Dear Max,

I read in the paper a while ago that a Baltimore couple was delivering letters across town for less than the Postal Service charges.  So the Postal Service called in the Federal Marshals to protect their monopoly!  I thought competition was the American way.  If someone can deliver mail for less than the Postal Service, don't you think they should be able to?    

                                                                  Concerned Citizen

Dear Concerned,

Why is it that people who want to compete with the Postal Service always elbow in on their cross-town deliveries?  Why didn't this couple try to take over the Postal Service's Baltimore-Alaska delivery service?   The reason is that a letter from Baltimore to Alaska costs a lot more to deliver than a cross-town letter.  Yet the Postal Service charges the same price, 37, for both services.

This leads to another question.  Why doesn't the Postal Service charge more for the Baltimore-Alaska delivery than the cross-town delivery?  As it stands now, the person mailing the cross-town letter is subsidizing the person mailing the letter to Alaska. 

The reason is that it would be too much of a hassle.  Can you imagine the lines at the Post Office if the clerks had to figure out the postage on each letter?   

Dear Max,

Why do manufacturers issue coupons?  To get 25 cents off a box of breakfast cereal, I have to go through the hassle of cutting out a coupon and then carrying it around in my wallet until I get to the store.  When I finally get around to using the coupon, everybody has to wait longer in line while the cashier adjusts my total.  If manufacturers want to offer a discount, why don't they just lower the price directly?  

                                                          Wants price cuts, not paper cuts

Dear Wants,

Your cereal manufacturer knows that some of its customers pay lots of attention to prices, while others don't.  If it were to cut its price, then only the price-sensitive customers would respond by buying more.  The price cut would be wasted (from the firm's point of view) on those shoppers who don't pay attention to prices.   

Coupons are a clever way of giving a break just to the price-sensitive shoppers. By creating all of the hassles you described, manufacturers see to it that only very price-sensitive customers are going to end up using their coupons.  This targets the price cut on just those people who will be most responsive to it.  

Dear Max,  

We get lots of mail where I work, and my boss wants me to soak off uncancelled stamps and reuse them for our outgoing mail.  Is it legal to do this?

                                                          Just following orders

Dear Just,

The late Senator Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska once told reporters that his staff routinely soaked uncancelled postage stamps off letters and reused them for outgoing mail.  He saw it as a crusade against government waste and told reporters "I feel I'm reusing a tax dollar."  

But as federal marshals explained to him, stamps don't deliver mail.  When the letters were first mailed to this office, the Postal Service incurred costs.  By reusing the stamps, the senator was trying (illegally) to get out of paying for the cost of mailing out his own letters.

Dear Max,

I went to a concert last week in New York City and during intermission my boyfriend was in and out of the restroom in two minutes.  I had to wait in line for twenty minutes.  This happens all the time.  Why don't they build larger restrooms for women?

                                                                 Desperate housewife

Dear Desperate,

Until about a decade ago, the state of New York required that places of public assembly have an equal number of urinals and toilets.  This meant fewer facilities for women, since if a building had, say, two toilets and two urinals, the men's restroom would get both urinals and one of the toilets, while the women's restroom would get the remaining toilet.

That rule was established back in the 1950s, when women spent more time at home.  Times have changed, and New York now requires that newly constructed buildings supply an equal number of "sanitary fixtures" (either toilets or urinals) in men's and women's restrooms.  This is better, but it still doesn't entirely relieve the problem since women typically take about twice as long to use the "fixtures" as men.

Even so, New York is ahead of many states in promoting restroom equity.  Although men's restrooms throughout the country are usually the same size as women's, they often have more fixtures since urinals take less space than toilets.

While I'm not privy to what every state is doing about this problem, at least one state (California) is insisting that many new buildings put in far more toilets for women.  Texas is considering a similar law following public outrage over the arrest of a desperate woman who, faced with an interminable line for the women's room, covered both eyes and slipped into the men's room

Dear Max,

I heard somewhere that the Nazis threw money out of planes over Britain during World War II.  Did this really happen?  If so, why did they do it?


Dear Mystified,

You're referring to Operation Bernhardt, a Nazi plot designed to completely demoralize and destroy the British.  The plan called for German planes to fly over Britain and sprinkle counterfeit money over the countryside.

What the Germans wanted to do was to cause inflation in Britain.  They knew that if they flooded Britain with pound notes, people would increase their demand for British goods, driving up prices.  As economists say, inflation occurs when there is too much money chasing too few goods.

