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Sweet Action: 8 Big Bets Made by Famous People

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© Matthew Putney/ABC/Handout/Corbis

One of the headlines coming out of Saturday night's GOP debate was Mitt Romney's offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle an argument over something Romney said (and removed) from his book No Apology. Perry hasn't taken the bait, but here are some big money bets other famous people have made.

1. Truman Defeats Dewey, Jimmy the Greek Defeats Vegas

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Everyone remembers the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline from the 1948 presidential election, but Harry Truman wasn't the only big winner that night. Legendary gambler Jimmy the Greek had bet $10,000 on Truman at steep 17:1 odds. His logic? His research showed that female voters weren't too keen on candidates with facial hair, which didn't bode well for the mustachioed Dewey.

2. Arnold Palmer Bets on Romance

When golfing legend Arnold Palmer met his wife, Winnie, he had a problem that a lot of young guys run into: he couldn't afford an engagement ring. He was still an amateur golfer at the time, and he was barely scraping by on his meager income. Eventually, he borrowed money from a group of pals to cover the rock.

Palmer wasn't crazy about having this sort of debt, so when the same group of buddies proposed a trip to New Jersey's Pine Valley Gold Club, he jumped on the chance to chisel away at his obligations. When they hit the links, Palmer offered the boys this bet: he would get $100 for every stroke he finished under 70. If he played poorly on the notoriously tough course, he would shell out $100 for every stroke he finished over 80. Although he bogeyed the first hole, Palmer repeatedly used this system along with a variety of side bets to wriggle out from under $5,000 in debt in a single weekend.

3. Getting Into the White House is Tougher Than Free Throws

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A few years ago, NBA star Shaquille O'Neal and a member of his entourage had a fiery debate about whether or not Shaq could just drop by the White House unannounced and be welcomed with open arms. After much back-and-forth, Shaq decided he'd give it a try. If he couldn't get past the gate, he would do 1,000 pushups. If he made it inside, his buddy would have to do the pushups.

Unfortunately for Shaq, even the Big Aristotle needs an appointment to see the President. When O'Neal walked up to the gate, the Secret Service politely but firmly turned him away. He later told the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg that he was working off his debt in increments of 20 to 30 pushups. (Shaq is pictured with the Lakers and President Bush in 2002.)

4. Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb Doesn't Go Off

Even celebrity scientists have tried their hands at high profile gambling. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich is famous for his grim predictions concerning overpopulation; he famously predicted in 1968 that 20% of the world's population would starve to death before 1985. As you might expect, these claims were somewhat controversial. When Ehrlich commented in 1980 that he would make an even money bet that England would not exist in the year 2000, economist Julian L. Simon had heard enough. Simon decided to book an unusual bet of his own with Ehrlich.

Since Ehrlich's underlying Malthusian argument involved the depletion of natural resources, Simon made this challenge: Ehrlich could name whatever natural resource he wanted, buy $1,000 worth of it, and pick a time frame. If at the end of the time frame the commodities were worth more than the initial $1,000, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If they were worth less than $1,000, Ehrlich would fork the difference over to Simon. If Ehrlich's predictions about dwindling natural resources came to pass, the prices of commodities would skyrocket and Simon would be out a lot of cash.

Ehrlich was game. He spread his $1,000 evenly among chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten and told Simon to wait 10 years. Although the world's population shot up by 800 million people in the intervening decade, the metals' prices crashed. When the bet ended in 1990, Ehrlich had to cut Simon a check for $576.07.

5. Phil Mickelson Has a Nice 2001

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PGA golfer Phil Mickelson had a hot hand during 2001. Fans might remember that two longshots won titles that year: the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, and the Arizona Diamondbacks knocked off the New York Yankees in a classic World Series. Mickelson was part of betting groups that had picked both squads. Their $20,000 bet on the 28-to-1 Ravens yielded a cool $560,000, and they hit again with $20K on the 38-to-1 Diamondbacks. And to think people used to say Mickelson couldn't get a big win.

6. Ringo Says Don't Bet on a Beatles Reunion

By 1974, legions of fans were clamoring for a Beatles reunion, but Ringo Starr was having none of it. The drummer told London reporters that he had bet a thousand pounds that the Beatles wouldn't play together that year, and that he would be happy to throw a thousand quid down on the group never playing together again.

7. Hollywood Ads Add Up

In 1999, Dreamworks' Saving Private Ryan was locked in a duel with Miramax's Shakespeare in Love for the Academy Award for Best Picture, which set the stage for an unusual bet. Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg bet actor Warren Beatty that his rival Miramax would run more ads hyping its film than Dreamworks would. The stakes: a $10,000 donation to the charity of the winner's choice. Beatty won the wager when Dreamworks took out 165 pages of ads versus Miramax's 118, and Katzenberg paid up.

8. Computers Are No Match for Chess Master

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In 1968, Scottish chess champion David Levy attended a conference on artificial intelligence and discussed the future prospects for chess-playing computers. Although Levy was optimistic about the future of chess-playing computers, he thought developing great AI would take a while. After some debate, he bet four professors 1,250 British pounds that nobody would make a computer that could beat him within the next 10 years.

Although it took a while for chess programs to pose a serious threat to him, Levy ended up winning the bet when he defeated the program Chess 4.7 in a six-game match at the 1978 deadline. The man-vs.-machine showdown was such a big deal that even Sports Illustrated covered it.

After his win, Levy put up another $1,000 as a bounty for the first chess program that could beat him in a four- or six-game match. He eventually fell in 1989 to Deep Thought, a precursor to famed chess computer Deep Blue.

Portions of this article originally appeared in early 2010.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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