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Serious Design Failure At USAspending.gov? 207

Posted by Soulskill
from the your-tax-dollars-at-work dept.
theodp writes "Over at Intelligent Enterprise, Seth Grimes declares the Federal Government's USAspending.gov website a travesty, calling it 'almost a parody of a government-transparency site.' Among the faults cited by Grimes is a botched 'Federal Spending FY 2009 YTD' pie chart that graced USAspending.gov's home page. Not only were the sizes of pie segments not in proportion to the percentage labels (due to a Google Chart API error), the colors in the pie chart didn't even match the colors and values in the table immediately below the chart. Lucky for the Feds, Grimes didn't get a chance to look behind the curtain at the Federal IT Dashboard, where they forgot to remove a (commented) reference to a Google spreadsheet that states 'These totals are pretty poor numbers' (Google workbook). Oops!"
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Serious Design Failure At USAspending.gov?

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:26AM (#29284439) Journal
    Having never done this before, the government is bound to have problems. All of them do when they try new things. I can bear with them for some incorrectly rendered pie charts or -- gasp! -- an informative comment about the numbers being pretty poor. Sorry to sound so apologetic but I'll give the idea of transparency and A and the implementation a C-. So what? The numbers are there.

    Because what did we have before? Data via third parties that had to use a FOIA and sit and wait for it? Numbers that were years old? Or we had to visit 50 state sites that were all laid out differently and aggregate the data? And we're ripping on usaspending.gov for design flaws? Okay, from a web developer's standpoint these are pretty egregious errors but so what?

    At least it reads "These totals are pretty poor numbers." and not "We really had to cook the books to get this to look right." Hell, now you know where to start looking if you want to do what you should be doing: criticizing the government based on their spending and IT (mis)management!

    How would you react if the next president did away with usaspending.gov? Happy that the travesty of a parody site is gone?
    • by synthparadox (770735) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:39AM (#29284599) Homepage

      I agree. When I first read the title, "Serious" jumped out at me (possibly with the assistance of being the first word), and luckily for me I actually RTFA'd. Speaking for myself and more than likely any one who's done any web programming, a minor mistake of data passing being in the incorrect format for the Google APIs to digest is much much less than a "serious" design failure. In fact, its not a design failure at all. Its a code error, and luckily (or possibly unluckily) for the guys at USAspending.gov, Google's APIs don't just segfault out and crash the page, instead they try to parse it in a "is this what you wanted?" sort of way.

      TL:DR - its not serious, its not a design failure, its a coding bug, and as TFA says its a 2-3 line fix. Not newsworthy if you ask me.

      • Pie Charts (Score:5, Interesting)

        by chrb (1083577) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:01AM (#29284847)

        I'm surprised the guy rips into the bug calling the Google API and even says "Here's the government's chart done right" without mentioning that piecharts are a bad way to represent comparative data like this in the first place [informatio...gement.com] 3D pie charts may look fancy, but they make it more difficult to compare the actual data (which is supposed to be the whole point of plotting it). They are even worse than 2D barcharts, at least with 2D you are only looking at data being relative to slice area, and not being rendered at an angle - look at the edge in the plot he uses [google.com], there's as much if not more purple on display as the supposedly larger green slice. What's wrong with a bar chart for visualising comparative data like this? Surely it would give the reader a much more informed quick overview of spending?

        • by bendodge (998616)

          I'm a big fan of flat pie charts. Also, something like a 3D pie chart makes it easier to spin the appearance for whatever reason.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by DrVomact (726065)

          piecharts are a bad way to represent comparative data like this in the first place...3D pie charts may look fancy, but they make it more difficult to compare the actual data (which is supposed to be the whole point of plotting it)

          Give that man a cigar. This is exactly what I thought when I looked at the .gov page: this is no worse than any other Power Point presentation I've sat through. The real problem isn't some error in the algorithm that draws the pie, but in the notion that tarting up a graph by making it 3-D somehow makes it better. Of course, the opposite is true—in art, perspective is used to create an illusion of depth in a 2-D medium. But illusion is precisely what we don't want in the visual representation of data!

