Join Me For TravelShare: The Top 150 in Toronto!

Travelshare-Title Join Me For TravelShare: The Top 150 in Toronto!

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be hosting the next TravelShare chat with Kanetix and TuGo Insurance!

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, I’m going to be discussing the top 150 things to do in the GTA with Kanetix.ca and TuGo Insurance. And I’ll be going LIVE! I’d love if you could join me for TravelShare.

Travelshare-Title Join Me For TravelShare: The Top 150 in Toronto!

WHAT’S THE GTA?

The GTA is the Greater Toronto Area! Toronto and its surrounding cities are full of awesome sights and attractions. We’re going to be counting down the top 150 spots to seek, places to go, and things to eat. The Greater Toronto area includes the city of Toronto, Ontario, as well as:

  • Ajax
  • Aurora
  • Brampton
  • Brock
  • Burlington
  • Caledon
  • Clarington
  • East Gwillimbury
  • Georgina
  • Halton Hills
  • King
  • Markham
  • Milton
  • Mississauga
  • Newmarket
  • Oakville
  • Oshawa
  • Pickering
  • Richmond Hill
  • Scugog
  • Uxbridge
  • Vaughan
  • Whitby
  • Whitchurch-Stouffville

Haven’t heard of some of those places? I haven’t visited some of them either. That’s why this list will be so awesome – it will fill your summer travel itinerary with 150 great ideas. You can explore beyond the borders of Toronto for some excellent day trips outside the city. It’s all about local travel…if you’re a local. Otherwise, this list will load up your future travel plans for Toronto and beyond.

HOW DO I PARTICIPATE?

It’s easy!

You can participate before the chat by contributing some suggestions. Do you have a favourite activity, attraction, place to eat, hidden gem, or any fun idea to add to our list? It has to be in Toronto or the GTA. Please add your suggestion to the comments below! If your suggestion is chosen during the chat, you’ll have the chance to win one of several fabulous prizes, including a $100 Air Canada gift card!

Then, most importantly, join me for the #TravelShare live event on Facebook or Instagram. I’ll be broadcasting live with Kanetix.ca and TuGo Insurance on my Facebook and Instagram pages. Be sure to connect with Justin Plus Lauren on Facebook, and @justinpluslauren on Instagram so you can chat on the live feed!

WHEN DOES #TRAVELSHARE HAPPEN?

We’ll be going live on Thursday, June 29th at 4:30pm EST.  (8:30pm GMT / 1:30pm PST). Be sure to look up when the TravelShare chat happens in your time zone!

SAVE THE DATE!

Remember to mark this one on your calendar! Thursday, June 29th at 4:30pm EST on the Justin Plus Lauren Facebook page and @justinpluslauren Instagram account. It will be broadcasted simultaneously from both accounts, so feel free to follow along on your social network of choice!

Help us celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, learn more about the best things to do in Toronto and the GTA, and win travel prizes! Sound like a plan? We’ll be announcing winners of the awesome travel prizes live during the chat, so you aren’t going to want to miss this one!

To help you remember the event, be sure to join the official Facebook event for the June #TravelShare chat! You’ll get reminders of the chat before it happens, as well as any upcoming details!

Travelshare-Title Join Me For TravelShare: The Top 150 in Toronto!

Share the love! Pin this image to Pinterest to share this event with your friends!

Thanks so much to Kanetix.ca and TuGo Insurance for making this live event happen!

What are your suggestions for the best things to do in Toronto / the GTA?

Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Gliding high up above the Finger Lakes region in a motorless plane.

Have you ever gone for a sailplane ride?

When I learned that I had the chance to ride in a sailplane on a trip to the Finger Lakes (a region in New York state), I had to actually Google search what a sailplane was. A sailplane (otherwise known as a glider plane) offers a completely silent flight. The plane is dragged up into the air by a tow plane and released, allowing you to fly without an engine. I couldn’t even imagine the sensation of gliding up in the air, drifting in the breeze like a bird. I knew that I was in for an adventure of a lifetime.

And what better place to try a sailplane ride than the Soaring Capital of America, Harris Hill and the Elmira area?

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF REALITY

On a Finger Lakes glider plane ride, you’ll experience the sensation of flight in a completely quiet environment. You’ll hover high in the air, gently circling around as gravity slowly brings you back to the earth.

It wasn’t until I approached the plane that I started to feel nervous. It was only then that I fully realized what I was getting myself into. What was I thinking? I’ve never been inside any helicopter, small plane, or anything close to this type of aircraft. I’ve only flown in commercial jets where it’s easy to forget that you’re even up in the sky.

