dimanche 13 janvier 2008

French Accounting Reminds Me of Mayan Math

Before launching into today’s blog post, we want to apologize for our lack of blog postings lately. One of our New Year’s resolutions is to update the blog more consistently. So, here is today’s post:

Mayan Math is a term that we made up in Placencia, Belize, a sleepy beach town of about 500 residents. We were on the last leg of our honeymoon and wanted to send postcards from Belize to thank all of the lovely people who gave us wedding gifts. When we saw that we did not have enough postcards, Maki reluctantly put down her planter’s punch and went in search of more postcards. It was a Sunday, and not many stores were open (for that matter, there are not that many stores in Placencia), but Maki found one small tourist shop selling handmade Mayan artifacts and – importantly for the day’s only mission – postcards.

We needed a total of 30 postcards, and each of the postcards cost 75 Belizean cents. After gathering up her postcards and a few souvenirs, Maki approached the counter, where the shop owner, a young Mayan woman, rang up her purchases.

Although Maki was not sure how much the total should have been, she was nevertheless surprised when it came to about $160 Belize (about $80 US). Mentioning her surprise to the owner, the owner breaks down the bill for Maki. It turns out that the postcards alone accounted for over $40 Belize! Although Maki was not sure how much the postcards really should have cost – she went to Law School, not Math School, after all, and she had drunk two tall glasses of planter’s punch before venturing out for postcards – she knew for sure that since each card cost less than $1 Belize dollar, the 30 cards should cost less than $30 Belize. Law School, after all, taught Maki to think in terms of analogies.

As Maki and the shop owner were discussing the price of the postcards, the owner (obviously not believing Maki’s wild tales of multiplication and postcard prices) offered to show Maki how she arrived at her figure of about $43 for the 30 postcards. The owner laid out the postcards and divided them into groups of four, and for each group of four postcards tapped in $6 into the cash register; she also tapped in 75 cents for each of the postcards that did not fit into a group of four.

Earlier in the trip, we had visited the town of Caracol and learned about the Mayan counting system, which is based on the number 20 and uses a series of dots (each representing one unit) and lines (each representing five units) to write numbers. Maki assumed that the saleswoman’s decision to divide the postcards into groups of four was based on ancient Mayan counting techniques. Which would have been fine, except that, apparently, in the Mayan counting system a group of four postcards that cost 75 cents each somehow adds up to $6, rather than $3.

Considering the sophistication of the Mayan calendar, we believe that our shop owner simply did not know how to add. Granted, this is odd if your livelihood consists of owning and running a shop, but hey, the Math calculations always worked out in the shop owner’s favor. We want to clarify that we don’t think she meant in any way to trick us, since she made the same mistake when we returned to buy additional cards (our Math is also not that great and we could not seem to figure out how many postcards we really needed).

Alas, it’s not just the balmy Placencia air that dulls mathematical skills. France, an entire continent away, seems afflicted with an appalling lack of proper accounting procedures. And, like the Mayan shop owner’s calculations, the Math never works out in our favor. French accounting is worse than Mayan Math, though, because it is all fully automated. Absolutely everything here is done by automatic debit straight from your checking account.

As a result, we’ve been overcharged by our bank, which cannot seem to figure out how much our monthly fees really should be, for the last few months (luckily, our account manager is quite nice and manages to get the charges reversed when we complain). The company that manages our apartment building also does not seem to have a solid accounting system, and in November, sent us a bill for thousands of euros of allegedly unpaid rent. And before you start to think (based on our inability to figure out how many postcards we really need) that perhaps we forgot to pay our rent bill, our rent gets debited automatically every month. France Telecom has also managed to make some euros out of us: although we only had phone service with them for about three days before switching to a much cheaper phone provider, they charged us for two full months of service (they have kindly offered to credit us some of the money if we decide to go back to their service in the future).

Like the Mayan shop owner, French institutions are also very nice about fixing their bills when we complain. But it would still be nice if they got the bills right from the get go.

Aucun commentaire: