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When will the supply chain return to ‘normal’? Try never

Diane Davis

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Supply chain delays have been in the headlines for months now. The backlog of containers off the California ports and the doomsday holiday shopping forecasts have both consumers and executives wondering when these historic bottlenecks will finally let up. When will we be able to resume our normal purchasing patterns, and when will talk of inflation and production shortages wane?

Some, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, see these slowdowns as short-lived. At a conference last month, he predicted that the supply chain issues wouldn’t even be on our radar next year.

While Dimon’s influence and access are vast, I couldn’t disagree more. I believe we haven’t even seen the worst of these problems. Dimon’s words may provide comfort to some (and the market is always hungry for positive news), but they won’t help you get merchandise any sooner, whether you’re a retailer or consumer.

Let me make the case. To start, we need to divide the problem into two buckets: the international supply chain—the network that ferries products made overseas to U.S. ports—and the domestic supply chain, which is the network that receives those products and delivers them to consumers. Unfortunately, both are broken, and both need to be addressed if we’re going to see any real improvement.

The workers don’t exist

President Joe Biden recently announced that the West Coast ports would operate 24/7. Prior to this edict, there were two 9-hour shifts on the docks on Monday through Friday, with limited work Saturdays. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles funnel roughly 40% of all imports into the U.S, and there are nearly 100 vessels awaiting dock space.

To the uninformed, expanding service seemed like an excellent decision and an initiative sure to make progress in easing the congestion. Timely also, as retailers struggle to get product onto the shelves for the ever-critical holiday season. However, those paying close attention know that this won’t do much to change realities on the ground. Round-the-clock operating schedules are theoretically great—if you can get people to work.

The ports are struggling to get workers during the normal daily shifts, forget about enticing people to work overnight or on the weekends. This isn’t just a case of incentivizing, either. The workers don’t exist. COVID-19 and its restrictions have made keeping full staffing almost impossible. Case in point: As of late October, there’s a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations. These workers tend to be older, and many chose to retire or find new fields when lockdowns hit. (This doesn’t even take into account the looming strike next year by the union that represents dockworkers. The ports might be plodding now, but if movement were to completely cease, the fallout would be staggering.)

[Photo: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images]

Our infrastructure is broken

We must not forget: We haven’t invested in our supply chain on a national level in decades. The same highways, railroads, and ports that were moving our merchandise pre-pandemic (if not in the ’80s) are still relying on that tired infrastructure. Yes, the hotly debated and recently passed infrastructure bill will address some of these issues, but it will be years, if not longer, before tangible change is seen.

The pandemic didn’t cause these structural problems in the supply chain, but it exposed its weak and frail state and brought it to its knees. Consumer shopping patterns have changed over time, while our systems to deliver those goods have remained stagnant. Amazon used to deliver books, now it represents 51% of all online orders, from paper towels to lampshades. While the existing system was (somewhat) able to handle that shift from physical shopping to delivery, it was operating under stress and unable to weather the storm surge of 2020’s e-commerce boom.

But the current supply chain issues are so much deeper than just supply and demand. As our consumption patterns change, so too must the back end needed to deliver it.

At that same conference last month, Dimon said he sees years of growth and prosperity ahead. I, on the other hand, see out-of-hand inflation. From raw materials to freight costs to grocery stores, this pipeline of logistics spend will erode profits faster than anyone can predict. For example, shipping costs alone grew 20% at Amazon in the third quarter. This is unsustainable.

Companies are increasingly turning to air freight despite its prohibitive costs. Even Walmart and Home Depot began chartering their own ships to ensure having goods on the shelves. Sure, these behemoths can (temporarily) take that hit to their margins, but for how long? As the line items begin to take a toll on the bottom line, firms will be forced to reduce staff and raise prices. Hitting consumer income while simultaneously increasing the price of goods.

Anyone saying this won’t have an impact is naive. As products become scarce, so does the advertising spend needed to support them. What was a booming economy, filled with higher margins, waitlists, little to no markdowns, and a very competitive and pro employee landscape will be flipped on its back.

The prognosis doesn’t look good. Either we completely rebuild our supply chain or wait for the pendulum to swing and humble us all. Regardless, this isn’t ending anytime soon. If we want to prepare for a future of consumption that relies heavily on e-commerce, the entire supply chain needs to be reworked. So when will things return to “normal”? Most likely, never.


Edward Hertzman spent more than a decade as an executive for major sourcing companies all over the world. In 2009, he founded Sourcing Journal, a trade publication focused on sourcing and supply chains in the textile industry.


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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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