Friday, August 20, 2010

Hope and change.

When did people become unable to make change?

The bill at the taco joint was $26.71; Gunsmith Bob handed the (obviously new and overwhelmed) cashier a pair of twenties and, instead of punching in "four-zero-double zero-cash", she just hit "cash". This caused the drawer to pop open without the register displaying the amount of change she needed to make, and so she just stood there like a duck in thunder.

We'd be standing there still if I hadn't leaned forward and said "Thirteen dollars and twenty-nine cents."

I'm no math whiz. I can understand having trouble with quadratic equations or needing to grab a pad and pen for long division, but come on! This is basic arithmetic! This is third grade stuff!

Once upon a time I used to get upset when folks would slow the line down by using a debit card and therefore needing to punch in their PIN to buy a pack of gum, but these days that's usually much quicker than waiting for an innumerate cashier to laboriously count out the change from two bucks.


Robert Langham said...

It's all over. The Republic. Government. Free expression. Manners. Belief in anything beyond your own appetite. Adult behavior. Grooming. Dress. Education. Family. Church. Nothing left but "green" lightbulbs and taxes on your cellphone..

Anonymous said...

Lack of practice.

Most cashiers let the machine tell them, hence never exercise their arithmetic "skills".

I'm guilty of it too, I'm far from innumerate, and can actually do fairly serious math, like partial differential equations and transforms, but day to day all my basic addem-all up math gets done on computers, and I have to admit I'm way out of practice doing it my head to know now many pennies are left.

Leatherwing said...

Back in the early '80s my brother was a cashier at a JewelT in Texas. The cashiers had to memorize the entire inventory and its price. They said the barcode scanners were too slow.
I think of that every time I see a grocery checker swipe a can of soup 4 times before stopping to enter the code manually. Expecting them to actually know anything about the prices would damage their self esteem.

Anonymous said...

And the clerks vote counts the same as your vote.

Boat Guy said...

Just to poke the bruise ... that cashier's vote counts (or will count) as much as ours will.
Robert Langham needs to come out to God's Country and meet some of the young folks I am priviledged to know...the Republic ain't quite "over" - though it's certainly in mortal peril.

Anonymous said...

This t'ain't new; early '70s, fresh out of Slide Rule School I got a job with a cash register outfit. First task was program a bunch of 1st gen electronic registers for a regional fast food chain. All the key buttons had pictures of the food, no numbers, and the code tables included all costs, taxes and it computed the change. Each eatery had 3 registers - one master, two slaves - and one day the power supply failed in a master. They shut that restaurant down for 6 hours until we could get a new PS installed because no one could process payments or make change.

Jeff the Baptist said...

In college, my wife worked at a pizza place with an ancient register. She hated it. I had to quiz her on how to make change.

I can do it in my head. But I've seen lots of very smart people screw up basic math like adding two two-digit numbers together. That's one of the reasons there are a lot more d20 based table-top RPG systems than percentile based ones.

Robert said...

"I think of that every time I see a grocery checker swipe a can of soup 4 times before stopping to enter the code manually. Expecting them to actually know anything about the prices would damage their self esteem."

To be fair, they have thousands of items, and on any particular day, they can have any random item on sale or not. Would be very difficult to remember all that even if it didn't change every other day beacause of the sales.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there a Twilight Zone episode where humanity forgot math entirely?

Shootin' Buddy

Leatherwing said...

JewelT is (or was) a full service grocery store. Each week, they published a 20 some-odd page of items and prices for the cashiers to memorize.

Of course, today everything has at least two prices, one with/one without the loyalty card.

aczarnowski said...

While indicative, I try not to get worked up about this one. They aren't working that job because all the good rocket scientist gigs are taken.

We call it card math and if you don't practice the skill goes away. When we played cards every night in college we were all pretty good. These days? The computers do it for me. I got other things to practice.

And hell. In today's world that cashier hasn't needed basic math since 3rd grade either. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

Twilight Zone? Am I remembering Asimov's "The Feeling of Power"???

I haven't read that stuff since the 7th grade. I thought I watched it too.

Help me, neckbeards, you're my only hope!

Shootin' Buddy

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

"Expecting them to actually know anything about the prices would damage their self esteem."

