Weekend edition—Nuclear poker, Chinese memes, lab mouse genes

Good morning, Quartz readers!

The nuclear threat is now greater than at any time since the 1980s.

While the number of nuclear warheads in the world is continuing its slow decline, both Russia and America have been investing heavily in modernizing their weapons and delivery systems. In the White House will soon be a famously irascible man who is also famously ignorantabout nukes. In the Kremlin is the first Russian leader since Nikita Khrushchev to put the use of nuclear weapons on the table (paywall), and who has reveled in provoking Europe, sowing carnage in the Middle East, and destabilizing the US political process.

What’s scary is that of the two men, Vladimir Putin is the rational one.

It’s surely no accident that Putin spoke publicly about upgrading Russia’s nuclear arsenal the day before his annual marathon press conference: Clearly, he wanted to be asked about it with the whole world watching. What was unexpected was that Donald Trump reacted by tweeting that the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” Puzzling over what exactly he might have meant, the New York Times noted that where the Obama administration took a year of thought and 64 pages to express its nuclear policy, Trump had done it in a few moments and 140 characters.

Putin may have meant to manoeuvre the American political neophyte into a deal that leaves Russia unthreatened by US warheads. But if so he didn’t reckon with Trump’s tweet-from-the-hip approach. As chess champion Garry Kasparov has observed, Putin likes playing “geopolitical poker” with a strong enough nerve to out-bluff his Western opponents. This works when your opponents are rational and predictable. Trump, though, has said he believes the key to a nuclear deterrent is unpredictability.

Putin said he hopes for “businesslike and constructive” relations with Trump. If so, he should put aside the mind games and work on striking one of Trump’s beloved “deals.” Because we just don’t know when the billionaire might get bored of playing geopolitical poker and pull out a geopolitical gun.—Max de Haldevang


China’s most popular—and revealing—memes of 2016. Mystic energy, “giant small goals,” watermelon-eating spectators: these were some of the memes that dominated China’s internet. Zheping Huang and Echo Huang dissect how these viral hits illustrated China’s assertiveness, but also its frailties and vulnerabilities.

How to keep tabs on Donald Trump. Christopher Groskopf and Jasan Karaian lay out the 10 key indicators to track in order to hold him accountable for his promise to revitalize the economy. Meanwhile, John West explores the dangers of online surveillance under a Trump presidency, and offers a philosophical strategy for protecting your privacy—and saving your soul in the process.

Why doesn’t Venezuela just default? It’s too poor to import food and medicine, yet it’s still paying off its debt to wealthy foreign creditors. Eshe Nelson explains the terrible double bind that forces the country to keep paying and traps it in a spiral of economic despair.

The controversial experiment to educate Africa’s children. A school chain backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg that made radical promises to fix some of the world’s worst education systems is now under fire for its methods. Nimi Hoffman on the questionable ethics of using schookids as guinea pigs.

The Ultimate Authoritative Unimpeachable Top 20 Books of 2016. You could easily read so many best-books-of-the-year rankings that you’ll never get around to reading the actual books. Kira Bindrim has saved you the bother by aggregating dozens of rankingsto create a master list.

Plus, some inspiration for the holidays …

Meet the world’s most extreme cold-water swimmer. Lewis Pugh, the UN’s “Patron of the Oceans,” swims Arctic and Antarctic seas in just a bathing suit to draw attention to the environment. Cassie Werber talks to him about what it takes and why, despite the grim prognoses, he’s an optimist about stopping climate change. And if that inspires you, read Cassie’s ultimate guide to exercising in winter. (Arctic swimming not included.)


Sign up for our pop-up newsletter, the Davos Daily Brief. Each day from January 16 to 20, we’ll deliver the most interesting news from the World Economic Forum conference directly to your inbox. Our team of veteran journalists in Davos will tell you what to watch for each day, report back on the news and discussions that matter, and identify the most intense debates and any surprises on the ground.



The profiteers of the refugee crisis. Maria Politzer and Emily Kassie have a multimedia series at Huffington Post Highline on the Nigerian people-smugglers, Italian mafiosi, Syrian exile sweatshop owners, and German corporations that have turned human desperation into a nice little earner.

The Oskar Schindler of the refugee crisis. If the foregoing destroyed your faith in humanity, this will restore it. Mark Mann in Toronto Life tells the story of Jim Estill, a Canadian businessman who has brought hundreds of Syrian families to safety by helping them get government support and find work.

The inside story of Apple’s $14 billion tax bill. Prohibition-era Chicago had The Untouchables. Today’s EU has the Maxforce—a small gang of bureaucrats led by, yes, a guy called Max. Bloomberg’s Gaspard Sebag, Sara Doyle, and Alex Webb tell how the Maxforce discovered that a decades-old agreement was letting Apple avoid almost all taxes in Europe, and came down on it like a ton of iPhones.

How the lab mouse got its genes. The Jackson Laboratory in Maine, a.k.a. JAX, breeds mice for medical experiments, taking painstaking efforts to churn out a consistent product—think mouse McDonald’s. Yet minor variations in feeding, care, or experimental protocols can make a hash of results. The Economist’s Jason Palmer looks at how JAX is tackling the problem by taking mouse breeding to the next level.

Rejoice, for the end of the world is not at hand. Max Roser at Our World in Data offers an antidote to end-of-2016 gloom in the form of some historical perspective. Education, literacy, child mortality, vaccination, poverty, and democracy have all made immeasurable—no, actually, highly measurable and huge advances in the past couple of centuries. Only by knowing how far we have come, Roser argues, can we see how to keep on moving forward.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend and Christmas holiday. Please send any news, comments, lab mice, and heart-warming charts to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.



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