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11 Hacks for Cleaning Tricky Spots in Your Home

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Sweeping, mopping, vacuuming—for the most part, cleaning is pretty intuitive. But what about those hard-to-reach places you forget about all year? Save time (and money) with these modern-day hacks that speed up spring cleaning, thanks to household items you already own.

1. LINT ROLL YOUR LAMPSHADES.

If you can’t toss a lampshade in the washer and a duster doesn’t do the trick, how are you supposed to deal with it? Don’t give in and buy a new shade—just use a lint roller. Unlike dusting with a cloth or duster, a lint roller will quickly pick up dirt and grime and can more easily roll along unusually shaped lampshades for a speedy cleaning job.

2. USE WAX PAPER FOR EASY CABINET CLEANUP.

The tops of kitchen cabinets attract dust and cooking grease, making for a sticky (and disgusting) seasonal clean-up. To help keep them out of sight and out of mind, line cabinet tops with sheets of wax paper that will collect the dust for you. Cleanup becomes as simple as tossing the used wax paper in the trash and cutting new sheets every few months. This trick can also be used on bookcases and other tall furniture that’s difficult to dust.

3. WASH AWAY KEYBOARD GRIME IN THE DISHWASHER.

Keyboards are one of the most germ-ridden items in your home or office, and they’re also a pain to clean. If you’re daring enough—and still use an older USB keyboard—swap the tedious scrubbing with cotton swabs for a light dishwasher cycle, avoiding the heat-dry setting and opting to air dry instead. But before you pop your keyboard in the top rack, check your manufacturer specs—some keyboards can handle water submersion, while others should just be dusted or wiped with a damp cloth (or, you can spring for a Silly Putty-like goo that grabs all the grime between the keys). 

4. GIVE BLINDS NEW LIFE WITH OLD SOCKS.

Blinds can be a spring cleaner’s worst enemy. They collect dust and flop around, making them difficult to wipe down. Instead of buying a commercial blind cleaning tool, round up old socks and slip them on like gloves to easily clean between the blinds. This hack gives you two cleaning wins: fresh blinds and a purpose for those unmatched socks.

5. SCRUB RIDGES AND VENTS WITH MANICURE TOOLS.

Microwave and stove vents accumulate grime but are difficult to clean because of their tiny size. Instead of ignoring them, dislodge gunk along ridges and vents with a nail brush. Or for a deeper scrub in areas you can reach with your fingertips, use exfoliating gloves as scrubbers.

6. SWEEP AWAY TOASTER CRUMBS WITH A PASTRY BRUSH.

If there is one place that crumbs collect in, it’s the abyss known as the bottom of your toaster. Clean out this tiny crumb chasm by using a pastry brush to loosen and wipe away bread debris stuck within the slots. Then pop open the bottom of the toaster to brush everything away.

7. DUST FAN BLADES WITH PILLOWCASES.

Fan blades accumulate heavy dust that isn’t easy to wipe away while on a ladder or step stool. Make the job easier by repurposing a pillowcase as a catch-all duster. Simply slide the pillowcase over the fan blade and pull down any dust that’s collected inside the bag for a sneeze-free cleaning.

8. SOAK OVEN RACKS IN THE BATHTUB.

Oven racks withstand splatters, boil overs, and broiling abuse all throughout casserole season. Give your oven racks a facelift by soaking them overnight in a bathtub with dish soap and dryer sheets. Baked-on gunk will wipe away easily, leaving like-new racks. Just remember to thoroughly scrub the bathtub afterward to prevent staining.

9. IMPROVE YOUR DISHWASHER SPRAYER WITH WIRE.

If your dishes have been through several wash cycles but still aren’t getting clean, consider giving the dishwasher sprayer arm some attention. Over time, sprayer arms can fill with hard water deposits (not to mention gross food particles), making them less efficient. Use picture hanging wire or a wire hanger to dislodge grime particles from sprayer arm holes. Then, give your entire dishwasher a deep clean with vinegar. After all, keeping this machine going may be your best bet for time-saving cleaning year-round.

10. DEEP CLEAN VENTS WITH A BUTTER KNIFE.

Cleaning registers and vents along floors, baseboards, and ceilings is often a job for vacuums. But for a deeper clean, head to your flatware drawer for a butter knife. Quickly clean registers by wrapping a butter knife in a thin towel, then inserting along the grooves to snag embedded debris. There’s no need for a specialty tool and this hack will keep you from having to remove the register altogether.

11. DEEP CLEAN WINDOW AND DOOR TRACKS WITH TOILET PAPER TUBES.

The inside grooves of window frames and sliding doors are notorious for attracting dirt, bugs, and cobwebs. But the tiny, rubber ridges can be difficult to brush or rinse out. For a cleaner view, attach toilet paper tubes to your vacuum’s hose, then fold or bend as necessary for a custom, disposable track cleaner.

All images via iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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