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December 7, 2012

we're number sixteen

Hey, exceptionalists!

So, stalwart, dependable magazine The Economist decided to explore the question of just which country actually is number one.  And not from the perspective of might or wealth, but rather from the perspective of quality of life.  And it's a pretty rigorous determination, check this:

[This] quality-of-life index links the results of subjective life-satisfaction surveys—how happy people say they are—to objective determinants of the quality of life across countries. Being rich helps more than anything else, but it is not all that counts; things like crime, trust in public institutions and the health of family life matter too. In all, the index takes 11 statistically significant indicators into account. They are a mixed bunch: some are fixed factors, such as geography; others change only very slowly over time (demography, many social and cultural characteristics); and some factors depend on policies and the state of the world economy.

So who then wins?  The United States, of course.  KIDDING.  It's Switzerland, in a wash.

We of the U.S. can at least take solace in the fact that we finished in the top twenty.  Of eighty.  Tied with Germany for number sixteen.  Sure, we got smoked by Singapore, Sweden and Australia, but we edged the United Arab Emirates, so there's that.

And of course I'm linking this because I find American exceptionalists ridiculous creatures, but there is something also interesting in the fact that The Economist would rank nations by quality of life, as in economics, quality of life is really nothing but an afterthought.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:57 AM

December 6, 2012

warren ellis on 2022

Did you know that when VICE magazine is not inadvertently revealing the location of international fugitives, they publish a weekly column from Warren Ellis?  His effort this week I particularly like, a letter from ten years from now:
Pretty much the only people in space right now are the Chinese, aside from whoever is currently holding the International Space Station together with Pritt Stick and brown paper. The Chinese space stuff has great names. As I write this, there are a dozen people in the Chinese space station, The Far Hall of the People, pretending their bones aren’t rotting, and five in the moon base that rejoices in the title of The Sixth Encirclement, pretending they’re not being perforated by cosmic rays. Their Martian observation vehicle, Yinghuo Campaign Scout (Yinghuo roughly translates from Pinyin as “Firefly”, delighting a generation of Joss Whedon fans), goes into orbit any day now. Nobody knows how many taikonauts have died.

It's almost not fair, asking a guy who imagines the fantastic for a living, a reputed futurist, to take a stab at guessing where we'll be ten years hence, but it's fetching.  I'd like to see more of the smart guys take part in such a straightforward exercise.

And further to VICE, I also like that they gave Melissa Stetten a column.  An acquired taste, but I like her.

Posted by mrbrent at 4:51 PM

flaws? i've got a few

Here's another linkless collection of thoughts, and linkless for the purpose of avoiding the hurting of feelings.  In the past week I saw some sort of initiative, wherein a very well meaning person, discerning a world prejudiced against those who are not in a long term relationship with another person, is making a to-do about congratulating people for the positive qualities of having no long term relationship with another person.

This seems to me to be part of a trend and not an isolated incident, mostly as I see through the various social media feeds.  Much of it has to do with body image, with asserting pride in what society frowns on.  Frequently this is evinced with a world resembling "[X]-shaming," where X equals the frowned-on thing.  It also manifests in protests against jokes, as in if you make a joke about someone, maybe someone despicable, for having a certain superficial physical quality, then you, the jokester, are marginalizing the qualities of life of all the non-despicable people out there who may share in the very same superficial physical quality.

It seems to me that there is a new, potent strain of righteousness that's hit the ground running.

And it's strange that I might complain about it, since I am squarely in the middle of the generation that grew up under the tutelage of "Free To Be You And Me".  Am I not supposed to believe that we are all special in our own unique ways, and we are each, individually, to be celebrated?  Sure, of course.  Go, us.

However, I also believe in perspective.  I guess what strikes me queasy about this New Righteousness is that it is selfish.  It's predicated on a universe of one, that being the applicable crusader.  And I'm all for the applicable crusader doing what it takes to feel like a self-actualized person, but I do not think that starting a PR campaign, or even a comments-thread flame war, is a real useful way to get there.  It's, again, well-intentioned, just myopic.  (Plus there's a bit of potential ugliness in asserting that one is speaking for an entire affinity group, which affinity group might not share in the message, but welcome to the Internet.)

You know a good way to tell if someone is a comfortable, self-actualized, etc. human being?  They never, ever bring up the status of their own comfortability/self-actualization.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:16 AM

December 5, 2012

that ny post cover

If you managed to miss the photo on the cover of the NY Post yesterday, count yourself lucky.  No links here — it was the photo of a man on the subway tracks, arms vainly thrown on the platform, staring at the train that was about to kill him.  The headline: "This Man Is About To Die."

