The Story

I’ve been requested to recreate some spreadsheet for our execs. Being annoying as usual, I made it a point to only use scripting to build the tables.
Most of the reconstruction is interesting in an unrelated way, but I wanted to post about some little gimmicks that helped me create the spreadsheet-like part using plain-old CSV. I used Ruby as my CSV generator, which I then imported by LibreOffice’s Calc for some formatting touch-ups (bold titles etc.) and then to Google Docs.

Formulas survive

I see no reason why they shouldn’t, but it still surprised me - when generating CSV files, you can keep cells with formulas (e.g. =1+1) and they will be honored by LibreOffice’s Calc. This allowed me to preserve the spreadsheet’s formulated structure (e.g. calculated averages) while generating basic CSV, using Ruby’s CSV module.

R1C1 Notation

This is a way to represent cell addresses differently than the default A1 notation.
In A1, every cell gets a column index in letters (A,B,C..ZZZZZZZ) and a row index in numbers (1,2,3...9999). The first cell is A1.
In R1C1 notation, every cell is getting a numeral row index (R1,R2..R9999) and column index (C1,C2..C9999) joined together.
While R1C1 seems more cumbersome, it allows relative addressing, such as RC[-1] (Cell to my left), R3C (Third cell from the top in my column) and R[1]C[1] (Cell immediately below and right to me). This allows you to address other cells without calculating their/your location, which is easy when using GUI, hard when pushing lines into a file.
This notation isn’t honored by default (my guess is because it can conflict with A1 notation), but you can either:

  • Change your application’s settings to work with R1C1 (Which I don’t like, since it’s a global setting and will probably break other spreadsheets)
  • Use the INDIRECT function (LibreOffice documentation) to address a cell, like =INDIRECT("RC[-1]",0) for the cell to the immediate left. This function is also implemented in Google Docs.

Since you’re scripting anyway, you’re probably better off using the second option.

Should I encounter any other neat CSV discoveries, I’ll update this post.