I might agree with you that it isn't NASA's role to fund the question, 'Is our civilization sustainable and will we go the way of the Roman empire', perhaps NSF could fund it. What is certain to me however is that the question is a very serious one and I for one do not want our civilization to come to an abrupt end just because of some right-wing ideology or even more irrational because a religious group tells us that God said it would and therefore there is nothing we can do about. This is a Darwinian test for us, those who want to keep our civilisation going that those who either don't care, or are just being irrational. It is worth studying, by who is another matter.
Are you suggesting we shouldn't study how the stimulus money is being spent and what effect it might or might not have?
Definitely practical. Since I teach both undergraduates and graduates, I know that undergraduates simply lack the knowledge and skills. Also if they don't want to do a PhD then most likely they also lack the motivation and that is a significant impediment to a project. You don't do a PhD for the money but for the chance to do something original and worthwhile (Pay is about 26K) per year. One could pay more but society as whole isn't fully aware of the need for high level research and therefore is unwilling or unable to foot the bill. Recall that during the election that even educated politicians such Sarah Palin announced that research on Drosophila was a waste of money, of course many of us know that work on this organism has had a profound impact on genetics, molecular biology and most significantly embryo development. It is difficult to justify to the general population some of the high end research that an advanced civilization such as the US carries out because it is so completely out of their normal experience.
I quite agree with you. Most open source text books are inadequate compared to pay for books for all the reasons you outlined. I write software and a lot of prose for a living and I have no doubt in my mind that software writing is far far easier than writing a good text book. If you think about it, software can be logically correct but can at the same time be sloppily written while still useful. Indentation doesn't have to be perfect or even present, variables names don't have to be spelt correctly, even algorithms don't have to be perfect and source organization can be haphazard so long as the original author knows what's going on. A book on the other hand not only has to be logically correct, but also look good (check out the CK-12 open source books that California has chosen, the layout is pretty bad), has to be clearly organized and above all read well (with out spelling or grammatical errors). A book also has far more facets to it including text, figures, problems sets (plus answers!), index etc. Anyone who has tried or has written a substantial book will know how difficult and time consuming it is to produce a good text book.
Did you check the formatting in ck12, it looks terrible. The math fonts in sentences are larger than the font used in the sentence text so that all the equations stick out. Now if they'd used an open formatting system like LaTeX they wouldn't had that problem. I think I would prefer to buy a $1 second-hand book from the 1950/40s that use this, at least there were far more problems in the old books.
Having used the GUIs in Visual Basic and Qt I would quite go as far as saying that signal/slot pairs is just like visual basic (VB). With VB you just click on the component (button etc) and it takes you directly to the code. In Qt you use this amazingly inept way of connecting stuff together visually by way of wires. I've never understood why other development environments have never taken the VB (or Delphi for that matter) route in GUI design. For simple GUIs it is highly productive, meas you can focus on user experience and coding rather than worrying about to to actually layout the controls.. But what is even more amazing most developers don't even know there are simpler way to build GUIs. Having said that I would agree that Qt is a very excellent toolkit, I just wish they would modernize the GUI construction end of it.
I would like to add that I think open access has a number of beneficial side effects because of the costs involved. In my own work, if I think the paper isn't that significant or perhaps all aspects of the research haven't been investigated I will send it to the preprint archive at arxiv. However if I think it can get through peer review I will sent it to an open access journal. The fact that it will cost me 1k-3K to publish means that I am more inclined to write a longer paper and a more substantial one, in fact one idea is to consolidate a bunch of related ideas from my preprint papers. The fact that closed access journals are free means that the system has been abused with either mediocre paper being published or by encouraging paper slicing to maximize the number of papers published. In conclusion, I take the opposite view by suggesting that open access with associated costs, increases the quality of the science but also reduced the dross.
I think what you're talking about is akin to socialism, i.e the government provides the services. Sure, somethings can be kick started by government (eg space travel) but I don't think it's viable model for all services.