Honestly, the prices change so frequently, and the inventory is so large, that it would be unreasonable to expect them to know what any individual item costs that particular day.

"But I've seen lots of very smart people screw up basic math like adding two two-digit numbers together."

Living near in a university town, I've noticed that the higher the level of someone's math ability, the more their basic math ability seems to suffer. Engineering and (ironically) math majors actually seem to be the worst at doing basic math. It probably is from lack of practice, too - engineering students set up complex equations easily enough, but they use calculators or computers for running the actual numbers more often than not, and math majors work mostly with letters and symbols, and rarely use actual numbers, because they're more theory oriented than practical-use oriented.

It's actually kind of funny when an engineering student joins the rescue squad and you watch them try to figure out a pulse or respiration rate from a 15 second count. Sometimes you can see their lips move as they work out how to multiply by 4 (and yes, I was an engineering major when I joined, and I did the same thing, so I'm allowed to make fun of them :P ).

breda said...

Kids can't read an analog clock anymore either. Before too long, it's going to be an outmoded archaic skill, like using a rotary phone.

Bubblehead Les. said...

This clerk has to be one of those 25-30 % of every poll who think BHO is doing a great job, the economy is fine, the Gooberment needs to spend more money on the Environment and less on NASA, that the "Rich" should pay all their money in Taxes, that its okay to buy a house with Gooberment loans even though you don't make enough money to pay the Water bill, never mind the mortgage....

Home on the Range said...

I hit the dairy queen in town for an order totaling $4.04. I gave the clerk a $5 and a quarter so he could give me a dollar and only a small amount of change back.

He stared at me blankly. I finally did as you did and said.

"It's a dollar plus the difference between the quarter and four cents".

He nodded happily, getting it and proceeded to give me a dollar and seventy eight cents back.

I kept it, it was easier than explaining it.

TXGunGeek said...

Before "progress" came along and wiped out an entire section of businesses to widen the roadway, there was a BBQ joint on the south end of Austin along Ben White BLVD that had a cigar box for their cash. That's it, a cigar box. You would tell the person at the counter what you had and they would add up and calculate tax in their head and tell you how much. Then calculate change and hand it back all without even so much as a calculator or adding machine. If you wanted a receipt for business purposes, they would hand write one out for you. I took customers there as often as I could just to see the dumb look on their face as the transaction transpired.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

When I worked for a local toy and hobby chain in the '80s, we were expected to count change back to the customer. That is, if they handed us $20 for a $16.23 purchase, we started with 2 pennies to make $16.25, then three quarters to make $17.00, then three dollar bills to make $20.00.

This was primarily because the cheap so-and-so we worked for refused to join the modern age and all but one of the stores had ancient NCR mechanical cash registers. The one store had an electronic register that would calculate the change, but only because the old NCR had finally given up the ghost, and we were still expected to count the change back.

Oh, and you never put the customer's money in the register until the change was counted back. None of that "But I gave you a 20" when what they actually gave you was a 10. Had a lot of kids try that on me. Didn't work.

Then there were the socks full of pennies...that we told them to take to the bank to change. Heh. Yeah, those were the days.

Anonymous said...

"We'd be standing there still if I hadn't leaned forward and said "Thirteen dollars and twenty-nine cents."

If the cash register had said $4000 change, the cashier would have called the manager, who would have opened the safe to get the money.
I remember about 10 years ago somebody bought fast food with a $500 bill (from a color printer) with Bill Clinton's picture on it. The drive-up cashier called the manager, who made change.
They walk among us.

Anonymous said...

But..but..but.. you don't NEED math to make change. Just count up from the amount due till you get to the amount paid.


Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Oh, and if you really want to have fun with these types, try paying with a $2 bill or a $1 coin, and watch them try to puzzle out if it's real money or not.

Brad K. said...

Tam, congratulations! You have now passed that first, significant milestone. You are now officially and Old Fart.

See, Old Farts have, since I have been around, been complaining about the lack of knowledge, skill, competence, intelligence, and general common sense of the Younger Generation.

Welcome to the Next Generation Less One.

Rustmeister said...

In my day, calculators were banned from math class. Now they are mandatory.

