Weaving Social Fabric (Society is Changing, Part 1)

In a world where tensions are high, stability is a luxury, and critical aspects of decent society seem to be crumbling before our eyes, it’s easy to rush to angry judgment. The people of the world are becoming more polarized than ever, and this trend shows no sign of slowing.

Humans are flawed. We are good at spotting patterns (even when none exist), and adapting to change when necessary, but we mostly suck at everything else. One big example of this is large numbers. Humans are astonishingly bad at thinking about numbers larger than a few hundred.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, suggested in the 90s a correlation between primate brain size and the number of social linkages maintained by an average member of the species, now called Dunbar’s Number. In humans, that number of relationships comes out to around 150. Robin relates this number to the typical maximum size of a social circle most people can maintain.

In addition, this figure of 150 is only for groups under survival pressure, and would require substantial ‘social grooming’ to maintain. That being said, the principles that give rise to Dunbar’s Number likely extend even further than this.


At least in North America, over 80 percent of the population lives in urban environments. This kind of lifestyle lends itself to a larger range of connections than rural living can, and our social connections bear that out. While a typical city block varies broadly in size and density, consider a block downtown littered with apartment buildings. At any point, one of these blocks could house hundreds of people, all living within minutes of each other on foot. There is no way that any individual person could have time to know and maintain relationships with even a fraction of their neighbours in this kind of living situation.

Now, take the opposite situation. There are small towns in North America that are populated by members of one or two extended families, where even dating prospects are limited to the one other family, or your own relatively close cousins. In these instances, where your average day might only include interactions with the same 100 or so individuals, it would be easier to keep in touch and follow the lives of almost everyone you see on a regular basis.

There was a time not too long ago when most people lived in this second situation, and a new person coming to town would be a cause of great interest, because people’s social ‘dance card’ was actually relatively empty. Of course, if somebody new moved to your urban city today (which almost certainly did happen), if you even knew about it, it would not be news, or even interesting to anyone.


Social relationships are complicated these days, at least in part because our social biology hasn’t yet caught up to the realities of modern life. The horrific act of violence, natural disaster, or political scandal du jour is broadcast all over the internet, through traditional news media outlets, and is the topic of conversation at water coolers and street corners across the country.

This visibility of news has a way of polarizing those who read it, especially when so much of the media isn’t reporting on news and events so much as running them through a filter. This is a problem in left-leaning media as much as it is in right-leaning media, and since the market for objective, rational media coverage is effectively non-existent, the whole thing is entirely self-sustaining. Pew has done some great research on polarization, and how huge the divide between political ideologies is these days.


Taking a step back, consider the following: no news isn’t good news anymore. Look no further for evidence of this than in scientific research. Scientists are faced with tightening budgets, increasing accountability for funding, and losing credibility without publishing their work. However, an increasing number of journals are choosing not to publish negative results or confirmation studies.

This means that research which fits a hypothesis is published, while subsequent studies following up on that research aren’t done, and further research that doesn’t turn up more or better evidence is shelved or thrown out. Anybody with an ounce of sense and a few minutes to think about it can see that this leads to a system that pumps out misleading or error-prone research, and suppresses the error correction that makes the scientific method so appealing.

The same thing is true in the news media. A sensational story with little fact or evidence will make its way around the world several times before any thought is given to its validity. Later, the story is clarified, parts are retracted or modified, and the much less interesting truth never really filters through major news channels like the original ‘story’.

Put another way, if there is an interesting angle to a potential news story, nothing else matters. Whether the resulting press coverage of an issue is true or false, whether people’s lives or careers are ruined, none of this matters because everyone is looking for the next scoop already. And when it’s uncovered that a story isn’t as interesting as originally advertised, i.e. there’s no news, there’s no money in correcting that error.


All of this brings us to an interesting point about the human race as it exists today. At any moment, I could, in theory, get into direct written (or possibly visual) contact with almost anybody on the planet. I would estimate that for at least 9 out of every 10 people, that conversation could begin within seconds. We’ve all become intertwined with social fabric that something happening to a few people on the other side of the world can be the most interesting and relevant thing we hear about on a given day.

Our ‘family’, in the small-town sense of the word, has grown so quickly that many of us, especially in younger generations, now consider celebrities and people in popular culture worthy of being included in the <150 people we hold in our tightest social circles. That leads directly to the rise of vlogging and podcasting as mediums of growing popularity, because these forms of media draw in their fans so they feel they’re included in the narrative.


At the moment, I’m not saying whether this revolution of sorts is good or bad for society. I think in general, time will tell and everything will mostly just work itself out. However, since we currently have access to the largest potential number of personal social connections than at any other time in history, we naturally tend to filter our social groups down more and more into the people we have the most in common with.