The counterfeiting was done by a group of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp.  The prisoners were very skilled craftsmen and many of the counterfeit bills were excellent copies.

After the counterfeit notes had been printed and dried, they were sorted by an examination squad.  The best fakes were given as spending money to German spies operating in enemy countries.  Lesser quality notes were used to pay off collaborators in countries that were occupied by Germany.  The lowest quality notes were set aside to be scattered over Britain.

A lot of the better fake currency was circulated in Europe during the war, but the Germans never got a chance to drop money bombs over Britain.  As the Allied troops closed in on the concentration camp where the counterfeit bills were stored, the fleeing Nazis dumped them into nearby rivers.  Paper was in short supply at the time, so many of the bills were scooped up by villagers and American servicemen and used as toilet paper.  

Dear Max,

Last week, I saw some "thousand-year eggs" for sale in a Chinese grocery store and got to wondering about them.  Are these eggs still being made?  Are they really 1,000 years old?


Dear Perplexed,

When I got your letter, I took out my calculator and figured out the following:  If a firm was to take a 10 egg today and store it for 1,000 years, it would have to sell the egg for about $500,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that's half a sextillion) in order to make a 5% annual return on its 10 investment. 

Fortunately for thousand-year egg fans, it doesn't take that long to make them.  Producers soak the eggs in lime for six weeks or so, until the eggs are so gray that they simply look 1,000 years old.

Dear Max,

I'm an accountant and my work requires a lot of travel.  While in Cleveland last month, I made an appointment at a beauty salon that I had found in the yellow pages of the telephone book.  The salon turned out to be dirty, and the beautician gave me a terrible cut.  

How does one go about finding a good beauty salon in a strange city?

                                                   --Wanted cut-rate, got cut-wrong


Dear Wanted:

Here's a way to find a good beauty salon in a strange city.  Find four salons in the yellow pages, then call each of them.  Ask how long each salon has been in business and how much it charges for a haircut.  Then make an appointment at the most expensive salon that has been in business for at least six months.

If salon prices are in equilibrium, then the best salons will charge the highest prices.  A bad salon can't charge unreasonably high prices without gradually losing most of its customers.  If a salon is charging high prices and has stayed in business for awhile, then its customers have given it a seal of approval.


Dear Max,

I disagree with the idea of allowing businesses to buy "pollution permits" from the government.  What's to prevent these companies from jacking up their prices to cover the cost of the permits? Consumers will end up paying more even for stuff while factories spew out as much pollution as ever.  Do you see my point?


Dear Environmentalist,

Not completely.  I know of a fiberglass hot-tub firm that buys ERCs (pollution permits) so that it can emit organic gases while making the tubs.  What's wrong with having this firm pass some or all of the cost of the ERCs onto its customers?   Surely hot-tub customers are partly responsible for the organic gas pollution required to build the tubs.  Passing this cost onto prospective hot-tub buyers will discourage some of them from buying fiberglass tubs.  Maybe they'll choose instead to relax in wooden tubs, which can be produced without emitting organic gases.  

Dear Max,

Why do they design computer keyboards so that the most commonly used letters are so hard to reach?  

                                                                                Frustrated typist

Dear Frustrated,

Most typewriters, word processors, and computers make use of a keyboard designed in 1872 by Christopher Sholes, inventor of the typewriter.  Called the QWERTY keyboard (after the first six letters that appear), the layout was designed to slow typists down.  This was because Sholes' early machines jammed if typists went too fast.

Sholes arranged the letters so that typists used their left hands and weaker fingers more often.  The keyboard also forced typists to use the same finger to form frequent letter sequences (like ED), and to leave the home row to reach many commonly used letters (like E, I, N, O, and T).

In the 1930s, August Dvorak of the University of Washington used time-and-motion studies to design a keyboard for maximum speed.  Since then, every international typing speed record has been set using a Dvorak keyboard.  Dvorak typists usually type 10 to 45 percent faster (and with 30 to 50 percent fewer errors) than QWERTY typists.

So why haven't we all switched to Dvorak keyboards?  Most of us stick with QWERTY for the same reason we use the inch-quart-pound system instead of metric or the VHS format instead of Beta.  We do it because everybody else does.

But if you don't mind being a misfit, you may be able to convert your keyboard from QWERTY to Dvorak by using a software package or a conversion kit.  Good luck--or as a Dvorak typist once put it, Irre ngjt.  



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