Monthly Archives: March 2017

Getting Rid of Gerrymandering

I have friends and colleagues all over the political spectrum, so their reactions to last Fall’s election was quite varied, though perhaps all of them might agree that our country, post-election, feels more fractured and partisan than ever.

In wanting to be more politically engaged, I also wanted to find something that all (or, I guess, most) of said friends and colleagues could rally around as Americans. Surely we can all unite in eliminating gerrymandering.

You know what he’ll say. Also, he’s from Canada.

What is gerrymandering? It’s gaming the system for craven political advantage. Christopher Ingraham has a great explanation of it here, which I highly encourage you to stop and read if you haven’t already.

Seriously, it gives you both a good visual guide to how awful this is, plus examples of how its used to erode the whole notion of representative democracy.

Now having read that, I can see how cynical thoughts might pop into people’s heads:

  1. My side controls districting in my corner of the country and will always control it, so let’s leave the system as is.
  2. Gerrymandering will always be in place. There’s nothing we can do.

For #1, we can all agree that nothing lasts forever, especially in politics. And for #2: guess what, non-British subject? You can make changes that you and future citizens will benefit from!

And that’s the kicker, because there’s no way that you will not benefit from more accurate districting. Even if your party’s candidate loses the election, the other party’s candidate can’t ignore you as a constituent. Odds are they needed some of your party’s voters to win! In other words, when people aren’t gaming the system to make districts “safe,” there’s a far greater chance of candidates who have to moderate their views… and that also means a greater chance of elected officials who have to listen to a greater range of their constituents.

Right now, if you’re in a gerrymandered district (which you almost certainly are), even where the elected official is a member of your party, they don’t have to listen to your concerns as much, because they’re safe. And yes, even with less or no gerrymandering we’ll still have districts that “reliably” vote one way or another, but they won’t be so absurdly constructed.

This is where some visuals really help. Take a look at the difference between rationally divided districts based on the populations of census-defined neighborhoods and gerrymandered districts divided to maximize political “safety.” Here’s how North Carolina’s districts are currently divided:

We would have all hated geometry if we had to figure out the area of the shapes above. (Graphic from the Washington Post)

We may agree that politics is naturally crazypants, but I contend the gerrymandering above spastically dances over into the unnaturally crazypants column. Quite simply, that’s not the representative districting we’re looking for.

But there is a solution! Take a look at these districts by comparison.

Visually less Lovecraftian, no?
(Graphic also from the Washington Post)

Note those smooth, sensible districts. Those are the work of Brian Olson. Olson, a software engineer, decided to write an algorithm based on 2010 census data and based on census blocks, the smallest geographical unit used by the Census Bureau.

It especially hit home when I looked at how my own state (commonwealth) of Virginia could be changed.

Now I know things aren’t simply a matter of pointing at the algorithm above — and perhaps the algorithm above isn’t the definitive method to allocate districts. But it’s straightforward. How fair and transparent is your state’s system? Odds are, it could be both more fair and more transparent — and again: every voter benefits.

Obviously, these gerrymandered systems are in place because various people and organizations do benefit from districts being distorted. Not only that, elected officials seem to be even more annoyed at that pesky “will of the people” these days. Nevertheless, now is an ideal time to see what you can do in your state. The next census will be coming in 2020. Between now and then, there are many state and local elections. It’s a natural time to put in some reforms, even incremental reforms, for how your state apportions district.

For Virginia, there’s already a constitutional amendment proposed to address redistricting proposed by my state senator (SJ68) which I’m going to look at closer. An organization dedicated to establishing fair redistricting, OneVirginia2021, also mentions several other bills that have been introduced, including:

  • SB 59 Congressional and state legislative districts; standards and criteria for drawing districts. (which relates to SB 495 and HB555)
  • HB 553 Congressional and state legislative districts; criteria for General Assembly to observe in drawing.
  • HB 26 Congressional and state legislative districts; standards and criteria for drawing districts.

There’s also a very in-depth hour-long documentary about gerrymandering in Virginia you can watch and share.

