Megan is about to buy an apple at a grocery store when she is surprised that the price is exactly one dollar. A common practice in pricing items is to deliberately make them slightly less than a round number, such as $1.99 or $1.95 instead of $2, as a psychological trick to make the item seem significantly cheaper than it really is, as "less than two dollars" sounds much less than "two dollars" even though the difference of 0.01 is minimal. Additionally, in most cases in the US, sales tax must be taken into account, as it is generally not included in the list price (although, most states do exempt food sold in grocery stores from sales taxes), so a price rarely comes out to a round value. That it came out to an exact dollar is so strange for Megan that it throws her for a loop. Buying one apple for one dollar feels to her more like a simplified, imaginary Idea of a transaction (a "Platonic Ideal") than like something that could actually happen in real life.
Megan likely shares Randall's background in engineering and math. When learning science, engineering, and math in the education system, one studies examples where every number is some round value, and all situations are simplified to the barest essentials so as to demonstrate the ideas being taught. Then, when doing real problems in the real world, one spends the rest of one's life almost never being able to use the simplified tricks demonstrated as examples in school, because when math is used to describe the natural world, nothing is ever a round number unless by design.
Megan references Platonic Idealism, which is the theory attributed to Plato that abstract or non-physical Ideas represent the purest, most accurate version of reality, but we can only perceive of more flawed versions of Ideas because of our limited viewpoint (as explained in his Allegory of the Cave). Thus we can understand the concept of a perfect circle or a perfect line, even though we have never seen one, and cannot create one. Megan believes she has glimpsed a Platonic Ideal because the absolute concept of currency is it is the exact worth of something in trade. Megan is awed because, if this is true, then she is witnessing the next layer of reality, which Plato often compared to heaven.
The harsh difference between being able to buy an apple for a dollar at this quaint store, and having to deal with arbitrary decimals and numbers in the rest of life could be touching on Megan's life experience of the world not being what she was prepared for, resulting in her intense response. Regardless if that is true or not, it seems the cashier is unable to figure out how to handle it (or does not want to), and raises the price to an arbitrary non-rounded value, which has the intended effect of halting Megan's outburst. The unexpected resolution of the rising tension is a source of humor in this strip.
Megan's references refer to common parameters used in solving science or math questions. A Frictionless plane is a scenario from the writings of Galileo to calculate the movement of an object down an inclined plane, since his equations did not account for friction.
"A train leaving Chicago at 40 mph" refers to common math questions, involving trains and solving for the distance required to overtake said train, although this problem involves the rather unrealistic assumption that the train's velocity keeps constant and doesn't need to accelerate in order to reach its speed. Like the frictionless plane, this is a common simplification that allows the problem to be solved with quite simple techniques, just like having round quantities (e.g. 1 dollar/apple) eases arithmetic problems. See also 669: Experiment. Apples themselves are commonly used as units for math problems, including problems as simple as basic arithmetic.
The comic repeats a common theme in the strip of engineers and computer scientists trying to apply their technical experience to social situations. In this case, the conversation partner is "normal", and does not respond supportively, which is a common situation in the real world and a possible point of empathy with readers. -- An alternate viable reading is that the conversation partner responds extremely supportively (by cleverly removing the source of Megan's distress, rather than by questioning the validity of Megan's response). This is a possible point of wish-fulfillment for readers.
It seems that according to the title text, Megan only has (or only wants to spend) one dollar, so she would not be able to buy a whole apple at the new price (0.4608 × $2.17 ≈ $1). Stores usually sell whole apples, so asking for a fraction of one is not likely to work out.
There are some stores, such as Dollar Tree, that specialize in selling everything in the store for one dollar per item, which would seem to be operating at that ideal... except they usually do charge sales tax on taxable items leading many sales to not be an even multiple of a dollar. If a store were to charge one dollar per item without charging sales tax, etc. separately (i.e. building the sales tax into the price of each dollar item), they might be able to simplify some operations, such as not dealing with coin change as much (though they would still need to accept coins), cashiers would be able to calculate the total in their heads, etc. Customers other than Megan would probably be happier.
