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Did the pandemic change conspicuous consumption?

Diane Davis

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In a new survey of thousands of global consumers, nearly half said that they’ve realized during the pandemic that they have too many clothes. Some 44% said that when they shop—for anything, not just clothing—brands are now less of a factor; 53% said that they’re now more likely to repair something than replace it. And while around half of respondents said that they were shopping differently for financial reasons, nearly a third said that they were driven by sustainability, a trend that is likely to last beyond the pandemic.

The survey, EY’s Future Consumer Index, is the eighth edition of a project that started in April 2020 as COVID-19 spread. “The point was really just to understand what fundamental shifts were taking place,” says Kristina Rogers, global consumer leader at the consulting firm EY. People started resetting their priorities about consumption because of the pandemic, she says, and many are deciding that they want to buy fewer, higher-quality products that can last longer.

For many people who have been working at home, surrounded by stuff, there’s a realization that they already own too much. “There’s this trend more towards being more considerate in terms of what they buy in the future,” Rogers says. (Though the long lines of ships filled with new goods at our ports might indicate people’s actual habits are differing from what they say in a survey, or that things have reset since the depths of the pandemic.)

Fewer people—only 27%—now agree with the statement that they buy more things because it makes them happy. And 85% say that they want to consider sustainability when shopping. “There’s often a large intention and action gap with consumers, so we don’t know what the actual result will be,” Rogers explains. “But I think we’re seeing a lot now around consumers ready to change their behavior to make better-informed [decisions about] products for the good of society. And in fact, what’s coming through now is much more demand for brands and companies to take some responsibility for leading some of that positive change.”

Brands may want to rethink what they sell. “In addition to the steps that companies might already be taking to tackle ESG [environmental, social, and governance] targets, companies will need to pay attention to this data and continue to monitor for which segments of consumers are including issues such as sustainability and workers’ rights as a purchase criterion, as well as their willingness to pay more for products that are sustainably and ethically sourced,” Rogers says.

“As these consumer segments continue to grow and accelerate the call for change, companies will need to revisit their business practices across the value chain, from sourcing to production to demand creation,” she adds. “Fast fashion, for instance, deploys a ‘buy-use-dispose’ demand model that is not future fit. If they are not going to survive on high volume and fast turnover, fast fashion will need to consider a combination of higher quality, more expensive items, subscription models, circular resell models, and so on.”


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Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario-like games from scratch

Diane Davis

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example of game generated from a crayon sketch

“It’s cool work,” says Matthew Gudzial, an AI researcher at the University of Alberta, who developed a similar game generator a few years ago. 

Genie was trained on 30,000 hours of video of hundreds of 2D platform games taken from the internet. Others have taken that approach before, says Gudzial. His own game generator learned from videos to create abstract platformers. Nivida used video data to train a model called GameGAN, which could produce clones of games like Pac-Man.

But all of these examples trained the model with input actions, button presses on a games controller, as well as video footage: a video frame showing Mario jumping was paired with the “jump” action, and so on. Tagging video footage with input actions takes a lot of work, however. This has limited the amount of training data available. 

In contrast, Genie was trained on video footage alone. It then learned which of eight possible actions would cause the game character in a video to change its position. This turned countless hours of existing online video into potential training data. 

Genie can generate simple games from hand-drawn sketches

GOOGLE DEEPMIND

Genie generates each new frame of the game on the fly depending on the action the player takes. Press jump and Genie updates the current image to show the game character jumping; press left and the image changes to show the character moved to the left. The game ticks along action by action, each new frame generated from scratch as the player plays. 

Future versions of Genie could run faster. “There is no fundamental limitation that prevents us from reaching 30 frames per second,” says Tim Rocktäschel, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who leads the team behind the work. “Genie uses many of the same technologies as contemporary large language models, where there has been significant progress in improving inference speed.” 

Genie learned some common visual quirks found in platformers. Many games of this type use parallax, where the foreground moves sideways faster than the background. Genie often adds this effect to the games it generates.  

While Genie is an in-house research project and won’t be released, Gudzial notes that the Google DeepMind team says it could one day be turned into a game-making tool—something he’s working on too. “I’m definitely interested to see what they build,” he says.

