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6 Ways to Clean Your Ears Without Cotton Swabs

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As the old saying goes, "You shouldn’t put anything in your ears smaller than your elbow." And that includes Q-Tips.

The cotton swabs that most of us use to clean wax out of our ears are a lot more harmful than helpful. When you put a Q-tip in your ear, it actually ends up pushing most of the wax deeper into the canal instead of digging it out the way it’s supposed to. The wax then sits up against your ear drums and prevents them from vibrating properly, which can cause hearing problems. And if you dig too deep, you can actually wind up puncturing your ear drum, which is not only traumatizing (as anyone who has seen Season 2 of Girls can attest), it can have serious long-term effects on your hearing.

As gross as it sometimes seems, it’s important to understand that having earwax is actually a good thing. The wax helps lubricate our ear canals to keep them functioning properly, keeps bugs from crawling inside our ears, and prevents fungus from growing around our ear drums—situations that are all a lot worse than the earwax itself.

Ears are pretty good at cleaning themselves on their own, but if you do feel like they need a little extra help, here are six alternative methods for getting wax out of your ears without a Q-tip.

1. TRY THE FINGER AND TISSUE TRICK.

No Q-tip? No problem! If you haven’t let things get really backed up inside your ears (as in, it’s not hard and crusty in there), all you need to do is cover your pinky finger with a tissue and wiggle out the wax gently. Again, stick to the outer part of the ear and avoid jamming your pinky into your ear canal. This is most effective post-shower because the warm water helps soften the wax and makes it easier to move.

2. ADD SOME HYDROGEN PEROXIDE...

Lie down on your side and squeeze a few drops of hydrogen peroxide into your sky-facing ear. Don’t let the fizzing and popping noises freak you out—that means it’s working. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then tilt your head into the sink or a bowl to drain the remaining solution and the wax it dislodged out of your ear.

3. ... OR OLIVE OIL.

Who would have guessed everyone’s favorite kitchen staple could double as an ear cleaner? According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, adding two to three drops of olive oil into your ear can help soften ear wax so that it can work its way out. This procedure likely only needs to be performed once a week, but it won't harm your ears to do it daily.

4. TURN TO EARWAX DROPS.

If the DIY stuff isn’t for you (or if the idea of putting olive oil in your ears just grosses you out), drops like Debrox Earwax Removal Drops are available over the counter at the pharmacy and can help soften the wax to make it easier to remove with a tissue.

5. USE A SPECIAL TOOL.

Consider the Clear Ear Oto-Tip the Q-tip of the future. Developed out of Stanford University’s BioDesign Program to safely clean ears, it rotates gently within your ear to loosen up the wax instead of pushing it in even deeper. There’s also a safety cap that prevents deep insertion and excessive movement inside the ear, both of which can cause damage.

6. GO TO THE DOCTOR.

Time for some real talk: If things are so backed up in your ear canal that you’re having trouble hearing, it’s time to see a doctor. Make an appointment with your GP or an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) who can give you a more heavy-duty cleaning.

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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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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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