Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Charts that Suck

Yes, I know every excel blog has a feature like this, but I'm not feeling inspired today and I need some filler.  Also this chart just plain irritated me.

Problems I have with this chart:
  1. It's 3d.
  2. The bars are all different colors.
  3. It's using the default Excel palette.  Not only is everyone bored with it by now, it was ugly to begin with.
  4. It's 3d.
  5. The key is an inefficient way to label this type of chart.
  6. I don't think these are "relative prices".  Just prices would be fine.
  7. The bars are touching!  Data needs to breathe.
  8. Vertical text.
  9. It's 3d.
  10. The "Liquids" label on the axis wouldn't be necessary if the chart was labeled correctly in the first place.
Things that I appreciate about this chart:
  1. The data is ordered in a useful way.
  2. A bar chart is the correct graph for the data, as opposed to a line graph, scatter plot, or pie chart.
  3. No wacky textures or other irritating effects were added.
Let's fix it.  First of all, change the color palette.  I could write a book about proper color palette use in Excel.  It wouldn't be terribly informative or correct, and I'd probably end up anthropomorphizing the colors and turning it into trashy cyberpunk pulp starring the color fuschia, but I could write it.  I'll put a post together about it in the distant future.  For now, here are the rules for a good color palette (I'm not intentionally making this post a series of numbered lists, it's just kind of turning out that way):
  1. White.
  2. Black.
  3. 5-10 shades of gray, ranging from very light to very dark.
  4. A strong red, something a little deeper than just the 255 red (for "bad" or negative numbers).
  5. Several monochromatic color series for ordered data.  Generally, lighter is better because you can use it for backgrounds as well.  I like blues and greens for this.
  6. A series of complementary colors for unrelated data.  Think pie chart.  I like autumn colors or colors that remind me of food for this.
Here is my current color palette.  You can see that I've broken some of my own rules, but this is a work in progress.  I'm not happy with the red series and I need more gray.

Because this is a chart about money I'm going to use a green*.  That's probably more thought than you need to put into something like this, but anything worth doing is worth doing right.  I'm just getting into all of the psychology behind color, and I'd recommend Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color as a good place to start.

The background of the chart should be very light gray or white, grid lines and borders should be gray if you want them, the actual bars should not have borders.

As far as the fonts, I like Georgia for text, Tahoma for numbers.  You might have heard that you should change the font based on whether it will be read on paper or electronically as Serifs are supposed to be easier to read in print and Sans Serifs are supposed to be easier to read on a computer screen.  This is hogwash and hasn't been supported by scientific study; Google it if you want.  Regardless of medium, Georgia is a damn fine font, though the descending numbers make it unsuitable for numbers by themselves so that is why I also use Tahoma.  I usually use 8 point font for labels, 10 point font for titles, but the scale really depends on where you're going to put it.  As a rule though, titles should be about 2 points bigger than the rest of the text for most applications.

I changed the chart to a horizontal bar chart so that the long category names would fit easily and we wouldn't have to use a key.  The bars are also a little too skinny by default.  The chart reflects the data, so if you want your data to look solid you'd better use bars that don't look like they'd snap off in a stiff breeze.  I changed the gap width to 70.

The repaired chart:

Note to self: stop leaving the mouse cursor in screen shots.  That's all for today.  In unrelated news, my girlfriend is going to buy me office 2010 for Christmas.  I'm a little scared to leave the comfort of 2003 behind, but it will be nice to have my own Excel license if I ever want to start freelancing.  Next Christmas I want Tableau.

* I realize that not all money is green and that not all of my readers are from the United States, but U.S. currency is the most recognized currency in the world according to an unscientific poll I conducted that technically has the largest sampling bias possible.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Enhance Excel's Autosave with a File Syncing Service

I love this tip because I invented it.  I suppose other people might do the same thing, but it would be a parallel evolution of ideas as opposed to me looking at what other Excel blogs were writing about a year ago, adding swear words, and calling it an original post.

If you use Excel extensively, you know that it has the potential to lock up or crash.  A lot.  This mostly happens to me when I'm using formula auditing, but I've also been the victim of unprovoked crashes on multiple occasions.  Losing over an hour of work is pretty much a day-ending and possibly career-ending event for me as my only tools for coping with adversity are random, shocking violence and destruction of property, so I go to great lengths to make sure this never happens.

