The World’s Most Livable Cities

Which cities are the best places to live? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has set out to answer this question with its livability survey, which asses 140 cities based on such factors as overall stability (25% of total score), health care (20%), education (10%), infrastructure (20%) and culture and environment (25%) — the sorts of things most people agree are fundamental to individual and collective quality of life.

Here are the results for 2014, courtesy of Mic.com:

For the fourth year in a row, Melbourne took the top spot with a total score of 97.5 out of 100. The impressive score can be partially attributed to their perfect scores in the health care, infrastructure and education classifications. Several of Melbourne’s fellow Australian cities filled out much of the top 10, along with a handful from the Great White North. Combined, Australia and Canada scored big, claiming 7 out of the top 10 cities.

The remaining three cities were Vienna, Austria (2nd place), Helsinki, Finland (8th), and Auckland, New Zealand (10th).

As the article notes, while these top ten performed well in all the indicators measured, health care had a particularly strong impact:

A common factor of these livable cities was a high score in the health care category. The top nine spots all garnered scores of 100 in that category. To determine health care, the EIU looked at the availability and quality of private health care, availability and quality of public health care, availability of over-the-counter drugs, and general health care indicators.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer a variety of very livable cities, thanks in large part to their great health care, education, culture and environment, affording the countries general stability. Plus, as all English-speaking countries, they’re especially attractive destinations for any Americans considering a move.

Not only does being healthy have the obvious benefit of improving an individual’s mood, comfort, and longevity — all vital to life satisfaction — but in the aggregate, it improves entire communities. Healthy individuals are likelier to be more economically and socially productive, helping businesses and societies at large. They will be less burdensome to more expensive emergency services, and will have more disposable income on hand, since pooling the costs of health care through socialized insurance is less costly then spending a lot per person on expensive treatments.

But this study also highlight that there is more to quality of life than the bare necessities. Each of these cities offer an abundance of recreational and leisure options — well-kept green spaces, cultural centers, community events and facilities — that enliven individual lives and cultivate a sense of shared community. Good infrastructure provides access to these areas and events while helping to create more cohesion and interaction between various neighborhoods and enclaves. It is also telling that all the top cities are medium-sized, which suggests that being too big could present challenges to accommodating residents optimally.

All of this should be pretty obvious. But unfortunately, not enough municipal governments in the world, including in the U.S., have the vision and/or finances to make it happen, and too many city residents are apathetic, disenfranchised, or lack the community spirit to come together. Sub-national and national governments could be doing more to help local communities as well, especially as most countries, and the world at large, are either highly urbanized or becoming rapidly so. As cities begin to house more of the world’s population, and become the main drivers of economic, social, and cultural life, we need to work on making them as ideal for the human condition as possible. We have much to learn from the like of Melbourne, Vancouver, and other successful polities.

Melbourne, Australia — by some accounts, the best city in the world to live. Source: Getty Images / Mic.com

Restless Americans

To add insult to the injury of a stagnating economy, a report by economists Dan Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that Americans are not only working longer than before (partly because they are making less per hour), but are increasingly more likely to toil outside of work hours, particularly at night and on weekends. As The Atlantic reported:

They found that on a typical weeknight, a quarter of American workers did some kind of work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s a lot, compared with about seven percent in France and the Netherlands. The U.K. is closest to the U.S. on this measure, where 19 percent work during night hours. On the weekends, one in three workers in the U.S. were on the job, compared to one in five in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

All of this adds up: According to the OECD, the U.S. leads the way in average annual work hours at 1,790—200 more hours than France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. That works out to about 35 hours a week, but a recent Gallup poll found the average to be much higher than that—at 47 hours weekly. And perhaps that’s not surprising, when 55 percent of college grads report that they get their sense of identity from their work.

As usual, technology serves as the double-edged sword: in many respects, it has made work a lot easier, not to mention all the new leisure activities (video games, Netflix, game apps, etc). But technology also allows work to be more accessible from home or even while on vacation, making it harder for employees to ignore emails, calls, and assignments — and easier for employers to expect, if not demand, such extra labor.

The consequences of such a work-centered culture are dire: strained social life, reduced sleep, frayed romantic and sexual activity, increased stress and, with all that, worsening mental and physical health. With the boundaries between work and leisure increasingly blurring, will jobs come to dominate our lives in the same way they once did during the early Industrial Era (when child labor, 12-hour workdays, and other such practices were the norm)?

If that is the case, then the solution is more or less the same now as it was then: more solidarity and activism among workers in all the relevant spheres — economic, public, and political. There is no sense in making people work more for less, especially when employers themselves stand to lose a lot in terms of reduced productivity, moral, and health among their employees.

We also need a serious assessment of how our business culture — and culture at large — operates counter-productively for human flourishing. It is becoming accepted practice, once again, for companies to squeeze out more and more from their beleaguered workers while simultaneously offering little to nothing to recompense (on the contrary, the trend is for ever-meager benefits, raises, and upward mobility).

