • Start with Excel 2003. Create a workbook and add the names shown in the Figure 1. Save and close the workbook.
  • Open the workbook in Excel 2013. Save it as a XLSX file. Acknowledge the warning message (see Figure 3),

    badnames 3
    Figure 3

  • Close and reopen the new XLSX workbook. The formulas will have the errors shown in Figure 2.

The safest way to work around this problem is to add an underscore before every name in the workbook before making the transition to the 2007 format. Obviously, the quickest way to do this would be with a very simple VBA procedure. But, through trial and error I discovered the code will not work in 2003. It runs without any problems but it doesn’t do anything!

So, the correct way to use the code is the following sequence.

  • Open the XLS file in 2013 (or 2010).
  • Run the macro below.

    Option Explicit

    Sub fixNames()
    Dim aName As Name
    For Each aName In ActiveWorkbook.Names
    With aName
    If Left(.Name, 1) <> "_" Then _
    .Name = "_" & .Name
    End With
    Next aName
    End Sub

  • Now, save the file in the newer format. If your original workbook had no code in it, save the file as a XLSX file and acknowledge the warning that the VB project will be lost.
  • Close and reopen the file. You should see the correct data with all the names now starting with an underscore.

    badnames 7
    Figure 4

Tushar Mehta

The Range.Find method and a FindAll function

Two things that could be better about the Range.Find method have been 1) up-to-date and correct documentation, and 2) adding the UI’s ‘Find All’ capability to the Excel Object Model. As of Office 2013 neither has happened.

Consequently, every time I want to use the Find method, I continue to have to jump through hoops to figure out the correct values for the different arguments.

I also discovered that FindNext does not work as expected when one wants to search for cells that meet certain format criteria. Consequently, I updated my long available FindAll function so that it works correctly with format criteria.

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Tushar Mehta

Model business dependencies in an Excel worksheet

The Civilization game dependency tree
How to build a dependency tree when there is no obvious connection between the business model and an Excel model.

A long time ago I spend a lot of time playing the strategy game Civilization. For those not familiar with the game, one of its features was “advances.” Each advance brought with it certain additional capabilities and benefits. Of course, there was a requirement before one could acquire an advance, particularly a set of pre-requisites. For example, pre-requisites for the “Navigation” advance were the “Seafaring” and the “Astronomy” advances. In turn, the Seafaring advance required one to already know “Pottery” and “Map Making”.

I created an Excel worksheet that let me use Excel’s Precedent arrows to understand the optimal path to specific advances as in Figure 1. The advances are shown in red and the benefit(s) of each advance are in black, blue and green. The Excel blue arrows show the pre-requisites for the Seafaring advance.

Figure 1

While the dated worksheet may be of limited value even to Civilization enthusiasts, the technique for creating the dependency tree is unique enough to be of value to Excel consumers. What makes it of value is that the game dependencies (in the context of work this would be the dependencies in the business model) had nothing to do with what Excel considers as dependencies! Consequently, to use Excel’s Trace Precedents feature I had to somehow map the model dependency into Excel formula dependencies.

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Tushar Mehta