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Robin Esrock

The 12 Weirdest Experiences You Can Have in Canada

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Robin Esrock

When the going gets weird, the weird head north. Where else can you pay good money to freeze yourself (almost) to death, order a cocktail with a severed human toe, or spend a night in a haunted prison cell? On my two-year quest to discover the best experiences in Canada, these were the quirkiest.

1. The Sour Toe Cocktail

Photo: Robin Esrock

Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel bar in Yukon, Canada serves up a cocktail with a severed human toe. Since adding the drink to the menu in the 1970s, more than 60,000 people have joined the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. Preserved in a jar of salt, the donated appendage is dropped into a glass of local bourbon, and is, admittedly, a little jammy on the high notes. Drink it fast, drink it slow, but either way, your lips must touch the gnarly looking toe. Try not to swallow it (as some patrons are wont to do), or face a $2500 fine.     

2. The Cryotherapy Cold Sauna

Photo: Robin Esrock

Flash freezing yourself almost to death comes with a range of medical benefits: it’s good for muscle pain, arthritis, hormonal imbalances, and the appreciation of survival. Sparkling Hill is a glitzy spa resort in British Columbia’s interior that offers North America’s only cold sauna. Wearing nothing but bathing suits, gloves, and booties, you’ll spend three minutes in a tiny, monitored room at a balmy -166ºF. Seven minutes at this temperature could kill you, but the high-tech spa system should give you nothing to sweat about.  

3. The Narcisse Snake Dens

Photo: Ruslan Margolin

Venomous Australian snakes will attack if you even look in their direction, but Canadian snakes are pleasantly polite. Which is good news for those visiting Manitoba’s Narcisse dens, the largest concentration of snakes anywhere in the world. Each spring, tens of thousands of red garter snakes emerge from their dens in a mating ritual frenzy. You can pick them up, say hello, make a live Medusa wig. Just be gentle, watch where you step, and remember to smile, eh?   

4. The Haunted Prison Hotel

Photo: Robin Esrock

For over a century, Ottawa’s Carleton County Gaol incarcerated the city’s most notorious villains. Known for its filth and brutality, the prison was finally shut down in 1972 due to inhumane conditions. The following year it reopened as a youth hostel, and has been locking up budget travelers ever since.  Take the nightly ghost tour on Death Row before heading to your dorm cell. Those screams and groans in the middle of the night are probably just your imagination. Probably.

 5. The Not Since Moses Run

Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy boasts the world’s highest tides, with waters reaching as high as 50 feet. Perfect for a fun run along the sea bed, competing not only against fellow runners, but also the 100 billion tonnes of the Atlantic rushing into the bay. Not since Moses have we run against the power of the ocean, although this appropriately-named annual race concludes far more agreeably, with BBQ and cold beers.

6. The Dead Sea of Canada

Photo: Robin Esrock

You’ve heard of the Dead Sea, where tourists float effortlessly in water eight times saltier than the ocean. Few outside of Saskatchewan know of North America’s equivalent, Little Manitou Lake. In this evaporating lake, with water three times saltier than the ocean, you'll be buoyant enough to read a newspaper during a dip. Bonus points for the scenery, hot springs, and free therapeutic mud, yet to be marketed as overpriced cosmetic gold.

7. The Heli Yoga Class

Photo: Robin Esrock

Tired of yoga sessions in sweaty rooms, staring at the crack of the hairy guy in front of you? With the aid of a scenic helicopter flight, a certified yoga teacher and naturist leads yoga classes high up on the peaks of the Rockies. You could hike there, but then who would have the energy for a tree pose? It can, however, be difficult to focus on your breath when the scenery around you takes it away. Who wouldn’t nama-wanna-stay up here?  

8. The Magdelan Island Cave Bash

Photo: Auberge la Salicorne

Technically, this wet activity on Quebec’s gorgeous Magdelan Islands is called Cave Swimming. Don a thick wet suit, jump into the crashing waves of the freezing Atlantic, and allow them to smash you against the red cliffs that surround the archipelago. Remarkably, the waves buttress your impact, washing you in and out of crevices and sea caves. It looks, and feels, like you shouldn’t survive such an onslaught, and yet this commercially operated adventure is mostly harmless. 

9. The Salmon Snorkel

Photo: Robin Esrock

Annual migrating salmon are among the natural wonders of the Pacific West Coast. To fully appreciate the scale, get underwater in Vancouver Island’s Campbell River. Floating downcurrent, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of salmon swimming upriver to breed and die (circle of life, and all that). Surrounded by glimmering walls of pink, coho, chum, sock-eye, and huge king salmon, you will never look at sashimi the same way again.

10. The Crooked Bush

Photo: Robin Esrock

Drive deep into Saskatchewan’s prairies, and you’ll stumble across a forest right out of Tim Burton’s imagination. Wild aspen trees typically grow straight, but a mysterious genetic mutation has resulted in “Crooked Bush”—a twisted, gnarled, and supposedly haunted grove. Spider-leg-like branches extend over a wooden boardwalk, which draws curiosity-seekers from around the country. Some locals believe aliens are behind this unnatural forest, but then again, aren’t aliens behind everything?

11. The Hermetic Code

Photo: Robin Esrock

This is the Pool of the Black Star in Winnipeg’s Legislature Building. A cool name, with a weirder story. Every person involved in the construction of this imposing government building was a Freemason, directed by a master Freemason who integrated hidden symbols, esotoric secrets, and ancient mysticism into the design. A local academic spent ten years decoding this Hermetic Code. His guided summer tours unravel a real-life Da Vinci Code that will shake your architectural foundations. Stand directly on the Black Star, speak up, and feel the power of Hermes.

12. The Diefenbunker

Photo: Robin Esrock

Global thermonuclear war. The world turns to ash, and is populated by radioactive zombies. Deep beneath the Ontario countryside, 500 chainsmoking bureaucrats work hard to restore Canadian glory. This was the vision behind the Diefenbunker, a top-secret nuclear missile shelter built in the 1960s with a goal of safely relocating members of the Canadian government. With its own canteen, hospital, CBC studio, offices, sleeping quarters, and War Games-like control rooms, no prime minister ever visited it save for Trudeau, who promptly slashed its operating budget. Decommissioned in the 1990s and re-opened as a Cold War Museum, today you can rent out the bunker for parties, weddings, and the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 

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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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May 23, 2017
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