Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

un... believable

This is by far, the most absurd customer support call I have ever heard. Of all the dumb, annoying, customer support people I've talked to on the phone, this makes any difficulties I've had seem utterly trivial. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the depths of math illiteracy of Verizon Wireless:


The remix, to the tune of Pink Floyd's Money:

What really gets me about this is that, not only do they not seem to understand the difference between dollars and cents, but every time he explains it to them (which he does again, and again, and again in as clear and simple and patient language as possible), it's like they just go blank and right when you think they're going to have an "aha! I see what you're saying" moment, they go right back to repeatedly and explicitly denying that dollars per kilobyte is not the same thing as cents per kilobyte! I could understand if they made the mistake once or twice... but how can they just keep denying basic facts about currency? Are they trained by company policy to play dumb in order to scam people delibrately? Or are they really this incapable of understanding currency and decimals? This is literally 3rd grade math (http://www.aaamath.com/grade3.html -- I looked up the grade level on the web, because I thought I might be going crazy here). In the US, as early as 1st grade, you're supposed to know how to write down a dollar and cents amount without confusing the cents with the dollars. In order to pass 3rd grade, every child (typically about 8 years old) is supposed to know what a decimal is, and the difference between a tenth, a hundredth, and a thousandth. (I assume the situation is similar in other countries, but with different currencies.) All 4 of the Verizon Wireless customer service reps he talks to (the last 2 of which are in the mp3 here) repeatedly argued with him again and again when he tried to explain 3rd grade math to them. Each one he talked to, instead of finally agreeing with him, becomes more and more insistent that units don't matter in calculating an amount. One of them even says "it's a matter of opinion."

What is going on with this society we live in... do people take 3rd grade, and then somehow pass 4th thru 12th grade without understanding decimals? Or do they pass them all understanding them, and then forget it after they get their first job? The weirdest part of the conversation is when the big boss, the manager, says "I don't agree that .002 dollars is different from .002 cents, because there's no such thing as .002 dollars." This is where I start to think they are just putting him on in order to cover their asses after conning people into signing up for their service and then charging them 100 times their advertised price... WTF?!?

Poll #885650 verizonmath

So what do you think? Are they:

playing dumb (to cover up their deliberate fraud)
not understanding or not listening to the words he's saying
actually do not know what a dollar or a cent is
actually do not know what a decimal or a fraction is

I have been leaning towards A, but I have been known to overestimate people's math skills in the past (although I can't recall ever having run across this extreme a case of math illiteracy), perhaps due to being around math and science people most of my life. While I can understand confusing the two momentarily in casual conversation if you're not used to using decimals for your job, I have a really tough time buying that they are sincere here by the end, after he's gone over it so many times. This is what I mean when I say that sometimes you can have conversations with people and all of a sudden they will just say nonsensical things. Computers fail current Turing tests once they say non sequiturs, but if I read a transcript of this phone conversation without hearing their voices, I would be hard pressed to agree that it was actually a real adult human saying these things. At most, I could imagine a homeless person who had almost no contact with society for most of their life. A person with a job in an office somewhere where they are allowed to talk to customers? No way, nuh uh.


( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2006 06:28 am (UTC)
I think you seriously overestimate how many people have even the most rudimentary understanding of what decimals mean. Just because it's supposed to be 3rd grade curriculum doesn't mean people actually learn it. It seems like plenty of people even get college degrees without understanding fractions and decimals. (Ever read any of the math-education-oriented blogs like http://learningcurves.blogspot.com? Some of the stories of stupid things students write or say are terrifying.)
Dec. 10th, 2006 09:19 am (UTC)
I guess I'm already shocked enough when I find college students taking intro physics classes who don't know a sine from a cosine, or what a derivative is (after having supposedly taken calculus), but this is so much worse. I realize not everybody takes calculus, and some people never even take trig or in some cases algebra. But I thought pretty much anyone, as long as they've graduated high school or made it most of the way through, should be pretty familiar with decimals.

I don't know what makes me so terrified about hearing about this kind of thing. A part of me wants to say "let it go... it doesn't matter." But somehow I can't help but feel like this is somehow closely connected to the statistics on how many people believe things like the earth is 3000 years old, or that Noah fit 2 of every kind of animal on an Ark and sailed around for a few weeks while the grand canyon got carved out. Both of them make my jaw drop, and I just think to myself "how do these people figure out how to brush their teeth in the morning, or function at all." I think there's some key thing I'm just missing about human behavior... that's never quite made sense to me. Some way in which people have of thinking/acting without rhyme or reason, but somehow still managing to pull off raising a family, paying the bills, and being perceived as relatively sane by their friends.
Dec. 12th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC)
OMG, you were not kidding...