- [Megan is at the store counter, behind which Ponytail (the cashier) is waiting.]
- Megan: Just this apple, thanks.
- Ponytail: That will be one dollar.
- Megan: Exactly? No tax or anything?
- Ponytail: That's right.
- [Megan stares at the apple in a frameless panel.]
- [Scene zooms in on Megan.]
- Ponytail: ...Is that a problem?
- Megan: It's just weird to realize that every other transaction in my life will be more complicated than this.
- [Scene changes focus to Ponytail behind the counter.]
- Megan: This is like a platonic ideal exchange. An apple for a dollar.
- Ponytail: I see.
- [Scene changes back to Megan, once again lost in profound contemplation of the apple.]
- Megan: Are we on a frictionless plane? Is a train leaving Chicago at 40 mph? Should I solve for something??
- Ponytail: Okay, apples are $2.17 now.
- Megan: That's... probably better for us both.
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Is this a reference to how shops in America don't include VAT in price labels?
(It's my first time trying to contribute to this so sorry if I get some format stuff wrong) 126.96.36.199 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- Yeah, Randall would love it in Europe! (you should sign your posts with ~~~~ though) --188.8.131.52 15:53, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
- It is a commentary on overly complex taxes and fees on things that really shouldn't have fees applied (I can think of hardly anything that really should have a fee applied, or be taxed really, but that's a political-philosophical discussion for another space-time coordinate) 184.108.40.206 16:18, 13 July 2018 (UTC) Sam
- We call it sales tax, and it doesn't have the chaining-effect on every stage of production that VAT does, but yeah. It's rarely calculated into the sticker price. 220.127.116.11 16:27, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
Is food taxed where Randall lives? It's not where I live and I was under the impression that it's not in most of the US. It's not uncommon for me to go to a store after working out and buying a protein bar for exactly $1. 18.104.22.168 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- Living smack-dab in the center of the US and I can tell you that pretty much everything has a sales tax. 22.214.171.124 16:18, 13 July 2018 (UTC) Sam
- Groceries, such as apples, should not be taxed, but I believe that processed foods are taxed. Actually, nevermind, this is state dependent:  126.96.36.199 16:27, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
- In my experience food is indeed taxed like everything else, but businesses will sometimes set the actual price of the item slightly below $1, such that the tax makes it cost exactly $1. The example that comes to mind is the soft-serve ice cream at IKEA. PotatoGod (talk) 16:31, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
- That has been my experience as well, although it varies by region. — AfroThundr (u · t · c) 16:37, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
- In Massachusetts we don't have a tax on food, but we have a tax on "meals" (prepared food sold in retaurants, cafes, and similar establishments). We used to have a local restaurant with an attached bakery; if you bought fewer than a half dozen bagels, it was considered part of a meal and taxed, but there was no tax if you bought at least a half dozen.
Barmar (talk) 15:15, 18 July 2018 (UTC)
- In Germany we have two types of VAT. General rule of thumb 7% for food and print media and 19% for more or less everything else. It's a rule of thumb, because there are exemptions to the 7% stuff which suddenly are taxed 19%. But in either case it's included on the price tag. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:45, 16 July 2018 (UTC)
The closest thing this can relate to a for a European is buying dinners or hotel rooms if you come from a corrupt East or Southern European country where "tourists tax" is a real thing and added out of nowhere on top of the regular price, because the regular price only have to include regular taxes.188.8.131.52 16:39, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
I'm thinking on the analysis I tentatively added to the explanation above. I assumed Megan was an engineer, but re-reading the comic ("Should I solve for something ??") I think it's more possible she no longer has to do math in her career, and is being portrayed as having a flashback to school again when she encounters a similar situation to her education. The examples are common in math and physics in grade school. It's hard for me to figure out in my head how to combine all the different interpretations, or which ones are likely wrong; it would be great if somebody could clean it up. If not, it's just a tiny wiki on the internet. 184.108.40.206 18:25, 13 July 2018 (UTC)
Is this really a grocery store? I thought of it more as a coffee shop. Minimalist decor and whatnot. It's also one of those places where you would explain introductorily that you want just the apple. --220.127.116.11 18:15, 14 July 2018 (UTC)
The exact fraction of an apple needed to spend exactly $1.00 is 0.46082949308. MuensterCheese misspelled their username. Chat \o 19:23, 14 July 2018 (UTC)
"it seems the cashier is unable to figure out how to handle it" for me it feels like the cashier gets the customers "needs" very fast and responds in a very clever and symbiotic way that benefits both parties.