Ian Argent said...

It's not ALL doom and gloom. I had a kid not old enough to vote count my change back to me a la Nathan and SamSam (count up from the amount due to the cash used to pay) not too long ago. Admittedly, it was at a cash-only ice-cream joint that I suspect is a family operation, but the skills aren't dead.

WV: Betty - that was probaably the kid's name

ExurbanKevin said...

I like to keep fast food clerks on their toes by handing over, say, $5.62 for an order that totals $3.75.

The look on their faces as they try to sort out what's happening is *priceless*.

Joanna said...

See, Old Farts have, since I have been around, been complaining about the lack of knowledge, skill, competence, intelligence, and general common sense of the Younger Generation.


I'm part of that generation, and I complain along those lines all the time.

I'm not sure what that makes me.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

An Old Fart wannabee :)

Scott said...

I love to pay more than the totaled price so that I can get change back in quarters, since they take up less pocket space. For example if my bill is 4.82, I will give the cashier 5.07. That really causes them to make strange faces at me. When they ask me why I did it, I just show them the quarter and tell them I was a High School math teacher at one time. I have had some of the clerks thank me and others comment that they were glad that they did not have me when they were in school.

Robert said...

"Oh, and if you really want to have fun with these types, try paying with a $2 bill or a $1 coin, and watch them try to puzzle out if it's real money or not."

Or they call the cops and have you arrested. No crap, this actually happened to a guy paying in $2 bills.

KA9VSZ said...

Tendering oddball amounts to get back laundry money (i.e. quarters)is how I minimize trips to the bank (and clean my clothes). As a bonus the clerk's glazed look is entertaining and make me feel so superior. Yes, I can be an ass.

WV: recout What the maager does whe the moey is't the right amout.'s the reason I had to comment.

Ed Rasimus said...

It goes back an incredibly long way (here I inadvertently admit to my fossilization). I was teaching academics in USAF pilot training (also IP-ing). The course was navigation and the students were all college graduates and AF officers.

Teaching them a circular slide rule which all pilots used in the days pre-GPS, we would do time/speed/distance and hey would offer the most outrageous answers. If you speed is 300 knots, how far can you go in twenty minutes? Duh, 480 miles wouldn't be the answer. Apply common sense? Guesstimate before locking on to the slide rule? Nah, too tough.

Today we've got little icons of Big Macs and Happy Meals on the cash register keys instead of numbers.

Eck! said...

Ah Ed, I hold my E6B dear, is relaiable.
And my K&E lumber.

I'm an engineer, I do arithmetic math is for the physics weenies.

It's not hard just means you have to exercise the gray cells.


Anonymous said...

Bend over in front of mirror, locate stick, pull it out. The cashier was probably nervous and worried about messing up the till count at the end of the night. The fact that people still exhibit shock and awe over poor service at restaurants that a. serve food that is 1 part food 10 parts chemical b. designed to be served to you in under 5 minutes c. pays it's employees minimum wage and doesn't allow them to accept tips is ridiculous. Trust me, the 30 seconds stolen from you by that cashier is nothing compared to the years stolen from you by consuming Taco Bell and stressing over something so inadequate as a fast food employees counting skills.

Anonymous said...

Where have you been? I've seen the same thing for the last 20 years... It drives my wife (an accountant) nuts. If there's no one behind me I let them figure it out on their own... I swear I've seen smoke coming out of their ears as they try to do the calculation in their heads.

Boris said...

I'm not going to lie. I've always been horrible at simple math. That being said, my 2 years at a gas station taught me everything I needed to know about counting back change. The current situation is less a function of the schools and parents and more of one of the distinct ability of kids to not give a crap.

Ed Foster said...

On layout problems, I still do the trig in my head, just to stay sharp. Ed R. hit the nail right on the head when he mentioned guesstimation before jumping on the sliderule.

When we left sliderules we lost a lot. The rule gave you the answer, but you had to carry the multiplier in your head, so you had an idea of scale, an automatic guesstimate that let you know if you were in the ballpark.

With a calculator it is suprisingly easy to GIGO a number and not know it until it's time to tear down a lot of work and start over.

