30 Quartz stories we loved in 2017

30 Quartz stories we loved in 2017
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“I love Quartz,” you might be thinking to yourself right now. “It’s one of my favorite publications. I read it all the time—on the train, on the plane, as soon as I wake up, and right before bed.”

Thank you, loyal reader! We really love Quartz, too. But we understand that even our biggest fans wind up missing a quirky, ambitious, hard-hitting, impactful story or two. So we went ahead and gathered up 30 of our favorites from 2017. Read on to find out why you should reclaim the lost art of squatting, how the humble potato shaped Western civilization, and how a technology that turns emissions into stone could help save us from climate change.


I wish I was the person my Pocket reading list says I am, by Corinne Purtill

On confronting the limits of our intellectual aspirations: “I suspect a lot of people use Pocket in the way I use Pocket: less as a practical tool than a type of intellectual hoarding. It’s a place to put the ideas I’m certain I’ll make room for, someday. It’s the digital equivalent of the stacks that used to litter the homes of voracious readers in the pre-Internet era: months’ worth of The New Yorker, yellowing newspaper sections, anthologies plucked from the library book sale.”

How do you draw a circle? We analyzed 100,000 drawings to show culture shapes our instincts, by Thu-Huong Ha & Nikhil Sonnad

On what your circle-drawing technique reveals about you: “There are countless ways that we subtly, unconsciously carry our cultures with us: the way we draw, count on our fingers, and imitate real-world sounds, to name a few. That’s the delight at the heart of this massive dataset. To test our theories, we approached colleagues, friends, and family who write in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese, and, feeling a bit silly, asked them to draw circles. They gladly jumped in, wondering what their fingers would do, and eager to feel part of something larger.”

The forgotten art of squatting is a revelation for bodies ruined by sitting, by Rosie Spinks

Why Westerners should embrace the forgotten art of squatting: “Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor. In other words: If what we want is to be well, it might be time for us to get low.”

This summer, hundreds of China’s young gay people took their parents on a sea voyage of reconciliation, by Zheping Huang

On a cruise that offers young LGBT people in China temporary respite from a culture of discrimination: “Over the next four days, as it headed to Japan, the Glory Sea tour embarked on a journey of contradictions, as a hidden minority fleetingly experienced being mainstream, while their parents’ beliefs faced relentless questioning. It was a family trip and a hookup party, a rebellion against stifling social mores—and an attempt to run away from them for a little while.”

Japan’s extreme recluses are coming together to create a newspaper for social outcasts, by Isabella Steger

On a newspaper by, and for, Japan’s social recluses: Kimura became a hikikomori after he failed his law school exams, and described the following period as a time when he lived as a ronin, drifting aimlessly in life. When he went out, he made sure it was in the morning when his neighbors were asleep, and returned only when it was dark, rotating between venues such as family restaurants and libraries. His mother once called the police to ask them to protect her from him, said Kimura, without elaborating. He noted that there is a widespread perception in Japanese society that hikikomori are unstable or prone to violent acts, and said that one of the reasons he started the newspaper was to address those views, which only serves to push the shut-ins “further into a corner.”


We tested bots like Siri and Alexa to see who would stand up to sexual harassment, by Leah Fessler

Why Google, Apple, and Amazon need to redesign their bots: “By letting users verbally abuse these assistants without ramifications, their parent companies are allowing certain behavioral stereotypes to be perpetuated. Everyone has an ethical imperative to help prevent abuse, but companies producing digital female servants warrant extra scrutiny, especially if they can unintentionally reinforce their abusers’ actions as normal or acceptable.”

This app is trying to replicate you, by Mike Murphy & Jacob Templin

On an app that lets you text with the dead—or with yourself. “I imagined being able to spend time with my Replika, having it learn my eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, and eventually, achieving such a heightened degree of self-awareness that maybe a far better version of me becomes achievable. I also worried that building an AI copy of yourself when you’re depressed might be like shopping for groceries when you’re hungry—in other words, a terrible idea.”

