Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Claw machines for toys are rigged

At some point or another you've probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you've found that the pincers just don't grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It's not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. ...

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

This isn't a closely kept secret. It's publicly available information, pulled straight from the instruction guides for the biggest claw games out there. ...

The machine's owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the "dropping skill," as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it's grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times...

This isn't isolated to one claw machine or one company — this is standard practice industry-wide.

Starting in 1951, the machines were regulated as gambling devices, but in 1974, those regulations were relaxed. A claw boom began. Today, they're ubiquitous in grocery stores, malls, and anywhere else with lots of foot traffic.
--Phil Edwards, Vox, on money from suckers. HT: MEL

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Friendliness can come from a genetic disorder

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. ...

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. ...

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. ... Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people. ...

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. ... Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
--Jennifer Latson, New York, on the darnedest genetic influences on behavior

Liberals on immigration a decade ago

A decade ago, liberals publicly questioned immigration in ways that would shock many progressives today.

In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

Prominent liberals didn’t oppose immigration a decade ago. Most acknowledged its benefits to America’s economy and culture. They supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Still, they routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state. And they were far more likely than liberals today are to acknowledge that, as Krugman put it, “immigration is an intensely painful topic … because it places basic principles in conflict.”

Today, little of that ambivalence remains. In 2008, the Democratic platform called undocumented immigrants “our neighbors.” But it also warned, “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked,” adding that “those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law.” By 2016, such language was gone. The party’s platform described America’s immigration system as a problem, but not illegal immigration itself. And it focused almost entirely on the forms of immigration enforcement that Democrats opposed. In its immigration section, the 2008 platform referred three times to people entering the country “illegally.” The immigration section of the 2016 platform didn’t use the word illegal, or any variation of it, at all. ...

In July 2015, two months after officially announcing his candidacy for president, Sanders was interviewed by Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox. Klein asked whether, in order to fight global poverty, the U.S. should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders reacted with horror. “That’s a Koch brothers proposal,” he scoffed. He went on to insist that “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”

...progressive commentators now routinely claim that there’s a near-consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits.

There isn’t. According to a comprehensive new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But academics sometimes de-emphasize this wage reduction because, like liberal journalists and politicians, they face pressures to support immigration.
--Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, on why we should be charitable towards our opponents

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why do fathers abandon their children?

Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father, and often when you ask them about it, you hear a litany of male barbarism. ... The children’s tales often reinforce the standard image we have of the deadbeat dad — the selfish cad who spreads his seed and leaves generations of wreckage in his wake.

Yet when you ask absent fathers themselves, you get a different picture. You meet guys who desperately did not want to leave their children, who swear they have tried to be with them, who may feel unworthy of fatherhood but who don’t want to be the missing dad their own father was.

In truth, when fathers abandon their own children, it’s not a momentary decision; it’s a long, tragic process. A number of researchers have tried to understand how father abandonment happens, most importantly Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, who moved to Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., immersed themselves in the neighborhoods there and produced an amazing account, “Doing the Best I Can.”

Pregnancy is rarely planned among the populations they studied. Typically the parents are in a semi-relationship that is somewhere between a one-night stand and an actual boyfriend-girlfriend bond. ...

When the men learn that their partner is pregnant, they don’t panic, or lament all the freedom they are going to miss. On the contrary, three-quarters of the men in Edin and Nelson’s research were joyous at the news. The men are less likely than the women to want to end the pregnancy with an abortion.

These guys have often had a lot of negativity in their lives. The child is a chance to turn things around and live a disciplined life. The child is a chance to have a respected role, to find love and purpose.

The men at this stage are filled with earnest resolve. They begin to take the relationship more seriously and commit to the kid during infancy. ...

The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other. They usually went into this without much love or sense of commitment. ...

By the time the child is 1, half these couples have split up, and many of the rest will part ways soon after. Suddenly there’s a new guy living in the house, a man who resents the old one. The father redefines his role. He no longer aims to be the provider and caregiver, just the occasional “best friend” who can drop by and provide a little love. This is a role he has a shot at fulfilling, but it destroys parental responsibility.

He believes in fatherhood and tries it again with other women, with the same high hopes, but he’s really only taking care of the child he happens to be living with at any given moment. The rest are abandoned.
--David Brooks, NYT, on pregnancy without love

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Anxiety disorder is becoming the new norm

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)
--Alex Williams, NYT, on our anxious age

Richard Thaler's conflict of interest

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
R. H. Thaler has served as an uncompensated advisor to the United Kingdom Behavioural Insights States Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, both from their inception. He also has numerous behavioral biases so would personally benefit from evidence-based noncoercive nudges.
--Conflict of interest section from Benartzi et al., "Should Governments Invest More in Nudging?"

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Fetuses prefer face-like images

It is dark in the womb—but not that dark. Human flesh isn’t fully opaque, so some measure of light will always pass through it. This means that even an enclosed space like a uterus can be surprisingly bright. “It’s analogous to being in a room where the lights are switched off and the curtains are drawn, but it’s bright outside,” says Vincent Reid from the University of Lancaster. ...

But what exactly do fetuses see? And how do they react to those images? To find out, Reid shone patterns of red dots into the wombs of women in the third trimester of their pregnancies, and monitored the babies within using high-definition ultrasound. By looking at how the babies turned around, Reid showed that they have a preference for dots arranged in a face-like pattern—just as newborn infants do. ...

For decades, scientists have known that third-trimester babies can perceive sounds and other stimuli while still in the womb. For example, in 1980, Anthony DeCasper and William Fifer asked pregnant women to read The Cat in the Hat to their fetuses, again and again for the last 7 weeks of their pregnancies. As soon as the babies were born, DeCasper and Fifer gave them pacifiers. The babies could then choose to hear a recording of either The Cat in the Hat or a different children’s story, by sucking at different times. And they sucked for the cat.

“People showed that a fetus could learn, was aware of elements of language, and preferred its mother’s own voice,” says Reid. ...

[The study] also confirms that the preference for faces isn’t the result of experiences that happen after birth. Some scientists have suggested that babies imprint on the first things they see—usually their mother’s face—in the same way that baby chicks or ducklings do. It’s very hard to test that idea: If imprinting happens and is important, it would be unethical to deprive a baby of that stimulus. “But this study rules that out,” says Reid. The preference already exists in utero.
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on consciousness before birth