I have a shallow drawer in my dresser that contains various treasures, including my collection of pocket knives, the slide rule my grandfather gave me, and the crane folded from the paper I made.

Sorting through this stuff, trying to decide if anything was really worth saving, I came across a Keuffel & Esser folding ruler. It is at least seventy years old, but the inches on it are the same length as today, so I put it on my desk.

I am an unabashed measurer. My desk has, in addition to the K & E rule, an architect’s rule for taking measurements from drawings and a carpenter’s rule for measurements greater than the twelve inches on the K & E.

It is, after all, what accountants do. We’re called bean counters for a reason: only an accountant would worry about how many beans there are. Why the farmer who owns the beans and expects to sell them isn’t worried is beyond me. But I do know that beans are not counted; they’re weighed. [Nor does it matter how many beans are in that hundredweight.-KD]

That’s something else accountants are good at: selecting the right measure. One of the projects I’m working on is compiling a vacancy rate for an apartment complex. Everyone knows vacancies are too high, but no one compiles the list on a regular basis and so no one asks why unit 110 has been empty for six months. The complex uses a general accounting system that does not produce the vacancy rate or a rent roll. Grrrrrrr.

I’ve started compiling both by hand from the tenant statements just to force myself to think about how to extract this information from the available reports. It all adds up to an example of the types of measurements accountants make above and beyond your tax liability and the checkbook balance. It also exemplifies how one must consider what the company requires from its accounting system and from its accountant.

Compiling things by hand is always tedious. It requires proving your work as you go and testing its accuracy with reality checks.

So I must return to this grindstone.

My K & E rule is a beautiful thing, which is the other reason it’s on my desk. Even my 68-year-old eyes can still make out the sixteenths of an inch.

It won’t help with the vacancies, though.

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Name Change Followup

Well, thank you all for not giving a damn what we call this blog. I’m
inclined to leave it alone.

The movie is The Big Chill, 1987. It’s a Kasdan, which means there are
Kasdans galore, including the toddler singing “Jeremiah was a
bullfrog…” in the tub. The ensemble cast includes Kevin Kline, Glen
Close, Tom Berenger, and William Hurt. Persons whose sap rises at the
sight of an attractive woman will find it worthwhile just to watch Meg
Tilley exercise.

Fairly early in the movie, Michael, a sleazy reporter for People,
says, “We have one editorial rule: Never write anything longer than
the average person can read during the average crap.”

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Well, dang

Well, dang. Sometimes a person just happens to say something and then
other things happen. Sometimes the first person never knows that he or
she started something, even after seeing the aftermath. But that won’t
happen here; I’m about to tip off the person who happened to say
something, right in the next paragraph but one.

One of our admirers (yes, we have two)  told Bill he enjoyed “our”
(Bill and Kate’s) blog.

Welp. It’s Bill’s blog, Phil. I’m just horning in. Bill invited this
camel’s nose under the tent when he asked me to copyedit the first
one. But Bill is a kind and generous soul, and he proposed that we
change the name to Kate and Bill’s Blog, or maybe Bill and Kate’s
Blog. He’s polite, too, so he probably actually said Kate and
Bill’s. Whatever.

Now, Bill’s Blog is one thing. It is what it is, as folks are fond of
saying. I never questioned the name, never put my oar in, never even
thought about it. Because It’s Not Mine. And it is exactly, perfectly,
what he would and should and did name his blog.

However. Bill and Kate’s Blog? Reorder it as you will, alphabetic
perhaps: And Bill Blog Kate’s. Better. Not so boring. But maybe
not. What if the Innuendo Police get after us?

Then I had what passes for a thought: How about The Average Crap?

It’s a phrase from a movie. You have one week to identify the movie
and the speaker, both actor and character. If we’ve heard from you by
then, you may vote on whether to rename this blog The Average Crap;
and furthermore, you may suggest up to three alternatives, including
no change.

Alas, to avoid being inundated—that is, to avoid having to read two
emails—we must limit even our sincerest well-wishers to three
suggestions. Also, it greatly reduces the odds that someone will come
up with a suggestion far, far better than The Average Crap. Something
good enough that I would perforce have to cave and go for it.

I have prepared five hints. You may email me at for one hint per day maximum.

Here’s a freebie: they won’t help much.

In case you’re wondering what the opening paragraph was about, it was about the giant pain in the ass that renaming the blog would be. We might have to do it right or something. Thanks so much, Phil.

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In 1983 we went on vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula. We initially
reserved rooms (and paid for them) at a hotel in Cancún. Mexico
devalued the peso and suddenly Cancún became everyone’s
destination. The hotel defaulted on our reservation.

