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Short Sheet Hotels May 24, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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Why is it that hotels — even many upscale ones — think it is acceptable to make their beds without fitted sheets?

I am tired of climbing into hotel beds and feeling raw mattress against my feet because the bed was made with a flat sheet that isn’t long enough to cover the whole mattress.

Bring Back Clear Cola May 10, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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Why does every soft-drink company insist on putting caramel coloring in drinks that would otherwise be clear?  I know there were some bad branding experiences with this in the early 1990’s, but there has got to be a market for uncolored drinks.  I would even pay a premium to have ingredients left out that have no effect on taste, shelf-life, or quality.

And while I’m on the subject of superfluous ingredients: Why is it so hard to find soaps and detergents without added colors and odors?  I buy soap to remove dirt and oil.  If I want color or smells I can buy my own dyes and perfumes.  Why do consumer product companies insist on mixing all three products?  What are the odds that they get not only the detergent but also a color and a smell that I will personally enjoy into the same bottle?  So far, it seems, practically none.  Again, it’s weird that I am willing to pay a premium for dye- and perfume-free products.  I should be getting a discount.  And I certainly shouldn’t have to hunt for these products!

Can advanced civilization develop under water? May 7, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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Is it possible for a technically advanced civilization to develop under water?  I.e., are there any absolute barriers to an intelligent aquatic species developing portable energy, refining natural resources, or building complex mechanical, electronic, and photonic machinery?

Imagine something like dolphins with opposable thumbs on a world with no dry land.  There is no reason they couldn’t evolve a language capability like ours.  And they could certainly create and use primitive tools.  But are there raw energy sources they could concentrate and tap?  Some analog to our land-based energy cycle, where we can start with combustible biomass to bootstrap our way to refined fossil fuels and more advanced energy sources?  And is this possible without access to the atmosphere?

And if they could mass and control energy, is it possible to refine metal underwater?

Could they develop writing or some other reliable way to record and transport information, to enable them to progress to more advanced technology?

Auditing Litigators May 6, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.

How can you be sure your lawyer isn’t ripping you off?

Unless you’re a lawyer yourself, you probably have no way of knowing whether (A) the bills you receive are reasonable or (B) your lawyer is pursuing a strategy that is entirely in your interests — i.e., minimizing your costs while maximizing your probability of winning a judgment that will stick.

This same problem does arise in other professions that bill by the hour.  However it is more worrisome when that professional is a litigator — a person whose stock in trade is justifying arbitrary positions against explicit rules.  It would be fatuous for us to presume that litigators don’t exercise that skill in their own interests, which are nearly opposite those of their clients.  I.e., it is in a litigator’s interest to drag out litigation as long as possible, and also to overbill as much as possible along the way.  (And who’s to say what an efficient litigation strategy is, or what a fair bill might be, right?)  Granted, the bar requires all sorts of ethics training, but when your profession is squaring specific interests against specific rules that’s a small consolation.

What we seem to have here is a tremendous moral hazard.  So is there a mechanism whereby an unskilled client can audit his litigator, to ensure that he is being served fairly and competently? E.g.,

1. Can he contact the judge hearing the case directly to ask for his opinion as to whether his counsel appears to be acting in his best interests?

2. Can he pay a second lawyer to review the actions and bills of his litigator?  Would this be cost-effective?

3.  Since the bar associations have been taken over by trial lawyers and largely abdicated their duty to enforce ethics, might there be a niche for a lawyer certification organization? This could be a member-financed organization that would subject its members to random audits and also provide complaint adjudication. In exchange, members could advertise their membership, and clients looking for honest litigators could take that as a sign of increased security.

Self-satire at the IRS? May 5, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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Why have Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Accounts been structured with such onerous and convoluted provisions? IRS Publication 969 almost seems like satire.

I.e., given that an employer can buy health services for employees with pretax dollars:

  1. Why does an HSA require that the taxpayer have no low-deductible health insurance?
  2. Why must a FSA be funded ahead of time? I.e., why does the taxpayer have to guess a year in advance what his covered expenses will be?
  3. Why are unspent FSA balances forfeited after a year (or now a year and 75 days)?
  4. Why are self-employed individuals excluded from the tax benefits of HSA’s and the even more attractive Health Reimbursement Arrangements?

Butcher Surcharge for Restaurants? May 4, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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Why do restaurants think it’s acceptable to put a $20 entree in front of with meat still attached to bones and surrounded by fat and gristle?

The bones are not edible.  Although some people like it, I don’t enjoy cutting around bands of fat, arteries, tendons, etc.  I like muscle, and after I’ve paid a restaurant to butcher and cook a slab of meat I don’t see why I should have to go to work with my fork and knife to trim away the other parts.  (Granted, there are exceptions: The rib in a lamb chop makes a convenient handle, allowing it to be served as a party food without utensils.)

But, you may say, many people do eat the fat and gristle.  Which is true enough: And there are plenty of people in the world who jump at the chance to eat organs that would make most Americans queasy.  But I’m a little old for the “There are children starving in Africa so eat this food you don’t like” line.

Perhaps restaurants could start to offer fully trimmed cuts of meat for an additional fee?  Call it a butcher surcharge — for patrons who would rather not have to finish the butcher’s job on their plate.

Bullpup Firearms May 3, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.

Why isn’t the bullpup rifle/carbine design more popular?  The only production bullpups I can find are either inexplicably expensive imports like the Steyr AUG, FN F2000 and PS90, or unpopular curiosities like Bushmaster’s now-discontinued M17S.

Regular rifles effectively throw away all of the space between a user’s shoulder and trigger hand.  But a bullpup moves the barrel, action, and magazine back into that area, so that for a given barrel length it’s easier to store, carry, handle, and use in close quarters.  Thus it seems like an ideal tactical weapon design.

I understand one drawback to a bullpup is that if it ejects spent cases to the side then it cannot be used for cross-shoulder or ambidextrous shooting. But we have plenty of examples of automatic rifles that have ejected downward, and FN has a clever forward-ejecting system.

Are there other factors involved in this design that limit its practicality, or explain the dearth of commercial offerings?

Helicopter Landings May 2, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions, Transportation.

Are helicopters the ultimate transportation convenience?  I.e., can you legally and practically land a helicopter anywhere you can find an open space just slightly wider than its rotors? Like in the back yard of your suburban home, the roof of your office building, or the parking lot of your favorite restaurant?

Or are there regulations and practical considerations (maybe the need for fuel?) that render it practically impossible to land anywhere but air/heliports?

I am wondering why, say, in NYC where there are plenty of buildings with flat roofs and wealthy occupants you still see all the helicopters landing in dedicated heliports along the rivers.

Taxation Without Representation May 1, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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I have begun to wonder about Constitutional foundations and restraints on taxation. Of course our Revolution could arguably have begun with a rally against “Taxation without Representation,” but I can’t immediately see that that theory ended up codified in any U.S. Constitution or law.

As a result, as best I can tell, we now have a situation where any government entity — state, county, or municipal — can levy taxes on any economic activity or property with a “nexus” to its jurisdiction. And in at least one common case, that can occur without the taxed individual having the right to vote for the government taxing him: I.e., we have nonresidents who commute to other cities, counties, and states for employment and who get taxed on wages they earn there but who can’t vote there.

Is this addressed in any federal law? Are you aware of any research or debate on this question that would apply to the current legal regimes in this country?