The Light Side: Comfort Food Is Merely a Placebo, Study Quips

May 30, 2014

Micro-size Life-forms May Have Swam in Mars Lakes

Breaking News Is Delivered On Your Bathroom Hand Towel

Robots Are Taught to Do Chores at UC Berkeley

Before you plow into a bag of potato chips thinking it will make your mood better, you'd likely still feel better without the binge-eating. What's more, you'd probably be in a worse mood if you ate those chips. Recent, separate studies have concluded as much.

"[Whether it's your comfort food, or it's a granola bar, or if you eat nothing at all, you will eventually feel better. Basically, comfort food can't speed up that healing process," Heather Wagner, a doctorate candidate at the University of Minnesota, told LiveScience

after presenting her study findings at a San Francisco Association for Psychological Science meeting. "[People like to find explanations for things."

Wagner, who remarks that she had relied on her mother's French onion soup to feel better, came to those cold conclusions after tests showed people's moods improved just three minutes after watching an instigating video whether they enjoyed their comfort foods, ate something they liked, or had nothing at all. (Details on the 20-minute video, which was designed to incite sadness, anger, and fear, were not provided, though we suspect it was a clip of Kimye's wedding


Wagner admits that she was surprised by the results, but that likely won't win her any points when she explains to her mom that the French onion soup she used to have was useless.

At least French onion soup does no harm, unlike ice cream, cookies, chocolate, and other de facto comfort foods. Edibles high in fat and calories can lead to unhealthy eating habits and can worsen a person's mood, according to different research by Penn State University


More than 130 college-aged women took part in a study that asked for their state of mind and eating behaviors several times each day. "There was little in the way of mood changes right before the unhealthy eating behaviors," said Kristin Heron, research associate at Penn State's Survey Research Center. "However, negative mood was significantly higher after these behaviors."

While plenty of other studies have linked emotional eating to physiological disorders, what sets the Penn State study apart is that the women who participated did not have eating disorders. "What we know about mood and eating behaviors comes primarily from studies with eating disorder patients or from laboratory studies," Heron noted.

"This study is unique because it evaluates moods and eating behaviors as they occur in people's daily lives, which can provide a more accurate picture of the relationship between emotions and eating," said Penn State biobehavioral professor Joshua Smyth. The study was supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health and designed to give insights into unhealthy eating for weight-control programs.

Micro-size Life-forms May Have Swam in Mars Lakes

Brown University geologists have determined that Mars may have had water-rich, habitable environments as recently as 210 million years ago, a drop in the bucket when it comes to astronomical time lines.

Kat Scanlon, a graduate student, working with Brown geologist Jim Head and Boston University's David Marchant, as well as Lionel Wilson from the U.K.'s Lancaster Environmental Centre, found evidence that hot volcanic lava on the Arsia Mons volcano melted "massive amounts" of glacial ice into large bodies of water, according to a Brown University press release


"This is interesting because it's a way to get a lot of liquid water very recently on Mars," Scanlon was quoted as saying. She calculated that the englacial lakes -- which resemble liquid bubbles in a half-frozen ice cube -- would have held hundreds of cubic kilometers of meltwater. (For reference, Lake Tahoe contains about 120 cubic kilometers of water.) And this amount of ice water would have sustained microbial life-forms for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Scanlon speculated.

Head and Marchant have been looking at Arsia Mons for years; in 2003 they showed that the terrain around Mar's third-largest volcano shared a striking resemblance with that around the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. This time, Scanlon found pillow lava formations similar to those on Earth, as well as ridges and mounds that are created when lava flow is constrained by glacial ice.

Compared to other once-possible habitable environments discovered by NASA's Curiosity and other Mars rovers, the Arsia Mons site can be considered a baby. Head points out that some of the glacial ice may still be present at Arsia Mons, which is twice the size of Mount Everest and one of the largest discovered mountains in the solar system.

"Remnant craters and ridges strongly suggest that some of the glacial ice remains buried below rock and soil debris," Head said. "[An existing ice deposit might also be an exploitable water source for future human exploration."

"If signs of past life are ever found at those older sites, then Arsia Mons would be the next place I would want to go," Scanlon said. A paper of her work

was published in the journal Icarus.

Breaking News Is Delivered On Your Bathroom Hand Towel

In Mexico, it's all the news that's fit to print -- on bathroom paper towels.

The free newspaper Mas Por Mas, according to several reports, has installed across Mexico City specially designed, Internet-connected paper towel dispensers that use a special ink to print "minute-by-minute" news. Paper towel dispenser news at office-building, mall, and movie-theater bathrooms has driven a 37 percent increase in the number of unique visitors to Mas Por Mas' website in its first two weeks of use.

After doing their business, office workers can get breaking business news on the same paper towels they use to dry their hands. The dispensers were planned and produced by a brand agency, FCB Mexico, and connected to the newspaper's newsfeed via Wi-Fi. The ink used does not smudge on the paper towel and with wet hands. A QR code was also printed on each paper towel news handout, which bathroom users snapped on their smartphones to go directly to the newspaper's online site.

Mas Por Mas says paper towel dispenser news is a fresh, unexpected way of delivering the news. It is reminiscent of another technology, whose name we cannot print, that lets commode users put their entire Twitter feeds onto toilet paper.

Forget the news; how about a feel-good product? We need a novelty company to adopt the technology for printing fake Benjamins that we can use to wipe our bottoms.


Robots Are Taught to Do Chores at UC Berkeley

Pieter Abbiel is obsessed with creating autonomous robots that can do the things that humans don't want to do. He found inspiration from a robot that swept, mopped, and dusted at a friend's house. This robot, however, was programmed to do each motion of each task by its owner. Pieter envisioned a robot that could learn to do these types of tasks autonomously.

In Abbiel's SolveForX talk, Autonomic Robots

, he discusses his work at University of California, Berkeley and shows three examples of his learning robots. The talk was part of the EmTech 2011 conference, where Abbiel was crowned the winner of TR35 as one of the best innovators under 35 by MIT's Technology Review.

Abbiel started with inputs and outputs. Robots see the world as a series of pixels and then perform a series of motor commands. After the inputs, the information is analyzed and the robot decides to act.

Apprenticeship learning is Abbiel's teaching method for the robots. He demonstrates a task and then finds the best modeling of the task that the robot can do, cycling through an iterative process until autonomous execution is achieved.

The first example in the video is an autonomous helicopter. The copter performs several tricks that are beyond the ability of normal humans to control. Most impressive is the backwards loop maneuver called the Hurricane.

Next, a robot sorts socks. Abbiel explains that the robot was shown several hundred patterns of socks to learn colors, shapes, and what a sock looked like inside out. The robot now internalizes the data and when presented with new socks can sort and ball the socks.

Finally, a robot is shown sorting towels. The process looks completely unnatural as the bot takes in information about each towel and manipulates itself around the corners. Towels are folded and then neatly placed in precise piles.

This talk is very old by robotic standards, but the work that Abbiel has done is amazing. It's interesting for me to see the robots move -- several of these motions require the robots to hold their pincers in place while the arm sections move around them. Abbiel is still doing great work with UC Berkeley, and I'm excited to see what he does next.


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