May 2011

Ottawa Writers Festival


Pleased to be reading 8:30 PM Sunday May 1st at the Mayfair Theater in Ottawa, at 1074 Bank Street.

From the program notes:

Join us for three stunning evocations of how the future incorporates the past into the present. These forward-looking novelists examine personal journeys through our collective histories. 


In Progress , a stirring story of lives lost and found, Michael V. Smith introduces us to Helen, who is unable to move on with her life. But life itself is moving on around her—literally. The building of a dam is forcing her small town—and her family home—to relocate.


A haunting novel about national identity, race, liberty, loss, dislocation and surrender,Teju Cole ’s Open City follows a young Nigerian doctor along the streets of Manhattan. But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—a journey that takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into unrecognizable facets of his own soul.


Timothy Taylor , the Giller Prize-nominated author of Stanley Park , comes a novel about the clash of art and advertising, the cultish grip of celebrity, and the intense connections that form in times of crisis. The Blue Light Project is a hard-hitting and emotionally wrought commentary on the forces that attract and repel us, and the faith that enables us to continue.



Posted: Sunday, May. 1, 2011 8:31am

Igloolik Dubai

My third novel The Blue Light Project was published in March/April and book business, touring etc, consumed most of those two months.

In May I had to get back to work. That means magazine work. And that means travel. I still very much enjoy this aspect of my freelance life. This time around in particular, I had an unusual schedule that took me to Igloolik, in Nunuvut, which is in Canada's arctic...

...and then to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, 9000 kilometers away in one of the hottest desert areas known to man.

The experience generated plenty of stark contrasts, as you might imagine. -40 C versus +40 C is perhaps the most obvious. Ditto the landscapes of frozen snow and hot sand. But there's also the area of wealth and development, where Dubai's skyline seems to grow while you watch it and Igloolik is a clutch of low buildings along a remote stretch of beach in the Canadian high arctic. An international hub in the middle east versus an isolated hamlet in the frozen north. What two places could be more different?

And yet a couple of things struck me powerfully as being shared by these places. Both the Emiratis and the Inuit are ancient people, whose entrance into post-modernity has been relatively sudden. And in both places I was there to interview people whose lives are crucially connected to the project of staying in touch with ancient ways.

In the north, that person was Zacharius Kunuk, the legendary Inuit filmmaker who brought us the films The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rassmussen.

Kunuk is a fascinating individual, whose committment to Inuit tradition comes paired with a fully post-modern engagement with technology and global thinking. I look forward to writing a profile of him and his work for an upcoming issue of Canadian Art.

In the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, I was there to write several pieces that will run in Spafax Canada publications. But one of those assignments allowed me to meet Peter Bergh, one of the best known falconers in the world.

Falconry is a 2500 year old tradition in the middle east, and in a culture that isn't easy to penetrate for western outsiders, it offers a fascinating window into the history of the region. I'll be writing about Peter and the experience of working with his birds in an upcoming issue of Fairmont Magazine.


Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 10:10am

Hiring: Gut Feel or Hard Numbers?

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine:

Mike Brydon and Peter Tingling are decision theory specialists at Simon Fraser University's Faculty of Business, and they have a question they like to ask when giving presentations to senior management groups, especially to human resources managers. "How many here have taken golf lessons to improve their game?" A lot of hands go up. Then they ask: "How many have had instruction to improve their decision making?" No one raises a hand because, as Brydon and Tingling have discovered, all managers, but especially those in HR, consider themselves to be expert decision makers already.

We all tend to judge others intuitively, having "evolved to take the measure of people quickly," Brydon says. But in recruiting, it can be a costly practice, as anyone knows who's hired someone they liked after a few interviews, only to find that person couldn't do the job.

This happens because of the many biases that affect our decisions about people. We are instinctive pattern matchers, for example, judging character by a person's shoes or tattoos. This tendency affects even companies like General Electric (long a bastion of analytic management), whose outgoing CEO Jack Welch wrote that his successor, Jeffery Immelt, met with his approval because the man seemed "comfortable in his own skin." Was that a job requirement? In which case, did Welch really know what it meant or how to measure it?

Equally common are selection process biases. Brydon and Tingling cite "first-date interviews," where banal questions elicit no useful information. Or the study-proven phenomenon that applicants who let their interviewers do most of the talking tend to earn higher rankings. Likewise similarity, such as coming from the same school as your interviewer, is known to create what's called an "association" bias.

Do politeness and alma mater-overlap correlate in any way with likely future performance? Probably not. But plenty of people get hired because of them.

Information asymmetries are an even bigger issue in hiring, Tingling says. If you don't have a rigorous way of measuring candidates against job-relevant attributes-such as leadership skills or analytical abilities, market profile or sales results in the previous quarter-then there are all kinds of ways applicants can game the system. They can pump up their resumés. They can hide jobs from which they were fired. They can train themselves to give a great interview using guides available on the Internet. These tactics make candidates more attractive and articulate to the boss who goes with the gut, but this doesn't mean that the person will be any good at the job.

