New Year’s edition—Good riddance 2016, finding aliens, idiot savant economists

Good morning, Quartz readers!

2016? As the sign guy said, “Geez.”

Yes, there have been far worse years in history. Yes, it’s in our (and the media’s) nature to give too much weight to bad, short-term news. Sure, you can take solace in the vast longer-term strides humanity has made, or in devil-may-care existential nihilism, or in hopeful bromides—the arc of the moral universe, yadda yadda. Choose your flavor of forced optimism, and indulge in it all you want. By any objective measure, this has still been an awful year.

It’s not just because of Aleppo, Nice, Brussels, Orlando, and other milestones in carnage. Nor because of the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Fillon, Duterte, and other merchants of hatred. Nor because free trade and movement are on the retreat. Nor even because a newlyisolationist US, resurgent Russia, and aggressive China are about to take the world’s geopolitical balance and shake it like a snow-globe.

No: It’s also because this has been the year of post-truth, when the combined effects of polarizing social media, weakening traditional media, shameless politicians, and economic and political tribalism reached their logical destination. In countries whose systems of governance were premised on at least a veneer of reasoned debate about mutually agreed-on facts, the scope for such debate is shrinking fast. This is fundamental. Don’t like the way the world is going? Want to change it? How do you convince people if they won’t even hear you?

So yes; things are bad, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. But it’s equally foolish to wallow in despair. Whether history records 2016 as the start of a new age of darkness, or just the darkness before a new dawn, is still up to us—each one of us. Don’t like the way the world is going? Want to change it? There’s no shortage of ideas.—Gideon Lichfield


We’re closer to finding alien life than ever before. Akshat Rathi explains why 2016 saw so many reputable scientists suddenly—and seriously—ascribe new phenomena to aliens.

Adobe Flash is worth saving. Its video, interactivity, and animation capabilities enabled “the web’s adolescence—its weird, rioting teenage years,” writes Keith Collins, who analyzes the rise and fall of Flash, and why it should be preserved.

Nestlé wants to change your diet—for the better. Outgoing chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe talks to Chase Purdy about why he’s steered the world’s largest food company into the realm of healthy nutrition.

South Africans love reading about their own dysfunction. How Long Will South Africa Survive? and We Have Now Begun Our Descent are just some of the apocalyptic titles flying off the shelves of Africa’s biggest economy, writes Lynsey Chutel.

This was the year solar panels became cheaper than fossils fuels. Michael J. Coren recounts the incredible gains made in renewable energy—and the many obstacles that still remain.

Has bitcoin’s time finally come? Joon Ian Wong on why the cryptocurrency is reaching a new all-time high, and why it might be for real this time.

Donald Trump doesn’t need to build a Muslim registry. There already is one, explains Michael Coren: It’s called Facebook.

Farewell, trading floors. As New York shutters its last commodity trading pits, Leslie Josephs and Siyi Chen take a nostalgic look back, with a video guide to the lost language of trading gestures.


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.


Meet the reporter Trump calls a “nasty guy.” In a year that saw journalists do their best to expose Trump’s many flaws, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold took the prize for most hard-hitting stories. In a personal essay, he reveals how he broke those stories through the use of both digital tools and simple shoe-leather reporting.

The 2016 movies that resonated with behavioral economists.The Becons, or “Behavioral Economics Oscars,” go to movies and movie-makers who embody concepts explored in that field of study. With nods to everything from cognitive operation to norm theory, Bloomberg’s Cass R. Sunstein doles out awards for best director, best documentary, best actor, best actress, and best picture.

America can learn something from Singapore. The city-state is often portrayed as a democratic success story, but Singapore suffers from an authoritarian streak that will sound familiar to Americans fearful of a United States under president Trump. “Authoritarianism isn’t just about show trials or disappearing dissidents,” Kirsten Han writes in The Establishment. “It’s about the gradual consolidation of power through the erosion of democratic institutions and processes.”

Economists don’t understand the world. The great economists of yore were polymaths. Mill was also a philosopher; Hayek, a political scientist. These days, economists treat the world as a set of abstract equations, argues Robert Skidelsky, economic historian, in a Project Syndicate column. The result is that the profession can only tell us what is true in its models, not the real world. “The economists,” writes Skidelsky, “are the idiots savants of our time.”

The key to Apple’s China operation is perks—lots of them. The world’s biggest iPhone factory—capable of producing 500,000 phones a day—is a Foxconn outfit in Zhengzhou, China, dubbed “iPhone City” by locals. In a detailed glimpse (paywall) at China’s efforts to lure overseas companies, New York Times reporter David Barboza documents the string of incentives that make iPhone City possible—everything from construction subsidies to recruiting help to bonuses for high production.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend and New Year’s Eve. Please send any news, comments, alien phenomena, and Becon nominations to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.



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