The ‘filter bubble’ is a well-known phenomenon caused by algorithms giving you only the news or opinion you want to hear, but there’s a real world version of that as well. Before the Internet, if you met somebody who had a different opinion from you, social norms meant you talked and learned each others’ points of view, and perhaps even changed your mind on something. Increasingly, as social groups become more reliant on communication at a distance, these encounters with different opinions are becoming more rare, and in many instances can be avoided completely.

As a result, groups of people spending time together tend to all like and think a lot of the same things, and anybody who doesn’t share these views or ways of thinking may increasingly start to be seen as more different, and may perhaps even be scary.

As for what this means, well…it’s not good.

Part 2


Editor’s Note: When I started this piece almost two months ago, I actually wanted to make a totally different set of points, but when I started writing, here’s what came out. While I think this piece stands on its own just fine, I am already planning a follow-up wherein I address how the changes described above have made us all less empathetic, and what could be done to address that.

10 Things You Should Try Right Now (In 50 Words or Less)

Photo by Britt Selvitelle (Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/6uHz7S)

I first published this on my personal blog two years ago today. Most good advice is eternal and these ten things you can do certainly all still apply.

1. Listen to a podcast
Everybody has quiet times during the day when you might listen to music. Do yourself a favour and have a look through the catalogues at podbay.fm. There are so many great podcasts to enjoy, and they don’t have to take you away from driving, cooking, or your favourite online activities.

2. Drink a glass of water
Honestly, no beverage holds a candle to simple, clean water. In addition to keeping your joints and blood vessels properly hydrated, drinking water regularly reduces feelings of hunger, goes a long way towards preventing kidney stones, and even though it doesn’t have sugar or caffeine, it tastes amazing!

3. Get and use Twitter
Listen, I know you’ve heard Twitter‘s elevator pitch. But what I’m trying to tell you now is that even if you think you won’t use it, you should make an account and at least see what it’s like. You can follow celebrities, sports icons, news outlets, friends, acquaintances, there is never any shortage of reasons to try it.

4. Go for a walk
Seriously, walks are the easiest physical activity you can do, and they’ve been scientifically proven to increase creativity, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and give you the chance to get some much needed Vitamin D. You’ll thank me.

5. Share something
Humans are very community oriented by nature, something that we tend to forget when we are online a lot of the time. Take some time during your day to share something you’ve enjoyed online. It’s also been shown that giving somebody something makes you feel better than getting something you want from them, or for yourself.

6. Allow people to follow you on Facebook
I don’t think I’ve ever written about something as much as I’ve written about allowing people to follow your public updates on Facebook. Going to this link and letting “Everybody” follow you won’t make anything you do on Facebook more public, it just gives you more social clout. And that’s all anybody wants…

7. Have sex
You seriously want me to explain this one? Sex has been shown to boost your immune system, floods your body with painkilling endorphins, and has been Earth’s most popular leisure activity for billions of years. Go have sex right now and then come back and tell me it wasn’t awesome…I rest my case.

8. Talk to somebody
I spend a lot of my day working at a computer alone, speaking to nobody. Humans are social creatures who were not made to do that, so go and strike up a conversation with that friendly looking fellow/lady you see every day, you probably have something in common and didn’t even realize it.

9. Cry it out
There is very little that can make me feel better when I’m down than having a good cry. Aside from the fact that it’s not seen as the manliest of activities, it’s a great way to let out a lot of stress we all build up in our increasingly complicated lives. You did your best, now go have a cry.

10. Dance
I don’t care if you dance like nobody is watching, or if you are very conservative and shy about it. Dancing is great exercise and it’s so easy to find good music these days, it’s usually only a click or button press away. The best thing you can do on any given day is sing and/or dance!

A critical look at Canada’s Food Guide (and ways to eat better)

Today, we’re going to learn a little bit about food, and its relationship to eating healthy (and reaching, then maintaining a normal weight).

To start, consider skimming through Brazil’s new Dietary Guidelines document from 2014. It’s a pretty incredible (if aspirational, for North American cultures) basis for a healthy diet, and a huge majority of the population would be much healthier if we all adhered to its recommendations. It might not be perfect, but the document uses sound principles and advocates adaptability and sustainability in food sources.

Among the most important recommendations these dietary guidelines make is to avoid highly processed foods, sticking to natural or minimally processed foods. The document highlights the importance of fats and oils in cooking, while suggesting avoidance of prepackaged foods that contain larger amounts of these unhealthy lipids.

Comparing these new Brazilian guidelines (available as a 150 page PDF) to Canada’s Food Guide (summarized in a 1-2 page pamphlet) isn’t really a fair comparison. That being said, with some nuance and self-awareness, it’s possible to keep Canada’s simpler, existing food principles in mind to stay healthy.

