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Are you being paid enough to live on? This new tool will tell you

Diane Davis

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Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.


In the spring of 2018, in her role as coordinator of the Global Living Wage Coalition, Michelle Murray found herself in Belize, thousands of miles from her home in New York, urging a banana grower to raise his workers’ pay.

As Murray would later recall the conversation, the farmer was receptive as to what he needed to do—but also perceptive about what she needed to do.

“I get it,” the grower told Murray. “I get why I should pay my workers a living wage. My question to you is, When my bananas are sold at the grocery store that’s down the street from you, are those workers making a living wage?”

The answer was obvious; the average pay for a grocery clerk in New York is $12 an hour. When Murray replied that they surely weren’t, the grower bore right in: “Well, why aren’t you doing anything in your own backyard?”

That stinging question provoked a little shame (“I felt hypocritical,” Murray says) and a lot of thinking and planning over the next three and a half years—the results of which are being unveiled on November 15 by Murray’s new organization, Living Wage for US.

The nonprofit has put together a program, dubbed “For US,” which is designed to help businesses across the country determine if they are providing a real living wage, figure out how to remedy the situation if they’re not, and certify those who are. (Spoiler alert: With very few exceptions, $15 an hour doesn’t cut it, regardless of where you live.)

Even employers who want to do the right thing and pay their workers adequately, Murray notes, often don’t know where to turn. “What they’re struggling with is too little information,” she says. “They want clear guidance.”

Aaron Seyedian is one of them. His Washington, D.C., house-cleaning company, which he founded in 2017, has always prided itself on treating its workers well, just as its name implies: Well-Paid Maids.

“The whole idea is to have a service that folks can feel good about using,” Seyedian says. Although the company charges more than many of its competitors—$199 to tackle a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment—Seyedian says consumers are willing to shell out a little more when they understand that by doing so, it allows his staff of 20 to be financially secure.

What’s more, by offering strong wages (along with medical, dental, and vision plans, paid time off, and a mileage reimbursement for driving to work), Seyedian says he has been able to attract productive employees while losing relatively few to turnover, and that translates into excellent service for his customers. “A virtuous cycle definitely exists,” he says.

Nonetheless, even Well-Paid Maids wasn’t paying a living wage as gauged by Murray and her team. As they perfected their model, they dug into Seyedian’s company, as well as several others that took part in an employer advisory panel. Their analysis prompted Well-Paid Maids to lift its starting wage from $17 an hour to $20.

“It’s really valuable to have a third party kick the tires on what you’re doing,” Seyedian says.

For US is being launched at a time when employees across the nation, especially those who are low paid, have seen their wages climbing as businesses try to regain their footing after the worst of the pandemic. But the cost of living has also soared, negating the bump in pay for many workers.

Labor market experts also caution that the basic structure of the economy, which led to decades of wage stagnation, hasn’t changed at all: In the interplay between workers and employers, business still has the upper hand. And meaningful actions that the government could take to even out that dynamic for the longer term, such as increasing the minimum wage or making it easier for workers to unionize, remain stalled.
Meanwhile, though, some power has shifted to workers for now, as strikes and resignations surge.

That has made it “the perfect moment for us,” Murray says, with dozens of businesses contacting her even before the November 15 official rollout. “They’re telling us, ‘It’s a difficult environment. We don’t know what to do to fix this. We need clear targets’” around pay to recruit and retain workers.

Not that there aren’t useful tools already out there. The best known is the MIT Living Wage Calculator, created in 2003 by Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography, and Tracey Farrigan, a research economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

[Screenshot: Living Wage Calculator]

Glasmeier says she hears several times a day from companies seeking to use the MIT calculator to set wages for their frontline workers, and she often collaborates confidentially with businesses as they look to move their pay higher. Her framework is also used regularly by policymakers, as well as folks just trying to figure out what it costs to live in a particular area.