This is the kind of thing where I think it's worth finding and interviewing the student to try to find out what was actually going through their head. Do you think there's a chance that some students just have no idea what the answer is so they try to be funny?
Dec. 10th, 2006 06:42 am (UTC)
The rate IS .002 DOLLARS per KB. The computer calculated it that way. The problem arose when (to his glee) someone quoted him 0.002 cents, probably because when someone sees a decimal, they just say "cents" because we're used to things to the right of a decimal as being cents. I dont know if they quote this to everyone, or if someone just quoted it to him when he called to ask.

I think this happened:

He called to find the rate. The idiot on the phone looks it up, and sees:

"NationalAccess roaming in Canada will be charged at a rate of $0.002/KB"
(taken from verizon's site)

Idiot reads $0.002/KB out loud as "point zero zero two cents per kilobyte". Because he doesn't know how to deal with a 3 digit number of "cents". At this point the customer is shocked at the cheapness (or just knows its wrong), and requests this person make a note on his account that he was quoted this rate. (note that on the recording he had them make a note of what he was quoted on his account several times). He made them make this note because he KNEW it was a mistake, it just couldnt be that cheap.

The computer bills appropriately, and he calls back, and points out to them that they quoted him in cents. The problem arises when these people are staring at computer screens that they know CANT be wrong saying he owes $70 bucks. They work the problem, get the same number, and see a dollar sign on the screen next to the number they just got.

Here is where your poll comes in. Did they realize (from the bill) that its OBVIOUSLY not in cents, and played dumb to cover their asses. Or did they trust their computer over the customer on the phone AND not understand simple math and units. This would explain the "opinion" statement and the "there is no such thing as 0.002 cents" statement. It also explains why after looking it up, the first guy quoted it IN CENTS again just like the first person before he went to canada did. They both saw $0.002 and said .002 cents. It wouldn't have taken him 3 minutes just to read what was already quoted in his file, obviously he looked up the real international rates and made the SAME mistake AGAIN.

I can believe that your average college graduate working in a call center would assume that 0.anything is cents. They see it everyday in their life. $0.50 is 50 cents. The mistake comes when they call it POINT 50 cents.

Also, if they were covering their asses, they wouldnt have made so many mistakes and misstatements. They'd just repeat over and over what they'd already said in hopes he'd get bored and hang up. Which is what happened.

He did a poor job with his examples. He was using simple math, but he said things that were confusing and beside the point. Granted, he's not a 3rd grade math teacher, but he could have done better. I really think they didn't understand him. Its hard to ignore a computer and trust some guy. They didnt even think about the problem, they already knew the answer, they were just trying to work backwards and explain to the customer why his bill is what it is.

Someone on my friends list just posted that he was denied a job in a call center at cingulair because he didnt have a 4 year degree. He would never make this mistake. Perhaps college really DOES make you stupider.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:39 am (UTC)

They both saw $0.002 and said .002 cents.

Ok, that makes sense... but how can they not agree when he asks "do you agree that there is a difference between .002 dollars and .002 cents"? This was the very first question he asked when the mp3 starts, and that in itself should have been enough for the to go "oh, I meant dollars, not cents"... but instead, they kept insisting that X dollars and X cents are the same, after which he tries everything else he can to figure out where they are not getting it. Yet they still don't see what he's getting at.

He did a poor job with his examples. He was using simple math, but he said things that were confusing and beside the point.

I thought he did a much better job than I could have done. After the first 2 lines, I think I would have involuntarily started screaming "you fucking pieces of shit, dollars are not cents. Now give me my money back." Instead he came up with all sorts of ways of highlighting their errors and inconsistencies. Like getting the guy to say 2/10 of a penny and then 2/1000 of a cent right after it. Or pointing out that paying for a $20,000 car with 20,000 pennies is not going to work. Which part of what he said did you find irrelevant?
Dec. 10th, 2006 10:02 am (UTC)

Introducing fractions was a bad idea. He knows he's dealing with a slime-mold that has somehow learned to talk. Fractions are NOT the way to go. Nor is explaining decimals. This guy thinks .2 and .002 are the same. You've got to make it clear the UNITS are the issue. Thats WHY the guy thought .002 cents and .002 dollars were the same, he didnt understand the units. The computer does the math for him. Math isnt the issue. Like you said, it could be X dollars and X cents.

