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11 Things Prince Charles Does With His Time

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With the Queen recently surpassing Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch, it’s become evident that she’s probably never going to die. Which means that her heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales, needs to find some other things to fill his time. So what does he do all day?

Before we get started, some background: Though Charles is Queen Elizabeth II’s son and heir, he isn’t entirely supported by the state; he earns his income from the hereditary estate of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has been given to successive Princes of Wales since 1337. Currently, it encompasses some 53,408 hectares of land in 23 counties, as well as major venues like the Oval cricket ground and a host of other solid investments. This June, it was reported that the Duchy of Cornwall earned Charles a record almost £20 million that fiscal year alone. The Duchy (and by extension, Charles) does, however, receive some funding from the government and from the Sovereign Grant (government aid to the royals, totaling £36 million), to the tune of £2.2 million a year. 

So that’s how he makes his not inconsiderable money. But what’s his job description? In a constitutional monarchy, as Britain has been since the end of the 17th century, the monarch is the Head of State in name only—the ability to pass legislation is in the hands of Parliament. According to the official website of the British Monarchy, “The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” The same basically goes for the heir apparent. And that means…

1. A LOT OF CHARITY WORK

The Prince’s Charities is an umbrella group of 14 charitable organizations of which HRH is president (read: mostly a figurehead, but a well meaning one); according to his press materials, he founded 13 of them himself. These charities range in character from the Royal Drawing School, an educational initiative he co-founded with artist Catherine Goodman that offers free, high quality drawing instruction to worthy students; to the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, which works to preserve historic buildings; to the British Asian Trust, which helps funnel donation money to local charities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the UK. Also according to his press materials, The Prince’s Charities is the largest multi-cause charitable enterprise in the UK and brings in more than £100 million annually. But that’s not all—the Prince is patron or president of some 400 other charities. Sound like he’s bitten off more than he can chew? Maybe—but again, it’s mostly a figurehead thing. The Prince’s projects that appear to be nearest and dearest to his heart involve sustainable agriculture and environmental preservation, so look for him to be more hands-on there. 

2. REPRESENTING THE QUEEN—AND ACCEPTING GIFTS

If the Queen is busy and can’t meet some foreign dignitary or another, Prince Charles is your man. Last year, he and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, hosted almost 6000 guests at events at their royal residences, and attended 99 seminars, luncheons, and dinners in the name of duty. He’s also frequently called on for overseas travel; last year, for example, he travelled more than 64,380 miles on official business (think shaking hands with important people in other nations, or rallying troops serving abroad). In a nod to these strained economic times, Charles agreed to foot the bill for his overseas travel; according to The Guardian, his cost to taxpayers fell 50 percent in fiscal year 2013.

On the upside, all this travel and visiting foreign nations means that he, like the Queen, has been the recipient of some rather odd but welcome gifts. Each year, the royal family releases a list of gifts they’ve received during their overseas visits; in 2013, Prince Charles received a silk tie, a portable water filtration kit, and a bag of dried organic apple rings (among other things). The royal family doesn’t usually disclose what happens to the individual gifts; sometimes they’re used—especially in the case of perishable items—but other times, they’re simply packed off into storage.

3. MORE VISITING THINGS

A big part of the royal life is visiting. Just visiting. Showing up and waving. Last year, Charles and Camilla made appearances in more than 75 British and Northern Irish towns and cities. The week after the royal prince was born, Charles and Camilla were back at it, first putting in an appearance at the Royal Welsh Show, a massive agricultural fair, before opening the new garden at Kemble Railway Station in Windmill Hill, Kemble, Gloucestershire on Thursday. Such is the life of a royal—official duties often consist of visiting schools, opening new business ventures, christening railway stations, and touring the studios where Doctor Who is filmed. Which is actually pretty exciting.

4. SUPPORTING HIS SONS

All parents support their children, but Charles really puts his money where his mouth is. According to recent reports, Prince Charles pays out £1 million a year to support his two adult sons, Princes William and Harry, as well as their dependents and staff. Harry just quit the military and went to Africa to help conservation efforts, and William is an air ambulance pilot. Neither makes enough to support the kinds of travel and living that royalty requires. 

5. NOT PAYING ENOUGH IN TAXES

So, the Duchy of Cornwall is a bit of a money-spinner—good for crown and country? Not exactly. According to recent reports in the British media, Prince Charles pays less tax on the massive £19 million annual income from his Duchy of Cornwall estate than his servants do. The Prince came under fire in 2013 for paying just under 24 percent in direct and indirect tax on his earnings from the estate, as well as for legitimately writing off much of his expenses incurred from official duty as business expenses. Labour MPs put the Prince in the same camp as “tax dodgers” Google and Starbucks, with now-former MP Austin Mitchell claiming that not classifying the Duchy of Cornwall as a corporation—a “medieval anomaly”—was just an opportunity for the Prince not to pay corporation tax.