Fortunately, Excel has an autosave feature.  Unfortunately, this feature sucks.  Depending on how Excel crashed and how you restarted it, you may or may not be given the list of recoverable documents.  Also, despite setting the autosave interval as low as 10 minutes, you'll have inexplicable gaps in coverage.  Browsing to the directory where autosaves are kept can help, but Excel seems to clean this directory out pretty regularly.

What is one to do?  Well, you should be backing up the autosave directory remotely and instantly, giving you access to every version of your Excel documents going back as far as your storage space will allow.  There are a number of programs that do this, many of them free.  A lot of people like to use Drop Box for file syncing, but Drop Box only backs up one folder unless you hack it with odd shortcuts.  I prefer SugarSync.  SugarSync can back up or sync any folder you want either with your online account only or between multiple computers.  SugarSync is free to sign up for, but if you do it with this link I get a free storage upgrade.  Please?

I'm not going to go into the details of how to set up SugarSync, suffice to say it isn't brain science.  Once you do have it set up, you need to locate your autosave directory.  In Excel, go to Tools > Options > Save.

The AutoRecover save location is the directory you want.  Keep this path handy, as SugarSync forces you to browse to the location instead of just pasting it in.  Also, make sure that autosave is enabled with a time interval that you're comfortable with.

Now in SugarSync go to Manage Sync Folders and click on Add Folders from this Computer.  From there, browse to the backup folder, usually C:\Documents and Settings\Your User Name\Application Data\Microsoft\Excel\, and check the box next to it, then hit okay.  Congratulations, you'll never lose more than x minutes of work in Excel ever again.

You may notice though that this folder is pretty empty.  It actually syncs up with the local folder, so it's deleting files at the same time Excel is.  It hangs on to all of these files in a deleted files folder though, so you should have every version going back quite a ways.  I think SugarSync hangs onto the files until you run out of space; I have files going back to mid-November when I last cleaned it out.

The bad thing about this system?  Well for starters you can't tell what the file is for sure until you open it because Excel assigns it a gibberish name.  If you have a rough idea of the size of the workbook and when you were last working on the version you want though, you shouldn't have too hard of a time.  The other problem is that really large files that you're working on over the course of the day will back up dozens of times and that can eat into your free space pretty quickly.  You could always register for more space, which brings me to the last negative:  SugarSync's business model may not be profitable, and they might not be around forever.  I'm sure they'll give you advance notice if the service is going down though so you don't lose all of your data, and there will always be some other free option out there to replace it, so this shouldn't be a big deal.

The great thing about this system?  It isn't just protecting you from crashes, it's protecting you from yourself.  Have you ever started working on an old workbook as a template but then hit save instead of save as, unintentionally destroying the original?  Have you ever screwed up a workbook so completely that you need to go back in time and start over?  Have you ever had a workbook out on your network mysteriously vanish?  Have you ever just plain forgotten to save a file?  If you haven't, it's probably because you're young and your brain hasn't been ravaged by alcohol, drugs, reality television, and old age.  Your probably aren't even burnt out on your job yet!  Ah, sweet ignorance... but for the rest of us, this is a great back up plan and it's saved my bacon more than I care to admit.

Also, once you have SugarSync up and running, you can go crazy synchronizing mp3s, your personal macro workbook, plug-ins, and all sorts of other stuff between your work and home computers.  It'll be like you never even left the office!


Friday, December 11, 2009

Secret Santa Worksheet

I made a worksheet for everyone who wants to do a Secret Santa gift exchange but doesn't own a hat.  You type in a list of names (the gift givers), click a button, and get a new list of names (the gift receivers) randomly shuffled with no name in its previous position.  I almost decided to sell this, but several things changed my mind:
  1. My VBA coding skills are actually horrible and I'd be ashamed to profit from them.
  2. It would almost certainly complicate my taxes which I can barely do as it is.
  3. I couldn't find any terms of use for the Santa image but I was too lazy to find a replacement.
  4. The only people who would buy it would be people who read my blog, and I love you all too much to let money come between us.
So, uh, happy holidays.  I hope it fits.  What?  You want to know how it works?  Sigh...

Okay so my stupid worksheet looks like this:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I just now turned ClearType on after scorching my retinas for years

Still alive, just really busy.  Most insurance plans renew January first, so 'tis the season.

