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Joking Robots, Fat-Detecting Chairs and a Suddenly Shrinking Lake

So this robot walks into a bar"¦

C3PO.jpg What's a robot's favorite album? Spark Side of the Moon.
Robots don't get that joke, since it requires a (relatively) complex analysis of word substitution and figuring out why it's funny. Two researchers at the University of Cincinnati are working on a robot that does understand simple puns, though. By giving the bot a vocabulary and then teaching it how certain words can be substituted for others, they say they can teach the robot to recognize and react to simple jokes. It's still not complex enough to distinguish between a groaner and a knee-slapper or pick out an inappropriate joke, but the researchers say they're working on it. Which means that we're moving ever closer to smart-aleck robots in the vein of C-3PO.

Don't Go Into the Light

Cop shows could get a lot more gross if a new flashlight designed for the Department of Homeland Security catches on. The light has the normal ability to blind a suspect, but also adds a feature to make them feel disoriented and nauseated. The device will shoot pulses of bright light from LEDs at a suspect, creating a disorienting feeling (it's similar to helicopter pilots who crash after looking at the interrupted light through the chopper blades). This temporary sickness would allow police to take the suspect away more easily, but could also leave them an unpleasant mess to clean up.

Better than Chugging Water

hic cup.jpgThere are so many cures for the hiccups, from the terrifying to the tasty (I always try eating a spoonful of peanut butter, even though it's worked exactly 0 percent of the time). There's always room for a new one, so here comes the Hic-Cup. This muzzle-like device puts electrodes on your temple and cheek and creates a current when you fill the cup with water and drink. The resulting current effectively stops the hiccups. The device's website has plenty of success stories, but does nothing to quell any concern about strapping an electrified cup to one's face.

More science news after the jump!

Not So Superior Anymore

Lake Superior has always kind of been the big dog of the Great Lakes, with its gargantuan size (a surface area as large as South Carolina) and financial prowess. But something is going wrong in the lake- the water level has dropped to its lowest point in eight decades and the temperature has risen 4.5 degrees since 1979. This is spelling trouble for the lake's fans- beachgoers now have to contend with muckier shores, while fishers have to seek out cool water for the fish. Global warming is the obvious suspect, but some are taking a more noir approach and accusing the government of funneling the water to surrounding cities and farms for political gain.

Couches with Emotional IQ'sfuwapica300707.jpg

Everybody's got that favorite couch, the one that's so faded and stained you can't even tell what color it is, but it doesn't matter because it probably wouldn't match the room anyway. Now Japanese researchers have designed furniture that will react to the people and objects around it by changing color. Fuwa pica, which translates to "˜soft and flashy,' has a set with a table containing a computer and LCD display and four chairs. The computer picks up on the environment and mood of the person, slowly changing color to match an object on the table. Also, in an inexplicably cruel feature, the chairs will also turn red when a heavy person sits on it "as if the blood pressure was rising high," in the words of one of the creators.

Do the Wave

Add the ocean to the increasingly crowded list of alternative energy sources. Scientists have designed a buoy device that floats on the ocean's surface with a Slinkie-like polymer inside that contracts and expands with the bobbing of the waves, creating an electrical current. Currently, the Electroactive polymer artificial muscles have only generate enough to light a small light bulb, but they've been kept in tame waters. It might be worth it to try them on some gnarly 40-footers.

Under My Umbrella

Because of the god-awful, overplayed Rhianna song, I've been doing my best to avoid any mention of umbrellas this summer, but I couldn't pass this story up. Ambient Devices has unveiled an umbrella that tells you when it's needed. The handle has a radio transmitter that picks up weather reports from AccuWeather and glows accordingly- soft pulses for a drizzle and flashes for a thunderstorm. Finally we'll be able to cut the awkward "will I look foolish if I bring the umbrella and it doesn't rain" debates out of our mornings.

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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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