Friday, April 17, 2009

The State Department and dissent

Today I saw the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon speak at Princeton.  I became curious about how people generally enter foreign service jobs and poked around a bit on the State department's web page.  I found this FAQ, which had an interesting (but reasonable) tidbit about dissent in such positions:

25. Does the system tolerate dissent?

As public servants, Foreign Service Officers must publicly defend U.S. government policy, despite personal reservations. There is an internal channel through which an employee may present dissenting views on specific foreign policy issues. If an officer cannot publicly defend official U.S. policy, he or she has the option to resign.

I'm curious about what this internal channel for presenting dissenting views is.

Update: this public state department dissent guide details this channel.  

Steven Rosefielde describes this pathway cynically in Russia in the 21st Century:

Dissent Channel, a product of the Vietnam War era, is an established vehicle for the submission of dissenting views on important policy issues.  Messages in this channel are not subject to clearance procedures and are distributed to the top policy officials of the State Department, but not to other parts of the government.  Dissent Channel rarely changes policy, but is a venting mechanism (and a way of identifying troublemakers).  It has been used more often than one might think...

Are these messages available to Freedom of Information Act requests?  Rosefielde's attempt failed; he received this message in response to a FIA request for one of his own dissents in this channel:

release and public circulation of Dissent Channel messages, even as in your case to the drafter of the message, would inhibit the willingness of Department personnel to avail themselves of the Dissent Channel to express their views freely

Friday, April 03, 2009

Teflon leader nicked by slump

So I haven't even read the article yet, but the headline and photo are great.

Amazon Mechanical Turk suggests uses of Amazon Mechanical Turk

It seems that Amazon Mechanical Turk is suddenly becoming very widely used (or perhaps my recent change of scenery and my surroundings just make it seem that way).  My research group uses it to label examples for machine learning applications, for example, but I was wondering what other sorts of original, interesting things we could learn from this tool... So I asked MTurk for an anwer to this question.  Asking 50 mturk workers for their two cents' worth (literally), I found some interesting user-suggested results.  Here are some of the most interesting.
  1. Ask people to tweak recipes, perhaps restrict it to people who can understand recipes. Give a general outline for a food recipe and have people submit ideas for changes to it [...]
  2. I think Amazon Mechanical Turk would be a great tool for allowing others to review and comment on a draft of an e-mail. Sometimes you write something and don't know how it will be perceived and Mechanical Turk would be a fast way to get feedback and understand how your message will be viewed by the recipient.
  3. You could ask people what motivates them to work on the Mechanical Turk. That should get some interesting responses. :)
  4. Many people have security cameras they are not monitoring. You could have a selection of images periodically taken by these video cameras sent to Amazon Mturk for review. Have a selection of "is there a person here" or "no person" or "it is an animal". If a human, then the home owner is notified and the owner receives the image and the option to call police. This could also be tied into a home security system [...]
  5. As a former teacher, I know how time consuming grading test papers is. Wouldn't be great if teachers could electronically post a test, the answer key and the test papers from students? They would be corrected by many people at once and it would take minutes instead of hours.
  6. Locate the best real estate buys in the USA.
  7. Research several cell phone service plans (AT&T, Verizon, T-Moble, Sprint) etc.) and tell me which is the best value for a family plan for 4 people. The plan should have 1400 minutes, free nights & weekends, & unlimited texts.
A couple were philosophical:
  1. well first start with what do you really need out of life?
  2. You can answer in your words the meaning of life. Furtheremore, create a book upon yours and others responses.
Then there were some more bizarre, illegible, or simply useless bits of information some workers would seek:
  1. do you want to be a actor and why ?  (Female, India)
  2. what is the highest number which can be made by using five 3......... (Male, India)
  3. I always wondered if someone could ask for lotto numbers, and if the number win, the requester share the prize with the AMT workers who participate in the task. (Male, Uruguay)
Other results included finding out ways to make mturk better for users (workers mostly), ways to learn about peoples' feelings on saving and the economy, and more standard, obvious existing uses of MTurk (getting feedback for your company's product or website, labeling data, etc.)

Things I didn't see, which I expect happens on mturk:
  • Answers to homework problems
Things I would like to do which I didn't see in these suggestions:
  • Have users review legislative bills or provide feedback on political events to understand which aspects of the public forum should be discussed more. 
I also was curious about whether many of the users might be English speakers in sweatshops in third-world countries. Here's a demographic breakdown of the users, based on the information they've provided.

The question was posed late on a Friday night/Saturday morning (Eastern), so we got the weekend night owl and Saturday morning demographic in the US, along with daybirds in other countries.  Users ranged in age from high teens to 59, mean 30, median 26 (although one user suggesting real estate buys claimed to be 5).  Twenty four of fifty were female, although the females tended to be a bit older than the males.  About 36 were from the US, 9 from India, and the rest from various and sundry other places.

So it appears that it's mostly just bored American adults who answered my query, willing to work for $0.64 / hour.  Judging by their responses, I think most were probably being honest about their ages and locations.

The full CSV is available here.