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Quartz Daily Brief—Europe edition—Sochi begins, Apple buyback, US’s dangerous exports, hallucinogenic hydrangeas

By Quartz Staff

What to watch for today

The Sochi Olympic shenanigans begin. Russia’s first post-Soviet Olympic Games kick off today, ushered in by many a scandal. The event, running about five times over budget, has been marred by claims of embezzlement and corruption,boycotts over Russia’s human rights record and athlete withdrawals due to dangerous courses.

Americans win some, lose some in their latest farm bill. US president Barack Obama will sign the new $1 trillion farm bill (paywall), giving US farmers better crop insurance to mitigate risk and consumers better meat labeling. Too bad for American households that federal food stamps get slashed.

Brazil fends off inflation, sort of. Thanks to a weakening currency and seasonal falloff in certain types of spending, Brazil’s monthly inflation is expected to ease to 0.61% in January, shrugging off December’s decade high of 0.92%. That still leaves annual inflation at 5.67%, above the government’s 4.5% target.

The US jobs tally perks up. December was a rough month for US job numbers; a brighter figure for January (an expected 185,000 added jobs) should pave the way for more tapering by the US Federal Reserve.

Investors steel themselves for ArcelorMittal’s earnings. Shareholders are crossing their fingers that this year the world’s largest steel company will pull back into the black after suffering from weak global demand. Perkier emerging markets and a recent spike in steel imports to the US might help.

McDonald’s adds a new country. A restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, opening on February 8th, will mark the chain’s first new market in southeast Asia in over two decades. It is chasing competitor Burger King, which already has 29 stores in Vietnam.

The “nine dash line” debate heats up. For the first time, the US government has publicly rejected China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea, calling it “inconsistent with international law” and asking China to adjust or clarify.

While you were sleeping

Apple bought back billions. In the two weeks after its latest financial report, the tech giant bought $14 billion of its own shares in a bid to restore confidence with shareholders. Apple investor Carl Icahn is leading a charge to push the company, whose revenues have fallen 10% in the last three quarters, to buy back $50 billion this year.

IBM hired help to sell its chips. The company has approached Goldman Sachs (paywall) for help  finding a buyer for its semiconductor business, which has dragged down earnings. Two weeks ago, IBM agreed to sell its low-end servers to China’s Lenovo.

Another insider trading target bit the dust. US federal prosecutors notched up their seventh conviction against sullied hedge fund SAC Capital. Mathew Martoma was found guilty of profiting $275 million by trading shares of major pharmaceutical companies using insider information about clinical drugs trials.

News Corp cookbooked its books. Rupert Murdoch’s media house posted a 4% decline in revenues on declining newspaper ad sales, following the frantic overturn at its institutional services division. But publishing revenues rose 4% to $391 million, driven by flourishing teen sci-fi novels and cookbooks.

LinkedIn let down Wall Street. The social network posted gains in users and earnings per share, but its revenue guidance for the first quarter of 2014, at $460 million, disappointed investors and sent its stock down 8%. Still, the company is doubling down on its critical business of talent.

The US blocked liquids from Russia. A day after the US government issued a warning about bombs traveling in toothpaste into Russia, the Transportation Security Administration banned all liquid, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage on flights between the two countries.

Quartz obsession interlude

David Yanofsky on how America’s rising exports are killing the planet.“As a portion of US GDP, the trade deficit shrank to 2.8% from 3.3%. The shift reflects a resurgence in American manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction, as well as a healthier world economy, which created new opportunities for tourists to visit the US. This is good news for the US economy, but the growth in these sectors is also striking for its impact on the environment. Travel and energy services are the largest contributors to household carbon emissions.” Read more here.

Matters of debate

The Fed’s central economic theory is flawed. Asset prices aren’t all that relevant to the broader economy.

Scottish independence is a very real possibility. Scots are swinging toward breaking with Britain.

Gates is having a Steve Jobs moment. But his return to Microsoft may be disappoint—more Michael Jordan at the Wizard than Jobs at Apple.

‘Ax’ is not a mistake. It has been an English alternative to ‘ask’ for 1,200 years.

LaGuardia is a ‘third world’ airport. Especially when compared with Hong Kong’s, according to the latest Bidenism.

Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t know how to be happy. It wasn’t just the drugs and depressing acting roles.

Surprising discoveries

The ‘Japanese Beethoven’ is a fraud. Hit symphonies attributed to a celebrated, deaf composer were actually written by a music professor.

Criminal gangs are peddling hallucinogenic French flowers. Smoking hydrangea plants gives you a cheaper high than weed.

Exorcisms have entered the 21st century.  Over Skype, apparently.

Licenses made Lego a business behemoth. A tiny Darth Vader is a revenue empire.

Google took a stab at Russia. Through a damning doodle.

The black market has a blue hue. Tiffany blue, in fact: The jeweler’s boxes are in high demand.

Our best wishes for a productive day. Please send any news, comments, teen sci-fi novels and marijuana alternatives to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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