Monday, November 19, 2018

USAgov for Researchers




It is difficult to find official government information. Perhaps one solution could be to use USA.gov – jump from topic page.

 

  • Main page: https://www.usa.gov/topics
  • Icon: TBD
  • Topic name: Public Information
  • Description: Get official information on government data, statistics, audits, reports, federal court cases, file a Freedom of Information Act request, and more. 

 

Content: similar to https://www.usa.gov/laws - do a grid:

 

  1. Court Cases – Search Federal court cases – link to PACER.gov – https://www.pacer.gov/
  2. Official Data Sets – Search Data.gov – https://www.data.gov/
  3. Inspectors General reports –https://www.oversight.gov/
  4. GAO reports – https://www.gao.gov/
  5. FOIA - https://www.foia.gov/#agency-search – the portal already exists
  6. Fact Sheets – I don’t think we already have a super-portal, but we could create a search that crawls individual agency sites in the beginning (e.g. State https://www.state.gov/s/seci/c64446.htm,https://www.dhs.gov/news-releases/fact-sheets)
  7. Press Releases – same as above
  8. Historical Research – similar to NARAhttps://catalog.archives.gov/advancedsearch
  9. Government Photos – we could aggregate government photos in one place (perhaps start with Flickr)

 

This page would be enormously helpful to anyone seeking official information or validation from the Federal government.

 

It seems there already is a “For Media and Partners” page on USAgov https://www.usa.gov/media with feature articles https://www.usa.gov/features

 

However the researcher is likely to want to find their own data and then curate stories out of that.

 

It seems like we already have the data and the sites. Not too heavy a lift to bring it together.

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Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. Public domain. All opinions are the author’s own. Photo by Dr. Blumenthal.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Terrifying Implications of “Human-Machine Teaming”

Terminator: Rise of the Machines (2003) movie poster

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense called for “human-machine teaming” as essential to national security.

This is the future, regardless of which political party is in charge, and it is both powerful and terrifying. We need to block abusers of this power.

To rephrase then-Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, our defense has evolved from:
  • Beating their conventional weapons with our nukes
  • When nuclear parity was reached, achieving “near-0” targeting of their conventional weapons 
  • The man-machine warfighter.
Within the man-machine phase there is:
  • Improved machine learning
  • Intelligent machines guiding human decisions
  • Humans wearing electronics/apps in combat — using them to fight better
  • Humans and computers (robots) fighting together
  • Weapons that kill on their own
It is obvious that we have to have better fighting capabilities than our enemies if we are to resist an invasion. Having humans control the robots is ideal. Here is a 2015 example out of MIT — the “robot with human reflexes.

It’s also critical to have robots that can assist in times of disaster — they are powerful, efficient and can save the lives of rescuers who would otherwise be at risk. An example is the Atlas robot, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and announced in 2013.

But it is also obvious that in the wrong hands, these kinds of weapons can easily be used against citizens.

Protecting citizens against tyrannical leadership is the essence of the Second Amendment. It’s not only about guns.

If the government has these weapons which can be turned upon the people, the people must have a means of self-defense.

Obviously there is no way to provide literal arms to the people equivalent to government power.

But it is possible to address the pressing issue of government abuse of power through the use of machines. This is not the technocracy of Silicon Valley but rather the Enemy of the State scenario. Or even, as some speculate, the deliberate destruction of democracy under the belief that the technologically literate are superior.

A “soft” risk is that humans will become dependent on machines for everything from identity to companionship to actual cognition.
  • How do you authenticate your identity? Google, Facebook, Amazon.
  • How do you connect? Facebook, Twitter.
  • How do you learn? “Google” it. 
“Freemium” is the classic marketing technique where you give it away to create dependence, much like selling illicit drugs. Think of iPads in kindergarten.

The (perhaps unanticipated) problem with machines becoming smart is that humans become correspondingly dumb, because of “distributed thinking.” Basically, we shut off part of our brains because we don’t need to make the effort anymore.

What happens when bad people are in charge of the technology that guides everything from education to entertainment? When they censor a wide range of opinions, leaving only a choice between vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream?

What happens when Google itself is buying the robots?

What happens when the computers are loaded up with “data” — socially constructed — that you use to make decisions about other things besides fighting an adversary? What is the difference between “education” and “advocacy?”

When President Trump says “fake news is the enemy,” the implications are much deeper than it seems on the surface.

All combat, all self-defense, begins in the mind.

Alex Jones is right: There is a war on for your mind.

Maybe that is why they “deplatformed” him.

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By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This content is hereby released into the public domain.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Combating Disinformation: An Essential Role For The Civil Service

We should use government funds for government-funded broadcasts, clearly attributed, that offer the official stance on matters of public interest or areas of misinformation or disinformation

Did you know that the U.S. government has an anti-disinformation service, that it's called Polygraph, or that this website operates jointly with a Russian-language site called Factograph?

