Accounting for Taste: On Bureaucracy, Batman, Battles Royales, and Black Cultural Production

David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy is not exactly a feel-good read for a bookkeeper. For me, as a money minder who has found learning to code her way out of data management problems to be an unanticipated creative outlet in her work, this hits close to home: “In the few areas in which free, imaginative creativity actually is fostered, … it is ultimately marshaled in order to create even more, and even more effective, platforms for the filling out of forms.” Ouch.

Worse still for one who enjoys fantasy worlds and role-playing games is Graeber’s observation that, while those may feel may feel imaginative and subversive, with their elves and dwarves and orcs, if they follow the path laid down by Dungeons & Dragons of quantifying character attributes, they “ultimately reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality.” Sigh. Continue reading “Accounting for Taste: On Bureaucracy, Batman, Battles Royales, and Black Cultural Production”

Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems

In 1965, Xerox made a 14-minute-long video ad for the Xerox 2400 photocopier, and I’ve been tickled by it ever since I first saw it years ago. Not only does the ad, titled “What’s the Difference?” illustrate how many steps the Xerox 2400 can eliminate from the process of short-run duplication,

The Xerox 2400 reduces the steps in the short-run duplication process from seven to two.

it also notes that since xerography is a dry process, as the name suggests, it keeps printers’ and office workers’ hands clean.

No more stained fingers, no more smudged documents.

Even better, with just a handful of simple techniques,

Just use overlays to add, delete, and substitute.

the Xerox 2400 not only duplicates documents but also facilitates the creation of new ones. The video devotes a good three minutes to demonstrating how this will revolutionize the sales order and invoicing system, the purchase order system, and production order system.

The ad closes by noting that the Xerox 2400 is so easy to use that not just women, but even children can do it.

In her book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz conveys the contemporary appeal of such advertisements, which seem so strange to us today. Continue reading “Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems”

Visualizing American Segregation in Time

Readers of this blog probably have a general notion that residential segregation in the United States is a result of deliberate policies (if that’s surprising to you, Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White is my favorite book on the topic).

You probably also know that employment is also segregated, along lines of both race and gender. And you may not have any real idea whether segregation is increasing or decreasing in either domain—which is understandable, because the answers are complicated. In brief, the separation of some occupations, like janitorial service, into their own establishments (think Aramark) has contributed to a worsening of workplace segregation in the United States.

Vox’s Alvin Chang’s short video illustrates the situation. Continue reading “Visualizing American Segregation in Time”

Adam Savage Models How to Handle Failure

In the course of my career, I’ve helped lots of people learn at least the basics of bookkeeping and of accounting principles. I know that the best learners are those who keep an open mind and don’t give up at their first failure—or beat themselves up about their failures. Instead, they learn from them.

As much as I enjoyed my crash course in French-language bookkeeping earlier this month—and glad as I am that I performed the task well—the truth is that even people who seem like masters of their trades sometimes mess up.

That’s why I love this clip of Myth Busters alumn Adam Savage forgetting to put a lid on the magazine of the leaf-blower ping-pong gun he’s building. He lets his disappointment with himself wash through him, then puts his beginner’s mind back on and finishes the job. A true master. Continue reading “Adam Savage Models How to Handle Failure”

Antoinette Tuff

You should know the name Antoinette Tuff. She is, to date, the only person ever to have deterred an armed man from opening fire on a US school.

In August 2013, Tuff was the bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy outside of Atlanta. A parent who was leaving the school held the door for a young man to enter, not knowing that the man was armed with an AK-47 and over 500 rounds of ammunition. Tuff called 911, then spent 25 minutes talking the gunman down. He surrendered to police, and no one was injured.

Unsurprisingly, Tuff does not credit her success to the cool head of a bookkeeper, but rather to her faith in God and her own radical courage in displaying compassion and emotional vulnerability to the would-be shooter. Read her story here.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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Taking Payroll Literally

The word payroll first appears in the English language around 1765, according to Webster’s. While I’m pretty sure the “roll” part comes from the concept of “roll call” or “muster roll” (which probably itself came from such things being recorded on rolled-up scrolls), I like the way this Dey Time Register time clock at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum brings the word full circle.

Employee Time Clock ca. 1900. The device is rather straight forward, even though it looks intimidating. The main difference to today’s time clocks is that, rather than having individual time cards for each employee, all times were recorded together on a roll of paper inside the clock. Each employee had a number, located on one of the buttons on the front of the clock. By moving the arm to the number location and pressing the arm into the hole next to the number, the print head inside the clock would stamp the time and the employee number on the (pay-) roll. (Apologies to Paulie and Jessamin for sharing their appropriately delighted reflections.)

Continue reading “Taking Payroll Literally”

Translated Accounting

Last week, I took an accounting test at a firm where I’d applied for a few positions. English is the primary language for the particular position I’m a candidate for, and since this is Québec, it was only a small surprise that the test was written in French. I blithely told my contact that this was no problem.

My French has never gotten much better than “comme une vache espagnole,” hence the featured image for this post (giggles and thanks to zipfslaw1). So I hit up our friend Google Translate. Our quirky friend Google Translate.

Actually, Google, I had French in mind… (“bilan” means balance sheet in French)

In the end, it was fine. Better than fine, even. The six questions were fairly straightforward: creating financial reports from a list of accounts and their balances; creating a bank reconciliation report from two different listings of transactions; writing off bad debt and booking reimbursements that included taxes that had to be treated in specific ways; and recording a paycheck and its withholdings. Just in a different language from the one I learned the techniques in, but numbers are numbers and techniques are techniques, right? Continue reading “Translated Accounting”

Austin’s Highland Mall as Victor Gruen’s Last Laugh

Oh, Highland Mall, the stuff of my childhood back-to-school shopping dreams. It opened in 1971 and closed officially in 2015, though it had been dead for a while before then. During the 80s, it was the most accessible mall in Austin to my family, who lived in rural isolation to the east of the city. I salivated to be driven 50 miles to shop in that neon-lit concrete bunker, though now I’m much more likely to be found eating ice cream in a green space at The Domain farther north when I visit my home city. Today, the property is owned by Austin Community College and is being transformed into a mixed-use anchor of neighborhood amenities, including not only retail, residential, and park areas, but also computer and chemistry learning and co-working facilities.

Food court at Highland Mall, Bellerophon5685
So who was Victor Gruen? Tom Scott gives a brief introduction to the Austrian architect who conceived of the shopping mall as a way to combat suburban sprawl in the United States, his adopted country–then hated the “bastard offspring” of his idea and developers’ money that resulted. The Highland Mall of my youth was one of those bastard offspring; the Highland Mall of the future is much more what Gruen had in mind.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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Even Your Pocket Change is Telling You to Vote

As citizens of the United States finish polling and wait for the results of their midterm elections, here’s Tom Hockenhull of the British Museum talking about coins that were defaced in the name of voting rights for women. The coin was featured in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects: “this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote.”

May that right always expand and never contract. (You can help make that wish a reality by supporting the Fair Fight PAC and other organizations that defend voting rights in the US.)

The featured image for this post is a copper-colored British coin stamped with the phrase ‘Votes for Women.’ It is housed at the British Museum and photographed by Mike Peel.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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