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Quartz Weekend Brief—The meaning of Ashley Madison, the Tianjin explosion, and the value of graduate school

So far, the shockwaves from the Ashley Madison hack have been muted. Though the details of more than 30 million users of the website for extramarital affairs have had their data dumped online, celebrity adulterers have not been outed en masse, and it’s too soon to know if it will endanger millions of marriages or thousands of military jobs. It’s possible, as one commentator argued, that “millions of lives may be about to change profoundly.” But what if they don’t?

Given the staggering number of huge and very public data hacks to date, it seems implausible that one more—even as devastating as this one—will halt or even slow the accelerating digitization of our lives. More couples may now decide (or be forced) to discuss a non-monogamous relationship; but that would just speed up a shift in social mores that’s already happening.

Perhaps what the hack does most of all is reinforce the argument that laws and systems that sharply distinguish “public” from “private” are out of date. In a world where anything can become public, some say, we’re replacing the technical lack of privacy with an implicit social contract. It says, in essence, that just because something about you is knowable doesn’t mean it’s fair game. New social rules govern how public knowledge should be used and interpreted.

In this framework, “private” no longer means “secret,” but “personal.” If someone’s use of Ashley Madison becomes public, it’s still nobody’s business but theirs and their partner’s. And perhaps some partners will prefer not to know. With smartphones ubiquitous, you can probably already read your spouse’s email or text messages with little effort—and you probably choose not to. You might equally choose not to check the Ashley Madison data dump. A relationship relies on good faith. That means trusting your partner not only not to cheat, but not to pry.—Gideon Lichfield

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The Tianjin explosion exposed the rot at China’s core. The gigantic blast in a chemicals warehouse showed that two years after president Xi Jinping began his anti-corruption drive, “in some places business in China is still being done exactly the same way it was before he took office.” Heather Timmons and Zheping Huang dissect the connections that allowed the warehouse owners to skirt the safety regulations.

The world’s new literary cult hero. Brazil’s Clarice Lispector died in 1977, but a new English translation is the first single collection of all her short stories in any language. And it’s setting the literary world on fire. Thu-Huong Hua profiles the woman who “looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf”, yet whose air of glamor concealed a desperate unease.

Just how much is graduate school worth? Shelly Banjo and Keith Collins present some recent data on what different graduate degrees add to people’s lifetime earnings. The takeaway: They make you better off, unless you study humanities or arts after a bachelors in a quantitative discipline like science or finance. Then you might actually see your earnings fall.

Can biomass replace coal? Cassie Werber takes a tour around Britain’s Drax power station—the site of a grand experiment in converting coal-fired power plants to burn wood pellets, which supposedly emit less carbon. If it works, it will set a precedent for “decarbonization” in other countries. But figuring out the real carbon impact of biomass is proving exceptionally tricky.

The problem of Writing While Transgender. Vanity Fair has been pushing itself as a media pioneer, following up its coverage of the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner with a “Trans America” special issue. Just one problem: Not one of the writers was trans. Thomas McBee takes American media to task for telling trans people’s stories while ignoring their voices.

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This week Actuality, our joint podcast with Marketplace, considers Donald Trump’s plans for immigration reform and finds them wanting. And, do US farms need more immigrant labor—or just to pay higher wages? Plus, the neuroscience of long-distance Turkish whistling.

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Are American lawyers getting more stupid? Scores and pass rates on the US bar exam plummeted last year. This year may be worse. At Bloomberg Businessweek, Natalie Kitroeff documents a growing battle between struggling schools, who say the test is too tough, and the test’s makers, who blame plummeting admissions standards used to fill increasingly unappealing seats.

AT&T, handmaiden of spies. Working off documents leaked by ex-National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden is still being analyzed, ProPublica and the New York Times show that AT&T, among all the US telcos, was exceptionally cooperative in handing over internet data en masse to the NSA. A reminder that Snowden’s vast trove is still far from exhausted.

How to teach real-estate lore to computers. Airbnb developed an algorithm to help its users figure out what to charge to rent out their homes. Dan Hill, Airbnb’s product lead, gives a revealing look on IEEE Spectrum at the process the company went through, complete with trials and errors, to figure out which of countless criteria should determine what a rental is worth.

Did Google decide India’s election? Psychologist Dan Epstein describes in Politico magazine a series of experiments, including one on Indian voters in the 2014 general election, which found that voting preferences were swayed—often hugely—by how search engines ranked results for each candidate. He argues that Google has the power, either deliberate or due to unwitting algorithm bias, to set the outcome of any election in the world.

The scientific method for love. Eve Fairbanks profiles John Gottman and Julie Schwartz, the couple who have devised what claims to be the nearest thing to a scientific formula for making marriage work. And she tries the method for herself. And comes away cautiously impressed.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, bar exam test scores, and formulae for the perfect marriage to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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