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Is an Extended Car Warranty Worth the Money?

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Next to a house, buying a motor vehicle is going to be one of the largest purchases you’re ever going to make—especially when the sales price keeps creeping up from the number displayed on the car window. Dealers use every opportunity to up-sell consumers on additional safety or entertainment features, rust-proofing, and extended warranties.

Whether an in-seat DVD player is worth it is subjective. But should you consider adding extra repair coverage to a brand-new car?

Most new vehicles are covered for their first 36,000 miles or three years miles on the road, with engine and transmission warranties extending up to 100,000 miles or 10 years. (These figures can vary depending on manufacturer: Always check the fine print.) At the point of sale, dealers will often offer to extend the life of the warranty under many of the same terms, or to tack on additional coverage for repairs not included under the manufacturer’s terms for hundreds or thousands of dollars more. Essentially, an extended warranty offers a longer peace-of-mind period than what comes with the car off the lot.

If you’re prone to worrying, it might be worthwhile. Otherwise, some statistics point to a very uncertain return on investment. A 2013 Consumer Reports survey of 12,000 readers found that 55 percent of respondents never had to use their coverage during the period their vehicle was protected. Those that did usually had repair bills that were less than the total sum of the warranty’s cost, meaning they still lost money.

Warranty terms can also be problematic: You might be restricted to certain locations, or stumble upon an issue that isn’t covered. When discussing a warranty with a dealer, it’s a good idea to get the terms in writing to read over when you’re out of the pressurized atmosphere of a showroom. If you like to tinker with or modify cars, then you may also void the coverage.

The warranty may also be worth it to you if you feel that an inflated car loan beats the risk of high repair bills, or if you enjoy certain towing, tire repair, or car loan perks. With more and more cars relying on electronic components, diagnosing problems can get expensive. But a better idea might simply be to look for makes and models that have a positive history of minimal repair problems, reducing the odds you’ll need the coverage in the first place.

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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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