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Sometimes the Media Can Be a Little Too Cautious:

The AP reports:

A Malaysian man said he nearly fainted when he recieved a $218 trillion phone bill and was ordered to pay up within 10 days or face prosecution, a newspaper reported Monday.

Yahaya Wahab said he disconnected his late father's phone line in January after he died and settled the 84 ringgit ($23) bill, the New Straits Times reported.

But Telekom Malaysia later sent him a 806,400,000,000,000.01 ringgit ($218 trillion) bill for recent telephone calls along with orders to settle within 10 days or face legal proceedings, the newspaper reported.

It wasn't clear whether the bill was a mistake, or if Yahaya's father's phone line was used illegally after after his death....

As Tom Elia (The New Editor) points out, sometimes one really doesn't need to present both sides: "Seeing that GDP for the entire world was around $40 trillion in 2004, and that the world's largest corporation, Exxon Mobil, had about $328 billion in sales in FY 2006, I think it's safe to say that the $218 trillion phone bill was a mistake. But, it's a good thing the Associated Press covered themselves ... ya know ... just in case."

crane (mail):
The .01 on the end of that number is a nice touch. Maybe it was a hacker playing a prank?
4.10.2006 6:27pm
Steve Plunk (mail):
I have seen this report all day in the news. TV, radio, the internet, they all reported this like it was big news.

For gosh sakes, it was a mistake of such proportions how could anyone take it seriously? It deserved no attention paid to it at all. Why do editors feed us this tripe? It's not even funny or unusual.
4.10.2006 6:29pm
Steve:
Funny is a matter of taste, but how could anyone say this isn't unusual?!
4.10.2006 6:56pm
byrd (mail):
Think they'll do a follow-up report on whether Wahab can come up with the money? How much jail time would he get under Malaysian law if he can't pay?
4.10.2006 6:57pm
pp (mail):
Steve,
It is funny in an office space sort of way. It is in part a poignant commentary on the computerized world. That the computer calculated it, sent it out, and then proceeded to try and collect this debt speaks volumes about how we are becoming even more reliant on allowing a machine to dictate what is right or wrong with little or no human interaction. I have seen more than one legal dispute resolve when an accountant went through the numbers that the "foolproof" computer kicked out and reconcile them with pencil and paper.
4.10.2006 7:00pm
Milhouse (www):
4.10.2006 7:02pm
A.S.:
I think the Professor is wrong. It is not NECESSARILY a mistake, and the comparisons to the world's GDP and Exxon's revenue are inapt.

Let's say that Professor Volokh decided to sell copies of Academic Legal Writing for $1 trillion each. And let's say I ordered 218 copies (and he fulfilled the order). Would it be a mistake if Professor Volokh sent me a bill for $218 trillion? And the amount of the world's GDP and Exxon's revenue is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the bill was mistaken.

On the other hand, the amount of the world's GDP and Exxon's revenue IS relevant to the question of whether I am likely to PAY the amount of the bill...
4.10.2006 7:47pm
rbj:
What I want to know is if such a bill is even possible. Suppose the phone was not disconnected, and an international call connection was open 24/7 for all of February and March. Would it run up to $218 trillion dollars?
4.10.2006 8:34pm
e:

It is not NECESSARILY a mistake, and the comparisons to the world's GDP and Exxon's revenue are inapt.

No, it's simply an example of innumeracy that a reporter and apparently some of us think it might be possible to rack up that much service in a few months (at most). If you are suggesting fraudulent pricing from the company, this is funnier than it first appears.
4.10.2006 8:34pm
A.S.:
No, it's simply an example of innumeracy that a reporter and apparently some of us think it might be possible to rack up that much service in a few months (at most).

Well, I had assumed that most of us here in the United States would be unaware of Telekom Malaysia's rates. Since you would have to know those rates to have a basis for an assertion that it is impossible to rack up a bill such as the one described. Perhaps I was wrong in that assumption.
4.10.2006 8:41pm
Jens Fiederer (mail) (www):
No, regardless of the rates for any reasonable service, you could not get that high. Otherwise nobody could afford to call for even 5 minutes.