In this plane made for two, I sat up in the front while the pilot sat in the back. The tow plane would bring our sailplane to an altitude of 4000 feet above sea level before releasing us. From there, we’d gracefully meander in the wind for about 15 or 20 minutes.

I’m sure that my legs were shaking a little bit as I approached the glider plane. However, once I was strapped inside my seat and I chatted to the pilot, my nerves eased up. I couldn’t wait to fly up above the spectacular Finger Lakes, experiencing the region from new heights.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

UP IN THE AIR

Flying up in the sky on this Finger Lakes glider plane ride was nothing short of exhilarating.

Once we were ready to go, the tow plane edged forward, eventually pulling our glider plane along with it. Within moments, the glider ascended off the ground. The world grew smaller and smaller as we flew higher and higher. I looked from side to side and marveled at the lush landscape of New York state that extended all the way to the horizon.

Once we were at the proper altitude, the tow plane released the cord and veered in an opposing direction, disappearing out of sight. Our plane was all alone in the sky.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

CAPTIVATING VIEWS

I couldn’t get over the silence.

I’m very accustomed to plane rides being very noisy. On commercial flights, it only takes a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to realize just how loud airplanes truly are. I find that I nearly have to yell over the white noise to communicate with someone sitting right next to me.

On a sailplane ride, it was so quiet up there as we lacked any kind of motor. It was also an incredibly smooth ride. We glided around in giant loops. The sensation was as close as I’ve been to flying like a bird.

Don’t forget to bring your camera. Even though I had to battle the reflections of the glass all around me, it was a great opportunity to take pictures of the impressive scenery. From flat farmland to lush, green hills, the Finger Lakes is such a stunning beauty.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

RETURNING TO EARTH

We slowly descended throughout the flight, working with the powers of physics and gravity. Finally, it was time to land. While I expected that we could be in for a bumpy landing, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Much like up in the air, we glided gently to the ground and slowly came to a stop. I only wish that the flight was longer, but all good things must come to an end.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

After my flight, the skies became gray and the weather didn’t cooperate for any other flights that morning. I traveled to the Finger Lakes with my sister, Robyn. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to experience a sailplane ride that day.

Thankfully, the skies opened up the following day and there were bright, blue skies. As we staying in the nearby town of Corning, we zipped back over to Harris Hill and learned that she could take her glider plane ride after all! I’m so happy that she got to experience this, too.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris HillI’m very happy after my glider plane ride because it was an amazing trip!

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

THE NATIONAL SOARING MUSEUM

Located right on site, you can also enjoy a visit to the National Soaring Museum before or after your sailplane flight. This aviation museum preserves the history of motorless flights. It’s home to many original and replica glider planes, and shows how far we’ve come with this technology. The National Soaring Museum is home to a vast collection of planes, from the late 1890s to the late 20th century.

Be sure to book a tour as I learned so much from our knowledgeable guide. He was truly passionate about the topic of aviation history.

I enjoyed the thrill of experiencing a Finger Lakes glider plane ride first hand, while I also appreciated the trials and tribulations that got us to where we are today.

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

Check out even more photography from Harris Hill Soaring and the National Soaring Museum! Here’s my travel photography album of my glider plane ride experience.

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Finger-Lakes-Glider-Plane-Title Finger Lakes Glider Plane Ride: Soaring at Harris Hill

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Thanks so much to Steuben County and Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes Tourism for inviting us to try a sailplane ride. My opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

You might also like:

Have you ever flown in a glider plane before? Would you like to try it?

#Win! Getting Festival Ready With Beam Shoes For Kids + #Giveaway

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We are busy planning our festival accessories as we get ready to head to Camp Bestival next month.  The theme is Pop Stars and Rock Stars so we were delighted when Beam Shoes got in touch and asked if we would take a pair of their light up kids trainers to the party.

charging-beam-shoes- #Win! Getting Festival Ready With Beam Shoes For Kids + #Giveaway

Beam Shoes are such fun and make for the perfect festival accessory.  What is not to love about a pair of rechargeable light up shoes?  When the Beam Shoes arrived I plugged the double USB charger into the computer and left them to do their thing until the light turned green.  The charger socket is just inside the top of the shoe, so it’s in a pretty discrete but accessible place. I loved that I was able to charge both shoes at the same time and they were ready to use in less than an hour.

charging-beam-shoes- #Win! Getting Festival Ready With Beam Shoes For Kids + #Giveaway

There’s a little button on the charge socket that turns the lights on in the soul of the shoe.  They look great when they are turned on as the trainer has a very on trend platform feel about it, and when the lights start it’s like a disco has kicked off on your feet.  So many festival vibes just in your shoes!

