Good Math, Bad Math

This was posted on slashdot, and forwarded to me by several readers. It’s worth listening to the first few minutes to get an idea of just how pathetically inummerate many people are. It might also help convince you to stay the hell away from *any* service provided by Verizon; my experience with them suggests that this is absolutely typical.

The basic story is that the guy who recorded this took a trip to Canada. Before he left, he checked with Verizon about how much it would cost him to use his cellphone for internet access during his trip, and was told that it cost 0.002 *cents* per kilobyte. But when the bill arrived, they charged him 0.002 *dollars* per kilobyte – 100 times the quoted rate. He then embarked on an odyssey of stupidity, trying to get someone at Verizon to acknowledge the fact that there is a *difference* between 0.002 dollars, and 0.002 cents.

[Go. Listen. Be amazed.][verizon]



  1. #1 Neil
    December 9, 2006

    They should outsource this call-centre to Bangalore. At least an Indian would understand basic arithmetic.

  2. #2 coturnix
    December 9, 2006

    This is so frustrating!!!!!

    Especially teh very last few seconds: “It’s a difference in opinion!” WTF!?

  3. #3 coturnix
    December 9, 2006

    Oh, and the last one, the woman, could not imagine the amount UNLESS such a physical coin really existed – she said there is no such THING (as in “object”) as 0.002 dollars!

  4. #4 mtraven
    December 9, 2006

    That guy lasted about 100 times longer than I would have in the face of such monumental stupidity.

  5. #5 Mark
    December 9, 2006

    I cannot believe this guy’s patience.

    How would you write half a cent as a dollar amount?

    I don’t know, I’m not a mathematician


  6. #6 Mark
    December 9, 2006

    The fustrating thing about this whole ordeal is that obviously none of these people would have been hired if they didn’t know how to read and write. As shown here in painful clarity, a complete inability to understand basic mathmatical concepts is just as bad, if not worse.

  7. #7 cooper
    December 9, 2006

    Wow. This is really breathtaking.

  8. #8 Lee
    December 9, 2006

    That is one of the most infuriatingly funny things I have ever heard.

    I suspect that the Verizon reps are looking at, on their screen:


    and verbally translating that to “.002 cents.” Obviously, digits to the right of the decimal point are cents, right?

    It seems that Verizon has now offered to credit him $36 of the ~ $72 they billed him, because of the “misunderstanding.”


  9. #9 Zeno
    December 9, 2006

    Unfortunately typical. I drove past a pizza parlor in northern California that had a big sign in its window:

    Pizza by the slice: .30¢

    Fearing that their pizza was as good as their math, I didn’t give it a try.

  10. #10 vince
    December 9, 2006


    This reminds me how someone overheard a couple at a grocery store. They were buying vegetables. She was just about to close the bag with a knot before weighing when the man stopped her.

    Man: “Don’t make that knot. It will weigh more.”

    Woman: “Oh! Good point! What on earth was I thinking.”

  11. #11 Todd Adamson
    December 9, 2006

    What’s really sad, is this guy is quite likely the first person to actually complain to Verizon about their billing. How many Verizon customers are just as clueless as the customer reps?

  12. #12 AJS
    December 9, 2006

    That is sad.

    I’ve also seen somebody work out a figure (in pounds) on a calculator as “5.2”, and assume it meant “five pounds and two pence”. I stopped her and pointed out her mistake, but I wonder how often she had done this sort of thing before?

  13. #13 Karl
    December 9, 2006

    Just so you don’t think that such idiocy is restricted to Canada, or Verizon:
    1) My wife was a computer systems consultant. One of the input clerks was having a problem. My wife asked her to explain and demonstrate what the problem was. At a certain point the lady said “I move the decimal point over two places”. My wife said “OH, OK you’re dividing by 100”. The lady said “No, I’m just moving the decimal point over”.
    2) We wanted to buy venetian blinds for a window. We went to a store that will cut them to order if you give them the size. I didn’t know what kind of precision they needed on the size, so I asked “Do you want that measurement to the nearest half inch, or quarter inch?”. The lady replied blithely “To the nearest fraction”.
    These people get to vote for who should run the country.

