One crow for sorrow; Eight crows for heaven. Photo © Ingrid Taylar @

If this were 2000 years ago, the population may have rioted in the streets.

At the very least, Romans leaders would have put off major undertakings until portents improved. Seers would have watched weather and bird life, listening for the whisperings of Olympian gods in the croak of the crow, the whistle of the eagle or the chirp of the sparrow. They would have looked for signs that the gods had recovered from their most recent bouts of indigestion—side effects of indulging in all that nectar and ambrosia—and were once again smiling favourably on Roman endeavours.

But we live in unsuperstitious times. So, when a major religious figure and a couple of kids in Rome released white doves in a gesture of peace last month, and those very birds were roughed up by their mean-streets feathered brethren, people merely pronounced it a bad omen for events in the Ukraine, for the Olympics, for Syria….

The event and its interpretation presented the pointy-headed crowd with opportunity to roll its eyes and say (I paraphrase), “Hey, those doves are white—the result of generations upon generations of inbreeding. Of course wild birds would attack them. “

White, in Nature, is a statement of nonconformity. And Nature, for the most part, encourages conformity. Being a white animal is Nature’s equivalent of wearing a giant ‘Kick Me’ sign….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….


Homework, photo by Kate Hiscock,

I’d like a robot.

I’d like a robot to do all my gardening. The robot of my dreams would clean out gutters and drains, paint the siding, sweep the patio, and tidy the garage. On a good day, said robot would also do all the housework. It would also be a treat if it could provide deep-tissue massages and yoga instruction, cook tasty and healthful meals, do the dishes and the shopping, and keep me organized.

Yes, I’d like a robot that is a gardener–housekeeper–chef–personal assistant. That way, I could concentrate on more satisfying, more creative activities.

It appears that the way I view technology is pretty typical for an adult. We adults usually think of technology as a tool to help us with tasks—in particular, with chores. We consider it separate from humanness.

Kids, apparently, see technology very differently. A survey of students aged 8 to 12 reveals young people expect future technology to fulfill functions much more essential to the human experience. Kids, it seems, tend to think of it as fundamentally human.

U.S.-based social/technology-research consultants Latitude Research conducted the study in collaboration with the LEGO Learning Institute and Australia’s Project Synthesis. They asked 348 youngsters from six Western countries to write stories about what their lives would be like if robots were a fixture in their learning environments—at school and beyond.

When the researchers applied a coding scheme to the stories, they found the under-13 respondents saw robots as supportive, nonjudgmental friends. The youngsters indicated they wanted their robots to provide comfort and company, encourage them to learn and grow, motivate and empower them, and, in some cases, fulfill emotional needs more reliably than humans do.

Suddenly my robot requirements seem paltry and…limited.

Yes, I can put my name down for a robot that prepares pancake breakfasts, German sausage breakfasts, sushi, shish kebab, or complete turkey dinners, or I can hanker for a truck-sized model that whips up entire Chinese dinners. I can also settle for an engineering marvel that folds tea towels perfectly. I can even finally learn to program the auto-cook setting on my 12-year-old oven.

But what are pancakes, Chinese dinners and perfectly folded tea towels next to, well, friendship?

With Pink Shirt Day coming up next Wednesday and the tragedies of Amanda Todd and targets of bullying this past year, what an indictment about our society that kids see machines of the future providing the most basic aspects of what friends, parents and family represent.

I’m not talking about the homework part, although of course good friends and family provide support with that, too. I’m talking about encouragement, acceptance, tolerance, trust, respect, comfort, approval, reassurance….

This is the kind of support that might have made a big difference—a vital difference—to Todd and other casualties of social isolation and bullying.

The goal of the Robots@School study were to determine how technology facilitates learning, play and creativity, what relationships children hope to develop with and through robots, and how robots and other technologies might ignite and encourage children’s learning and creativity. The researchers state in their report, “Robots are a useful proxy for understanding kids’ social, creative and learning aspirations in ways that might be more illuminating than if we engaged them directly on such issues. Robots allow kids to project their weak­nesses, strengths and ambitions.”

In the report, kids see robots as better versions of teachers and parents, offering limitless time and patience, encouraging confidence and self-direction, and allowing kids to make mistakes without self-consciousness. The kids believed robots’ supportiveness would lessen kids’ fear of failure and empower them to take more creative risks without fear of being ostracized.

