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10 Things the Queen of England Still Does for Canada

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You may have read about a recent ruling in Canada which stated it is constitutional to require would-be Canadians to take an oath to the Queen. You may also have been surprised to learn Canada does, in fact, still have a queen, and she is the same Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ceylon, and Pakistan, among others. Here is a list of roles still served by Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

1. Technically speaking, Queen Elizabeth is the Sovereign of the parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy of Canada. Unless you frequently use Canadian money or are particularly savvy with regard to Canadian politics, you may not have known they had any kind of monarchy.

2. All ministers, legislators, members of the armed forces, public servants, and police officers swear allegiance to the Queen. Though the aforementioned court ruling is likely to be appealed, for the time being all new citizens swear allegiance to the Queen as well. All passports are likewise issued in the name of the Queen.

3. Queen Elizabeth appoints a governor general who acts at the federal level and subsequently appoints one lieutenant governor in each of Canada’s ten provinces. The Queen and the governor general make their appointments on the recommendation of Canada’s prime minister. The governor general and lieutenant governor serve as daily representatives of the Queen, and they also give honors and tributes to deserving recipients in her name.

4. In the political world, the Queen really doesn’t do much—she’s not supposed to. Because she is considered to be the personification of the state of Canada, she is meant to remain neutral on all matters of politics.

5. The Queen is a patron of a number of Canadian organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Red Cross Society, and the Royal Canadian Humane Association. Her official website also states that Canada is the country she has visited most in her 60-plus year reign.

6. Along with her representatives, Queen Elizabeth partakes in various ceremonies and traditions in Canada, including frequent Royal Tours. Most important anniversaries or celebrations are attended by the monarch herself, while other members of the royal family may attend lesser events in her place.

7. The Queen acts as Colonel-in-Chief of numerous Armed Forces regiments, such as the King’s Own Calgary Regiment and The Canadian Grenadier Guards. Like her other roles in Canada, this one is primarily symbolic and accompanying duties are normally carried out by the governor general.

8. The prime minister and the ministers in his cabinet are all appointed by the governor general on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. (Usually, the governor general will appoint the leader of the party with the majority or large plurality.) The Queen makes an effort to keep up-to-date on parliamentary matters with regular communications with ministers and meets with them when possible.

9. The Queen must apply her royal sign-manual, or signature, as well as the Great Seal of Canada to patent letters, specific appointment papers of the governor general, the creation of additional Senate seats, and any change in her Canadian style and title.

10. Along with the governor general, the monarch can grant immunity from prosecution and pardon any offenses against the Crown before, during, or after a trial.

Additional Sources: Parliamentary Institutions [PDF]; Canada, A Constitutional Monarchy; Monarchy in Canada

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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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May 23, 2017
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