The car example is great. 20,000 dollars does not equal 20,000 cents. I think that registered somehow.

The main problem is the guy is looking at the computer screen, seeing the proper numbers, but keeps using the word CENTS for no good reason. The word CENTS doesnt exist anywhere in their documentation EXCEPT in the notes added to his account by the phone reps. These reps pulled the word cents out of their asses.

If they were just trying to cover their asses, they wouldnt slowly agree with him and learn what he's saying. They'd stick to their guns. The guy agreed that .5 dollars and .5 cents are different. Someone bluffing would never admit that. They'd ask him to write them both down and show that they're the same. Just like they did with .002

What blew my mind the most was that the woman at the end said his rate was 0.002 cents per KB and almost in the same breath said "I mean there's... there's no .002 dollars." So there IS such a thing as 0.002 cents but NO SUCH THING as 0.002 dollars?!?!?

Then she said:
"I've never heard of .002 dollars. .002 dollars, it's just not..."

Amazingly, the floor manager has NEVER HEARD of the ACTUAL REAL COST per kilobyte!!!

No way is this covering their ass. This is stupidity.

Maybe the email he got from corporate was covering their asses. They made no mention of math at all, other than to say it was correct, and offered to cut the bill in half. Why would they do that if they didn't think they made some kind of mistake? This is a way of shutting him up without admitting fault. Sort of like settling out of court in a lawsuit. No admitting fault, just paying someone to shut up.

If you made a math error, and know it, you dont argue math. You tell the customer to pay the fucking bill or you'll send it to collections. Arguing about math when you have NO basis for your argument is not a good way to cover your ass. Its a good way to make yourself an internet spectacle.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:57 am (UTC)

This would explain the "opinion" statement and the "there is no such thing as 0.002 cents" statement.

Actually, it wouldn't bother me nearly as much if they had said "there is no such thing as .002 cents". Maybe they just think all prices should be in dollars (which is, after all, the convention) which makes a decent amount of sense. However, that's not what she said... she said "there is no such thing as .002 dollars", implying that you can have a fraction of a cent, but not a fraction of a dollar!
Dec. 10th, 2006 12:23 pm (UTC)
I agree, but she cant say that about cents rationally, since she cant deny the existence of the very rate she's quoting him. Since in her mind it is the rate, she has to accept it even if she doesnt understand it. Fractional dollars are just as counter-intuitive to her as well, but they're not the rate (in her mind) so she can just dismiss it as impossible, even though (unknown to her) its the ACTUAL RATE.

Also, she is dead set on the rate being in cents. If he says dollars, she has to stop him from "messing" with the numbers. That may also be why she denied the existence of fractional dollars.

Its about units. The fact she cant accept the existence of fractional dollars just goes to show why they're quoting cents. They see a fractional dollar and think it makes no sense, so they figure "hey, thats cents" and misquote the rates to people.

He shouldn't have used the word dollar EVER in his entire conversation, and if they ever used it, he should have screamed "CENTS" to deter them. If they cant deal with dollars, thats just fine. Doesn't cause any problem at all with resolving the bill.

I would have done it all in cents:

me: $71.79 is 7,179 cents right? You say I owe you 7,179 cents right?

drone: Right

me: Ok, Now we have everything in cents from now on. Now divide the number of cents you say I owe (7,179) by the number of kilobytes, 35,893 and you get 0.2 cents per KB right?

drone: Yes, but thats not the rate sir, its 0.002 cents per kilobyte.

me: Yes, but you just split my bill up per kilobyte, and you got 0.2 cents for every kilobyte. You just did it yourself.

drone: Uhhhh... What? We multiply the rate by your kilobytes. What is this mysterious "division" you speak of?

me: Ok, multiply a charge of 0.2 cents times 35,893, you get just about 7,179 cents right? Thats what you just agreed that I owe. You're charging me 0.2 cents for every kilobyte and getting what the computer says I owe, thus the computer is charging me 0.2 cents per KB as well.

drone: Yes, thats what I get... but... umm... it costs 0.002 cents per KB, not 0.2 cents per KB.

me: I agree! Its 0.002 cents per kilobyte, so if you multiply 0.002 cents by 35,893 on your calculator you get 71.786 cents. Lets round it up and call it 72 cents. THATS what I owe.

