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They are basically promises. When you write a check to someone, you are saying 'I promise that, like, you can have this money. But I don't have it with me. Its at my bank. But if you take this check to your bank, your bank will talk to my bank, and my bank will give my money to your bank, and then your bank will give it to you.' Awesome, right?
The other awesome thing about checks is that people actually believe this bullshit. It is great! You can go into any store in America, write a check, and walk out with a new refrigerator, TV set, car, or basically anything else you could want, all without working for it. That, my friends, is the beauty of America and American capitalism.
Well, at least it was, until a few years ago when this infernal machine called the computer was invented. It has basically ruined the system by allowing your marks... I mean ... your payee, to instantaneously call up your bank and see if you really do 1. have an account there and 2. have money in that account. It is a tragedy, and largely responsible for the decline of America in the eyes of the world.
edit How checks are processed
In the old days, checks were processed by stone masons who carved out calculations on stone tablets. This took an awful long time, but since everyone was poor (basically, living in Undeveloped Countries, until like 1700 AD, when Britain became the first Developed Country). So it was no big deal to bang out a few numbers a day into a piece of granite. or marble. or limestone. or sandstone. or dolomite. or quartz. or jade. or volcanic pumice. or porphyritic andesite. or vesicular basalt. or plagiocase feldspar. or tourmaline. or any of the minor or major ferromagnesians.
Then, though, everyone got developed. At least some did. Most? A whole lot. You know, thousands. Maybe more than thousands. Like, A thousand plus 57. A whole lot.
This means that there are an awful lot of checks flying around. That is why paper was invented, so that stone masons could be avoided. Theres only so many numbers you can pound into a rock a day, they would shout. Then the boss, Randy, would shout back, 'if you dont like it, you can go work somewhere else. Julie can do 50 rocks a day, and she has a club foot and 3 fingers on one hand'. and theyd yell back 'But Julie doesn't have to take her chisel to the stone 15 times a day for sharpening like we do, because she is on 3rd shift and we are on 2nd shift, and the sharpener is not around during 2nd shift". And Randy said "why isn't he around on 2nd shift? I thought he was?" and Terry said "well, Randy had an issue because his kids get ouf of school at 7 and he has to go pick them up because his wife is in class then, and the after school program was closed down on sundays, and mondays, so , it was easier to just move him up a few hours," and Randy said "well, we will have to see if we can work something out, maybe he can come in later, or one of you can learn how to sharpen stones or maybe we can hire someone else, part time, but for now, look. We need to have more stones churned out because otherwise those paper people down the valley will take all our business".
And eventually they did, and stonemasons were stuck with worthless tasks like building houses, and archways for beautiful ponds and book store cafes. Sad. A tragedy, which formed the basis of the Greek Theatre's unknown hero poet, thessalonikus the sevent, whose play Auromindedededes, won 7 awards at the Athenian drama festival before Aeschylus came and swept everything, which everyone knows is not because his plays are good, but because he was in cahoots with the judges. Anyways.
edit Paper checks
However, a small percentage of checks are actually valid and mean what they say. They contain a 'routing number' and an 'account number' of the persons bank, and bank account respectively. They also contain information on the Payee, the amount to be payed, double entered as text and Arabic numerals for accuracy, and the name and address of the payer. Finally, they also contain a signaure, which is a form of marketing the promise to the payee.
edit Beyond Paper
This paper form was fine for a few years. But then, something bad happened. Civilization moved past the Developed stage, and into the Batin stage. This meant that there was both a vast explosion in the population, an explonential increase in demand for worthless consumer garbage, and a vast explosion in empty promses of payment. This meant that paper was no longer good enough.
This meant that checks must now go through an electronic cycle, involving various diabolic devices designed to open check envelopes, scan checks, print information on checks, and, most importantly, mangle and destroy checks beyond recognition.
These devices are manufactured by various corporations, such as Opex and Unisys, who charge vast sums of money (real money, not this check stuff), in order to buff the logo and vacuum dust out of the paper tray. The contracts they have with procesing centers typically forbid the staff from doing anything to the machine that might make it work better, such as jiggling cables or removing dead rodents from the tesla coils inside the front panel.
edit Reader Sorter
The machines that typically sort and print on checks in their raw form are called 'reader sorters'. They are broken up into several stages.
The first stage is the mangler. It's job is to hopelessly coil the check around rubber rollers, preventing the checks from moving further down the track. Workers conveniently place trash bins ($500 parts, ordered from Unisys) under this section of the machine to catch the waste. Unfortunately, a few checks make it through.
Then comes the Ripper. This section of the machines primary goal is to rip the fron and back edge of the checks into tiny shreds, which will jam it inside the track, hopefully deep inside the machine where the operator will not be able to reach it. It also separates the mangled checks into batches and assigns a serial number to each check, so that the ripper-verifier can properly determine that all checks have been jammed and destroyed or lost.
Unfortunately, again, machines are imperfect, and a few checks do make it past the mangler and the ripper. This brings us to the third section, the shredder. It's purpose is to slit the checks in half, so that the sequence numbers from the previous stage will be totally useless, and so that the operators will have to piece together the checks using adhesive tape ($800 a linear foot, available from unisys. scotch tape will result in reader sorter malfunction), and try to send them further down the track. If the electric shock guard does not deter the worker (due to fatigue or inebriation), there is one final section of the track that can try to catch the check.
This is the aptly named Destroyer. It firsts takes a complete digital picture of both sides of the check. This is later used by check analysts to determine how on earth a check got through the previous stages of mangling, ripping, and shredding without being decimated. Since the more checks that make it to this stage, the more work the operators have to do, it is very important to try to minimize the amount of checks that get to this point.
Nevertheless, some do, and after being imaged they are passed through a miniature series of small manglers, each of which has a small chance of crushing the check into an accordion shape. But since the check survived the first three stages, it is likely to be unusually strong and can probably pass through these mini manglers with ease.
Then it makes it to the 'pocket'. The pocket has spinning wheels of grinding teeth and metal blades protruding into it that attempt to vanquish the check once and for all. But again, any check that has made it this far is pretty strong. So, in fact, at least half of the checks that make it to the Destroyer will finally wind up in the pockets, properly numbered and randomly thrown into batches they dont belong in.
The workers then have to send the checks through again, in a second pass, just to make sure any checks were just faking being strong, and to take down a few stragglers.
When this is done, the checks are thrown into a disheveled pile, and some loosely guessed figures totalling the supposed amounts of the checks are thrown on top. These figures usually come from a pet cat that is paid in kibbles n bits in order to walk around on a 10 key printing machine and generate pseudorandom numbers.
After that, the checks go to another reader-sorter, which has even more stages, and any checks that are left over are congratulated, their hand is shaken, and they are sent back to their originating bank so that the funds will be transferred.
Sadly, this may all come to an end soon, with the advent of credit cards, which are like hyperior versions of checks.
Not only are credit cards giving an empty promise to the payee, they are giving an empty promise about Future Events! You are, in essence, telling someone, when you give them a credit card... "Not only do I not have the money here with me, I dont even have it at my bank. However, in the future, I will have the money, somewhere, and I promise Ill get it to you!"
This is made possible by something called a credit card company, which is like a super bank, but much better, because it does not require any mannequins or tellers to run it. And it still makes money, without working!