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The Telegraph called it “the car industry’s Libor moment.” And indeed, after the massive recalls by GM, Toyota, and others, it’s tempting to see the scandal that’s engulfed Volkswagen—which admitted to fixing diesel vehicles in the US to cheat emissions tests—as a symptom of an industrywide malaise, just like the rate-rigging scandal that touchedalmost every major bank in 2012.
But not so fast. As the New York Times reports, VW’s particular brand of corporate governance was feudal and insular (paywall). “A breeding ground for scandal,” said one observer; “a soap opera ever since it started,” said another.
So rather than a symbol of generalized corruption, maybe VW is just an exceptionally rotten egg—rather like BP, whose “culture of complacency,” much worse than the oil-industry norm, spawned a series of accidents culminating in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster?
It’s a little early to be sure either way. An environmental watchdog in Europe claims the rot is widespread—that other car companies might be using similar tricks to VW’s to pass emissions tests there. However, even if they are, it’s not clear they’d be breaking laws. Rather, these might be clever but legal attempts to game badly designed tests—an indication, perhaps, that it’s Europe’s regulators who need to shape up.
At any rate, VW needs to rebuild its shredded reputation. Quartz’s Steve LeVine argued this week that perhaps the smartest thing it could do is move aggressively into building electric cars. Competing with Apple and Tesla holds the prospect of a halo effect. And who better than VW’s new CEO, the ex-head of Porsche, to take on the flashy, sports-car-loving Elon Musk?
But it won’t be enough for VW just to go big in the clean-car business. It has a culture to clean up, too.—Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Living with the memories of Everest’s deadliest day. The earthquake that devastated Nepal last April also unleashed an avalanche that killed 21 people at Everest Base Camp. Svati Kirsten Narula was there, and her harrowing first-person account of the avalanche and its aftermath is also a reflection on how traumas that we think we’ve dealt with can come back to haunt us much later.
The internet we’ve always wanted. It’s authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date—yet its costs are minimal, and it’s free to use. Nikhil Sonnad analyzes how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has managed to create a reliable online resource of the kind that Wikipedia and other crowdsourced sites can only dream of, and how others could emulate it.
This man will fix your pollen allergy with data. A Danish software programmer built systems to monitor every one of his sneezes. For five years. As well as his weight, exercise, food intake… Akshat Rathi on how Thomas Christiansen’s obsessive self-quantifying not only essentially cured him, but offers hope for other sufferers.
The hidden meaning of the pope’s ugly chair. The cheap, crude, even tacky throne built for the pontiff to celebrate mass in New York drew widespread derision. Anne Quito delves into its construction and the provenance of its materials to unearth some very deliberate, and highly papal, messages about humility and inclusiveness.
Quartz turns three. This week in 2012, we were a small and very sleepless group of people who had just launched a website and were trying to work out what next. Kevin Delaney, Quartz’s editor-in-chief, tracks the remarkable changes we’ve undergone since then—thanks to you, our readers.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
The most dangerous man in Russia? “Vulgar, venal, vicious, venerated and very rich: somewhere between Uday Hussein and the Notorious B.I.G.” Oliver Bullough has a memorable profile in the Guardian of Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord-president of Chechnya, and a bold thesis: What if he isn’t a barely controlled loose cannon, butRussian president Vladimir Putin’s plausibly deniable murder weapon?
The killing of an American terrorist. The chilling tale of the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s most influential online recruiter, also reveals the inner workings of the Obama administration’s preferred method of killing those deemed America’s enemies. T. Mark McCurley was the mission commander; in a book excerpt for Time, he recounts the story.
The real reason Facebook wants your data. The company’s researchers are using the stream of consciousnesses of its 1.5 billion users to build the world’s first truly artificial intelligent system—one that could one day learn and chat with you like a personal assistant. As Popular Science’s Dave Gershgorn found out, it’s a long, slow slog with few eureka moments.
How the internet became stifling and stalkerish. Self-described “computer guy” Maciej Ceglowski discusses how an arms race between advertising click-fraud bots and online firms has made online surveillance ubiquitous. But he saves his harshest broadsides for the state of affairs in Silicon Valley, where investing “has become the genteel occupation of our gentry,” much like landowning was in times gone by.
What the British are really laughing about with Pig-gate. Lawrence Richards explains in the Leveller what the shocking university initiation ritual involving UK prime minister David Cameron says about the country’s elites. “This forms one of the core mechanics of the British ruling class,” he writes. “Why reveal someone’s dirty little secret when you can keep schtum about it and control them?”
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