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Origins of 8 of the Strangest Place Names in Canada

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Every country has place names that make you scratch your head and say, "What were they thinking?" So I looked up what they may have been thinking when these places in Canada got their names. (One name further down the page is NSFW.) 

1. Swastika

Swastika, Ontario was named in the first decade of the 20th century, when the swastika symbol meant little to Canadians outside of "good luck." Prospectors named the Swastika Gold Mine in 1907, and another nearby mine was named the Lucky Cross Mine. The town was incorporated in 1908. Then the rise of Hitler caused the word "swastika" to fall out of favor quickly, as it was used as a symbol of his Third Reich. In 1935, the government of Ontario decided the name of Swastika should be changed, just as Berlin, Ontario had changed it sname to Kitchener during World War I. The residents of Swastika took offense to the name change, and resisted the new name of Winston. The town removed the Winston sign and replaced it with the original name Swastika, but they added a new sign as well: one that said "To hell with Hitler, we came up with our name first"!  

2. Witless Bay

(Photo credit: Flickr user The Tedster)

Witless Bay, Newfoundland, came by its name honestly, if you believe the legend. It was originally named Whittle's Bay after an early settler named Captain Whittle, but when the captain died, his widow packed up the family and went back to Dorsetshire, England. With no one left named Whittle, the Bay became Whittle-less and then Wit-less. Those who called it this were probably well aware of the joke. 

3. Vulcan

(Photo credit: Flickr user Falashad)

The town of Vulcan, Alberta did not originally have a strange name. It was named in 1915 by a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway after the Roman god of fire (and volcanoes). The town was just a rural stop on the railroad until 1966, when residents were delighted that the most popular character on the new TV show Star Trek called the planet Vulcan his home. Since then, Vulcan has gone all out to live up to the name. The citizens opened a tourist museum, erected a Federation Starship, and play host to the VulCON: Spock Days/Galaxyfest the second week of June every year. This will be the festival's twentieth year. 

4. Blow Me Down

(Photo credit: Flickr user Douglas Sprott)

Blow Me Down Provincial Park is on the island of Newfoundland. The legend is that Captain James Cook named the nearby village of Blow Me Down, as he had named several places in Newfoundland. So was the park named after the town? No, it was named after Blow-me-down Mountain. Blow-me-down Mountain was found on maps drawn by Joseph Gilbert, who surveyed the area before Cook. Climbers who have been to the top will tell you there's no mystery in the name, as the winds are pretty high up there. Now the name is attached a range of mountains.

5. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!

(Photo credit: Flickr user Rob Schmidt)

The municipality of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec has a name that makes perfect sense -in French. Sort of. The Ha! Ha! is officially traced back to an archaic French term, "The haha," which means an unexpected obstacle or dead end. This would refer to Lake Témiscouata, which came into view suddenly for early French explorers. The citizens of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! are proud to say that it is the only city name in the world that features two exclamation points.

6. Lower Economy

(Photo credit: Flickr user Robber Esq)

The rural area of Lower Economy, Nova Scotia only takes an unfortunate turn when seen through the language of modern finance. The source of the name is the unincorporated Colchester County community of Economy. From this name sprung both Upper Economy and Lower Economy. It's just a map division, and there is no concrete evidence that the economy of either area is better than the other -neither place has an official website. However, the Lower Economy area includes a popular coastal tourist and science stop, Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy. This harbor is the home of the highest tides ever measured worldwide, which you can see in this video.

7. Dildo, Newfoundland

(Photo credit: Flickr user Arnaud Limbourg)

Any list of strange place names in Canada would be incomplete without at least a cursory look at Dildo, Newfoundland. However, the origin of the name is still a riddle. The name was first associated with the area in 1711, and was spelled with an "e" when referring to Dildoe Island in its early days. It may have been someone's name, or it may have been a deliberate joke by early explorers who did not foresee how residents would deal with the connotation hundreds of years later. There have been several campaigns to change the name, but the residents always vote them down. After all, it brings them publicity and tourists!  

8. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The very weird name makes perfect sense if you know the history of the area. That it was named for what happened there long ago is not so unusual, but that they use the English translation instead of the original Blackfoot name (estipah-skikikini-kots) makes it stand out today. For thousands of years, bison hunting in western Canada was done in a very efficient way -by causing herds of buffalo to stampede over a cliff, falling to their death. The meat was fresh and plentiful, and the danger to Blackfoot hunters was minimal compared to other methods. But it was still dangerous. The legend about the name is that a young warrior wanted to witness the kill from below, but when more buffalo came over the cliff than he calculated, he died in the stampede. His fellow hunters found him with his head smashed in. No one is sure how old the story is, but the Blackfoot place name translates to "where we got our heads smashed."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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