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How Involved Was Mitt Romney in the Founding of Staples?

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Image credit: JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters/Landov

In every debate this campaign season, Mitt Romney has been hammered by his Republican rivals for essentially teaching companies how to ship jobs overseas during his days at Bain. Romney almost always responds by saying he actually created jobs, and helped start Staples. Did Romney really have a hand in creating an office supply giant?

He did. More accurately, he convinced a bunch of people with a lot of money that Staples' business model would work. He also put in a few shifts at the first store.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1984, Romney left consulting firm Bain & Company to co-found their new private equity investment firm, Bain Capital. Not long after, supermarket executive Thomas G. Stemberg approached Bain with an idea. According to Staples company lore, Stemberg was working on a business proposal over a holiday weekend when his printer ribbon broke. "After driving from store to store and not finding the correct ribbon," Staples.com explains, "Tom came to a realization: The world needed a supermarket for office products."

When Stemberg went looking for a venture capital, he got laughed out of offices all over Boston. The problem, as most investors saw it, was that the customers Stemberg was trying to draw weren’t used to going to a store to shop for office supplies. For the longest time, they’d ordered pens from one vendor, paper from another, and had everything delivered. No way was a retail startup going to change this deeply ingrained consumer behavior.

The True Cost of Pens

When Stemberg took the idea to Bain, Romney was intrigued, but his colleagues were uneasy. Romney decided to do a little research and the firm began surveying small businesses in the area. They found that business managers often thought they were spending very little on supplies, and believed it would cost more to send someone to a store to buy them. When they talked to accountants at the same businesses, though, they often found the places were spending as much as five times more than management thought. Romney figured the savings Stemberg’s store could provide justified someone having to actually go there. He took his survey results to his partners and convinced them that Stemberg’s model could work. They agreed, and gave Stemberg the initial funding for what would eventually become the Staples chain.

Romney’s role didn’t end there. He was very involved with the first Staples store when it opened. Stemberg was short on hands, so the Bain Capital guys helped out, picking out the computer system and stocking shelves for the first few weeks it was open.

Romney didn’t stock printers for long, but he did sit on the Staples board for years. Even out of the store, he put in hard work, though. In his VC days, Romney reportedly got so stressed out and exerted himself so much that he regularly sweat through his dress shirts.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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