Tactile Technology (and why Pinball doesn’t need it)

“For seven dollars you can play ‘til we close.” A chorus of bells, sirens and flippers makes it difficult to understand Liz Moore as she explains the rules to me.

Pop Bumpers is a seven-day-old business started by a local husband and wife in what used to be a hair salon in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The one-room enterprise is illuminated by the large storefront window. The only other light comes from a row of ten vintage pinball machines—the source of the racket.


I’m standing in front of a machine called Eight Ball, looking up at its artwork. There’s a Fonzie-esque-character in leather jacket and jeans and a redhead wearing a button-down shirt tied off at the midriff.  It appears her buttons were decorative though, because she has neglected to use any of them—a fact highlighted by the way she leans over the pool table towards me. My current score, 000000, is displayed next to her face. It’s the only digital part of the game.

I’m a bit daunted by the entire prospect. Until this point, the majority of my pinball experience had been gleaned from Space Cadet 3D Pinball, an electronic simulator that shipped with Windows 95.

The playing surface doesn’t look very different from Space Cadet: there are two buttons that operate the flippers and a variety of bumpers, ramps, and pockets for the ball to navigate. However, the experience couldn’t feel more opposite—the jolting of bumpers, the twitchy thwack of the flippers—I even sense the vibrations from the ball rolling across the playing surface.

Space Cadet taught me the principle of tilting in pinball. The “X” and “.” keys were used to accomplish this feat, a simplification which, until this point, I had taken for granted. I find it’s easier to tilt Eight Ball if I widen my stance and use my hips for leverage. Consequently I soon find myself, sort of, dry-humping a 300 pound mechanical beast while surrounded by elementary schoolers.

In modern video games, crashing a racecar feels no different than kicking a field goal—a vibrating controller in your palms. Getting stabbed feels same as falling off a horse, but neither hurts in the slightest. To date, nobody has created a realistic, digital sense of touch—a field of study called haptics. Even the best haptic systems only give pressure feedback—there’s no pain or temperature communicated to the user. Our very best prosthetic hands are only now becoming sophisticated enough to even detect a soft foam block placed in the palm.

Pinball doesn’t have to worry about translating a digital sense of touch. The ball is real, the flippers are real, the bumpers are real. Pinball doesn’t use a physics engine, it uses physics.


Why does salt melt the ice? (and why you’ll never ask another chemistry question)

Last week in Atlanta, two inches of snow caused more than two inches of chaos. Thousands of cars were abandoned along the interstate. Helicopters were sent out in search teams to find stranded motorists in a setting which began to resemble a zombie apocalypse movie. While driving experience certainly counts for something, Atlanta also lacked another important defense against ice: salt. In places like Chicago, which got 33 inches of snow in January, salting the roads is taken for granted. Most people in snowy climates are used to scrubbing salt stains off their boots, but why does it melt ice?

The answer is, “because of thermodynamics.” There’s no easy way around it. But if you want to understand why entropy can be used to melt ice on the sidewalk, buckle up; it’s about to get serious.

If you’re like me, somebody lied to you about why salt melts ice. A teacher might’ve told you the answer had to do with salt particles interfering with the crystal structure of ice. A lot of chemistry books and online explanations give the same rationale, but the real explanation is both more fundamental and more complex.

In order to appreciate the melting powers of entropy, we have to understand that salt dissolves in water. The most common road salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). When added to ice, it breaks into individual sodium and chloride ions in a thin layer of water on the surface of the ice. Adding the ions to the solution is what increases the system’s entropy.

salt spreader
By Petr Magera from Russia (В Москву пришел первый снегопад) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Entropy is often thought about as randomness or disorder. In chemistry, entropy is defined as the number of ways a situation can be arranged. Two balls on a table have more entropy than one. Three orange balls and three green balls have more entropy than six of the same color. Entropy is about how many combinations can be made. Typically, the most complicated environments offer the most possibilities.

A liquid, like water, has more entropy than a solid like ice. This seems intuitive—there are many more ways to arrange a puddle than an ice cube. A salty liquid has more entropy than a pure one, just like a mixture of orange and green balls has more entropy than all orange or all green. The salt ions add combinatorial possibilities—they increase entropy.

