The Utopia of Rules

Last week, I wrote about David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy in the context of Fortnite Battle Royale.

There, Graeber’s most salient observations had to do with the similarities between fantasy role-playing games and accounting, the role of comics in socializing future leaders, and the tension between the fun of rules-based games and that of anarchic play.

That’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of topics to find in a book that is ostensibly about bureaucracy, and still it doesn’t begin to show the extent of the ground that Graeber covers.

It’s a testament to the fact that bureaucracy—the use of impersonal rules and procedures to regulate public life—is so deeply embedded in our lives that I have a hard time thinking of a society that gives a sharp enough counterexample the make it concisely clear what Graeber means by “total bureaucratization.” Continue reading “The Utopia of Rules”

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”

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”

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.


 

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

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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

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

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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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