Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors. Continue reading

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The Countries That Give (And Receive) the Most Government Aid

In a world with vast disparities between rich and poor, tens of billions of dollars worth of aid is exchanged between nations. Citing 2014 data from the OECD, an international organization comprised mostly of wealthy countries, The Economist provides an interactive map showing which governments are donating to the most countries and how much they give to each recipient.

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Among the 41 donor countries that provided data in 2014 to the OECD, Japan leads as the broadest provider of support, sending development aid to 141 countries and territories. The U.S. is second, with 132 beneficiaries, though it donated the most overall (given that it is the richest country by a wide margin). Continue reading

What Worries the World

The wave of populism sweeping across the world — particularly, but not exclusively, in the West — is largely product of widespread discontent among the masses. But the causes of anxiety and cynicism vary from country to country, with each society facing its own unique challenges or trajectories.

A recent poll of 25 countries conducted by Ipsos MORI, a leading market research group based in the U.K., uncovered the main issue that worries each nation and whether they think things are going on the right track. Here are the results, courtesy of The Economist: Continue reading

The Kalliu Relay System

One of the earliest and most effective mass communications system ever developed was the “kalliu” relay system of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. The Assyrians formed one of history’s first empires in the 10th millennium B.C.E., perfecting many strategies and institutional of imperial rule that set the standard for other empires. Chief among these was their mass relay system, which allowed the empire to span 540,000 square miles and last over 300 years.

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Rather than have one trusted envoy to deliver a message through a direct route, Assyrian rulers relied on multiple riders to stop at purpose-built stations where they would pass the message to another rider who was ready with a fresh mount. The stations were carefully positioned at regular intervals along the imperial highway system. Mules were used for their sturdiness and speed in rough terrain and climates. The system was maintained by the military and used only by the state: about 150 officials known as “Great Ones” held a copy of the Assyrian royal seal — depicting the king fighting a lion — which they stamped on messages to identify their authority, since it was recognized throughout the empire. Only letters with this seal could be mailed.

Because messages did not require one rider who would need to rest, the kalliu system offered unprecedented communication speed at the time. One estimate suggests that a message traversing 430 miles through rough terrain would take less than five days. Little wonder that later empires like the Persians adopted this technique for their massive territory. Even the United States used it as the basis for the famed Pony Express in the 19th century. Indeed, the use of a series of anonymous messages along different relay systems remain the basis of modern postal systems worldwide — to think it all began with an Iron Age Mesopotamian state nearly 3,000 years ago.

What Every Country is Good At

Everyone is good at something, and that goes for countries, too. The following map from Information is Beautiful features most of the world’s nations and their top claim to fame as of 2016.

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You can see how they reach these results by clicking here. The link also explains some of the more curious-sounding “achievements” — for example, Belgium is number one in “cashless payments” in terms of the percentage of transactions not involving cash, while Latvia is number one in “women” in the sense that it has a higher female to male ratio.

While it is mostly meant to be tongue in cheek, there are definitely some grim conclusions here, from Honduras’ record murder rate, to Swaziland’s morbid distinction of having the highest percentage of people with HIV.

Iran Opens One of the World’s Largest Book Centers

Iran rarely features positively in any news reports. Yet the nation of over 80 million is young, cosmopolitan, and freer-thinking than its regime (or its enemies) make it out to be. Just one case in point — on top of centuries of rich cultural heritage — is the opening last year of what may be the largest educational complexes of its kind. As reported in Newsweek: Continue reading

The Clout of Countries

The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?

To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading

Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

Continue reading

Superheros in a Globalized World

One of my long-running creative side projects since college has been building a superhero universe that is set in a globalized world with an international cast and multicultural flavor. (Which is one reason I love Overwatch so much.) One of the key themes I want to explore is how international relations and cultural clashes come into play in a world of superpowered beings.

What would happen if a Superman-style hero landed in Bolivia, Tajikistan, or the Congo? Suddenly the poorest and least influential countries in the world are major superpowers in their own right, able to project their values or interests, deliberately or incidentally, on the global stage. The world’s premier guardian would be shaped by a completely different culture, religion, or ethos, perhaps with certain universal principles, like fairness and compassion, still present but expressed in different ways.

How would linguistic, religious, cultural, and political disputes come into play when heroes respond to crises that know no borders or affiliations? How would they cooperate or clash? What do superheroes do in countries where governments are not representative of the people — would they be vigilantes outside the law, or work within the circumstances they are dealt? (I envision a bit of both.) What about in places where there are deeply entrenched sectarian, ethnic, and/or ideological divisions? Would they rise above the fray or remain parochial?

For example, I have in mind that superheroes in Germany would operate with far more transparency (including have their names and addresses publicly available) and far more restraint than elsewhere, for obvious reasons. This is common with the way their security and intelligence forces currently operate.

In the U.S., I would imagine a very complicated state versus federal dynamic at play, as far as jurisdictional issues, funding, etc., as well as a larger issues of whether government and taxpayers should get involved in the process at all. (Not a new idea of course, given Marvel’s Civil War, but still a relevant and interesting one.)

I recall the comic arc wherein Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship due to a widespread perception that he is an instrument of American policy. Though seen by many fans as an audacious gimmick, I think it touched on increasingly topical themes of identity, patriotism, and nationalism amid a globalized world. As Comics Alliance explained:

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

While this wouldn’t be this first time a profoundly American comic book icon disassociated himself from his national identity — remember when Captain America became Nomad? — this could be a very significant turning point for Superman if its implications carry over into other storylines. Indeed, simply saying that “truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough anymore” is a pretty startling statement from the one man who has always represented those values the most.

It doesn’t seem that he’s abandoning those values, however, only trying to implement them on a larger scale and divorce himself from the political complexities of nationalism. Superman also says that he believes he has been thinking “too small,” that the world is “too connected” for him to limit himself with a purely national identity. As an alien born on another planet, after all, he “can’t help but see the bigger picture.”

This is the sort of issue I hope to explore in my own superhero universe someday, in addition to giving readers across the world heroes they can relate with or who reflect their unique cultural, political, religious, or historical experiences.