Good morning, Quartz readers!
In case you haven’t noticed, cryptocurrencies are all the rage.
Bitcoin’s wild ride this week—trading between $10,000 and $17,000, with plenty of volatility in between—left some major exchanges struggling to cope. Over in the world of ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency, a robust trade in digital cats known as CryptoKitties accounted for more than 10% of all transactions at one point. Some of the blockchain-based felines have been sold for more than $100,000 in recent days.
Meanwhile, Venezuela said it will launch a cryptocurrency backed by oil and diamonds, the Australian stock exchange announced it will rip out its plumbing and replace it with a blockchain-based alternative, and a major derivatives exchange in Chicago prepared to launch the first bitcoin futures contracts this weekend, potentially ushering in a wave of institutional money.
Indeed, it has been a big week for cryptocurrencies and the technical idea they popularized: the distributed ledger known as the blockchain.
In 2014 the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argued that bitcoin most closely resembles the early commercial internet. It was a clunky plaything for geeks and computer scientists, and generally laughed at by the corporate bigwigs of the day. Then the first dot-com boom begat a stock market bubble and, eventually, spectacular flameouts like Pets.com and the frenzied Beanie Baby market enabled by eBay.
So far, so bitcoin.
But out of the dot-com rubble emerged the companies that would alter the way we live a short while later. An online bookseller became the world’s largest retailer. A has-been from the PC era introduced an “internet communicator” that transformed it into the world’s most valuable company. And the stage was set for the search engine and social network that would grow so powerful that the fates of nations now hinges on their secret algorithms.
If Andreesen is right, we could well be in the throes of something like dot-com mania again. Just substitute Beanie Babies for ethereum kittens, WebVan stock for the bitcoin price, and online brokerage accounts for the Coinbase app. It could end in tears, for both speculators and true believers alike. But it could also mean that in five, 10, or 20 years, we’re living in the world first described in an anonymous PDF document and published to a cryptographers’ mailing list nine years ago.—Joon Ian Wong
Ever heard of “clean coal?”
Sounds like an oxymoron, but it might not be. Science reporter Akshat Rathi spent a year investigating carbon capture, a controversial technology that allows for burning fossil fuel without releasing pollutants. In his series The Race to Zero Emissions, Rathi lays out the case for why we can’t beat climate change without this technology. In Houston, he finds the world’s first zero-emissions fossil-fuel plant. In New Jersey, he reveals the work of a startup reinventing the cement industry, which pollutes more than all airplanes combined. And in Connecticut, he meets a teenager whose invention could make carbon capture cheap, which could lead to a seismic shift in the debate around climate change.
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Gloria Steinem says we need raise girls to be more like cats. The feminist icon tells Leah Fessler that we’re missing some essential realities when we talk about sexual harassment and misogyny. To name a few: Black women began the fight against sexual abuse. Intersectionality is more important now than ever. And in raising girls to be passive, we push them to internalize the idea that women ought to endure—not protest—sexual violations.
Quiz: Are you ready for an office holiday party? Following recent high-profile allegations of workplace sexual harassment, many companies this year are scaling back or canceling their office holiday parties. For those forging ahead with festivities, Corinne Purtill and Sarah Slobin offer a handy self-assessment quiz to help navigate the etiquette of post-Weinstein era parties: how should you greet a colleague? Which parts of your coworker are okay to grab? And is a sex toy an appropriate Secret Santa gift?
The global dominance of white people is thanks to the potato. Mussolini once claimed that blood moves the wheels of history. But according to reporter Gwynn Guilford, history’s real driving force is the humble potato. Her exploration into the potato’s role in Europe’s world domination from 1750-1950 digs up a ton of tater-based trivia, from the fact that Incas once had a “potato-based system of coercion” to the European upper class’s fondness for using spuds as aphrodisiacs.
Implicit bias training doesn’t work. The psychological test that claims to measure implicit bias is riddled with scientific flaws. Olivia Goldhill reveals how the trainings are a well-meaning distraction in efforts to reduce discrimination, while the narrative around implicit bias has created an excuse for all-too-conscious widespread prejudice.
“It’s ok to be white.” On Twitter and other corners of the internet, members of the alt-right are embracing this campaign catchphrase. The goal, Nikhil Sonnad explains, is to provoke progressives into contradicting the assertion. His linguistic analysis reveals how white nationalists seek to score points with rhetoric that ignores context—and the realities of what it means to live as a person of color in the US.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
South Africa’s democratic-dream-turned nightmare. “Zuptas.” “State capture.” Phrases familiar to South Africans to describe the country’s endemic corruption are the focus of the Economist and Financial Times (paywalled) this week. For the FT, David Pilling and Joseph Cotterill trace how one immigrant family, the Guptas, came to have so much control over South Africa’s future, in a scandal that has shattered the country and engulfed some of the world’s biggest businesses.
God’s plan for Mike Pence. In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins’ profile of the US Vice President warns: “What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him.” It’s a chilling tale, especially for those who recall George W. Bush’s reason for launching the war that devastated Iraq and helped create ISIS.
These scam debt collectors messed with the wrong guy. Andrew Therrien got so mad when a man threatened him over a non-existent loan that he methodically unraveled a massive conspiracy. Zeke Faux in Bloomberg Businessweek tells the tale of “phantom debt,” a shadowy underbelly to the financial industry in which “millions of Americans are hassled to pay back money they don’t owe.”
AI helps a writer create a story. For Wired, author Stephen Marche wrote a piece of science fiction—but not alone. Using an algorithm preloaded with 50 sci-fi works he treasures, a computer guided him through crafting a narrative that would hew most closely to that corpus of data. He followed its 14 rules, discovering some things about his writing in the process. Was it good? Two professional editors lent the magazine their critiques.
Is TripAdvisor selling a false reality? In Vice, Oobah Butler recounts how he turned his shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor in just six months. Then he opened it for business. It’s a cynical tale of how easily people are deceived on the internet, or a cheery reminder that anything is possible. Maybe both.
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