One could also interpret this as an analogy of Randall's first experiences with cryptocurrencies (to avoid naming any specific one), which makes transactions as simple as possible without any tricks. The title text then suggests that it's possible in this scenario to send fractions of a unit in cryptocurrencies. 18.104.22.168 20:09, 14 July 2018 (UTC)
"I'd like 0.4608 apples, please" - "Thank you, that will be $0.999936" 22.214.171.124 08:54, 16 July 2018 (UTC)
- This would be 0.460829495 to be exactly $1, but thats going to be onerous to chop accurately... and say. 126.96.36.199 13:12, 16 July 2018 (UTC)Sedontane
Solution: Automatic applesauce dispenser. In the same way that you can find machines in grocery stores that will grind fresh peanut butter from peanuts in a hopper. These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 00:52, 22 July 2018 (UTC)
The real joke I think is over paying for an apple
I'm pretty sure $1 is over priced for an apple... $2.17 criminally so
- Maybe it's big and heavy apple? ... but the issue might be more that apples are almost always sold by weight, and the weight multiplied by unit price is very unlikely to produce round number for price unless you are VERY lucky. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:00, 15 July 2018 (UTC)
- Depends on where she's buying them. If it's a grocery store, where apples are usually sold in bulk, then $1 per apple is high. If it's a mini mart (like 7/11) or a coffee shop/fast food place, where apples are sold individually as a side, then $1 per apple is pretty reasonable.
It depends on how far away you are from where the apples are grown, and the location you're in (rural versus urban) and what sort of establishment it is; "ready to eat" at a kiosk is going to be more than at a grocery store. It also depends on the size and type of apple. For common apples it's about $1.00 to $2.00 a pound in bulk, say Red Delicious at $1.40 a pound average price. So it's easy to pay $2.17 for a larger more desirable apple type, especially at a retail non-grocery location in a big city. Jefe9247 (talk) 15:30, 16 July 2018 (UTC)
- But at the end you're talking about per pound, not per apple. Most apples don't weigh a pound -- though the record has been over 4 pounds for one apple -- instead most varieties are about 3 apples per pound. You can't compare apples to apple. -boB (talk) 18:53, 16 July 2018 (UTC)
It is quite common to see apples sold at over $3/lb. At a non discount grocery store buying apples individually, not in bags, varieties that are less common and not in season locally, etc. Those can exceed $1 each. That's not even counting the price effects of organic produce. Your imported organic apple is going to cost a lot more than $1 each.
188.8.131.52 22:26, 18 July 2018 (UTC)Chad
I was raised in the UK, but have visited Canada on several occasions, where I'd find that sales tax (GST and PST) had to be added on to the advertised price. On one occasion, I was shopping at Bulk Barn, where most things are sold by weight, but I was only buying a few items of candy at a fixed price. I added the 15% tax in my head, and had the correct money ready as I went to the checkout. The cashier was thoroughly confused that I had the exact change in my hand before she'd told me what the total would be! Kazzie (talk) 09:00, 17 July 2018 (UTC)