Mercer has ranked Vienna as the city that offers the highest quality of living in 2010. In your humble blogger’s opinion, this list is useless at best, and misleading at worst. Having just gotten back from a trip from London, to say that London ranks at 39, Berlin at 17, Toronto at 16, Amsterdam at 13, versus Vienna at 1, sounds pretty unlikely to me.

By Mercer’s own fluffy standards, it is hard to say that any countries in the top 50 is better than the next when it comes to basic household ownership of appliances, or the availability of basic public transportation, or the availability of meet and vegetables.

I would guess that the reason why North American cities tend to rank rather poorly on those quality of living indexes is most likely due to the urban sprawl, relatively weaker public transportation system, increased chance of congestion and pollution due to higher ownership of cars, lower concentration of older and more prestigious art and cultural installations, and perhaps less care when it comes to more environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing urban infrastructure and architecture.

Here are some observations from my casual encounter with Vienna:

- It does not feel as safe as most other western European cities. That’s not to say that is is dangerous, but seeing homeless-ish people and young thugs with muzzled pit bulls along with a high level of police presence around subways does little to paint a picture of peace and tranquility.

- There  are visible signs of greater income inequality than what I’ve encountered elsewhere. With the possible exception of Berlin, I have seen little outward appearance of income inequality in western Europe, other than Vienna.  People tend to be more shoddily dressed, and looked less healthy.  But of course the latter could be attributable to its meat-heavy diet.

- Vienna is not a particularly clean city. Lots of people have called London dirty.  London is not dirty compared to Vienna.

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Chinese high school students went through the grueling university entrance exam called gaokao this week. This is one of the most important experiences in a young Chinese person’s life, and whole families and cities gear up for it.  Some of the more entertaining essay questions include:

National (I): Why chase mice when there are fish to eat?

National (II): What is light reading?

Beijing: Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground

Shanghai: Danish fishermen – “When Danes go fishing, they carry with them a ruler. When they catch a fish, they will measure it and toss it back if it is not long enough. They say, ‘Isn’t it better to let the little ones grow up?’ More than two thousand years ago in our country, Mencius said, ‘If fine nets do not enter the pools, there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten.’ And in fact this principle runs throughout many areas of our lives.”

Tianjin: The world I live in

Chongqing: Tough problems

Jiangsu: Green Life – “Green is vibrant, visually pleasing. Green is intertwined in life and ecology. Today, there is a new concept of green, one that is closely connected to the lives of every person.”

Guangdong: Neighbors – “We are neighbors and rely on each other. You might be visible or invisible. It is impossible to avoid having neighbors, but you can make a choice.”

Shandong: Light and shadow – ‘”All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.’ – Leo Tolstoy.”

Hunan: Morning

Jiangxi: Recovering childhood – “Why do we want to recover childhood? Because society it too utilitarian, children have too much pressure, and childhood ends too early. Society needs innocence and required a return to childhood.”

Fujian: The birth of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – “The brothers Grimm felt that there was a connection between folk tales and human history, but after collecting many of them without finding that connection, they gave up. Later on, a friend chanced across the things they had compiled, and arranged with a publisher to have it published, becoming what we know as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”

WORLD CUP FERVOUR
The rules of the game
blog.theparisreview.org – If you want to have a successful World Cup you have to have one team that you absolutely want to win. Three is even better. Five is fantastic. More than seven and you’ll start to have trouble keeping them straight.
Football is war
project-syndicate.org – Soccer wars are rare, but the notion that international sporting competitions inevitably inspire warm fraternity, is a romantic fiction.
Soccer and philosophy
WSJ – “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed in that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
How did sport get so big?
moreintelligentlife.com – Once, it was only a game. Now sport is a never-ending drama, a soap opera watched all over the world. How did it happen?

FINANCE & ECONOMICS
Who’s spending again? The rich and the old
New York Times – The wealth effect related to stock market gains may also help explain why higher-income Americans have picked up their spending so much, too.
If Belgium struggles to pull of federalism, what hope does Europe have?
The Economist – Belgium has in one sense become a model for the European Union. Alas, a negative model. Belgium is a living proof that the cultural gulf between north and south Europe makes it agonizingly hard to pull off a single economic political union.
‘Just do it’ is no mantra for Japan
FT – Japan’s leaders have shirked hard choices. Also, their system is not conducive to producing strong leaders. But it is wrong to suggest the answers are obvious.
Seven constructive remarks about the Euro
Credit Write Downs – There are constructive things that can be said about the weak euro.
Britain and Europe: No laughing matter
The Economist – Vigilant Eurosceptics are usually keen to see conniving genius in European federalists. For once, the British may have underestimated their determination never to let a crisis go to waste.