Take a look at the first piece inspection department in any good sized machine shop (I've run several in the last 30 some-odd years). A guy brings in a new piece, or a previously manufactured part nobody's run in a couple of years.

He makes a first cut, and wants to know how close he is, where he is from blueprint datums, how much he has to correct in each axis, how his finish is. Lets say he's turning a $4,000 forging into a $14,000 aircraft part.

If first piece screws up and the machinist makes 40 pieces of crap, a week's expensive machining time is lost, and the company has to shell out $120,000 to the forging house to get replacements.

If the part had been made before, in numbers sufficient to justify developing and freezing the process, there will be notation the in-process inspector can use to prevent the cluster from happening, hopefully before too many parts are ruined.

With a new part, the almost always desperately overworked in-process people will usually go with the numbers they get from engineering, especially if they agree with what the first piece guys came up with.

You have to line up two or three human errors at the same time, but when it happens it ain't pretty. I've seen 3 months of corporate net profit go out the window in one "Oh Shit!" moment.

And this is with people who use numbers all day for a living, with each number translating to a three dimensional position in space, pixels in a picture they're building.

Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to work with a "Paper Engineer", someone who can't build a three dimensional picture of the part in his or her mind and rotate it, who can't visualize the changes needed to finish or correct a part?

I take a calculated gamble every morning on the way to work. I burned out on caffeine years ago, after a dozen or more mugs a day of stuff you could use to peel paint (Navy family).

I also can't have sugar (hypoglycemic), so I go with Equal because it doesn't taste like plastic.

So I hit the McDonald's just off the highway for whatever the 2 for $3 special is and chuck the bread, and I ask for a large decaf with 4 creams and three equal.

Sometimes I get decaf, sometimes regular. Sometimes equal, sometimes sugar. I also often get 3creams and 4 equal, or cream and no sweetener at all.

On average, I stop at the Hartford Dunkin' Donuts twice a week, hand them a full McDonald's large to dump, and get one of theirs.

I figure the price differential while I'm driving, and it comes out just about equal. More money at Dunkin', more mistakes at McDonald. I don't know why McDonald's is a bit worse than Burger King and much worse than Dunkin'. Maybe they make up in volume and good location what they lose in ticked off customers?

Small things, but they keep me amused during a long drive.

Addendum: another thing we lost with the demise of slide rule was "rounding up". Rather than squinting to the smallest alignment on the vernier scale, we would always round up in the most conservative direction, thus making everything a tad safer with every iteration. Remember, we went to the moon on sliderules.

Tam (remotely) said...

Anon 3:09,

Wrong. Thank you for playing, though.

The meat was cooked right there; part of the change was consumed by the tip. You can have your Taco Bell.

og said...

I once bought a carton of smokes in Spartanburg SC. It was $12.47. I gave the cashier a twenty, two ones, and two quarters.

Big mistake.

I had to explain to her what I wanted.

She thought I was trying to con her

She ended up getting the store manager

Who called the police.

Who didn't understand. Finally, I had to let her make the change for the twenty, and then I gave her back the seven dollars, four quarters, and two singles to get a ten. The police took the three cents from me and gave it to the store manager, who still swore they were being swindled. They made me leave my address and phone number in case their books didn't balance at the end of the day, and the cops followed me back to the hotel. This was thirty years ago. I'm confident things have not improved.

Brian Dunbar said...

When? Well before I started working fast food in 1982. So .. before that.

I figure it took about two micro-seconds for employee math skill to deteriorate once they discovered the 'change' button on cash registers.

Mine might have atrophied as well - except my boss (my aunt - hail nepotism!) refused to let me use the thing until I could demonstrate proficiency at counting back change without it.

Joanna said...

The price should have been a clue for Anon; $26.71 is enough Taco Bell to feed you, your friend, all your friend's friends and everyone they went to school with from ninth grade on.

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

With a calculator it is suprisingly easy to GIGO a number and not know it until it's time to tear down a lot of work and start over."

Or until you've crashed a multi-million dollar lander into Mars.

8Notch said...


Last year I stopped at a Hardies and payed with a five. The clerk entered it, hit the button and the register opened up. After she struggled for over 30 seconds I realized that the problem was not the amount of change, but she could not add up the total number of coins in the appropriate denominations.

