Step aside, Alpha Male


Image by Flickr user Bob.Fornal

I want to try and draw some parallels, but before this is possible we need a common text.

This fascinating podcast is about a community of baboons that Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist, studied in eastern Africa. (It’s not long, and well worth a listen.)

Here’s a very basic summary:
  • The podcast opens with the increased percentage of people who don’t believe human beings will ever stop waging war because “it’s in our nature.” Just one of those sad but inevitable things we can’t change.
  • We then meet Sapolsky’s study subjects, a community of “textbook” baboons. The group is highly-aggressive, hierarchical and dominated by alpha males.
  • A tourist lodge opens up nearby and a different group of baboons stops foraging and starts feasting on cakes, hamburgers, etc, everyday.
  • Sapolsky’s group discovers the dumping ground and wants in on the free-for-all. The tougher males fight their way into the food dump every day, for years.
  • One day, some of the baboons start getting really sick. Turns out they’ve consumed contaminated meat and contracted tuberculosis. The disease  kills off most of the aggressive alpha males.
  • Sapolsky is devastated by the deaths of his alphas. He also starts to observe changes in the clan. The beta males start doing things the alphas never did, like grooming the females and even other males. He figures the study group has been scientifically compromised by a freak event and moves on to a different clan.
  • Six years later, Sapolsky visits his old group. To his amazement, the less violent culture remains! This despite the fact that the community is full of new males that grew up under the “old world order.”
  • Surprisingly, the new males adapted to the relatively peaceful culture of the group instead of trying to become the new alphas.
  • Lots of theories are thrown around, but the idea of hard-wired and inevitable aggression is called into question, especially because this more peaceful baboon behaviour has now lasted 20 years.
  • Many behaviours thought to be hard-wired changed, and very quickly!
  • The podcast ends with a question: can this scenario teach us something about the human potential for change?
Now, my own anecdote comes in.

Better to light 350 candles than curse the darkness

In the long run the pessimist may be proved right, but the optimist has a better time on the trip. ~Daniel L. Reardon

350 at Clovelly, Sydney, Australia. Uploaded by under the creative commons.

350 at Clovelly, Sydney, Australia. Uploaded by under the creative commons.


I wasn’t at
Cambie Bridge yesterday, and I deeply regret it.

Instead of drinking in the energy of about 5,000 other environmentally-conscious Vancouverites, I sat in my room sipping cold coffee.

(Side note: Too often my schooling gets in the way of my education! But maybe I’m just lame because one of my J-school peers made the time to go.)

The bridge was one of thousands of places around the world where concerned citizens gathered to call out for action on climate change. This time, they rallied around the number 350. Why?

Well, climate scientists have said that 350 parts per million is the upper limit for heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the longer we live past this concentration, the worse the global repercussions (like droughts, rising sea levels, famine, etc.) will be.

By the way, we’re currently living at 387 parts per million.

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Tappin’ the Power of Re-Branding


If someone offered me two unidentified glasses of wine
and asked me to assess their value, I’d get nervous.

Sure, I’d feign competence and do the swirl, sniff, and sip but, without any information about the products, I’d simply choose the more enjoyable and hope it was also the more “valuable.” Yes, this might mean I’d go with the bargain bin basic over the super-rare vintage from eons ago but, apparently, I’m not alone.

In “Life Lessons from an Ad Man,” the recently posted TED talk embedded above, Rory Sutherland explains how advertising adds value to a product by changing our perception of a product instead of changing the actual product itself. I know this notion may seem obvious, especially when directly discussed, but Sutherland’s examples highlight how persuasion has worked as a powerful marketing tool.

In terms of wine, Sutherland quotes the American Institute of Wine Economics [sic]*: “Except for among 5% or 10% of the most knowledgeable people, there is no correlation between quality and enjoyment in wine—except when you tell people how expensive it is, in which case they tend to enjoy the most expensive stuff more.”

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Help for the Homeless in British Columbia

What if we chose to see the homeless as more than just statistics?

What if we chose to see the homeless as more than just statistics?

Last Friday I sat down with Monte Paulsen, the investigative editor of the web-based magazine The Tyee.

For three years, Paulsen has been writing solution-oriented journalism on homelessness in BC, talking to everyone from politicians and outreach workers to people living beneath the Science World docks. We spoke before his free public talk, “Ending Homelessness: What Works,” an event that was co-sponsored by The Tyee and the Museum of Vancouver, and timed to coincide with the region’s fourth annual Homelessness Action Week.

Paulsen wants to prove, beyond an optimistic sentiment, that the province can end homelessness for the same amount it currently spends to maintain it.

To read my article on Paulsen’s ideas, click here.  (There’s also a link to hear audio)

Baby Birds for Breakfast?

My cat, Grisito, waiting to be let out. Photo credit: Beatrice Carletti

My cat, Grisito, waiting to be let out. Photo credit: Beatrice Carletti

Back in high school, I read a poem called “The Prize Cat” by E.J. Pratt. As a cat owner and lover, I delighted in Pratt’s descriptions of a pure blood domestic tabby cat with a soft-mannered, musical purr. “The ribbon had declared the breed, Gentility was in the fur.” Essentially, Pratt muses about the tamed majesty of the now-domesticated feline. And then, a flash of instinct:

I saw the generations pass
Along the reflex of a spring,
A bird had rustled in the grass,
The tab had caught it on the wing:

Behind the leap so furtive-wild
Was such ignition in the gleam,
I thought an Abyssinian child
Had cried out in the whitethroat’s scream.