6. WRITING BOOKS

Prince Charles is, as we’ve mentioned, legitimately passionate about matters of ecological concern. He’s even written two books about the subject: Harmony: A New Way of Looking At The World, which describes itself as in the same vein as An Inconvenient Truth, and On the Future of Food, taken from his keynote speech at the Future of Food conference at Georgetown University in 2011. But that’s not all! In 1980, he wrote a children’s book based on a story he used to tell his younger brothers Andrew and Edward; The Old Man of Lochnagar is the tale of a gruff old man in a desperate search for peace and quiet and a hot bath. The book was made into a BBC animated film, with the Prince narrating, and later, with the Prince’s permission, a ballet.

7. PAINTING

Charles is a keen watercolor artist, with a good eye for scene, coloring, and, of course, making money; limited edition lithographs of his paintings can be bought from his Highgrove shop for around £2500. In 2013, 130 of his works were published in an online gallery; one critic denounced the Prince’s artistic efforts as “torpor-inducingly conventional,” and “so pedestrian to be almost laughable,” though he did admit that they weren’t all bad, by any means, and that the Prince was indeed tapping into a longstanding British royal tradition—Queen Victoria herself was a watercolor artist.

8. LOBBYING

The British monarch has been more of a figurehead since the Georges, when the power of Parliament demonstrably outstripped that of the crown; accordingly, members of the royal family aren’t traditionally meant to use their position to influence politics. But in May of this year, evidence that Prince Charles may have been using his title to push his own agenda came to light. The “black spider memos,” so-called after the Prince’s idiosyncratic scrawled handwriting and released by The Guardian after a freedom of information request and years-long legal battle, are a series of letters written by the Prince to sitting British government ministers and politicians. In them, he’s self-deprecating and empathetic—and always clear about what he’s asking for. 

So what was he asking for? Well, nothing that the public didn’t already know: The Prince’s concerns for the kingdom have always been a bit random. From then-prime minister Tony Blair, he demanded better equipment for troops serving in Iraq, but also lobbied against the outlawing of certain herbal remedies; from other ministers, he asked for action on the common weed ragwort, greater protection for the Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) and the albatross, help for small farmers, and more funding for the preservation of historic buildings and sites.  

The reaction of the British public and press was less outraged and stunned than The Guardian could have hoped; some even defended the Prince for having opinions about the nation he will someday rule. It’s also clear that though ministers were obliged to write back long and vaguely sycophantic responses—signed, in some cases, “your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant,” per custom—few actually acted on his suggestions. Perhaps all the memos really did was to underscore how limited his influence actually is.

9. FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE

Prince Charles’s commitment to protecting the environment is long-standing and, judging from the “black spider memos,” clearly heartfelt. One area that he’s particularly concerned about is climate change. This March, he told an audience in Kentucky, during his quick visit, that “If we wish to maintain our civilization, then we must look after the Earth … In failing Earth, we are failing humanity.” And on the subject of those grandchildren, Charles added, “As a grandpa, I have no intention of failing mine or anyone else's grandchildren.” More recently, Charles made headlines when he gave a speech at a University of Cambridge Institute For Sustainability Leadership event calling for a “rewiring” of the global economy to ameliorate climate change: “The need to join up disparate efforts on finance, sustainable development, climate change and a whole range of related challenges has been apparent for decades. But the irresistible power of ‘business as usual’ has so far defeated every attempt to ‘rewire’ our economic system in ways that will deliver what we so urgently need.”

10. WAITING, WAITING, WAITING

On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning British monarch, beating the record held by Queen Victoria. But Prince Charles, now 67, made his own record back in April 2011, when he became the longest serving heir to the throne in British history (according to media reports, he's getting impatient). And when—or if—he does take the throne, he will be the oldest person to do so.

So why wouldn’t he become king? Well, the problem, several commentators have pointed out, is that Charles isn’t very well liked. According to a survey of 2000 Britons conducted this April—right before the birth of Charlotte, so that’s probably a factor—the most popular members of the royal family are the Princes William and Harry, liked by 79 percent of respondents, with the Queen hot on their heels at 77 percent. But respondents were much more equivocal when it came to Charles: 40 percent think that when his time comes, he should abdicate in favor of William, and 43 percent think he shouldn’t (most, however, don’t want Camilla as Queen—a shocking 38 percent of respondents dislike Camilla). This is what comes, The Independent’s John Rentoul said, of having a reputation as an “interfering bossy pants” (see “black spider memos”).

11. PRACTICING MAGIC

OK, probably not so much anymore. But this is one of my absolute favorite Prince Charles facts: In 1975, Prince Charles became a member of the Magic Circle, a society of stage magicians founded in London in 1905, after passing his audition with a “cup and balls” trick. The actual cup and balls are on display at the Magic Circle’s museum in London. Here’s hoping that Grandpa Charles brushes up on his magic tricks for his grandchildren!

A version of this story appeared in 2013.

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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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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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