If, however, there is a phone-service gambling line, this is not beyond the realm of possibility.
4.10.2006 9:21pm
BGates:
$218 trillion would be more than $69,000 per second for 100 years.
4.10.2006 9:38pm
Truth Seeker:
Maybe someone used the phone to call a lonely hearts 900 live phone chat line with those typically outrageous charges.
4.10.2006 10:30pm
Hugh59 (mail) (www):
I don't know about YOU, but I am going to check my next phone bill VERY carefully! Who knows what nonsense AT&T may try to pull on me. Afterall, since they are buying Bell South, they may try to get ME to pay for it all!
4.10.2006 10:34pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Hm. Looks like the Bush Administration's covert efforts to balance the budget are being exposed. Oh, the incompetence ....
4.10.2006 11:23pm
Ken Arromdee (mail):
I'm reminded of the amusement people find in the idea that a package of peanuts is labelled "warning: contains peanuts". Even knowing some people are deathly allergic to peanuts, isn't that label unnecessary?

Not really. Because if you want to make a rule which says that no warning is needed when the contents of the package are obvious, you have to define 'obvious', and your definition of 'obvious' must cover not only the package of peanuts, but a whole gradation of package contents each of which is a bit less obvious. Covering all the obvious cases and none of the non-obvious ones is hard enough that you're better off not bothering and just always putting the warning on, even if some goober snickers at the label.

Likewise, it wouldn't do for a newspaper to have a policy of "do not state whether an accusation is true or false, unless the truth or falsity of the accusation is obvious."
4.11.2006 1:02am
NickM (mail) (www):
In either Airplane or Airplane 2, an ET-like hand picks up an airport payphone and says the word "Home" into the receiver. The operator's voice comes back "Please deposit twenty million dollars for the first 3 minutes." [The quotation may not be exact - I'm going from memory.] I guess someone could have used his phone to make an intergalactic phone call at $9.6 billion a day. That accounts for $600 billion of the bill. Now about the other $217.4 trillion dollars . . . .

Nick
4.11.2006 2:20am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
In 1975 the electric company estimated the bill for the month for more electricity that I used in two months; as a result they next month figured my usage had rolled the meter around, and sent me a bill for $7,000 or so.

I had prepared my check for a million dollars (``keep the change'') when a corrected bill arrived.
4.11.2006 3:20am
abb3w:
Well, Doctor Who has been airing on Sci Fi in the US lately. There was that one phone call made from about 5 Billion AD to the present day, and the Doctor remarked "If you think that was amazing, wait til you see the bill". I guess we just saw the bill....
4.11.2006 9:44am
Preferred Customer:

Not really. Because if you want to make a rule which says that no warning is needed when the contents of the package are obvious, you have to define 'obvious', and your definition of 'obvious' must cover not only the package of peanuts, but a whole gradation of package contents each of which is a bit less obvious. Covering all the obvious cases and none of the non-obvious ones is hard enough that you're better off not bothering and just always putting the warning on, even if some goober snickers at the label.


In this vein, I have seen more than one fire extinguisher recently with a big label that says "CONTENTS: NON-FLAMMABLE GAS."

I would hope so.

I assume that they put these labels on all gas bottles, no matter what their purpose--but it does lead to some absurd results at the margins.
4.11.2006 3:54pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I think the Professor is wrong. It is not NECESSARILY a mistake, and the comparisons to the world's GDP and Exxon's revenue are inapt.
It is necessarily a mistake, because even if the phone were being used 24/7, it couldn't cost that much. That's what the comparison to the world's GDP is supposed to show.

Your comparison of a fictitious price of Eugene's book is inapt, because this isn't a fictitious price; it's a real price. They sell telephone service regularly. If they charged that much, nobody would ever be able to make a phone call.
4.11.2006 6:34pm
Minus (www):
I had read that even on a pay service (900 line for example), even at 1 billion dollars per minute this guy would have to be on the phone 24/7 for near 152 days to generate that amount. Seems like an awful waste of time!
4.12.2006 8:25pm