Measuring National Happiness

What’s being called the “World Happiness Report” came out today.  Produced by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the report purports to evaluate the happiness level in individual countries by looking at things like income, healthy life expectancy, “social support,” freedom, trust, and generosity, with a focus on the general well-being of immigrants.

bigraykgtFor Americans, the report is a good news/bad news kind of thing.  The good news? America comes in at number 19, far ahead of the unhappiest country on earth, which is war-torn South Sudan.  The bad news?  America’s happiness rating is falling, and the number 19 position is our lowest rating yet.  Finland tops of the list and a number of other Nordic countries, like Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, all are found in the top ten.

How do you possibly determine the “happiness” of an entire country?  According to the article linked above, the Nordic countries do well because they offer “healthy amounts of both personal freedom and social security that outweigh residents having to pay ‘some of the highest taxes in the world.'”  An individual quoted in the article explained:  “‘Briefly put, (Nordic countries) are good at converting wealth into well-being,” and the findings show that “the conditions that we live under matter greatly to our quality of life, that happiness is not only a matter of choice.”

The U.S. apparently is suffering in the rankings because, even though many incomes in America have increased, there is a perception of declining general health, increasing addiction (to a host of things, including cellphones, video gaming, and eating unhealthy foods), “declining social trust,” and “declining confidence in government.”

Is America, as a whole, unhappier now that it has been in the past?  Trying to measure an abstract concept like happiness on a country-wide basis seems like an impossible task to me, because the subjective values of the people doing the evaluations can’t help but affect the evaluation.  But I do believe this:  many Americans seem to be tapping a reservoir of anger, and seem a lot less willing to give people with opposing viewpoints the benefit of the doubt.  The kind of brooding, harsh anger that we see so often these days is not exactly a recipe for happiness.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  No green beer for me today — instead, I’ll be quaffing an authentic black and tan with Guinness and Harp, poured in an authentic pint glass.

And for those of you who want to feel a bit more Irish this morning, I offer the lyrics of Danny Boy, below.  But don’t feel too Irish when you sing it; the melody is a very old Irish tune, but the words were written by an English lawyer.

Danny Boy

O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside
The summer’s gone and all the roses dying
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
O Danny boy, O Danny boy, I love you so

And when you come and all the flowers are dying
If I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an Ave there for me

And I shall hear, though soft your tread above me
And all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be
For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me

The Newest Tallest, Fastest, and Longest

Designers are constantly pushing the envelope of roller coaster construction, so that pretty much every year there’s the announcement of a new “tallest, fastest, and longest” coaster.  This year, the honor goes to the Canada Wonderland theme park in Ontario, where the Yukon Striker coaster will be opening.  (Given the weather this winter, it’s probably going to be a few months before the grand opening, so coaster fanatics have got time to make their travel plans.)

maxresdefaultThe description of the Yukon Striker ride in the attached article sounds, well, pretty intense.  For one thing, it’s 3 minutes and 25 second long and covers more than a half mile of track.  The ride will reach top speeds of 80 miles per hour, has one drop of 245 feet — that’s more than two-thirds of a football field — and an underground tunnel that, according to the photo, opens in an amusement park lake.  The article states, somewhat breathlessly:  “At the top of the drop, you’ll be held for three seconds over the 90-degree drop before you drop down into the underwater tunnel, and there’ll even be a complete 360-degree loop for an extra adrenaline rush.”  (Like that will be needed!)

Oh yeah — the ride also has four different “inversions,” where riders are turned upside down before being turned right-side up.

The Yukon Striker won’t achieve the fastest speeds of any roller coaster in the world, an honor that’s currently held by a coaster in Abu Dhabi, but it will be the fastest “dive” coaster, “where there’s a straight vertical drop which sees riders facing down.”

I like roller coasters, and it’s interesting to read about the newest advances in coasters, but I really wonder whether we’re reaching the point where coasters are eclipsing normal human tolerances.  A more than three minute ride that jets you along at speeds faster than the speed limit on most highways, puts you through 360-degree loops, plunges you straight down into an amusement park lake, and then flips you over and back four times sounds like a lot more than my psyche — and stomach — can stand.  I also think that, in their zeal to be the highest, fastest, and longest, roller coaster designers are ignoring other creative design elements that make coasters exciting and interesting without torturing riders and exploring the limits of human endurance.

I’m sure there will always be thrill-seekers who want to ride the newest “tallest, fastest, and longest” coaster, but it will be interesting to see whether, after a ride or two, most visitors at the Canada Wonderland park pass on the Yukon Striker and try to find their amusement park fun somewhere else.

Studying Stonehenge

When I took a trip to England right after I graduated from college, one of the coolest places I visited was Stonehenge.  There was a strong air of ancient mystery lurking among the massive stones arranged in a circle on the Salisbury plains.  You couldn’t help but walk among the stones and think about where the enormous stones came from, who put them there, how in the world they got there — and what their mysterious purpose actually was.