Here is a quick tip that you probably already know about, but I'm an idiot and I just found out about it a week ago.  There is a setting in Windows XP called ClearType that makes your fonts render more smoothly.  Predictably, this is turned off by default.

I didn't know I needed glasses until I started living 1/3 of my life inside of Excel.  It isn't easy on the eyes, so you have to take care of yourself.  This setting actually makes a huge difference.  It should be on by default in Windows 7, if you have Vista you've already gouged your eyes out so it doesn't matter, so here is how to turn it on in XP:

1.  Go to Display in the Control Panel.
2.  Select the Appearance tab, then Effects.
3.  Check the box for "Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts", then select ClearType from the drop down list.
4.  Hit okay, apply, etc.

Just remember, it won't make your pie charts look any better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Parsing Names

I'm thankful for the coworkers who ask me to do odd-jobs in Excel.  If it wasn't for them, I'd never have anything to blog about.

Today's post is about parsing text, and specifically about turning a full name into a first, middle, and last name.  Let's start with a list of names.  Oh look, an obscure 80s television reference!

So we want to change these into first, middle, and last names.  How hard is that?  Select the names, go to Data > Text to Columns, select space delimited, finish the wizard, and Bob's your uncle.  Is that a correct use of an apostrophe?  A contraction of Bob is?  I think so.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Add Scroll Bars to a Chart, Blog Stats

I got asked to do a random project at work looking at paid claims for a large claimant before and after a certain date, so I created a chart with a scroll bar that presents that data in a slightly more interesting way.  I'll get to that in a second, but first, how about some fun blog stats?

Posts:  12
Page Impressions:  288
Ad Clicks:  1
Comments:  1*
Google Adsense Earnings:  $0.14
Amazon Associate Program Earnings:  $0.00
Incidents of Paranormal Activity:  2

So I need to post a lot more, people are still reading my blog, my posts are so thorough that no one feels the need to comment, all of my readers are probably running AdBlock, and financially my blog is a runaway success.  Now when people ask me if writing an Excel blog is rewarding, I can answer, "Yes, soul-crushingly so."

Enough fun, let's get down to business.  Here is the data set we're going to start with:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Adding Tiers to a Census

Sorry for the lack of updates folks, it's been a busy week.  Going forward, I'm going to try to do at least 2 posts every week so you actually have a reason to read my blog.

When we left off last time, I was discussing a common problem with enrollment listings:  missing tiers.  You've likely seen these during open enrollment when you're selecting your benefits and looking at what you have to pay.  Most health plans are 4-tier:
  • Employee Only
  • Employee + Spouse
  • Employee + Children
  • Family
Our starting point is going to be a worst case scenario.  We've received a census with an employee ID number and the relationship to the employee, but nothing else.  Also, the members aren't already sorted with the employee in the top position for every family unit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

3 Common Census Problems and How to Fix Them

I found some free time, so here is a post about census manipulation.

In the insurance industry, you deal with censuses... er, censi... let's call them enrollment listings.  You deal with enrollment listings a great deal.  Insurance carriers need to know how old everyone is, their gender, enrollment tier, zip code, and benefit elections in order to properly underwrite the case.  I myself use them for setting COBRA rates, modeling plan design changes, and other mathematical sleight of hand.

The problem is that when you work on self funded groups, they usually use an administrator that is a separate entity from the insurance carrier.  As far as the client is concerned, the administrator is only processing the claims.  Other features like response time, quality of reporting, case management notes, those are the consultant's problem and they are always a problem.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review Isn't Happening

Well it turns out the 4-Hour Work Week is more get rich quick than productivity.  Also, I had to return it to the library yesterday and I was only half way through, so that review probably won't happen.  The book did have some interesting ideas though, and I really like the idea of outsourcing all of my email to an assistant in India who can tell everyone, "No, I don't have time to meet with you.  No, I can't tell you how well your proposal is positioned.  No, I won't price an HSA plan you have no intention of implementing."

I'm really hammered this week at work, so the posting might be a bit light.  I'll try to do something at lunch today if I get a chance.  Blogging is much harder than I anticipated, but then again I've spent over an hour drafting a 3 sentence email, so maybe I need to stop obsessing over my writing and just get it out there.

Hopefully you're having a better week than me.  Oh, and the comments are now working, so if you have an Excel question please fire away.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

State Postal Code Function

Here is the function I talked about in the previous post.  I don't really know anything about VBA, so I'm sure this code has all kinds of issues.  For instance, I couldn't find a way to initialize values in a static array using a comma separated list and instead had to initialize each spot in the array on a separate line.  I'm pretty sure you could do that with Java, but it's been a while.