The real question is why does entropy melt ice?

To say something is frozen, is a statement about its entropy, not its temperature. Pure water doesn’t turn to solid because the temperature is  0ºC, it freezes because entropy has dropped low enough that a solid is possible. 0ºC just happens to be the temperature when this happens. This is why every liquid has a unique freezing point. The temperature has to drop all the way to -187ºC before enough entropy is overcome that propane solidifies.

The bottom line is that adding salt to water increases entropy, and it takes colder temperatures to freeze a system with higher entropy. If you think about it in these terms, a salt truck is really just a 30-ton entropy spreading device.

There’s no such thing as “stomach flu”

There’s no such thing as the stomach flu. There’s no ICD9 code for it, and no doctor has ever diagnosed a patient with it. The stomach flu is a blanket term used by people to describe any number of illnesses. It can describe brief viral infections, food poisoning, or a cold. It’s a catch-all for “I was sick for a day or two.”

The flu, the real flu, is caused by the influenza virus. If you’ve ever had it, you would remember. The real flu knocks you on your ass; most people who get it are very sick for more than a week. Common symptoms include fever, body aches, sore throat, headache, and a dry cough. Most of the time, the real flu does not cause diarrhea or vomiting. If you get the real flu, you’re likely to miss a week of school or work—you’re probably bed ridden. Worst of all though, the real flu is thriving off the confusion its unrelated little brother is causing.


The biggest problem with the term “stomach flu” is that it causes a decreased appreciation for how serious influenza actually is. More specifically, the propagation of the term makes people less likely to get a flu vaccine. “Oh I had the stomach flu last year, it wasn’t that bad. I don’t need a vaccine.” Furthermore, people who have gotten a flu vaccine will often think their vaccine didn’t work after they get the “stomach flu.” “I’m not getting a flu shot this year! I got one last year and I still got the flu anyway.”

Everybody should get a flu shot. It should be viewed as a civic duty. It’s not about protecting yourself as much as protecting everybody else. There’s a concept called Herd Immunity that describes how if enough of a population is immunized, a disease can’t infect anybody in the population—even the people who aren’t immune to it. The susceptible individuals are shielded by the immunity of the herd because the disease isn’t able to circulate. Using the term “stomach flu” damages our herd immunity. Let’s stop saying it.

Waiting for the Vapor to Settle

In an educational environment where the slide rule, the overhead projector, and even the blackboard have been rendered obsolete, there’s always new technology for Principal Paul Bower to think about. One of his newest concerns is electronic cigarettes. “We’re seeing a lot more of them and they can be smoked right inside class,” said Bower. “It’s definitely a huge issue for us, and it’s getting bigger.”

Electronic cigarettes differ from their traditional counterparts primarily in that they contain no tobacco. E-cigarettes typically consist of a metal tube which contains a battery, a heat source, and a cartridge filled with nicotine- infused “e-juice.” When a smoker draws on the mouthpiece, the battery supplies power to the heat source which rapidly warms the e-juice until it begins to evaporate.

E-juice is the tobacco analogue of e-cigs. Cigarettes have historically come in two flavors: regular or menthol. E-juice cartridges come in a myriad of flavors, colors, and nicotine concentrations. Vape Dudes, an online e-juice vendor, currently boasts “pumpkin cheesecake” as its flavor of the month.

With such appealing flavors, it’s easy to draw parallels to how traditional cigarettes were marketed to children in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, America has been in this exact spot before. In September of 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act made it illegal to sell flavored cigarettes.

E-cigarette manufacturers, have dodged both the classifications of “cigarette” as well as “tobacco product” and are not subject to regulation by the FDA.  When asked whether there was any regulatory body governing the sale of e-cigarettes, FDA spokesperson Jennifer Haliski replied, “not at the Federal level.”

This could all change however. The FDA has announced that it intends to review and potentially expand its definition of tobacco products to include electronic cigarettes.  If electronic cigarettes could be classified as a tobacco product, they would fall into the FDA’s jurisdiction. The agency had estimated that a decision would be reached by October of 2013. As of December 5th, no ruling has yet been released.

