Wplongform

Same Question, Different Answers: How It Happens

How can two studies researching the same question come up with two different answers? That was the dilemma that several media outlets recently had to confront, with the release of the results of two studies looking at the impact of the city of Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance, which raised the minimum wage rate for workers in that city. Even though the studies were looking at the same issue, they came up with results that contradicted each other.

The results of the first study indicated that the wage increase didn’t reduce overall job numbers or hours of work. Media: “Yay! Minimum wage increases are a good thing.” But then the results of the second study indicated that the wage increase caused declines in both numbers of jobs and amounts of work. Media: “Um…okay, maybe minimum wage increases aren’t that great.”

The fact that these studies had different results doesn’t mean that one study is right and the other is wrong, or that both studies are wrong and nobody really knows what happened. The studies are admittedly not easy reading – both use complex forms of economic analysis that, frankly, I wouldn’t try to explain because I would probably get them wrong. But we can still look at how the studies were designed and carried out to see if there are reasons why their results might differ.

Here’s a table that (more…)

Pumpkins and Pomposity

Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper, isn’t known for having insightful or original perspectives on issues. Earlier this year, it was discovered that some of her columns were truly unoriginal – that is, they contained unattributed material taken from other sources. But the topics of Wente’s columns also tend to be recycled, and two weeks ago she returned to one of her favourite topics: the silliness of some academic research.

Since I’ve written about Wente’s attacks on academics before, I recognize that I’m also recycling topics by devoting a blog post to her latest anti-academic screed. But Wente’s reasoning and analyses in this column are so appallingly weak that they deserve to be called out.

Wente’s column starts (more…)

The Olympics, Part II: Inspiring Or Discouraging?

There was a lot of complaining – justifiable complaining – about the media coverage of the recent Rio Olympics. The coverage was sexist; a television commentator attributed the success of swimming gold medalist Katinka Hosszu to her husband’s coaching, and a Tweet referred to bronze medalist trapshooter Corey Cogdell not by name but as the “wife of a [Chicago] Bears lineman”. The coverage was ageist; 56-year-old coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willey, competing in her eighth Olympics, was characterized as “old enough to be the competitors’ mother” in a story headlined “Too old for the Olympics”? And then there was the NBC network’s chief marketing officer for Olympic coverage, who got roundly criticized for claiming that women, the primary viewers of the Olympics on TV, were “not particularly sports fans” and “less interested in the result and more interested in the journey”.

But it wasn’t just the media coverage of the Olympics that had problems. The Olympic Games themselves have very big problems, to the point where (more…)

Conferences and Codes of Conduct

Nearly every organization has a code of conduct for its employees. These codes are usually explicit rules about what the organization’s members are and aren’t allowed to do, including the penalties – from reprimands to firing – for breaking those rules. Often there are also statements of the organization’s guiding values and principles, which employees are expected to uphold in carrying out their work or making decisions. But when employees go to professional events like conferences – events related to work but which take place outside the workplace – the rules of behaviour aren’t always as clear.

Behaviour at conferences is something that I’ve been thinking about as conference season is starting for me. Every year, away from the watchful eyes of their supervisors and their human resources department, some people act like idiots. They might do things like ask questions during a seminar or presentation with the sole intention of making the presenter look bad and making themselves look good. Or they might harass other conference attendees, usually at social events, by doing things like looking down women’s tops, making inappropriate comments about how someone is dressed, or uttering racist or sexist insults (I’ve personally witnessed all of these).

Surprisingly, though, many conference organizers are reluctant to crack down on these kinds of behaviours by attendees. (more…)

20 Years of ‘Heavy’: An Interview with Eric Matthews

In 1995, there was an “adult alternative” radio station in Bellingham, Washington – just south of the Canadian border – that played pretty much everything and anything. One day when I was listening to this station on my car radio, I heard a song called ‘Fanfare’. The song was so distinctive and powerful that I knew I had to get the record – but I missed the name of the artist.

I went to the largest record store in downtown Vancouver and asked one of the staff, “Do you know a song called ‘Fanfare’?” His face absolutely lit up, and he said, “Do we ever. We love that song!” And he handed me a copy of It’s Heavy In Here by someone named Eric Matthews. The album was on Seattle’s Sub Pop label, but the cover photo showed a neatly groomed and stylishly dressed young man – the complete opposite of the beard-and-dirty-flannel grunge that Sub Pop was famous for. It was then that I knew I had found something very different and very special.

After writing about music for nearly 30 years, I can’t really clearly articulate why I love It’s Heavy in Here and ‘Fanfare’ so much. It’s Heavy in Here is an unconventional album in many ways, with its non-linear lyrics and ornate instrumentation. But instead of coming off as self-indulgent, it’s a grandly confident and fully realized individual vision. ‘Fanfare’ is both intimate and epic at the same time, and its emotional vulnerability and honesty are profoundly moving.

