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5 Tips for Preparing for an Epic Vacation

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A vacation is supposed to be a getaway, but getting out of your comfort zone can be stressful, too. Missed flights, lost luggage, busted budgets—there’s a lot that can go wrong when you travel. In fact, it’s more or less inevitable, says Lee Huffman, a travel blogger at BaldThoughts.com.

“You're not alone. It happens to even the most seasoned travelers. Something unexpected will inevitably happen,” Huffman tells Mental Floss. “A missed or delayed flight; not getting the exact rental car or room that you reserved. Murphy's Law at its finest.”

There are, however, a few ways to hedge against Murphy’s Law and minimize the stress of preparing for a big trip. We asked Huffman how he manages travel with his family and how the rest of us can plan for an epic, stress-lite vacation.

1. ANTICIPATE MISHAPS.

When it comes to safeguarding against setbacks, research is everything. You don’t want to be caught off guard when, for example, you try to rent a car overseas and discover you need an International Driving Permit. Here are a few other common scenarios you might want to look into before you head out:

- If you plan on using the car rental insurance that comes with your credit card, research what’s actually covered. Most have limitations.

- Don’t assume English is spoken everywhere you go. Research local customs before you leave and download a translation app just to be on the safe side.

- Make sure you know your airline’s rules for traveling with children or pets. Many airlines charge extra for everything from picking a seat to printing your ticket at the airport.

Of course, no matter how much you prepare in advance, something can still go awry. That’s just part of the travel experience, says Huffman. “Trust me, I've been puked on by my baby during a redeye flight without a change of clothes, stranded in the airport overnight with my young son, and so many other wild stories," he says. "They were horrible experiences at the time, but now I can laugh at myself and the situation.”

If nothing else, you’ll have a story to tell when you get back from your trip.

2. GET YOUR MONEY IN ORDER.

There’s often stress over whether you can (or should) afford the vacation in the first place. Maybe I should wait until prices drop, you think, or maybe I should just skip traveling altogether.

“People question whether or not to buy tickets to that once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Huffman says. “As long as your other bills are being paid, you're saving for your future, and making a little dent in your debt, then yes, you should spend a little money to ensure you create memories that will last a lifetime.”

Of course, having your money in order is easier said than done—but once again, it all goes back to proper planning. Start saving for your trip early so you’ll have a vacation fund to draw from when the time comes. “Even if the savings is just a fraction of your overall vacation expense, that money will help reduce the sting of paying for airfare, hotel, and everything else you've planned,” Huffman advises.

There are ways to “travel hack” your vacation, too, which essentially involves using credit card sign-up bonuses to earn frequent flier points with partnering airlines. In fact, this is how Huffman says he affords to travel with his family so often. (If you have issues with credit card debt and paying your balance off on time every month, this method is not for you.)

“Sign up for every loyalty program you come across,” Huffman suggests. “Yes, your email inbox may become a little fuller. But it is worth it because airlines and hotels often send deals to subscribers that are never seen by everyone else. These savings may help you go on your next vacation a little quicker.”

3. LIMIT YOUR ITINERARY.

It’s tempting to squeeze in as much as possible when you travel, but don’t set yourself up for a headache. Make a list of “musts” and “maybes”: things you just have to do and things you’d like to do if you have time. When you prioritize your sightseeing this way, you can relieve yourself of the pressure to see everything. You’ll actually have time to enjoy yourself.

It can be helpful to plan your lodging accordingly, too. The closer your proximity to the activities on your list, the more you can fit in (and still easily bop back to the hotel for an afternoon nap). At the very least, you can book a hotel or Airbnb that’s close to public transportation so you can get where you need to go with ease.

4. GIVE YOURSELF SOME BUFFER TIME.

The worst thing about a vacation is coming back from it. Especially if you have to jump right back into work, the return can be jarring. If possible, you can ease back into work mode by giving yourself some extra time to relax when you get home.

“If you're going on a vacation of a week or more, try to arrive home two days before you go back to work,” Huffman suggests. “Having a day to decompress, sleep in, unpack the suitcase, and do a little grocery shopping before returning to the office does wonders for your mental health.”

As an added bonus, he says, it’s typically cheaper and less crowded to fly on Saturdays than Sundays, anyway. And if your return flight is delayed, you don’t have to worry about making an awkward phone call to your employer explaining why you need to extend your vacation.

5. PREP FOR YOUR RETURN.

There’s nothing worse than walking in the door after a long journey and being greeted by a filthy, smelly home. Set yourself up for a nice homecoming by doing some pre-trip cleaning and go grocery shopping for snacks that won’t go bad while you’re away.

“I try to wash and fold all of my laundry before going on vacation as well,” Huffman says. “This provides an abundant supply of clothes to choose from to have the perfect outfit while traveling and it ensures that I have enough clean underwear for my first day back. I mean, really, who wants to do laundry first thing after returning from an epic journey around the world?”

All images courtesy of iStock

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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