GUEST COLUMN : Computer Generation

Krishan Kalra Krishan Kalra 

This happened in a small shop off Oxford Street in London.  I had walked in to buy some in-soles and a pair of shoe-laces. I picked up the stuff from the shelves and put it on the counter for the salesgirl to print out the cash memo. Just as she’d punched in the three figures, something went wrong with the old cash register. She apologized for the slip, asked me to wait “just a minute” so that she could prepare the bill next door and ran out. Not left with a choice, I waited. One minute, two, five… I was getting late. Meantime, the young manager had sauntered up to me and was waxing eloquent on the dire necessity of a new computer. I requested him politely that the sum total of my purchases was 4.39 pounds; why couldn’t he just accept the money so I could leave.  “How did you figure that out” he retorted – amazement writ large on his face – and then, as if to hide his embarrassment, added, “But, sir, there is 17 percent VAT also; it’s really complicated.  Please wait.”  “It’s still only 5.14 pounds,” I told him almost instantaneously. “How do you know? Are you a mathematics professor? I’m sorry, you have to wait.”  His tone was now gruff.  The guy was sure I was trying to cheat him.

Fortunately, the girl came back just then. With profuse apologies for the delay – caused due to big crowds at both the adjoining shops – she presented the bill with a flourish. “Here you are, sir, it’s only 5.14 pounds.” The manager was astonished. He didn’t know what to say. “Very sorry, very sorry, sir, for the inconvenience. But please do tell me how you worked that out. Do you really teach mathematics” Then he turned to the girl. “You know, Sally, the gentleman told me the total in less than five seconds, but I didn’t think he could be right.”

Another time, it was in a big New York store.  I was buying some socks and ties.  The socks were priced at 4.95 dollars a pair and there was 15 percent off if you bought three pairs.  The ties were 35 dollars each with a special five dollar rebate if you carried their promotional coupons. There was a big crowd at the counter and everyone was generally hassled. When my turn came, the girl first checked out three pairs of socks: 4.95 plus 12 per cent VAT less 15 per cent discount = 4.71 x 3, total 14.13.  So far so good, but when she came to the ties, she did the same thing 35 + 12 percent VAT less five = 34.20.  I told her this was wrong and she should first deduct dollars five from 35 and then add 12 per cent, so it would add up to 33.60 per tie. She wouldn’t believe that. “But, for socks, it’s the same thing even if I reduce 15 percent first and then add 12 percent, it still come to 4.71 per pair. So why should it be different for ties.”

It took me half an hour to explain. Perhaps there was merit in the old fashioned way of learning tables by rote.

 (A veteran of the corporate world, the author now does only voluntary work in various spheres. Views expressed are personal)

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