drone: No, you owe 71.79 dollars.

me: NO DOLLARS! I only have pennies. I will be paying my bill only in pennies. I always pay my bills this way, its a long term strategy. I've been doing this for 11 years now. Anyway, how many pennies do I owe you? 72? Or 7,179?

drone: You owe 7,179 cents

me: Thats a rate of 0.2 cents per KB. You just calculated it yourself. Do it again if you'd like. So what is it, are you lying to me about the rate being 0.002 cents per kb? Or is the rate really 0.002 cents/KB and I owe 72 cents?

drone: I guess you're right, I quoted you the wrong rate. You know I'm going to get fired for this! Damn you and your math!

me: Well look on the bright side; you'll have plenty of time to go back to elementary school to learn math. Just be glad you dont have to touch the 72 pennies I send to your company.

Dec. 10th, 2006 07:45 pm (UTC)

I always pay my bills this way, its a long term strategy. I've been doing this for 11 years now. Anyway, how many pennies do I owe you? 72? Or 7,179?

Dec. 10th, 2006 07:04 am (UTC)
I've seen this kind of thing before. I come across it every once in a while in small print, promotions, sale signs, that sort of thing and I always think "oh, they must mean dollars, look how dumb" and then move on. I have never come across someone actually trying to win this argument, however, and that probably comes down to the fact that it made a difference to him, he had it confirmed in advance and then they proceeded to try to stick to their script instead of actually hearing him. That you and I and millions of other people understand the math and see the problem is irrelevant. We assume math is a universal language. But there are too many people floating around who don't get it at some basic level, but they're invested in assuming their literature is correct.

The background chatter while he's holding is the part that's telling. I have a feeling he's absolutely right. They actually *mean* dollars, but because there's a decimal point present they think "but that's less than a dollar, so let's say cents" and then they just go ahead and say "cents" without seeing the problem at all. This whole thing is closer to a philosophical argument than a math one, to tell you the truth. The same kind of thing happens when two people argue and one is trying to use actual logic while the other doesn't care about inconsistencies. You have to agree that you both care, otherwise the whole argument is moot. I've had a few of those in the last few days, and I'm soooooo spent. But we don't have to go there.

Chances are that at some point here, if this gets publicized enough, a Verizon accountant will get involved. I'm pretty confident that once that happens, they'll solve his problem. Whether anyone else follows suit to fix their literature and "rate sheets" is what I'd like to see.
Dec. 10th, 2006 07:42 am (UTC)
This whole thing is closer to a philosophical argument than a math one

what? you sound like the rep who said "that's a matter of opinion."

the amount ".002 cents" holds a fixed value whether you know what that value is or not. it has nothing to do with the logic or philosophy of any of the parties.
Dec. 10th, 2006 07:52 am (UTC)
Of course you're correct. My point was that trying to make a person see that, who is stubbornly NOT seeing that this is a clear case of math error and choice of words, is like trying to use logic on someone who has no respect for reason and therefore no "use" for it. I was just commenting that the discussion had the air of a philosophical argument, not saying that's a good thing.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:05 am (UTC)
There is nothing wrong with their literature or rate sheets or marketing or anything. The rate sheet says:

"NationalAccess roaming in Canada will be charged at a rate of $0.002/KB"

The problem is that call center people when asked "whats the rate in canada" respond with "point zero zero two cents per kilobyte".
Dec. 10th, 2006 09:08 am (UTC)
I hadn't bothered to look at the literature in this case, and just assumed the tech was reading it correctly off a sheet - and therefore, that the literature itself was also wrong. Thanks for actually doing the research, I stand corrected on that. I have seen it wrongly stated before, however.
Dec. 10th, 2006 09:39 am (UTC)
For the record, I also thought this originally, until reading Lars' comment (which is why I made the comment about false advertising in the post). I don't think it changes much as far as the phone conversation, but it does at least mean the problem is limited to the people answering the phones. I still think they may have just been not wanting to admit their mistake by the end.
Dec. 10th, 2006 10:23 am (UTC)
You're not alone. Most people assume he was quoted correctly. Probably because they all agreed and quoted him the same price.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:48 am (UTC)

I've seen this kind of thing before. I come across it every once in a while in small print, promotions, sale signs, that sort of thing

