New Respect for Traditional Media

Yesterday, I attended a township meeting about what conditions should be put on Toll Brothers in order to permit them to develop Crebilly Farm. It was, in the words of one township planner “the most important meeting in Township history”, which is just about as dramatic as these things get!

I’ve been working on my Facebook Live skills, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to practice. So I put my iPhone 7 Plus in a selfie-stick bracket, screwed the bracket to Kate’s tripod, and pushed the “live” button, with this result:

When you post content via FB Live, Facebook promotes it. HARD. Here, a friend in Minnesota sent me a picture of what happened on his Apple Watch when I went live in my high-school auditorium in West Chester:


Keith Mallory, in Minnesota

I learned a LOT of stuff, which I’ll list in bullet-point format at the end of this post. But here’s what I wanted to say first: my FAVORITE thing about learning new things is the newfound respect it gives me for people that I just took for granted before.

As I was walking in, I saw a Channel 6 Action News van parked outside the auditorium. In my part of the country, when you see the Channel 6 Action News van, you know shit’s gotten real:

Inside the auditorium were a man and woman and a camera in a nylon rain-cover. The camera had interesting-looking whisker antennas sticking out of it in various directions.

The camera had big, well-worn-looking fanny packs. His fanny packs HAD fanny packs.

cameraPreviously, I would not have known anything about the challenges of recording and broadcasting video from a high-school auditorium, but now after two attempts, I knew all about how these auditoriums are like Faraday cages. About how there’s never wifi, and if there is wifi, it’s locked down six ways. And if your’e sitting in the back with a regular-person phone, all the pictures you take are going to look like they were shot from space. That big glass lens on that camera is there for a reason. Those expensive-looking whisker antennas are all there to solve a problem, man.

While I sat and shoved low-resolution video out over a metered cellular connection, I sat and snuck admiring glances at what these professionals were up to.

The on-camera person, swaddled in a giant parka, thumbed business cards into two phones simultaneously. She clearly is also a pro.

two_phonesI left the auditorium as things were winding down. As I left, I walked past the camera, now standing by itself on the tripod, guarded by On-Camera Personality. Back in the parking lot, the Action News van had its dish up, with a big bright floodlight shining on it, and the steady throb of a generator.

Inside, Camera Operator Man was sitting in a swiveling captain’s chair, twiddling joysticks and CONTROLLING THE CAMERA INSIDE, like a Half Life sentry turret.

truckAre you kidding me? This is AMAZING stuff. Previously, I would have thought “Oh, look, a news van!” and “Hey, there’s the camera!”


  • “Hey, that fellow is all the way at the back of the auditorium, but he can zoom in tight for good shots, cool!”
  • “Hey, I bet one of those whisker antennas is for a wireless mic; I bet THAT’S expensive!”
  • “And he’s PULLING FOCUS REMOTELY!” (heavy breathing starts)
  • “And he’s pushing his video out his microwave dish TO SPAAAAAACE!”

So: I’ve been having a great time fooling around with live video, and my favorite part is the newfound respect I have for how completely the problems I now understand have been solved by these folks. My hat is off to you, broadcast journalists!

UPDATE: You can see the finished 6ABC story here

What I’ve Learned

Okay, now for the learnings part, as I gradually try to learn how to do FB Live better than Breitbart did it.

For reference, what I did yesterday was to put an iPhone 7 on a tripod, then tap the “live” button, pushing video to my own personal timeline. I did not use an external microphone or any other gear. I used my phone’s on-board LTE to push the video.

Facebook will promote the HELL out of your broadcast.
In fact, this is the whole point — the longer you are live, the more people Facebook will tell about your video. If your goal was to share the meeting with folks at home, it would make much more sense to simply record the event on a camcorder, edit it, then post it to YouTube (which should also be done!) The point of FB Live is to get out in front of folks that may not have known about your organization or event.

Forty-five minutes of broadcasting consumed 333 megabytes of cellular data.
I was on AT&T, and I had about two bars of service. The first time I tried to go live, the FB app paused because it didn’t have enough bandwidth, but the second time it seemed to go okay. I do not know if I had more service, if FB would have attempted a higher-bandwith connection.

