I just read an article on The Register which is simultaneously humorous, relevant and worrying. For those of you too lazy to read it, the basic gist is that Excel is taking text used to describe genes (I don’t really know any of the theory, but the example given is “SEPT2”, which Google informs me “modulates the activity of GLAST, a glutamate transporter in astrocytes”) and “helpfully” reformatting it (in this case to “2-Sep-2004”.
I’m guessing that the humour in this is pretty obvious, so moving on to why it’s relevant – I had a similar problem when trying to get my contact information over from Outlook to Thunderbird via a tab-separated text file. In order to cut out some of Outlook’s insane gamut of irrelevant fields (including an astounding 18 possible entries for phone and fax numbers), I imported this file into Excel (fool that I am). Excel promptly changed all the phone numbers present into the singularly unhelpful form “7.73E+09”. How useful.
And finally, the reason why this is worrying – surely genetic researchers have better and more specialised tools available to them than Excel? This appears to be happening everywhere, from scientific papers being written as Word documents instead of LaTeX files to bank ATMs running Windows. I have, myself, seen a Halifax ATM with a popup informing me to “Please run VirusScan from the command line” – what the hell is going on there?
I’m not saying Microsoft software is universally awful (not in this post, anyway) – in fact Windows is my primary OS at the moment, partially due to lack of Linux drivers for most wireless cards, partly because of these “game” things. What I am saying, however, is that these things have their place. And for genetic research and banking software, there are better things out there guys. Please use them…