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8 Tips for Beating a Claw Machine

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Unless you’re small enough to climb inside, grabbing a prize out a claw machine can be pretty tough. But Daily Beast entertainment reporter Jen Yamato and film critic Kim Morgan are very, very good at it: Yamato estimates that she’s nabbed 100 toys from the prize pits of claw machines, which she’s deposited in her car and at her house, and at one point, Morgan says, she had “two large garbage bags overflowing with stuffed animals from just one year. I donated them.”

Morgan has always been drawn to claw machines, but got really hooked in 2008: “Must be the dumb kid in me that spies an enormous box of stuffed toys,” she says. “A claw? It's almost something out of the Brothers Grimm … One time I clawed six animals in a row. There was a crowd around me! It was so silly.” Yamato’s obsession with claw games began in her adult life. “I only realized I was good at it because I kept winning stuff and I was keeping track of it on Instagram,” she says. “I’m a professional person most of the time, and it’s one of the only things that I will let myself be completely competitive about. … You get to bask in the glory of holding your bounty high above your head and saying, ‘Yes, I snatched this prize out of this machine! I beat it!’”

It might seem like fun and games—and, of course, it is. But there’s real skill involved, too. Here are the strategies Morgan and Yamato use to nab a prize.

1. CHECK OUT THE PRIZE PIT.

The first thing you should look at when thinking about playing a claw machine is the prize pit—specifically, how tightly the prizes are packed. “An easy tell is when all of the stuffed animals have been front faced and they’re packed in like sardines,” Yamato says. “That means nobody has jiggled anything loose yet, or maybe an employee has just stuffed them in super tight.” A tightly-packed prize pit will make your job a lot harder: “I’m not going to bother playing a machine that is clearly stuffed too tight,” Yamato says. “I won’t be able to reel anything in.”

Morgan agrees. “If the toys are stuffed so tightly that grabbing is impossible, don't waste your time,” she says. “I think it's better to find those weird lone claw machines in places that seem more abandoned—they don't get stuffed as much. Those are the only places you can win because there's more room to drag an animal.”

2. WATCH THE PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU.

“Don’t necessarily watch how they play, but watch how the machine reacts when they play—that information can help you whenever it comes to be your turn,” Yamato says. “I can see if the claw grip is too loose, or if it’s designed to let go or give a jiggle after it grasps something, then I won’t play because I know the odds are definitely against me … unless it’s a really, really sweet toy that I want. Then I’ll spend a little extra time.”

3. PICK YOUR TARGET CAREFULLY.

Yamato and Morgan go after the prize that looks the most attainable. “Sometimes, the most desirable prizes are the hardest ones to get,” Yamato says. “Being realistic about what you can win in any given machine will help you win a lot more.”

“If the pretty pony in the far end, stuffed tightly next to the cute teddy bear, is an impossible option, you're going to have to settle with the ugly duck/monster thing with red shoes and a cape or whatever the hell it is and live with it,” Morgan says.

The ideal prize is “sticking out a little bit, isn’t being blocked or obstructed by any other prizes, and isn’t too close to the side,” Yamato says. (If a prize is leaning against the glass, the claw track won’t allow the claw to get close enough to nab it.) Morgan also advises sticking to prizes that are close to the chute: “Don't drag something from the very end of the machine,” she says. “That rarely works.”

Yamato also avoids round or rotund objects. “Those are hard because a lot of the time there’s nothing to grab onto,” she says. Instead, aim for a prize that has some kind of appendage—a head, or an arm or a leg—sticking out: “Something you can get one of the claw prongs under is your best bet, if the angle’s right.”

4. PLAY ONCE TO GET A FEEL FOR THE CLAW.

After Yamato has picked her prize, she’ll play once, “to test the tensile grip of the claw to see how easily it will hold after it closes,” she says. “A lot of them will jiggle open right after they close, so even if you’ve caught something, it’ll screw you over by opening up the claws a little bit.” If that happens, Yamato says she won’t play again ... “probably.”

In general, it’s easier to play machines that have a three-pronged claw rather than a two-pronged claw: “It’s all about the grip—if the claw has a weak grip, forget it,” Morgan says. “The two-pronged claws seem weaker to me.”

5. … AND MAYBE MANEUVER YOUR PRIZE INTO A BETTER POSITION.

“One strategy is bumping another animal out of the way to grab another,” Morgan says. She also advises grabbing and dragging a prize closer to the chute to make it easier to grab on your second try.

6. USE MOST OF YOUR TIME GETTING THE CLAW INTO POSITION.

Most claw machines drop and grab with one push of a button; some need two pushes—one to drop the claw, another to close it—but that’s rare. Either way, “Most machines give you enough time to position your claw, and most of them will let you move it forward and backward and then sideways,” Yamato says. “I usually try to spend most of the time of the clock running down to make sure that I’m exactly above where I want the claw to drop.” Once you’re in the absolute best position, drop it.

7. KNOW WHEN TO STOP.

Most machines cost 50 cents to play, so Yamato will put in a dollar. “Maybe half the time I get a prize on my first dollar,” she says. “I’ll usually play a couple of dollars at most before I realize that I should walk away. It’s like gambling—for no monetary gain!”

Morgan says grabbing a prize usually takes her a few tries “on good machines,” she says. “On bad machines—and they seem worse now—it takes me about five or ten times or never. I will not go past ten. That makes me feel like a junkie.”

8. DON’T ASSUME EVERY CLAW MACHINE IS RIGGED.

A few weeks ago, Vox posted an article that explained how claw machine owners can rig them—but Yamato doesn’t think that’s true for every game. “People might play less because they think every claw machine is rigged to screw them over, but not all claw machines are rigged,” she says. “I always believe that every claw is winnable—it’s just a matter of how much I want to stand there and keep playing if I already know that this particular machine is sort of stuck.” But people should avoid the machines that have money wrapped around the prizes: “In my experience,” Yamato says, “those are usually the ones that are rigged.”

Morgan, on the other hand, does believe that many of the machines are rigged—which is why she prefers to play machines in places off the beaten path, like in California’s Yucca Valley. “Are they less rigged in the desert? I think so,” she says. “I have incredible luck out there. I always play in the desert.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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