Because of New Year’s Day, this weekend edition replaces the usual daily brief. Normal service will resume on Monday.
If one object will epitomize 2015 in years to come, it will be the hoverboard. Not just because Back to the Future promised us hoverboards by 2015, but because the explosive rise and equally rapid collapse of the actual “hoverboards” we got are emblematic of how today’s global economy functions.
When the boards—really two-wheeled balancing scooters—hit the shelves, endorsements from global celebrities like Justin Bieber spurred demand around the world. Manufacturers and exporters in Shenzhen, where the most of the world’s consumer electronics are made, caught on to the trend and cranked them out in droves. More than 400,000 boards (link in Chinese) shipped out from Shenzhen in October alone. Sellers proliferated, and a dispute flared up over who owned the intellectual property.
But in the rush to meet demand, many boards ended up with batteries that had a tendency to spontaneously self-combust. One caused a family’s house to burn down. Tracking down the faulty batteries to a single supplier was impossible, given the product’s fragmented, fly-by-night supply chain.
Instead, Amazon ultimately scrubbed hoverboards completely from its UK site and restricted them severely in the US—not only to keep consumers safe, but also to dodge lawsuits surrounding the product’s murky IP. With that, the retail giant single-handedly caused the industry to unravel, to the great anger of laid-off hoverboard workers, Chinese distributors who said Amazon still owed them money, and foreign importers besieged by demands for refunds.
This is the modern economy in a nutshell—viral trends, massive manufacturing hubs, IP disputes, weak regulation, immensely powerful businesses, and global ripple effects. That, rather than its distinctly underwhelming technology, is what made the hoverboard a device of the future—and perhaps just as quickly, and to most people’s relief, a thing of the past.—Josh Horwitz
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Unmasking the face of the billion-year-old Earth. The continents we know today were once part of the supercontinent Pangaea; before Pangaea, there were others. Steve LeVine writes on the scientific detective work that has created the first accurate picture of how the planet looked in its youth, and the political repercussions of ancient geology.
A statistical analysis of American wall-punching. US consumer safety regulators recorded more than 1,200 annual injuries from fist-on-wall violence. Keith Collins takes a swim in data that shows wall punching is largely a teenage phenomenon—but with a noticeable bump from 50-year-olds.
The future of Western Islam. How can the religion save itself from being radicalized from within and demonized from without? In the form of a letter to a young Muslim, Haroon Moghul pens a prescription for building a modern global Islamic community that preserves unity without requiring unanimity.
The year America woke up to racism. Thanks to the internet, writes Marcie Blanco, 2015 was the year it became impossible for white America to ignore systematic violence against black people by police and other institutons. But, she argues, there will be a backlash before there is an improvement.
The Casties: Quartz’s favorite podcasts of the year. In recognition of this year’s explosive growth in podcasting, and the extraordinary range of high-quality podcasts now online, we’ve chosen our favorites in politics, science, music, and more. Also, as a bonus: The best personal essays we published on Quartz.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Big Oil should kill itself. Despite collapsing oil prices, oil majors are still pouring scads of money into exploring new fields. They should instead divert their profits into green energy research, argues Anatole Kaletsky for Project Syndicate, or they’ll be left high and dry when the cleantech revolution finally comes.
An Astro-turf campaign in California’s long-running water wars. A Latino farmworkers group lobbying for water resources is actually being bankrolled by a handful of wealthy white farmers. The New York Times reports from California’s Central Valley, where a multi-year drought is raising the stakes as deep-pocketed agriculture interests vie for political influence.
Warren Buffett’s mobile home business is not so wholesome. Berkshire Hathaway’s Clayton Homes dominates the US mobile-home industry, from manufacturing to sales to finance. A joint investigation by Buzzfeed and the Seattle Times found that it systematically targets minority customers, luring them into costly subprime loans that are doomed to fail.
The band of ex-strippers who preyed on Wall Street millionaires. New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler delivers a story that is both meticulously reported and as tabloidy as it gets, about a gang of women who took rich men to strip clubs, secretly drugged them, and then maxed out their credit cards. “It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people,” one of the ringleaders said. “But it was, like, normal.”
How a Sinatra classic is connected to a New York City cigar heist. New York Times columnist Michael Wilson delves into the tale of Armenian jazz musician Avo Uvezian, who wrote the music for “Strangers in the Night” but received little credit, and how his unlikely second act led to the theft of several boxes of high-priced Avo XO cigars.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, wall-punching, and strip club gangs to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.