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by noidentity (188756)

        It[']s a code error, and luckily (or possibly unluckily) for the guys at USAspending.gov, Google's APIs don't just segfault out and crash the page, instead they try to parse it in a "is this what you wanted?" sort of way

        It should at least flag these errors (see Postel's Law [wikipedia.org]). Maybe it does; just wanted to note that there is something between "reject" and "accept without even a warning".

    • by garcia (6573) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:49AM (#29284709) Homepage

      In the end, the graphical representation of data is nearly always skewed, whether intentionally or not and in the end, as long as the underlying data is available (and many time, especially in government it is not) you can do you own charts to determine what is correct.

      While the layperson (or CEO) likes pretty pictures and big flashy dashboards that have little green and red and black arrows to show what's going on, it's not transparent until you can get your hands on the data itself. Being that I have fought with local governments and state/federally funded groups for years to give me the underlying data (and not some self-created aggregation), I applaud any effort to give us what we need.

      Yay.

      • by skarphace (812333)

        In the end, the graphical representation of data is nearly always skewed, whether intentionally or not and in the end, as long as the underlying data is available (and many time, especially in government it is not) you can do you own charts to determine what is correct.

        I don't disagree with your post's general premise. However, why should visualizations necessarilly be skewed? I can understand if you would have said they were light on data, or inhernetly vague. Skewed is a word that screams intent, kind of like 'spin'. For instance, having a scale that shows only 43-44y when everything is around 43.5 just to make the differences seem larger sounds intentional. But a 2d pie chart based on percentages can't exactly be skewed as long as all(or relevant) data is involved

    • by Gazzonyx (982402) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:53AM (#29284761)
      Seriously.

      We should be happy that they even were aware that their numbers were poor. That means that someone is, at the least, paying attention if not objectively analyzing the data. The fact that it is a government agency makes it that much more astounding (IE. it's not going to make a difference in their paycheck or pension most likely).

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by q-the-impaler (708563)

        That's a big problem with government: they don't compensate high performers appropriately. Furthermore, they routinely compensate poor performers and promote them out of departments.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by LKM (227954)

          And that is different from private company exactly not at all. There's a reason why both CEOs and politicians often tend to be sociopaths whose main goal seems to be to fill their own coffers. It's not unique to the government at all.

          The government screws up. So do private companies. The government does great things. So do private companies. I've yet to see objective data telling me that private companies are inherently better at something compared to "the government". Both are run by humans.

          In fact, where

        • I'm a contractor for a DoD R&D organization. Like many science and technology organizations within the DoD, my customers are on a so-called "experimental" (although it's been in place forever) payscale (not the GS scale that many people are familiar with), that allows them a large amount of flexibility in what they pay people. While it's not quite as much as folks can make on the outside, it is enough that when combined with the higher degree of job security offered within the gov't, they have no troubl
        • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @01:07PM (#29287685) Homepage Journal

          Government managers don't routinely get hundred-million-dollar golden parachutes for losing billions of dollars and costing tens of thousands of people their jobs, either. If you really think industry is any better at rewarding good performance and punishing bad performance, you're delusional.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Bigby (659157)

            When it is a problem in the private industry, people stop investing and/or the company goes bankrupt. It took government to bail them out and basically support the rewarding of bad performance. Meanwhile, government can print money and increase taxes without any kind of "check" in the marketplace.

            • The culture of golden parachutes developed long before the current bailout mess. So did the practice of investors and boards of directors rewarding executives for running companies into the ground. For the last couple of decades, at least, one of the best ways to make a fortune has been: take over a failing company, lay off a bunch of workers, take a bonus for "improving the bottom line," sell stock at an artificially inflated value, and then, when it becomes apparent that the company is headed for a cra

          • Government managers don't routinely get hundred-million-dollar golden parachutes for losing billions of dollars and costing tens of thousands of people their jobs, either.