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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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We are beavers all | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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old black and white photo of William Miller in a canoe

As efficient creators and stewards of wetlands, beavers provide a hospitable ecosystem for dozens of other creatures, from insects, frogs, and turtles to owls, otters, great blue herons, and even moose and deer. What’s more, by harvesting undergrowth for their dams and creating ponds and bogs that raise the moisture content of the soil, beavers lessen the likelihood that forest fires will spread. As forest fires devastated Oregon in 2021, beaver wetlands remained green and lush, acting as natural firebreaks. On aerial images of the charred landscape, the beaver’s habitat stands out, a wide and verdant ribbon running through the blackened trees.

While not all property owners who live near beaver habitats appreciate the animals’ tree removal services, the pro-­beaver movement seems to be getting more organized. In November 2023, some 300 beaver restoration advocates from North America and Europe gathered in the Beaver State (Oregon) for the annual State of the Beaver conference. “Seventy-five percent of the artificial wetland restoration projects done in America over the past 30 years have failed,” conference cofounder Stanley Petrowski told the Daily Yonder. “But when beavers do it, they do it perfectly.” 

BeaverCon, held near Baltimore in June of 2022, and the Midwest Beaver Summit, held in Chicago and online in September 2023, attracted similar crowds of humans interested in promoting beaver welfare.

It is, in fact, possible to find ways to allow beavers to continue creating their watery habitats in ways that minimize damage to human infrastructure. For example, devices such as the Beaver Deceiver can be installed to prevent beavers from damming culverts, which often leads to flooding of roads. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International of Grafton, Vermont, first developed the device in the 1990s to beaver-proof the Penobscot Nation’s 130 miles of roads in Maine. “In all likelihood, they are the first large landowner to completely beaver-proof their property nonlethally,” he says.

Living organic chemical factory

At the base of their tail, all beavers have two castor sacs that store castoreum, a complex, granular substance with a strong and long-lasting musky smell. It is made up of at least 24 different compounds, primarily derived from the barks of the various trees in the beaver’s diet. Beavers deposit castoreum atop foot-high mounds of mud, sticks, and grass to mark the edges of their territory. 

Humans have long valued castoreum. About 400 BCE, Hippocrates, a chronicler of natural cures, wrote of its wonderful medical properties. Around 77 CE, the Roman naturalist Pliny listed castoreum as a cure for headaches, constipation, and epilepsy. In the Middle Ages the list of maladies castoreum was said to cure expanded to include dysentery, worms, fleas, pleurisy, gout, rheumatism, insomnia, hysteria, memory loss, and liver problems. 

Author William Miller ’51, SM ’52, reports that his foot once crashed through a beaver dam while he was dragging his canoe over it to get to the next lake in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. About 100 feet away, a watching beaver immediately began to slap its tail on the pond surface. Having just unleashed a string of curses directed at the beavers, Bill assumed that the beaver was cursing at him. But he now suspects it was sending a warning signal to the other beavers—or possibly urging them to come quickly to repair the damage caused by the trespassing human oaf.

COURTESY OF WILLIAM MILLER

As it turns out, quite a few of the tree barks that beavers prefer contain compounds with known medicinal benefits. Phenols, for example, are often anti-­inflammatory and antiseptic and can have antiviral properties. They include salicylic acid (a precursor to aspirin), which can be found in the bark of willow, poplar, and alder trees—all beaver favorites. The beaver’s system functions as a natural pharmacy, extracting these compounds (among others) and secreting them in the form of castoreum. 

Humans have also used castoreum for several nonmedical applications, such as in high-end “leather note” perfumes including Shalimar, Givenchy III, and Chanel’s Antaeus. It is an ingredient in some bourbons and vodkas and has been used in Sweden to flavor “Bäverhojt” (literally, beaver shout) schnapps.

Today, most castoreum is harvested in a sterile environment by anesthetizing beavers and expressing the castor sacs near their tails. As a food additive, castoreum extract is “generally recognized as safe,” according to the FDA. But at close to $100 per pound, it’s used sparingly. The total annual US consumption of dried castoreum is around 300 pounds.

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