You’ll see that the bills have been introduced by members of both major parties. Fair bills could have bipartisan support, but they’ll likely need prodding from constituents to pass them.

Odds are there are some efforts going on in your states. I’m guessing if you hunt down your state’s version of the legislative system, you’ll find bills making their way through the process that could use a little push. There might also be local groups looking to help with the pushing (and they’ll want some help to).

Check it out. It’ll take a lot less effort than it took to become non-British subjects, though timing may be everything.  The election to make things happen might be this year.

Good luck. He’s counting on you.

Update, Thursday, March 30th:  Added a few more bills introduced in the Virginia legislature as well as linking to the GerryRigged documentary.

Update # 2, Friday, March 31st: I’ve done a bit more research on SJ68, the redistricting constitutional amendment my state senator introduced.

In a manner worthy of the old maxim about the making of law and sausage, SJ68 was replaced by SJ260 which was then incorporated into SJ231 (finding out about all this transmogrification was not straightforward). Then, if you read the full text, the idea appears to have moved from the independent redistricting commission that kinda favors the existing majority parties, to having members of the redistricting commission always includes state legislature leaders. In fairness, it also includes three public officials that would be more independent than legislatures, those being the Auditor of Public Accounts, the State Inspector General, and the Executive Director of the Virginia State Bar. Still, it’s not the independent commission I had hoped for — and there appears to be ample room for politicking.

One silver lining in researching this was that in addition to trying to get more of a hang of Virginia’s online legislative information system, I also discovered Richmond Sunlight, a site that has all the legislative information the government site has, yet seems to organize it in a way that’s clearer. If you’re researching what the Virginia legislature is up to, I highly recommend using both in tandem.

The Continually Evolving Appetites of Worldwide Filmgoers

Following the film industry is something I do frequently enough to merit a tag.

One article in Wired, by K. M. McFarland, that particularly caught my notice last July noted how the expensive fantasy epic Warcraft did miserably in the United States, yet comfortably in the rest of the world.

So now we have an article by Todd VanDerWerff in Vox that also explores that divide between the U.S. and global box office. Look at those lists of top grossing films: how many of you are wondering who the demons are, and why do they want to strike back?

I’m probably not alone among American film lovers used to having a general idea of the top grossing films of the year, but that’s because up until recently, it’s because reports on the top-grossing films in North America and worldwide are very close. It’s kind of like late last year, when I discovered there are 14 Land Before Time films. Certainly, kids like dinosaurs. Certainly, I’m not the target demographic for those films, but 13 sequels and a TV show have been made?!?

And, as I implied in last year’s post, my ongoing interest isn’t simply personal, but what this means for how film projects are approved and financed. We’ve been long accustomed to films and TV shows seeking the largest possible audiences — it’s just that now North American audiences have been shown to not be the ever-indispensable part of that coalition (though it’s still significant more often than not).

The interesting thing is that the Hollywood studios appear all the more aware of their global audiences — and they have the funding and inclination to accommodate different global niches. So there are slightly tweaked versions of Disney’s latest animated fare, additional or expanded scenes for Chinese audiences in the latest action blockbusters, and more.

Netflix seems to be very savvy about this, aided by the prodigious amount of data they’ve collected on the viewing habits of their subscribers. One of their latest series premieres, Ultimate Beastmaster, is their global answer to American Ninja Warrior (itself, a version of the Japanese show, Sasuke). It’s structured and shot in such a way so that it’s basically six regional versions: American (English-speaking), Brazilian (Portuguese-speaking), Mexican (Spanish-speaking), Japanese, Korean, and German.

(I’m sure the French, irked by the snub at not deemed worthy of becoming Beastmasters, will shortly launch counter programming in the form of The Next French Legionnaire.)

These local/expert versions make me think of the Hollywood practice during the early “talkie” era when they would shoot several versions of the film in different languages (dubbing and subtitling eventually replaced this). While I don’t think Ultimate Beastmaster means we’re going to go back to the future in all productions, I do notice a wide assortment of subtitles on many of Netflix’s offerings — and many of them clearly originate from elsewhere or have a non-American audience as their primary audience.