            I don't know that the difference here is as big as you might think; high-ranking elected and appointed officials (the rough public equivalent of the senior executive leadership of private firms who you see getting those kinds of rewards) whose actions in office are useful to a narrow constituency (whether in terms of economic benefit, or

            • Sure, but these lucrative post-government positions aren't a matter of government policy. What you describe is more equivalent to Company Y hiring the former CEO of Company X after he runs Company X into the ground -- which happens all the time too, of course. But there's nothing for any government employee, from the lowliest clerk all the way up to the President, which comes anywhere near to golden parachute obscenity which has become SOP in the "efficient, competition-driven free market" I keep hearing

        • by zoney_ie (740061)

          Soo.... just like modern industry except that those at the top in industry are paid vast globs of money more?

    • by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:02AM (#29284877) Homepage Journal

      Heh. I read the bit about incorrect colors and sizes of pie slices, and laughed. I can't read a color coded chart anyway. GIVE ME A BAR GRAPH DAMMIT! Better yet, just post the numbers. ;^)

      • by bendodge (998616)

        Mint.com gives very nice pie chart with lines coming from the slices to the labels. Much better than a colored squares key.

    • by ljaszcza (741803) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:32AM (#29285245)
      I agree that the title is inflammatory. But. I'll take issue with the statement "The numbers are there". Well, the numbers are wrong. So, they are not useful unless you do a lot of work to figure out the errors. Then there is the issue of the govt. releasing the contract to revamp the recovery.gov website. Almost entirely redacted and given to someone (Smartronix), a company that specializes in security, does not even mention web design on it's page... (http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20090803_2176.php). A $18m contract. All this does not bode well for transparency and accountability. I suppose what really bites is that if I were to produce incorrect data for a IRS inspector, my life would probably be destroyed by fines and reprisals. I can just imagine giving the IRS redacted copies of my business contracts. The fun would be short lived. Why do we, the citizens and taxpayers, accept this crap from people that want to run more and more of our lives? /rant
  • oookay (Score:4, Informative)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld.gmail@com> on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:28AM (#29284465) Homepage
    Read the blog article, and I think that a better title for this slashdot article would be "minor design failure."
    • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

      I haven't either, but I'm assuming it's more like I didn't get the contract so I'll criticise the guy who did. Which is why I won't read it.

  • Whatever. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:30AM (#29284479)

    It's good enough for Government work.

    • Isn't is possible that the graph simply accurately reflects the government's level awareness of its own spendings? That would make a lot of sense.
  • by steve_thatguy (690298) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:36AM (#29284559)

    In terms of government it is considerably harder to make bring these things into existence and to remove them once they're already there. Changing it after it already exists is trivial. And that's what's important and significant about this: it exists. The general population has facilitated access to something that was obscure and hidden behind a wall of government before. This may not seem like much but I think the successful creation of this type of transparency throughout the government, and if possible embedding it systemically into government processes, that we will see a great improvement in terms of freedom, success, and efficiency of our government.

    It's similar to the way open source applications always get bugs patched faster than commercial implementations--crowdsourcing is a good way to catch errors. That will undoubtedly apply to government as well, especially when many politicians make their living relying on their practices being obscured from the public.

  • by proslack (797189) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:38AM (#29284585) Journal
    One of the first items on USAspending's page states "A journey towards greater Transparency and Accountability...". Seems to me like the site is a work in progress and will improve with time.
    • its not like they are out to be serious. If they were the same government promising more openness would not be ramming near trillion dollar bills through Congress without a chance for public discussion, let alone reading of by the voting parties.

      then again, change might mean soliciting bids for a system to systematically scrape all non-hidden data on popular sites like facebook and myspace https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=eec856940efb75b2b1c11e2b1d5660a4&tab=core&_cview= [fbo.gov]

      • by M. Baranczak (726671) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:25AM (#29285153)

        a system to systematically scrape all non-hidden data on popular sites like facebook and myspace

        Did you even read that link? The job it describes consists of archiving all the web content produced by the EOP (Executive Office of the President). Where does it say anything about facebook or myspace? Is it after the secret paragraphs that talk about the death panels and hiding the President's birth certificate?

