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Decline Watch: City Living

Global Human Resources firm Mercer has released its 2011 Quality of Living worldwide city rankings. The index ranks cities based on political stability, economic environment, cultural environment, sanitation, education, public services, recreation and other factors. In theory, the list is used by firms to allot appropriate compensation for employees relocated to these cities. 

As it turns out, Europe's economies may be imploding, but its cities are still pretty nice places to live, comprising more than half the cities in the top 25, including first ranked, Vienna. (At least it's not those smug Norwegians again! Oslo's down at 33rd.)

Decline-o-meter: How did America's shining cities on hills fare? There are eight U.S. cities in the top 50, more than any other country, with the highest ranked being President Obama's hometown, Honolulu, at 29. That's the same number as last year, although Portland fell out of the top 50 and Pittsburgh squeaked in. (Congrats yinz!)

That's not too shabby. Although it's slightly less impressive when you consider that Canada, with about 1/10th of the population and a slightly lower urban population by percentage, has five, nearly all of them higher than 29th place. Germany has seven. No BRIC cities made the cut. 

Of course, compare the U.S. to the EU as a whole and it's not even close. But still, for all the talk of Americans' distrust of urbanization, over 80 percent of them live in cities and many of them are quite nice. 

See also: Global Thinkers Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen's list of 16 cities to watch from the new print issue. 

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

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Could a floating city-state solve Silicon Valley's visa woes?

As Tyler Cowen notes, the new startup Blueseed is aiming for something of a libertarian hat trick combining the ideas of seasteading, circumventing U.S. immigration laws, and providing a regulation-free development space for tech firms. The idea is to buy a ship and dock it off the coast of California as a living and working space, or "incubator" in Silicon Valley speak, for foreign tech workers.

Ars Technica explains the idea:

Immigration law makes it difficult for many would-be immigrants to get permission to work in the United States. For example, there's an annual cap on the number of H1-B visas available for American employers to hire skilled immigrant workers. However, permission to travel to the United States for business or tourism is much easier to get.

Marty pointed to the B-1 business visa as a key part of his company's strategy. With a B-1 visa, visitors can freely travel to the United States for meetings, conferences, and even training seminars. B-1 visas are relatively easy to get, and can be valid for as long as 10 years.

Blueseed plans to provide regular ferry service between the ship to the United States. While Blueseed residents would need to do their actual work—such as writing code—on the ship, Marty envisions them making regular trips to Silicon Valley to meet with clients, investors, and business partners.

With the ship only 12 miles offshore, it should be practical to make a day trip to the mainland and return in the evening. A B-1 visa also permits overnight stays.[...]

The firm is currently conducting an environmental impact study. When that's completed, the firm will need to acquire or lease a large ship. Then they'll need to retrofit it for use as a floating apartment and office complex. They'll need to hire a crew with a variety of skills—cooks, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, security officers, and many more. The company estimates they'll need 200-300 crew members in total.

The firm must arrange for regular ferry service; it hopes to offer two or three trips per day. And obviously, Internet service will be essential. They're still researching options, but the tentative plan is for a high-speed fixed wireless connection with a satellite backup.

Then they'll need to attract paying customers. Marty envisions the Blueseed ship as a floating incubator. They'll charge rent, but also take a small equity stake in each startup that comes on board. He hopes to cultivate a network of investors to help identify promising entrepreneurs. Blueseed will also accept applications directly from would-be entrepreneurs. Marty says they've already had expressions of interest from around the world.

Not surprisingly, Blueseed's cofounders are veterans of the Seasteading Institute, the utopian foundation set up by Patri Friedman (Milton's grandson) and funded by PayPal founder Peter Thiel to promote self-governing communities at sea. Though I have to say, the Blueseed reminds me a little more of a white collar version of Rife's Raft -- the massive refugee flotilla centered around a former U.S. aircraft carrier in Neil Stephenson's dystopian sci-fi novel Snowcrash

I'm not quite sure how many tenants this floating industrial park would find. It seems more practical -- and a lot more pleasant -- to just set up shop in Hyderabad or Tallinn and fly to Silicon Valley when you need to. But perhaps with only a few clients, Blueseed could function as a high-profile protest against U.S. immigration restrictions like the H-1B visa cap. #OccupyMontereyBay anyone?