Suzaynn Schick, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, and a researcher for Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education isn’t optimistic that the FDA will ever get involved with e-cigarettes. “The FDA is being asked to regulate them as a drug, but I doubt they will just because there’s so much pushback from vested interests,” said Schick. It’s a situation she’s seen before from the FDA with regard to menthol cigarettes. “The FDA has been sitting on top of evidence that menthol contributes to the toxicity of cigarettes for a couple of years now, and they haven’t done squat to regulate it. They just sit there while more people die and more people become addicted.”

Many advocates have speculated that electronic cigarettes could represent a safer alternative to tobacco. From a hypothetical standpoint, there seems to be merit in this argument. A well-established body of science shows that the vaporization of THC is considerably healthier than traditional means of smoking whole cannabis. The same could be true for electronic cigarettes. Accordingly, the FDA and other independent groups are currently investigating the health risks associated with electronic cigarette use, but until those data are released, nothing definitive can be said. “I just think people are being very premature in making health claims. They may be better than cigarettes, they likely are, but we just don’t know,” said Schick.

The same unknowns surround e-cigarettes as a tool for quitting smoking, but preliminary studies suggest that e-cigs are less effective than traditional cessation devices like the patch or nicotine gum. The Tobacco-Related Disease Research program recently concluded, “more often than not individuals persist in using both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes, what is commonly called “dual use”.  Another study by the Alere Wellbeing Inc concluded that people using e-cigarettes as a cessation device were actually less likely to successfully quit (by “about 1/3”) compared to participants who had never tried e-cigarettes.

Right now there are a million questions surrounding the e-cigarette industry and about zero answers. Paul Bower is worried about his high school students, so for him, the decision to ban e-cigarettes was an obvious one. “At the school level we treat it as any other tobacco product,” said Bower matter-of-factly. If the federal government could operate with the effectiveness of an Arizona High School, it would seem progress could be achieved. While everybody waits for the smoke surrounding e-cigarettes to settle, there’s one thing that’s still perfectly clear: The safest thing to do is not to smoke at all.

Check out more data and charts regarding the growth of the electronic cigarette industry and the prevalence of e-cig usage in high schoolers and middle schoolers

NBC Newstrack #5: What’s left?

I’m supposed to be analyzing some facet of the NBC News Science page, but I can’t do it.

I’ve looked at aesthetics, page layout, advertising, the distribution of topics covered and from where articles are curated. I’ve looked at single articles, analyzed fonts and pointed out numerous typos.

But I’m not sure what to do now. I can’t think of anything, and NBCnews.com/science isn’t providing me with much to work with. My classmates are analyzing sites that have blogging communities, comments sections, and discussion. NBC has exactly none of those things. I wanted to write something substantial for my last newstrack blog, but there simply isn’t anything very substantial about NBC’s coverage of science.


There’s the same usual (over)abundance of space coverage–half the stories on the front page currently. And there’s the same lack of cool biological science. (NBC, I would LOVE to guest write biological science stories for you guys. Hire me! I will add so much diversity to your science news coverage…but I’d also like to enable the comments on my stories, and cross-post from my blog).

Ridiculous as my demands might seem, I don’t know what the reason for NBC’s isolationist stance on science coverage is. Perhaps they’re worried the comments will detract from the quality reporting they’re doing. Then again, how seriously can a site that posts articles about Zombie Neuroscience be taking itself? My gut feeling is that they’re worried that substantial, quality coverage will decrease the amount of space porn and holiday-themed click bait they can fit onto the front page. Clicks unfortunately equal dollars, and NBC is number 1 in making dollars.

I’d love for NBC’s science page to cultivate a blogging community; it’s a model that has worked well for Scientific American among other publishers. It adds diversity, distinct voices, and a breadth of coverage otherwise unattainable by a few staff writers. Perhaps it’s fitting that there’s so much space coverage on from NBC Science, their entire philosophy and science coverage feels like it exists in a lifeless vacuum.

