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Quantity over quality is making our lives feel empty

Diane Davis

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By J. W. Traphagan 4 minute Read

If you spend time on Twitter, you may notice regular tweets like, “so excited, almost to 500 followers!” People ask others to follow them, promising to follow back. And if you don’t follow back quickly, there’s a good chance the other person will unfollow you. Tweet often to get more followers, we are told. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat are no different. Even Venmo, which is for the purpose of transferring money, states, “Adding friends is an important part of the Venmo experience.” Clearly, we should want more money and more friends. It’s the quantity that matters.

 On social media, as in life, people are often focused on how much they can get or produce. It seems much less common to be focused on the quality of one’s tweets—or the quality of one’s followers and friends on social media—than it is to have a lot of either. The result is an endless shallowness, a monotony of empty tweets and remote acquaintances whose primary existences are experienced as amounts. 

The emphasis on quantity starts early. How many candies did you get on Halloween? A big haul is best. And at the most pernicious of all holidays, children are taught to value how many presents are under the Christmas tree, often with little concern for the quality or meaning of those presents. It stays with us as we age: How many cars do you own? How many children do you have? How many steps did I walk today? We even represent the value of individuals in terms of a quantity—we call it net worth. 

Counting permeates most aspects of our lives. Several years ago at my university, for example, upper-level administrators implemented a system in which they would count the number of butts in seats (a quantity) for each college and then allocate funds (another quantity) on the basis of whether or not a given college has met its assigned benchmark of butts (yet another quantity) for the year. Colleges that surpass the butt benchmark get more money; those that don’t get less. 

Why is this bad? Because, the endless emphasis on quantity distracts us from something much more important: Quality. Being focused on how many butts are in seats shifts attention away from the much more important question of the quality of learning and thinking that is going on in the classrooms (and among the students whose butts we are concerned with counting). This transforms the complex balance among different forms of knowledge production into a numbers game, privileging disciplines that can draw large numbers of students, like engineering and business, over those that don’t, like philosophy and cultural studies. 

It’s basically the same as counting followers on Twitter. And the emphasis on counting tends to promote the absence of quality, which as philosopher Robert Pirsig put it, “is the essence of squareness.”  And to be square is to be boring, conventional, uninteresting. In other words, it’s shallow.

We live in a “quantocracy.” We live in a society driven by the idea that everything must be counted and then judged on the basis of how many of something we have accumulated—more is usually better.  Indeed, it’s in the way we often approach networking that this problem is most clearly evident. Social media platforms encourage us to conceptualize our network in terms of how many people we are connected to, rather than in terms of the quality of the connections and the types of people with whom we are linked.

Although it may feel good to have a large number of followers on Twitter or Linkedin, or to see that number rising quickly, those numbers are empty. Why? Because quantocracies subordinate quality to quantity and generate an environment where counting, rather than understanding the meanings and values behind what is counted, becomes viewed as the goal in and of itself. What matters is how many? without a great deal of reflection on how good? 

Our society tells us to care about how much or how many we have of things, ideas, and even types of people. It devalues the much more important task of understanding the qualities, experiences, and meanings of those things, ideas, and people that shape our lives and bring us satisfaction and happiness. In our workplaces (and more generally in our lives), we need to ask a simple question: Do we want to live in a world driven by how much we have of everything or do we want to live in a world driven by the quality of what we have, our experiences, and our lives?

If we wish, both as individuals and as a society, to live in the latter, the first step is to stop counting everything. Rather than being concerned with the number of followers we have on Twitter or Linkedin, or the number of butts we have in college classroom seats, we might want to begin by asking about the qualities of the people who follow us and whom we follow or the features of education that generate responsible citizens and a healthy society.  

When it comes to networking, before following someone or being pleased that we were followed, we should ask questions like: Do we have similar interests? Does person X have views different from my own that challenge me to think in new ways? Is it, perhaps, better to have five followers make me think than 5,000 who only follow me because I followed them or because we have the same political views? If we were to emphasize the quality of connections in our networks, we might have far fewer numbers, but the strength of those networks would be stronger and our interactions with people across those networks would become a foundation for supporting interdependence and meaningful communication.  


J.W. Traphagan is a Professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures. Follow him on Twitter @John_Traphagan



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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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