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6 Simple Home Decorating Tips for the Design-Challenged

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Some folks have a natural eye for design and can create a beautifully decorated room in their sleep. The rest of us need a little help. If you have trouble envisioning how a room should look, stick to a few simple rules of thumb.


First, you want to start with the function of the room you’re decorating, says Warren Sheets of Warren Sheets Design. “For example, you want a living room or the kitchen to be conducive to gatherings. The décor should suit that not only in the items you place in there but also in the aesthetic,” Sheets tells mental_floss. “You want these rooms to feel lively and fun. Conversely, you want to create a sanctuary for your bedroom and decorate with the aim of making it calm and peaceful.”


Sheets says the next order of business in decorating is to find a room’s main focal points. “Remember that our eyes are often drawn to a focal point,” he says. “So whether it’s a fireplace, the windows, or built-in units, you will want to achieve symmetry around them.” This could mean adding tall pillar candles to each end of your fireplace's mantel, or finding eye-catching bookends for your shelves.

Amy Bell, a professional interior decorator and founder of Red Chair Home Interiors, agrees. “Never underestimate the power of pairs,” she says. "Pairs of matching lamps, curtains, chairs, and artwork add a pleasing symmetry to a room.”

She says that symmetry is especially important in rooms than are “architecturally asymmetrical.” So if your focal point, like a fireplace, isn’t exactly centered on a wall, you can make the room feel a little more cohesive by adding decorative pairs.


Lighting might not be the first consideration in decorating a room, but it’s an important one because it can totally change the mood. Design Expert Abbey Pettit says the key to proper lighting in design is to layer your lighting. Lighting serves various purposes, so it should come from different sources that account for those needs.

“As a general rule of thumb, lighting can be bucketed into three layers: ambient (general), focal (task), and decorative lighting," Pettit says. "Ambient lighting provides overall illumination without glares or shadows. Focal lighting concentrates brightness in a specific area, and decorative lighting allows you to express your personal style and add some sparkle to the space.”

Ambient lighting might be a ceiling-mounted light, for example, while lamps and under-counter lights are considered focal lighting (because you generally use them to light specific tasks, like reading or cooking). Again, this is why it’s important to consider a room’s function when decorating: If you’re decorating a room that's dedicated to a specific purpose, like your kitchen or home office, you want to be strategic about where you place your task lighting.

When choosing the brightness of your light sources, Pettit says it's important to consider two factors: lumen output and color temperature. “Lumens are the measure of brightness, so more lumens equal more light,” she says. “Color temperature is measured in Kelvins and determines the warmth or coolness of the light. For a warmer light (ideal for bedrooms and living rooms) look for a color temperature between 2000K and 2700K. For a bright, white light (ideal for bathrooms), look for 3000K to 3500K, [which] resembles daylight.”


Use the color of the room's dominant wall—the wall that takes up the most visual space—as your jumping off point. “You can establish that color by painting it yourself,” Sheets says. “You can then ‘bounce’ off this main color by using variations of the shade, in solids or prints, within the room as a running color palette throughout the space and this will effectively pull the design elements together.”

If the dominant wall is a light shade of gray, for example, you might mix in a darker charcoal gray in elements throughout the room. Taylor W Murphy, an interior designer from Austin, Texas, suggests going neutral with larger items and then accenting with brighter colors.

“Don't be afraid of color and pattern, but give yourself limits,” he says. “[Use] neutral colors in your big-ticket items, such as sofa, chairs, and drapery, [then] you can pull in color and pattern with pillows and artwork ... Pillows are always a great way to add color and texture to a room without fully committing to an idea, plus they can be changed out seasonally when you get tired of them.”


To give your room some dimension and personality, don’t just stick to one or two textures: Mix them up. Choose brass lamps and a fuzzy pillow, or a plush throw with a chrome coffee table.

“To enliven the room, consider textures on decorative pillows and patterned wall covering,” Sheets suggests. “There are so many kinds of prints available. And the best news is you don’t even have to commit to one—there are many wallpapers today that can be easily and conveniently applied and removed within minutes.”


Finally, you want to consider the size of the room and make sure your furniture and other items are scaled accordingly.

“If your room is on the small side, look for items that have a smaller footprint and command less space,” Murphy says. “Smaller chairs and tables make the room feel larger and more inviting. Instead of one large coffee table, think about multiple smaller ones you could pull up to the sofa or chair leaving more room to get through the space.”

Murphy suggests then finding a rug that’s large enough for all of the furniture to sit on. “A rug that is the correct size also makes the room feel larger and more complete,” he says.

Sheets adds a final word of advice for novice decorators: Keep it simple. “If you are just learning how to decorate and still finding your own sense of style, try to keep your choices as simple as possible. Make it easy on yourself to alter things when necessary without having to undergo a complete do-over.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]