(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain

“A firm’s income statement may be likened to a bikini- what it reveals is interesting but what it conceals is vital”*…

 

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A recent (Roughly) Daily noted (by way of a quote from James Surowiecki) that “the challenge for capitalism is that the things that breed trust also breed the environment for fraud.”  A painful recent example was, the failure of credit ratings agencies honestly to assess the risk of derivatives being traded against home mortgages, which contributed mightily to the crash that occasioned The Great Recession.

But, as Richard Brooks argues, there’s a bigger and more pervasive problem still lurking:  accountancy used to be boring – and safe.  Today it’s neither.  Have the ‘big four’ firms become too cosy with the system they’re supposed to be keeping in check?  Are we in for Enron all over again, only this time on the financial system-wide basis?

The demise of sound accounting became a critical cause of the early 21st-century financial crisis. Auditing limited companies, made mandatory in Britain around a hundred years earlier, was intended as a check on the so-called “principal/agent problem” inherent in the corporate form of business. As Adam Smith once pointed out, “managers of other people’s money” could not be trusted to be as prudent with it as they were with their own. When late-20th-century bankers began gambling with eye-watering amounts of other people’s money, good accounting became more important than ever. But the bean counters now had more commercial priorities and – with limited liability of their own – less fear for the consequences of failure. “Negligence and profusion,” as Smith foretold, duly ensued.

After the fall of Lehman Brothers brought economies to their knees in 2008, it was apparent that Ernst & Young’s audits of that bank had been all but worthless. Similar failures on the other side of the Atlantic proved that balance sheets everywhere were full of dross signed off as gold. The chairman of HBOS, arguably Britain’s most dubious lender of the boom years, explained to a subsequent parliamentary enquiry: “I met alone with the auditors – the two main partners – at least once a year, and, in our meeting, they could air anything that they found difficult. Although we had interesting discussions – they were very helpful about the business – there were never any issues raised.”

This insouciance typified the state auditing had reached. Subsequent investigations showed that rank-and-file auditors at KPMG had indeed questioned how much the bank was setting aside for losses. But such unhelpful matters were not something for the senior partners to bother about when their firm was pocketing handsome consulting income – £45m on top of its £56m audit fees over about seven years – and the junior bean counters’ concerns were not followed up by their superiors.

Half a century earlier, economist JK Galbraith had ended his landmark history of the 1929 Great Crash by warning of the reluctance of “men of business” to speak up “if it means disturbance of orderly business and convenience in the present”. (In this, he thought, “at least equally with communism, lies the threat to capitalism”.) Galbraith could have been prophesying accountancy a few decades later, now led by men of business rather than watchdogs of business…

A chilling, but important report: “The financial scandal no one is talking about.”

* Burton G. Malkiel

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As we count beans, we might recall that it was on this date in 1873 that Samuel Clemens (the author known as Mark Twain) received a U.S. patent, his second, for a self-pasting scrapbook (No. 140,245).  His creation used a dried adhesive on its pages so that users need only moisten a page in order to attach pictures.

In 1871, Clemens had scored his first patent, for “an Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments”–an adjustable strap that could be used to tighten shirts at the waist that was later used on women’s corsets, and is considered by many to be the precursor of the adjustable bra strap.  He earned his third patent in 1875 for a history trivia game,“Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder Game.”

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Written by LW

June 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Besides black art, there is only automation and mechanization”*…

 

THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST, a British short film from 1911, wants you to avoid self-driving cars at all costs. In it, a robot chauffeur is developed to drive a newly wedded couple to their honeymoon destination. But this robot malfunctions, and all of a sudden the couple is marooned in outer space (and then sinking underwater, and then flying through the sky—it’s complicated)…

More on the film and its maker at “This Bizarre 1911 Film Warns of the Perils of Self-Driving Cars.

* Federico Garcia Lorca

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As we keep our eyes on the road, we might recall that it was on this date in 1873 that Samuel Clemens (the author known as Mark Twain) received a U.S. patent, his second, for a self-pasting Scrapbook (No. 140,245).  His creation used a dried adhesive on its pages so that users need only moisten a page in order to attach pictures.

In 1871, Clemens had scored his first patent, for “an Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments”–an adjustable strap that could be used to tighten shirts at the waist that was later used on women’s corsets, and is considered by many to be the precursor of the adjustable bra strap.  He earned his third patent in 1875 for a history trivia game,“Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder Game.”

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Written by LW

June 24, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If I had to choose a superhero to be, I would pick Superman. He’s everything that I’m not.*…

 

The images that pop up in most people’s heads when they think about superheroes can be traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman and the genre evolution that followed. But it’s possible to go back even further, connecting the Hulk to the ancient epic poem of Gilgamesh, and Batman to 17th Century cross-dressing crimefighter Moll Cutpurse…

 Heroic history at: “How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes.”

* Stephen Hawking

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As we investigate our icons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S.   Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn has been controversial from it birth (e.g., here and here)– indeed, the controversy began before its birth:  The UK and Canadian edition came out two months earlier; the U.S. version was delayed because one of the engravers added an obscenity to one of the illustrations: on p. 283, an illustration of Aunt Sally and Silas Phelps was augmented by the addition of a penis.  Thirty thousand copies of the book had been printed before the unwanted addition was discovered.  A new plate was made to correct the illustration and repair the existing copies; still, copies with the so-called “curved fly” plate remain valuable collectors items.