Apple Tours found us rooms in Akumál, a village on the gulf
coast. Most of our party spent the time in the bar complaining about
the lack of night life; we were 30 miles from a phone and 65 miles
from an English-language newspaper. (Newspapers were very important in
those days.) I spent it on the beach writing a program editor in
APL. [Kate spent it in the shade of a palm tree with her feet in the
Gulf of Mexico, reading trashy novels and sipping beer at 75 cents a
bottle, fetched by cute teenage waiters.]

APL (“A Programming Language”) was proposed during the 1950s and
implemented for the IBM 360 in the 1960s. IBM and many other vendors
will sell you a copy today for a mainframe, a PC, and all sizes in
between. The Free Software Foundation has released its own version,
and I have compiled it on my laptop.

This year I spent my vacation on the porch in Seaside Park, New
Jersey, again writing in APL. Many things have changed in the
intervening thirty years, but not much in APL. It is still extremely
finicky, damnably difficult to write. However, it’s easy to predict
how a piece of code will behave. Most accountants, including this one,
use Excel.

Why do I use this kludgy program to add and subtract? Because APL
excels at one-to-many sorting, which is part of database modeling.
One item (say, a checkbook) relates to many items (the checks). How to
keep track? Accountants have been dealing with this for centuries.
It’s the real reason for double-entry bookkeeping—which, by the way,
is not the same as keeping two sets of books.

Today we rely on something like Sage or QuickBooks, both of which use
an SQL database to turn out reports that look like the old registers
and ledgers.

Over the years I’ve produced any number of financial projections,
usually in Excel. Most times I couldn’t get the damn thing to
balance. That is, assets = liabilities + equity—or they should. It’s a
one-to-many problem, and Excel does not excel at linking the many to
the one.

I started doing this work in APL back when neither desktop computers
nor electronic spreadsheets were available. APL is a giant
calculator. It will add 4 to 5 or two arrays with four rows and five
columns. It will store your calculations in as many variables as you
can name. Thus it can project a cash disbursement array, add it to
your projected cash receipts, and report the change in cash. Each
item is a different-named variable in the APL workspace.

I type )SAVE and all of these variables are written to disk, ready to

So August 30 I started on what APL does not do. It does not produce
pretty reports; it will not send reports to the printer. [Now, that
sucks. Not being able to print, I mean.—Kate.] It must be taught to
take data from Sage or QuickBooks. While I made progress, if you call
tomorrow to ask me to prepare a budget, I’ll still deliver it in

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While testing a new Linux distribution, I went to the Wall Street
Journal online to see how the video-in-a-browser worked. It didn’t.[1]
Oh well.

Sometimes I find a video that might be on point, but I pass
it by. I want words in a row, and I don’t mean spoken words. I want
the actual words lined up in a row on a page or screen. Sometimes a
picture will do, but I don’t want no steenkin’ video. Too slow and too
fast all at once. That is, speech is a lot slower than skilled
reading, but at the same time, it’s difficult to review a video on the
fly if you missed something. Much easier to reread a paragraph and
then go on.

I won’t say this perhaps curious behavior is caused by my profession,
but the two are certainly related. The first job of an accountant is
to write things down, to record what happened and when. The first
written words were bills of lading; only commerce was important enough
and intellectually complex[2] enough to spur the invention of writing.
Our remote ancestors made a clay ball and sealed it around tokens for
the items in the load. The consignee broke open the ball and
confirmed the count. Then someone got the bright idea of making
impressions of the tokens on the outside of the ball so that the
carrier could see what was in the load. That was when mathematics,
Shakespeare, and your cell phone got their start.

Accountants have been writing things down ever since, and we’ve
developed the expectation that a piece of writing will contain helpful

I guess I don’t have the same expectation for video. I watch way too
much TV with little to show for it. Donald Trump made a joke about
Hillary Clinton’s emails; I thought it funny. After two days of
pundit apoplexy he pointed out that he was speaking with tongue in
cheek. The pundits didn’t believe that either.

I suppose in some perverse way this tale demonstrates that I did get
some useful information out of a video.

I’ll still look for a well-written Web page. And some way–any way–to
make sense of this election. One’s about as likely as the other, I

[1] Kate has a deal with her computer: it never makes a sound
and she doesn’t blast it with a shotgun. My guess is she hasn’t even
tried it.

[2] Other skills were primarily physical and/or instinctual, not
necessarily easier. It’s one thing to know how to flake a spearhead
or bring down a gazelle (largely muscle memory) and something else
entirely to remember that you agreed to trade eight head of cattle,
including three pregnant heifers.

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Productivity II

In 2005 I started a new job in Philadelphia. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was spending more per month on gas than the cost of a SEPTA pass, SEPTA being the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, swallower-up of the Reading and Pennsylvania railroads along with various light rail lines.