Murray, by contrast, has aimed her effort squarely at the business community. “Michelle did an amazing job” as she tailored her approach, Glasmeier says. “Companies seeking certification is an important next step in securing living wages for American families.”

Like the MIT calculator, For US is place-sensitive, basing someone’s cost of living on where they reside among the more than 3,000 counties spanning America. After all, you don’t need to earn nearly as much to make ends meet in Jackson County, Mississippi, as you do in, say, Marin County, California, outside San Francisco.

But because of its focus on employers, For US also has some crucial differences.

For one thing, rather than publish a range of living wages, which vary depending on whether someone is single with no kids or a breadwinner in a household with dependents, For US gives businesses one benchmark to shoot for. This is what it takes to achieve “a decent standard of living” for a home with two children and two adults—one who works full time and the other who works about three-quarters time (a figure derived from rates for labor force participation and part-time employment in the United States).

Locking in on this four-person measure wasn’t arbitrary. Consistent with widely accepted methodology used around the world, it is meant to ensure a wage floor that can support the typical working family. And by giving businesses a solitary number to adhere to, rather than a handful of options, it can make the system more straightforward to implement.

Another key feature of For US is the way it credits employers for forms of compensation besides wages, including health coverage, a retirement plan, child care, and transportation benefits. All of that goes into evaluating whether a company qualifies to be certified by For US as a “leading” living-wage employer. (Companies can attain a lower-tier certification by paying all of its workers at least $15 to $18 an hour, depending on where it has operations, and then increasing remuneration every year by inflation plus 3% until a family living wage is paid to everyone.)

Olympia Coffee, for example, will come out of the gate certified as a leading living-wage company, thanks not only to its pay—$15 an hour, plus tips, at its cafes in Seattle—but also its health insurance, paid leave policy, and retirement-plan contributions.

After For US put the entire package through its rigorous assessment, Olympia Coffee had exceeded the living-wage threshold of $21.02 for King County, Washington, as well as the required amounts in the two other counties where it does business. The benefits “tipped us over the top,” says Richelle Parker, the company’s human resources manager.

For Olympia Coffee, which has 80 employees at 7 locations, sustaining its For US certification from year to year is a worthy—and decidedly concrete—goal. “We believe that business should exist to do good in the world,” says Oliver Stormshak, the company’s CEO. “But that can sound grandiose. What does that mean? This is a way of holding ourselves accountable.”

For others, gaining certification will entail changes. Consider, for example, The Well Coffeehouse, a roaster and retailer with four stores in Tennessee and one in Indiana. A nonprofit social enterprise, The Well uses its revenues to build clean-water projects in the regions of Central America, Africa, and Asia where it sources its coffee. It has been paying its baristas $8.50 an hour, which usually grows to between $16 and $18 once tips are included. But as it pursues certification with For US, The Well is mulling over how to add a transportation allowance, extend paid time off, and adjust wages for its employees in Indiana, where it costs more to live than in Tennessee.

Applying to For US has “opened my eyes to where we have gaps,” says Mike Lenda, CEO of The Well. “This will help us stretch.”

In all, about a dozen businesses have hit their marks for certification by For US. Another 40 or so, including several large multinational corporations, are somewhere in the pipeline.

After an application is submitted, For US doesn’t audit anybody’s books. Instead, there is an online portal for workers to anonymously flag any problems they see, such as an employer claiming its compensation is more than it actually is. Murray says that when she was advocating for living wages abroad, this grievance mechanism proved to be effective.

“We know that mistakes will be made” on occasion by companies involved with For US, Murray says. “This keeps them honest.”

For Murray, part of the challenge in constructing For US has been to find the right balance between devising a formula that will help people “go beyond a subsistence wage to a true living wage” and not pushing things so far as to alienate businesses.

For example, For US includes, over and above what it costs to buy essentials, an extra 5% for “resilience,” the kind of cash cushion that many low-paid workers never have but is critical to deal with any kind of unexpected expense that may arise.