I’m sure that means that, before the year is out, I’ll be faced with another wildly successful show or film that I’ve never heard of, but appeals to the tastes of global filmgoers. In fact, even now, I’m sure the cinematic equivalent of Coke III is being greenlit.

RIP, Robert Osbourne

Growing up in the DC area, my dad made full use of all the free film series places like the National Archives, Library of Congress, and East Gallery would provide. And, of course, he’d take us along. It was at these places that I first saw such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Fort Apache, and Gone with the Wind.

“It was TCM before TCM,” I explained.

Earlier this week, the man who epitomized Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Robert Osbourne, passed away at the age of 84.

Online, I commented that it’s hard to think of him as 80-something. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to his film intros leapt off the TV screen. The joy he exuded while sharing cinema minutiae made you feel you were in for something special — even when he cautioned you that the something special was not the best of films.

Another film historian, Leonard Maltin, has a great remembrance of him. And writer and pop culture historian, Mark Evanier, has a nice anecdote too.

I like what Maltin said that Robert Osbourne was “on a mission.” He will be missed, but I daresay he succeeded in his mission.

Meetings and Purposes: Different Types of Meetings

If you’ve gone through the trouble of regularly creating a meeting agenda and gone a step further in crafting the agenda so it has an easily understood purpose and objectives, you’ve probably realized a central truth.

Not all meetings are created equal.

No, I don’t mean that some meetings are an abysmal waste of time and may, in fact, endanger your long-term health. Unfortunately, that may be true. I mean that you’ve probably realized that one meeting format doesn’t fit every need.

Especially as you are bombarded by people eager to innovate the dickens out of your workplace and “maximize value streams” or whatnot, you might be pressed to change how you’re doing business. That’s not bad, but as some improvement coaches can be hammers in search of nails, it’s important to remember:

One meeting size doesn’t fit all.

If you’re sincere about trying to make meetings effective –not just blocks of time people get together because “that’s what’s done”– and if you want to be honest about your meeting purpose, you’ll know that one meeting format does not work for every purpose… or even group of meeting attendees.

I can’t say I’ve got a magic formula for this, but especially with those of you who are tasked with being in charge of a project or a program, I think it’s useful to think of three different types of meetings. Those are:

  1. Status Meetings (Ongoing)
  2. Issue-Based Meetings (Sometimes Ad-Hoc)
  3. Lifecycle Meetings (Planned Status and Issue-Based Meetings with limited duration)

These three broad categories give you a framework for how to plan meetings — and to better understand what meetings you need to accomplish what objective. Let’s delve into each type:

1) Status Meetings
PMPs and other project managers are probably very familiar with one form of this type: the Weekly Project Status meeting. Most, if not all, of the project team meets to review the schedule, how we’re on track towards approaching milestones, and reviews project risks, issues, and action items.

“Daily Huddles” and “Daily Scrums” are also versions of status meetings. For many teams, these daily meetings have replaced the longer half-hour to hour weekly project meetings they previously held to monitor progress.

The frequency of the meeting usually indicates whether the discussion is more about tactical matters or strategic matters.

For example, if you’re finding your team is having problems with niggling impediments like software licenses or access, you may want to fold in some form of daily huddle to catch those issues quicker. Likewise, if you feel your team is getting a lot of “actions” done, but you don’t seem to be getting closer to your overall goals, you might need more status meetings where strategic goals can be discussed and further defined (note: depending on what level you’re at, this may depend on strategic conversations happening above your pay grade, but hey, at least you’ve identified the need!).

And be open to the fact that you might want and need both a daily and weekly status meeting. For example, the daily huddles could be purely about individual team members’ progress and impediments, while the weekly meeting could be status reporting with both the team and external stakeholders.

In all cases, be mindful of the audience and the purpose of the status meetings to ensure you’re not repeating the same message to the same audience. In fact, you want as much of your status and reporting to be accessible to most stakeholders (if possible) outside of meetings so that status meetings can be more about status questions and concerns, not simply information delivery.

2) Issue-based/Ad-hoc Meetings
These are one-time meetings or a series of meetings held to accomplish a specific objective.