I bought the pass and a new laptop and got on the train. There was nothing really new about this. In 1972 I moved to Morton, Pennsylvania, and started work at Third and Walnut in Philadelphia. Newspaper in hand, I took (what used to be) the Pennsylvania Railroad into Suburban Station. I have used both the (former) Reading and the Pennsy off and on since then. In the off seasons I drove to some suburban office park.

The laptop was for the two hours of enforced idleness that commuting from Langhorne involves. You can see the results of my labors at

Which gets us to productivity. One of the ideas I’ve gleaned from reading about productivity is how our interstate highway system contributes to the country’s productivity. My first reaction was “Oh, yes, another economic theory that doesn’t offer a real-world proof.”

The trouble with public transportation is not just the consideration of what I am going to do while I wait for the train to get to Reading Terminal–er, Market East–er, Jefferson Station. I’ve found I could spend that time on I-95 waiting for the car in front of me. The problem really is that it forces my schedule to the train’s. (True, there can be a lot of waiting for trains. But if you commute that way, you learn to game the system so you don’t waste much time-not nearly so much as if you are behind the wheel and can’t, or at least shouldn’t, do anything else. Part of Bill’s problem with his last commute is that his workplace was nowhere near the train station, which made it a very long sucker. –KD)

If you consider the promise of the interstate highway system (from downtown to the shore in an hour) and its realization (try three hours on the Friday night before the holiday weekend), it’s difficult to see the benefit. My mother as a young woman took the subway to Camden and a Penn-Reading Seashore line to the shore. She had a book, not a laptop. (And she’d have a book, not a laptop, today. –KD)

What I’ve found is this: the difficulty is the enforced schedule of public transport. If I drive, I can leave for my meeting in Philadelphia when I’m ready and start the journey home as soon as my meeting is over. That more than makes up for the hour and half on 95 alone with my thoughts, not my laptop. (Going to these meetings and commuting are apples and oranges. Bill’s meetings these days are in the evenings, when the trains don’t run so often, and he has less to do in town, so he can’t use the time before and after the meeting as well as he used to. –KD)

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Productivity I

I received a client’s trial balance, along with some other working
papers, from the client’s auditor. When the email came in, I saw what
the workpapers were and filed them. Yesterday I had to go look at
them in some detail. I was flabbergasted.

In 1988 I took $500 I didn’t really have and purchased The
Accountants Trial Balance
(ATB). This was a DOS program that
automated the preparation of financial statements, a process that
might take me three or four days with pencil and paper.

The modern versions of these programs will butter your toast at
breakfast and contact Uber for your ride to the client, among other
things. They are complicated, and each firm has its own approach to
use, which must also be learned.

I’m still using ATB. It was a huge productivity boost when I bought it
and in a surprising way still is today. It does one task well and
simply. It does not do many tasks complexly.

Which leads to yesterday. As I started looking for specific numbers in
the trial balance I had received, I realized I was looking at the
output of ATB, including a (teeny tiny) font that produced 17.5
characters per inch and 6 lines per inch. [1]

I realized that here was another CPA who had found a workhorse and
stuck with it.

Which leads me to why this series on productivity. The economists
refer to the productivity paradox. That is, the United States has
made extraordinary investments in computers and software over the past
20 years, while the overall productivity of the country has grown at a
slower rate than in the initial post World War II era. No one knows
why. [2]

I have lived through that period at a time-consuming profession. I
started with paper and pencil, even an abacus, and later added a
calculator and then a computer. I saw my speed and accuracy both

However, in many ways, few of my accounting tasks and the ways I use
my computer have changed much since my initial foray into data
processing. So why do I have to buy, pay for, and put up with all
those bells and whistles? I like software for grownups, not a toy

[1] For those not in the know, green bar paper measuring 14 by 11
inches with sprockets held 10 characters per inch, 140 per line. When
the IBM PC came out, printer manufacturers adjusted to 8 1/2 by 11
paper and offered an additional font (17.5 characters per inch) so
that one did not have to rewrite one’s programs.

[2] Nonsense. I know why. It’s because (a) the bells and whistles
stretch the learning curve for computer use longer and longer, (b)
because the more we have computers, the more we expect them to do, and
(c) the main reason: those bells and whistles are accompanied by
solitaire, crossword puzzles, Internet blogs like this one, news
outlets, and a ridiculous number of other distractions. It’s the
distractions, dummy. KD, occasional contributor.

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Libertarian and economics


“Felix would be better off in the sense of higher lifetime earnings if
he were given a cash transfer to invest than a subsidy restricted to
education.” (Lovenheim-Turner, Economics of Education, forthcoming
from Macmillan Education)

This libertarian thinks we individually and collectively are generally
better off when-within the bounds of common decency-our use of
economic resources is left to our own discretion.