K-12 auditoriums do not have open wifi.
And if the wifi was open, the internet itself is highly restricted. Facebook will almost certainly be blocked, I learned in a conversation with the West Chester Area School District’s network administrator yesterday. So I shouldn’t plan on using the school’s internet connection to send the video live. Or I should plan on a lengthy troubleshooting process, where I ask very nicely for the IT administrators to make a hole in the firewall just for me. But that seems like a very big request.

For the viewers, sound is the most important thing.
A cellphone camera is optimized to pick up sound up to five feet from the camera, and the mic is omnidirectional. “Cellphone on a stick” may be great for arm’s-length “you are there” video of a protest, but for a meeting with a podium, I really should have a remote microphone… of some kind. Or a shotgun mic. I’m tempted to buy the RØDE Video Micro (which can plug into the iPhone 7) and see what happens.

What I’d like to try next is to try a real camera, with a big glass lens, pushing HD video into a dedicated computer via a cable. Then have a real microphone separately pushing audio into the same computer. Smash those two things together and… well, it MIGHT be something you could mistake for something you’d want to watch.

I’ve started to assemble the various connectors, dongles, and pieces of software to give this a try, and I’ve invited a SPECIAL GUEST EXPERT to try an end-to-end project this Friday afternoon. We’ll see how it goes!

Here’s how you can tell I’m getting into a new category of hardware: it costs a lot, and consists of nothing but a grey box made of powder-coated steel with two holes on one end and one hole on the other.  “Is it heavy?” “Yes.” “Then it’s expensive; put it back.”
New Respect for Traditional Media

Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap (an exercise)

So: Gerrymandering.  Everyone agrees that it’s a problem (“just look at that twisty district!”), but it’s hard to agree on a solution.  In particular, I’m learning, it’s tough to define a threshold for gerrymandering in a way that’s useful for a court, judge, or other impartial referee to use.  Getting that impartial referee is super-hard. Giving that referee the tools to use to do their job is, I’m learning, the other half of the challenge.

I’ve been working through the article “Here’s How We Can End Gerrymandering Once and for All“, which is an attempt to come up with a useful, repeatable mathematical threshold for defining an unacceptably gerrymandered district.  That article is a summary of the more formal “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap“, published in the University of Chicago Law Review.

In the article, Eric McGhee and Nicholas Stephanopoulos calculate an “Efficiency Gap” to measure how out-of-balance a district is.  To calculate the efficiency gap, you start by counting the number of “wasted votes” that each side had in a given election.

Wasted votes come in two flavors:

  • “Lost” votes are votes cast for the candidate that is defeated
  • “Surplus” votes are votes cast for the winning candidate in excess of the number needed to win.

“The efficiency gap is simply the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast.”

The authors go into some detail in a hypothetical example, but honestly the textual explanation was clear as mud to me, so I thought I’d work it out on the widely-shared “How to Steal an Election” diagram.  Surely there would be a low efficiency gap in the “fair” example, and a high efficiency gap in the “unfair”, “stolen” example!

Surprisingly, it didn’t work out that way.

The “How to Steal an Election” diagram, showing how packing and cracking are used to create a majority.

Scenario A: Compact and Contiguous

I started by calculating the wasted votes and the efficiency gap for the middle diagram, which is the one I had thought of as “fair.”  In the diagram below, the 50 votes are split into five compact and contiguous districts.  Red is the minority of votes in each district – that’s four “lost” votes for red in each of the districts.  Blue has six votes in each district. That’s exactly the margin needed to win, so there are zero surplus votes:

Scenario A
Scenario A: red has 20 wasted votes and blue has 0 wasted votes. (20-0)/50 votes = 40% efficiency gap in blue’s favor.

Twenty total wasted votes for red, zero total wasted votes for blue.  The difference of twenty and zero is twenty.  Twenty divided by fifty total votes is 0.4.  So that’s a 40% efficiency gap in blue’s favor.

Scenario B: Packing and Cracking

Next I turned to the diagram that’s used as an example of gerrymandering.  Eighteen blue voters are “packed” into two districts, and the remaining twelve blue voters are “cracked” into three remaining majority-red districts.  The intention is to give red a majority of representation, even though red has a minority of votes.

In the two packed districts, red has one lost vote and blue has 3 surplus votes. In the three cracked districts, red has zero surplus votes and blue has four lost votes.