Polygraph is operated by the Voice of America, which claims editorial independence. So does Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Both are funded by the U.S. government (see graphic adapted from the U.S. Agency for Global Media website).

Just a cursory review of the discussion around these sites seems to indicate a focus on Russia and Russian disinformation campaigns. (Here is an example of Polygraph at work. Here is an example of controversy around its activity.)

Perhaps we haven't heard much about Polygraph here in the U.S. because the audience is not domestic. It is permissible for us to see it, though, because the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 made it permissible for State Department and then-Broadcasting Board of Governors materials (now Agency for Global Media) produced specifically for non-U.S. audiences to be shown domestically.

This passage from p. 30 of Seventy Years of the Smith-Mundt Act (University of Southern California, Center on Public Diplomacy, 2018 — free PDF online) captures the mainstream media firestorm that ensued when the "modernization" of Smith-Mundt became law:
BuzzFeed was first to raise the alarm in advance of the bill’s passage. A website that epitomizes the contemporary media ecosystem, it published an article about the proposed legislation that declared, ‘An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill…’ Politico soon followed suit, writing, ‘The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public.’ Also weighing in on the subject, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor tweeted, ‘What I want is to make it harder, not easier, to propagandize our citizens.’ And an academic with a widely read blog focused on foreign policy asserted that the legislation would ‘allow the Department of Defense to subject the U.S. domestic public to propaganda.’”
Even without Smith-Mundt, the most obvious question that comes to mind is how any government-funded broadcaster can expect a claim of objectivity to be credible -- whether the product is or not. (In fact, because of the Gillett Amendment, it is illegal for government agencies to produce domestic propaganda or self-promotional communication.)

One might point to legal "firewalls" that prevent this from happening, but the reality is that in the U.S., federal agencies have found numerous workarounds for this prohibition, such as calling public relations specialists by other titles.

This deliberate murkiness has made it notoriously difficult to standardize anything to do with federal communication; in the perverse world of bureaucrats, "what isn't measured cannot be managed." The 1969 classic, Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy (free PDF) amply demonstrated how the administrative state maintains its authority through adroit invisible maneuvers.

The simple fact that the administrative state refuses through passivity to classify, quantify and name what federal communicators actually do suggests a certain level of disingenuousness when we refer to any law, regulation, policy or "firewall" actually protecting editorial independence in practice. Perhaps recognizing this with respect to the supposedly illegal practice of public relations in government, even the Government Accountability Office recently used the term "public relations specialists" in a recent study of government spending on these activities.

There is an entire field of study dedicated to the need for persuading people to adopt healthier behaviors -- social marketing. It is obvious that the government can and should engage in this activity at times, if only to reduce unnecessary spending on damage caused by counterproductive social behaviors.

That said, there is no need for civil servants to justify in rosy terms -- as opposed to simply explaining intelligibly -- what the government does; that kind of activity does not serve the public interest. Yet the line has routinely been crossed, with numerous examples available from years past. The issue is not only a simple repeal of "outdated" law, but whether government-funded communication can ever be said to be unbiased in nature.

More to the point: Unbiased communication means "telling both sides of the story." Is it routine for federal communicators to criticize the policies of the agencies they serve in the course of carrying out their duties? Is waste, fraud and abuse a part of official communication, or is it siphoned to the side in Inspector General Reports and GAO audits, rarely alluded to officially because these are not a "good news story?"

A related issue has to do with civil servants who are lawyers. Is the federal agency their "client," or do they serve the public at large? The obvious answer, of course, is "the public," but the challenge is always how to implement this ideal in practice, so that the people drawing their paychecks from a federal agency are not overtly or subtly coerced into protecting it from the consequences of its own misconduct.

Here's another problem when the government claims to fund unbiased news: We actually need biased communication at times for the sake of national security. The Department of Defense is very open about this specialty, which is called "psychological operations." The Army recruits such specialists on its own website.
"PSYOP Soldiers typically operate in small, autonomous teams or with other Special Operations forces to develop relationships with a country’s civilian population, government figures and military and law enforcement agencies."
What happens when DOD operations "provide support" to Department of State "public diplomacy" efforts, which obviously include broadcasts funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media?
"PSYOP Soldiers’ primary missions include Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Civil Authority Information Support, Military Support to Public Diplomacy, and Military Deception (MILDEC)." (Emphasis added)
It gets even more complicated than this. What happens when the enemy you're fighting is actually a U.S. citizen who is colluding with a foreign government on domestic soil? What are the rules of engagement for the Department of Defense in countering traitors who are engaging in disinformation efforts under the guise of acting as ordinary U.S. citizens, or even the media?

We cannot solve all the problems of the world at once. But we can take a step forward, and reconceive of the government communication function itself. We should use government funds for government-funded broadcasts, clearly attributed, that offer the official stance on matters of public interest or areas of misinformation or disinformation. This idea is nothing new; the UK tried this in 2018 with a "rapid response social media capability," and the future of this unit is uncertain.