More distressingly, it seems that far too many Americans consider this arrangement to be, at the very least, tolerable, if not acceptable. Ours is a work-obsessed culture that celebrates sacrificing leisure and even health for the sake of being productive at some task, even if it is for a company we hate and for benefits that do not make up for it. I can devote a whole other blog to assessing why it is that the U.S. seems especially enthusiastic about toiling at our own expense, but for now I ask that we at least question what it is we value in terms of quality of life; separating work from leisure is the very least we can do to that end.

Nine Maps That Help Put Geography in Perspective

I cannot seem to embed the original video for some reason, so pay a visit to Business Insider to check out this neat minute-long video that shows how much large certain countries and landmasses are compared to their map projections. While the world is getting smaller in some respects, geographically it is still much larger than we realize .

Featured Image -- 6116

Millennials are out-reading older generations

Eupraxsophy:

Another pervasive myth about Millennials is called into question: not only are people under thirty reading more than previous generations, but they still place a high value on books and other “offline” sources of information — including “obsolete” public libraries — belying the perception that young people are too absorbed into new media to concern themselves with the “outside” world.

Granted, the quality of what is being absorbed is a different matter entirely — maybe it is mostly vapid pseudoscience and mediocre teen romance rather than philosophy or the classics — but even if that were the case, it would still be nothing new: as with most criticisms levied against “young people these days”, their trends and preferences are fundamentally no different than what older people have always complained about.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Kids today with their selfies and their Snapchats and their love of literature.

Millennials, like each generation that was young before them, tend to attract all kinds of ire from their elders for being superficial, self-obsessed, anti-intellectuals. But a study out today from the Pew Research Center offers some vindication for the younger set. Millennials are reading more books than the over-30 crowd, Pew found in a survey of more than 6,000 Americans.

Some 88% of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year compared with 79% of those older than 30. At the same time, American readers’ relationship with public libraries is changing—with younger readers less likely to see public libraries as essential in their communities.

Overall, Americans are buying more books than they borrow, the study found. Among those who read at least one book in the past year, more than half said…

View original 247 more words

Walking and Thinking

For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed walks. From brief strolls through my neighborhood, to long forays across several blocks, my mind and mood noticeably improves thereafter. Indeed, whether it is sadness, stress, or writer’s block, there seems to be nothing that a walk can’t alleviate (I am forever grateful that my writing job allows me to step out and walk periodically to recharge my brain).

As it turns out, I am hardly alone in this experience. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Ferris Jabr notes that all sorts of people throughout history — including prominent writers, thinkers, and other creatives — have attested to the positive benefits of moving one’s feet:

Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

Funny enough, as I write this, I happen to be listening to Johannes Brahms, another accomplished figure known for his love of walks. Of course, one does not have to be an especially ingenious character to know the joys and advantages of walks. Humans in general benefit from physical activity of all manner and degree, especially amid the prevalent sedentary and insular lifestyles of the modern world. There is quite a lot of research to back it up, as the following article excerpt explores:

When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

The piece goes on to cite what may be the first set of studies to more closely measure how walking immediately influences creativity. The four experiments, which altogether involved 76 Stanford students, yielded some interesting results:

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

In short, walking helps with certain kinds of thought, the kind we’d consider to be more “out of the box”. A further study discovered that where one walks has an impact as well: generally, spending time in green spaces like parks and forests is more effective than doing so in urban settings, which are often rowdier and more distracting. Nevertheless, walking in one’s neighborhood or city can still offer some form of relief, especially if you’re looking for greater sensory stimulation (the article suggests that a bit of both is ideal depending on the circumstances).

What is most interesting to me is just how complementary these two seemingly distinct activities (walking and thinking) are:

Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.

All I can say is that walks have been keeping me sane for as long as I can remember, and I cannot imagine how much more severe and frequent my bouts of anxiety and depression would be without those brief forwards outside and into my own mind.

Chart: The Best Places to Be Born

In 1988, The Economist compiled a ranking of 50 countries according to which would be the best place to be born (or put another way, which would be the best to settle and start a family). This was determined on the basis of 11 weighted sociopolitical and economic criteria, ranging from the quantifiable (such as GDP growth) to the subjective (cultural richness). The results can be seen below.

The United States tops the list, followed by France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The Soviet Union managed a respectable 21st place, with communist Poland and Hungary not that far behind. The Philippines, India, and Mexico also ranked relatively higher than one would expect from developing countries. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, and Zimbabwe rank the lowest.

Anyway, in 2013, The Economist revisited this “where-to-be-born” index, which basically measures overall quality-of-life both presently and in the foreseeable future. As before, there are 11 indicators involved, including the results of life-satisfaction surveys, public trust, crime, and even geography (environment and natural beauty can go a long way towards leisure and comfort).

So over 25 years later, here are the world’s best places to be born:

The United States is now in 16th place along with former third-place winner Germany; France falls to 26, Italy to 21, Japan to 25, and Canada to a still-respectable 9. In their place are mostly small, northern European countries, as well as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Notice how Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved, while poor Nigeria remains among the bottom five (indeed, it is dead last, although Iraq and Zimbabwe, whose fortunes have each only gotten worse over the years were not measured this time).

