ARTICLES ON President Donald Trump and Brexit do not take what might have been their expected positions at the top of this list. With fears about the demise of the liberal order spreading ever further around the world in 2018, our leader on the rise of the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil was the most-read piece on our website. Items on Malaysia and politics in China also proved popular.
Technology was high on the agenda, with the rise and fall of bitcoin and Silicon Valley’s hiccups featuring prominently. And perhaps reflecting a more escapist mood, or the popularity of the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” or even just a fantastic accompanying image, a story on humans with amphibious traits garnered a lot of attention. The full list appears below. Click on the titles or the images to read the articles in full.
1. Jair Bolsonaro, Latin America’s latest menace
The most-read piece this year was our leader warning Brazilians not to vote for Jair Bolsonaro in October. We argued that Mr Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman with illiberal social views and a worrying admiration for dictatorship, would make a disastrous president. Voters fed up with the rampant corruption of the formerly ruling left-wing Workers’ Party chose him all the same.
In this leader we predicted that Najib Razak, the then prime minister of Malaysia, would steal a government election. Mr Najib stood accused of siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars through an elaborate series of fraudulent transactions. Happily, our prediction proved ill-founded and Mr Najib lost, against all odds, to a coalition of opposition parties.
The Bajau, a people of the Malay Archipelago, spend 60% of their working day underwater. A study from earlier this year found that they had evolved traits to help them dive better. A mutation in their genome regulates the activity of a gene known to be involved in controlling blood flow, such that blood can be sent preferentially to oxygen-hungry vital organs. Another mutation is in a gene responsible for the production of an enzyme that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, a phenomenon that is associated with extreme diving.
4. How the West got China wrong
In February Xi Jinping, China’s president, announced that he would change the country’s constitution so that he could rule as president for as long as he chooses. That put an end to the long-held Western hope that economic liberalisation would gradually transform China into a democracy. To counter China’s misuse of political and economic power, we called for Western powers to scrutinise their links with the Chinese state and investments by Chinese companies of any kind. We also called for America to invest in new weapons systems and, most of all, ensure that it draws closer to its allies.
5. The next recession
The next recession will not be as damaging as that of 2008. But the rich world, in particular, is ill-prepared to deal with it. When the time comes, central banks will be less able to lower interest rates, since they are already very low. They could turn to quantitative easing, but that could be much more politically contentious. And national and global co-operation, which is needed to agree on spending policies, is under strain.
In 2013 David Graeber, a professor at the London School of Economics, achieved viral fame after he published a short essay on the prevalence of work that had no social or economic reason to exist. He referred to these tasks as “bullshit jobs”. We interviewed Mr Graeber as part of our Open Future Initiative. “People want to feel they are transforming the world around them in a way that makes some kind of positive difference,” he says.
7. The rise and fall of bitcoin
Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity can be described as “what goes up, must come down.” The same can be said of bitcoin. In December of 2017, the price of bitcoin peaked at over $19,000. Only a month later, it was below $10,000. Bitcoin’s rise and fall is reminiscent of a bubble, having gone through a boom, euphoria and financial distress.
8. Is Netflix the new straight-to-video?
In this Prospero blog-post, we argued that Netflix was establishing itself as a dumping ground for science-fiction films that were too bad to merit a theatrical release. The harsh assessment came after three very poorly received science-fiction films aired on the streaming platform, namely “The Cloverfield Paradox”, “Mute” and “Annihilation”.
This chart looked at how Python, a programming language, had overtaken almost all of its rivals and made coding popular. The language’s two main advantages are its simplicity and flexibility. Its straightforward syntax and use of indented spaces make it easy to learn, read and share. The CIA has used it for hacking, Google for crawling webpages, Pixar for producing movies and Spotify for recommending songs.
10. Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley is home to three of the world’s five most valuable companies. Its combination of engineering expertise, thriving business networks, deep pools of capital, strong universities and a risk-taking culture have made it impossible to clone, despite many attempts to do so. But in 2017 more Americans left the county of San Francisco, the Valley’s heartland, than arrived. The main reason for the exodus is that the cost of living has become too high.