When my daughter figured out how they worked, she loved them.  There are a few different light sequences on the Beam Shoes including fast, pulse etc.  They also flash through different colours to give you maximum festival effect on your feet.

We really love our Beam Shoes and can’t wait to take them on tour to Camp Bestival in July.  I strongly suspect we will see a few pairs of Beam Shoes on show as they will finish any Pop Star or Rock Star outfit off a treat.

charging-beam-shoes- #Win! Getting Festival Ready With Beam Shoes For Kids + #Giveaway

Beam Shoes Giveaway

I know a lot of you are starting to get ready to visit your favourite festival this year, and Beam Shoes have kindly given me a pair of kids light up shoes to giveaway on the blog.  Wouldn’t they make the perfect addition to whatever festival outfit they might be planning this year?

All you have to do to get your hands on a pair of these fun flashing shoes is enter the giveaway via the rafflecopter below.  You can also unlock bonus entries and increase your chance of winning!  Competition ends 11/7/17.  Other T & C’s apply.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Feeling lucky?  Check out these other awesome giveaways.

The Spirited Life and Sad End of the First Indian-American Children’s Book Author

Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon, is the tale of Chitragriva, or “Gay-Neck,” the most beautiful pigeon in Calcutta. Gay-Neck is born in a fancier’s flock and attentively watched and cared for by an unnamed narrator, who occasionally cedes the story to the bird. “It is not hard for us to understand him,” the narrator says, “if we use the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of the imagination.” Gay-Neck distinguishes himself from his flock with leadership, selflessness, and bravery before he is sent off to the front lines of World War I, where he serves as a homing pigeon, dodging German planes and struggling through clouds of mustard gas. The bird describes the clamor of war with a child’s innocence and a naturalist’s eye for detail:

Even there, in that very heart of pounding and shooting, where houses fell as birds’ nests in tempests, rats ran from hole to hole, mice stole cheese, and spiders spun webs to catch flies. They went on with the business of their life as if the slaughtering of men by their brothers were as negligible as the clouds that covered the sky.

In 1927, the Association for Library Service to Children gave Gay-Neck the Newbery Medal, its highest award for children’s literature. The book offers lessons of perseverance and sacrifice with the exotic detail of Rudyard Kipling, but without his colonial baggage. Gay-Neck was written by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the first writer and scholar from the subcontinent to find success in America. In his time, Mukerji was a groundbreaking figure, a dashing, eloquent, astute observer of both the country of his birth and his adopted home. Over a relatively brief career, he gave countless talks about India and wrote poetry, drama, fiction, social commentary, and philosophy, in addition to the successful children’s books for which he is best known.

Despite his success, Mukerji was troubled by India’s political plight under the British, the elusiveness of spiritual communion, and a predisposition to loneliness and depression. The story of his spirited career and sad death has fallen into relative obscurity, though he primed America for later waves of South Asian immigrants and their descendants—including many a writer among them, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Bharati Mukherjee to Atul Gawande.

image The Spirited Life and Sad End of the First Indian-American Children’s Book AuthorPortrait of Dhan Gopal Mukerji, 1916. Public Domain


Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born near Calcutta to a high-caste family in 1890, one of eight children of an illiterate mother and an attorney father. His mother gave him fables, while his father introduced him to Don Quixote, taught him the six great Indian melodies, and told him of the Sepoy Rebellion. A sister with whom he was close died at age 12, but he has little to say about her passing in his unusual early-life memoir, Caste and Outcast. “In India we live with death on more intimate and friendly terms than in the West,” he wrote, “and it makes less impression on us.”

At 10 he went to study at a Scotch Presbyterian school. At 14 he trained to be a priest by renouncing his possessions and living as a wandering beggar for two years. “You cannot have poets if you do not have beggars,” he wrote. This, as one might expect, was a formative experience, though after that he lasted less than a year as a temple priest.

The details of Mukerji’s life at this point get fuzzy. There are competing stories from his autobiography, his family, and biographies prepared by his publisher, E.P. Dutton, according to Gordon Chang, a scholar at Stanford who wrote the introduction to a recent edition of Caste and Outcast. He worked in the textile industry and ended up in Japan. By one account, he’d dramatically escaped British authorities after the capture of his brother, a revolutionary. By another, he was in Japan to learn about the textile trade and recruit supporters for the Indian independence movement. In Caste and Outcast he chooses to voyage to the United States, but in another version he accepted a free meal in Yokohama, which indebted him to work as a contract laborer on a ship headed to San Francisco.

