Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What the Government Does

When I was younger, I had a very limited understanding of government. I always wondered what politicians in Washington DC actually did all day.

Why was there so much bureaucracy and red tape? Why couldn't a room full of people agree on anything other than the time of day? Since then, I have come to understand the purpose of government a little better and why there is so much disagreement in our nation's capitol.

There are certain functions the government must perform in order to BE the government. It must oversee the creation and distribution of money and coinage through the Mint. It must maintain the armed forces for the defense of our country. It must also follow the Constitution and make sure it is upheld.

Everyone agrees that the government must perform these duties at the bare minimum. Beyond those fundamentals, people start to disagree with each other about what else the federal government should be responsible for.

Some people think the functions of government should be limited to these actions and no more. They feel that the States should possess the power to pass and enforce laws at their own level, rather than be dictated to by politicians and bureaucrats. Let each state decide what is best for itself, rather than rely on nationwide laws to be passed.

Other people feel that the federal government should play a much larger role in our lives. They feel that the government's overall job is to take the money collected from the income tax and redistribute it to wherever it is needed most.

How does one determine which causes or ideas have the greatest need for government aid? Who deserves those federal dollars, how much they deserve, and what they're going to do with the money are all important questions to be considered. This is precisely what politicians debate all day, every day.

The federal government is more than just a building full of longwinded Senators and Representatives in Washington D.C. It is a made up of hundreds of social welfare organizations that employ tens of thousands of people all across the country.

In one way or another, the government subsidizes (pays for): a national retirement system called Social Security, money to each of the 50 states for construction projects (with stipulations), federal loans for college students, federal loans for homebuyers, and subsidies to farmers so they will not grow certain crops.

The government also regulates broadcast media including television, radio, and consumer electronics through the FCC. They set safety standards for the vehicles we drive through the NHTSA and the foods we eat through the FDA. They set strict laws relating to aviation and marittime industries. They operate our national parks under the National Park Service. They provide a nationwide system of mail delivery through the Post Office.

These and hundreds of other organizations and regulatory agencies are all funded by the federal government (see the complete list). Each organization has an annual budget to work with, which never seems to be enough.

It is very difficult to decide how much of the money collected from the annual Income Tax should go to each of these hundreds of organizations. Which is most important: widening a freeway in Florida or making sure that the Superfund program has the money to clean up a toxic waste site in Pennsylvania?

What will the government do to help farmers in the midwest during a drought, or college students in California who cannot afford tuition? Can they make more annual inspections of the nation's nuclear power plants if they hold off on buying new planes for the Air Force for another year? What could the consequences of that decision be?

And therein lies the problem: there are only so many dollars available and a trillion ways to spend them. Of course, the Representatives from each of the states will lobby before the Congress for more money for their own states. Representatives from California will explain why California needs more money for its college students. Representatives from Florida will plead their case for that wider freeway.

Each of the hundreds of organizations that the government supports feels that it should get all of its requested funding. Every organization feels that it is of great national importance, from the space program to the arts council. Because it is not possible to give everyone all of the money they desire, compromises must be made.

The federal government attempts to please everyone by deciding that Florida will get two additional lanes and the Air Force will get X number of planes and the Superfund program will get a 5% budget increase over the previous year.

Of course, the outcome of every decision is hotly contested by talk show hosts, private citizens, and even other government agencies. Being a politician on Capitol Hill means taking part in a vicious tug-of-war for those precious government dollars. Everyone wants them and yet there are not enough to go around. That is what they argue about all day in Washington.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Worst Silly Names of Web 2.0

The Internet has changed dramatically over the past few years. No longer do users simply read and absorb information in a one-sided conversation. Everyday people are now publishers of information via blogs, wikis, forums, comments, and YouTube videos. They engage in social networking and are making their voices heard. In this new era where everyone is a producer of content, we have entered the realm known as "Web 2.0."

Stupid Silly Names of Web 2.0Web 2.0 is not a technology, but a collection of websites that have several things in common. To be considered "2.0," a website will typically include some or all of the following:

-Maintains focus on user generated or edited content
-Encourages people to publish content about themselves
-Enables people to communicate quickly
-Is usually free of charge
-Explosive, viral popularity

Critics like myself are quick to point out that these sites also sport clean, oversimplified designs with HUGE fonts, rounded corners, cutesy-colorful icons, and utterly silly names that would make your English teacher cringe in disgust. Seriously, why do so many popular websites have such awful names? Take a look at these examples:


I'm not the first one to notice that these names sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. This is one bandwagon that's apparently far from full. I wish people would go back to picking creative, meaningful, or somewhat appropriate names for websites again. These silly names are so pitifully unimaginative that it makes me sick to think about it any longer. I'm going to go read a book now, for humanity's sake.

