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Quartz Weekend Brief—Market madness, Ethiopian land grabs, Mumbai’s wealthy, ocean soundscapes

By Quartz Staff

What triggered this week’s crazy sell-off in the stock markets and rush to safety in currencies and bonds? Was it American Ebola scares? The ongoing madness in the Middle East? The slide in oil prices? You can wind yourself into knots trying trying to follow the feedback loops.

But from a suitable distance, the picture seems pretty clear. The global economy is in the midst of a major gear shift. The US Federal Reserve, whose extraordinary monetary measures have been a steadying force for global markets ever since 2008, seems set on winding down its efforts. China, long presumed a source of endlessly fast growth and demand for commodities, seems set on slowing (paywall). Europe, long a cornerstone of steady—if unspectacular growth—seems determined to turn itself into Japan, thanks in large part to what can only be called monetary malpractice on the part of the European Central Bank.

All this has contributed to a strong dollar, which, alongside the surge in US oil production, has pushed oil prices to near their lowest levels in years, creating uncertainty for everyone from petrostates that depend on oil revenues to US states and companies invested in energy. (Part of the week’s sell-off has been in US junk bonds, where a lot of energy companies have raised money in recent years.) And markets seem doubtful that even a peppy US economy will ultimately be able to escape all of the effects of the global growth downdraft.

Sooner or later, then, we were bound to see jittery investors jump away from risk and into the dollar and safe government bonds. Now it’s just a question of waiting and seeing what they do next.—Matt Phillips

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

How whiskey defeated vodka in America. The brown stuff has become the biggest-selling liquor in the US, but now it’s showing dangerous signs of the exotic-flavor mania that gave us such useless wonders as birthday-cake vodka, as Max Nisen explains.

Behold the awesome power of the spreadsheet. Jason Karaian marks the 35th anniversary of Visicalc, celebrated by nerds everywhere as Spreadsheet Day, with a potted history of the tabular form and its triumphs—and tragic fails.

Europe’s unexpected ride-sharing giant. 10-year-old BlaBlaCar has tripled its membership in some 18 months. Leo Mirani explains the carpooling startup’s acquisition strategy and what it reveals about how people in different countries get around.

Ethiopia’s land grabs. Since 2000, foreign firms, with the Ethiopian government’s cooperation, have bought up an area twice the size of Germany for agriculture, sending the profits out of the country and squeezing out local farmers. Daniel Medina presents the haunting images by Alfredo Bini, an Italian photojournalist, that document the locals’ plight.

Catching up with Balloon Boy. Sonali Kohli talked to the Heene family, perpetrators of the notorious 2009 hoax… well, was it a hoax? They still don’t seem entirely clear themselves. But the Heene boys are now in a goth band and building rental houses. It’s all a bit surreal.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Don’t believe in the promise of fusion power. Slate updated and republished this 2013 essay by Charles Seife, suggesting that this week’s news that a portable fusion reactor is near at hand is no more than a spectacular PR stunt and cheap power remains as dim a goal as ever.

The Iraqi chemical weapons cover-up. Saddam Hussein didn’t have an active chemical weapons program—but he did have lots of leftover weapons, many Western-made, old, and corroding, and when US troops began encountering them, they were told to keep quiet. C.J. Chivers unearths the sordid facts in a remarkable investigation for the New York Times.

What militant atheists don’t understand about Islam. In the wake of a much-noticed TV brawl about Islamic fundamentalism, Jesse Singal interviews American religion scholar Reza Aslan for New York magazine. His key quote: “People don’t derive their values from their religion—they bring their values to their religion.”

A portrait of the wealthy of Mumbai. India’s business capital was always where extreme wealth and extreme poverty coexisted, but in the past few years the ultra-rich seem to have lost what shreds of humility they had retained, writes Madhavankutty Pillai in Open.

The sounds of the ocean. From the “miniature supernovae” of noise the pistol shrimp makes to stun its prey, to the “metallic howl, like a phaser blast from God” that a lightning strike generates, Peter Brannen in Aeon takes us on a tour of the surprising sub-aquatic soundscape that human-made noise is gradually drowning out.

And a reminder from our events team: As a Daily Brief subscriber, you can get a 50% discount on our Next Billion conference in New York on Nov. 5, with speakers on everything from smart devices how the internet has shaped global youth culture. Learn more here, and register using the code QZBRIEF.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, fusion reactor designs, and undersea recordings to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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