02-stonehenge-dog-tooth.ngsversion.1492466772317.adapt_.1900.1Now scientists have answered the first question, at least in part:  many of the smaller stones at the Stonehenge site came from ancient quarries in the Preseli Hills of Wales, and they were consciously mined and taken to Stonehenge, not deposited on the Salisbury plains by glaciers.  Scientists used tools that allowed them to test the chemical composition of rocks in the quarry and match it to the composition of the rocks at Stonehenge.  The tests are so precise that scientists were able to determine that the Stonehenge stones came from quarries in the northern part of the hills rather than the southern part — a finding that is significant, because it means that the stones were probably transported to the Salisbury plains over land, rather than floated there on rivers.  The scientists also found mining tools at that date back to 3000 B.C., when the first stage of Stonehenge was built.

So now we know that, 5000 years ago, human beings mined large stones from Wales and then somehow dragged them 150 miles away, where they were arranged in circles that seem to be related in some way to the summer solstice.  But we don’t know why ancient humans would undertake such an enormous task, or how they accomplished it.  Unless someone invents a time machine, the answers to those questions probably will forever remain an unsolvable mystery — which is one reason why Stonehenge is so cool.

They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Oil Independence

Last week the United States passed a milestone that is almost unimaginable for those of us who have lived through the “oil crises” of the past.  For the first time in 75 years, America ended its dependence on foreign oil and became a net oil exporter.

shutterstock_360583700-0The transition of America to a state of energy independence has largely occurred because of the huge surge in production of oil and natural gas from shale formations that have been found throughout the country, in Texas, and North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio.  Last week there was a sharp drop in imports and a sharp increase in exports that nudged the U.S. into energy independence territory.  And while the production of oil will vary, the amount of oil-producing shale formations will likely keep America in positive net production territory for some time.

What does America’s status as a net oil exporter mean?  The oil boom has obviously produced a lot of new wealth and jobs in the U.S., but more broadly it means that the role of OPEC as a major world player, capable of affecting the economies of oil-using countries with a few pricing decisions — or even worse, embargoes — has been greatly diminished.  In fact, the production from the United States has effectively flipped the power equation, because many of our producing wells are profitable at oil prices as low as $30 a barrel, which is a lower price than is profitable for many OPEC countries.

The American oil boom thus presents OPEC with a serious challenge:  if it tries to enforce higher prices, buyers will turn to American oil and OPEC countries will lose market share — but because Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries need higher prices to be profitable, OPEC can’t afford to let profits fall.  Last week in Vienna, OPEC and Russia announced an agreement to cut production in order to keep prices up.  It remains to be seen whether that agreement will work, given American production, or whether OPEC members will begin trying to recapture market share by selling at lower prices than OPEC is trying to enforce.  In fact, there are signs that the oil cartel is fraying around the edges.  Last week, for example, Qatar announced that it is leaving OPEC.

Imagine:  an American foreign policy that no longer needs to focus obsessively on the Middle East in order to ensure that the oil spigot remains turned on.  That’s just one of the interesting consequences of our surging domestic production.

 

British Swear Words

Do our polite and refined friends from across the pond curse?  I know they use words like “bloody” when they want to up the emphasis a notch and demonstrate that they are really miffed, but do they ever actually swear?

Apparently they do!  Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator — who even knew they had one! — interviewed more than 200 people to determine how they reacted to an array of rude and offensive terms and swear words, and then ranked them in order of offensiveness.  In order to be sure that they covered every form of communication, they threw in a few well-known hand gestures, too.  Words in the mild category include “bloody,” “bugger,” “damn” and “arse,” as well as “crap.”  (It’s hard to imagine someone with a British accent ever saying “crap,” isn’t it?)  “Ginger” and “minger” — which means an unpleasant or unattractive person — were also placed in the mild category.

The medium category then includes words like “bitch,” “bollocks” (which Americans of my age know because of the Sex Pistols) and “pissed,” as well as words I’ve never heard used, like “munter” (an ugly or excessively drunk person) and “feck” (a milder substitute for you-know-what).  From there we move up to the strong category, which curiously has “bastard” in it — suggesting that the Brits find “bastard” a lot more offensive than we do, perhaps of the connotations of the word in a land that still has royalty and nobility — and “fanny,” which seems pretty mild to me.  The strong category also includes a bunch of British slang I’ve not heard of before.  From there, the list moves up to the strongest category, where the queen mother of curses sits, as expected, atop the swear list pyramid.

The list apparently is to be used by the Brits in their communications, with words rated as mild considered to be okay to use around children, whereas most people thought the “medium” and “strong” words shouldn’t be used until after 9 p.m.  The study also found, encouragingly, that the Brits are increasingly offended by words involving race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that the Brits ever say “crap.”