Analysis of Frontline piece “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”

There are a lot of good things to say about Frontline’s October 22nd piece “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.” The quality of editing, interviewing, videography, and storytelling are all excellent. Additionally, the piece is wonderfully researched; its insights accurately convey the danger of microbial antibiotic resistance without sensationalizing it.

I want to make a single criticism of the piece before I praise the specifics. I’m reluctant to admit this, because it will reveal how incredibly nerdy I am, but I suppose worse things could be said about me. The film makes excellent use of fluorescence microscopy in the clips showing microbes replicating. These clips are usually short and serve as filler footage used when the narrator is speaking or during a lengthy interview response. The problem is, I’ve seen all these video clips before; they’re not original. In fact, because I’ve spent so much time watching PBS documentaries about bacteria (seriously), I can tell you that a NOVA broadcast called “The Evolutionary Arms Race” uses some of the exact same clips. At no point does the film insinuate that the bacteria the viewer is being shown are the superbugs being investigated (which is good because a lot of them appear to be Gram + anyway), but it annoyed me that they’re so shamelessly recycling so much of their filler footage.

Anyway, on to the positives. The editing is exceptional. The sheer number of clips in the hour long piece is staggering and many are only around a second long. On the subject of clip length, Frontline does a good job of interspersing longer clips in strategic places. As the stories become more personal, the clip lengths tend to get longer, accentuating the emotion and drama. In contrast, during the narrator voiceovers, the clips tend to be shorter and provide background and context. For instance shots of Tuscon and a superbug victim’s neighborhood are used as the narrator introduces her story.

David E. Hoffman does a fantastic job interviewing as well. He isn’t afraid to interject and ask for clarification when it’s needed, especially when experts present him with scientific terms. You can tell by the way he poses his questions, that Hoffman himself knows what the term means, but wants to clarify it for viewers. Because he’s done his research, Hoffman is able to phrase his clarifying question in a way that leads the interviewee to a distilled, but very much representative version of a complex idea. It’s obvious that Hoffman already knows that community associated MRSA is a type of superbug that could be contracted from scraping your knee on the playground, but he asks the question anyway because the viewers might not.

The use of multiple camera angles during the interview allows viewers to see both the subject’s face as well as Hoffman’s. This proves especially valuable when an Hoffman expresses surprise or confusion in response to an answer he’s given. A shot of him raising his eyebrows or leaning in with a furrowed brow give a sense of depth and conversation to the interview that would be lost if only the interviewee was filmed.

A variety classic film techniques are used to vary the shots and keep the viewer engaged. Depth of field, for instance, is often used to draw attention to details most pertinent to the story. In one particular shot, the camera is positioned at the end of a long hospital hallway with extremely soft focus. Two people we’re led to believe are doctors walk down the hall towards the camera, but the focus never sharpens. Shots like these add texture to the piece and are used well as filler throughout. Close-ups are also frequently inserted between wider shots to show detail and pose questions implicitly. In a segment describing an outbreak of a resistant bacterium in India that had spread to the water supply, close-up footage of an Indian woman washing her clothes in a bucket of dirty water makes the viewer wonder if the deadly pathogen could be right there in the water.

Finally, the storytelling is wonderfully done. By interweaving the tales of three separate people who have been directly affected by superbugs the piece has a very powerful emotional tone. Additionally, such poignant real life examples give the piece exigence—this problem is here now and it’s damaging human lives. Because the idea of antibiotic resistance is based in the complex idea of evolutionary biology, it would’ve been easy for this story to come across as a cold and impersonal doomsday prophecy given by scientists and pharmaceutical companies. However, the narrative framework of tracking the victims makes it personal and compelling.

NBC News Science Analysis: Looking at a single article

In the course of three previous posts, I’ve talked about my overall impression of NBC News and their general science coverage. I promised at the end of the last post that I’d get into a more specific analysis of their science content in the next post for the series. I’m no liar, so today that’s what I’m going to do. You’re welcome to join!

Here’s an article from the top of nbcnews.com/science written by Maggie Fox. I’ve selected it because it’s written by an NBC correspondent and it seems to be about an interesting topic.


