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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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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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