In comparison, just after hiring on with the railroad I rode with an oldhead engineer one night in a dense fog. Visibility was under 10 feet. He knew the territory so well that he ran the trip going 40 mph and used a stopwatch to calculate the distance between road crossings so that he could sound the horn.

Hammerbach said...

Careful about the use of $2 bills...

Anonymous said...

I was talking with a co-worker today, and he mentioned that his son was starting high school. His son had to change to a different class, because he was a "low maintaince" student. They balance the classes by some putting students that require less attention with the one that require more, the better students are expected to wait quietly while the rest "catch up", That is just plain sad.

Billy Beck said...

"Things are going to slide,
Slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore"

(Leonard Cohen -- "The Future")

Brad K. said...

@ Ed Rasimus,

I work part time at a local theater. I had to wait to get promoted, to get privileges, to enter the price directly if there wasn't already a button with the price or discount. Seems like low employee expectations on the bozo setting up the computers (they are closing the theater Sept 6 - it only has two screens, and Digital Hollywood doesn't want to trifle with such a small operation - or maybe the bozos with low expectations are getting what they look for?)

@ Ed Foster,

A word of caution. The clerk trying to count change was likely born since Garbage In means Garbage Out (GIGO) was popular. I wouldn't wonder if IBM sales people didn't come up with that for an excuse why their computers didn't make money for their customers. I was told that IBM defined the word "feature" as "a bug we are not going to fix." Not to say the old school IBM, before the IBM PC came out, was a touch arrogant - but the sales people refused to talk to engineers, or anyone below vice president.

And, yes, my first Assembler quiz was to copy off the contents of three (with no printing on them) IBM punched cards, reading the punches and remembering the punch code table. My first Fortran course used mark-sense "punch" cards, that we used a #2 pencil to mark the "punches". IBM System 360, anyone? DEC PDP-11 RSTS/E? VT100 terminal?

@ Joanna,

What I mean about "Old Fart", is that we are old enough to understand that what we are familiar with, is brand new and often intimidating for young people entering the work force, or for people in unfamiliar tasks.

But we don't realize we are that old, yet. We still think of everyone around us as being just as skilled, as leavened with common sense, and experienced as we are - they just made a mistake. Or they are an idiot.

Wisdom comes after recognizing Old Fart presumptions. Sometimes. There are a lot of idiots out there, you know.

karrde said... Calculus prof once told me a story (after a short chat about class-related stuff in the office).

Prof had gone to the restaurant, picked out a food item, and seen the bill (plus tax) come to $3.59. He paid with a $20.

As the clerk counted out change, he said "that's interesting." Prof looked at it, and said "yes, that's interesting."

Then he took his food out to the eatery area and sat down.

What was interesting?

dr mac said...

The dumbing down of America.

Tam said...


His change was a ten, a five, a one, a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny. :)

Eric said...

Its funny, the spelling and grammar errors in the comments complaining about math...

Anonymous said...

i love to torture these 'tards' by telling them the total before the machine does...
they stare at me like i have two heads...
howjudodatmuddafugga? is the most common response i get...

the liberals have achieved the quality of voter they desire...

Tam said...


"Its [sic] funny, the spelling and grammar errors..."

I believe you meant "it's". ;)

Brad K. said...


as the Internet continues to redefine the language, there are actually some "authorities" that decided remembering the apostrophe in the contraction "it is" -> it's, but not in the possessive its, is too hard. So just drop the apostrophe for both. Really.

I am still stumbling over losing the second space after a period at the end of a sentence. *sigh* The story on that one goes, that with monospace typewriters, the period-space-space construct was needed to make the end-of-sentence visible, to make it stand out and be noticed. Now, with modern typography and 72 dbi view screens, why that isn't needed at all. Except I still think the first rules I learned apply - and use the double spaces between sentences.

If Eric is of the current under-thirty generation, he likely got the "new" rule on the "it is" contraction. That, or he just confused the punctuation for "belongs to it" with the contraction "it is". Or maybe just never learned there is a difference. Call me an Old Fart, I guess.

Brian Dunbar said...

@ Brad K.
IBM System 360, anyone? DEC PDP-11 RSTS/E? VT100 terminal?

