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I came across this article (on a Washington Post blog) about how most Americans who benefit from government programs don't think they receive anything from the government.

The article talks about how this is because many government programs for median and higher income people are disguised as tax breaks or things that "just happen," so you can receive your social security or Medicare or home mortgage tax credit without ever thinking about where it comes from, in contrast to the programs for the poor, where you have to jump through hoops and fill out forms and grovel to get a grudging handout. Hence the 60 percent of home mortgage holders who don't think they're getting a government handout, as well as the 40-45 percent of retirees who seem to think that Medicare and Social Security are not government programs.

But that explanation doesn't exactly explain how 25 percent of those living in public housing or receiving food stamps could claim to not be getting anything from the federal government.

What the article leaves out, I think, is that the US government never does any PR for itself.

In Canada, if something is paid for by the government, then you can be damn sure that somewhere on the billboard or subway poster or letter in the mail telling you about it, there will be a little "government of Canada" logo that lets you know that this thing, whatever it is, was made possible, at least in part, by the Canadian federal government.

Things that in the US are labeled as being from/provided by/paid for by HUD or FDA or some other government agency are, more often than not, up here labeled as being from "The Government of Canada." And when things are labeled as being from a specific government department up here (for instance, public health ads from Health Canada), the logo used by the agency on the letter or ad will have a similar iconography and font as the Government of Canada logo, emphasising that all these various things (Health Canada, Revenue Canada, etc) are part of the Government of Canada. Contrast this to the plethora of departmental logos and seals used by various US government agencies on their announcements, which don't have very much in common with each other.

So in short, when a level of government up here spends money, it lets its citizens know about it, and it does so most often as a monolithic entity -- "Paid for by the Government of Canada" rather than as one of many sub parts -- "Paid for by HUD" or "Paid for by the CDC."

Explaining all the reasons why the US government is reluctant to let its citizens know when something is happening due to government money could take up a book, but it boils down, probably, to the long history of anti-government sentiment down there, and to two impulses arising from that long history -- fear on the part of liberals that if the government lets people know it's doing something, they will get mad and demand that the government stop that immediately, and desire on the part of conservatives to make the government as hated and feared as possible so they can continue to strangle it for the short term benefit of the rich and corporations without anyone objecting.

[ETA] TL,DR version: In Canada, the federal government is a brand, and the government spends time and advertising dollars making sure that people are aware of that brand and what it does. In the US, the exact opposite is the case.
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So the Governor of California wants to save money by switching from paper textbooks for public school kids to e-book textbooks.

This is profoundly stupid on two levels. First, it won't save any money whatsoever, and second, e-books as they currently exist cannot possibly replace textbooks for learning.

The money-losing issue is obvious. On a $25 hardcover novel, the publisher gets about $10 (40%), and distributors and bookstores get the rest. That $10 has to cover royalties, editorial/proofing, marketing and profit, as well as paper, ink, printing, binding, and shipping. Your typical textbook has more and larger pages than a novel, but that really only affects paper and ink costs, a tiny fraction of the total. The real reason why textbooks cost so much more than novels (from half again to twice as much as a novel, at least for college texts in my experience) is because the editorial and authorial costs are so much higher. Novel writers are used to working on spec, and get paid quite modestly only after the book is completely written and accepted for publication; one novel usually has one author, one editor, and (with luck) one proofreader. Textbooks tend to be written by committees, edited by multiple editors, and proofread (always - a textbook with mistakes in it won't be bought by schoolboards) by teams of proofreaders. They also need fact checkers, graphic artists to design charts and tables and lay out the illustrations, people to select pictures from image archives for the illustrations, and somebody to pay for the copyrights for any words or pictures to be used that aren't in the public domain. All of which is expensive, and none of which will go away if textbooks cease to be printed on paper.

So the governor's plan would save a token amount of paper and printing costs, in exchange for a huge increase in IT costs (at least 50% of students' families won't be able to afford an ebook reader for their child... and grade school age children are not gentle with their belongings, making frequent replacement a must).

Meanwhile education would suffer hugely. Because Ebooks, as they currently exist, are completely unsuited to presenting textbook materials. Not for any of the reasons I saw mentioned by various commenters on the Guardian site, but because ebook readers, as they currently exist, are WHOLLY UNSUITED to the reading of any textbook other than a collection of literature.

Most e-readers (and every e-reader that's even remotely affordable) have 9x12 cm screens. Every chemistry textbook, to pick an example at random, has to have a periodic table. How are you going to lebibly reproduce a periodic table in that small a page? Oh, sure, you could pan and scan, scrolling the e-reader's tiny window across a much larger periodic table... but if you can't see the whole thing laid out before you at once, at legible resolution, it isn't going to make any sense, you aren't going to see the patterns and flow of properties down rows and across columns. Ditto for the full-page maps and the chronological charts that fill any good history book. Ditto for any two-page spread graphically presenting a complex interrelated subject, whether it's the causes of the fall of Rome or the factors in the ecology of a pond.

True, it would be a wonderful thing if one could click on the periodic table in a chemistry text and get it to show you not just valences and atomic weights, but melting and boiling points, hardnesses, reactivity indexes, and so on and so forth. It would also be wonderful if a history book's reproduction of the Mona Lisa could be zoomed in on, so one could examine the tiny background details. But it is far more important, for learning, for teaching, to be able, when necessary or desirable, to present a massive amount of information in a visual way, and be able to see all of it at once. And right now, the technology for doing that, in an affordable way, is still the old-fashioned paper book. E-book readers will one day replace paper textbooks... when they can have jam spilled on them, and be thrown against the wall, without breaking; when the screen sizes grow to 44x28cm (a double screen that folds in half)... then we'll have a teaching tool worth investing billions of public school dollars into. Until then, despite the dreams of technophile nerds who are offended that we are still using this primitive paper stuff, we'll have to muddle through with plain old books.


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October 2017



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