Friday, September 29, 2006

Why is saying "I'm sorry" so hard?

After all the things that were done wrong in the Maher Arar case, it was refreshing to hear the commissioner of the RCMP give such a complete apology to Arar when he appeared before a Parliamentary committee on Thursday.
"Mr. Arar, I wish to take this opportunity to express publicly to you, to your wife and to your children how truly sorry I am," he told the House national security committee.

It's such a simple thing to say and it means so much. So why is it so hard for people in authority to say they're sorry?

For example, later in the day, we had the unseemly spectacle of Public Security Minister Stockwell Day refusing to apologize to Arar, on the grounds that the government was still negotiating with him over how he should be compensated. What a shameful way to behave.

Why do we equate saying "I'm sorry" with "I admit complete responsibility for what happened and therefore you can sue me to the ends of the earth and take whatever you want"?

You can be sorry for what happened without taking liability. And if we don't believe that the courts will see it that way, our laws should be changed to make sure that an authority figure expressing an apology is not held liable because of it.

There are plenty of examples of how powerful an apology can be and a growing body of evidence that in some cases, such as medical mistakes, an apology from a doctor can reduce the likelihood of a malpractice suit.

I don't know why but I've always been annoyed by how difficult it is for authorities to apologize. In fact, it's one of the main reasons I got out of the daily journalism business back in the mid-1990's.

Two incidents in particular stand out for their silliness. The first occurred when it became clear that David Milgaard, the Saskatchewan man who served 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, was finally released from jail. I was part of a scrum of reporters chasing Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice, Bob Mitchell, for a reaction.

When we finally talked to him, he was asked whether he would apologize to Milgaard and he said no, because he didn't want to set a precedent. It seemed to me that setting a precedent that the government would apologize to every innocent person who served 23 years in prison for a murder they didn't commit would be a good idea.

The other incident that set my blood boiling (so to speak) involved the Saskatchewan government's refusal to extend compensation to people who had contracted Hepatitis C through tainted blood but were left out of the original compensation package worked out after the Krever Inquiry. (At the time, the commission report had not been received.)

Again, I was part of a scrum trying to get the Health Minister, Louise Simard to say why they weren't eligible and she steadfastly refused to say anything. Pressed to say whether she was sorry, she wouldn't. I'm not sure why her refusal to utter the words made me so angry but I was. And I still am.

In both cases, the authority figures felt that saying they were sorry would show weakness, or admit to liability, or something bad like that. But I would argue it would show they were human and sympathetic. And if the apology came up later in court, it would be to their advantage - not used against them.

Whether it comes from a government minister, a supervisor, a doctor or a personal friend, a sincere apology works wonders in helping someone through a difficult time. We should be far more willing to say "I'm sorry."

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Could WalMart become an environmental leader?

If I've learned anything over the decades, it's that one should never, ever, say never.

I am no fan of WalMart, as some of you may know. While I don't deny how successful the company is from a financial point of view, I've always been uncomfortable with a business model that drives it's competitors out of business and creates a master/slave relationship with its suppliers.

So I've made a point of not shopping at WalMart. It's just a personal thing with me. I figure if I feel strongly about something, I should be prepared to put my money (or time, or whatever) where my mouth is. So I don't shop there.

So that's just me, right? And it's not like I'm going to have any effect whatsoever on a big company like WalMart. The actions of one person are not that big a deal. Or are they?

In fact, if enough people were to do one thing, it could have a tremendous effect. So while I think of WalMart as a bad corporate citizen, I've got to admit that their sheer size could also make them a powerful tool for doing good things.

What made me realize this is a recent story on the Fast Company website, called How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One. And You're Looking At It.. It talks about how a powerful tool in the battle to reduce the growth of greenhouse gases could be as a simple as changing the light bulbs you have in your house. That's right -- you. One person. Here's what I'm talking about.

We've all seen those compact fluorescent bulbs for sale at the store. But if you're like most people, you probably don't buy them. They're too expensive and you figure the light they give off is terrible, right? Well, times have changed and so have those bulbs -- in almost every way.
One thing hasn't changed: the energy savings. Compact fluorescents emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity.