I'm not the only one who feels this way:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Slow and Painful Death of the Fax Machine

Every so often, a new technology is invented that completely displaces an existing technology. When a new invention offers such significant improvement over the current technology that it can drive an entire market out of business almost overnight, it is a phenomenon known as a "disruptive technology."

The Slow and Painful Death of the Fax MachineIn many cases, the new technology is hailed as a "quantum leap" or "paradigm shift" in the industry. Before the pocket calculator came along, the slide rule was the best we had. Before jet-powered aircraft came along, propeller-powered aircraft were the best we could do. The typewriter was the king of the publishing world for decades before the personal computer came along.

In almost every case, these new technologies provided huge improvements over the existing ones. Businesses and consumers are generally eager to pick up on new technologies that will make their lives easier.

And yet, one technology that should have been disrupted long ago is still around. One slow and inferior communication technology still has not been defeated by its superior rival. It is 2009 and for some strange reason, fax machines are still commonly found in businesses, offices, and homes nationwide!

The death grip that the business world has on fax machines extends far beyond mom and pop businesses and the Luddites of technology. In fact, everyone from small local businesses to Fortune 100 companies still uses fax machines on a daily basis. I just cannot understand this!

Fax machines require a dedicated telephone line. They take forever to scan, compress, and transmit information. Sometimes they have busy signals or cannot go through. The information sent to a fax machine can only be retrieved from one physical location.

Do these people know about email? Do they know that it's possible to send multi-page documents electronically from one computer to another? In fact, email is a superior technology to the facsimile in every way.

Email messages can be retrieved from any computer that's connected to the Internet. With email, it is possible to send larger, high resolution pictures and documents in less time. Although both email and faxes are subject to unsolicited messages ("spam"), email provides the option of setting up filters to automatically delete such messages. Fax machines do not.

It seems to me that the only people who are still using fax machines are the ones who are too dumb to use email. I think fax machines should have been inducted into the Museum of Obsolete Technology long ago.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Cost of a Good Education

Ask any college student about the rising costs of textbooks, and they'll tell you what a racket the industry has going. A few decades ago, textbooks were used for approximately 3-5 years before a new edition was released. This gave educators time to develop strong ties with the material and design their courses accordingly. Now, it is common for new revisions to come out every year or even every semester.

In many cases, nothing has changed about the book except for the picture on the cover. I often wonder if textbook companies are truly meeting the needs of their customers, or if they are just tacking on bells and whistles in order to justify their price hikes?

It was not that long ago that I got my first textbook that came with a CD-ROM disc. The disc didn't have much on it, just a couple of lectures related to the subject of the book. It didn't add much value to the book itself. In fact, I think most of the textbooks that come with CD-ROMs and DVDs and other "enhanced content" end up staying in the package for the whole semester. The teachers don't assign it and so the kids don't use it. The Macroeconomics book I purchased last semester came with a special insert promoting the "iPod Ready Videos" the publisher now has available on its website. I never looked at them.

I guess the idea of all these multimedia extras are to reach out to students who don't gravitate towards books. Honestly, I cannot imagine that learning about inflation and the production possibilities curve would be any more fun on an iPod than to read from a book. No matter how you present the material, it's the same dull information. The more you produce of one good, the less you can theoretically produce of some other good. That part does not change.

Imagine an alchemist in some medieval kingdom, trying in his workshop to spin lead into gold. While he may succeed in producing something that looks like gold, or feels like gold, at the end of the day it simply cannot be done. No matter what package it comes in, it's still lead. Such is the case with transforming a textbook onto a disc. It might appear different, but if it's the same information then it's no more exciting than a real book.

Perhaps the demand for multimedia teaching is a response to the short attention spans of students these days. After growing up hooked to the TV, video games, and computers, most kids these days have an attention span somewhere between that of a horsefly and a commercial break. Blame the media, blame the parents, blame the schools and the families and even the soft drink companies. After all, you've got to blame somebody, right?

Call me old fashioned, but I don't need any of this new-age garbage. I can listen to a lecture from a real professor and take notes for sixty minutes and it won't kill me. I can read a freaking book and identify the meaning without having an actor explain it to me. Knowledge lies in finding the answers for yourself, and not in having someone tell them to you.

Somehow humanity was able to transfer knowledge from person to person for two millenia before we had iPod-ready video lectures and interactive multimedia junk. I wish textbook manufacturers would cut the crap already and just make good, affordable books. If the web-two-point-oh generation of today can't handle paying attention in lecture for an hour, then that's their problem. Maybe school is just not the place for them. My blood is already boiling; don't even get me started on the ridiculousness of online classes...