That’s a total of two wasted votes for red and eighteen wasted votes for blue.  The difference of eighteen and two is sixteen.  Sixteen divided by fifty total votes is 0.32. So in this diagram, there’s a thirty-two percent efficiency gap in Red’s favor.

Scenario B: red has 2 wasted votes and blue has 18 wasted votes. (18-2)/50 votes = 32% efficiency gap in red’s favor.

Here’s the thing that I totally did not expect to come out of this exercise: going by the efficiency gap, the “bad” gerrymandered diagram is actually fairer than the “good” contiguous diagram!  

That starts to makes sense if I look at the amount of representation in the example.  Overall, there are sixty blue voters and forty red voters.  In Scenario A, no red voter has a representative.  At all.  If you’re a red voter, you have no representation, period.  In scenario B, red voters have four representatives and blue voters have two representatives.

The majority of representatives is out of balance, but overall, more voters actually have folks that represent them.

I should point out that a 40% efficiency gap and a 32% efficiency gap are both terrible. Kate tells me that the Fair Districts PA folks, using Wisconsin as a benchmark, considers a 7% efficiency gap to be the maximum allowable.  So this example in no way shows that gerrymandering is “good” or anything like that; it just served to teach me that “compact and contiguous” isn’t automatically the same thing as “fair”.

Since electoral maps aren’t actually made up of neat rectangles of voters lined up in ranks and files, I think I’ve exhausted the usefulness of this exercise.  But I think I get the point of the efficiency gap math now — as well as an underlying goal of Fair Districts PA — the point isn’t to get the “right” majority, the point is to minimize the number of “wasted” votes, and maximize the number of voters who get to choose their representative.

A third scenario: what about “perfect” districts?

Okay, I wanted to see what the theoretically completely fair example would be — but even that did not come out the way I expected:

Scenario C: blue has 12 surplus votes, and red has 8 surplus votes. (12-8)/50 = 8% efficiency gap in blue’s favor

I had thought that districts where the voters were grouped together would have a zero efficiency gap, but I was forgetting about surplus votes.  In the example above, every district has four surplus votes.  The difference between the surplus votes is pretty small — a difference of four votes, which out of fifty total means there’s an 8% efficiency gap in blue’s favor.

Clearly, Scenario C is better than the other two scenarios, since the blue folks get a blue representative, the red folks get a red representative, and the ratio of representatives is commensurate with the ratio of red and blue voters.

BUT! The existence of the “wasted” votes in this scenario, in the form of the four surprus votes in each district, reveals another problem.  The districts are not competitive.  A blue representative doesn’t have to do anything to get elected, assuming their party doesn’t throw a primary challenger at them.  Kate points out that it’s good to have competitive districts, because that encourages moderate candidates that can appeal to as many voters in both groups as possible.  That makes sense to me! But that’s probably a topic for another blog post.

I’d be really interested in your perspective on what I’m overlooking, here.  Is there useful further reading that you’d suggest?

Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap (an exercise)

Pussy Hats and Gandhi Caps

The Pussy Hat Project has been on my mind — Kate has been cranking out hats like a MACHINE, with beautiful results.  So far, she’s knitted nineteen or twenty hats, all of which will be on heads at the January 21st Women’s March on Washington.


A couple of days ago, this article in the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post really ticked me off: “Pink hats, pins, petitions: What’s the point of these anti-Trump protests?

The article, with its overtones of “happy hands at home” was shallow, patronizing, and dismissive.  Which is all the worse for how predictable it is.  Sure, if wearing a safety pin is all you’re doing, maybe you’re “just” a clicktivist.  What’s the point? Why stand on the sidelines and yell “well, that’s not gonna do anything!”?  And that article seems to have mirrored some big Facebook-group discussions that Kate has told me about, where folks are arguing with each other about how the Pussy Hats “aren’t serious”, etc.

So today, after watching the Blackish episode on Trump’s victory, Kate noticed the white hats on the men behind Dr. King, and wondered aloud “Hmm, what are those hats?”


My assumption was that they were Nation of Islam hats. I was curious, so I did some Googling.  I came across this 2008 Straight Dope forum thread and this one from 2013.

The general consensus is that those are not Nation of Islam hats, but rather Gandhi Caps, associated with Gandhi’s nonviolent Indian independence movement.  In other words, they’re political solidarity caps worn by participants to show their alignment with the movement.  The BBC has more background on the history of the Gandhi cap, and its role in rallies and marches.