I can see somebody printing a sign that says .54cents, and not realizing what they're doing. However, if somebody confronted them about it and explained it, I would hope they would realize 0.54cents means something different than $0.54. Also, in the situation of the sign, it's not a big deal since it's presumably the price of some object which is usually going to cost more than a cent. But in the case of a price per kilobyte, it's going to get multiplied by a huge number of kilobytes and has a great effect on how much his bill is at the end of the month. At the beginning of the phone conversation, I just found it a bit funny, but by the end I was completely shocked and appauled. It really makes me re-evaluate how differently different people experience the world, and what implications that must have for the way they approach money, finance, economics, etc.
Dec. 10th, 2006 09:15 am (UTC)
It strikes me as plausible, too, that when the 0.54 cents sign would be pointed out to be wrong, someone would get why and correct it. So I wonder if there's some sort of mental block about the meaning of consecutive zeros after the decimal point. Still, it's shocking that they didn't get it after all that.

I wonder what they'd have said if he'd fessed up clearly about the entirety of his knowledge - i.e., "Look, I know this charge is probably correct, my point is that if you keep saying "cents" instead of dollars, then if you do the math with *cents* the answer you get is actually $0.71 and not $71.XX so stop saying cents."
Dec. 10th, 2006 09:33 am (UTC)

I wonder what they'd have said if he'd fessed up clearly about the entirety of his knowledge - i.e., "Look, I know this charge is probably correct, my point is that if you keep saying "cents" instead of dollars, then if you do the math with *cents* the answer you get is actually $0.71 and not $71.XX so stop saying cents."

I thought he did say all that, at one point or another. He mentioned several times that he did think the real price was $.002, and that the bill was correct assuming that was the price, but that he had been quoted .002cents which misled him originally. He said several times that the only problem he had was that they weren't acknowledging the difference in quoted price and actual price, and only sometimes acknowledging (when it was convenient) the difference between cents and dollars. The one thing I did think he could have repeated more was that if you start with .002cents, you get .71cents for the total bill. He did say it a couple times, but I would have just kept repeating it until they acknowledged hearing it rather than moving on.
Dec. 10th, 2006 01:02 pm (UTC)
Yes, he said that NOW he realizes the rate is really 0.002 dollars and that he was previously misled. The man then tells him that the rate is BOTH .2 cents/kb AND .002 cents/KB (admitting the truth AND continuing to mislead him simultaniously!) and then transfers him:

So, when you just did the math .002 times 35,893, you came up with 71 cents. You didn't do the translation from cents to dollars, which would be... you'd have to.. uh, divide by a hundred, so then you get .71 dollars: 71 cents, So, I do understand, even though it seems like maybe *you* don't, that the rate is, I now understand: .002 *dollars* per kilobyte. But that was not what i was quoted, and that's not how I used my airtime because i thought it was... I thought it was cheaper than it actually turned out to be, because I was misquoted.

M: Mmhm.


G: So. It all comes down to me being misquoted, and it's hard.. it, would, it, it.. At the time, I, I said there could be some confusion here, so I asked the customer service rep, “Can you please write that down in the notes, that you quoted me .002 cents?”

M: Mmhm.

G: And she did.

M: Right, and I see that.. I see not only one, but I see several reps that have put it in here.


G: You did your math wrong, so what I'm saying is you did... bring up your calculator.

M: I.. I've got the calculator in front of me, sir. If i type in .002 and multiply that by 35 thousand, nine hundred...

G: But wait! but but.. Here's the key.. I know, but here's the key: What does the .002 represent? Cents or dollars?

M: It's cents, sir.

G: Okay, .002 cents...

M: So basically you're paying... you're paying two tenths of a penny [pause] per kilobyte. If you want to look at it that way.

G: Two tenths? hold on, hold on.. two tenths of a penny...

M: Mmhm.

G: ...would be .2 cents. You quoted me .002 cents. Do you see what I'm saying? [pause] Two tenths of one cent...

M: Mmhm.

G: ...would be point two cents. You quoted me .002 cents.

M: That's correct.

G: there's a difference between .2 cents and .002 cents. They're 100 times different. So which is the real rate?

M: .002 sir.

G: .002 what?

M: Cents per kilobyte!


G: So you just said it was .2 pennies and then you also said it was .002 cents. Those are 2 completely different numbers. They're 100-fold different. Quoting someone .002 cents per kilobyte is different than .002 dollars per kilobyte. I... I don't know what else more I can tell ya. The math... the math on the bill is right if it's .002 dollars per kilobyte. It was quoted .002 cents.

