Friday, July 13, 2007

The Nature of Sparkly Dresses
My 4 year old daughter was watching the Disney Cinderalla movie. I asked her why Cinderella's dress sparkled. She told me, "It's because the fairy gottamer bipetty-bopittied her with her wand and made her dress sparkle."

Smashed Bird
I was standing in the median of 300 West, waiting to cross the south-bound side before entering the building where I work. Traffic was busier than normal. While I was waiting I saw a bird fall into the street three or four feet from where I was standing. It's a strange thing to see a bird fall. It was in my peripheral vision, so I thought it was a falling leaf- it was spinning and falling slower than denser things might.

I'm not sure why I didn't just assume it was a leaf and ingore it. But when it hit the ground I looked at it. It was in the lane nearest me, sitting pretty much right where it needed to be to get run over by the driver's side wheels of the oncoming traffic. It wasn't laying on the ground like a dead bird. It was standing, or maybe crouching. But it wasn't moving, so I wasn't sure if it was alive. After all, why would a living bird fall into a busy street?

The outer edge of the tires of the first car that passed missed the bird by what seemed like less than an inch. That's when I knew it was alive because after the car had passed it hopped away from where the tires had been. That's also when I decided that it wasn't flying away because it was probably too young to know how to fly well. At least, that's the best guess I could come up with. Another car passed, again just missing the bird. The next car was closer to the median. When it drove by the bird was in bewteen it's wheels. The bird took a hop or two closer to the median, then sat still.

It occurred to me that I could pick the bird up and move it out of harm's way. I felt some pitty for it, given the imminent distaster presented by the situation. Unfortunately for the bird, its well-being held little sway when I weighed it against my own. To be able to pick the bird up I would have to step out into busy traffic. True, there were breaks in the traffic that would have given me enough time to do it. But only just barely. If I were to misplace my grip, or if the bird were to hop out of my reach, I probably woudln't have enough time to try again before having to jump back out of the way of the traffic.

There was a part of me that continued considering whether or not to try to save the bird. But that part of me was quickly shouted down by another, more practical part that asked me to consider what would happen to the bird after I moved it out of the road. "That bird doesn't even have the sense to move out of the way when faced with imminent doom" it said. "Even if you were to get it into the median without getting yourself killed, what then? It can't fly and it's survival instinct seems to be malfunctioning. It won't last two days after you leave. If it doesn't get smashed or eaten by a cat it will die of starvation or dehydration. You'll have risked your life to extend this miserable creature's life by a few extra hours or days."

As this argument was meandering through my brain cars continued driving by, each time missing the bird by just a few inches. The traffic thinned a little. Then I saw the vehicle that would kill it. It was a dump truck. The kind with those tires that are 12 inches wide. From a hundred feet away I could tell that those tires were going to roll right over top of the bird. They did.

If this were a novel maybe I would describe the sound the bird's body made when it was smashed as 'sickening' or something to like that. But it wasn't sickening. It made one quick snapping noise. If I had heard it out of context I might have thought it was the sound of a single packing bubble getting popped. Then, instead of being a normal greyish-brown bird shape, it was a flat, indistinguishable greyish-brown and pink shape. A gap in the traffic big enough for me to run across the street opened up, so I ran.

Definition Correction
Am I the only one who thinks it would be a little bit foolish to correct a highly renowned professional author on the proper use of a particular word? I mean, wouldn't that sort of be like walking into a mechanic's shop while he's rebuilding a carbeurator and telling him he's using the wrong tool for the job? Who am to tell an auto-mechanic how to do his job? But what if the mechanic were using a dentist's sickle probe to scrape carbon off the carbeurator? And what if I were a dentist? Maybe then it wouldn't be so foolish for me to tell him that he wasn't really using the tool the way it was meant to be used.

I've pretty much given up on tyring to make people think I'm not a fool, and I don't think I'll be returning to the practice any time soon. I'm a pretty regular reader of Orson Scott Card's blogs. In the May 27 edition of Uncle Orson Reviews Everything he discusses the challenges of producing audiobooks. He says that when the market for a particular title isn't very big, the costs of recording the audiobook have to be "amortized over only a few hundred or a few thousand sets of tapes." Now, given his status as a highly renowned professional author, and my status as not-an-author-at-all, I normally wouldn't even consider correcting him on the use of a word. But I am an accountant, so I do know that when it is used in an accounting context, the word amortize has a very specific meaning. It's not the word he should have used. He should have used allocate. Or he could have said spread over.

He's talking about a manufacturing scenario that accounting students are introduced to in their fist year of study. He's refering to the fact that when someone produces a tangible product (e.g.- audiobooks) there are certain 'up front' costs (actually, the term is fixed costs) that do not fluctuate as the rate of production changes. In this particular scenario the cost of recording the audio book is a fixed cost. It doesn't matter how many copies of the audiobook the producer decides to make; the cost of recording remains the same. To make a profit the producer has to pass those costs on to the customer. The amount of the cost borne by the customer is inversely related to the number of units produced and sold to the customer. In other words, the more audiobooks you sell, the less each customer has to pay for the cost of recording the audiobook because that cost is allocated to the individual audiobooks in an increasingly smaller (how's that for poor word choice) amount as the number of audiobooks increases. It's like spreading a fixed amount of butter over slices of bread. If you have one stick of butter and one slice of bread, you'll have a whole lot of butter on your bread. But if you're trying to spread that stick over ten loaves worth of sliced bread, the butter will be spread so thin you might not even notice it's there.

Amortization is what happens when a company purchases an intangible asset (as opposed to incurring production costs) such as a patent, or a copyright. The cost of the purchase doesn't hit the bottom line all at once. Instead, accountants try to match that cost to the benefits the asset provides during the entire time it's used by the company. So we recognize a little bit of the cost in each time period (month, quarter, year, etc.) that the asset is used by the company. This process is called amortization.

So Mr. Card, if you ever read this, I hope this criticism is as constructive as I meant it to be, and I hope I don't seem as pretentious as I sound to myself.

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