At the same time, For US doesn’t force employers interested in certification to clear the highest hurdle possible. If their workers can conceivably commute to their jobs from a lower-cost locale, that less expensive place is used to establish the living wage. For instance, New York has one of the highest living wages in the country, largely due to the cost of child care, at $52.88 an hour. But employers in Manhattan can use the living wage for the Bronx, $36.50, because that’s within the “commuting zone.”

“It’s fair,” says Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, whose own family budget calculator helped to inform For US. “There is integrity to the whole process,” adds Gould, who crunched data for Murray and will continue to partner going forward.

Living Wage for US began as an initiative of Oxfam America before spinning out on its own. Oxfam and Uncharted, a social-impact accelerator, have contributed funding to get For Us off the ground. But Murray intends to make her organization financially viable on its own. It charges an application fee for certification—$250 for a business with less than $1 million in revenue, up to $10,000 for a corporation with more than $5 billion in revenue. Annual renewal runs between $300 and $40,000.

If For US catches on, it could represent a significant advance for the living-wage movement in America, which traces its origins to the 19th century and, in its modern incarnation, to a 1994 city ordinance in Baltimore.

Murray anticipates that she’ll be able to certify 600 employers nationwide, with a total of about 175,000 workers, over the next couple of years. Yet even if For US surpasses that scale, it is going to be extremely tough to make a dent in the national labor market, much less affect its overall trajectory. In the end, tens of millions of workers are stuck in low-wage jobs at employers who aren’t likely to go anywhere near For US.

“It’s hard,” says Chris Ellis, a senior director at MASS LBP, a Toronto consultancy that in 2012 spearheaded a campaign called Wagemark, which sought to certify businesses that maintained a “responsible wage ratio” between its highest-paid executives and frontline workers. Even though Wagemark generated quite a bit of media attention, few businesses signed up, and by 2013 it was discontinued. “The hoopla doesn’t relate to the uptake at all,” Ellis says.

Even company-certification programs that are commonly viewed as successful touch just a tiny fraction of businesses. There are, for example, more than 1,350 B Corporations in the United States that “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” But that’s barely a blip in the context of the more than 6 million employers in America. Similarly, there are about 39,000 LEED-certified, “green” commercial buildings around the country—less than 1% of all such structures.

And yet for every business that does get certified by For US, whether its headcount is in the dozens or hundreds or thousands, paying a family a living wage may well be transformational for many of its workers.

“For those individuals, it matters,” says Gould. “That’s not to be discounted.”

And then there’s the signal it sends. Murray hopes that enough companies will use For US that it will show politicians that businesses can in fact pay a living wage and also flourish, thereby making it less fraught to mandate higher minimum wages at the local, state and federal levels. “We want to prove the case,” says Murray.

If For Us can pull that off, the payoff could be huge indeed.


Copyright 2021 Capital & Main


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The Download: Trump’s potential climate impact, and the end of cheap helium

Diane Davis

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This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Trump wants to unravel Biden’s landmark climate law. Here is what’s most at risk.

President Joe Biden’s crowning legislative achievement was enacting the Inflation Reduction Act, easily the nation’s largest investment into addressing the rising dangers of climate change. 

Yet Donald Trump’s advisors and associates have clearly indicated that dismantling the landmark law would sit at the top of the Republican front-runner’s to-do list should he win the presidential election. 

If he succeeds, it could stall the nation’s shift to cleaner industries and stunt efforts to cut the greenhouse-gas pollution warming the planet. The IRA’s tax credits for EVs and clean power projects appear especially vulnerable. But lots of other provisions could also come under attack. Read the full story. 

—James Temple

The era of cheap helium is over—and that’s already causing problems

Helium is excellent at conducting heat. And at temperatures close to absolute zero, at which most other materials would freeze solid, helium remains a liquid. That makes it a perfect refrigerant for anything that must be kept very cold.

Liquid helium is therefore essential to any technology that uses superconducting magnets, including MRI scanners and some fusion reactors. Helium also cools particle accelerators, quantum computers, and the infrared detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope. 