He was, he writes, instantly enamored of and disappointed with America. “No sooner did they see that I had such feelings for their country than they began to knock it out of me in a very unceremonious fashion,” he wrote.

He took odd jobs, as a dishwasher or housekeeper, and was typically fired for not knowing some basic skill, like serving soup or making a bed. In each case, however, he convinced his erstwhile employer to let him observe the task to ready him for the next job. He may have picked asparagus and hops and beets, often with the few fellow Indians he encountered. In 1910 he enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley—again, there is no consensus on how he ended up there—and later transferred to Stanford, where he earned his degree. At this point the stories about his life begin to align. He fell in with socialists and anarchists, and impressed his professors. The first president of Stanford, David Starr Jordan, became a lifelong supporter and friend.

image The Spirited Life and Sad End of the First Indian-American Children’s Book AuthorIllustration from Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon. Courtesy Cultural Heritage Books

At the time, most Americans knew little of India or Hinduism beyond what they read in Kipling or heard from returning missionaries. There were simply not many Indians in the United States. Immigration from Asia was heavily restricted, and Asians wouldn’t legally be allowed to become citizens until after World War II. Mukerji was the right mind and personality at the right time; he became something of a cultural ambassador for the East, first to American intellectuals, and later to the wider public, through both his writing and exhaustive speaking tours. He found America an inspiring and frustrating place: “I found it had its vulgarity, its bitter indifference, its colossal frauds. It has made just as many mistakes as India has in her time,” he wrote. “And yet there was something constructive in both of these civilizations.”

At Berkeley he met, and later married, Ethel Ray Dugan, an educator. They had a son, Dhan Gopal Jr., and moved to New York, where they were a vivacious social and intellectual presence. The 1923 publication of Caste and Outcast established Mukerji’s reputation. It’s a strange autobiography, cut through with grand, mythical speech that seems pulled from Indian fables, juxtaposed with voices of brusque American folksiness and pretentious anarchists. “At its heart, Caste and Outcast is an optimistic book, reflecting the author’s own joy in writing and in discovering his own purpose in life, which was to serve as what one might call a literary missionary,” writes Chang in the introduction. “The publication of Caste and Outcast marked a turning point in American’s understanding of India.”


In his relatively brief literary career, Mukerji published 25 books, including the children’s books for which he won the most popular acclaim. These books are distinguished by wisdom and courage and life lessons, and often feature animals such as Gay-Neck and Kari the Elephant because, Mukerji said, “Animals have young souls.” The publisher E.P. Dutton wrote, “In only a few years he has jumped into public favor—and more—he has won the hearts of America’s children.”

But success did not hang well on Mukerji. He struggled with depression and anxiety, traits he shared with another prominent friend, the man who would later become India’s first prime minister, Jawarhalal Nehru. “Both were restless, driven, sensitive, and inwardly tortured,” writes Chang.

image The Spirited Life and Sad End of the First Indian-American Children’s Book AuthorIllustration from Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon. Courtesy Cultural Heritage Books

“I have been so fragile. My nerves could not and will not stand any strain. I need one whole year of the Alps. It is an awful state to be in: I need silence and I can’t get it in America,” Mukerji told friends in a letter just before a nervous breakdown. He was also a distant, remote father. Gopal, as his son was called, wrote about his father while in high school at Exeter Academy, including his struggle with “The three greeds and terrors: desire for fame and fear of oblivion; desire for money and the fear of the lack of it; and last, the desire for all the little vanities of life, and the fear of not enjoying them.”

“Success is a curse, a stumbling block in the path of a spiritual life,” Gopal added. And a spiritual life is what the increasingly isolated and stressed Mukerji had sought, unsuccessfully. Following another breakdown, on July 14, 1936, Dugan returned to their New Milford, Connecticut, home and found Mukerji hanging by his neck in the closet. He left no note, but the last thing he wrote was a letter to the Ramakrishna monastery, long the focus of his spiritual life: “You ask me to write, after reflection. I find, I am prepared. My decision has been taken, on reflection. It has been decided: I am. Who decided, you know it. I am mere instrument.”

“How can we feel regret or sorrow?” Dugan later wrote of her husband’s death. “He has what he wanted—the only thing he wanted.”