        • ...The job it describes consists of archiving all the web content produced by the EOP (Executive Office of the President). Where does it say anything about facebook or myspace? ...

          Wow, knee jerk repsonse. Shivetya was filling in examples for the following statement in the link in question:

          The contractor shall include in the information posted by non-EOP persons on publicly-accessible web sites where the EOP maintains a presence both comments posted on pages created by EOP and messages sent to EOP accounts on those web sites. Publicly-accessible sites may include, but are not limited to social networking sites.

      • Insightful? (Score:2, Informative)

        by sean.peters (568334)
        This post is consists of 100% pure recycled right-wing talking points, most of which have nothing to do with the topic at hand. What do congressional rules for bill approval and the number of so-called "czars" have to do with the presentation of contractual data (to say nothing of the fact that these criticisms are stupid in themselves)? Who rates this stuff?
      • by tsm_sf (545316)
        its not like they are out to be serious. If they were the same government promising more openness would not be ramming near trillion dollar bills through Congress without a chance for public discussion, let alone reading of by the voting parties.

        Yeah, that kind of nonsense is only appropriate if there are brown people that need killing.
      • by Thuktun (221615)

        If they were the same government promising more openness would not be ramming near trillion dollar bills through Congress without a chance for public discussion, let alone reading of by the voting parties.

        If Congress isn't doing it's job, then it's the fault of Congress, not the one that has to implement the laws they pass.

        then again, change might mean soliciting bids for a system to systematically scrape all non-hidden data on popular sites like facebook and myspace
        https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=eec856940efb75b2b1c11e2b1d5660a4&tab=core&_cview=0&cck=1&au=&ck= [fbo.gov]

        You mean archiving postings by the White House to third-party websites, and any replies to those postings by users of those websites, in the White House itself rather than relying them being archived by those third-party websites? Since we've already seen third-party content providers totally lose all their data, and since the White House is required by law to document its communications

    • by sakdoctor (1087155) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:57AM (#29284809) Homepage

      Seems to me like the site is a work in progress and will improve with time

      Then where is the digging_man.gif? Where is are the road cones with flashing beacons, or the web 2.0 equivalent, the beta status?
      No. This must be assumed to be a finished website and judged "as is"

    • by brian0918 (638904)
      Government-run transparency is only as accurate as your trust in the government. Ultimately there should be independent third parties vetting this information for accuracy, and where those groups run into government roadblocks, all that data should be considered suspect.
  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:53AM (#29284767)

    If you're in IT long enough, you've probably seen a million sites and software packages like this in use at large companies. In my experience, this is usually the result of a low-bid IT contractor getting a last-minute request to slap something together. Of course, in-house resources can screw things up badly too, but high-dollar consulting/contracting deals seem to have a special knack for it. Some places have great results with outsourcing/contracting, but others make it impossible to get high-quality work done in a reasonable time.

    It sucks that something as public as the federal spending-accountability website has obvious problems, but how much time do you think whoever won that contract got to get the site live?

    I'd be interested in hearing from an MBA-type about what the actual rationale for hiring third party IT help is. I know it's usually driven by raw costs and the fact that "IT's not strategic." But what is it that's actually taught in business school that has every executive that drives the whole outsourcing push? Or is it really just "my golf buddy is doing it at his company."?

    Disclaimer: In the government case, I can definitely see the need for contract help. Projects would probably have a really hard time surviving administration changes, internal squabbles, etc.

    • In my experience, this is usually the result of a low-bid IT contractor getting a last-minute request to slap something together.

      $18 million for a website is "low-bid"??

      • The $18 million contract was for recovery.gov, not usaspending.gov. Source. [gsnmagazine.com]
        • The $18 million contract was for recovery.gov, not usaspending.gov.

          Oh, that's right! I get them confused (wonder why).

          usaspending.gov is the site run by our old buddy Vivek Kundra. You know, the guy with the impressive resume that, it turns out, includes impressive CIO positions at companies where he was the only employee [oreilly.com]. Impressive.