North Koreans have no access to Internet, nor outside TV or radio.  But despite censorship, information is getting through the Chinese and South Korean borders.

Slowly, however, information is seeping in. Traders return from China to report that people are richer and comparatively freer, and that South Koreans are supposedly even more so. Some of the traders have cellphones that are linked to the Chinese cellular network and can be surreptitiously borrowed for exorbitant fees.

Punishment for watching foreign films and television shows is stiff. The trader said a 35-year-old neighbor spent six months in a labor camp last year after he was caught watching “Twin Dragons,” a farcical Hong Kong action film starring Jackie Chan. Yet to the dismay of the former teacher, her 26-year-old son takes similar risks

At the same time, South Korea might be waging some form of psychological warfare against its northern hermit cousin/enemy.

After the country formally accused North Korea of launching the torpedo that sunk their warship Cheonan, South Korea has declared psychological warfare in retaliation. Their first missive into the hermit kingdom was a pop song.  Ended a six-year suspension against state-sanctioned propaganda, the South sent the message across the border through the airwaves. Before airing a rebuke from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the broadcast features K-pop girl group 4minute singing their song “HuH (Hit Your Heart).”

Out of curiosity, I looked up the group along with other big names in the S. Korean pop factory.  In the space of the last couple of decades, it is probably not implausible to say that South Korea is now challenging Japan in the quality and polished packaging of its pop exports.

Compare and contrast with North Korean fashion shows?
South Korea knows perfectly well from America’s experience that soft power in the form of cultural assaults can sometimes be far more corrosive and effective than long-range missiles and army built-ups.  The North Koreans have no idea what they are in for.
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Morning links: Blackwater for sale

by Dana on June 10, 2010

BUSINESS
How Zynga survived FarmVille
gigaom.com – With launches like Monday’s FarmVille for iPhone, there’s an increased emphasis on syncing one user’s experience between everywhere they play a game.
No refills
theatlantic.com – Why are new pharmaceuticals so hard to bring to market? Overcautious regulators and profit-hungry conglomerates make easy scapegoats, but they’re only partly to blame.
Social networks overtake Google in UK web hits
independent.co.uk – Facebook’s battle for internet supremacy with Google has intensified after social networks received more internet hits than search engines for the first time in the UK.
Wanted: A buyer for Blackwater and its baggage
CNN Money – Xe Services, what Blackwater became after civilian shootings, criminal indictments and civil lawsuits caused a rebranding push in 2009, wants someone to buy it.

FINANCE & ECONOMICS
India’s welfare gamble: Add 100 million to the rolls
WSJ – India is now embarking on a major reassessment of poverty levels. The review will determine how many struggling people across the world’s second-most populous nation.
Gold as inflation-proof deflation hedge
thereformedbroker.com – There is a line of reasoning out there that may be of help to those troubled by the inflation/deflation hedging potential of gold ownership.
‘The time we have is growing short’
nybooks.com – Has the contribution of the modern world of finance to economic growth become so critical as to support remuneration to its participants beyond any earlier experience and expectations?
Fear must not blind us to deflation’s dangers
FT – Premature fiscal tightening is, warns experience, as big a danger as delayed tightening would be. There are no certainties here.
Greece is tapping China’s deep pockets to help rebuild its economy
Washington Post – Spurred on by government incentives and bargain-basement prices, the Chinese are planning to pump hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of euros into Greece even as other investors run the other way.

Morning links: Future of education

by Dana on June 9, 2010

BUSINESS
Rivals secretly finance opposition to Wal-Mart
WSJ – Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant’s low prices lest they lose market share.
Higher education’s bubble is about to burst
washingtonexaminer.com- Will traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or will “edupunks” be able to find new ways of teaching and learning that challenge existing interests?
Good business
interacc.typepad.com- If you’re the vendor, would you rather the definition of success was in your hands or those of the people that hired you?
World-wide hiring set to pick up
blogs.wsj.com- Employers world-wide are more optimistic about hiring next quarter but the U.S. isn’t preparing for robust job growth.