There was something else that he wanted, at least in the years before his demons overtook him, and that was to have an impact on his adopted country, where he saw so much potential, and so much hazard. “He promoted Indian spirituality to address the void in America’s soul,” writes Chang. “He only wanted to help America see beyond itself.” But that peace and insight, reflected in the final words of Gay-Neck, eluded him.

Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance. Peace be unto all!

Gorgeous Minnie Mouse Backpacks From Samsonite

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Some trips lend themselves so well to accessorising.  When we found out we were going to Disneyland Paris, I really felt the need to have some fun with the clothes and the bags we were taking with us.  If you’ve read about our trip to the 25th Anniversary already, you’ll know that my daughters didn’t know they were going to be visiting Disneyland Paris until the morning that they went.  That was one hell of a secret to keep I can tell you!

For every trip, the girls have their own backpack, filled with pens, notepads, a toy, snacks and some more practical things like wipes and a spare change of clothes.  Having their own bag is great for giving them some independence while travelling and helps make the most of that baggage allowance.

Gorgeous-Minnie-Mouse-Backpacks-From-Samsonite Gorgeous Minnie Mouse Backpacks From Samsonite

When their gorgeous new Minnie Mouse backpacks from Samsonite arrived I decided to stick with the Disney theme and pack the bags with Princess themed goodies for the trip.  I have to admit I really enjoyed that shopping trip!

We received two Minnie Mouse rucksacks from Samsonite, and they are both brilliant.  My 5 year old really took to her Disney Ultimate Minnie Mouse Iconic backpack from the moment she saw it.  As soon as it came back from Disneyland Paris is was graduated to new school bag status as well because she loves wearing it so much.

Gorgeous-Minnie-Mouse-Backpacks-From-Samsonite Gorgeous Minnie Mouse Backpacks From Samsonite

The style is a little more grown up with the Minnie Mouse patent design pattern on the face of it.  She has started to talk about things being ‘babyish’, so this design worked well for her.  The other thing I noticed was it was clearly very comfortable for her to wear.  She was happy to wear it throughout the trip and the design of the padded shoulder straps and the sternum clip that helped keep them fixed securely on her shoulders made a big difference to her.

The details on the bag are super cute too.  The zips are finished with a pair of Minnie Mouse’s iconic yellow shoes, and red and polka dots also feature but in a more grown up design.

My 3 year old daughter got to travel with a very different Minnie Mouse rucksack, which she loved just as much.  The Disney Ultimate Minnie Classic is a fun and cute design which lends itself really well to the younger travelling child.  This backpack features Minnie Mouse’s face with great details using the ears and red polka dot bow.  We also loved the frill detail which really helped to personify the bag for our younger daughter.

Gorgeous-Minnie-Mouse-Backpacks-From-Samsonite Gorgeous Minnie Mouse Backpacks From Samsonite

The Minnie Mouse Classic rucksack also features side pockets, ideal for drinks and other items, and an internal ID tag.  The shoulder straps are fully adjustable, padded and clip together making it so much easier and comfortable for a child to wear.  The bag also features reflective strips which is helpful when travelling with a child in busy areas and crossing roads.

Overall we love our Minnie Mouse Backpacks from Samsonite.  They are incredibly well made, have lots of child friendly travel features and are really fun too.  If you are visiting any Disney themed park this summer I think these backpacks will be a welcome addition to your trip.  For more Disney Minnie Mouse luggage ideas click here.

We were provided with the Minnie Mouse Backpacks From Samsonite for the purposes of this review, but all thoughts and opinions are our own. 

Why Coloring and Doodling Make Us Feel Good

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!

5 AMAZING Reasons To Make Your Next Holiday Self Catering

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Self catering accommodation is a great option for families looking to book a relaxing holiday together.  Hundredrooms is an excellent resource for finding self catering holidays around the world to suit your needs.  Not only does it compare prices so that you get the best deals but you can also specify your family’s specific requirements.  So if you can’t live without wifi or want use of a pool it’s a great place to start your holiday search.

view-over-ocean- 5 AMAZING Reasons To Make Your Next Holiday Self Catering

As you already know from my recent holiday to France, I love the flexibility that a self catering holiday offers to families.  I decided to ask some of my family travel blogger friends to talk to me about their experiences of self catering holidays and I found there experiences really inspiring.  I’ve literally found 5 amazing holidays I could book tomorrow and all for very different reasons.

You Can Stay In Gorgeous Houses

If I was going on holiday to Florida I would totally want to live the dream, and it looks like Cathy from Mummy Travels did just that on her trip to Anna Maria Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast.  The decor alone in this gorgeous five bedroomed villa located about an hour away from Tampa Airport took my breath away.