By sparring with AlphaGo, researchers are learning how an algorithm thinks, by Dave Gershgorn

Why researchers are playing games with AlphaGo: “There are limits to what humans can learn about AlphaGo from combing through code. The way deep neural networks make decisions is often referred to as a “black box”—while researchers can tune knobs on the outside to vary how the machine functions, its inner workings are granular and difficult to decipher, making the process extremely arduous. For this reason, researchers have been trying to find other ways to interpret how the neural net processes information and understands ideas.”

The Communist App Store: China’s endless apps for tracking, organizing, and motivating app members, by Echo Huang

On the explosion of apps designed to collect data on members of China’s Communist Party: “Feature-wise, these apps are largely indistinguishable from one another—they collect user profiles, disseminate party-related information and lessons, and offer some version of a chat tool. But they all serve an important purpose—to keep track of and evaluate the performance of millions of party members in a ‘visible, traceable and interactive manner,’ said state-run tabloid Global Times in September.”

An “anatomically correct” Scarlett Johansson robot, by Siyi Chen

The amateur roboticist who built the robot on why he’ll never sell: “Mark One is a never-ending project. Why? Because I consider it an art project.”

Science and health

The botanists’ last stand: The daring work of saving the last samples of dying species, by Zoë  Schlanger

On the heroic efforts of rare-plant botanists: “Every native plant on Kauai is an insane stroke of luck and chance. Each species arrived to the island as a single seed floating at sea or flying in a bird’s belly from thousands of miles away—2,000 miles of open ocean sit between Kauai and the nearest continent. “We think…probably one or two seeds made it every 1,000 years,” says botanist Ken Wood, Perlman’s longtime field partner.”

The race to zero emissions, by Akshat Rathi

How carbon-capture technology could save humans from a warming planet: “After a year of reporting, through visits to large and small carbon-capture plants around the world, and conversations with more than 100 academics, entrepreneurs, policy experts, and government officials, I’ve come to a conclusion: Carbon capture is both vital and viable. Its mass deployment remains a challenge, but not for the reasons that many environmentalists commonly cite. Clearing up those misunderstandings could offer hope in a world full of doom-and-gloom climate stories.”

What’s killing America’s new mothers? by Annalisa Merelli

On the fatal effects of the US health-care system’s gender bias: “When it comes to pregnant women, this manifests itself in a focus on the child, at the cost of a focus on the mother, as highlighted in a recent investigation by NPR and ProPublica into the issue. Health-care professionals spend their time and energy on the baby. This was the experience of the Logelin family—in the end, it was a case of the woman not being fully seen or heard by the US medical system.”

The world is relying on a flawed psychological test to fight racism, by Olivia Goldhill

Why we’ve bought into the flawed science of implicit bias: “The implicit bias narrative also lets us off the hook. We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious. The forgiving notion of unconscious prejudice has become the go-to explanation for all manner of discrimination, but the shaky science behind the IAT suggests this theory isn’t simply easy, but false. And if implicit bias is a weak scapegoat, we must confront the troubling reality that society is still, disturbingly, all too consciously racist and sexist.”

Everything, including the growing income disparity, can be explained by physics, by Ephrat Livni

On an engineering professor who believes the wealth gap is inevitable: ”Recently he published a paper in the Journal of Applied Physics, arguing that wealth inequality is inevitable because of, and can even be predicted by, constructal law. That’s because the distribution of all things—across the social, political, and economic worlds—is determined by vascular patterns, like those of tree branches or river tributaries, Bejan says. They fork and morph to create new streams, naturally. And, naturally, these branches and tributaries are unequal.”

