Turkey dinner is all gravy; bees are fish; AI gets an F

November 14, 2023

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Food swap!

Put on your stretchy pants and get ready to save the planet. If you sit down to a turkey dinner this Thanksgiving, you can take comfort in knowing you’ve picked a lower-carbon-footprint dinner option. (Foodwise, that is. The Loop can’t account for your driving over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.) Researchers have found that making simple, consistent swaps (salmon instead of crab; chicken or a veggie patty instead of beef) can reduce your individual carbon footprint.

On average, choosing chicken instead of beef reduces the greenhouse gas emissions needed to make a meal by an amount roughly equivalent to driving nine miles in a car. That may not seem like a lot, but multiply it by an entire nation and things add up. Anna Grummon, an assistant professor of pediatrics and of health policy and lead author of the new study, says to focus on opting out of the foods you most commonly eat that have the heaviest carbon footprint. There are three major targets: replacing beef or pork with chicken or a vegetarian dish, cow’s milk with a plant-based milk, and juice with whole fruit. If these tactics were adopted nationwide, the U.S. dietary carbon footprint would shrink by more than 35 percent. So dig in, and don’t forget to save room for pie.

AI gets an F.

How many things is AI really taking over? No one really knows, and much about the technology is hidden. Last month, Stanford’s Center for Research on Foundation Models launched the Foundation Model Transparency Index to assess the transparency of major AI companies. The index graded the companies on whether they publicly disclosed 100 pieces of information—such as the data their flagship model is trained on, the number of users, and when the model should not be used—with each piece of info being worth one point. Of the 10 companies included, none scored higher than an F. Meta did best, with 54 points, and Amazon scored the lowest, with 12.

For researchers, policymakers, and consumers, the shroud of secrecy makes it impossible to know whether the models they use are, for example, trained on data with use restrictions or riddled with biases. And faulty models can lead to life-altering mistakes. As of August, there were six reported U.S. cases of police having falsely accused people of a crime based on flawed facial recognition—and all of the accused were Black. Without transparency about their AI models, researchers said, companies can inflate their capabilities and consumers might use faulty technology in important contexts.

Hang on to your hat.

A scan of gene expression in several starfish.  Photo: Laurent Formery

If you gave a starfish a hat, where would he put it? Until now, science had no answer. The anatomy of the five-armed echinoderm “has been a zoological mystery for centuries,” said Christopher Lowe, a professor of biology and senior author of a new study that finally cracked the case. By analyzing molecular markers, researchers were able to determine that starfish have headlike territory at the center of each arm, and no torso at all. In other words, starfish may look like they’ve got legs for days, but they’re all head. Plan hats accordingly.

It’s getting hot in here. 

While you’re fully embracing sweater weather, energy experts are contending with a summertime problem. A new study estimates that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature, electricity used to cool buildings in U.S. cities will increase by nearly 14 percent. Air-conditioning helps prevent you from sweating through your pajamas during heat waves, but the fossil fuels burned to power that air-conditioning warm the planet even more. Recently, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment hosted a webinar to discuss the hot topic. But don’t cry into your warm caramel-candy-apple latte: We don’t have to be locked in a cycle of ever-increasing temperatures and AC usage. Topping buildings with white roofs instead of black, adding green spaces and bodies of water to urban areas, and developing materials that make buildings and clothes better able to reflect thermal radiation are all solutions that can keep us cool without compounding climate change.

But wait, there’s more.

John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, who served as university provost from 2000 to 2017, recounts his proudest day at Stanford and his thoughts on recent campus activism. “Something has been lost,” he wrote in the Stanford Daily, “at our university and in our society at large, something we desperately need to get back: the ability to disagree, to dispute, to debate, without questioning our opponents’ fundamental dignity and humanity.”

On Monday, Stanford president Richard Saller and provost Jenny Martinez announced additional steps the university will take to support communities on campus that have been deeply affected in recent weeks by the Israel-Hamas war and its repercussions in the campus community. Two new groups will focus on strengthening support in an ongoing manner for Stanford's Jewish community as well as for the university's Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities.

How did we get here? On November 28, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies will host a virtual discussion between two experts on the Middle East. The event will be moderated by Janine Zacharia, a lecturer in communication at Stanford who has reported on Israel, the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy for nearly two decades.

Jesmyn Ward, ’99, MA ’00, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Fiction and the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Last month, her most recent book, Let Us Descend, was announced as Oprah's Book Club's 103rd selection.

Why are young kids less likely to get severe COVID-19? “Nasal magic,” according to a new Stanford study. (For the science-inclined: proteins in the mucous membranes of the nasal cavity.)

Two-time Academy Award–winning director Alexander Payne, ’83, may have based the main character in his new movie, The Holdovers, on a smelly man from a 1930s French film, but the prep-school tale paints a poignant picture of an insult-filled 1970s New England holiday.

Are bees fish? Under California law, yes. The Daily Show visited Stanford Law School in a recent satirical segment to investigate how the Environmental Law Clinic “successfully lawyered bees into fish” thanks to a definition of fish in the state’s Fish and Game Code that encompasses invertebrates.

Stanford has been recognized, for a record fourth time, as a Platinum Bicycle Friendly University, the highest honor bestowed by the League of American Bicyclists—who, to be clear, are neither bees nor fish.

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