Gear Grinder #3: Complaints in the Patent World – Using Excel

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Introductory Note: Welcome back to “Gear Grinder with Danny Rooney,” our newest blog series. We aim to bring this series to you on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Here are our previous installments. This post is based on a fictitious character, and readers should be aware of the underlying snark and sarcasm. Just think of it as a way to have fun and let loose with some frustrations with life as a patent professional. We know you can relate!

Guess who’s back? Back again. Danny’s back! Tell a friend. Welcome back to the Gear Grinder. With so much going on in the world right now, you’d think my attention would be elsewhere. But here in the USA, where government is run by a two PARTY (Politicians who Aren’t Really Too concerned about You) system, there is always something to get the blood boiling. Today I am going to be taking on Microsoft Excel, that spreadsheet extraordinaire that manages to both dazzle and infuriate. More after the jump!


As mentioned in my first column, Excel is the lifeblood of patent searchers. Seemingly every business computer system comes with some version of it (or the similar but inferior and free Open Office Calc program). Excel is able to manipulate thousands of pieces of data quickly, while also producing graphs, tables and other assorted charts to help tell the patent story. Without Excel, many of us would be dead in the water.

If Excel is so vital, why do I have qualms with it? Well, Excel has two major niggles. First, the help manual is cumbersome and difficult to comprehend. If you have ever tried to search the help menu for Excel, you know that it is virtually impossible to find what you are looking for. You cannot phrase your search in the context of what you want to do, rather your search string must be exact to the phrasing within the help files. The only problem is that if I knew what things were called in the help files, I wouldn’t have to search through them. Maybe Bing should be the search engine of choice for Help menus. Additionally, much of the help content seems to be less of a help manual, and more of a teaser to show you what the program is capable of doing without actually showing you how to do it.

The second is what I like to call The Curse of Bill Gates, which pops up at the most inopportune times for the user. Sit down, grab a blanket and a warm drink, and let Danny fill you in on the tale of The Curse of Bill Gates. Years ago, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, there was a being known as iDos, who ruled the computing universe, then in its infancy. A data redundancy error occurred (similar to the Great Conjunction in the movie The Dark Crystal), and iDos split into the creatures now know as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who together have a near monopoly on our computing lives. Now Bill Gates, who is a bit of a prankster, has been very effective at distributing his software throughout the world. In the code of each program, Bill has left a macro that monitors how someone is using his software. If the person is working normally, then everything is fine. But when the user starts to work a bit more rapidly and with a sense of urgency, say an important project is due in an hour, then the macro starts to take effect, slowing the system down and making it more difficult for the user to complete the work. If the work is of vital importance, the macro may even cause the system to crash, right before AutoSave was scheduled to save the work. In each instance, frustration waves given off by the user are collected by the program and sent directly to Bill Gates. It is these frustration waves that feed and sustain Bill Gates, and thus we have The Curse of Bill Gates.

So how can Excel improve? The first thing is to vastly improve the help files, making them intuitive to use and search. Secondly, the program can be smarter on how its uses the computer’s resources, making it less likely to crash when working quickly or when working with large amounts of data. Improve these two areas and I will happily be using Excel for the years to come.

Up next week: Danny tries to count his chickens before they hatch, but gets hungry, and eats the eggs instead.

Patent Analysis from Landon IP

This post was contributed by Registered Patent Agent Dan Wolka. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company, Landon IP, a major provider of patent search, technical translation, and information services.

18 Responses

  1. Seriously, trying to find help on some of the more advanced Excel options is harder than finding that needle patent in the haystack (or something?).

    I just found out about Google Refine, a really cool data manipulation tool that seems like it’d be perfect for cleaning up/pre-processing data before throwing it in Excel.

    http://code.google.com/p/google-refine/

    It looks like it can get a little syntaxy, but at least they have a wiki that explains how to use it! Way more powerful than Excel… and it doesn’t report to any “superiors.”

    • Tom,

      I had not heard about Google Refine; I’ll have to take at look at it. I have not been impressed with Google’s Excel-like spreadsheet that is part of Google Docs. It’s great that it is part of the cloud, so I stop emailing personal spreadsheets to myself, but it is pretty hard to set up a spreadsheet the way you like. Also OpenOffice’s Calc program is ok, but manipulating data is cumbersome, probably because they have to be different enough from Excel to avoid any lawsuits.

  2. Cool resource Tom!!! :o)

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