  14. #14 Michele
    December 10, 2006

    Ahh, those pesky decimals! That guy had an incredible amount of patience to keep trying to get Verizon to understand the difference.

    I paid for a $8.45 purchase at the neighborhood bakery with a $20 bill. The guy rang up the purchase but didn’t hit the button that tells him how much change to give. He didn’t know how to figure out the correct change to give so he started to use a calculator. The owner came over and told him how much to give me and even counted it out. The poor cashier just stood there looking bewildered. The owner said, “I just do it the old fashioned way. I don’t count on the cash register.”

  15. #15 Stephen
    December 10, 2006

    While the story MC-C posted is pathetic, I have been on the other side of the stories coming up in the comments. I had been working a register for 8 hours at an office supply store on the sunday before high schools started and my brain had shut down. There was a line to the back of the store. Some guy gave me a $20 bill for a $15 and change purchase and I rung it up. Once the register had popped open and the change amount displayed on the screen, he came up with a quarter that he wanted me to take. I hesitated because I didn’t immediately see an advantage, and he scoffed. “You must’ve gone to a public school,” he said. I should have told him I was a semester away from my physics degree.

  16. #16 doctorgoo
    December 10, 2006

    Not too long ago I was at a local shop and I purchased something that cost $9.86. I tried pay with a $10 bill, a dime and a penny. The cashier gave me a look like I was stupid or something, gave me my coins back and then promptly gave me 14 cents change.

    She just didn’t understand the concept that I wanted a quarter back as change.

  17. #17 Patness
    December 10, 2006

    The guys at one service provider, when I lived in Ontario, had an internal scuffle over the fact they bought out a contractor in Quebec. My internet, satellite and phone were out. I phoned Bell and got a tech sent to my house. He apparently walked up to the door, put a slip in my mailbox (which said I wasn’t home) and left. I phoned 7 times. The last time I got a guy named Mike who explained what was going on. I get my internet back last. Now the fun starts. I proceed to call the service provider.

    I’m on the phone for 2 hours. I talk to billing, they bounce me to the internet dept. I say that their contractors destroyed my service and set me back about a grand in consequent costs. They offer me 3 weeks of internet. I want more; the supervisor gets called in, and she immediately says that they don’t cover “residential downtime”, but she doesn’t “know exactly what [downtime] means”. She went on to explain the specific legal terms and tried to tell me repeatedly that I wasn’t covered. I brought up that it was a contractor, not a service outage, that caused this, until they said “that has nothing to do with the agreement!” to which I replied “There. Exactly. That means it’s [i]not bound by[/i] the terms of the agreement.”

    I thought it was obvious. I still might be wrong, but it blows my mind how much work I had to put into explaining it. Let’s face it though – the people that work those jobs stay there for a reason.

  18. #18 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 10, 2006

    I’ve actually had a cashier tell me: “I can’t give you change right now. The cash register is down.”

    I discussed this with Steve Allen, the last time I saw him alive, while he was promoting his book “Dumbth.” His book gave examples such as that, since he traveled extensively and usually relied on Room Service for meals, he once phoned the kitchen and asked: “What is the Soup de Jour.”

    One time the kitchen staffer said: “Hold on, I’ll check with the chef.”

    Then the kitchen phoned back and announced: “The Soup de Jour that you asked about? It’s the Soup of the Day.”

    See also the thread at
    about the decline of Apple’s Tech Service coinciding with their so-called “Genius Bar”, and the thread at slashdot about EarthLink losing up to 90% of emails, and Tech Support denying it to customers.

    My wife, a Physics professor, was shopping at a fabric store one day. A customer came up to her and asked: “This fabric says 50% off, and it’s $2 per yard. How much do I have to pay for each yard?” My wife was unable to get the customer to grasp that 50% = 1/2.

  19. #19 Skemono
    December 11, 2006

    Another story for the collection.

    If only they all could have such happy endings.

  20. #20 AJS
    December 11, 2006

    Continuing the conversation about checkout staff ….. For awhile, I lived in an inexpensive neighbourhood. There was one particular cheap supermarket (rhymes with Brick Pave) where the staff were a few pennies short of a shilling.