Haven't seen a VT100 terminal in years. But I'm using VT100 emulation daily to talk to my Solaris hosts. So many things are just easier that way.

Ed Foster said...

Eric, engineering students used to pride themselves in deliberately getting a "Gentleman's C" in any of the "Fuzzy Sciences", and concentrate on the real stuff.

Valedictory Address at M.I.T.: "Yesterday ah couldn't spell en-gin-ear, an tuhday ah are one". "Hyuk".

Anonymous said...

meh -

The last cash register I used was in the back of the parts department at the Honda shop I raced out of back in 1983. And it was an antique then!

It had keys like a typewriter with little numbers on them - 19c, 29c, 39c, 49c, etc, up to 99c, then another set in bill denominations - $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100.

Here's how it worked. You punched down all the keys that added up to the price of the first item, then reached up to the right hand side of the register and pulled down a big lever - just like the ones on the one-armed bandits in 'Vegas. You repeated this exercise for each item being purchased. When you finished tallying the damages, you hit the 'sub-total' key, and pulled the arm again, and read off the amount. Then you grabbed the current tax chart, looked up the gubmint take, and punched all the necessary keys for that number, and then hit the 'total' key, and pulled the arm down one final time. The till popped open, you put the customer's money on top of the ledge in front of the till, and started counting up from the bill amount towards the amount the customer gave you, starting with the smallest change needed and working your way from left to right up the till until you reached the amount the customer had proffered.

Bet that old register is worth a fortune right now on the antique market.


Justthisguy said...

I remember, way back when, using a pretty good balance to weigh the various U.S. coins, so as to determine their monetary value versus mass. It turned out that quarters and dimes were pretty much the same on that ratio. Nickels and pennies were really bad on value/mass. I then decided to (when paying attention) have no more than one nickel and four one-cent pieces in my pocket.

I have found that my pockets have lasted longer after I made that decision.

Justthisguy said...

Ed, that reminds me of the story about the Princeton grad meeting the Ga. Tech guy on the train: "I saw your class ring when you picked your nose."

Justthisguy said...

Brad, I learned to type on mechanical typewriters as a kid. I _always_ hit the space bar twice after typing a period.

Oh, and what's this asterisk thing! An apostrophe is capital 8!

And also double dammit, where is the "cent" key?

Atom Smasher said...

Mall cookie kiosk 10 years ago, great place to unload a couple of Susan Bs, I figure. Young chickie behind the counter holds them in her hand like the scorpions they are. I offer "sorry, I thought I'd unload a couple of Susan B's on you." She scoots back to check with her manager, he checks them, nods. She comes back, rings up, offers "Sorry, I'm only used to American money."

Justthisguy said...

I prefer the Squawbucks to the Suzy Bs.

Crustyrusty said...

Oh hell, punctuation went out the window when texting became popular....

mikee said...

I give the clerks one chance to correct errors in my favor, by asking something like, "Are you sure that is the correct change?"

If they are sure, I keep it.

If the error is not in my favor, I ask more than once. Until they get it at least correct.

Anonymous said...

Justthisguy: as to mass = value...

Of possible interest to many here who see the wisdom and potential necessity of holding some silver and gold, is that commercial buyers and sellers of US silver coins, though they figure at a multiple of face value (my shipment to my refiner this week included $75 of '64 and earlier dimes, quarter, and halves for which I was paid 12.4 X FV, $1.24 for each dime, etc.), the actual silver value is based on the fact that each dollar of face value regardless of mix of denominations, equals 25 grams of 90% silver.

A very slight variation can exist when weighing larger amounts due to coin wear, but my $75 weighed within 4 grams, an insignificant difference, and I was paid $930 for them. This saves a ton of time separating the coins and counting them out either manually or on electric coin counters.

As to the "Squawbucks", you would not believe how many otherwise intelligent people bring these brassy-toned abominations in expecting to be paid for their "gold value". Ignorance knows no age or class bounds.

But imagine the confusion on the face of Tam's cashier when she is handed five Franklin halves and tries to figure the change...and it might come to that.


Ed Skinner said...

Try this: Give them enough bills to cover the purchase PLUS all the loose change in your pocket/purse.