The world is watching. Students are deeply engaged in the effort to identify, classify, and study what fake news is (free PDF). Things are set to get even worse as technology makes it possible to produce authentic-seeming fake video, setting the stage for fake news that can be "verified" and "sourced" as absolutely real.

It seems a weak remedy, as Sweden does, to tell citizens to "avoid propaganda in a crisis." (English version of brochure is here.)

One study this year, of 600+ Dutch civil servants, noted their concerns about disinformation. It is unclear to me why we steadfastly refuse to use the U.S. government to combat it, especially when you consider that fake news directly interferes in the democratic process, including interfering in elections.

Indeed, in 1993, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government brought hundreds of U.S. civil servants together, detailed from their home agencies, to support a massive efficiency/effectiveness initiative “focused on how the government works, not on what it should be doing.” This led to the launch of the Federal Communicators Network in 1996.

Can the government launch a coordinated effort to combat disinformation with fact? Perhaps at the very least we could establish an easy-to-search portal combining federal court cases, Government Accountability Office reports, Inspectors General reports, Open Data, "Myth vs. Fact" documents such as this and this, and training documents and videos that help citizens learn how to find the information they're looking for.

Much ado has been made about "QAnon" -- both pro and con -- who claims to be a kind of government communicator, stating: "We serve at the pleasure of the President." But regardless of where you stand on the matter, it should concern you that the lack of credible, relevant, and easy to access-and-understand federal communication is so pervasive that an impossible-to-trace person (or group) was named among the "25 most influential people on the Internet" by Time.

Even more troubling from the perspective of media reliability, Q purports to tell us the reality of current events, while also stating openly that "disinformation is real."

There is no question that America faces determined enemies, people who would like nothing more than to show that they were powerful enough to destroy us.

The modern method of conducting warfare is to destroy the minds of the people first.

We cannot let our enemies to win the war by refusing to show up on the battlefield.
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By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This content is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons photo by Yomare via Pixabay.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Prayer To God. Please Protect & Defend the Children

Ten years ago God blessed me.

He sent me forward with a mission that I did not understand at the time. That I still do not understand, but I know when it feels close. Something like - “tell the truth to free the kids.”

There is a small group of terrible people who have reigned on this earth for far too long. They are nothing more than demons with flesh.

For whatever reason, this is the time, God has heard the cries of their victims. The children they brutally rape and control. The workers they exploit for any purpose they can think of.

We, the public, know that these demons exist. 

We, the public, are standing up to them. Not for the first time. But maybe for the first time together, as a planet.

They have lied and cheated and tricked innocent people into believing the mask they wear is authentic.

We, the public, know that there is nothing behind that mask except rotting filthy garbage. 

May God protect the masses and masses of people on this planet who are innocent. 

May He subtract this plague from our midst.

Let the next generation blossom. Let them, and their children, be young and happy and free.

This is my prayer to God tonight.

Please, dear God, help us to protect the young.

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Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. Creative Commons Photo by Gellinger via Pixabay. This post is hereby released into the public domain.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Stop Giving Yourselves Awards

Your work sucks. Stop congratulating each other for it.

Here is an interesting statistic — a bit dated, but useful for conversation purposes nevertheless. Writing at Forbes, Josh Bersin notes that as of 2012, companies spent $46 billion per year on employee recognition awards. While the outlay was almost nothing (1–2% of payroll), it was a total waste of money strategy-wise: 87% of programs reward someone for simply being able to “hang in there.”

Rewarding people for their ability to stick around is not just unproductive, of course. It’s counterproductive. It tells people that their greatest contribution to the enterprise is the ability to “go along and get along,” even if they contribute nothing to the bottom line and even subtract from it — complaining, wasting people’s time in meetings, or creating make-work to keep themselves employed.

Bersin offers a number of alternative approaches to employee rewards that are more profitable. Basically they focus on rewarding performance, not longevity — noticing and calling out behaviors that have a positive impact on the bottom line. Having peers recognize each other, rather than only executives recognizing staff. Storytelling. Building recognition into the system. And linking it to the achievement of company goals.

But there is a larger problem here: For one thing, rewards and recognition are nice, but when they rise to front and center of the employment experience, something is very “off.” They are icing on the cake, not the cake itself, and in the rush to recruit mad talent the distinction can easily get lost.

A separate problem has to do with the dismantling of the value experience for the customer. By that I mean that “employee awards” has grown into this monstrous complex of Hollywood awards, industry awards, government “patting ourselves on the back” awards, nonprofit awards, on and on and on and on and on and on ad nauseam. Not only are these awards frequently questionable in terms of the achievements they’re celebrating (like who exactly decides which movie gets to be “the best of the year,”) but often they stand in marked contradistinction to what the customer actually wants and buys.

In a world where people can simply “decide” on their own reality — including the idea that awful work is actually good — maybe we should consider a refocus on what the customer wants and needs. And get away from giving so many awards to ourselves.
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Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons image via Pixabay.