Quartz Daily Brief—Americas Edition—Walmart protests, EU plans, Man Group “write-off”, cheese

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Good morning, Quartz readers!

What to watch for today

US states will make Obamacare a headache to implement. Today is the deadline for states to say whether they’ll set up their own healthcare exchanges, the online marketplaces through which people without health insurance will be obliged to buy it under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It looks like at most 18 states will opt to run their own exchanges, leaving the federal government the task of setting up the rest.

Walmart workers protest in 10 countries. They will try to increase public pressure on the retail chain after rallies against its aggressive anti-unionization practices in the US, and the deadly fire in a Bangladesh factory that Walmart admitted it didn’t know was supplying it with clothes.

You can buy a Casablanca piano at auction. Not, unfortunately, the one Sam played at Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, but the other one, which makes a brief appearance in the movie at a Parisian café called La Belle Aurore. Even so, Sotheby’s expects the battered and rather tuneless relic—the real sound of which was never actually heard in the film—to fetch from $800,000 to $1.2 million today at an auction in New York.

While you were sleeping

Has hedge fund giant Man Group lost money by investing in the wrong hedge fund? The Financial Times reports (paywall) that Man, the world’s second largest hedge fund manager by assets, is “weighing up significant accounting write-offs” on its acquisition of hedge fund GLG Partners. That will be embarrassing for a company whose job is to manage pension funds’ and wealthy individuals’ assets.

North Korea said it would put a rocket under its economy with… rockets. More “space satellites,” which is what Pyongyang calls the long-range missiles such as the one it launched successfully on Dec. 12, could really give the economy that much needed boost, Kim Jong Un has said. The pint-sized dictator’s use of ballistic-missile technology was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council, while the US government called the rocket launch “a highly provocative act” that jeopardizes regional security.

EU promised more action to tackle crisis but made few plans. EU leaders, who started day two of a summit in Brussels today, have made a range of verbal commitments to tackle the EU debt crisis. Yesterday they clinched deals on common banking supervision for the euro zone and Greece’s bailout. But details of how to wind up failing banks and protect depositors will have to be thrashed out next year, and no concrete decisions on making countries stick to economic targets or a fund to help other ailing states have yet been made.

Indian inflation eased unexpectedly. Inflation is really hurting India’s economy. But it came in below expectations in November, at 7.24%. If this trend continues, that could spur the central bank to ease rates, which would free up some bank lending and help businesses to grow. For now, price gains are still too high for the Reserve Bank of India’s comfort.

Japanese manufacturers were very gloomy… With a snap election just two days away, the Bank of Japan’s Tankan survey was released today. It showed the most pessimistic mood among large manufacturers since March 2010, in its fifth straight negative reading. Earlier this week GDP data confirmed Japan to be in its fifth technical recession in 15 years. Prior to 2008, the Tankan survey had showed optimism at a 16-year high.

…While Chinese manufacturers perked up. A closely followed survey of manufacturing conditions by HSBC showed business expanding at a slightly faster pace so far in December than analysts expected. This is only the preliminary reading of HSBC’s PMI survey. And it would only be the second month the index has shown expansion following 13 months of contraction. But Chinese stocks leapt on the news. Still, worries remain over how long China can continue its credit fuelled stimulus without turning into 1990s Japan.

Will Moscow help oust Syria’s Assad? Russia is now pessimistic over president Bashar al-Assad’s future, and the US and Syrian rebels are seizing on this in an attempt to enlist Moscow to help them remove Syria’s deeply unpopular leader. Russia has supplied the Assad dynasty with arms since Soviet time. But Moscow seems to be admitting the Syrian dictator’s time is up.

Quartz obsession interlude

Christopher Mims on the five most disruptive technologies of the year. “The most disruptive technologies in 2012 include energy storage technology no one thought would ever work, gesture-based interfaces that will make touch screens look as quaint as floppy disks, and computers and connectivity so cheap they’re adding billions more people to the internet.” Read more here.

Matters of debate

HSBC’s drug money settlement is an “insult to every ordinary person who’s ever had his life altered by a narcotics charge.” Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, the journalist who called Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid,” strikes again. Slightly more soberly, Quartz’s Tim Fernholz analyzes how the size of the fine was calculated and why it wasn’t bigger.

India’s prized public-private partnerships are not as successful as they appear

Japan’s likely new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is “the worst” for government bonds. And the country’s economy will carry on doing a “zombie shuffle“ unless the new leader turns business on its head. 

Are we living in a time of accelerating technological advance? Or is it a time of depressing scientific stagnation?

Chinese authorities are sensitive about public discussion of internal migrants. In Shanghai, Zhan Quanxi has been detained because his 15-year-old daughter Haiti griped on her Sina microblog account about their treatment since leaving Zhuhai, where she grew up.

Surprising discoveries

RBS’ Libor riggers cooked up their trading strategies in a pub called “Dirty Dicks”.  That is a 267-year-old public house in the City of London. Here is more on how they rigged the rate and why it happened.

If you are crossing a street while texting, you are 3.9 times more likely to do something unsafe. You also will get where you are going slower than your rival paying full attention to the crosswalk.

The US tax return form no. 1040 has grown from 27 lines of information to 77 since 1913. And the instruction booklet has swollen from two pages to 189. Quartz tracks the tax form’s evolution over the years.

In ten years, English spoken by non-native speakers will dominate the internetSo searches for words such as “stadium”, (which means “bald man with a fringe” in Indian English), or “Ali Baba” (to steal in Singaporean slang) could bring unexpected results.

In four years, 4179 Toutatis will swoop again in the direction of the Earth. On Dec. 12, the three-mile wide asteroid shot past safely. A question is whether to try to divert it—or any other possibly dangerous asteroid—from striking the planet, an effort that would require up to five years of preparation.

Cheese is good for snowy roadsIn fantastic example of out-of-the-box thinking, a cheese plant in Wisconsin has partnered with the highway department to make a brine that it says stops snowy roads getting too slippery. One can only wonder how that particular conversation got started. Researchers have also discovered that the first cheese was made over 7,000 years agowhich makes you wonder why the conversation didn’t happen sooner.

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