FINANCE & ECONOMICS
Asset bubbles can’t be eliminated
blogs.hbr.org- Whatever your theory is about why bubbles originate, count on another one appearing sooner or later.
Hungary: (mis)managing market expectations
blogs.ft.com- Investors are seriously concerned about the Fidesz government’s readiness to stick to a tough economic programme without resorting to populist remedies.
Dutch parliamentary elections: The return of the bourgeoisie
spiegel.de- The Dutch go to the polls today. What’s driving the fears and anxieties of the Dutch constituents?
A failure of economic and environmental regulation
newyorker.com- Reforming the system isn’t about writing a host of new rules; it’s about elevating the status of regulation and regulators.

TECH & SOCIAL MEDIA
Israel’s Silicon Valley of beauty technology
time.com- Ultrashape’s technique involves high-intensity ultrasound waves guided by a sophisticated tracking and delivery system to explode unwanted fat cells — much the way heat-seeking missiles destroy enemy objects.
No comment
ajr.org- One good reason to end the practice of allowing unnamed comments is that it’s flat-out wrong. Another is that it is causing headaches for news outlets, headaches they seriously don’t need, and it will cause more in the future.
Don’t get stuck in Edu 2010
O’Reilly Radar- With investments being made now in education that may not be repeated for decades, the challenge presented to technology is one of developing platforms that will not require massive tech do-overs and reinvestment as new technologies coming online.

More sink holes found in China

by Dana on June 8, 2010

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A lot more of them in fact.  More pics here.

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Morning links: How Canada did it

by Dana on June 8, 2010

BUSINESS & FINANCE
So, just what did Canada do?
blogs.wsj.com – Europe’s welfare system is as unsustainable as Canada’s was, only they managed to avoid doing anything about it for a long time.
Gulf Coast disaster: Will BP be bought or bankrupt?
CNN Money – Can BP afford to exist as a standalone company? Could it go bankrupt? Will BP have to cut dividends? Or will it survive intact, bruised a bit but otherwise just fine?
Euro ‘will be dead in five years’
telegraph.co.uk – Of the 25 leading City economists who took part in the Telegraph survey, 12 predicted that the euro would not survive in its current form this Parliamentary term, compared with eight who suspected it would.
Fiscal discipline alone will not overcome the eurozone’s troubles
blogs.ft.com – Whyte says, “deficits and surpluses are umbilically linked: one entails the other”. Alas, there appear to be very few policymakers in Germany willing to consider an alternative.
Jobs and kids: Female employment and fertility in rural China
Voxeu – Non-agricultural jobs for women reduce the number of children per woman by 0.64 and the probability of having more than one child by 54.8%.

TECH & TELECOM
Dear Hotmail: What the hell happened to you?
cracked.com – Somewhere along the line you stumbled. You got sloppy or you just gave up, and we drifted apart. Now you’ve been lapped by the technology and features of Gmail.
Behind Foursquare and Gowalla: The great check-in battle
wired.co.uk – All over the web, reward-based achievement games have begun to blossom as a means of encouraging specific behaviour.
Why I sold Zappos
inc.com – Tony Hsieh built his online shoe retailer into an e-commerce powerhouse. But with credit tightening and investors eyeing the exits, Hsieh was forced to ask: Was selling Zappos really the only way to save it?

Apocalyptic urban landscapes

by Dana on June 7, 2010

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The strange beauty of buildings in ruins.  More here.

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DEAD OR ALIVE IN THE EUROZONE?
The pain in Spain
The Economist- in places like Spain, an unsackable bureaucracy now co-exists with 40% youth unemployment. That is a recipe for reform or revolt. Half measures will not do the trick.
Not dead yet
eureferendum.blogspot.com- In 2009, European countries borrowed more than €800 billion, partly to bail out banks, which in turn then bought public debt that had been driven up by the bail-outs.

BUSINESS
The chimera of college brands
chronicle.com- The idea implicit in college brands, that every course reflects certain institutional values and standards, is mostly a fraud.
Hard times, bright futures
american.com- Many of those who joined the ranks of the self-employed last year will eventually become employer firms, however large or small.
Can a soda tax protect us from ourselves?
NY Times- We sometimes wish for parents to be looking over our shoulders and guiding us to the right decisions. The question is, do you trust the government enough to appoint it your guardian?
Where did all the executives go?
services.newsweek.com- Despite the so-called résumé tsunami, employers looking for managers with all the right soft skills are finding slim pickings.

