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Why Angry Birds is So Addictive

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In this analysis, usability expert Charles Mauro dissects the wildly successful game Angry Birds in order to explain why it's so engaging -- what factors in the game affect human cognition so that we'll spend hours flinging virtual birds at virtual pigs? I love Mauro's dry explanation of the game's premise:

... For those who don’t have a clue what Angry Birds is all about, here is a quick synopsis. The game involves employing a sling shot to propel small cannonball-shaped birds with really bad attitudes at rather fragile glass and timber houses populated by basically catatonic green pigs. The basic thrust of the game is to bring about the demise of the pigs as quickly and expertly as possible by collapsing the pigs’ houses on top of their (sometimes) helmeted heads. Obviously, this sounds like a truly dumb concept. However, there is a catch.

The article goes on to explore factors such as response time (faster is not always better), short-term memory management, an element of mystery, and sound. It really is, as Mauro says, a complete "cognitive teardown" of the game. Here's another snippet from the section on response time:

In Angry Birds game play the pigs also take a long time to expire once their houses are sent to bits. In many play sequences, seconds are consumed as the pigs teeter, slide and roll off planks or are crushed under slow falling debris. This response time of 3-5 seconds, in most user interfaces, brings users to the point of exasperation, but not with Angry Birds. Again, really smart response time management gives the user time to relax and think about how lame they are compared to their 4 year old who is already at the 26th level. It also gives the user time to structure an error correction strategy (more arc, more speed, better strategy) to improve performance on the next shot. The bottom line on how Angry Birds manages response time: fast is good, clever is better.

Now you know what nerds like me think about all day. Anyhoo, read the rest (especially the bit about sound) for an amusing but deep look into the Angry Birds experience.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Melinda Seckington, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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