M: George, hold on one second for me okay?

G: Sure.

[on hold for 2 minutes, 35 seconds]

Dec. 10th, 2006 07:36 pm (UTC)

George, hold on one second for me okay?

yep... I think this line is where he realizes his mistake... or at least that he doesn't understand what's going on. But dishonestly, he doesn't want to admit it so he says "hold on for a sec" and gets someone else to deal with it.
Dec. 10th, 2006 10:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, and the next woman was even worse at math. She realized this person was just one of thousands of meaningless calls, and told him to fuck off.
Dec. 10th, 2006 07:35 pm (UTC)

think he could have repeated more was that if you start with .002cents, you get .71cents for the total bill.

ack, I meant to write 71cents of course... well, closer to 72 :)
Dec. 10th, 2006 07:47 am (UTC)
i believe it.

true story: there is an engineering professor at berkeley who was working on a paper with craig evans (this story was told to me by evans) who came in one day very exciting, claiming to have "proved" something crucial to their paper. evans looked at it and it turned out the engineering professor had plugged in numbers (the ones for the trivial case, at that) and the answer turned out as expected.

this is an engineering professor at berkeley.

now, if we scale that back to verizon customer service rep. i can easily see how s/he would be confused about .002 cents and .002 dollars.

most people are far from literate in math. sad but true.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:26 am (UTC)

now, if we scale that back to verizon customer service rep. i can easily see how s/he would be confused about .002 cents and .002 dollars.

I can totally see how they could be confused... what I can't see is how, after he explains it a dozen times, in every possible way, how they could remain confused! That's what I don't get here.
Dec. 10th, 2006 08:59 am (UTC)
You'd think an office worker would know more than this...o.O Unless you've never had a lick of education, I think you should know that. Geeze. How...the...FUCK...do you get dollars and cents mixed up?
Dec. 10th, 2006 12:20 pm (UTC)
A girl in a freshman honor's class at my school thought "Me be rockin'" was a grammatically correct English sentence. She is however, failing said class. So I don't know how relevant this analogy is. But she's in college goddammit, and if she can continue to write fragmented, nonsensical, informal and inappropriate sentences in her thesis papers while still not understanding WHY exactly she is failing, then it is conceivable to me that fully grown, college educated people could not understand the difference, even after repeated explanation, between dollars and cents.

However, I am a devils advocate. It is my opinion that this was most likely a cover up for fraud.


Dec. 10th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)

I think it's the last one mixed with a healthy dose of the first one. They don't want to understand because it would mean that he was right and only owed $0.71, so they encounter a convenient mental block about math. Not even necessarily a purposeful one. More of a "Well, our billing system just can't be this wrong so he's either trying to confuse me with math or he doesn't know what he's talking about."

In my opinion he makes a few minor mistakes in explaining things that let them weasel out to the wrong conclusion. For example, when the uber-supervisor person decides to write 1 cent as 0.01, he shouldn't have let her get away with it.

Dec. 12th, 2006 07:39 am (UTC)
Non technical people (ie people who work in call centers) don't really learn the concept of "units" the way people who study physics do. I listened to the recording and thought it was just as silly and sad as all of you but the issue here is not what it sounds like to people who understand the idea of units. The problem is that the phrases ".002 cents" and ".002 dollars" don't have a clear meaning to people who don't really grasp units. Of course everyone has a rudimentary grasp of units; everyone nows that .002 apples is different from .002 oranges. With that said, in money in the US, people determine the units by looking for a decimal point. If there is a decimal point, the stuff to the right is less than a dollar, which in their minds means cents. If there is no decimal point, then the units are dollars. The $ means "money" to most people in the US who haven't studied units. So "$5" would be "five dollars" and "$.05" would be "five cents". Due to this reading ".002 dollars" and ".002 cents" would both be ways of saying "$.002". Of course these people would agree that if you take a dollar and a penny and consider equal ratios of them, their values would not be equal. To these people, that's not what he is saying when he says "Do you recognize a difference between .002 dollars and .002 cents?" Without a physics style grasp of units the question becomes "Do you recognize a difference between one way of saying $.002 and another way of saying $.002?" . The lady asked him what ".002 cents" would "look like" to him. This is the giveaway that she doesn't grasp units and in her mind the decimal point's presence determined the units.
Dec. 12th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)

Non technical people (ie people who work in call centers) don't really learn the concept of "units" the way people who study physics do.