FINANCE & ECONOMICS
No need for a drawdown drama
psyfitec.com- Understanding that market falls of 50%, or more, are normal – if rare – is an important element of a strong investor’s psyche. Unfortunately many understand this without understanding the corollary: when markets collapse weak companies get hammered.
From the oil spill to the financial crisis, why we don’t plan for the worst
Washington Post- There is a natural tendency to postpone preventive action against dangers that are likely to occur at some uncertain point in the future, especially if prevention is expensive, and especially because there is so much else to do in the here and now.
Declining Latin American inequality: Market forces or state action?
Voxeu- Both. The trend is driven by both a decrease in the earnings gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, and an increase in government transfers to the poor.

Is China becoming more violent? Patrick Chovanec asks:

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Yesterday, a 40 year-old woman went on a rampage onboard an overnight sleeper train in northeastern China, stabbing and wounding nine people as they slept before she was wrestled to the ground by fellow passengers.  The same day, a 46 year-old bank guard opened fire outside a courthouse in central Hunan province, shooting three judges dead and wounding three others before killing himself.  The man was reportedly upset about the division of assets in his divorce case.  These two incidents come on top of a series of bloody knife attacks aimed at schoolchildren that have left 17 people (including 15 children) dead, and dozens injured.

Certainly, the availability of online media has amplified the reach of random acts of violence, so that previously local acts of violence can now suddenly make the news around the country.

But the question remains whether random violence of this nature occurred previously at the current level of frequency.  Has the pressure of such rapid modernization over the past three decades, and the toxic byproduct issues in living environment, income inequality, corruption, housing, etc, driven more and more lower-income classes, in the words of one of the commentators, postal?

Some bloggers think so.

Han Han, one of the country’s most popular bloggers (and a huge irritant to the authorities), wrote that killing the weak was seen by the attackers as the most effective way of exacting revenge on a society “that has no way out”. He said that local governments should send the guards at official buildings to help protect schools, “because a government that can’t protect children doesn’t need so many people to protect itself”.

Others say a lack of mental health help compounds the problem.

A newspaper in the central province of Henan said that while the West had many NGOs that could help people suffering from mental distress, in China there were very few. This, it said, led to problems becoming bottled up and eventually erupting in violence.

When politicians don’t play ball

by Dana on June 6, 2010

Last weekend the NYT weekend magazine edition published a feature on Job Cohen, one of the frontrunners in the Dutch national election in the coming week.

An interest in him is expected and entirely logical: he’s Jewish, an academic and highly intelligent, a moderate integrationist in a country increasingly mired in populism rooted in anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In recent weeks however, Job Cohen’s status has dimmed with each intensely scrutinized TV debate.  The well-regarded former major of Amsterdam has stammered, stuttered, said no to questions that could have demonstrated his knowledge of everyday life, as well as generally refusing to engage in political banter with his opponents.

[A]ccording to the criteria of the modern mediacracy, Cohen is failing spectacularly. When he doesn’t have an answer to a question, he admits it honestly instead of dancing around it peddling half-truths. The effects register in the following day’s headlines. When other politicians interrupt him, he lets them speak for minutes, and only resumes his answer after they have finished. The camera zooms out and the organised applause cuts through his answer. He shrugs helplessly when interviewers persist in stirring things up with trivialities. “I don’t play those kinds of games,” he says.

End of the day, Cohen seems to operate on a separate plane than the other players in the pen, which begs the question: when a politician refuses to play the game, does that make him more admirable or just a bad politician?

The NRC thinks this particular affliction strikes those on the left often, and hard.

Left-wing politicians are, in their thoughts and actions, primarily indebted to what one could call the Platonic tradition. The characteristic of this tradition is that all its representatives – from René Descartes to Immanuel Kant – start from a philosophical distinction introduced by Plato: the contrast between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. The starting point of this is, to put it concisely, that two sorts of ‘reality’ can be identified. One is reality as we experience it, mediated by our emotions, language, culture and interests. Behind that, these thinkers say, is objective reality: reality ‘as it is’, the ‘facts’ that we all share.