        • by BobMcD (601576)

          That may be, but without further information, is it not okay to assume usaspending.gov was paid a similar sum? Do you think they paid that team in waffles instead? If so, why?

    • by RMH101 (636144)
      rationale for 3rd party help? It makes the person who signs it off look good for a short term, which is long enough for them to stick another paragraph on the CV and go on to the next thing. We're using an indian outsourcing company to compress 7 years of work into 6 months. Never mind that this flat out doesn't work, at some level on a spreadsheet it's making a PHB look good. It'll be absolute crap when/if it ever delivers, but on paper it'll look good.
  • Can't write HTML.... (Score:5, Informative)

    by aitala (111068) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:54AM (#29284779) Homepage

    The site's pages don't even have a proper BODY or HTML close tags..

    Jeez.

    Eric

  • Bugzilla? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by should_be_linear (779431) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @09:55AM (#29284793)
    How about adding Bugzilla to that site? Here is one feature request: I would like to see contract sums by company (yes, I am interested in overall amount going to Microsoft).
    • Re:Bugzilla? (Score:4, Informative)

      by kevinNCSU (1531307) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:02AM (#29284875)

      You mean something like this?

      Microsoft Contracts [usaspending.gov]

      I mean come on, the search by contractors was only one click from the main page ;)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        +1, thanks. Interesting fact: They are eating $2.5B/year, and 90% of that money is "Not competed for an allowable reason".
        • Compare to Apple, with only 2.2 Million in contracts, with less than 22k (>10%) listed as Not competed. I don't have a comment really except that competition is good.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by kevinNCSU (1531307)

        Actually, my mistake, this is the correct link:

        Microsoft Corporation Contracts [usaspending.gov]

        The initial search (linked in parent) for some reason included the "United States Government" in the search results for Microsoft as a parent company.

        • $52M is laughable number, I think there is some flow here, or they are counting only subset of agencies (federal only?). No MS Lobbyists would waste their time in Washington DC for $52M worth of contracts. Another issue for Bugzilla. :-)
          • I'm betting most Windows stuff goes through middlemen - think outsourcing companies like HP, IBM, EDS, and smaller. You pay the company to purchase, install, configure, and babysit, and Microsoft gets the money, without it being tracked.

            You'd probably want to see how much was spent on operating systems, if they have it broken down to those type of purchase. Sadly it looks like no.

    • by AndrewNeo (979708)

      I'd be far less concerned about the tens of millions ($52m in 2009) going to Microsoft and more worried about the tens of billions ($26b in 2009) going to companies like Lockheed Martin [usaspending.gov] where $11b of it weren't even competed contracts.

  • This story would have been a lot more appealing without the hyper-ventilated media fishbowl aspects (serious design flaws! total failure of web 2.0 principles! complete lack of transparency! they didn't respond to my wiki posts!).

    As regards transparency, compared to what we had before, just having numbers like this up in the public puts government CIOs in a very hot seat, indeed. Just imagine if your own CIO had to do likewise with your own firm's numbers! Yow.

    Let's help them out here, not bash them in

  • "blah blah blah... failure... blah blah blah... dot gov"
    In other breaking news, the sky is blue.
  • by spectro (80839) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:39AM (#29285373) Homepage

    That guys trolls about "major design flaws" on a website that was slapped together within a month of President Obama taking office... gimme a break.

    The fact that a government operation was able to put that information out that quickly is just impressive and unprecedented.

    I wonder if TFA author would be able to put together a website of such scope and functionality in such short amount of time... and without any bugs when he claims to have "spent way too much time" troubleshooting just the pie chart.

    Maybe he works for the shop that came second on the bid?

  • by MikeURL (890801)
    Without an inside view of their process it is difficult to know if this is symptomatic of a serious problem or not. When you put together a large repository of data it is easy, very easy, to get totally focused on building the backend. The frontend becomes almost an afterthought (Oh yeah, throw up some charts). I would see that as not a very big deal because frontend work can be fixed pretty easily. However, if this is rooted in carelessness in building the backend as well then the whole project is usel
  • With a grain of salt (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Twillerror (536681) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:43AM (#29285435) Homepage Journal

    The govt. always gets highly critizied. Or even when someone is just making a simple obersvation it all of the sudden becomes a "slam".

