Manny Medrano, Spreadsheets, and the Data in the Khipu

This time of year always finds me thinking about all of the information, knowledge, opinions, and ways of thinking and being that humanity lost when the 1492 renewal of sustained contact between the east and west hemispheres developed into a holocaust fueled by germs and greed. To this day, for instance, no one knows what data then Incan Empire encoded in its knotted-string khipus.

In 2016, Manny Medrano, a freshman economics major at Harvard, used Excel to decipher the information in some of the 17th-century khipus recorded in professor Gary Urton’s Khipu Database Project.

When Urton mentioned at the end of class one day that had found a Spanish census document from the same time and place as a set of his khipus, and that many of the numbers seemed to match, Medrano offered to spend his spring break formally correlating the data from the two sources.

According to Atlas Obscura, Urton didn’t expect much to come of it, as was the case with prior research. But Medrano noted that not only did the numbers line up, but the “way in which pendant cords are tied to the top cord indicates which social group an individual belonged to.” Medrano’s discovery is a first in khipu analysis, and it stands to turn these six khipu into the Rosetta Stone for Inca textile databases.

Khipu at the Larco Mueum in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter on Wikimedia Commons.
Khipu at the Larco Mueum in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter.

Medrano is now a Marshall Scholar at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


 

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The Basics of the Balance Sheet

Last week I laid out some of the basics of good Profit & Loss design. This week, the Balance Sheet, the P&L’s more obscure sibling. There’s a lot to delve into on a Balance Sheet, so this is just an introduction.

The Balance Sheet is less intuitive and more technical than the Profit & Loss, and it is the place where people are most likely to want or need the services of a professional.

The World’s First Telecoms Scam

Watch Tom Scott explain the world’s first telecoms scam, which worked by introducing errors into the partially encoded state messages sent by Napoleonic semaphore towers. Oh, and bribery.

If you find that interesting, you might also like Dr. David Brailsford’s discussion of entropy in compression.

Replica of a Claude Chappe semaphore tower in Nalbach, Germany

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Basics of Good Profit & Loss Report Design

Some of my favorite projects involve creating or overhauling a Chart of Accounts so that a client’s financial reports are easier to read. Here is a quick presentation of the principles of good design for the Profit & Loss accounts, and some examples of common pitfalls. Does your P&L look like one of the bad examples? I can help!


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To See the World in a Plastic Straw

Recently Roman Mars of 99% Invisible hosted Alexis Madrigal (author of Disposable America in The Atlantic) to discuss the plastic drinking straw.

Their talk goes far beyond the Seattle ban that thrust the straw into the spotlight of the culture wars this summer.

They highlight the vast magnitude by which humanity’s dependence on disposable plastics exceeds the problem of straws in the ocean or in landfills: in 2015 there were 88 pounds of plastic produced per person in the world, and 79% of that was discarded. Straws are a small part of that massive problem.

Straws loom larger, though, in the lives of people with limited mobility or motor control; hospitals were among the disposable straw’s early adopters when it was invented (in its waxed paper form) in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

In the same era, the disposable straw also played a role in public health campaigns and in women’s increasing integration into public spaces. A few decades later, as the plastics perfected during World War II sought a consumer market, the plastic straw finally gained its ubiquity.

Photo by Horia Varlan

It’s from here that Madrigal offers a beautiful microcosm of the development of the twentieth century economy–its consumption, its disposability, its shift from production to finance, even its ability to undermine the very public health gains it once helped win–all focused through the narrow bore of the disposable straw. Well worth the listen.


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Extreme Accounting Avoidance

After we updated and reviewed our household finances for August, my partner sent me this:

And yes, we track our household finances in a spreadsheet–the cobbler’s child very much has no shoes.

Though now that we’ve moved to Canada–a move that brought multiple new bank, investment, and credit accounts as well as a second currency–I’m going to have to make the switch to an actual accounting platform.


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High Tech, Low Tech

I wasn’t kidding last week about treasuring the back-of-the-envelope calculations I grabbed from my grandfather’s things partly because I still do it myself, no matter how high-tech I get:

A piece of cardboard covered in handwritten calculations, on top of which rest a 10-key pad, and Apple mouse, and a blue pen.

That was at a client’s site. At home, I keep it a little more fun:

A stack of books on top of a set of two wooden drawers, all supporting a flatscreen monitor. On the drawers and books there are a variety of colorful business cards small figurines.


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Mid-Century Financial Artifacts

I was out of the blogging routine for a couple of weeks because of my grandfather’s final illness, death, memorial, burial, and estate. While helping clean up his house, my sister and I spent a lot of time with the little treasure boxes he kept in his closet, and that we loved exploring as kids. I brought home a few goodies that are firmly in my lane.

Front and back of a Montgomery Ward National Charg-all Card that expired March 1969, back when my mother worked there (more on early credit cards here):

Front and back of a Soviet coin from 1933:

Front and back of a Canadian one-dollar note from 1954 (the more familiar loonie coin has been in use since 1987):

An envelope covered in running financial calculations, a method that I still use despite all my technological knowhow (and yes, I remember that El Camino):

In other news, it is worth noting that New York’s Fearless Girl statue will be moving to a new location in front of the New York Stock Exchange–the very spot that the Charging Bull’s sculptor hoped that his art would occupy when he introduced it in 1989. More on the histories and fates of the two statues here.


 

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Know Your Constellations: Eurion

Street scene with light-skinned person at right holding up a Euro bill. To the left appear a series of yellow circles with the text EURion constellation
Tom Scott explains why you can’t photocopy many currencies

This is the first Tom Scott video I remember watching. This is useful in the office, too: if you’ve ever had to copy or scan a check and kept coming up with a black page instead, you’ve come up against the Eurion. My solution? Cover the abejitas (little bees)as we used to call them at one of my clients, with bits of Post-It Note, and copy away.


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