Passive citizenship bears bitter fruit

by Dana on June 5, 2010

Culture is one of these double-edged swords.  Certain aspects of a culture might help a country during one period of economic and political development.  The same traits will hinder development, if not outright self-destruction, during another period.

I enter Japan as exhibit number one.

On the heels of Japan’s latest prime ministerial resignation, the following seems especially relevant.

Dogged resignation to the status quo is inculcated from an early age here. There is next to no education in civics and no attempt to make children aware of their democratic rights. Children are not encouraged to express an opinion at school, where classes are large and taught by rote. The energies of pushy children are channeled into sports clubs where they learn how to fit into a hierarchy, first learning how to stoically endure discipline from older members, and then, as they get older, learning how to discipline their juniors. Less pushy children, meanwhile, can sleep in class and go unnoticed.

There is also great emphasis placed on the individual’s ability to gaman (put up stoically with suffering), rather than on problem-solving skills, and children are taught to fear the censure or ridicule of others, which makes them unwilling to stand out. In fact, the education system, with its songs, uniforms, rituals and group-focused activities, has achieved an almost perfectly Foucauldian model of passive citizenship. It’s an achievement, of sorts.

What helped to propel Japan to economic stardom post WWII is now dogging both its political and economic systems.  A lesson for China perhaps?

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Who put Iran in a corner?

by Dana on June 5, 2010

Notice how incredibly quiet Iran has been in this whole flotilla fiasco? Surprising, considering its history of rhetoric and hysterics towards Israel, no?

As far as popularity is concerned, Turkey has scored major points with its Muslim allies in the region, and is undoubtedly reasserting its presence in the region.

Iran is getting edged out for three reasons.  One, its domestic politics is no doubt still in turmoil from last year’s mess.

Two, it doesn’t have the economic resources nor power to compete with Turkey.

And three, its relations with its neighbours is nowhere as good as as Turkey’s, making it difficult to make demands on a rival that’s more or less tuned it out.

The flotilla incident and Turkey’s role have catapulted its status in the Muslim world as the defender of Muslim rights. This most probably includes members of Hamas, whom Iran has been spending millions on in an effort to buy their support and loyalty.

Which other Muslim country has enough credibility, power and self-confidence to do what Turkey did? It promised to dispatch the flotilla and it went through with its promise.

The icing on the cake came when prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a very clear ultimatum to the Israeli government: free every single Turkish citizen, including those who assaulted your soldiers, otherwise our relations will suffer. Within three hours, Binyamin Netanyahu had accepted. Had this been an Arab country, including those that Israel has relations with, such as Jordan and Egypt, the Israelis would probably have stuck to their guns. The same for Iran.

But not Turkey. There is a new player in town and Israel takes it very seriously. Unlike Iran, Turkey has a powerful economy. Its GDP is the 18th largest in the world – one place above Iran. This is a major achievement for a country which is not a gas and oil exporter. It sits on the border of Europe and its relations with the EU and the US are astronomically better than those of its Iranian neighbour. Its power is expanding in the Caucasus, and relations are improving with its old foe and rival, Greece.

Thinking our way through Utopia

by Dana on June 4, 2010

Some philosophical musings for the weekend, on the idea of Utopia, and the mistakes we make fumbling towards the light.

Here is an example. A Chinese social critic in the 1930s might have observed tenant peasant farming in North China; he/she might have argued that the system was exploitative, unfair, and inefficient (three different social values); and he/she might have argued that the collective farm was a superior alternative, being more democratic, fair, and efficient.  The collective farm might have been offered as a utopian alternative to tenant farming.

So the collective farm is likely not to be a utopian solution to China’s rural problems in 1930.  And in fact, subsequent history confirms this conclusion; the Great Leap Forward famine was the consequence of many of these institutional failures.

And here lies the risk behind our overwhemling urge to do good, or better in the world.  Experiences have shown us the very word “utopia” signals something distinctly opposite most of the time – it gives us dystopia.

The idea of emancipatory agency: that it is possible for us humans to restructure our social institutions in a direction that fits our fundamental values better than the present institutions do.  And it is worth underlining how important, but also how risky, this effort is: important, because it gives a basis for thinking that we can create a better world; and risky, because many of the worst historical experiences of modern memory came from “utopian” efforts to redefine society.

So, Utopia, better ingested in small dosages, and slowly?

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