I think that was the first time I considered the predatory instincts of my beloved pet and, though it was unsettling, I didn’t think about what outdoor cats might be doing to bird populations on a wide scale.

In her recent article for the New York Times, Natalie Angier offers a bird’s eye view. Although Angier definitely editorializes—describing cats as bored, carnivorous tourists and recreational, subsidized hunters—she raises some interesting points.

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How can I say this without offending you?

crucial conversationsI’m cleaning out my digital closet and I’ve come across a few useful notes.

A while back I read a book called  Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. Indeed, figuring out how to effectively communicate sensitive messages is a vital skill (if we ever hope to get past the flushed cheeks and beating hearts).

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d post the notes I made and spark some interest in the book and/or its raison d’etre. The notes are by no means complete–and they’re much less powerful out of context and without examples–but I think this short list still contains some useful information. Happy conversing!

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On Kiva, birthday loans, and mixed feelings

Happy Birthday, Love.

Happy Birthday, Love.

Today is (my beau) Andrew’s birthday so, among other things, I have made a zero-interest microloan to an entrepreneur in Ukraine, his country of origin. I did this through Kiva–the first person-to-person micro-lending website–a secure forum that makes it possible for ordinary people, like me, to lend as little as $25 to other ordinary people in around the world. (I’ve blogged about it before if you’d like to take a gander.)

Andrew’s birthday loan will assist a female entrepreneur named Varvara Leonova–a clothing vendor in Zaporozhye– in purchasing some new seasonal wear for her small business.

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“The Story of Stuff”–let’s have a conversation.

Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money.
~Cree proverb

It’s funny how the littlest incidents can give you hope in the face of overwhelming worries.

This morning I listened to “The Last Call” on CBC Radio one, a special program hosted by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. One of the people he interviewed was Annie Leonard, the woman featured in the short video above. I was struck by how concise yet articulate she was.

When the radio show ended, I decided to google Leonard’s short movie. About 7 minutes in,  my 13-year-old sister, Bebe, entered the room and peered over my shoulder. To my surprise, she asked me to start the movie again from the beginning. From the corner of my eye I noticed the look of concern on her face. For a girl who loves to shop, she laughed quite heartily at skinny heel vs. fat heel segment of the video. It seemed she took a moment to question her own love of malls and sparkly new things. When it was over, Bebe said that the video–which is being used in classrooms across the United States–should also be shown here in Canada.

You know, her warm reception of the short film gave me hope. In the past, I thought I was boring Bebe with all my talk of environmental activism. At the age of 23, I thought I may already be sounding like a lecturing grown-up to her. When I reminded her of simple things, like taking shorter showers or turning off her lights, she would occasionally grumble or make a long face. Now that I think about it, though, this may be because little sisters don’t always like being nagged by big sisters in general. The message of responsible citizenry, however, may actually be getting through to her.

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The Glorious Gap Year (or why you don’t have to go straight to University!)

The self is not something one finds, it is something one creates. ~Thomas Szasz, “Personal Conduct,” The Second Sin, 1973

Don't get fenced in before you're ready!!

The whole world is a possibility. Don't get fenced in.

Your parents have just received your high school grad portraits and are already starry-eyed at the prospect of your becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a somebody.  As they admire how sharp you look holding a diploma, you say:

“Mom, Dad. I’m don’t want to go to university….”

But before you can say “yet” your parents are already freaking out. Speaking over their objections, you say you might want to work abroad, backpack, volunteer, or sail off into some distant horizon. Your parents hear that you want to run away, go broke, destroy your motivation or otherwise waste your time. I know my parents thought that way at first.

Before I explain how I managed to escape anyway, here’s a little background: Yesterday I woke up to sound of Andy Barrie’s soothing baritone on CBC radio one. Barrie was interviewing a grade 12 student named Ryan Cole who plans to spend his first year after high school trekking around Europe and Asia. Instead of enrolling in courses and purchasing books, Cole is checking flight itineraries and buying a sturdy backpack. You see, Cole is taking a gap year.

Yes, the great gap year! It’s concept that Brits, Aussies and Danes understand but, for some reason, one that Canucks still seem to struggle with. Although gap years can happen after any long pattern of work or study, the years closest to high school tend to make parents sensitive. Real sensitive. Personally, it took me a whole year to muster up the chutzpah to tell mine that I was, err, considering my options.

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Waring’s Warning

Economics has got it down really tight,so that if you’re not talking their language, you’re not talking in their jargon, you’re not part of the argument.–M. Waring (3:43 in clip 3/3)

Marilyn Waring, a feminist economist, is unapologetic when speaking about the undervaluation of women’s work in the global economy. She raises several important questions about patriarchal and oppressive economic policies that, unfortunately, continue to be relevant nearly two decades later.

I am in the process of writing an essay that heavily draws upon Waring’s historically and internationally significant research, and I really feel that we would all do well to revisit and actually consider her arguments within the context of the current economic climate.

Here is a woman who calls our much venerated GDP a “uni-dimensional economic fabrication” and challenges us to disentangle cash-generating capacity from genuine value.

If you’re tempted to call her radical, know that Waring would approve. After all, she says with a smile, the word “radical” originates in the latin for “the root of things.”

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