The first thing I noticed about this article is the unfortunate choice of byline font. Until you zoom into 150% (at least on my laptop) it appears to read “Maggle Fox, NBC News.”

The next thing I noticed is that the second sentence doesn’t make any sense.

“And while most of you is aging in a coordinated way, odd anomalies that have the researchers curious: Your heart may be “younger” than the rest of your tissues, and a woman’s breasts are older.” Wat??

I think they meant to remove the “that” before the colon? That‘s my best guess anyway. (Man, why are all these analyses so snarky? I don’t know how to offer non-sarcastic criticism)

We’re not off to a great start here Maggle, I’m hoping you’re about to explain to me how tissues in my body can be younger or older. Let’s keep reading.

“[T]umor [cells] are the oldest of all,” neat.

“[E]mbryonic stem cells, the body’s master cells, look just like newborns with a biological age of zero” very cool.

I still don’t know how we’re measuring age (please get there soon!) but I’m not surprised by either of these facts. Anyone who knows a little bit about cell biology knows tumor cells are often immortal, and obviously stem cells are the youngest. I think it is safe to assume, however, that these facts would be quite interesting to readers with backgrounds outside of cell biology. In other words, I don’t think I’m the target audience.

So far, we’ve seen a lede paragraph, and two short paragraphs of background. Next we’re given a quote about what the long term goals/hopes are for this anti-aging research. It’s a good quote, but I still have no idea what we’re measuring to determine the age of tissues.

Finally, in the 6th paragraph, we get into some science. “Horvath looked at a genetic process called methylation. It’s a kind of chemical reaction that turns on or off stretches of DNA” From a stylistic perspective, I don’t like the second sentence, because, by itself, it doesn’t mean anything because of its nonspecific pronoun. I’d prefer an em dash personally: Horvath looked at a genetic process called methylation–a kind of chemical reaction that turns on or off stretches of DNA.

But before I get too nit-picky I want to praise this definition. This is a nice simple definition that readers can easily understand and is accurate. If science writing is about distilling complex ideas down to their most basic expression and communicating them to the public, this is good science writing. The next sentence is equally good, contextualizing the concept of methylation within the body, “All cells have the entire genetic map inside; methylation helps determine which bits of the map the cells use to perform specific functions.

Now I know what we’re talking about. Now I’m excited. The article then goes on to talk about the relative ages of a variety of tissues based on Dr. Horvath’s new aging technique. While it’s great to know that heart tissue looks younger than breast tissue or tumor tissue, haven’t we already been told this in previous paragraphs? I arrive at the end of the article with a lot of questions. Why is DNA methylation diagnostic of tissue age? Why are some methylation events more closely associated with aging than others? Is methylation the cause of the aging, or just a symptom? What are the plans for future experiments? Can anything from this experiment be used clinically already?

I don’t know what sort of technical constrains this article was written under, but I was disappointed with the lack of depth. At 555 words, it felt to me, as though the piece should have focused more on the science, instead of spending around a third of the piece (142ish words) comparing different types of tissue. This is especially true when we consider nobody even knows why some tissues aggregate more methylation events than others. Horvath himself is even quoted (complete with more typos) in the article saying, “[The heart] looked one average nine years younger. It’s really striking. I don’t know why, but it looks younger.”

This is really interesting science! and it has to do with a topic relevant to everybody subject to the cold ravages of time, but I feel like I’ve been deprived of the best parts of it and instead been given a ranking for the ages of tissue. It’s sort of like reading the standings on NHL.com at the end of the year; I can see the order of stuff, but I missed all the action.

It’s not good science to base a critique of an entire organization (NBC) off a single sample, so I won’t try to extrapolate this to anything larger than what it is. You could probably make a career (if anybody paid you HA!) out of critiquing NBC’s articles, but it felt silly to analyze their science coverage without analyzing the specifics of individual articles. Maybe, if I’m really unhappy with the small sample size, I’ll continue to look at single articles in future weeks.

It’s a good week not to be analyzing Scientific American. What a mess that is. Good luck Mark Zastrow. Much respect to everyone who came forward  to share their stories. And SciAm, I still have a 3 year subscription…

Science Writing by David Shultz @dshultz14