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Quartz Weekend Brief—The power of TV, the water cost of cannabis, MBA mistakes, MSG vs umami

By Quartz Staff

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Time was, world leaders sent subtle messages by revealing the books at their bedside. More recently, they have offered glances at their iPods. But as US president Barack Obama prepared for a three-day weekend escape in southern California, the White House wanted to make sure that you knew what TV shows he’d be watching.

“Where is my True Detective and Game of Thrones?” Obama asked the chief executive of HBO, which broadcasts both shows, at a state dinner this week. A few days later, the president indicated he was also looking forward to Netflix’s political drama House of Cards. ”No spoilers, please,” he cheekily tweeted.

Television has more cultural currency than ever. That may help explain the outsized reaction to Comcast’s $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable, which emerged after negotiations that ranged from a boardroom overlooking New York’s Central Park to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. Mergers and acquisitions don’t typically get anyone hot or bothered, outside of the bankers involved. But this deal had much of America talking about the nation’s two largest cable companies and the imposing conglomerate they will create, if regulators approve.

Nobody in America likes their cable company. These firms are near-monopolistic providers of a highly coveted product—True Detective really is quite good, by the way—delivered with poor service at an ever-rising price. Comcast, as the owner of NBCUniversal, is also a behemoth in the content business. And when you are fed up and ready to “cut the cord,” it turns out the same companies control your internet pipes, too.

Indeed, the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will ultimately matter more to broadband internet than TV in the United States. Though by then, the difference will be moot. The president’s weekend viewing of both premium cable network HBO and internet video provider Netflix says it all. —Zachary M. Seward   [Share this]

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The unexpected environmental cost of the US war on drugs. California’s water crisis is deepening as marijuana cultivation explodes. Gwynn Guilford investigates how the continued criminal status of pot at a federal level prevents states where it’s legal from tackling the environmental costs.

Facebook rules romance. Dating apps abound, but in the biggest emerging markets, Facebook outstrips them all as a way to meet a match, reports Christopher Mims. And thanks to its reach, the social network knows a lot about who dates whom—including, explains Adam Pasick, how likely adherents of different religions are to look outside the faith.

The baby-formula industry strikes back. As people turn back to breastfeeding their babies, the formula industry has been promoting “toddler milk” for 1- to 5-year-olds. But many experts think it’s unnecessary and a gimmick. Heather Timmons delves into the myths and the marketing.

Five things that cost more than space exploration. All those rockets and Mars rovers are costly and superfluous, right? Well, not that costly, says Rachel Feltman, when you compare them with several other things of unclear value, including R&D on razor blades, the Sochi Olympics, and firecrackers at Diwali.

The mistake 90% of Harvard MBAs make when pitching a start-up idea. They may have the fancy degree, but almost none can articulate their ideas clearly enough; they “bury the lede,” in journalistic parlance. Jules Pieri, a specialist in launching new products, offers advice to the would-be entrepreneur.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Oh potato, how we love thee. From the Elizabethan view of the tuber as a “source of undue licentiousness” to its “revolutionary potential” for Marxists as a symbol of the proletariat, Robert Barry in the Atlantic takes us on a fascinating intellectual-biological-nutritional-historical tour of the spud.

Are we on the verge of a Wall Street crash or aren’t we? “Reformed broker” Josh Brown weighs in to debunk an already much-debunked chart purporting to show how the market is just like it was in 1929. Mark Hulbert in MarketWatch, though, thinks it might be time to start taking it seriously.

One man’s MSG is another man’s umami. Monosodium glutamate is a food additive reviled since the 1960s; umami is the darling of 21st-century celebrity chefs, the mythical “fifth flavor.” But they’re essentially the same chemical, explains Natasha Geiling in Smithsonian Magazine; just that one is synthetic and one is “natural.”

Where does playing come from? People play, dogs play, and even lobsters, surely too simple to have a sense of fun, do things that have no otherwise obvious purpose. John Graeber in the Baffler examines the theory that play isn’t a choice of conscious beings but an “emergent property” of the basic randomness of physics.

What it’s like to never go home. Anyone who has lived abroad for long enough that “home” no longer feels like home will identify with something in James Woods’ rambling essay, in the London Review of Books, on the thousand things that make a country feel like home, or alien, or both at once.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, stock charts of doom, and tales of home to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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