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RoboSquirrel? The Top 5 Most Ridiculous Gov't Expenses Found in This Year's 'Wastebook


"Washington politicians don’t even bother to give themselves a budget anymore."

The office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday released the October 2012 edition of its annual “Wastebook,” a collection of what many would consider frivolous and unnecessary government expenditures.

“Washington politicians don’t even bother to give themselves a budget anymore. For the third consecutive year, Congress failed to pass a budget. And, for the fourth straight year, these compulsive spenders charged more than $1 trillion to our national credit card, pushing us to a $16 trillion debt,” the senator writes in the report’s intro.

“Washington priorities are backwards. This is why important programs go bankrupt while outdated and outlandish projects continue to be funded,” he adds.

However, as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stressed yesterday with his chart on labor force “growth,” Sen. Coburn’s “Wastebook” shouldn’t be looked at as a Republican versus Democrat issue. It underscores a much deeper problem in Washington that both parties have allowed to fester.

“As you look at these examples, put your personal political persuasion aside and ask yourself: Would you agree with Washington that these represent national priorities, or would you conclude these reflect the out-of-touch and out-of-control spending threatening to bankrupt of nation’s future?” Sen. Coburn asks.

Here are the top 5 most outlandish examples of what the Oklahoma senator calls Washington’s out-of-control “let them eat caviar” mentality [all block quotes via the report]:

Moroccan pottery classes – (U.S. Agency for International Development) $27 million


In 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began pursuing a four-year plan to improve the economic competitiveness of Morocco. A review by the agency’s Inspector General (IG) found the $27-million project “was not on track to achieve its goals.”

A key part of the project involved training Moroccans to create and design pottery to sell in domestic and international markets.

To accomplish this, an American pottery instructor was contracted to provide several weeks of training classes to local artists to improve their methods and teach them how to successfully make pottery that could be brought to market. Unfortunately, the translator hired for the sessions was not fluent in English and was unable to transmit large portions of the lectures to the participants.

The instructor of a pottery class in Morocco used dyes and clays not available in the country, making it impossible for trainees to replicate the methods being taught. The translator for the class was also not fluent in English, making the lecture impossible to understand for participants, of which there were very few.

Participants in the program were also frustrated by the choice of materials. The colored dyes and clay the instructor used during the class are unavailable for purchase in Morocco, making it impossible for the trainees to replicate the methods they had learned.

Trainees also claimed the instructor would frequently forget to bring the right materials to class.

In one class, organizers reported 56 participants, but a trainee stated many of her classmates only signed in so they could receive the provided lunch, and estimated only around ten potters attended her class with any regularity.

One of the chief goals of the project – “to focus on women and youth” – also went unfulfilled. Women accounted for just 25 percent of trainees. Even though USAID mission officials knew of the challenge to involve women, they “did not adequately ensure” the program met their needs.

Project managers agreed with the IG’s comments on the pottery training, admitting the training was “ineffective and poorly implemented.”

Moroccans have been making pottery since at least the fifth century B.C., with the earliest urban pottery made after 800 A.D. Perhaps USAID could learn a thing or two about pottery making from Moroccans who have been passing knowledge of the ancient craft from one generation to another for centuries.

USDA’s caviar dreams – (ID) $300,000


Many Americans are finding it difficult to afford to put just the basics on their family’s dinner table. Yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent $300,000 this year to promote caviar.

As “one of the world’s most expensive delicacies, selling for as much as $400 per ounce, or $14 a gram,” caviar has been considered a “luxury cuisine for thousands of years.” In fact, Aristotle “described great platters of caviar garnished with flowers, served amid trumpet fanfare” at Greek banquets.

While there are “no reliable” estimates on world-wide caviar production and profits, the “insatiable appetite among the wealthy” for the delicacy keeps “demand for caviar far outpacing the supply.”

Fish Processors of Idaho was given a $300,000 Value-Added Producer Grant by USDA to create a website, print flyers and send the company’s owner to trade shows “in places like Boston and Chicago” to “entice distributors to bring his caviar to the masses.”

