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Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Things to Do in Montreal

Original image
Erin McCarthy

In May, I took a trip over the border to visit our neighbors up north in Montreal, where the people are bilingual and every Starbucks is "Cafe Starbucks." Here are a few things I did—and you should do them, too, if you ever find yourself there.

1. See Stars at Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal

On the outside, Notre-Dame Basilica, designed by Irish architect James O'Donnell and dedicated in 1829, looks like your standard issue cathedral—but the inside (above) will take your breath away. The interior was designed by Victor Rousselot and Victor Bourgeau, and it's more like a theater than a church; the floor slopes downward, toward the altar. The ceiling is dotted with more than 5000 hand-painted gold stars, which are just one karat shy of being pure gold. The stained glass windows were added in 1929. Fun fact: Quebec native Celine Dion married long-time manager René Angélil, also from Quebec, at the basilica in 1994.

2. See a Saint's Heart in a Jar

On the fourth floor of Saint Joseph's Oratory, behind a locked grate, a thick sheet of glass, and in a jar, is the heart of Brother Andre (his body lies in a tomb beneath the oratory). In 1904, Andre had a small chapel built on Mount Royal; when the congregation grew, a larger space was built in 1917. Construction on the current oratory—the largest church in Canada—began in 1924, but Brother Andre wouldn't live to see its completion in 1967: He died in January 1937. Saint Brother Andre is credited with thousands of miraculous healings and was canonized in 2010. 

If that's not enough to get you to take a trip to the Oratory, consider this: Brother Andre's heart was actually stolen and held for ransom in March 1973. To get to the heart, the thieves had to pick three locks and chisel the urn off its pedestal. Though the church refused to pay, the heart was eventually returned in December 1974.

3. Ascend the World’s Tallest Inclined Tower

Built at a 45 degree angle, this 574-foot structure is the tallest inclined tower in the world. Commissioned as part of the Olympic Park for the 1976 games, the tower and stadium weren't finished until the 1980s, thanks to construction strikes and other delays. After the games, a plan for an observatory was added to the still-incomplete tower; these days, you can ride trams up a funicular (a hydraulic system and curb structure allow the tram to stay horizontal the entire time) to the top for 360 degree views of Montreal. (Sadly, I only got the chance to check out the tower from the ground—there was a long drive back to the States in front of us—but I totally plan on going to the top the next time I'm in town, fears of heights be damned!)

Just how does this incredibly inclined structure stay upright? According to the Olympic Park's website, it's all about the ratio of the tower's mass: "the top of the tower is a mass of 8000 tons which is permanently attached to the infrastructure and to the solid concrete implanted ten meters below ground level that has a mass of 145,000 tons, the equivalent of three aircraft carriers!" 

4. Check out Taxidermy and Fossils at Musee Redpath

Located on the McGill University campus, Musee Redpath is pretty quaint when you consider a place like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That doesn't make visiting any less enjoyable, though. On its three floors, you'll see rocks and minerals, dinosaur bones, and taxidermy (including the terrible stuffing of a mountain lion, bagged in Quebec in 1859), plus a section on Ancient Egypt (which includes the facial reconstructions of mummies), an informative/horrifying display describing the Chinese practice of footbinding, and much more. Plus, it's hard not to love a place where most of the signage features dinosaurs (the sign saying that the museum was open was a smiling T. Rex; on the flip side, a crying Triceratops announced the museum was closed!). It's a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. And did I mention it's free? 

5. See Napoleon’s Chapeau at Musee des Beaux-Arts

The Musee des Beaux-Arts Montreal takes up multiple buildings on Sherbrooke Street West. In the main building is an impressive display of stuff that once belonged to Napoleon. This includes everything from art to furniture to the emperor's ink-splattered pen case—and, of course, the famous hat he wore during the Russian campaign in 1812. There's also his shirt, his boots, and a lock of his hair.  Entry is free.

6. Buy a Book—or a Musical Instrument—at Montreal’s Oldest Bookstore

The first Archambault opened in 1896, and its current headquarters, located at 500 Rue Ste Catherine, is seven stories tall. Here you'll find books in both French and English, records, CDs, DVDs, and sheet music, but the real draw is the top floor, where instruments are sold. Guitars, drums, and pianos each have their own rooms; when I was there, a recital was being held in the piano room. 

7. Walk in the Foundations of the City

After paying an entrance fee, visitors to Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal's museum of history and archaeology, are treated to a fun video introduction of the city's history, from before its founding in 1642 to the present day. After that, you head down to the ruins—because the museum itself sits on the site where the city was founded. You'll see Montreal's first cemetery (above), then wander through parts of buildings constructed on the site in the 1700s and 1800s, including the stone structure of Montreal's oldest sewer, the remains of fortifications built in the 18th century, and the foundations of the Royal Insurance Building, which was demolished in 1951. 

Until March 30, 2014, the museum is also home to "The Beatles in Montreal," commemorating the Fab Four's stop at The Forum on September 8, 1964. There's John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce, the controversial cover of Yesterday and Todayan interactive portion where you can karaoke with the band, and a startling array of vintage merchandise, including Beatles hairspray, dresses, scarves, board games, bobbleheads, drum sets, wigs, balloons, and so much more.

8. Go to this Costume Shop

I found Joseph Ponton Costumes Inc. while wandering around Old Montreal. The shop has been in business since 1865—making it the oldest costume store in Quebec—when Ponton began gathering costumes in the back of his barber shop. Inside, you'll find everything from a fuzzy Buzz Lightyear head to a full-body E.T. costume. 

9. Buy lots of Maple Syrup

After exploring Marche Jean-Talon—where a flautist played "My Heart Will Go On"—I stopped at Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, a store that only carries things made in Quebec. Here, a salesperson told me more than I ever wanted to know about maple syrup—after which I bought cans and cans of the stuff to bring home. I mostly chose medium, which the salesperson said has a bolder flavor than the light or amber varieties. Also available for purchase: Maple cookies and candies, Quebec-made jams and beer, and frozen rabbit, among other things. 

10. Eat. A Lot.

The lobster pasta I had at Liverpool House just scratches the surface of the incredible food I ate during my stay in Montreal. At Le Gros Jambon I scarfed down a delicious smoked meat sandwich; at Taverne Square Dominion I raved about the cider-steamed mussels with cheese and bacon (my stomach is growling just thinking about it!). The cromesquis de foie gras (basically, little fried foie gras bon bons) at Au Pied de Cochon were a delightful treat—and don't even get me started on the foie gras poutine. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gibeau Orange Julep, an 80-year-old restaurant shaped like (you guessed it!) an orange, which provided both an excellent meal (smoked meat sandwich again) and a fun photo opp.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]