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These were the most popular stories on FT.com this year. Russia, China, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the Scottish independence referendum, robots, killer satellites and the debunking of ‘big data’ were the stories that caught our imagination.
By Tim Harford, March 28, 2014
Everyone was talking about “big data” but for most people it was opaque — lucrative or unnerving, it was a box of mysterious tricks that ordinary people couldn’t hope to understand. I wanted to explain what big data can and cannot do using some simple stories. — Tim Harford
By Mark Odell in London and Roman Olearchyk, July 21, 2014
“Four days had passed since the plane was downed and there was no sign of a proper investigation at the main crash site in the village of Grabovo. Gun-toting Russian-backed militant separatists were restricting access for journalists and monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — establishing their authority over region. With a local taxi driver, I began to explore other parts of the crash site spread over some 10 square kilometres. A local villager on a bicycle guided us to the village of Petropavlovka, claiming there was crucial evidence there.
Having served in the Soviet military, he claimed the fuselage piece had clear-cut evidence of a Buk rocket impact. Upon arrival minutes later, we were shocked to find what was obviously a crucial piece of evidence lying on the side of the village’s main road. It was leaned up against an electricity pole, unguarded.
As we photographed it, other villagers emerged out of curiosity. We were told that repeated phone calls were made in past days to officials, but nobody had showed up in what was now a war zone to pick it up. As locals claimed separatists were not interested in a proper investigation suggesting they were to blame for the plane’s downing. A mini van packed with armed militants drove by, opened their door to have a look at us and drove away. Locals feared they would be persecuted, perhaps killed, for revealing the crucial evidence. My heart goes out to the victims of MH17 and their families. I also fear for the lives of the local villagers who risked their lives to help shed light on the tragedy.” — Roman Olearchyk
By Patrick Jenkins and Daniel Schäfer in London and Courtney Weaver and Jack Farchy in Moscow, March 14, 2014
Russian companies are pulling billions out of western banks, fearful that any US sanctions over the Crimean crisis could lead to an asset freeze, according to bankers in Moscow.
By Chris Giles, May 23, 2014
“There is no doubt that this story and the related blogs are the most controversial articles I have written for the Financial Times. It stirred much more commentary than I expected, partly because Thomas Piketty’s book was a best-seller and the topic of fevered debate, and partly because the errors the FT found were so simple and easy to understand. The motivation for the research was a discrepancy between published official UK figures for the concentration of wealth among the richest households and those in Prof Piketty’s book, which could not be replicated satisfactorily. The FT’s article looked only at Prof Piketty’s conclusions on the past trends in wealth inequality, not income nor his predictions that wealth inequality was on a path back to 19th century levels.” — Chris Giles
By Chris Giles, April 30, 2014
“This article arose from a most unpromising publication outlining the conclusions of the latest international efforts at comparing prices in different countries. Buried towards the end of the document was a table which showed that relative to the last time the size of the Chinese economy had been estimated in 2005, it had grown from 43 per cent of the US level to 87 per cent by 2011. This massive revision came about because statistical agencies found that money went further than they thought in China so the volume of goods and services produced was higher than previously thought. From that it was a simple extrapolation using published growth rates to work out that China was poised to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in 2014, a prediction subsequently confirmed by the International Monetary Fund in October.
Many people in authority in both China and the US hate this result, since for the US it shows the nation waning as an international power, and for China it requires more responsibility to come with its greater economic heft. The Chinese government has disowned the figures as a result, which appears to be why the International Comparisons Programme buried the only piece of big news in their report on page 81 out of a total of 91.” — Chris Giles
By Geoff Dyer, February 20, 2014
The new era of military competition in the Pacific will become the defining geopolitical contest of the 21st century. A four-decade old unwritten understanding between Beijing and Washington is crumbling and China wishes to recast the military and political dynamic in the region to reflect its own traditional centrality.
Sam Jones, November 17, 2014
It is a tale that could have come from the cold war. A mysterious object launched by the Russian military is being tracked by western space agencies, stoking fears over the revival of a defunct Kremlin project to destroy satellites.
Simeon Kerr in Dubai, October 14, 2014
“I had been preparing a news analysis on the impact of the oil price slide on the Gulf states’ ability to keep spending next year. The precipitous drop has been preying on officials’ minds, but many were taking a nuanced position, arguing that the Gulf states would not be overly impacted. That position still has some merit — most Gulf states have vast reserves and could borrow to keep funding major projects. Prince Alwaleed’s intervention to the debate — he tweeted his letter to Saudi ministers outlining his concerns — gave the article an ideal starting point. Hugely recognisable and outspoken, the billionaire investor’s fears about the impact resonate among many who fear that the knock-on effect of lower oil prices on business sentiment is shaping up to be a defining theme next year.” — Simeon Kerr
By Edward Luce October 12, 2014
“I wrote this a few weeks before the US midterm elections by which time it was clear President Obama was unwelcome in almost all the battleground states — Democratic candidates did not want to appear on the same podium as him. The big exception was African-American voters with whom Mr Obama actually increased his exposure during the campaign — uniquely so. At the same time, I was aware that black Americans have done worse under Mr Obama than any other group. This column was my attempt to reconcile these two facts. It generated a lot of attention, some of it positive, some vituperative. I received several hundred angry emails from angry Tea Party types and scores of more complimentary messages from African-Americans.” — Edward Luce
By George Parker and Mure Dickie in Edinburgh and Alistair Gray in Glasgow, Last updated: September 19, 2014
Speaking in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond, who has devoted his three decades in politics to the cause of secession, said: “I believe that in this new exciting situation, redolent with possibility, party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership.” He said that despite his decision, his “dream will never die”.
By Chris Bryant in Frankfurt June 5, 2014
“Together with my colleague Tanya Powley we took an in-depth look this year at how robots are transforming the workplace. The rise of the robots has been predicted for decades but at last real breakthroughs are starting to happen. Robots no longer need to work behind a safety cage and entrepreneurs are finding huge potential for their use in service industries. Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether robots will one day steal our jobs. I’m sure that’s one reason for the popularity of this story. Some readers were also likely drawn in by the great headline. Rest assured, a marauding army of robots hasn’t escaped from a factory. At least, they haven’t yet . . .” — Chris Bryant
Richard Waters, October 31, 2014
Wouldn’t the world be a happier place if 90 per cent of the people with jobs put their feet up instead and left the robots to do the work? Why didn’t the last house you bought cost only 5 per cent of what you paid for it? And is there any reason why you or your children shouldn’t one day enjoy limitless cheap power from nuclear fusion and a greatly extended lifespan?
These are the sort of questions that occupy Larry Page.