The villa is far superior to anything I’ve seen before and there is so much attention to detail.  I love the whole look and feel of the house, and I agree with Cathy when she talks about it being a major part of the holiday experience.  I think I would struggle to leave here!

Enjoy Eating At Home On Your Own Terms

Self catering accommodation often provides excellent facilities to enjoy some great home cooking.  When Gretta from Mums Do Travel took her family on holiday to Portugal they found they ate at home far more than at the local restaurants.

view-over-ocean- 5 AMAZING Reasons To Make Your Next Holiday Self Catering

Being able to enjoy a family meal together inspired my local produce and accompanied by the wines you have discovered from the region is a wonderful way to spend an evening.  You can dine when you want to, take your time over your food and move out onto the balcony to enjoy the rest of your evening at your leisure.  If you have young children who need to be in bed early, this is a perfect option for you.

Add Unique Experiences To Your Self Catering Holiday

When I read about Maria’s from One Tiny Leaps’s experience at Wildflower Flower Farm in Massachusetts it took me right back to my childhood and one of my favourite TV shows, Little House On The Prairie.  I know, I’m completely showing my age aren’t I.

I would love to go to America and experience life on a traditional farm, where the children can run free and meet the animals.  Being able to stay with local people and gleam their knowledge of the area to plan your holiday too is just invaluable.

Celebrate Special Occasions

Self catering holidays are the perfect setting for the multi-generational holiday and the perfect place to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary.  Laura from Side Street Style talks about sharing her 30th birthday with her family, as well as her mother and brother, on the French Riveria in this wonderfully traditional French villa. 

view-over-ocean- 5 AMAZING Reasons To Make Your Next Holiday Self Catering

Self catering accommodation is perfect for bring families together for holidays as you can enjoy each other’s company but still retreat to your own room if you need a little space.  You can enjoy time together at home or on day trips, or you have the flexibility to plan different activities also.

Take Your Travels Off The Beaten Track

Self catering holidays give you real flexibility when it comes to choosing your location.  You don’t have to feel tidied to a holiday resort and you can find locations that really inspire you and let you immerse yourself in the local culture and beauty of an area.

Charly from Pod Travels shares her tourist free experience in the stunning location of Trillayo in the Bedoya Valley.  Their holiday cottage was brimming with rustic charm and was the perfect location to explore this remarkable location.

What do you love about self catering accommodation?

view-over-ocean- 5 AMAZING Reasons To Make Your Next Holiday Self Catering

This is a collaborative post 

Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

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What do you look for in a family holiday? Is quality accommodation at the top of your list? Do you like to be surrounded by natural beauty? Does the family insist on visiting a resort with an excellent swimming pool? Perhaps your holiday isn’t perfect without a beautiful beach to build sandcastles on? If all of these things are important to you then I think you are going to love this post about our family holiday with Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

During May half term we flew to Bordeaux in France before making the journey to Lacanau Ocean where you can find Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins. If you were following us on Instagram you might have noticed that we took a little detour. This was entirely my fault for not putting the correct details into Google Maps when setting off in our hire car from the airport. Just for your information, it’s really important to tell Google Maps you want to go to Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins, as you might end up at another camp site. Fortunately we were only an hour out of our way, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, but we were definitely relieved when we reached Yelloh! Village.

Check in was really quick and we received a super friendly welcome from guest services who even escorted us to our holiday cottage by golf buggy so that we didn’t get lost. I think they might have been trying to tell me something! We were actually staying in a ‘no car zone’ but we were allowed to unpack our car, and if we went shopping, we could also take it up to our accommodation. It’s nice that they have rules to restrict cars, but are also sensible with it. Lots of holiday providers have rules that are meant to be helpful, but enforce them to the point that they actually become annoying, which can be quite frustrating especially for families.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

Once we had unloaded the car, we were finally able to appreciate our new surroundings. It was lovely to have the privacy of our own four walls for the week, in a detached holiday cottage with it’s own decking and outdoor space. We had neighbours close by, but we were able to enjoy our own self contained space to relax in. We were surrounded my the biggest pine trees I have ever seen, so the resort most definitely lives up to it’s name. The cottage was made of wood so it blended in with the natural environment but inside it was modern and well presented. It was also well insulated and very well sound proofed, which was great as we can be quite a noisy family.

