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10 Questionable Household Tips from the 19th-Century White House Staff

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1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a big place, and understandably the upkeep is a little more complicated than that of any typical suburban home. That's why Fanny Lemira Gillette, famed housekeeping guru and mother of the inventor of the safety razor,  and Hugo Ziemann, the White House steward, teamed up in 1887 to write The White House Cook Book, a "comprehensive cyclopedia of information for the home" and one of the best-selling cookbooks in U.S. history. Aside from useful recipes for Chicken Jelly and Mayonnaise Fish, Gillette and Ziemann's book is full of expert housekeeping tips. Though we can't in good conscience advise trying most of these, here are 10 of the better examples.


1. Rooms get stuffy, probably more so when air-conditioning hasn't been invented yet. To clear the air in a room that needs some refreshing, Gillette advises pouring a healthy sprinkling of ground coffee onto a shovelful of hot coals. If no coffee is available or if you'd prefer to leave the house smelling like something different than a malfunctioning Keurig, try a cupful of sugar instead.

2. To keep your milk from curdling, grate a tablespoon of horseradish right into the pitcher. "It will keep it sweet for days."

3. Ventilation is key to keeping a home fresh-smelling and livable, but some rooms don't have windows. An alternative option is to place a pitcher of ice-water — "the colder the more effective" — on a table in the center of a room. This will "absorb all the gases with which the room is filled." Watch out, though, because that water, once it has done its job, "will be entirely unfit" for any other use. Don't even pour it in the flowerbeds.

4. To remove stains from laundry, rub them with egg yolk before washing. (There are no tips for removing egg-yolk stains from clothing.)

5. If you find your cooking oil goes rancid very quickly, try adding "a few drops of ether to the bottle."

6. Moths can be a real pain, especially if they're residing in your sofas. The good news is that moths and their eggs never live through a two-hour soak in a naphtha-bath. What the heck is naphtha, you ask? It's a group of highly volatile, lightweight hydrocarbons that are typically created during petroleum distillation, very similar to gasoline. So if you can get your hands on a vessel large enough (and can afford the hundreds of gallons of gas), just dip your furniture in and leave it for a few hours. As a bonus, "all oil, dirt or grease disappears, and not the slightest damage is done." Just remember not to try that burning-coffee deodorizer too soon afterward.

7. Say someone has been sick for a while and you'd like to disinfect the room. Put away your Clorox Wipes; there's a more flammable option and 'the perfume is very pleasant and healthful." In a saucer of coffee grounds, place a lump of camphor. Light the camphor with a match and let it burn until it and all of the coffee have been reduced to a sticky black resin. There you go, no more germs!

8. Got a problem with mosquitoes and/or bats coming into the house while you sleep? No worries: "If a bottle of pennyroyal is left uncorked in a room at night, not a mosquito, nor any other blood-sucker, will be found there in the morning."

9. Oh, goodness. An unrefined guest has failed to chew his dinner thoroughly and is choking at the table. You can try the Heimlich maneuver, of course, but in 1887 your options were a) straighten a hairpin, make a hook at the end, and pull out the offending piece of food, or b) "food lodged in the throat may sometimes be pushed down with the finger."

10. And finally, advice for preventing unpleasant cooking smells from escaping the kitchen. Boiling ham or cabbage: "Throw red pepper pods or a few bits of charcoal into the pan they are cooking in." Hope you like your cabbage spicy.

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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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