Business and economics

The global dominance of white people is thanks to the potato, by Gwynn Guilford

On how the potato swept Europe: “When brought back to Europe, potatoes weren’t an easy sell at first. Unlike the other important New World crop, maize, their appeal wasn’t immediately obvious. At first, the European upper class hailed potatoes as aphrodisiacs. (This explains why Shakespeare’s perpetually horny buffoon Falstaff bellows, ‘Let the sky rain potatoes!’)”

The entire global financial system depends on GPS and it’s shockingly vulnerable to attack, by Tim Fernholz

On the apocalyptic scenario of a GPS attack: “‘The first thing that happens when GPS is disrupted, every mode of transportation slows down, becomes more dangerous,’” Goward tells me. “’Then the clocks in the different networks in the affected area begin to desynchronize. Because they are all such a different quality, it’s impossible to say which networks are going to degrade where and in what order, but we know after some period of time, cell phone networks will start to fall apart, IT, financial—stock exchanges will have to shut down because they can’t reconcile the trades, ATMs won’t work because the banks can’t verify the money is there, eventually even the electrical grid. Lord knows how quickly this will unfold.’”

Everything good and bad about NAFTA can be explained by avocados and shoes, by Hannah Yi

On the surprising impact of NAFTA on the American diet: “Before NAFTA, Americans didn’t eat a lot of avocados. They only had access to them from California and Florida, and only seasonally. And for 80 years, Mexican avocados were banned from the US. Americans didn’t even know they liked them. But NAFTA made them available year-round.”

I spent a week with 8,000 worshippers of the fake, fantastical cult of zumba, by Amy Wang

On the origins of the word “zumba”: “Perelman and Perez wanted ‘rumba’ at first, a style of rhythmic dance from Cuba; it was already trademarked by another fitness group. “Zumba” was quite literally the result of the two men sitting in a Starbucks café, going down the alphabet until they hit upon the letter with the most intrigue. Co-opting other countries’ histories—then packaging them as a new and improved lifestyle—often raises cries of cultural appropriation, but in zumba’s case, nobody cares. Zumba isn’t promising anything as serious as peak athletic prowess; it only wants people to have fun and be well.”

Thermomix, the magical German do-it-all kitchen appliance, is here to conquer America, by Jenni Avins

On why some Americans might pay $1,450 for a fancy European kitchen appliance: “The thing is, that for many members of the “aspirational class,” those Americans who spend their discretionary dollars on things like Pilates instructors, nannies, and organic cotton t-shirts, cooking dinner for their families the old-fashioned way isn’t a choice they make out of necessity. It’s an aesthetic one that they connect to their values and identities—like carrying an NPR tote bag. For many of us, especially those who fork over big dollars for high-end kitchenware, cooking is a leisure activity, a luxury rather than a necessity.”

Politics and education

Lessons from a poor, multi-ethnic school can heal a divided nation, by Aamna Mohdin & Jenny Anderson

On the attitude that educators should bring to racially and economically diverse students: “Barking Abbey teachers understand how poverty works. They see how it grinds us and they find ways to ameliorate the pain. They understand the struggle of living in cramped, overcrowded housing, and think to provide us with classrooms to study in after school, or point us to the town’s local libraries. Where the rest of the world saw no hope for us, Maloney took us on tours to the best universities in the country.”

All the “wellness” products Americans love to buy are sold on both Infowars and Goop, by Nikhil Sonnad

On the striking commonalities between wellness remedies on either side of the political spectrum: “Goop uses bacopa in a supplement pack called “Why am I so Effing Tired;” Infowars sticks it in its ‘Brain Force Plus.’ The science, based on animal studies, shows some preliminary—but contradictory—evidence of improvements to memory and brain function.”

The dark arts of international lobbyists and spin doctors are infecting Africa’s politics, by Lynsey Chutel, Abdi Latif Dahir, and Yomi Kazeem

On the influence of one PR firm on South African politics: “Bell Pottinger furtively sparked anger in society via local media and social media around the caustic buzzwords “white monopoly capital”. The intent was to stoke anger over “economic apartheid”—the lingering and very real inequality between black and white South Africans. It worked, until it didn’t. When the cynical campaign was exposed, Bell Pottinger sacked the account executives in charge of it, but that wasn’t enough to stop its spectacular collapse this month as clients around the world deserted it.”

