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Is IKEA the World's Largest Charity?

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If it's possible to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture without cursing at the top of your lungs, I've never seen it happen. There's always a missing piece of hardware, an unclear spot on the instructions, or an excruciating amount of hex wrenching to be done. The next time you ball your fists mid-assembly and curse all things Swedish, though, try to calm down. After all, IKEA's just another charity trying to get by.

Wait, what? You read that correctly; IKEA's technically a charity. But before you write down the umlaut-riddled name of your most recent dresser purchase as a charitable donation on your next tax return, it's worth exploring this ownership structure, which was brought to light by a 2006 article in The Economist.

IngvarKamprad.jpgIngvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Almhult, Sweden in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Kamprad originally sold low-priced consumer goods from his home and by mail, but added a furniture line in 1948. As the company began opening its trademark sprawling stores, Kamprad grew fabulously wealthy, although he retained frugal tastes like driving an aging Volvo and always flying economy class. By some debated estimates, Kamprad is the world's richest man, and even Forbes' more conservative accounting pegs him as the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $31 billion.

Why can't anyone agree on how much Kamprad's worth? Well, for one he doesn't technically own IKEA anymore. In 1982, his ownership stake in the company was given to the newly formed Stichting Ingka Foundation, a Dutch charity. The foundation in turn administers the stores through Ingka Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a for-profit company.

With an estimated endowment of over $36 billion in 2006, the Stichting Ingka Foundation is arguably the world's largest charity. The charity's stated goal is "to promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design," surely a noble aim, but it's unclear how generous its support is. It's been confirmed that the foundation has given 1.7 million Euros a year to Sweden's Lund Institute of Technology for some time, but even that amount seems fairly tightfisted in light of its gigantic endowment. In other words, if you're an aspiring architect waiting for some financial support from IKEA, you're probably better off getting a job as a cashier at one of their stores than hoping for a grant.

So what's going on here? It would seem that the entire charitable foundation is a clever, if dubious, way for IKEA to avoid paying taxes. In 2004, the company pulled in a 1.4 billion euro profit, but since it's owned by a tax-exempt charity, it didn't pay a dime. Moreover, the Byzantine structure of for-profit holding companies nestled within non-profit charities effectively safeguards Kamprad from any sort of outside takeover bids for his housewares behemoth. The five-member board of the foundation, which is headed by Kamprad, is the de facto management for all of the IKEA stores.

IKEA-dresser.jpgAll of this sounds pretty clever, but if the stores are all owned by a charity, how can Kamprad and his family make any cash off of them? Maybe he's doing all this out of the goodness of his heart after all, right? The company's been just as clever in that regard, too. If the Stichting Ingka Foundation is really just a giant piggy bank, it's got a rather sizable hole in it. While the charitable foundation owns the IKEA stores, it doesn't own the IKEA trademark or concept. These items belong to Inter IKEA Systems, a private, for-profit Dutch company. Inter IKEA Systems collects hefty franchise fees from each IKEA store; according to The Economist, these fees amounted to 631 million euros in 2004. However, thanks to a convoluted multi-national system of ownership here, too, the company ended up paying a scant 19 million euros in taxes on this huge sum.

Who owns Inter IKEA Systems and its maze of parent companies? Nobody knows. Since they're private companies incorporated in various locations, their ownership is kept secret, and IKEA's certainly not about to spill the beans. It would seem reasonable to suggest that Kamprad probably owns it.

Should we really be surprised, though? These are the same people who can make a dresser that weighs just ten pounds, fits in a box the size of a deck of cards, and sells for four dollars. Just remember, when you scarf down a two-dollar plate of Swedish meatballs after buying furniture, you shouldn't feel ashamed for pigging out. Instead, hold your head up high and know that you've made your contribution to charity today. (Wait, you have some sauce on your chin. You'll probably want to wipe that off first.)

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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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