Swimming Pool

The part of the holiday that made the biggest impact on us was the swimming pool, and it was clear to us that all the families really enjoyed this facility. Now, I can’t swim as you may have heard me confess on the blog before, but I enjoyed the pool and all it’s features as much as anyone else who was there. First of all, it’s heated and the average temperature was 30C, which was perfect. There was a ‘water tree’ and paddling pool for younger children to enjoy, and they could even play here independently as long as you were sat nearby keeping an eye on them.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

The main pool had so many features. There was a lagoon, or lazy river if you like, that you could swim around. The kids loved going piggy back with us and chasing each other round until we reached the undercover pool. This area of the pool was, to all intents and purposes, indoors and even had a separate jacuzzi which we all loved.

If that wasn’t enough there were also several water slides which were an endless source of entertainment for us all. They were very family friendly and our five year old was quite happy to fly down each one of them without an adult. Our 3 year old preferred to sit on someone’s knee, but she loved them just as much. I lost count of how many times we went up and down those slides, but one things for sure it was brilliant family fun and we all enjoyed every minute of it.

Beach

Another favourite feature of ours for the duration of our holiday at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins
was the beach. The resort is perfectly situated for direct access to the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. You walk through a forest of beautiful pine trees before it opens out onto protected sand dunes. Walk a little further and you are looking at miles of glorious sand covered beach and lapping waves.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

I would take the girls down to the beach everyday to build sand castles and jump the waves. If it was a morning visit we would watch the students at surf school take on the waves that day. Sadly, all we could do was watch as children have to be 8 years old to join, but that didn’t stop my daughter asking over and over again if she could have a surf board. I would definitely consider taking her back here when she was old enough to have a go at surfing as the kids in the school were making great progress.

While we were playing on the beach, Daddy would take the opportunity to pop down to the Zen pool, which was a more tranquil setting for over 18’s who wanted to swim and relax without children. He’s not a fan of sand, so this worked well for him.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

Eating at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins

A holiday at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins is the perfect place to enjoy several types of catering arrangements that work well for families. We did self catering for some meals, we enjoyed eating out both at the “Les Fils à Maman” restaurant and in the nearby town and we also had take away during our stay.

The great thing about this resort is the number of family friendly eating options it provides. There is a supermarket onsite where you can pick up all of your essential daily items. There is also a boulangerie that opens every morning selling fresh bread, croissants and other gorgeous French pastries. A holiday in France just isn’t French until you’ve had a fresh baguette or two!

There is a snack bar where you can get sandwiches and ice-cream throughout the day, but in the evening you can also get freshly made pizzas to order and cooked chicken from the Rotisserie to take away. We became huge fans of the pizzas very quickly as they were reasonably priced and also made with good quality ingredients. We would pick them up after an afternoon trip to the pool and sit on our decking enjoying the rest of the sunshine the day had to offer. It was a great way to end the day together before the kids bedtime.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

We also popped to “Les Fils à Maman” restaurant for lunch are were totally impressed with their burgers, again at a very reasonable price. There was a choice of beef, chicken or vegetarian burgers which you were able to customise too. We were all very impressed with not only the burgers but also the french fries! The restaurant over looks one of the children’s play areas which is great for families. The lighthouse was a great pitstop for the kids when they had finished eating and gave us a moment to relax whilst still keeping a watchful eye on them.

Other Facilities at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins

The focus of our holiday was to relax and enjoy some downtime with the children in what was a stunningly beautiful setting, but the truth is you can have any kind of holiday you want at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins. They provide lots of facilities that allow you to make the most of your family break and here’s a few things you might like to choose from

Bike Hire
Surf equipment hire
Surf lessons
Kids clubs
Laundrettes
Indoor play area
Outdoor play areas
Games room
Wellness and spa centre
Outdoor gymnasium
Sports pitches
Skateboard park
Evening entertainment program

During the course of the week we enjoyed using the majority of the family friendly facilities at Yelloh! Villages and were very impressed with what was included in our holiday for us to enjoy.

We had a fun and active holiday during our stay at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins. The kids had such a great holiday and we were genuinely impressed with all the facilities especially the pool and the wonderful beach that was right on our doorstep. We would have no problem recommending a family holiday to Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins and would happily return ourselves one day either to this site or one of the other Yelloh! Village resorts across Europe.

Yelloh-Village-Cottage- Our Family Holiday With Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins – Review

We were provided with a complimentary stay at Yelloh! Village Les Grands Pins in exchange for this post but all thoughts and opinions are our own. We were also compensated for our time.

