Monday, August 16, 2010

America's Unnecessarily Crowded Prisons

I read this column by Neal Peirce about how America locks up all kinds of people for unnecessarily long periods of time. According to Peirce and his sources, people caught for street drug trafficking and heck, even importing orchids without properly doing paperwork are thrown into jail alongside rapists and murderers. Peirce does a nice job of highlighting the present problematic situation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Friendship Among the Self-Reliant

My college roommate Marianne sent me this Wilson Quarterly article by Daniel Akst calling for Americans to value friendship more. We are more disconnected from each other than ever before: though half of American adults are unmarried and over a quarter live alone, we have only one third the number of non-family confidants than we did two decades ago--and a quarter have "no such confidants at all."

In the article, Akst provides hypotheses for why friendship has become so weak. A major reason is the rise of false friendship: University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo say that Americans are lonely "not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful." Other factors include the tendency for people to buy what they need (therapy, pets), the "cult of busyness" (people are too busy to develop meaningful intimate relationships), the culture's "reverence for self-sufficiency," the "remorseless eroticization of human relations" (providing a context where "bromance" is a legitimate concept), divorce, and the "wildly inflated view of matrimony to subsume much of the territory once occupied by friendship."

I particularly like the way Akst addresses the phenomenon of viewing one's significant other as the one-stop shop for social needs. He writes, "Your BFF nowadays—at least until the divorce—is supposed to be your spouse... except that spouses and friends fill different needs, and cultivating some close extramarital friendships might even take some of the pressure off at home."

This article provides an excellent reminder for us not to let work or a significant other distract us from developing meaningful friendships. Sadly, too many people forget that friends are important for providing stability and happiness.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Guided mental conditioning

As I've gotten bored in my ten-year relationship with running, I have been exploring various group workout options. Participating in instructor-led workouts has been surprisingly good for improving my mental strength.

My latest activity is an indoor cycling class I do 1-2 times a week at the Pro Club, the swank gym where Microsoft gives us a virtually free membership. For those of you unfamiliar with these classes, they have an enthusiastic instructor on a bike telling us to work harder so we can give it our all when we're chasing Lance Armstrong up the last hill in the Tour de France. It's somewhat goofy of me to do indoor cycling when I haven't used my bike for over a year, but I love the intensity of the workouts. Each class the instructor leads a different workout: there have been various hill workouts and interval ones. The instructors have been surprisingly good at getting me to push myself: they tell us how our body should be reacting to each resistance/cadence (breathing should be heavy, heart rate should go up in the first 10 seconds, etc.), they don't tell us in advance how many intervals are left, and at the end of the intense parts they emphasize how little time is left ("Twenty more seconds! Give it all you've got!"). It's kind of like having a coxswain--in fact, these workouts are quite similar to the machine workouts I used to do on the crew team*. Some of the workouts have been, as one instructor calls it, "quite a head trip" because they require so much focus on exerting power while maintaining form. I leave many workouts barely able to walk--it has been a while since I have been able to push myself to run this intensely.

This summer I have also continued doing heated power yoga 3-4 times a week. I have been doing baptiste yoga at Be Luminous, an amazing (and amazingly Lululemon-land**) studio by the Westlake Whole Foods. Not only do the instructors lead physically intense yet fun workouts, but they also pay attention to precision of alignment and the mental aspects (focus on breath, being present) in a way that leaves me feeling incredible afterward. The instructors coax us to push our limits by describing the physical beauty of the poses and the intensity we should feel. Yoga tests my focus in a very real way: if I lose my concentration, I will likely fall out of a pose. I leave the studio feeling mentally and physically cleansed.

Both cycling and yoga force me to be in the moment and focus on the physical: the combination (along with some moderate running) has kept me (arguably) sane after long days of reading bytecode***. I encourage skeptics to try out such "group fitness" activities--other people can get you out of your head much better than you can.

* I used to row crew, where the coxswain is the person who tells the rowers how quickly and how hard to stroke.
** My fellow yogis are rather well-dressed in high-end yoga gear as a result of what I call the "yoga arms race." Each age group of people sees people 10 years older (and 10 years wealthier) looking better than they do, so they spend more on flattering spandex.
*** Coconut juice has also been a key factor.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Morality TV

As I have recently gotten more into reality TV*, I have been pleasantly surprised/amused by how it has made me realize I could be a better person.

The most fascinating of the bunch, in a trainwreck/rubbernecking way, is True Beauty, a show where contestants are secretly judged on their "inner beauty." This season the premise was that the contestants were competing to be the "face of Vegas." While they are competing in challenges revealed to them (being voted the best tour guide on a bus tour, shooting the best ad for a restaurant wearing only food, etc.), the contestants are also being judged on their performance in hidden challenges (opportunities to steal, cheat, help someone, etc.). I initially felt somewhat dirty about the voyeurism of the show and about the hypocrisy of the judges (and the show itself!), who make fun of the contestants for not being nicer people. Human nature compelled me to continue watching, and though I found some of the criteria for evaluating inner beauty to be questionable (preferring sins of omission to sins of commission, etc.), the show made me realize how much nicer I could be. By the end the judges were splitting hairs--it came down to things like who threw a temper tantrum under pressure vs. who talked about other contestants behind their backs. I was impressed with some of the contestants' niceness despite being under the pressure of being on a reality show for weeks. It was refreshing to see diva behavior not being rewarded**.

Another show that is actually quality is What Would You Do?. In this show they set up hidden cameras at the site of various social experiments and see how onlookers react. For instance, they have someone stealing a bike and vary the gender and race. (When a beautiful blond woman steals a bike, everyone offers to help, even when she says it is not hers.) Some other scenarios include a girl at a bar being taken away by a stranger, shoppers who are the victims of racism, and a lottery ticket holder who is cheated by the store owner. For each scenario, they have interviews with academics who study the particular situation at hand, people who have been involved in similar real-life situations, and the people who walked into the hidden camera experiment. This show does a great job of making people aware of situations they should be aware of and providing some guidance on how to properly react. (For instance, it's important to speak up if you see a girl who you think may be assaulted because she could be killed.) Since this show is more serious and less flashy than True Beauty I have, unfortunately, only watched two or three episodes. (But don't let this stop you!)

While we're on the subject of reality TV, I would like to briefly discuss this season's The Bachelorette, starring Ali Fedotowsky. To paraphrase one of my friends, it's amazing: this woman is dating (at least, initially) 20+ guys and managing them well. Yes, the show can be cheesy and they sometimes cut the footage in a groan-inducing way, but the way Ali forms and maintains relationships with these men is quite interesting. (This is what courtship looks like when it's not through IRC!) I have gotten some of my friends hooked; I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already.

So... If you are waiting on work/e-mail responses for me, I have been hiring my, um, proxy to watch and summarize these shows for me. ;) (Okay, I need some form of entertainment while cooking, right?)

* Note that my relationship with TV is fairly new; at the end of the spring I was confused that the shows I watched were no longer on. (For those of you less aware of real life than I am: TV shows come in units of seasons.)
** But it's predictable that reality TV would have come to this. Rubbernecking in the lives of angry, unbalanced people has become so ten years ago.