Nasty, brutish, and short: What the next Korean war will look like, by Steve Mollman

On how North Korea might use chemical weapons: “Another possibility is to deliver them via drones, of which Seoul estimates the North has about a thousand, including the large stealth variety. Drones could deploy the chemical weapons in cities beyond the range of missiles. And whereas artillery would leave more of a footprint, and thus be more exposed to a counter-attack, a drone is more random and has the potential to deliver ‘much greater economic and psychological shock value beyond the actual military value,’ says Graham.”

The American left has its own Tea Party, and it’s coming for Donald Trump, by Max de Haldevang, video by Adam Freelander

On progressive efforts to use Tea Party tactics to ignite a grassroots movement: ”It has two ambitious main goals: to stop Trump from achieving anything, and to transform liberal grassroots activism and the way Americans engage with democracy. Its challenges range from some dissonance between the national leadership and ground-level activists over what the movement is for, to tensions about its ideology, to questions over whether its strategy is sustainable in the medium to long term. Looming above all that is one big, unanswered question: Just how effective is its protest model of lobbying individual members of Congress?”

Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant, by Ana Campoy and David Yanofsky

On the dangerous evolution of development in Houston: ”The Harvey-wrought devastation is just the latest example of the consequences of Houston’s gung-ho approach to development. The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth—often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now also a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense. Given the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections, it’s one that Americans elsewhere should pay attention to.”


If scheduling causes you conflict, maybe you’re on “event time,” by Lila MacLellan

On the time-management tactics of “event time people”: “Event time people allow events to dictate the rhythm of their days. When invited to dinner, they feel no pressing need to discuss what time that dinner might be held. Their version of setting up a phone chat might be, ‘I’ll call as soon as I’ve finished my lunch.’ And they’ll eat, by the way, when they’re hungry, not when the clock strikes a particular hour.”

I let Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson run my life for a week, by Corinne Purtill

Why “The Rock” is ideally suited to make a productivity app: “If the Rock is going to launch a life-changing platform, he can’t ask people to do things that are inconvenient or overly uncomfortable. It has to be accessible enough that people still feel like he’s on their side. Buying a bag may appeal only to uber-fans (Mike: “The Project Rock backpack is phenomenal, I have one”) but phase two is something literally anyone can get behind: Just get out of bed. Just get out of bed and do the thing you said you’d do. The Rock believes you can.”

Walmart—yes, Walmart—is making changes that could help solve America’s wealth inequality problem, by Oliver Staley

Why Walmart decided to raise wages for its low-paid workers: ”Without explicitly acknowledging it, Walmart came to the same conclusion Costco and Starbucks arrived at decades ago. Paying workers more, and providing them with substantial benefits like health care and parental leave, attracts more applicants, and gives employers more choices when hiring. It also reduces turnover, which leads to more experienced employees with a greater investment in the health of the business. All of that pays off in a better customer experience, the critical component in whether shoppers return or seek out competitors.”

IBM, remote-work pioneer, is calling thousands of employees back to the office, by Sarah Kessler

On how tech companies try to persuade workers to talk in person: Steve Jobs was obsessed with creating unplanned meetings, going so far as to propose building all of the bathrooms in Pixar’s offices in only one part of the building to encourage them (luckily for Pixar employees, someone vetoed this idea). Facebook offers workers a $10,000 bonus if they live near headquarters. Famous tech office perks at Silicon Valley companies, like free food and laundry service, are at least partly designed to keep workers in the office, and the office designs themselves are sometimes created to optimize interaction. “The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’” Patrick Pichette, then Google’s CFO, said in a 2013 talk. “And our answer is: ‘As few as possible.’”