Members of the Indian National Congress marching in New Delhi in 1937.

Those white caps surrounding the podium are pussy hats!

Here’s a wider shot of Bayard Rustin at the 1963 March on Washington, with a wider shot showing more folks wearing the caps.  According to the forum posters on The Straight Dope, Bayard Rustin traveled to India in 1948, and Dr. King went in 1959.  It seems totally likely that either (both?) brought back this symbol of solidarity:

Bayard Rustin Speaking at Lincoln Memorial

I have not been able to find anything on the Pussy Hat Project website talking about how a sea of pink hats at the Women’s March is an echo of the sea of white hats at Gandhi’s rallies, or at the 1963 March on Washington.  I can’t be the first to notice this, right? This has got to be on purpose, yeah?

Pussy Hats and Gandhi Caps

The Best Kept Secret at the YMCA

At 6:30 AM this morning, I headed over to the Airport Road YMCA to do something I’ve been wanting to for years: I had an official YMCA Fitness Assessment scheduled with trainer Kathy Renard.
I’m going to skip right to it: a YMCA Fitness Assessment is a wonderful thing, and you should totally do it. It’s surprisingly unpublicized — Kathy knows all about it, and there’s a BIG rack of white binders in the YMCA fitness office all about it. But there’s not all that much on the Internet about it, and most folks at the Y were fuzzy on the subject. “Er… what kind of fitness… test… were you interested in?”
But that all changed after some minimal persistence. Here’s what Kathy measured on me, in a 90-minute session (my numbers from this morning in parentheses):

  • Resting heart rate (55bpm) and blood pressure (125/90)
  • Height (5’10.5″), weight (237lbs) and percentage body fat, measured both with an electric doodad and also with skinfold calipers (31.4%)
  • Circumference of chest (45.5″), biceps (13.5″), forerarm (11″), waist (42.5″), hips (45.5″), thigh (24″), and calf (17″).
  • Sit-and-reach flexibility, where you reach down with legs straight and push a little indicator thingy on a steel box (26″)
  • Aerobic Endurance, where you step onto and off of a box to a metronome beat for three minutes, then measure your heart rate immediately following (152bpm)
  • Core endurance, where you do as many sit-ups as you can in one minute, and then measure heart rate (36 completed, HR 125 bpm)
  • Upper body endurance, where you do as many pushups as you can in one minute (I failed after 7!)
  • Lower body strength, where you do as many one-legged leg presses as you can in one minute, then measure heart rate (I did 28, HR 137bpm)
  • Upper body strength, where you do as many bench presses as you can in one minute, then measure heart right afterwards (I did 27, HR 115bpm)

This is already really informative and awesome, and confirms some things that I had hoped (I’m in decent cardio shape), some things I had feared (seven pushups? sheesh!) and some things I have gotten good at ignoring in the mirror (hips three inches bigger than waist? aw, hell no.)
So now I have goals that are more finely-tuned than a single integer number on a scale.
The best part is that I’ll go back in a month and do it again. A month after THAT, I’ll do it AGAIN, and then six months after that. This is fantastic. It’s not just weight (weight is important, but it’s not a great motivator for me), and it’s not just exercise level (ditto.) But being able to see changes in my hip measurement? Huge. Being able to do EIGHT pushups next time? I sure hope so. Getting quantitative proof that my daily Ba Duan Jin is actually improving my hamstring flexibility? SHIT yeah!
So, if you’re reading this, I completely 100% totally recommend getting on board the best-kept secret at the YMCA. Call up your local Y and ask for the “YMCA Fitness Assessment.” It’s worth a whole stack of fit bits!
Plus, it makes you feel a little bit like Ivan Drago, sitting there on the decline press rack with a trainer taking your pulse. I can’t pretend that isn’t a little bit of the fun.

The Best Kept Secret at the YMCA

Mad Quakers and History Monks

In the days of daft adventurers, of fortune-seeking world-travelers and empire-founders — of “mad dogs and Englishmen” — one of the daftest was actually not English, but American. From Chester County. In fact, a Quaker born and raised just a couple of miles from my house in West Chester. To this day, he’s the only American to ever become monarch of a foreign country by right of conquest. (Some Quaker, huh?)

