I got a burrito for lunch earlier.
The cashier told me $10.60. I gave her a $20 and a $1.
She tried to give me the $1 back, I said, “That’s so you can give me back a $10.”
She says “Oh” and gives me a $10.
Since she was trying to give the $1 back to me, she had already entered the amount paid as $20, and so the cash register tells her the change should be $9.40, so she starts counting out $9.40 in change.
I watch her for a couple of seconds, hoping she’ll realize her error, but she doesn’t, so I say, “You already gave me back the $10, I just need the $0.40.”
She got confused, because the cash register told her she owed me $9.40 in change on a $10.60 transaction paid for by a $20. She tried to think about it for a minute, then pulled out her cell phone and ran the calculation on her calculator app.
She ran it twice, and it took like 3 minutes, and I just stood there patiently, waiting for her to catch up. I could have browbeat her with an explanation of how $21 – 10.6 != 10 + 9.4, but instead, I just let her do her thing with the calculator, and she got there, all on her own. Good for her.
I didn’t get angry about it, as it is easy to get angry about someone who derps on a simple math problem, but I am realizing that it’s better not to react that way. I’ve heard this same story told a thousand times, and the teller almost always is telling a “kids these days” story, implying how doomed we are because math education has failed, and hoo boy the new generation coming up sure is frightfully dumb.
The reality is, though, that while math education could be done in better ways, people will always make mistakes now and then, and it’s actually not that big of a deal, nearly all of the time. The times when it could be a big deal, usually those mistakes get caught before they end up causing a big deal.
Math’s important, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel like blowing up at someone over my impatience of not getting the coins quickly enough so I can go devour my food.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not some enlightened buddha-saint, either. I get plenty angry enough all the time as it is, but someone making a simple mistake isn’t something to get angry about; I reserve it now for malicious people, who fortunately seem to exist mostly online. But there’s a fuckton of them, and being angry at them takes enough of my time as it is.
So for this cashier, I just let her take the time she needed. She finally realized what I had been trying to tell her, and I joked and said, “I would have kept it, but you probably would have gotten fired.”
She thanked me for being honest and gave me the $0.40.
I walked away and realized that my alignment must be drifting more toward Lawful good.
But really it’s just that I don’t need $9 that badly that I’d watch someone make a mistake in my favor that could lose them their job.
Then I got back in my car, and read the news about Dan Kaminsky, and had to eat a really sad burrito.
Dan was so smart, probably every day of his life he probably felt like I felt like with the cashier a few minutes ago, dealing with computer programmers who made stupid math mistakes that could cost them their job.
I almost called them “computer programmer idiots” in that last sentence, but I went back and edited that out.
The programmers aren’t idiots either, but when you see the same mistakes enough times, it can try your patience and make you wonder what it would take to get the message through to everyone so you could never have to see that mistake made again.
I didn’t know Dan all that well, but we both spoke at the same conference once. He was friends with a lot of my hacker friends who I’ve met in the infosec sphere. He had an absolutely stirling reputation for both brilliance and kindness, and from watching the talks he gave, he was an incredible human being. The world will be less safe without him.
I’m sorry I didn’t know you any better than I did, Dan. You did a lot with your life, and the stories I’m reading now from your friends say even more about the person you were. Thank you for being that person.