What that means is that if every one of 110 million American households bought just one ice-cream-cone bulb, took it home, and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. One bulb swapped out, enough electricity saved to power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island. In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

That's the law of large numbers--a small action, multiplied by 110 million.

Those are startling numbers. And there's a lot more startling stuff in the article. It's a fascinating look at how a company like WalMart makes decisions on how to do its business and how those decisions can have significant effects.

This fall, WalMart will launch a major offensive on its customers to convince them to buy those energy efficient bulbs. And they're dead serious about it. And if past actions are any indication, when WalMart decides to get serious about anything, it's likely to happen.

This is quite the story. It's startling to look at the implications. This could have a major effect on our world and I've got to admit I'm a bit stunned to think that a company like WalMart is about to lead such a significant revolution.

But perhaps I shouldn't be. Again, looking back over my own experiences, it's clear that significant change in our world has only come about when it's become good business. We often overlook that. And while it can sometimes take other factors to bring businesses on board, a good idea has to make business sense to become successful.

So, while I ever shop at WalMart again? I'm not planning to but I will certainly be watching what happens with interest. And while I might not be willing to give them my business, I'll certainly give them their due and congratulate them for such a significant socially responsible campaign.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

I'm back to celebrate OneWebDay

It's OneWebDay today, when people around the world are being encouraged to talk about what the Web means to them.

It's been awhile since I've posted to TheDailyUpload, so writing about what the Web has meant to me over the past decade and more seemed like a great way to get back into the swing of things.

But first, just so we're all up-to-date, I am now settled in Victoria, BC. We have a lovely new home (rented) and most of our possessions that we brought with us from Ontario. (More on the mover's saga in a future post.)

Now, a few random thoughts on how the Web has become a major part of my life over the years.

I've been connecting with others using on-line connections since the early 1980s. The monthly newspaper I was editing had a computer column and the guy who wrote it sent me his copy using an old 300-baud modem. It seemed like a miracle at the time. Heck, at that point, I was still writing my stories on an old manual Underwood and sending the copy to a typesetter via the mail. How times have changed.

It wasn't long before I had a CompuServe account and was also learning about bulletin boards and FidoNet and later Gopher.

Eventually, services like CompuServe had to give in and open up to the Web and as browsers proliferated, how I used the web evolved. The newspaper I was working for wasn't much interested in Web access for its employees, although a few of us were doing on-line research with our own email addresses. At that point, we needed separate phone lines for our modems and companies were loath to ante up for access.

It's been interesting to be part of various companies during their unique adaptations to the power of the Internet. In 1984, I helped our accountant purchase the first computers we'd ever had -- a pair of AT&T 6300's, I think they were.

When I joined SaskTel in the mid-90s, they had a flourishing networked culture, but their Internet presence was still new. I helped to implement an Intranet, a form of user-driven distributed communication which many people used to the top-down hierarchy structure in SaskTel had a lot of trouble accepting.

In every company I've been in, I've become involved in advancing their use of electronic communications, with varying degrees of success.

This is what I love to do, no question, but there are time when I wonder about the ultimate price we're paying. All around me, I see colleagues suffering from the stress of today's modern workplace. The new tools which were supposed to make our life easier have instead created new pressures to perform.

Whatever happened to the idea that we "work to live?" and that we would all be enjoying 30-hour work weeks and 10 weeks of vacation each year? Right...

It seems the more we are able to do, the more we do. But are we accomplishing more? I used to put out an 80-page newspaper every month, filled with original articles, photographs and colour ads. It came out every month and I worked hard, but not crazy hours. Although today's editors have a lot more electronic options and near-instantaneous communications, they seem to work a lot more hours than we did 25 years ago. But the publications still come out once a month.

Today, I have a website, a blog, a Flickr page, email addresses galore, a cellphone, plenty of computers and a never-ending list of things to do. I wouldn't give any of them up at this point, but I do wonder about where we're going.

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that we're moving into a better place, but every so often, I wonder...What if we just turned everything off again?

That's my take on this, OneWebDay.

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