In other words, the kind of support that B.C.-raised slam poet Shane Koyczan could have used during his grade-school Pork Chop incident. Koyczan describes the incident that led to years of being bullied in his animated poem, To This Day, published this week.

As he says in the poem, “If a kid breaks in a school and no one chooses to hear, do they make a sound?”

I’ll forgo putting in the order for the robot and go make friends with some kids instead.



Sources include:

Latitude Research’s Robots @ School

Chinese cook robot

Kebab-cooking robot

German sausage-breakfast robot

Dinner-cooking robot

Towel-folding robot



Baboons. Photo by Marie Hale.

Baboons are more like humans than we may like to think. They are as nasty to each other as we are. Photo by Marie Hale.

Victoria Times Colonist, November 2, 2012—Within less than 24 hours on October 9–10, 2012, two 15-year-old girls made newspaper headlines.

Amanda Todd and Malala Yousafzai lived worlds apart, separated by language, history, culture, and geography. Their stories, however, share tragic similarities.

Todd, as we know, committed suicide after being bullied online and at school. Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck by Taliban terrorists, which in my opinion, are nothing more than organized bullies with guns and grenades.

Todd and Yousafzai were targeted for abuse because—according to the narrow strictures of each group of bullies’ codes of conduct—these two young women had crossed moral lines—lines defined and marked and defended by the bullies themselves.

Todd and Yousafzai were targeted because they were women. Todd was fighting to move beyond a painful series of incidents that had started when she was sexually exploited by a cyber-stalker/blackmailer. Yousafzai spoke out for the rights of girls and women to attend school in a country where they had, very recently, been forbidden education.

I’m not saying bullies pick only on girls. Of course not. Bullies single out anyone whom they can get away with picking on. Some choose weaker and more vulnerable targets. Like Amanda, who lacked a supportive peer network that could help her and intervene on her behalf. Like Reena Virk, Dawn-Marie Wesley, Hamed Nastoh, Ashkan Sultani and all other teens—female or male—who have been bullied to death in B.C.

Bullies also prey on those who are strong or successful in some way because of the threat this poses to the bullies’ positions, worldviews or self esteem. Yousefzai, in advocating for women’s education and in blogging about her life under the Taliban for the BBC, fits this category.

We know bullying isn’t unique to humans. Stanford University neuroscientist and stress researcher Robert Sapolsky details his work studying baboons in Kenya’s Serengeti in many of his books. In A Primate’s Memoir, he writes, “Baboons live in big, complex social groups, and the population I went to study lived like kings…. The baboons work maybe four hours a day to feed themselves; hardly anyone is likely to eat them. Basically, baboons have about a half dozen solid hours of sunlight a day to devote to being rotten to each other. Just like our society….”

Typical baboon bullying goes something like this: A troop’s alpha male appropriates a subordinate’s hard-earned lunch of tubers. The subordinate, smarting, slashes the next guy down the pecking order, who bites a female, who smacks a juvenile, who thumps the newest kid on the block….

All within seconds.

Disturbingly like some families, schoolyards and online chatrooms.

And so the hurt in Sapolsky’s baboon troops cascades down and around. Then, one year in the 1980s, animals from one troop feasted on meat they found in the garbage dump behind a nearby tourist lodge. Many of the troop partook of the feast; the most aggressive partook the most.

Alas, the meat was diseased. Many in the troop perished, including all the aggressive males.

Females suddenly outnumbered guys. The males that survived were more interested in grooming and being groomed—in connecting socially with members of the troop—than in terrorizing others. And when aggressive adolescent males wandered in off the savannah to become troop members, they were quickly made to leave bullying behaviors at the door.

A kinder, gentler baboon society was born. According to Sapolsky, that society continues to thrive today, some 25 years later.

Sapolsky’s tale provides hope for us so-called higher primates. Of course, we humans are not permitted to feed tainted meat to or otherwise dispatch bullies, sociopaths, anti-social jerks and others who make our lives miserable. But those in charge and those below and those around and those online can connect and support and stand up for each other. We can each refuse to tolerate language and actions meant to hurt or intimidate, whether directed at us or at others. We can each intervene when hurt happens. We can each say, “No. Not on my watch.”

After all, if baboons can do it, surely we can, too.

Can’t we?



A version of this article appears in the Victoria Times Colonist