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4 “Smart” Credit Card Moves that are Actually Dumb

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Used wisely, credit cards can help build your credit score and earn you sweet perks. But to get smart about the plastic in your wallet, you have to shake free from common myths that can actually tank your score or cost you unnecessary money. 

1. YOU RELY EXCLUSIVELY ON A DEBIT CARD.

The perks of debit are clear: It’s harder to overspend than if you use a credit card, and you can’t work yourself into a mountain of debt. That debt aversion might explain why those of us who got our financial footing during the Great Recession are more leery of credit than other generations: According to a Bankrate survey, two-thirds of people ages 18 to 29 don’t have a credit card, compared with only one-third of people over 30.

“But it’s dangerous to assume that all plastic is treated the same way by credit reporting and scoring agencies,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, who spent years at FICO and Equifax. “Only credit cards make it onto your credit report, so if you avoid them you’re really not doing anything to help your credit score or establish your credit report.”

Even if you don’t plan to apply for a car loan or mortgage anytime soon, when you are ready to apply, those lenders will factor the age of your credit report into their decision. Opening a credit card in your 20s will mean you have a more, ahem, mature credit report than if you open one in your 30s, which can help you get a better or bigger loan—even if your finances are otherwise unchanged.

The Truly Smart Move: Go ahead and apply for a credit card (free services like Credit Karma can help you determine the appropriate card). If you’re worried the new piece of plastic will tempt you to splurge beyond your means, don’t keep it in your wallet. 

2. YOU CARRY A SMALL BALANCE EACH MONTH.

Credit scoring agencies want to see that you’re using your credit cards regularly, because that signals that you can responsibly handle the credit available to you. But somehow that truth morphed into a widespread myth that you shouldn’t pay your bill in full.

“Carrying a balance from month to month will just cost you interest and won’t help your credit score,” says Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma. In fact, it could hurt it, because lenders look at how the amount of your current balances compares with your total credit card limits. The lower the balance, the better.

So how do you prove regular use and earn your financial brownie points? Relax—credit card companies do the work for you. When you swipe your way to a $200 balance on your Visa, the company reports that amount to the credit reporting agencies at the same time that it issues you a bill. You can then pay that balance (in full!). And keep in mind that regular use doesn’t mean you have to use the card monthly or hit a certain spend threshold. Modest use every couple of months works just fine.

The Truly Smart Move: Set a calendar reminder so you pay your balance in full and on time to avoid getting hit with late fees. And if you find that “regular use” is turning into “regular splurges,” use your card to set up auto-pay on a boring bill instead. It’s tougher to be tempted to go on an electricity spree.

3. YOU DECLINE A CREDIT LIMIT INCREASE.

When Visa mails you an offer to increase the credit limit on one of your cards, you demur. Time for a pat on the back, right? Not quite. When FICO determines your credit score, one of the biggest numbers it looks at is your revolving utilization. Also known as credit card usage percentage or balance-to-limit ratio, this is basically a fancy way of saying how much you owe on your credit cards compared with how much your total limits are. “If you owe $500 on a card with a $500 limit, you’ll have a lower score than someone who owes $500 on a card with a $5,000 limit,” says Ulzheimer. 

To calculate your current revolving utilization, divide your balance by the credit card limit and multiply by 100. Quick example: If you owe $1,000 on a card with a limit of $2,500, your revolving utilization of that card is 40 percent. While 40 percent might sound boss at first blush, consider that consumers with the highest credit scores tend to have revolving utilizations under 10 percent.

One way to better your revolving utilization is to pay down your balances. But another is to increase the credit limits on existing cards. So the next time MasterCard extends an offer, think twice before you decline.

The Truly Smart Move: Many credit card companies will reassess your limit every three years or so, when they reissue your credit cards. But you can also proactively ask for an increase. You’re more likely to secure a higher limit if you’re a low-risk consumer: You use your cards regularly and pay your bill on time. 

4. YOU CANCEL SOME OF YOUR CREDIT CARDS.

Maybe your wallet is crazy cluttered with a million cards and you’re looking to streamline. Or maybe you’re sick of all the temptation that comes with having multiple cards. Or maybe you think having one card is safer when it comes to identity theft. No matter what your motivation, closing a credit card will ding your credit score, because it reduces your revolving utilization.

“Never, ever close a credit card,” says Ulzheimer. “The only time a card should be considered for the chopping block is if it has a huge annual fee and you’re planning to never use it again.” It’s especially worth waiting, he says, if you plan to apply soon for any type of credit, including an auto loan or student loan.

As for identity theft, keep in mind that if your account info is somehow stolen, all four of the major credit card networks offer total fraud liability. That means, if you spot a suspicious charge on your statement and you report it to the credit card company, you’ll pay nada.

The Truly Smart Move: The best way to kill both clutter and temptation—without wounding your credit score—is to shred the plastic you don’t want to use anymore. If you ever decide to start using that particular credit card again, you can put in a call to the company and have the card reissued at no expense.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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