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Out of the Pack - Going Retro: A8 Spreadsheets


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My first opportunity to go retro was when I wanted to build a spreadsheet to calculate wheel rpm and pulse duration for the bike speedometer project. At about 12mph the computer readings start to become erratic. So I started at the beginning and booted up VisiCalc.

VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet program I ever saw. I had talked the company into purchasing an image analysis system that used an Apple II. Of course the finance people saw this as an opportunity to try out VisiCalc without the expense of a computer. I was a little POed when I had to ask for permission to use the system to do my job. I got over it and learned a lot about finance and forecasting by listening in. Like, "If you move this number here and adjust this number, it looks better."

Its interesting to think about how far we've come. I'm into my second paragraph and I haven't felt the need to explain what a spreadsheet program is. In 1983 Douglas Hergert spend the first 18 pages of his book Mastering VisiCalc explaining just that. Skimming the book helped to jog my memory and helped me realize how convenient all those Excel menu options are.

I finished the book and analyzed the bike problem without much effort. As I suspected, the pulse duration was getting short enough to happen during display refresh. More on this later.

Most spreadsheet programs have the option of saving data as a Data Interchange Format file (DIF). Excel still has the ability to import and export data using this file format and so does VisiCalc. I figured I could put up with all column widths having to be equal and text not overflowing into the next empty cell as long as I had the option of giving up my retro initiative and put the data back into Excel.

Did I mention that Hergert used the Apple version of VisiCalc when writing his book? This became an import factor when a spreadsheet to rebalance a 401K was attempted. I wanted to move assets between investment options IF the value was above a set amount. I was having trouble using the @IF function and didn't give up trying until I didn't read about it in the Atari VisiCalc user manual. Seems the @IF along with the other logic functions were not implemented on the Atari version. To be fair, Hergert did mention there were differences between versions so I would like to apologize for anything that was said in frustration.

This was the game changer, I couldn't use a spreadsheet without @IF. I started looking into SynCalc by Synapse; a program with IF, AND, OR, and NOT. As I read the manual and looked at the screen shots, I got a feeling I had been here before. Yes, I had tried this program a long time ago and something make me look for anther option. That’s as far as I got but was willing to come back for a closer look if my evaluation of Calc Magic turned up a dud.

The following review for Calc Magic is from Antic magazine November 1988. I can't disagree.

Calc Magic (AP0177), by Metamorphosis Development, is well-known as a nice little spreadsheet program for 8-bit Atari computers. It requires an Atari XL or XE computer and 64K of memory. It offers the usual capabilities of any spreadsheet, but is quite easy to learn and use. It uses multiple menus like SynCalc, but has a built-in English set of commands that make it a bit easier to work with.

Calc Magic scrolls very quickly and seems to be programmed for quick response to user requests like recalculations. With the built-in "programming language," you can quickly build templates to reduce the amount of typing required. Commands can be selected from pop-up menus. Spreadsheet files can be saved in DIF format for transfer to other spreadsheet or database programs which support DIF files. This program offers a lot of power for a small price. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't need a full-power business-level spreadsheet.

From <http://www.atarimagazines.com/v7n7/ProductReviews.html>

(I got my copy from the Antic Software Catalog, but is now available for download at Atari Mania.)

It too has @IF. And….you can set the column width for each column and the text will overflow into the next column if the cell is empty. The menu system gets a little tedious after you use it for a while. Seems like an endless amount of HELP-START-SELECT button pushing. I got over it. I'll work with Calc Magic for a while and maybe learn a little about its MACRO capabilities.

I started reading "Doing Business with VisiCalc" by Stanley R Trost. It’s a collection of spreadsheets with cell by cell instructions on how to set them up. There are a couple of interesting sheets that I may port to Calc Magic. Nothing in the book has shed any light onto the "move this number here and adjust this number, it looks better" method of financial planning.

Having decided on a spreadsheet program, I started working on the Bike speedometer project again. I thought I would try to wire in some kind of flip-flop into the circuit. Then the logic state of the flip-flop would change every revolution no matter how long the reed switch remained on. I was in the process of setting up the Arduino to simulate the circuit when I tripped over the wire and broke the switch. Another project postponed indefinitely.

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