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Ikea is raising its prices. That could actually be a good thing

Diane Davis

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Bad news for Ikea devotees: The Swedish furniture giant announced it’s raising its famously low prices.

Ikea, like many other retailers, has been hit hard by disruptions in the global supply chain, including high transportation costs and labor shortages. These costs will ultimately get passed on to consumers, but some sustainability experts argue that higher Ikea prices could actually be a win for the planet.

Even though demand for furniture is at an all-time high, Martin van Dam, the CFO of Ikea’s parent company, told Bloomberg the company is simply unable to get products onto shelves to meet this demand. Ikea’s profits fell by 16%, to $1.6 billion during the last fiscal year, as costs went up for raw materials. He says Ikea has already spent 250 million euros to manage labor and transport shortages, and expects to spend even more next year, which will cut into its bottom line. Ultimately, he said the company would raise its prices in 2022 and beyond–although he did not specify by how much. (Ikea did not respond to our request for comment by the time of publication.)

But while consumers may be disappointed that their Billy bookcases and Malm bedframes will be more expensive, it might not ultimately be a bad thing. It’s now clear that cheap, disposable furniture–the kind Ikea specializes in–is an environmental disaster. More sustainable alternatives, like durable, locally made furniture, haven’t been able to compete with Ikea’s low prices. But if the company begins raising prices, it might prompt consumers to explore other, more eco-friendly alternatives.

How We Got Hooked On Ikea

For most of human history, furniture was an expensive product, designed to last decades or longer, passed from one generation to the next. But in the 1990s, IKEA and other furniture brands found ways to manufacture products at low costs thanks to cheap labor in developing countries and inexpensive materials like plastic and particleboard. This helped democratize furniture, allowing middle class people to redecorate their homes in the latest styles, mimicking the interior decorating habits of the rich and famous. “Brands like IKEA allowed people with fewer means to live a comfortable, fashionable life at home, even though those pieces were not meant to last forever,” says Dio Kurazawa, co-founder of The Bear Scouts, a consulting firm that helps brands shift to more sustainable supply chains.

Transforming furniture into a short term, disposable purchase is terrible for the planet. In the U.S., Americans throw out 12 million tons of furniture annually, up from 2 million in 1960. This is an enormous waste of the natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions required to manufacture these pieces in the first place. It requires an estimated 90 kilograms of carbon to make and ship a single piece of furniture, the equivalent of flying a Boeing 747 for an hour.

But people around the world–particularly young people–are now increasingly concerned about climate change. And today, 87% of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for furniture they believe is more eco-friendly (up from 33% in 2008), according to a report by the Sustainable Furnishings Council, a nonprofit devoted to making furniture manufacturing more sustainable. “More and more people are aware of the cost of the poor decision to shift toward low-quality, disposable furniture,” says Susan Inglis, founder and executive director of the Council.

The problem, however, is that the fast furniture business model now dominates the market. As Ikea, and retailers like Wayfair, Overstock, Amazon, and Target flooded the market with cheap furniture, Inglis said American furniture manufacturers–that were known for their well-made, durable goods–started to go out of business. “The growth of Ikea and its ilk resulted in the end of a generation of American manufacturing, as these factories and workshops were unable to compete with their prices,” she says.

Accelerating the Rise in Sustainable Furniture

If fast furniture brands start raising their prices, this could potentially recalibrate supply and demand in the furniture industry. Fast furniture retailers are particularly reliant on the global supply chain to create inexpensive products and, as a result, these brands are now getting hit much harder by the global logistics crisis. Inglis says local manufacturers are dealing with worker shortages and transportation delays, but they’re in much better shape than brands that manufacture overseas.

As Ikea’s prices inch up, consumers may be willing to spend a bit more to buy higher-quality, locally-made furniture, particularly if they’re already concerned about fast furniture’s impact. For instance, brands like Sabai and Maiden Home sell American-made furniture using a direct-to-consumer model that lets them sell products more affordably than through a retailer. A Sabai loveseat costs $995, which is on par with some of Ikea’s mid-range loveseats and about double the cost of Ikea’s cheapest models. Brands like this may entice Ikea shoppers.

However, this can’t be the only solution to the environmental catastrophe of fast furniture, Inglis says, partly because these companies don’t make enough furniture to meet the national demand. That’s why she says it’s important for the industry to shift toward selling refurbished or recycled furniture. As I wrote in a recent story, used furniture is a growing industry, and analysts say it could become a $16.6 billion business by 2025, a 70% increase from 2018. “Garbage–the furniture we’re throwing away–is about to become our most abundant natural resource,” Inglis says. “Our old furniture is going to be the feedstock for the next generation of furniture. This means refurbishing old pieces to make them new again, and turning old wooden furniture into particleboard for new furniture. ”

Even Ikea understands the value of secondhand furniture and recently announced that it will buy back used pieces and resell them in stores. However, Kurazawa points out that most Ikea pieces, as they currently exist, weren’t designed to last for years and multiple users. For furniture resale to really take off, he believes we need more companies that make it easy for consumers to access high quality secondhand pieces at a wide range of price points, much like TheRealReal and ThredUp have done for fashion.

Kurazawa is optimistic that the furniture industry is slowly shifting toward more sustainable practices. At the same time, he’s realistic about how much Ikea’s price hikes will impact the sector. He believes that eventually, the supply chain problems will be resolved, and Ikea will once again flood the market with its cheap furniture and potentially even return to its cheaper prices. Ultimately, he says’ the better way to bring about positive change quickly is for governments to create legislation that forces fast furniture brands to become more sustainable. “It’s unrealistic to expect companies like Ikea to shift toward eco-friendly practices on their own,” he says. “They need incentives. And if governments start taxing them for their carbon footprint or how much waste they create, they will be highly motivated to change their designs and manufacturing process.”


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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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