Thursday, September 11, 2008

Computers Launch World Domination Plan

Complicated, globally linked computer systems are supposed to be labor-saving devices. But at what cost?

Last week, I went through the Taco Bell drive through for a quick bite and ordered three supreme chicken soft tacos and a medium gluggable. I estimated that the bill would be around (but under) $8, considering I ordered four items, each of which costs less than $2. When I pulled around, my bill was up over $9. I questioned the woman in the window about it. Because "Chicken Soft Taco Supreme" isn't in their computer system, she punched up a fiesta soft taco, minus avocado sauce and fiesta salsa, plus sour cream and diced tomatoes. Each "additional" item cost me 30 cents per taco; but of course I didn't get any "discount" for removing items.

I argued with her a bit. It didn't make sense to me that one taco ought to cost 60 cents more than another with the same number of toppings, as if sour cream (plenty of cows in Indiana) is much more expensive than avocado sauce (plenty of avocados in Indiana?), and — more to the point — that diced tomatoes cost more than machine-processed salsa with multiple ingredients. In the end, she argued that she couldn't change the way the computer rang up the bill.

(To her benefit, I could tell she was frustrated, but she didn't lose her temper with me, and always kept smiling.)

Computers – 1; Humans – 0

Last Friday, I stopped in at Papa Murphy's Take-n-Bake Pizza. The sign out front advertised a large pepperoni pizza for $6.99. I ordered one half-pepperoni, half-cheese and one with pepperoni, chicken, and diced tomatoes (a great combination after I added diced garlic to it at home). The bill: $23 and change. I had been charged full price ($10.99) for the half-pepperoni pizza.

I asked him about this — after it was wrung up but before I signed the receipt — and was told that, because he had to ring it up with "special" toppings (as opposed to, I don't know, pushing the big red "Pepperoni Pizza" button), it wouldn't ring up as the special, so I had to pay full price.

That's right: I paid $4 to have half the pepperoni removed.

(Why didn't I just order a pepperoni pizza and move the toppings around when I got home? Hindsight being what it is, this is what I should have done. I very rarely order uncooked pizza, so I guess my pizza-ordering habits weren't quite ready to make the shift. Plus, I was so excited that they actually had chicken as a topping choice.)

Computers – 2; Humans – 0

Just now I went to Taco Bell again; this time I went inside. The customer in front of me ordered a simple lunch and gave the cashier his credit card. She ran it through the Credit card machine and waited. And waited. And waited. She ran it through again. More waiting. She ran it through the machine in the drive-through area. More waiting. Apparently, the credit card machine broke just before I got to order (I was paying with a credit card anyway). A couple of other people tried things, but nothing worked.

It must have been 10 minutes of waiting. Not until production slowed to halt — because no one else could order — did someone with some knowledge and authority assess the situation. Yup. It's broken. Cash only.

The guy in front of me and the people waiting in the drive-through got their food for free. I only had a little cash on me and ended up spending less than a third of what I had planned at Taco Bell. Production stopped, customers got frustrated, and Taco Bell lost money, all because one little piece of technology stopped working.

Computers – 3; Humans – 0

Keeping all this in mind makes me wonder if I really should be worried about the big atom smasher in Switzerland.

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