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'Wastebook' of government spending highlights overpriced routers, robot squirrels, and other tech programs gone awry

'Wastebook' of government spending highlights overpriced routers, robot squirrels, and other tech programs gone awry

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Senator Tom Coburn has released a 200-page document that assails a number of government spending projects the Republican deems to have been unnecessary, wasteful, and in some cases downright absurd. It's an obvious political play during election season, yet despite how partisan it may be, Wastebook 2012 paints a startling portrait of a federal government making questionable (albeit oft-entertaining) funding decisions in a period when the United States finds itself in economic straits. The examples are plentiful and Coburn isn't shy about calling out technology-focused misfires, although the focus seems a bit unwarranted at times.

Putting together a Mars menu decades before we make the voyage

He starts out in familiar territory, slamming the federal food stamp system for permitting low-income households to spend the government's money on fast food, soda, and beer. But before long, the junior Oklahoma senator turns his focus to a number of initiatives you've likely never heard of — and that's probably for the better. Take the $947,000 award NASA granted researchers at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii as one example, where the group was tasked with studying the ideal foods for astronauts to eat on Mars. That could be seen as premature, seeing as how many educated guesses don't predict a US visit to the red planet until the 2030s.

Then there's the case of RoboSquirrel. Animal behavior experts sought to discover how a snake would react to differing defense mechanisms from a squirrel. Not willing to irresponsibly sacrifice real-life subjects, the team built a mechanical version. That experiment was made possible thanks to a $325,000 science grant. You can watch the fruits of their effort in the clip below and make up your own mind as to whether it was money well spent.

Coburn also derides a number of allocations that went toward tech-based programs. Government-financed videogames — including a high school prom simulator available on Facebook and an Xbox Live title that lets players recreate Discovery's landing on Mars — come under intense scrutiny. But it's also here where Coburn's political motivations find their way through. For instance, he derides Lifeline, a program which provides discounts on mobile service to those in poverty, as wholly unnecessary. The only rights guaranteed to American citizens are shelter, food, and safety, says Coburn; cell phones don't belong on that list. He criticizes the FCC for letting Lifeline balloon out of control despite measures taken by the commission earlier this year to cut down on fraud. In yet another item, he criticizes a federally-funded smartphone research effort that he believes, despite good intentions, should have been financed by the private sector.

Even we don't have a $22,600 router

It's not hard to understand his frustration stemming from exorbitantly-priced $22,600 routers distributed throughout West Virginia, however. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been devoted to the effort which aims to enhance connectivity statewide. Unfortunately, thousands of the units are said to have gone unused thus far on account of their unwieldy size, though some state officials continue to defend the measure as an effective tactic in future-proofing West Virginia's internet foundations.

Still more oddities include a $97,000 YouTube contest intended to promote fruits and vegetables and a study that attempted to discover if playing World of Warcraft resulted in any cognitive improvements among the elderly. We suspect the entire list will lead to some partisan bickering, but it's a worthwhile read regardless.