Quartz Weekend Brief—Alibaba comes to America, robots come for your job, terror comes for CAR

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Good morning, Quartz readers!

If Alibaba files for an IPO in the United States this coming week as expected, the media will tout it as yet another symbol of “China’s rise”—an opportunity to bet on China’s “emerging middle class” or its “explosion of online spending.” But Alibaba, under the leadership of founder and chairman Jack Ma, is not just another Chinese tech company: It’s incredibly profitable and it’s already going global.

Unlike many US tech IPOs, Alibaba has been profitable for ages—it reported $1.35 billion in profit in the last quarter of 2013, compared with Facebook’s $520 million in the same period.

And, while a US IPO might boost its profile outside China, Alibaba has already been doing fine snatching up Silicon Valley startups and expanding in Southeast Asia. The company kicked off a frenzied global investment binge in 2013: It borrowed $8 billion, at roughly 4% interest, and sank around $5 billion in 20-plus companies, buying into everything from an American online sports retailer to the Chinese equivalent of Macy’s.

So Alibaba doesn’t need to list in the US to expand its reach or raise cash. Why do it? Many think, with pretty good reason, that the IPO is more about whittling down Yahoo’s stake, and that the company chose New York over Hong Kong so that Ma can control it more tightly.

Should prospective investors be thrilled about that? Ma clearly doesn’t care. He’s recently drawn suspicion with three investments through non-Alibaba entities using complicated deal structures, including one that borrowed up to 6.5 billion yuan ($1 billion) from Alibaba. The hazy rationale behind those deals hearkens back to 2010, when Ma spun Alipay, Alibaba’s payment platform, out of Alibaba Group and into a separate company he owned. (Though this was done to comply with new government rules, he did so without seeking the approval of Yahoo or Softbank, Alibaba’s biggest investors.)

Despite that episode, history has given plenty of reasons to trust Ma’s instincts. But investors should have no illusions that investing in Alibaba is a bet on much of anything else. —Gwynn Guilford

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

One of rock’s most respected producers thinks the internet won’t kill music. Steve Albini produced hit albums for Nirvana and the Pixies, and established himself as an influential critic of the recording industry. Now, he tells John McDuling that “the single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free.”

Why China doesn’t want to be the world’s largest economy yet. A new re-calculation of purchasing power in different economies could mean this is the year that China surpasses the US as the world’s largest economy. But Lily Kuo says that China isn’t ready for that: Acknowledging its position as the world’s wealthiest country would mean all kinds of pesky responsibilities, like floating its currency, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, or liberalizing its economy.

The last-ditch effort to save smallpox research. Nick Stockton looks in on global health officials as they debate whether to destroy the remaining live specimens of the dreaded virus, currently kept in secure US and Russian research labs. Some scientists argue that more time is needed to prepare countermeasures in case the disease resurfaces, and to develop cures for similar plagues. Others fear that it’s too risky and expensive to keep the samples around.

Your next iPhone might be delivered from China via a 2,000-year-old trade route. The silk road is back, Adam Pasick writes, and better than ever: Companies in China have built rail routes that let goods get from factories in Chonquing to the Polish city of Lodz in about 15 days. This will cut the cost of transit, and change the political calculus in south Asia.

Is a robot going to take YOUR job? Nikhil Sonnad built this handy interactive tool that assesses the chances that your occupation will be automated, leaving you looking for a new job while your shiny metal replacement snickers. According to the data set, there’s a little more than 15% that the job of “reporter” will be automated, so there will be humans on the other end of this e-mail for at least a little while longer.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Why we honor our heroes by throwing things at them. In Cabinet magazine, D. Graham Burnett picks apart the fascinating history of confetti, “the showers of polychrome chad we toss in glee.” Does it come from gift-giving customs in ancient Greece, or does it represent more primitive—and sinister—urges, namely ritual sacrifice? 

Want to know about the future? Ask the people who are building it. The New York Times polled scientists, entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley to get a sense of what the future looks like. According to top venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, if you’re ready to accept ubiquitous video recording and surveillance, the future is right for you.

A terrifying dispatch from the violence-wracked Central African Republic. CAR’s ethnic conflict hasn’t gotten much international attention compared to other humanitarian crises, but a new African genocide is brewing as rival peacekeepers from Rwanda and France feud and bodies rot in the streets.

China’s military is no more than a paper dragon. Writing on Medium, Kyle Mizokami looks at the facts behind China’s dramatic defense expansion in recent decades and concludes that the country is incapable of global military missions. That’s in part because it needs to keep dangerous neighbors in check. And it doesn’t help that much of China’s defense hardware is outdated.

Did torture help capture the world’s most notorious drug lord? An in-depth account of the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman suggests torture helped reveal his location to Mexican authorities, and raises fears that El Chapo might not be in custody for long.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, terrifying predictions about the future, and piles of confetti to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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