The question for the HR manager, then, is how to make the selection process more analytical. To help, Brydon and Tingling have developed a sophisticated decision-making software called Amadeus SRA. They refer to it as "Moneyball for the rest of us," a nod to Michael Lewis's book about the 2002 Oakland A's under manager Billy Beane. That team won its division with a payroll of $41 million (U.S.), a third of what the New York Yankees shelled out in the same year. The A's success hinged on Beane's radically non-traditional recruiting practices. He set aside the standard measures of a player's offensive success-stolen bases, RBIs and batting average-in favour of on-base percentage and slugging average. Beane was convinced that those two statistics, while undervalued in the marketplace, were more indicative of a player's potential.

That mentality, Tingling and Brydon assert, is critical in non-sports management, too, and their software guides every aspect of the interviewing and hiring process. It sets the desired attributes and considers exactly what the successful applicant must bring to the table relative to company objectives. It provides interview and testing methods by which those attributes will be measured in each case, and compiles the input of however many interviewers are involved. It then produces rankings, and slices and dices the data in inventive (and patented) ways.

Compared with traditional blunt measures, this new rigour gives company directors a new way of assessing how well the HR department is doing its job.

As Tingling says: "I've never met an HR manager who didn't know his company's attrition rate. But I've never met one who knew his company's regrettable attrition rate." That latter stat is the one that matters, of course.

The Amadeus software is currently being tested by several educational institutions and is being considered by at least one unnamed security agency. Those employers who are attracted to the software, Tingling says, appreciate the words of W. Edwards Deming: "In God we trust. All others bring data."

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 8:53am

Too Big to Fail?

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine:

Newt Gingrich is back and doing what he's done so often: igniting controversy. The architect of the Republican congressional revolution of the 1990s has created a firestorm by proposing a U.S. federal law that would allow states to go bankrupt. At present, only cities can do that, and it's been rare. But the debate escalated in January and February, as dozens of states and cities said they would have to make brutal spending cuts to slash massive budget deficits. The crisis is already so advanced that star Wall Street analyst Meredith Whitney told 60 Minutes that she expects 50 cities to declare bankruptcy in 2011.

Gingrich's plan is basically a free-market solution to deficits-the bond market will exercise the discipline that politicians cannot. Manhattan Institute scholar Nicole Gelinas explained the logic in a Boston Globe op-ed piece in January: "If bondholders worry that states won't repay their debt, then they'll jack up interest rates, or just stop lending money." That's how the market punishes underperforming companies. And legal bankruptcy, or even the threat of it, is often a powerful tool used by executives or regulators to force unions, management and other stakeholders to get real-either moderate your demands, or we'll close the doors and sell off everything for whatever we can get.

Not surprisingly, U.S. tax reformers and proponents of limited government like Gingrich's idea. It gives Washington another option for troubled states besides bailouts. The feds could just say "No." The states could then squeeze public-sector unions. Given a choice between taking their lumps at the negotiating table or possibly having their contracts swept away in bankruptcy, sane union leaders would likely take the first one.

Opponents of Gingrich's plan are vitriolic-"stupid," "horrid" and "disaster" are typical responses. You'd expect that from unions under siege. But the proposal could also backfire on Washington by rattling already wobbly markets for municipal and state bonds, and pushing local and state political problems upstream into federal courts.

Then there's the question of what happens after governments hit the wall. Unlike bankrupt companies, states and cities can't simply be shut down and auctioned off. Someone will still have to provide some services. And as Gelinas noted, the spectre of bankruptcy may not result in the deep spending cuts that Gingrich and his crowd would like to see. "If you're a bondholder, you often prefer tax increases to spending cuts," Gelinas said.

Bankruptcy also wouldn't eliminate the states' biggest financial obligations by far: unfunded pension liabilities. Reuters Money & Politics columnist James Pethokoukis says that states face a total unfunded pension shortfall-the value of future obligations already incurred minus the current value of investment assets-of $3.2 trillion (U.S.). That makes the $250 billion in budget deficits forecast for the next two years look like a blip.

Canadians should pay close attention, because fiscal problems are swelling here, too. The federal budget deficit totalled $56 billion in the 2009-'10 fiscal year. The Harper government has vowed to eliminate that by 2015-'16. But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says that a $10-billion deficit will likely remain. "We do not have sustainable fiscal structure," he said, ominously. Ottawa also has a shortfall of $208 billion in its pension plans for federal employees, according to a recent C.D. Howe Institute paper.

Entire countries have gone bust and repudiated debts in the past, of course. But the fundamental problem with Gingrich's idea in a democracy is that it's asking the market to do a job the electorate should be doing: punishing politicians who spend too much money.

So why do politicians keep overspending? Often it's a timing issue-spending decisions are made long before bills come due, or by politicians who don't have to implement them. We have a great example of this in Vancouver, where I live. The B.C. Teachers' Federation has a contract with the provincial Ministry of Education that calls for improved wages and benefits for this school year, yet the ministry failed to increase the provincial education budget enough to cover it. The Vancouver School Board had to work with the collective agreement it had been handed. The board's solution: cut programs and school days.

Which politicians, if any, will Vancouver voters choose to punish? The trouble with the electorate, of course, is that our personal finances are as bad as those of governments. A recent Vanier Institute of the Family study noted that the average Canadian family's debt-to-income ratio has soared to 150% over the past 20 years, while the savings rate has plummeted. We've all been borrowing and spending irresponsibly for a long time. No wonder it's so hard to stop politicians from doing the same thing.

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 8:57am