Well, it's a fact that they are taught it, and expected to know it in elementary school. Look at any 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th grade, etc. curriculum and it will be in there. This is true regardless of whether the person goes on to work in physics, or build houses, or wait tables, or work in a call center. But I suppose that you're right, that doesn't necessarily mean they learn it. Although what I don't understand, is how they end up getting passed by their teachers grade after grade, without a basic understanding of the concepts being taught.

I think it is true that the more you use something, the more familiar it becomes, and I will certainly admit that I've ended up using units a lot lot more than the average person and this may bias my perception of the whole thing. However, I still think there is a problem here.

The $ means "money" to most people in the US who haven't studied units.

But everyone in the US has studied units, at least dollars and cents. It's required by law. And if they didn't do well at it in elementary school and move on to more advanced topics like division and percentages, then they probably studied it even more in middle school and high school. Part of the whole point of going over money in the first 3 grades of school is to make sure that the children know that the $ sign is different from the cent sign, and that they don't just mean "money", one means 100 times the other.

I think you're probably right in your explanation of what was going through their heads. I also would like to thank you for explaining it, because it makes some of what they were saying on the phone make a little more sense. But in using terms like "non-physics-style grasp" I think you're contributing to the idea that this is something most people shouldn't have to know in order to do non-physics jobs. I think that's a dangerous attitude to take, and it supports a system where a lot of people do not understand economics, or what it means when they are charged a certain amount per minute or kilobyte, or whatever. It's even worse when it's someone whose job is supposed to be helping people figure out their bills... something I think they should absolutely be fired for. Would you agree that this is a big problem that needs to be addressed, and not just something only math and science people should care about?
Dec. 12th, 2006 11:36 pm (UTC)
I didn't mean to excuse them for not knowing it. This situation clearly demostrates that this is in fact required knowledge for their jobs, and it also demonstrates that it's probably required knowledge for more jobs that many people thought. So yeah, I agree that it's a serious problem that these people don't understand. All I was trying to say was that what they didn't understand was units rather than something more basic like equality of numbers or magnitude of decimals. I don't think any of the people at the call center really believe that .002=.00002 . They just think ".002 cents" is the same as ".002 dollars" and that both are ways of saying "$.002" .

You're also probably right that people have to learn some form of units in young elementary school. I don't remember formally learning units and really grasping until high school physics. Maybe that's cause my elementary school education was lacking, or maybe it's cause I forgot that I learned it from neglect. In either case, I can certainly imagine that had I not taken the physics and math I did in high school and college, I would have made the same verbal mistake that verizon did. That would also mean I was not qualified for their jobs. :-)
Dec. 13th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC)
I don't remember formally learning units and really grasping until high school physics.

I remember going over things like the metric system in high school physics (some of which was introduced earlier and some of which was new), but I think the general idea of units is covered a lot earlier. Did you not have any homework that looked like this in elementary school?:

converting inches to feet

I don't think converting dollars to cents or vice versa requires any greater an understanding of units than this. I will agree that there is a lot more to units if you go further. For instance, I would not expect the average person to understand why, as SI is currently defined, when you try to measure the speed of light, you're really just measuring the length of your meter stick since the meter is defined in terms of how far light travels in a fixed amount of time. Or why in particle physics, all units (time, space, energy, temperature, resistance, etc.) are measured in mass. This is agreeably, nothing anyone who isn't doing physics or perhaps engineering needs to know anything about. In contrast, being able to convert dollars into cents or knowing the difference between an amount in dollars and an amount in cents is in my opinion, very important for everyone to know.
Dec. 13th, 2006 06:53 am (UTC)
Did you not have any homework that looked like this in elementary school?

