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5 Quirky Things You Can Insure

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Think quickly about what types of insurance you have. Health (if you're lucky), renter's/homeowner's, car, and maybe a few other policies, right? If you think you've got as much coverage as you could ever need, think again. What happens if you get bitten by a werewolf? In fact, there are many other facets of your life you could be insuring. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. Body Parts

Celebrities are often known for a single physical feature, so it seems natural that they would want to protect their livelihoods by insuring these innate gifts. Enter the world of body part insurance. In this market, insurers, most notably Lloyd's of London, offer policies that pay out if something mars the precious body part. Keith Richards' fingers, Mariah Carey's legs, silent film star Ben Turpin's crossed eyes, and Dolly Parton's breasts were all rumored to have been covered by hefty policies at one time.

So are these policies worth it? After all, how often do peoples' eyes uncross? A 2006 piece on Slate's always-terrific Explainer says no. While these policies are great for building up publicity and media buzz (after all, who wouldn't want to talk about Mariah Carey's billion-dollar legs?), the policyholders would be just as well off with general disability insurance. These traditional policies would also pay off if an injury or other misfortune ruined the body part and kept the star from being able to work, but the rates would be lower. As a publicity stunt, though, it's hard to beat affixing a price tag to your famous appendages.

2. A Hole in One

25000.jpgIf you've ever played in or attended a golf tournament, you've probably seen a hole-in-one prize glittering at the front of a course. Anyone who scores a hole in one during his or her tournament round will score a new car, a boat, or some other fancy toy. Lots of these amateur tournaments are sponsored by charities, though, so is the Red Cross actually risking a $45,000 car each time it has a tournament? Nope. It insures against the possibility of any weekend hacker stumbling into a hole in one and winning the new wheels.

A hole-in-one insurance policy is part of a broader class known as prize indemnification insurance, a type of coverage that also covers top prizes on game shows and in other contests. The event sponsor pays a premium to an insurer, and if someone manages to find the cup on his first swing, the policy picks up the price of the prize. The premium is based on a number of factors, including the length of the holes (since it's easier to get a hole-in-one on a short par three; it's nearly impossible for even a pro to hole one on a long par five.) The value of the prize, the number of golfers playing in the tournament, and their respective skill levels also affect the premium. These type of policies can be affordable even for expensive prizes because the odds of an amateur golfer scoring a hole in one are so slim. A 2000 article in Golf Digest pegged the odds of a player scoring an ace on any given round at roughly 5,000 to 1, while a 2006 USA Today article offers the less optimistic estimate of 12,500 to 1.

3. Your Wedding

wedding-cake-topper.jpgAs wedding costs keep skyrocketing, brides and grooms have started to realize that planning their big day entails taking on quite a bit of financial risk. With all of the logistics and separate vendors required to get the wedding party dressed, the reception catered, and a church booked, there are dozens of places where any hitch could lead to a serious setback, like if your reception venue explodes the night before your wedding. Instead of blindly sinking thousands upon thousands of dollars into these risks, couples have the option of insuring their weddings through companies like WedSafe.

Such a policy will cover all sorts of unforeseen problems that could derail a wedding, like a serious illness or injury in the family, military deployment, inclement weather, or vendors not showing up. If any of these events lead to a cancellation or postponement of your wedding, the policy will cover your costs. One thing these policies definitely don't cover, though, is a bad case of cold feet. A change of heart is considered a circumstance within the control of the couple and doesn't warrant any reimbursement. [Image courtesy of]

4. Your Ransom

Let's say you're working for a multinational firm that dispatches you to some fairly risky areas. What if you get kidnapped and held for ransom? Ugh, having to pay all that loot to the kidnappers would ruin your day. If you have a ransom insurance policy, though, you don't have to worry any longer. (Well, you still have to worry about being held by kidnappers. Most of the financial burden's gone, though.) These policies, which are typically held by businessmen working in iffy areas, offer indemnity coverage for any loss incurred by whoever pays the ransom, whether it's the kidnapping victim or the captive's company. Such losses can include the ransom itself, any ransom money lost in transit, expenses for the response team to deliver the ransom, the hiring of negotiators, and rewards offered for the safe return of the kidnapped. Of course, since paying the ransom doesn't always guarantee the safe return of the victim, these policies also indemnify the holder against death, dismemberment, disablement, and blindness as a result of the kidnapping.

5. The Paranormal

alien-abduction-lamp.jpgSimon Burgess, a former underwriter at Lloyd's of London, has parlayed his quirky sense of humor into a niche in the insurance industry. Over the years his companies have provided coverage against all sorts of unlikely events. He's sold over 40,000 policies that insure against alien abduction; he'll pay off more than a million pounds to any policyholder who can pass a lie detector test, has video or photographic evidence of his abduction, and has a reliable third-party witness. Worried about being eaten by the Loch Ness Monster? Burgess has written policies for people like you. He's also sold policies covering vampire and werewolf transformations, temporary impotence on Valentine's Day, and Yeti attacks. His policies covering virgin births were especially popular as the millennium approached, just in case a young woman be blessed with the Second Coming via immaculate conception.

Are these policyholders serious? Not all of them. In a 2001 interview with The Scotsman, Burgess admitted that around half of his customers were probably buying his policies, which usually run around 100 pounds, as jokes or gifts. However, that doesn't seem to bother him a bit. In a 2006 interview with Money Marketing, he quipped, "Let's face it—insurance is so tedious that if I can enlighten my dreary life with a bit of humor every now and again, I will." Even if you're buying coverage on a lark, though, it must be nice to know you're totally financially protected in the unlikely event of a vampire attack.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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