You may recall that, during regular status meetings,  an issue might come up and someone, usually the facilitator, says, “Let’s talk about that offline.”

More often than not, that offline talk is going to be an ad-hoc meeting.

(Yes, that offline talk may be 2 people for 15 minutes, but even if it’s quite informal, it’s still a meeting to be held.)

Not all issue-based meetings need to be unplanned or reactive, however. If an executive has formulated a new initiative, your standard operating procedure may be to schedule a kickoff meeting or brainstorming session with the appropriate stakeholders.

You also may find that, due to uncovering some risk or issue during your regular status meetings, you need to have a series of meetings to address said risk or issue.

Two examples come to mind from software projects. In one case, we found out user acceptance testing wasn’t going as smoothly as we wanted and some major defects were found: defects bigger than we expected that jeopardized the release. We established a series of meetings with both business representatives and the developers to go through what workarounds could be created and what parts of the scope could be pulled back because it was determined we needed to launch “something.”

In another case, we were deep into development when we discovered a huge disconnect between the business and the IT teams on the requirements. We set up a daily meeting for a week to work through a host of previously unasked questions. The combination of all the stakeholders attending and a daily cadence meant a lot of the bull we dealt with previously fell away.

In both these cases, these issue-based meetings were in response to issues that came up with the project or program and needed to be addressed outside of the normal status meetings.

This it’s why it’s all the more important to understand the format and agenda for your status meetings. Sometimes, you can fit in the risk or issue at the end of the meeting after the main business is concluded (and attendees who are unaffected can leave). Regardless, it’s critical for any ad-hoc meeting to have an objective in mind, even if it’s simply to figure out which stakeholders are needed to discuss whatever risk or issue needs to be discussed.

3) Lifecycle Meetings
On one hand, these are simply variants of the first two categories: any lifecycle meeting is going to be either a status meeting or an issue-based meeting. However, I find it useful to think of them as a third category because of our natural tendency to want to “solve things once.”

Put another way, many of us want so much to establish a routine, we forget we could have a subroutine.

That’s where the Lifecycle meetings happen. For those of us that have done publishing, product launches, or software releases, there are certain meetings you have through the lifecycle of the said launch or release. There are checkpoints and reviews and tollgates that ideally occupy their own space and time separate from a status meeting. In addition, they’re not –or shouldn’t be– ad hoc. You know you’re going to have a meeting on that issue or topic and so you plan for it.

Here are some examples:

  • Before greenlighting the product launch, you need to have a meeting with marketing and legal to address any concerns they may have
  • Whenever you stand up a new technology system, you always need to walk through security and privacy impact assessments with your Information Security group
  • You hold a series of requirements gathering meetings with stakeholders before beginning a design phase
  • Before you conduct a software deployment, you go over the release plan for that weekend.
  • You conduct a series of user acceptance test sessions
  • Right before a product launch, you hold a series of training sessions for your customer support staff, so they can answer questions about the new product
  • Right after a product launch, you have a daily status meeting to check on how it’s doing and address any “early life support” issues
  • You have a series of lessons learned meetings with stakeholders after any project to help prepare the overall Lessons Learned document
  • And so on.

Remember, there’s often a temptation to stuff in some of these topics and work into existing meeting structures. And depending on the maturity of your meeting culture, this might work out fine.

But look at all those examples: you know you’ll need some of these meetings. Many of them are almost certainly going to involve people not in your regular status meetings. And there’s no reason to put off scheduling a meeting if it or a dependent outcome is in your project schedule.

And this is one of the other reasons I like to break out the “Lifecycle” meetings from both the status and issue-based meetings. Because people push back at planning for possible meetings the same way they often push back on risk planning (“there’s just too many variables!”), but they have a lot harder time arguing against things like planning to get input on requirements and such.

And once you have a lot of these lifecycle meetings identified and planned for, you might find a lot of the ad hoc meetings are simply unplanned versions of them… and in some cases, you’ll be able to plan for those meetings next time.

Because the life you save from abysmal, soul-sucking meetings may be your own.