Naturally there was a bit of an uproar online, not just for the Faces of Death cover (or "wood," as they call it), but also for the explanation from the freelance photographer who happened to be on the platform to snap the photo of why he was snapping photos and not saving that man, that he was flashing his camera to warn the driver of the train to stop.  That's a load of shit, of course, the concept that a driver could not see a man plainly on the tracks but will notice a flashbulb, but that is how the sausage is made.

But the photo, seconds away from impact, is noticeable for another reason — it's not just the photographer (who just made his name, for better or for worse) that's not helping.  The platform that the man is clawing at, trying to pull himself up, is clear of any other straphangers.  That to me is more galling than anything.

From an excellent meditation on the ins and outs of this issues by David Carr:

The image is a kind of crucible of self-analysis. Never mind what the photographer did, what would we do? In that sudden moment, our base impulses emerge. Photographers shoot, heroes declare, and most of us cower. We are not soldiers, expected to engage in selfless acts that trump survival instincts. We are civilians and if called to duty, who among us will accept? (I couldn’t help but think of the four friends who perished in the roiling waters of upstate New York’s Split Rock Falls in 2003, after one slipped in and the others, one by one, tried to save him.)

In the Aurora, Colo., movie shooting incident, some died while shielding others. And it is highly likely that others scrambled over smaller or slower people to flee. The other reason people can’t resist looking (and wish to unsee once they do)? That train is coming for all of us, one way or another. Death comes on its own schedule and we won’t know our time is up until the light of an oncoming train manifests itself.

There are other aspects to this — tabloid culture, the role of the media in general, our squishy relationship with death, etc. (read the Carr for thoughts on those) — but for me it's a question of citizenship.  We certainly don't need to be all sunshine and rainbows to each other (at least here in NYC), and even a "Good morning," might be above and beyond, but I'd like to presume that the baseline for civic behavior would be that, if you have the chance to save someone's life, fucking do it.

That could be one presumptuous presumption, and maybe people tend more towards the cold selfishness of Ayn Rand than say the boundless charity represented by the non-Conservative Christian version of Jesus Christ.  But I remember this YouTube video, of a dog rushing into heavy traffic to pull another dog, already hit by a car, out of harm's way.  Maybe that incident is an outlier, but can we not at least aspire to the standards set by housepets?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:23 AM

December 4, 2012

david brooks would like another fiscal cliff

David Brooks has an awesome elegant way for the Republican Party to not only reverse their fortunes BUT ALSO help save the country!  First moderately (of course) concede on marginal tax rates and the debt ceiling, and then pledge to come together with Democrats and reform the tax code and entitlements.  And if they are unable to come to agreement by, oh, the end of next year, then a bunch of entitlement/military cuts and tax hikes automatically happen.  Is that starting to sound familiar yet?

Let's just short-hand it as Fiscal Cliff Two.

And I reread the thing to make sure that it's not the joke that it sounds like.  It's not.  It is the work product of a Seriously Thoughtful Man.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:53 AM

December 3, 2012

sheldon adelson set $150mm on fire

Hey here's a nice piece looking back on the profligacy of Sheldon Adelman, the casino mogul who valiantly picked up the tab for parts of the Romney campaign.  Oh, there's some good stuff in there — the behind-the-scenes friendship between Adelman and Karl Rove, the mechanics of the seven-figure donors, and this little tidbit concerning the quo to Adelman's quid:
This coming week, Adelson plans to visit Washington, according to three separate GOP sources familiar with his travel schedule. While here, he’s arranged Hill meetings with at least one House GOP leader in which he is expected to discuss key issues, including possible changes to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the anti-bribery law that undergirds one federal probe into his casino network, according to a Republican attorney with knowledge of his plans.

That's only one of the federal probes, of course, but it'll be interesting to see how much Adelson's money will buy.  (BTW, it wasn't a hundred million he spent, actually, more like a hundred fifty million dollars.

And while we're laughing at the worst money spent ever, I'm curious to see how much the Obama victory will tamp down enthusiasm to legislate against the Citizens United decision.  After all, the alleged billion dollars in independent money arraigned against Obama did little to affect the outcome.  (Though there are some swing state local TV and radio stations that certainly enjoyed that spending spree, I'm sure.)

Posted by mrbrent at 10:03 AM