I first learned the story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor, at a West Chester Friends book sale. “Trust me, you want to read this”, teacher Ruth told me, and so I started reading the amazing story of a clasically-educated kid from a Philadelphia Quaker family who went to find his fortune in the Orient — and found it, alright.

Harlan had an amazing gift for talking his way into trouble. And out of it again, apparently — time after time, he would raise small, motley armies, march right into a valley where he should have been clobbered, and somehow manage to parlay his desperate situation into a sweet new caliphate. Or job. From Dost Mohammad Khan, he gained the title “Prince of Ghor”, a title that is (theoretically) still held by his descendants.

Not only was Harlan a fearless adventurer, he was apparently an amazing marketer. You can read all about it in the book Ben Macintyre wrote, available on Amazon.

Josiah Harlan was probably Rudyard Kipling’s inspiration to write his story “The Man who Would Be King“, which was in turn made into the epic movie by John Huston:

A story so amazing, so incredible, it took Rudyard Kipling, John Huston, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, AND Michael Caine to tell it all!

All this is astonishing. It became even more so when I read, in Ben Macintyre’s prologue, the source that uncovered this amazing story:

“In a tiny museum in Chester County, Pennsylania, I finally discovered Harlan’s Lost voice: an old box, buried and forgotten among the files, was a tattered manuscript handwritten in curling copperplate… unnoticed and unread since his death.”

Good heavens! Could Macintyre be talking about our very own Chester County Historical Society, the same place where I discovered a cannon manufacturer a few weeks ago? Yes, he was indeed. To what torch-lit depths had this intrepid biographer descended in order to find these forgotten dusty tomes? What ancient, crumbling chests had he pried open in search of these abandoned treasures?

Well. Diane Rofini, head librarian at the Chester County Historical Society, would like you to know that the manuscript is NOT “buried and forgotten”, thank you very much, it is carefully and neatly preserved in the stacks right under “H” where it belongs. In a clean, acid-free box, labeled and indexed. Here it is, right here:

I can’t fault Macintyre much for telling an Indiana Jones-style story when researching an Indiana Jones character, but it was a great opportunity for me to learn about the travails of the historical archivist. The archivist a person with an important job who is always having this same old story told about them. Journalists never write “archives”, they always seem to write “dusty archives.” Nobody ever says “preserved and protected in the files”, they always write “forgotten in the files”. Sheesh!

My wife Kate, who is a Museum Person herself, explains to me that archivists don’t really work for you — they work for the future. An archivist’s sworn mission is to keep items in the same state, so that they’ll always be available to study. They’re like the history monks in the Discworld series, whose most important job is to make sure that history continues to exist.

Publicizing, educating, entertaining — the other parts of a museum’s mission are important and wonderful. But those things are not, like, the entire sacred duty of an archive. It’s also OUR job to get interested, to go in, to ask questions, and to be curious. Today was a wonderful example, for me. I emailed over and asked if I could see the Actual Manuscripts. “Yes indeed!” was the prompt answer. I had a GREAT time looking at Josiah Harlan’s stuff. It’s available at a moment’s notice — I’m not kidding when I tell you that Diane can put her hands on Josiah Harlan’s Persian manuscripts faster than I can find a stapler in my office. So my advice to you is — do you have tiny museum in your town? Go start asking questions — there’s no telling what mind-blowing things are carefully, neatly preserved, and yours to look at for the asking!

Mad Quakers and History Monks

Reddit Portraits of Randy and Me

Randy has gotten me hooked on Reddit, which is a big community of talented, creative, and anarchic Internet citizens entertaining each other.

One of the funniest things I saw recently was Adam Ellis’ portraits, where folks would send pictures to him, and he would sketch them. Never flattering, the portraits are hilarious: everyone looks incredibly seedy. You can see a bunch of his stuff here. Also here, here, and here!

Anyhow, Adam takes requests. You send him a link to a picture and some money, and he sends back a portrait that captures your soul and makes it look TERRIBLE. So I commissioned a portrait of both Randy and myself. Here’s the result.

Here’s me:
John's Reddit Portrait

And here’s the piece de resistance. Ladies and gentlemen, RANDY SCHMIDT!
Randy's Reddit Portrait

Reddit Portraits of Randy and Me