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What to do when you meet the Queen

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The news media both here in London and in the States made much of the encounter between Michelle Obama and the Queen, during which the Queen put a tentative hand at Michelle's back and Michelle responded by putting her arm around the diminutive Queen.

The interchange lasted all of 10 seconds, but The Hug that Was Heard "˜Round the World was enough to keep news outlets in stories and op-eds for days. And for good reason: Physical displays of emotion, of whatever variety, have long been no-no's in Royal protocol. And touching the Queen "“ well, there was a time when your head could have been on a pike outside the Tower.

Buckingham Palace has responded with statements that Michelle Obama broke no rules whatsoever, that the only real rule is to be polite, respectful and courteous. But that's not exactly true and certainly hasn't been historically. So here's what to do should you ever be in a position to make the acquaintance of the Queen, the Prince, or any other Royal:


Firstly, don't speak until you're spoken to. But after that, when you meet the Queen, it is customary to address her as "Your Majesty" at first, "Ma'am" thereafter, and then, "Your Majesty" again upon taking your leave.

qbushwink.jpgIt is not acceptable to address the Queen as "Liz," "Lizzie," or "Queenie." If you don't have one, it is also not acceptable to adopt a British accent. (Here are a few other tips for Americans from the Daily Mail, back when the Queen visited Virginia in 2007.)
You should also stand up when the Queen enters the room "“ everyone, including her own son and grandchildren, is required to stand when the Queen enters the room.
And whatever you do, for God's sake, don't wink. When George W. Bush accidentally made the gaffe, he said she "gave me a look that only a mother could give a child."

Bow, curtsey, or a handshake?

Citizens of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, upon meeting the Queen, should, in the case of men, give a short bow from the head and shoulders, or, in the case of women, curtsey. But as Americans, because of that whole Revolution thing, we don't have to bow or curtsey "“ a gentle handshake will do just fine.

It's also customary to bring a gift for the Queen; the Obamas brought an iPod featuring video footage of her visit to the States in 2007 and a rare musical songbook signed by Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein, prompting all kinds of discussion about the worthiness of the gifts. By comparison, in 2007, the Bushes gave her an inscribed box from Tiffany's, a leather document case containing copies of historical documents from the National Archives, and an inscribed cowgirl statue, a replica of the one standing in front of the National Cowgirl Museum.

Tea with the Queen

qtea.jpgNo, really, it happens. People actually have tea with the Queen. And when it does happen, there are a few things to know: The Queen always eats first, and when she stops, you stop eating as well. When you sip from your cup, it's polite to hold only the teacup, not the cup and saucer, and  remember, pinkies out. Don't slurp. And try not to leave to go to the restroom. Just hold it.

Touching the Queen

While it's not technically forbidden, incidents of touching the Queen beyond just a polite handshake are very few and far between. One of the most memorable was back in 1991, when Alice Frazier, a then 67-year-old resident of Washington, DC public housing, hugged the Queen during the monarch's 13-day visit to the States and invited her to stay for a lunch of southern fried chicken and potato salad. The Queen politely declined.

Ms. Frazier's hug was certainly not politically motivated, but other incidents of Queen-touching have had some measure of political meaning ascribed to them. In 1992, Australian premier Paul Keating placed his hand on the Queen's back, presumably to direct her to her seat, however, the gesture was by British media as representative of Australia's deep-seated republican desires. For it, the Prime Minister was dubbed the "Lizard of Oz." In 2000, another Australian premier, John Howard, allegedly committed the same offense, a charge he hotly denied.

Leaving the Queen

It is considered impolite to turn one's back on the Queen "“ anyone who's seen the HBO miniseries John Adams may remember John Adams (or rather, Paul Giammatti as John Adams) meeting King George and the awkward attempts at formality. In general, one doesn't have to be quite so tortured and it's not an entirely hard and fast rule.

What to do if you meet the Royal dogs

q corgis.jpgThe royal corgis may be dogs "“ but they're still royal and as such, should be treated with courtesy. Especially because they bite. The Times online dug up some useful information on the Royal hounds, the Queen's collection of corgis, including one item from 1939 reported by their "kennel correspondent" about the first corgi to appear on the end of Royal leashes and about the fair few who have been bitten by the short, squat little royals.

More often, however, it's royal in-fighting that seems to get the better of the dogs: Reports of the royal dogs literally tearing one another to shreds tend to surface from time to time and, in 1991, the Queen herself suffered a bite to the hand requiring three stitches after trying to break up a corgi fight.

With that in mind, it's best to approach the dogs gingerly, with respect, and to not make jokes about bad-behavior. Avoid making eye contact with the dog, let him sniff your hands first before petting, and never turn your back on an angry dog.

If you've ever wondered what life is like for the Royal pack of corgis, check out this video cheekily reported from inside the dog house.

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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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