First, we get the personal satisfaction of being in charge of our own
behavior. Of itself this has intangible benefits, such as development
of a sense of responsibility. Nothing else teaches us a lesson like
screwing up and having to take the consequences. It also avoids the
opposite, the pain and resentment of those subjected to too much nanny

Second, the crash of 2007-2008 notwithstanding, the potential for the
government to destroy the economy far outweighs that of any
nongovernmental group or industry. Look how long the recovery took,
and look how much people resented the way the recovery money was
spent. My neighborhood was plastered with “Where’s my bailout?” bumper
stickers. And no one was giving them away; they cost actual real money
plus tax. I do believe that if the feds had just declared a tax
holiday to some benchmark, we would have weathered what was
essentially a supply shock much faster and better. Individuals, firms,
even U.S. states have a lot less potential to misspend than the
federal government just because their decimal points don’t sit to the
right of so many zeroes. Also, smaller mistakes tend to balance each
other out.

By the way, I have no desire to discuss what could or should have been
done to prevent the crash or the bubble that preceded it. I remember
late in the last century, maybe the 1980s, a chain letter pyramid
scheme took hold, and a few people made a lot of money. Most lost
their whole investment. Back in the 17th century we had the tulip
mania and in the 18th, the South Sea Bubble. There is no preventing
get-rich-quick schemes from grabbing hold of the public
imagination. Most people are enchanted by the idea of getting
something for nothing, and many Americans are so fat, dumb, and happy
they don’t recognize risk when it leers at them on the street.

So don’t bother me with woulda coulda shoulda, at least about bubbles.

Full disclosure: I’m copyediting this book, and the quotation at the
beginning reads as edited. But the author may just edit it right back
to the original, so don’t take it as chapter and verse.

Not sure when it’ll be published. I’m guessing the January list.

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My Search for the Ultimate Stylesheet


This page is made up of several files, but it does not
contain a JavaScript file. JavaScript is the programming
language of the Web. Many web pages rely heavily on
JavaScript, and they may upload several files to your
computer. Me, I like to ask before I run a program on your
computer. Seems rude, not to mention presumptuous, just to
barge in and tinker.

I write this blog in a text file and enter HTML tags when I
need them. I generated the cascading stylesheet in the same
text editor. I decided what look and feel I liked by loading
these files into my browser.

A friend who read my last post sent me a link to several
simple css schemes. I say schemes because they consist of
several files. One was 44 files, and the other included 4
JavaScript files, 4 font files, and 132 css files. Neither
had the documentation in the archive. One had the link to
the on-line documentation. I was daunted.

This page has one css file. You can see it at It
has several weaknesses:

– It does not address the multitude of differences among browsers and
versions of browsers.
– It may not render well in your mobile phone.
– It won’t impress your friends.

On the other hand, it is just three files. It has the same
look and feel as the other pages at It
shows clear navigation around the site. It took no time to
load and render. It does not expose your machine to viral

Recently, the Amazon daily deal (books for Kindle, sold
cheap) was a book on search engine optimization, or how to
get noticed on the World Wide Web. I bought it. I read it. I
learned about tracking users’ eye movements while they
surfed the Web. I learned that no one really understands
Google’s search algorithms. I decided to Ask Google.

Google in fact has some pretty simple guidance for the web
author. It just comes down to this: Write well. Outline your
work before you write and use heading levels according to
that outline. Have clear titles. Organize your web site well
and name your files and folders simply and related to the

In other words, keep it simple. I’m not chess grand master
Aron Nimzowitsch; I don’t play for complexity.

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Sunk Costs


Economists talk about sunk costs as being irrecoverable, hence not
relevant to decision making. But it seems to me that a lot of sunk
costs are also investments, and investments really should be
considered in the budget. Say you bought a Matisse–not one of the
really good ones–for top dollar in 2007. Two years later you couldn’t
sell it for a wallpaper pattern and the painfully high number of
millions you spent was a sunk cost. But you bought it because you
liked it, and you still like it. Also, those Chinese will bounce back
one of these days, and when they’ve bought back all the trade goods
China has ever exported, they’ll start to buy Western again. However,
you still can’t get your money out of it, so the economists would tell
you to ignore the money you spent on it.

But should you? You’re figuring out your insurance costs for next
year. That Matisse, not even one of the really good ones: it costs a
bundle to insure it, and the insurer makes you have it appraised every
year, which also costs a bundle. It’s a sunk cost. Do you insure it?

Well, hell, yes, you do. You’ll pay for it in about 15 or 20 years
with the costs of appraisal and insurance, but in the meantime, you
get to look at it and show it off. And if something happened to it,
insurance would bring you at least some of those millions back. It has
never sunk to the ignominy of six figures, after all. And who is idiot
enough to bet against the Chinese (or someone else) bouncing back and
buying Western in the next 15 or 20 years?

Here’s my alternative description of a sunk cost: It’s a past
expenditure used as a false justification of future expenditure.

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