Quartz Weekend Brief—Mandela and Ukraine, Korean misery, BlackBerry memories, snark vs smarm

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This week we were reminded of how often the future turns out less bright than it looked.

The death of Nelson Mandela inspired an outpouring of tributes. The footage of him following his release from prison in 1990 is a reminder of the hope, promise and joy of a society on the cusp of revolution. But though the future is undoubtedly brighter for young South Africans today, the freedom fighters’ dream of a “rainbow nation” is less vibrant than it was. The country is still beset by economic and racial inequalities, and other, more dynamic middle-income economies are pulling ahead of it.

As the racial barriers were coming down in South Africa, the ideological and physical walls in Europe were also crumbling. In scenes reminiscent of those jubilant times, hundreds of thousands of protesters this week crowded the streets of Kiev, angry at their government’s choice of closer trade ties with their former Soviet masters in Moscow instead of the EU.

But the once-bright promise of the West to former communist states in the east has lost its shine too. France, Germany and the UK may limit the rights of migrants from within the EU (paywall) to live and work in their countries, challenging the freedom of movement that is an EU tenet. This comes, pointedly, as temporary visa restrictions on workers from Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, are about to expire. And the rise of populist, anti-EU political parties now threatens the “ever closer union” on which the EU was founded. (Ironically, South Africa’s sluggish growth is due in part to the slowdown in Europe, its largest trading partner.)

Revolution is intoxicating. But the prospect of sweeping change often fades in the face of hard political realities, leaving behind only grainy footage and wistful memories of promises partly fulfilled.—Jason Karaian

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Mandela: Inspiration and disappointment. The great man’s most famous quotes serve as a moral compass for many. Yet some South Africans felt his emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation was naive and denied them an outlet for their pain and anger at apartheid, writes film-maker Khalo Matabane.

What does a company do when it’s run out of new customers? Digicel, a mobile operator that specializes in small countries, has grown about as far as it can. Leo Mirani looks what it’s doing to get more revenue and what it could teach bigger firms as their markets reach saturation.

Korea is a world-beater, yet its people are miserable. The country has negligible unemployment, a fantastic trade balance, outstanding educational achievement. But its students are unhappy, suicide rates are astronomical, and birth rates are among the lowest in the rich world. Matt Phillips digs into the numbers.

The internet of things is (almost) upon us. Christopher Mims on why 2014 will finally be the year when the long-promised connection of everyday objects to the internet begins to gather pace. Meanwhile, your phone may already be more aware of the objects around you than you might think.

The Quartz holiday gift guides. And now that you’re ready to join the internet of things, check out our list of gadgets for doing so. Or an accessory for your favorite gadget-obsessed ultra-mobile business traveler. Or some toys for the smartest kids you know. Or maybe some exotic alcohol, or other ways to get in the, um, spirit.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Why we have pensions. Augustus Caesar gave them to his retired troops to prevent insurrection. Now cities like Detroit are slashing them. Vauhini Vara in the New Yorker argues they might want to take a lesson from Caesar: Removing pensions to save costs could carry a hidden cost years down the line.

What it was like to live through the rise and fall of BlackBerry. Executives reminisce to BusinessWeek on two decades that saw them go from rock stars of the business world to stagnation, denial and defeat as the iPhone and its imitators took the world by storm.

The cultural divide of our era: snark vs. smarm. Smarm is piety, optimism, false praise, fraudulent consensus. Snark is irony, pointedness, a reaction to the tide of pabulum overwhelming our discourse. Part rant, part cultural critique, part exposition of Gawker’s editorial values, this piece by Tom Scocca is quite stimulating and thought-provoking—for something on Gawker.

Stop talking about the “selfish gene.” Biologists have long known that the role of gene selection in evolution is overplayed. As personal gene-testing spreads ever farther, we’re in danger of falling in thrall to a belief that our genes determine far more than they really do, argues David Dobbs in Aeon.

Barack Obama is an Indonesian ruler. His measured, almost emotionless remarks on the death of Nelson Mandela reminded us of this Aeon piece from February, in which Edward Fox explains Obama’s restrained, disciplined bearing as the embodiment of halus—the key trait of Javanese kingship, which he absorbed during his childhood there.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, BlackBerry stories, and snark to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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