Granted, a direct comparison between these two charts can’t say much, since The Economist measured far more countries, and claims to have been much more rigorous in its metrics, the second time around. Moreover, the inclusion of several subjective factors leaves much in dispute; for example, even people in otherwise prosperous places (e.g. the French) often report a low rate of life satisfaction regardless. Needless to say, individuals will weigh certain factors differently depending on their personal or cultural preference: environment may not matter as much to some as, say, public trust, and visa versa.

Of course, any effort to determine where is the best place to live or start of family is going to be arguable. It touches on a macro version of what makes for a good life. Clearly, freedom from violence, starvation, poverty, and the like are nearly universally-agreed upon. But what do you think of these results? Where would you consider to be the best place in the world to live?

Featured Image -- 6073

The complete guide to procrastinating at work

Eupraxsophy:

The perfect post for starting the post-Labor Day workweek. I can certainly relate with a lot of what is stated here, in both my personal and professional life. It is nice to see more scientific attention centered on what is no doubt an increasingly common issue in the modern world. As it turns out, there is a rhyme and reason to procrastination beyond mere fatigue or laziness — in fact, it is a completely different creature altogether.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Some research says the best way to spark creativity is to walk away and that the best ideas come from those least-expected “aha!” moments. So maybe procrastination isn’t such a bad thing after all. Or is time spent on those cat memes taking its toll? Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?

Here’s the complete guide to procrastinating at work:

Clever people procrastinate smartly

The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a “thought incubator”: They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.

Procrastinate using your to-do list

The same study also found that the tasks the science competition winners were doing while avoiding work were helping in other areas of their…

View original 695 more words

The Leshan Giant Buddha

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, located near the city of Leshan in Sichuan Province, China, is a 233-foot (71-meter) tall stone statue built during the Tang Dynasty. It is carved out of a cliff face facing Mount Emei, lying at the confluence of three rivers that flow below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Construction was started in 713 under the leadership of Chinese monk named Haitong, who hoped that Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it so happens, the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located was thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha now being at its heart.

However, the project stalled due to insufficient funding and the eventual death of Haitong. About 70 years later, an unnamed jiedushi (regional military commander) decided to sponsor the project, and construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

As it turns out, constructing the massive statue resulted in so much stone being removed and deposited into the river below, that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the water safe for passing ships as Haitong intended.

In addition to being a marvel of design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is an impressive engineering feat, featuring a sophisticated drainage system carved into various places on the body to carry away rainwater and reduce weathering (hence why it is one of the few stone statues built in a wet environment to remain in fairly good condition). This ancient systems works to this day, although today the Buddha and its surrounding area is threatened by pollution more than anything (the government has promised to restore it).

The Leshan Giant Buddha, along with the Mount Emei area, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The photo below demonstrates just how large and impressive this monument is.

Giant Leshan Buddha

Happy Women’s Equality Day

A good friend of mine reminded me of an anniversary I should have remembered: on this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, prohibiting any citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which for decades fought at both state and national levels to achieve the vote (indeed, the amendment had first been introduced by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton many years earlier in 1878).

Prior this amendment,  suffrage for women varied across the country, as the U.S. Constitution allows states to determine qualifications for voting. Since the nation’s independence, only New Jersey had allowed a limited form of women’s suffrage, which was revoked in 1807; the majority of states did not start granting some form of suffrage until the turn of the 20th century, not long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced legislation designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day; since then, every president has issued a public proclamation for the commemoration.

The full text of the resolution is as follows:

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and [3]
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and 
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place

The U.S. was among the earliest nations to allow women to vote, but not the very first. Several polities that were briefly or questionable independent had allowed women suffrage for a time, including the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands(1838), the Isle of Man (1881), and Franceville (1889). Moreover, there were some localities within particular realms, such as in Sweden and Colonial America, as well as among Amerindian groups like the Iroquois, that allowed some form of political participation for women.

But to keep it simple, we will start with what most scholars consider to be the first country to grant women suffrage: New Zealand, then an autonomous British colony, which granted allowed women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed two years later by fellow self-governing British colony South Australia; when Australia was formed in 1901, it allowed female suffrage one year later.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in 1907. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. It was not until after the First World War that many European, Asian, and African countries allowed women to vote, including most of the Western Hemisphere. Several countries did not adopt such measures until the mid to late 20th century, including France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952 ,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.

Among the most recent nations to join the trend are Namibia (1989), Samoa (1990), Qatar (1997), Bahrain (2002), Oman (2003), and finally the United Arab Emirates (2006, although suffrage is limited for men and women alike). Saudi Arabia remains the only country — unless you count Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy — where women cannot vote nor run for office, although it will presumably allow for both in 2015.

In any case, we have come a long way, even though voting is hardly the only area of concern for women’s rights. Check out this Atlantic article to see where women stand in various metric of well-being — from longevity to reproductive rights — across the world.