Canada’s Food Guide

Below is a critical evaluation of Canada’s Food Guide, and tips on how to reap the most benefits from it while avoiding potential pitfalls. If you haven’t done so already, go and take a look at Brazil’s dietary guidelines when you’re done. They’ll be waiting for you here, here, and here.

Growing up in Canada gives you a strange relationship with food. Once you are old enough to understand that candy and chocolate is bad for you, and vegetables are good for you, things start to get really confusing. Something I never considered when I was in adolescence is that nutrition guidelines are written by people. People can have biases, and make decisions based on pressure and money. The Dairy Farmers of Canada are the only reason dairy shows up in the Food Guide at all, for example.

Canada’s Food Guide seems relatively easy-going when it comes to food that isn’t mostly sugar, suggesting the consumption of some of each of four food groups:

  1. 5-10 servings of vegetables (for vitamins and minerals & natural sugars; includes fruit and fresh or frozen vegetables)
  2. 2-3 servings of meat/alternatives (this basically means protein; includes beans, eggs, and nut products)
  3. 6-8 servings of grain products (this is for fast energy and some nutrients; includes cereal, pasta, and rice)
  4. 2-4 servings of milk/dairy (effectively “fat” and maybe calcium; includes cheeses, yoghurt and soy)

As a child, we learned about these guidelines, which have been tweaked and changed over the years, but the main food groups have remained consistent overall. This food guide, from adolescence until early 20s for young Canadians, is often seen as the gold standard for nutrition. However, there are a few reasons to take a closer look at this Guide, and perhaps think critically about choices made based on its guidance.

5-10 Servings of Vegetables

This one is a no-brainer. The most egregious part of this section of the Guide comes when you consider that the serving range for vegetables is “capped” at 10 servings. In fact, fresh or packaged vegetables should generally be the largest portion of the food anybody eats in a day, and with so much of the food that makes up this group consisting in large part of water, it will usually be the healthiest part of a day’s food intake. Don’t limit yourself to ten servings of vegetables if you’re hungry, the only reason recommended servings aren’t higher is because for most people, ten servings a day is already unattainable.

Eat as many servings of fruit and veggies as you can, even at the expense of any other food.

2-3 Servings of Meat & Alternatives

Meat is an interesting food type. For many people, it’s the main way to get protein and other very important nutrients. However, in modern times, with no shortage of readily available meat, we’re almost certainly eating too much. A serving of meat, according to the Canada Food Guide, should be the size of a deck of cards. If you go eat a steak, you’re probably eating at least 2-3 servings of meat. Much more commonly than that, though, is the fact that with chicken breasts growing quickly in the last few decades, having just one is way too much for a meal.

Be aware of large servings sizes of meat in burgers, chicken breasts, and other meals. Get some meat in your diet, but it’s easy to overdo it.

6-8 Servings of Grains

This is a tough one. In the early-mid 2000s, this food group stood at 5-12 servings. Today, that recommendation is almost cut in half. This is because there are many tasty, but ultimately unhealthy, foods that fit into this category. Many grain-based foods are chock-full of sugar, and serving sizes are not very large. It’s incredibly easy to blow past the recommended amount of grains in a day, even with the intention of eating healthy meals. Combine that with the fact that white bread is basically candy (without even getting to many cereals), and with growing plate & serving sizes at home and in restaurants, and it’s easy to see how obesity is a growing public health concern.

If you can, avoid grains except in small amounts, or if you’re in dire need of some quick energy (which often isn’t the case in a modern world full of convenience stores and supermarkets).

2-4 Servings of Milk/Dairy

The last entry on the Canada Food Guide is also the least deserving to be there. Milk and dairy products are effectively candy for the purposes of an adult diet. While milk and related foods do contain calcium, which is important for bone health, once you’re through childhood, there are many better ways to ingest plenty of calcium (like dark, leafy veggies). Milk can actually function pretty well as a sports drink (if you keep it cold) since it contains lots of easy to digest sugar, fat, and some protein. But for everyday use, if you’re not having any dairy, don’t sweat it.

If you’re going to have some milk, cheese, or yogurt, don’t worry too much about it. But if you don’t have any, REALLY don’t worry about it. The Dairy Farmers of Canada played a big part in getting milk featured so prominently in the Food Guide, and they’re a little biased.

Conclusions

To summarize, don’t worry so much about what you’re eating on a given day (as long as you have some veggies). If you’re going to worry, consider how much you’re eating, and if you can reduce the amount (serving sizes) of meat, dairy, or grains that you’re having, that goes a long way towards keeping extra weight from sticking.

The Canada Food Guide is an outdated set of recommendations based on old nutrition science, and if it were re-written today following modern scientific principles, and without advocacy group pressure, it would likely look a lot different. Being aware of the limitations of the Food Guide, along with a little bit of food science, it’s not too complicated to determine what foods can be part of a healthy diet.