Huck, as drawn by E. W. Kemble for the original edition of the book

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Written by LW

February 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go till you come to the end; then stop'”*…

 

Index cards are mostly obsolete nowadays. We use them to create flash cards, write recipes, and occasionally fold them up into cool paper airplanes. But their original purpose was nothing less than organizing and classifying every known animal, plant, and mineral in the world. Later, they formed the backbone of the library system, allowing us to index vast sums of information and inadvertently creating many of the underlying ideas that allowed the Internet to flourish…

How Carl Linnaeus, the author of Systema Naturae and father of modern taxonomy, created index cards… and how they enabled libraries as we know them, and in the process, laid the groundwork for the Web: “How the Humble Index Card Foresaw the Internet.”

* Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

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As we do ’em up Dewey style, we might recall that it was on this date in 1991 that the handwritten script of the first half of the original draft of Huckleberry Finn, which included Twain’s own handwritten corrections, was recovered.  Missing for over a hundred years, it was found by a 62-year old librarian in Los Angeles, who discovered it as sorted through her grandfather’s papers sent to her from upstate New York.  Her grandfather, james Gluck, a Buffalo lawyer and collector of rare books and manuscripts, to whom Twain sent the manuscript in 1887, had requested the manuscript for the town’s library, now called the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library (where the second half of the manuscript has been all along).

Gluck apparently took the first half from the library, intending to have it bound, but failed to return it.  He died the following year; and the manuscript, which had no library markings, was turned over to his widow by the executors of the estate.  She eventually moved to California to be near her daughter, taking the trunk containing the manuscript went with her.  It was finally opened by her granddaughter, Barbara Testa.

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Written by LW

February 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Time is a game played beautifully by children”*…

 

A 15-year-old spends the day differently than an adult who works full-time (obviously). You’re not going to see much of the latter spending their time on education in the middle of the day. It’s the leading activity for the former. Similarly, as you get older and pass retirement age, it’s much more likely your working hours decrease, which leaves a lot more time to get your leisure on…

See how you compare to those in your age and gender cohort at Flowing Data‘s wonderful interactive visualization of the “Most Common Use of Time, By Age and Sex.”

* Heraclitus

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As we listen to the ticking of the clock, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that Samuel L. Clemens received U.S. patent #121,992 for an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments,” an affordance primarily designed to tighten shirts at the waist, but also used for men’s underpants and women’s corsets.

Clemens– better known, of course, as Mark Twain– was an enthusiastic inventor who received a total of three patents: his second was for a self-pasting scrapbook (1873) which sold over 25,000 copies; his third, for a history trivia game (1885).

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Written by LW

December 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If it don’t cure them, it can’t more than kill them”*…

 

Your correspondent has been wrestling with a remarkably recalcitrant rhinovirus.  Searching for solutions, he found this…

While the Civil War was raging back East, Samuel Clemens (who had recently begun using the pseudonym Mark Twain) lived in Virginia City, Nevada, where he came down with a serious cold and bronchitis that plagued him for the much of the summer in 1863. His ailments didn’t keep him from traveling, first to the home of his friend Adair Wilson near Lake Bigler (now Lake Tahoe) and then to Steamboat Springs. In a series of letters and reports to newspaper editors in Virginia City and San Francisco, Clemens detailed his adventures and the spirited (if half-hearted) attempts to attack his illness with various remedies…

More backstory, and Twain’s piece in in its short-but-glorious entirety, at “How to Cure a Cold.”  (Your correspondent settled, as Twain did, on the remedy featured finally in the piece…)

* Mark Twain (from the story featured above)

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As we reach for the tissues, we might send bounteous birthday greetings to the incomparable Jane Austen; she was born on this date in 1775.  One of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony, and sensible social commentary– along with her persuasive plots– have earned her a place of pride among readers and scholars/critics alike.

Check out Five Books on Jane Austen.

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)

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Written by LW

December 16, 2015 at 1:01 am

“There Are Two Typos Of People In This World: Those Who Can Edit And Those Who Can’t”*…

 

Typos can be embarrassing. They can also be costly. And not just for those individuals whose jobs depend on knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its” or where a comma is most appropriate. In 2013, bauble-loving Texans got the deal of a lifetime when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. (It should have read $497.) It didn’t take long for the entire inventory to be zapped, at a loss of $450 a pop to the retail giant. (Not to mention plenty of faces as red as the star in the company’s logo.)

Google, on the other hand, loves a good typing transposition: Harvard University researchers claim that the company earns about $497 million each year from people mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on “typosquatter” sites … which just happen to be littered with Google ads…

From a NSFW travel agency ad to “the most expensive hyphen in history”– “10 very costly typos.”

* Jarod Kintz

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As we check our work, we might send carefully-edited birthday greetings to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, AKA Mark Twain; he was born on this date in 1835 in Florida, Missouri.  One of the best-known writers and aphorists of his time and ours, his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is consistently cited as a (if not indeed the) Great American Novel, at the same time that it is equally consistently the target of censors who would ban it from school and public libraries… but not for sloppy editing or typos: Clemens began his career as a newspaper man– first as a typesetter, then as a reporter, where he honed his copy editing skills.  And he carried those skills with him into the use of new technologies:  he was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher.

Matthew Brady’s photo of Mark Twain

Written by LW

November 30, 2015 at 1:01 am

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