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9 Things You Didn't Know About H. Ross Perot

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Henry Ross Perot isn't a name you hear too often these days, but the 78-year-old Texas businessman is still kicking: He still makes an annual appearance on Forbes 400 Richest list (number 68 this year); he's still as deeply opinionated as he's always been; and his ears still stick out.

And he's still a fascinating American creation, which is why we've complied a short list of things you probably didn't know about H. Ross Perot:

1. He pulled himself up by his cowboy boot straps

H. Ross Perot was born on June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas "“ just west of straddling the line between Arkansas and Texas, hence the name "“ and had his first job about the same time he lost his milk teeth. The soon-to-be billionaire grew up training horses, selling magazines and garden seeds, and delivering newspapers before entering the Naval Academy, where he was twice elected class president. Fast forward a few years, after Naval service and doing time as a salesman in the trenches at IBM, and Perot borrows $1000 from his wife to start Electronic Data Systems Leasing Corporation, or EDS as it's more commonly known, in 1962. Within eight years "“ and after closing in on some lucrative state contracts to computerize Medicare and Medicaid claims "“ that $1000 investment became a multi-billion dollar corporation employing more than 70,000 people.

2. He convinced Ollie North to stay in the Marines

Young Oliver North wanted to work for EDS, but Perot discouraged him from it, saying the promising young officer should stay right were he was, in the Marines. This, of course, may not have been the best career path for young North "“ who ended up a household name at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.

3. He's hardcore

In 1979, when two EDS employees were kidnapped and held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries, Perot didn't wait around for help to come. The billionaire organized his own storm-the-castle rescue mission with the help of retired Green Beret Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons.

The rescue mission, which was staffed by EDS employees, was ultimately successful "“ Perot himself walked into the Tehran prison where his men were being held and walked them out.

Ken Follett wrote a book about it, On the Wings of Eagles, which was later turned into a TV miniseries.

This was not the only time Perot would attempt to bankroll a rescue mission into hostile territories "“ this one just happened to be the most successful.

4. He's tough on drugs

Nineteen-seventy-nine was a busy year for Perot: In addition to mounting a commando raid to rescue his employees from Iranian revolutionaries, he was asked by the Texas governor to head up the Texas War on Drugs committee. Which he did pretty effectively "“ the committee proposed five laws to fight drug dealing, all of which were passed by the state legislature and signed into law.

5. He's a speed freak

Perot used to race his son on Lake Texoma "“ him in a Cigarette boat souped up with two $250,000 jet engines, against his son, Ross, Jr., overhead in a helicopter. Fellow boaters reported seeing Perot gripping the steering wheel of Blue Thunder, his boat, his goggles on and doing well over 100 miles an hour.

6. He never did get that heliport

Perot has never been particularly ostentatious with his money, a large chunk of which has long been wrapped up in philanthropic endeavors. While he's always up for spending money for a good cause, having parted with $120 million for inner-city schools and anti-drugs measures within the first few months of his charity's establishment, Perot didn't exactly splash the cash around (except for the horses, the house, and his wife's cars). But sadly, the city of Dallas denied Ross Perot one thing he truly wanted: a heliport for his 22-acre North Dallas manse. The Dallas Plan Commission denied the billionaire's request after his neighbors complained.

7. He's a collector

In 1984, Perot bought a copy of the Magna Carta "“ actually a 1297 copy of the one signed in 1215 by King John at the behest of some pissed off nobles, and defining rights for citizens of British Commonwealth countries for years to come. Perot, through his foundation, bought the document from a British family of gentry for $1.5 million; it had been in their possession since the Middle Ages. He lent it to the National Archives in Washington, DC, where it shared the room with original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution "“ until 2007, that is. In 2007, the foundation Perot controls abruptly decided to take the Magna Carta back and put it up on the auction block, where it promptly sold for $21.3 million.

8. He hates John McCain

perot-mccain.jpgPerot, who worked with the Nixon administration to figure out ways to help POWs in Vietnam, hates the senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate. In January of 2008, just as the primaries were about to hit full stride, Perot made a well-timed call to Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, blasting McCain for both personal reasons (dumping his wife, Carol, for beer heiress Cindy; calling Perot "nuttier than a fruitcake"), and political (Perot believes McCain hushed up evidence that POWs were left alive in Vietnam).

Alter's conversation with Perot also revealed that the former presidential candidate, like many others in the country, had been duped by email chains claiming that Barack Obama was a Muslim and had refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. At that time, Perot said he'd be voting for former Massachusetts governor and Mormon Mitt Romney in the Texas Republican primary, explaining, "When I went to the Naval Academy and met my first Mormons I asked why so many were excellent officers"¦ I learned it was because of their strong family unit."

9. He's a family man

During an interview on 60 Minutes, Perot claimed that he so abruptly dropped out of the 1992 presidential election to protect his daughter. According to Perot, his daughter Carolyn's wedding was in danger of being disrupted by a nefarious Republican plot to embarrass her with lurid and ostensibly doctored nude photographs. And this same nefarious plot included some sort of disruption of the wedding day itself. And there was this other nefarious plot to tap his phones. Perot had no proof of that either plot existed, but hey, a man can't be too careful with his daughter's happiness, now can he? (It was later discovered that the man who told Perot about the plots actually made it up, in an effort to discredit Bush.)

(For more on the presidential election of 1992, check out our previous post, Secrets of Past Elections: 1992.)

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]