I'm sure I did, but this is not quite what I mean. I also don't mean things like the particular physics specific facts you cite about particular units. I'm talking about a "philosophical" grasp of units which comes from doing lots of manipulation of units which you don't have an intuitive feel for. There's a grasp of the meaning of units that you get from multiplying 10^3 Joules by 14 meters enough times which you cannot get from converting feet to yards. I think when you convert feet to yards you can imagine a foot and a yard and subconsciously treat the process as at least somewhat unique about feet and yards. You can't really imagine a Joule*meter in the same intuitive way. This forces you to feel the idea of "unit" as a generalization of "meter", "Joule", "dollar", and "cent" in a way that you just don't get from non-technical education. The consequence is that you hear the question "Do you think that there is a difference between .002 dollars and .002 cents?" differently. The person with the technical education hears it as being essentially identical to the question "Do you think that there is a difference between .002 kilometers and .002 meters?" Without this kind of more abstract grasp that the particular units are less important than the numerical relation between the units, you would hear the question more like "Do you think that there is a difference between a 2000 pound tiny car and a 2000 pound tiny compact car?" Without an abstract sense of units which strongly outweighs the particulars of the units in question, the idiosyncracies of the popular written representations of American money take on much more significance. In daily life American money is pretty much always written in the dollars unit even in situations where the verbal name is "cents". For instance, if you asked the average american to write "2 cents" they would write "$.02", not "2 ¢" . As evidence for this, consider the fact that in trying to type the last sentence, I had figure out how to even type a cent symbol (there's no cent key on an American keyboard) and I also had to ask myself whether the cent symbol goes before the number like the dollar symbol or after (I don't actually know).

I think the shock and amusement felt by the slashdot reading crowd is that we have a generic grasp of units (or rather a grasp of generic units) and that grasp is so strong, that we wouldn't bother falling back to the particulars of the units as hand (dollars and cents) to inform us about the math. Verizon's employees have knowledge of the particular units they use in their lives. They know about quarts and pounds and dollars and cents. They are more readily willing to think of these individually than we are they and don't immediately abstract the particular units out of the problem leaving only numerical math and a conversion factor behind as we would. If the discussion had been about meters and kilometers, the Verizon employees would have immediately understood the caller's arguments. The problem is not a grasp of math of a grasp or how to operate with some particular units. It a lack of familiarity with the general concept of "unit" in math and a lack of confidence that the meaning of that concept supercedes their daily expericence that "$.02" is pronounced "two cents".

Still with all that said, Verizon owes the man a $71 refund, and the fact that they owe him a refund means that their call center employees are not sufficiently skilled to do their jobs. The missing skill is an interesting and non-trivial philosophical one even though it feels like the missing skill is a trivial arithmetic skill to most of us.
Dec. 13th, 2006 06:57 am (UTC)
Based on this, I'd say my answer to your poll would have to be mostly B with a dash of A. I'm completely certain that C and D having nothing to do with the problem. If they did, then the caller's explanations on the phone would have worked instead of missing the helpdesk people entirely.
Dec. 13th, 2006 09:09 am (UTC)
One reason I would have thought it would be more D than B was because the guy at some point says that its "point oh oh two cents" and right after that it's "two tenths of a penny" which made me think that he didn't realize 2/10 as a fraction was not .002. But after reading your explanation, I realize that's not why he said that. It's because he didn't realize saying "cents" after amount means you're expressing some quantity of pennies, he just thought it meant something like "less than a dollar".
Dec. 13th, 2006 08:59 am (UTC)
That does help ever more to explain what they were thinking and why.

I think the reason I didn't see this initially is because all the things you say here were simply not true in my case. I'm willing to believe that it's true in a lot of people's cases, and that I'm an abberation, but I am certain that I would not have made the kind of mistake they made if you had asked me in 3rd grade the same question. For me, it was not something I learned over time with practice, it was something that was intuitive as soon as I first saw it, and later I built other stuff up on top of it but none of the other stuff would be necessary for this. In 3rd grade, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up... but retrospectively, maybe that's the reason I ended up going into physics. Because certain stuff just makes sense to me as soon as I see it, a lot of physics and math for me feels as if they're just teaching me the notation for stuff that's already obvious.

The cent sign always goes after the cents, as you put it. That's another thing I remember from 3rd grade, but that doesn't seem nearly as important. We also did exercizes where we would have to take an amount in cents, with a cent sign after it, and convert it to dollars, and vice versa. However, we probably didn't have to do amounts less than a cent until later (even though the thousandths place is something taught in 3rd grade, according to the first web resource I found and roughly according to my recollection.)

Maybe math-stuff just sticks with me more than other stuff. We also had a time of the day in 3rd grade where we would learn about "Florida History" but I bet I don't remember even half of the stuff we went over there. So I guess I can't be too hard on people who don't remember stuff that they probably were just as bored by. :) But as you say, they should owe him the money, and it was a part of their job they failed at.
( 36 comments — Leave a comment )


domino plural

Latest Month

May 2017


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lizzy Enger