    Thanks to the prices on the shelf edges and me providing myself with a suitable supply of change, I was able to hand over the exact amount at the checkout every time, even before the last item was scanned.

    This had a profound effect on the checkout girls, who had never seen anything like it! They thought I was psychic or something ….. When I was asked how I did it, I just tried to give a knowing smile.

    Also, I work in a business that provides estimates for double glazing, and you should see the number of people who don’t seem to “get” that 10mm. = 1cm.

    Is it any coincidence that this apparent decline in mathematical proficiency has come about since idiot-calculators started appearing everywhere?

  21. #21 Vince Hurtig
    December 11, 2006

    This all reminds of the joke about the mathematician who saw strawberries advertised at .89 cents per pound and got thrown out of the store when he insisted on buying 10 pounds of them for $.09.

  22. #22 Bubba
    December 11, 2006

    So, is 1 KB equivalent to 1000 bytes or 1024 bytes?


  23. #23 Troublesome Frog
    December 11, 2006

    The fustrating thing about this whole ordeal is that obviously none of these people would have been hired if they didn’t know how to read and write. As shown here in painful clarity, a complete inability to understand basic mathmatical concepts is just as bad, if not worse.

    This is an interesting point about American society in general. One of my economics professors once said:

    This is one of the few societies that produces engineers and technology on one hand and on the other hand, educated people can just say, “Math isn’t my thing. I just don’t do it.” If I were to say, “I have a PhD in economics, but I can’t read. Shakespeare? Never read him. Books? Not so much. It just confuses me and makes my head hurt,’ people would look at me like I was crazy and the school that I went to would lose its accreditation. On the other hand, I know professors around here who can’t do fractions or deal with percentages, and it’s totally acceptable. What’s wrong with us?”

  24. #24 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 11, 2006


    1 kB = 1000 byte, 1 KiB = 1024 byte ( ). (Plural bytes is for non-Si folks, K for k as well.)

  25. #25 rajesh
    December 12, 2006

    i can comprehend my 4 year old nephew what exactly it is all about…O boy

  26. #26 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 12, 2006

    Kilo, mega, well… let me connect that with the golden ratio. I submitted this sequence about 3 weeks ago the the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, and never heard back. I’m thinking that it might have been rejected for silliness. But, if you can ignotre the internal formatting of OEIS submissions:

    NEW SEQUENCE FROM Jonathan Vos Post

    %I A000001
    %S A000001 1, 1618, 1656, 1618033, 1696631, 1618033988, 1737350766,
    1618033988749, 1737350766374, 1618033988749894, 1779047184767290,
    1618033988749894848, 1821744317201705938
    %N A000001 Kilophi, kibiphi, megaphi, mebiphi, gigaphi, gibiphi and
    their ilk.
    %C A000001 A001622 Decimal expansion of golden ratio phi (or tau)
    = (1 + sqrt 5 )/2 = 1.618033988749894848204586834…
    As detailed in Weisstein: “Unfortunately, there is some ambiguity in the meanings of the prefixes kilo-, mega-, etc., when applied to units of information. This arose historically out of the fact that , so
    “kilobyte” was used to mean 2^10 = 1024 ~ 1000 bytes, “megabyte” to mean 2^20 =
    1048576 bytes, etc. However, such usage is now deprecated in favor of the usual SI unit prefixes, and a special set of prefixes have been invented for binary powers of information units.”
    %H A000001 Eric W. Weisstein, Byte.From
    MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.
    %F A000001
    a(n) = floor(c(n)*(1 + sqrt 5)/2) = floor(c(n)*phi) where
    c(n) are the sorted values of the prefixes for certain powers of 2 and certain powers of 10, associated with the suffix “byte.”
    %e A000001 a(0) = 1 because floor(1*phi) = floor(1.618…) = 1,
    associated with the null prefix, as in just plain “byte.”
    a(1) = 1618 because floor(1000*phi) = floor(1618.0339887…) = 1618,
    associated with the prefix “kilo” in its original Greek meaning.
    a(2) = 1656 because floor(1024*phi) = floor(1656.8668044288…) = 1656,
    which is a kilophi in the strained vernacular of computers, although in
    SI terms more properly the rounded-down value of a kibiphi.
    a(3) = 1618033 because floor(1000000*phi) = floor(1618033.9887…) =
    1618033, associated with the prefix “mega” in its original Greek meaning.
    a(4) = 1696631 because floor(1024*1024*phi) =
    floor(1696631.6077350912…) = 1696631, which is associated with the prefix “mega” in the strained vernacular of computers, in SI terms more properly the rounded-down
    value of a mebiphi.
    a(5) = 1618033988 because floor((10^9)*phi) =
    floor(1618033988.749894848204586834…) = 1618033988, associated with the prefix “giga” in its
    “original” Greek meaning.
    a(6) = 1737350766 because floor(1024*1024*1024*phi) =
    floor(1737350766.374307574119396192305545216…) = 1737350766, which is associated with
    the prefix “giga” in the strained vernacular of computers, in SI terms
    more properly the rounded-down value of a gibiphi.
    a(7) = 1618033988749 because floor((10^12)*phi) =
    floor(1618033988749.894848204586834…) = 1618033988749, which is associated with the prefix
    “tera” in its “original” Greek meaning.
    a(8) = 1737350766374 because floor((2^40)*phi) =
    floor(1737350766374.307574119396192305545216…) = 1737350766374, which is associated with
    the prefix “tera” in the strained vernacular of computers, in SI terms
    more properly the rounded-down value of a tebiphi.
    a(9) = 1618033988749894 because floor((10^15)*phi) =
    floor(1618033988749894.848204586834…) = 1618033988749894, which is associated with the
    prefix “peta” in its “original” Greek meaning.
    a(10) = 1779047184767290 because floor((2^50)*phi) =
    floor(1779047184767290.9558982617013229016436919238656) = 1779047184767290, which is
    associated with the prefix “peta” in the strained vernacular of computers,
    in SI terms more properly the rounded-down value of a pebiphi.
    a(11) = 1618033988749894848 because floor((10^18)*phi) =
    floor(1618033988749894848.204586834…) = 1618033988749894848, which is associated
    with the prefix “exa” in its “original” Greek meaning.
    a(12) = 1821744317201705938 because floor((2^60)*phi) =
    floor(1821744317201705938.8398199821546512831405300383744) = 1821744317201705938,
    which is associated with the prefix “exa” in the strained vernacular of
    computers, in SI terms more properly the rounded-down value of a exbiphi.
    %Y A000001 Cf. A001622.
    %O A000001 0,2
    %K A000001 ,base,easy,nonn,word,
    %A A000001 Jonathan Vos Post (, Nov 26 2006

  27. #27 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 12, 2006

    Or maybe it was rejected because of the failure to close the HTML of the hotlink to MathWorld. Mark, can you fix that, or should I try to resubmit to your blog?

  28. #28 Mr.B
    December 16, 2006


    Those ppl have to build upon their basics….ve to start from kinder garden…..better they go to a schl where they teach frm .0001 and upwards….

    BTW… did u get ur money bac??? or did da company ve same kinda people all over????

    P.S. I laughed da hell out when da manager said “we have a difference in opinion”…hehehehehehe


  29. #29 nancy brownlee
    December 17, 2006

    “These people would not have been hired if they could not read and write.” Really? You must live in another universe than mine… I work in a college, in a low-level service position, but I am the only person on campus who is paid for her writing. I am freelance features journalist. I know dozens of college teachers who haven’t read a book since they left school. I regularly receive written communications from teachers and administrators which is semi-literate; that is, misspelled, written in fragments, and punctuated at random. I daily receive phone calls from teachers to inform me that they’ve just sent me an email.I have had dozens of student clients who could not write a coherant sentence, and two who mispelled their own names. Innumeracy is a terrible problem, but non-literacy (as distinguished from illiteracy)is certainly as common. Rampant dumbassedness is hardly confined to a single area of human culture.

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