    Can you imagine if companies had to bear this sort of total public critisim. How many companies have stupid errors on there website, menus, marketing, or anything else and we don't get upset.

    I just take it with a grain of salt and hope things get better. The govt. isn't going to be perfect becuase it's ran by human beings...just like everything else.

  • by sbma44 (694130) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @10:48AM (#29285525)
    I work at the Sunlight Foundation [sunlightfoundation.com], where we're pretty familiar with the people and data systems powering USASpending.gov. I've seen a lot of comments here saying that the important thing is that the government is publishing something, and that it's understandable that their first pass might not be perfect.

    But this isn't their first pass. The underlying data systems -- FAADS and FPDS -- have existed since the 90s, and have been riddled with errors throughout their existence. Instead of fixing the problems, OMB continues to slap new coats of paint on the same lousy data.

    It's nice that we've got a new USASpending.gov, and I agree that it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on a buggy visualization. But the underlying data is terrible, and so far no one is showing the will to fix it. Just look at USASpending's "data quality" tab -- it talks about the completeness of each row. Well, that's great, but it tells you nothing about the thousands upon thousands of missing rows, nor about the rows that massively under- or over-report their dollar amounts.

    At Subsidyscope [subsidyscope.com], the project on which I work, we've delved into these problems in more depth. Those who'd like to learn more about the shortcomings of the data systems powering USASpending can find a discussion of the relevant issues here [subsidyscope.com].
    • by gnuman99 (746007)

      Old, crappy systems gets maintenance and continue to function, barely. What's next? Donuts have fat in them? People die of heart attacks?

      It doesn't matter if what they have is old or can be now made with rails or whatnot. It matters that it does the job. And you examples of failure have nothing to do with website. They have to do with how data is stored on the backend. And if people are not reporting their data, how is it the fault of the website???

      Garbage in = garbage out. All data management systems can o

      • by BobMcD (601576)

        Old, crappy systems gets maintenance and continue to function, barely. What's next? Donuts have fat in them? People die of heart attacks?

        It doesn't matter if what they have is old or can be now made with rails or whatnot. It matters that it does the job. And you examples of failure have nothing to do with website. They have to do with how data is stored on the backend. And if people are not reporting their data, how is it the fault of the website???

        Garbage in = garbage out. All data management systems can only report the data that they have, not the data that they should have or ought to have.

        In other words, nothing ever Changes?

      • by sbma44 (694130)
        You might want to reread my post. You're making the same points I did: namely, that the data on the website is poor due to problems with the underlying systems. This is not the fault of the website (though the GCharts mistake is a bit sloppy). However, the same agency is responsible for the site and for collecting the underlying data. It's time for them to correct the more fundamental problems with the system rather than continuing to repackage it.
  • "they forgot to remove a (commented) reference to a Google spreadsheet"

    Sounds like transparency to me. Another promise kept. Working as designed.

    You CANNOT make this stuff up.

  • The whole exercise is a political manipulation anyway. The largest government outlays - the so-called entitlements - are omitted from the chart. Medicare, Social Security, and reimbursements to states for social services are not shown on these charts. Those items constitute more than half of Federal spending - that's where your tax dollars go - but they're completely omitted in this analysis.

  • Probably bid to lowest US contractor who in turn had outsourced it abroad. When you rush these jobs the specifications scrambled and the testing is sloppy as the results show.
    • actually, the contractor that maintains USASpending.gov is REI Systems, based in Herndon, VA. They're not faultless, but the real problems with the site have to do with the underlying data; unfortunately, REI can't do much about that.
  • I really don't like capitalization in domain names. I kept on reading is as "US Aspending", and thought it was some sort of parody site. Yes, we're aspending a lot of money. Enough to make my head asplode.

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