Matthews released one other album on Sub Pop, and then seemed to pop up every few years with a new project, in addition to guesting with other artists such as the Dandy Warhols – that’s him playing the trumpet on ‘Godless’ – and Pugwash. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I searched Matthews’ name on Google to see what he was up to. Much to my delight, I found that It’s Heavy in Here was being re-released for its 20th anniversary, and that Matthews had joined a band named SheLoom that was just releasing a new record. And not only did Matthews have a Facebook account, but he also responded to messages through that account. I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed about the process of creating the It’s Heavy in Here re-release. (more…)

Book Publishing and False Economies

The North American book publishing industry has been disrupted in the last couple of years. Publishers’ revenues are dropping for a number of reasons:  different publishing formats, the increased ease of self-publishing, and upheavals in distribution and sales channels. And in any business, when revenues decrease, one of the first strategic responses is usually to reduce production costs. For book publishers, that can mean reducing the costs of editing or proofreading in the book production process. But cutbacks in those areas can be a false economy, if those cutbacks significantly affect the quality of the finished product. And this week I received a review copy of a book that perfectly illustrates that dilemma.
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“Follow Your Heart”: An Interview with Jim Pons

The start of a new year, along with all the “New Year, New You” encouragement, usually leads people into thinking about making changes. One kind of change that’s often considered is a new job or a new occupation – but that can be a pretty scary leap into the unknown, especially when there’s cutbacks and downsizing going on at many formerly prosperous companies.

I thought that it would be interesting to interview someone who made that big leap and had it work out for them. After some asking around, my friend John Cody offered to connect me to Jim Pons, who is a wonderful example of this kind of career transition. Jim is a bass player and vocalist, and was part of three major bands in the 1960s and early 1970s – the Leaves, the Turtles,  and the Mothers of Invention. But he quit the music industry in 1973, and embarked on a career in video production with the National Football League, first with the New York Jets team and then with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jim has recently written his autobiography, and generously agreed to be interviewed via email about his experiences in changing careers. (more…)

Feedback at Work

Giving feedback – to employees, peers, or even bosses – is a tricky but essential process in almost every organization. It’s important to let people know how they’re doing in their work, but it’s often difficult to figure out the best way to tell them, especially if there are problems with their performance.  And we all know organizations that loudly proclaim how much feedback and improvement are valued in their workplaces, but that don’t actually do much to make those processes happen.

My friend Allison Manley has recently starting hosting a podcast for Palantir.net, the web design, development and strategy firm where she works. The most recent episode of the podcast has a fascinating discussion on the topic of feedback. Allison talks with Colleen Carroll, Palantir’s director of operations, about Palantir’s commitment to having a “culture of feedback” and how the company actually makes that happen. What I found particularly interesting about this discussion is that it doesn’t repeat any of the usual clichés about feedback, like “focus on the problem, not the person”, and that it emphasizes the role of the sender of the feedback – a part of the process that often gets overlooked. Here are some of Colleen’s thoughtful insights into what makes feedback work. (more…)

Employee Engagement Surveys (And Doing Them Well)

2015 was a really bad year for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). At the start of the year, business correspondent Amanda Lang was accused of being in a conflict of interest for her reporting on an issue involving the Royal Bank of Canada while having a personal relationship with a RBC executive. (Lang later left the CBC for a new job with Bloomberg TV.) Then radio host Jian Ghomeshi lost his job because of incidents that resulted in him being charged with one count of choking and five counts of sexual assault – and CBC management’s awkward handling of that situation led to the firing of two top executives. And then TV host Evan Solomon was fired after allegations that he exploited his work-related connections to sell high-priced artworks. (He found a new job on satellite radio and as a magazine columnist.)

There was one bright spot for the CBC in October when the decidedly anti-CBC Conservative party was defeated in the Canadian federal election. The potential for change in the CBC’s relationship with Canada’s federal government, which funds the CBC’s operations, was characterized by retired CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre as “the people that are the custodians of this publicly owned institution no longer seem[ing] to hate it” – but the CBC is still struggling with the fallout from the traumatic events that marred its reputation in the past year.

An external review of the CBC workplace was commissioned after (more…)

This is What We Lose

The new film Spotlight tells the story of an investigation by a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper in the early 2000s. The reporters documented extensive child abuse by priests and brothers in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Their investigation also exposed a cover-up by church officials, who knew that widespread abuse had been happening for several decades but failed to do anything meaningful to stop it.

I saw Spotlight this week, and I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating and engaging film. And as a former newspaper reporter, I thought the film very realistically depicted the work of reporting, especially in showing the amount of legwork and detailed research that goes into writing a major news story. It also illustrated the often-overlooked contexts within which news stories develop – in this case, the elites in Boston society that helped to keep the abuse hidden, and that also discouraged the Globe from pursuing the story.

However, as much as I enjoyed Spotlight, it also made me feel very sad – because (more…)