“At $28.40 an ounce wholesale (it goes for as much as $100 retail),” the Fish Processors of Idaho has “brought in about $150,000 in revenue annually from caviar sales in the past six years. If all goes according to plan, revenue could skyrocket to $1.5 million soon.”

Currently, Fish Processors of Idaho produces 300 pounds of caviar annually. Leo Ray, the owner who was born in Oklahoma, plans “to multiply his caviar production tenfold, to as much as 3,000 pounds annually” over the next three years.140141 As of now, the company’s caviar is only sold domestically. Former President George H.W. Bush even “served a batch of Ray’s caviar at a party a few years ago.” The business Ray built stands out as a great example of how hard work can result in success – Ray calls caviar his “401(k) plan.”

The federal government spending $300,000 of taxpayer funds to promote caviar or any other lucrative luxury cuisine, however, is just plain fishy.

Relive prom week with National Science Foundation video game -- (CA) $516,000


Whatever feelings high school prom may elicit, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has provided taxpayers with a chance to relive the occasion. In 2012, the agency supported the creation of “Prom Week,” a video game simulating all the social interactions of the event. The project used part of a $516,000 grant from NSF.

Without a standard storyline, “Prom Week” players can take one of the game’s characters – 18 different high school students – in many different directions.232 As a character in the game, they may participate in “getting a date with that cute boy in algebra class” or “convincing Buzz to give Monica a second chance.”


The professor in charge of creating the video game sees it as “a new and powerful mode of personal expression.”

Hosted on Facebook, “Prom Week” has only 179 “Likes” as of October 11 since being posted in February.

Self-reflection video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s 1845 writings – (CA) $40,000

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded a $40,000 grant to the University of Southern California (USC) to support production costs of a video game based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. There, he famously spent several years, reflecting on natural beauty and learning self-reliance.

Creators of the game explained players will “walk in his virtual footsteps, attend to the tasks of living a self-reliant existence, discover in the beauty of a virtual landscape the ideas and writings of this unique philosopher, and cultivate through the gameplay their own thoughts and responses to the concepts discovered there.” Game developers spent two years programming the Walden woods and hope to instigate a new category of video games focusing on player “reflection and insight.”

Game designer and USC Associate Professor Tracy Fullerton stated, “Having this support will allow the time we need to really bring the world of Walden to life … We anticipate a rich simulation of the woods, filled with the kind of detail that Thoreau so carefully noted in his writings.” Her inspiration for making the game was to introduce Thoreau to young people who may not have read his work yet.

The lack of excitement surrounding the Thoreau game led one entertainment critic to quip, “We might have just discovered the most boring idea for a video game ever.”

RoboSquirrel – (CA) $325,000

Squirrels are frequently preyed upon by the rattlesnakes, but the snakes rarely attack squirrels who are wagging their tales. When they do, they usually miss the fast moving squirrel.But what happens when a snake is confronted by a robot squirrel, built to look, act, and even smell like the real thing?

Researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California (Davis) spent a portion of a $325,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to construct a robotic squirrel named “RoboSquirrel” to answer that question.

RoboSquirrel is “a taxidermied actual squirrel that is stored with live squirrels so it smells real. The body and tail are heated with copper wiring, so the snake can see the squirrel’s heat signature as if it were real. The tail is controlled by a linear servo motor that makes it wag back and forth.”

“Robosquirrel” moves on a track near a rattlesnake nesting in grass. Approaching the snake on the track, the robot squirrel can flip its tail back and forth -- with or without heating it -- and then retreat.


While the interaction between squirrels and rattlesnakes has been understood from observations in the wild, the researchers suggest federal funding of projects like the robot squirrel will help perform public outreach, mentor students, and develop the next generation of robot animals. In fact, the team is already constructing other robot mammals. Coming soon are RoboSquirrel 2.0 as well as RoboKangarooRat.

Click here to read the full report.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

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