The code after the break:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Useless Metrics and Scatter Plots

I was reading Lifehacker Friday during lunch and saw a story about  DataMasher seems like a good idea: simplify data from various government reports, split it up by state, let users specify a relationship (i.e. alcohol consumption / average temperature), and drop the results onto a choropleth map.  I actually like the site, the choropleth maps are very nicely done and there are some fun data sets that I might normally be too lazy to dig up.  I'm also a big fan of things that are free.

The problem with the site is that it allows you to save these "mash-ups" and you can see just how poorly most people understand statistical measures.  Apparently after miles-per-gallon swept the Statistical Measurement Awards back in 1920, people decided that the best way to find the statistical relationship between any two variables is to divide one by the other.  Always.  The result is a bunch of super informative "mash-ups" like, oh,  # of Deaths Due to Motor Vehicle Accidents per 100k divided by Alcohol Consumption/ Binge Drinkers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Drawing Toolbar

Just a quick post today, and no math.

Before I get into today's tip, I want to explain a bit about my background.  When I went to college (2000-2007), we never learned anything about Excel.  We did our regressions and such in a program that I think was called R.  There might have been another program too, but nothing that anybody uses in real life.  Definitely not SAS.  Anyway, when I started applying for jobs, everyone kept asking me how comfortable I was with Excel, and I would tell them I hadn't really used it but I'm sure I could pick it up pretty quickly.

I didn't get called back on these jobs, so when I interviewed for my current job, I lied my ass off.  I don't recommend this in most scenarios, but I've used enough Microsoft products to know that the help files are pretty exhaustive and anything else I can find online easily enough.  It's just a bunch of boxes and numbers, how hard could it be?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two Color XY -Area Combo Chart

I was reading a post on the PTS Blog about how to fill in the area between two lines in an excel chart and I thought of a way to make it more complicated and thus more intimidating to your coworkers.

The original article shows how to color the area between two lines in a chart where the lines never cross.  I'm going to assume you're like me and you read that blog every day so you already know what I'm talking about.

What if you want to cross the lines?  The good news is that crossing the lines doesn't break anything, the area between the lines is still filled in perfectly.  The bad news is that the fill series is only one color and as soon as you show it to someone they'll ask why the positive and negative areas aren't green and red, respectively (which you shouldn't do anyway because a lot of people are red/green colorblind).  Before today, you would have said that it would take too long to add a second color, that it was impossible, or you would have just drawn auto shapes on top of the chart.  Today though there is a much easier solution:
  1. Download the workbook at the end of this post.
  2. Plug in your data values.
  3. Profit.
If you actually want to know how the chart works, please read on...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Large Claim Chart #2 - Pretty Pictures

Alright, I finally got around to posting this thing...

So when we left off I was explaining the idea behind a large claim chart and why they can be useful.  Now, a history lesson.

When I first started my job, we had one table that explained large claims that I've recreated below.  Like all images on this blog, please click for a usable size.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Did anybody read my blog while I was gone? No? Great!

I'm going to get serious about updating this thing at some point, just probably not this week. I'm a little bit under the weather, I'm preparing to reformat my Mac and install Snow Leopard, my 1TB drive with all of my movies on it died, and Jaclyn surprised me with a DSi for my birthday about a month early. So yeah, not a lot of time to blog.

My large claim chart will eventually be posted. Also, the over-commercialization of this blog is a joke. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy stuff!!! I'm trying to buy a house in the next two years. I'd love to put Adsense up, but for some reason Google insists I already have an application in that has been pending review for 2 months.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Large Claim Chart #1 - Background

In the coming days (or weeks, my Gamefly account is dominating a zero-sum game with my blog) I'm going to be posting my large claim chart.  It gets a little health insurance-y, so I thought I'd explain a few things before I begin.

For the zero people who read this blog...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Blog

I finally gave in and started a new blog.  I guess I just like talking about myself too much.

I'm going to try to keep the tone of this blog a little more professional.  We'll see how that goes.

When time permits, I'd like to do a series of posts about my large claim chart.  Feedback would be appreciated, but I'll be shocked if anyone I don't know reads this blog.
Creative Commons License
David @ Work by David Montgomery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.