Quartz Weekend Brief—Scotland’s consolation, atheist spiritualism, Alibaba’s Achilles heel, Syria’s good guys

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“This has been a triumph for the democratic process and for participation in politics.” Praising the record-setting 85% turnout in Scotland’s referendum on independence was bittersweet for Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party. After all, his side lost, and he quit his job, ending 20 years at the helm of the pro-independence party.

Still, the “Yes” camp shouldn’t feel bad. The claim that countries are predisposed to secede when offered the choice is spurious. Sure, you can point to the landslide victories of independence votes in restive regions of Ukraine, or Transnistria, South Ossetia, and any number of other places. But if you exclude distant colonies, former constituents of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the break-ups of recent forced marriages by colonial powers (as with East Timor-Indonesia, or Eritrea-Ethiopia), the list of genuine, successful secessions through a clean democratic process is exceedingly short. Given a free and fair vote on their status, peaceful unions with long histories—like Scotland’s 307-year-old merger with England—have tended to vote against independence. Quebec twice voted against seceding from Canada, in 1980 and 1995.

Still, some 1.6 million Scots, or 45% of the electorate, voted for independence. What they’ll get instead, it seems, are even greater powers to determine their own affairs, in hopes of avoiding another brush with divorce in the future. The devolution of powers to other parts of the UK is now also likely, making it a “looser and messier” state. A similar solution might satisfy Catalan separatists in Spain.

Whatever the passions of the day, centuries-old borders are not redrawn lightly. Even the staunchest pro-independence Scots wanted to keep the Queen, use the pound, and belong to the EU, as they did before the vote. When pressed, Catalans might also admit, grudgingly, that membership in the Kingdom of Spain has its merits. And within these long-lived, and not always happy, unions there remains scope for change.

The nation-state is dead. Long live the nation-state.—Jason Karaian

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Atheists can be spiritual, too. Mysticism and spirituality have long been the domain of the religious, scorned and ridiculed by outspoken atheists. Tom Roston, himself the author of a book on atheism, profiles Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and atheist whose book moves to end religion’s monopoly on the mystical.

Charting fashion’s movers and shakers through Instagram. The fashion industry is crazy about Instagram. In the midst of Fashion Month, Jenni Avins and David Yanofsky ran the numbers on 1.8 million accounts to create an interactive that shows who’s mainstream and who flies under the radar outside the industry.

Why Germans pay in cash. Germans keep their wallets twice as thick as Americans and pay cash in 80% of transactions. Matt Phillips delves into the country’s turbulent economic history to uncover the roots of German aversion to credit.

The weird world of American college football. It’s a multibillion dollar business that relies on unpaid labor. John McDuling investigates how the money-printing machine that runs on nostalgia and traditional rivalries explains US culture—but is at risk of unraveling as it moves away from its roots.

A flat quarter-century for the US middle class. Median household income in the US is lower than it was in 1989, while upper-bracket income has surged. Matt Phillips, again, examines what rising inequality means for the middle class and the businesses that depend on them.

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Alibaba’s Achilles heel. In this insightful piece from last November, the New America Foundation’s Hao Wu, a former “Aliren” (Alibaba employee), explains that CEO Jack Ma runs Alibaba—which went public this week—as a charismatic, Mao-like figure, with a culture of control and obedience that, while very Chinese, is increasingly ill-suited to a new, younger generation of workers.

These are the good guys in Syria. Aleppo’s civil defense brigades are a young, tight-knit band of brothers who risk their lives every day to rescue people from the aftermath of regime airstrikes. Matthieu Aikins and Sebastiano Tomada spent a harrowing week with them, and their story and photographs on Medium are beautiful and haunting.

Why are there so many smart, wealthy ”anti-vaxxers”? In the New Republic, Gary Baum examines the confluence of superstition, politics, and pop culture that’s driving vaccination levels in affluent west Los Angeles below the minimum needed to ensure ”herd immunity” and prevent widespread contagion. Also worth reading: Adam Kucharski in Aeon on the mathematics behind herd immunity.

Domestic violence is not a new problem in the NFL. The scandal currently engulfing America’s most lucrative sports league is the culmination of a long history of turning the other cheek, as Louisa Thomas documents in Grantland.

Chess’s new prodigy. A year ago Magnus Carlsen was the game’s golden boy. But earlier this month 22-year-old Fabiano Caruana turned in the best tournament score of all time. Seth Stevenson in Slate nicely contextualizes the stunning magnitude of his achievement, little-noticed outside the world of chess.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Jack Ma anecdotes, and chess strategies to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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