“It’s a critical element for the future,” says Richard Clarke, a UK-based helium resources consultant. However, it’s also played a critical role throughout the history of technology development, while remaining in tight supply. 

As part of MIT technology Review’s 125th anniversary series, we looked back at our coverage of how helium became such an important resource, and considered how demand might change in the future. Read the full story.

—Amy Nordrum

How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

“This is one of the least visited places on planet Earth and I got to open the door,” Matty Jordan, a construction specialist at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, wrote in the caption to the video he posted to Instagram and TikTok in October 2023. 

In the video, he guides viewers through the hut, pointing out where the men of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 expedition lived and worked. 

The video has racked up millions of views from all over the world. It’s also kind of a miracle: until very recently, those who lived and worked on Antarctic bases had no hope of communicating so readily with the outside world. 

That’s starting to change, thanks to Starlink, the satellite constellation developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to service the world with high-speed broadband internet. Read the full story. 

—Allegra Rosenberg

Wikimedia’s CTO: In the age of AI, human contributors still matter

Selena Deckelmann is the chief product and technology officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and manages Wikipedia.

There she not only guides one of the most turned-to sources of information in the world but serves a vast community of “Wikipedians,” the hundreds of thousands of real-life individuals who spend their free time writing, editing, and discussing entries—in more than 300 languages—to make Wikipedia what it is today. 

It is undeniable that technological advances and cultural shifts have transformed our online universe over the years—especially with the recent surge in AI-generated content—but Deckelmann still isn’t afraid of people on the internet. She believes they are its future. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann 

The two stories above are from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live on Wednesday—subscribe now to get your copy!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The Supreme Court will decide whether states can control social media 
It’ll start hearing arguments today about whether laws aimed at controlling online platforms in Texas and Florida are constitutional. (WP $)
Here’s what you need to know. (NYT $)
Texas’s law is dangerous. Striking it down could be even worse. (The Atlantic $)

2 Celebrities are being ‘deepfaked’ for adverts
AI-generated videos have them endorsing and promoting things they’ve never even heard of. (BBC)
+ These companies show why the next AI wave won’t revolve around chatbots. (Fast Company)

3 Inside TikTok’s live money-making machine
Live streaming can be hugely lucrative—for both the creator and TikTok itself—but there’s a dark side too. (ABC)
+ Influencers are getting younger and younger. (NBC)

4 A vending machine was secretly scanning undergrads’ faces
As privacy violations go, this is a pretty insidious and unnecessary one. (Ars Technica)
Computer scientists designing the future can’t agree on what privacy means. (MIT technology Review)

5 China is set to dominate the future of electric cars 
Thanks, at least partly, to years of careful investment and planning by its government. (Insider $)
Why the world’s biggest EV maker is getting into shipping. (MIT technology Review)

6 People are reporting cracks in their Apple Vision Pros
Bad news about these headsets just keeps on coming. (Engadget)
Apple is exploring developing even more wearable devices. (Bloomberg $)

7 Digitally resurrecting your loved ones might be bad for you
Researchers claim it could create unhealthy dependence on the technology. (New Scientist $)
technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready? (MIT technology Review)

8 Could you endure living on Mars? 
Physical concerns aside, it’d wreak havoc on most people’s minds. (NYT $)
These scientists live like astronauts without leaving Earth. (MIT technology Review)

9 A man allegedly made $1.8 million eavesdropping on his wife’s calls 
US regulators claim he traded on confidential information he overheard during her remote meetings. (The Guardian)

10 Meet the man whose job is to keep an ice cream factory cool ????
Engineering challenges don’t come much more delicious than this. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“I understand that SpaceX is possibly withholding broadband internet services in and around Taiwan — possibly in breach of SpaceX’s contractual obligations with the U.S. government.”

—Republican Representative Mike Gallagher makes an explosive claim in a letter to Elon Musk, CNBC reports. 