The Case of the Hedgehog With ‘Balloon Syndrome’

A hedgehog—apparently lost, severely bloated, possibly close to death—was observed last week wandering the streets of Toll Bar, in northern England. Before we go further, we should note, in case anyone is worried, that this story has a happy ending.

The hedgehog was initially thought to be pregnant, but was walking with some distress and also, for some reason, had blood on its nose. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) then intervened, and found that the poor animal had a rare disease known as balloon syndrome, a condition that only affects hedgehogs, in which gas beneath the skin gathers and expands. It can be caused by a number of things, such as an underlying infection or a “traumatic event,” according to the Press Association.

“It’s the worst case of balloon syndrome I’ve seen,” an RSCPA said. “This poor chap was almost twice its natural size, literally blown up like a beach ball with incredibly taut skin.”

Since being found June 5, the hedgehog has had the gas released and is now looking considerably smaller—and healthier. Here’s a video in which the two-pound mammal, despite his travails, appears curious about the world around him:

The RSPCA says they’ll care for the little guy until he’s ready to return to the wild. Get better, formerly-beach-ball-sized hedgehog!

Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

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Do you need a quality gift for dad this Father’s Day? From sports dads to outdoors dads, you can get great gift inspiration from online home and garden retailer BuyDirect4U.co.uk, which has a fun and thoughtful collection of gifts for every type of dad.

Why not pick this geeky gift for quirky dads, this bright blue police box bird feeder in the design of Dr Who’s iconic TARDIS promises to bring a smile to Dad’s face. Crafted from high quality polywood, this TARDIS bird feeder is hand painted and suitable for outdoor use.  Priced at £39.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

Perfect for the dad who has green fingers, this Charles Bentley and Son gift set, created in partnership with the National Trust, features a pair of hard wearing rigger gloves, a hand fork and a hand trowel. The rigger gloves have a double stitched palm and fingertip panels that protect the hand and a soft fleece palm lining for increased wearer comfort, while the tools are made from the finest quality FSC wood and stainless steel. A thoughtful gift that is built to last. Priced at £27.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

The kids can spend quality time with dad this Father’s Day thanks to this travel fishing set for two. Featuring two 1.65 metre telescopic rods with reels with 2lb lines and all the essentials you need for a day of fishing, it is a gift that dad can enjoy again and again. The barbless hook ensures less damage to the fish when released and the spinner attracts prey fish, while the equipment is stored in a hard-wearing tackle box with handle for easy carrying. Priced at £19.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

Great for the fitness mad dad, these Charles Bentley cast iron red kettle bells make it easier to workout at home. These kettle bells come as a single unit in both 6kg and 8kg which are wrapped in neoprene rubber for comfort, durability and safety. Kettle bells are designed to allow the user to have a firm and comfortable grip while performing activities. Suitable for use to exercise arms, shoulders, chest, back, abs and legs. Available in 6kg and 8kg. Priced at £13.99 – £16.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

If you need to find a useful gift for the outdoors dad, then this Bentley Explorer portable camping light and power bank ticks all the right boxes. Ideal for camping or fishing, this small, lightweight lantern also acts as a power bank once charged, allowing you to charge other devices, including mobile phones. Priced at £24.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

This Rastar Quadcopter Drone with built-in camera is perfect for the dad who is just a big kid at heart. Designed to capture great aerial shots, this drone can be flown in any direction and can be rotated 360 degrees. Features front and back flashing lights and has a flying time of five to six minutes. Priced at £49.99.

GLWDBIRDHOUSE03-Charles-Bentley-Police-Box-Feeder-1 Father’s Day Gifts You Can Buy Online From BuyDirect4U + #Giveaway

For a Father’s Day gift that really packs a punch, pick up this punch bag set. Suitable for boxing, kick boxing and generally keeping fit, this 3ft punch bag is perfect for the home, garage or home gym.  The set includes a pair of 10 ounce matching boxing gloves, while the bag itself has a soft inner filling which allows for punches to be absorbed to protect hands and wrists. Priced at £49.99.

For more gift inspiration, please visit www.buydirect4u.co.uk

Rastar Quadcopter Drone Giveaway

I also have a little competition for you to give you the chance to win a techy Father’s Day for the geeky Dad out there.  BuyDirect4U have also given me one of the Rastar Quadcopter Drone’s to giveaway to a luck Zena’s Suitcase reader.  Please note this model does not come with a camera but is a great gift for someone who wants to start experiencing the fun you can have with drones.  All you need to do is enter via the rafflecopter below.  Competition ends 18/6/17. Other T & C’s apply.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Are you feeling lucky?  Enter another giveaway here

This post contains PR samples