The big story

ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like.

""

STEPHANIE ARNETT/MITTR

March 2023

Whether it’s based on hallucinatory beliefs or not, a gold rush has started over the last several months to make money from generative AI models like ChatGPT.

You can practically hear the shrieks from corner offices around the world: “What is our ChatGPT play? How do we make money off this?”

But while companies and executives want to cash in, the likely impact of generative AI on workers and the economy on the whole is far less obvious.

Will ChatGPT make the already troubling income and wealth inequality in the US and many other countries even worse, or could it in fact provide a much-needed boost to productivity? Read the full story.

—David Rotman

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ If you want to be happy, fill your days with ‘firsts’
+ May these chatty cats bless your morning. 
+ Please, don’t make tea in an air fryer.
+ This writing exercise could help you to better understand what you want from life.


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How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

Diane Davis

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a smiling person in a t-shirt types at a telex

Helpful hams and secret codes

By 1957,Admiral Byrd was recognized as the world’s foremost expert in Antarctic exploration and was leading America’s Operation Deep Freeze, a mission to build a permanent American presence on the continent. The US Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, were deployed to build McMurdo Station on the solid ground of Ross Island, close to the first hut built by Captain Robert Scott in 1901. 

Deep Freeze brought a massive military presence to Antarctica, including the most complex and advanced communications array the Navy could muster. Still, men who wanted to speak to loved ones at home had limited options. Physical mail could come and go on ships a few times a year, or they could send expensive telegrams over wireless—limited to 100 or 200 words per month each way. At least these methods were private, unlike the personal communications over radio on Byrd’s expedition, which everyone else could listen in to by default.

In the face of these limitations, another option soon became popular among the Navy men. The licensed operators of McMurdo’s amateur (ham) station were assisted by hams back at home. Seabees would call from McMurdo to a ham in America, who would patch them straight through to their destination through the US phone system, free of charge. 

Some of these helpful hams became legendary. Jules Madey and his brother John, two New Jersey teenagers with the call sign K2KGJ, had built a 110-foot-tall radio tower in their backyard, with a transmitter that was more than capable of communicating to and from McMurdo Sound. 

To save money, a code known as “WYSSA” offered a broad variety of set phrases for common topics. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling.”

From McMurdo, the South Pole, and the fifth Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf, ham operators could ring Jules at nearly any time of day or night, and he’d connect them to home. Jules became an Antarctic celebrity and icon. A few of the engaged couples he helped to link up even invited him and his brother to their weddings, after the men returned from their tours of duty in Antarctica. Many Deep Freeze men still remembered the Madey brothers decades later. 

In the early 1960s, continued Deep Freeze operations, including support ships, were improving communication across American outposts in Antarctica. Bigger antennas, more powerful receivers and transmitters, and improvements to ground-to-air communication systems were installed, shoring up the capacity for scientific activity, transport, and construction.  

Around this time, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions were improving their communications capacity as well. Like other Antarctic programs, they used telex machines, sending text out over radio waves to link up with a phone-line-based system on land. Telex, a predecessor to fax technology, text messaging, and email, was in use from the 1960s onwards as an alternative to Morse code and voice over HF and VHF radio. On the other side of the line, a terminal would receive the text and print it out.

The Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions sent text over radio waves and developed a special code known as “WYSSA” to save money on the expensive telex rates.

MALCOLM MACFARLANE ©ANTARCTICA NEW ZEALAND PICTORIAL COLLECTION

In order to save money on the expensive per-word rates, a special code known as “WYSSA” (pronounced, in an Australian accent, “whizzer”) was constructed. This creative solution became legendary in Antarctic history. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling,” and the code offered a broad variety of predetermined phrases for common topics, from the inconveniences of Antarctic life (YAYIR—“Fine snow has penetrated through small crevices in the huts”) to affectionate sentiments (YAAHY—“Longing to hear from you again, darling”) and personal updates (YIGUM—“I have grown a beard which is awful”). 

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Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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