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6 Unlucky Australians Who Couldn't Catch a Break

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Last month, I wrote an article about fortunate Australians, which suggested that the nation deserves to be called "The Lucky Country." Today's follow-up will bring us back down to Earth. Aussies, like everyone else, have the occasional spell of bad luck. Witness the following not-so-lucky examples.

1. James Lister and the Tom brothers

Edward Hargraves had not been one of life's winners, failing miserably at several business endeavours. He went to California for the 1848 gold rush, but while others were striking it rich, he didn't even find a speck. Back in Australia, he remembered the town of Bathurst (west of Sydney), where the terrain had reminded him of the Californian goldfields. Based on this vague logic, he set out to Bathurst, accompanied by James Lister, William Tom and James Tom. They could find no gold, so Hargraves gave up and left. In April 1851, however, Lister struck gold "“ and immediately informed Hargraves. Though it was meant to be top-secret, Hargraves announced the finding, took the credit (and a handsome reward from the government), and started an Australian gold rush. As tens of thousands of prospectors descended on Bathurst, Lister and the Tom brothers were robbed of their chance to become multi-millionaires. Hargraves took their gold, and gave them his bad luck in return.

2. The Population of Darwin


As most of its 110,000 residents would tell you, the northern city of Darwin is a great place to live. Just as well, as Darwinians have always had to take the rough with the smooth. The town was settled in 1864. Just eleven years later, a quarter of the population boarded the ship Gothenburg for their first excursion to the east coast since moving north. Struck by a cyclone, the Gothenburg sank off the coast of north Queensland, killing 102 people and leaving the town in misery. They were still recovering in January 1878, when another cyclone struck the Darwin area itself, damaging every single building in the outer suburb of Palmerston. Other cyclones struck in 1881 and 1897. The latter, known as the "great hurricane," hit the town on January 6, 1897, destroying 18 pearling boats and a government steam-ship. One preacher, recalling the night, described it as "a gentle reminder from Providence that we are a very sinful people." If God's punishment was the explanation, Darwin must have been a den of iniquity, as cyclones would visit every 20 years, causing further death and destruction in 1917 and 1937.

To prove that it wasn't just God who held a grudge against Darwin, a contingent of Japanese aircraft bombed the city on January 20, 1942. At least 243 lives were lost, as the bombs caused more wreckage than any of the previous cyclones. This was followed by another 62 air raids over the next two years "“ one of the drawbacks of being a crucial Allied port.

The next 30 years were relatively quiet, so the natives were ill-prepared for Cyclone Tracy, which rudely woke them up on Christmas Day in 1974 (the wreckage is pictured above). Within three hours, 65 people were dead, and 90 percent of the houses were either demolished or literally swept away. Most of the population left soon after, but a bulk of them returned by the end of the year, ready for whatever fate was thrown at them. Proof that, in quieter times, it must be a really good place to live!

3. Burke & Wills


One of Australia's most famous expeditions, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills' bold 1860 quest to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria is a case history in how not to explore Australia. Despite walking through the vast desert for 10 months, the intrepid duo didn't survive their journey.

But while they might have made some costly (and a few plain stupid) mistakes, they also suffered from incredibly bad luck. After eight months in the wilderness, they returned from the Gulf "“ suffering from terrible thirst, hunger, heat and exhaustion "“ to their depot at Coopers Creek on April 21, 1861. To their dismay, they found that the depot party had abandoned camp a mere seven hours earlier, leaving only a small quantity of flour, porridge, rice and dried meat. While Wills suggested waiting for the party to return, the headstrong Burke insisted on moving on "“ not to the staging camp, 650 miles away, but to a police outpost at Mount Hopeless "“ much closer, but still appropriately named.

Had they waited at Coopers Creek just three weeks, they would have met William Brahe, the leader of the Cooper's Creek party, who returned to see if they had arrived. They had left details for him, but "“ in their exhausted state "“ had neglected to leave a sign. As a result, he never saw their note that would have raised a search party.

After losing their camels to quicksand and fatigue, the explorers were temporarily saved from starvation and thirst by some Aborigines. Realizing that they couldn't make it to Mount Hopeless, however, they returned to Coopers Creek. Brahe had left no trace of his return.

With no other option, they tried to find the Aborigines again. Burke and Wills, however, both died in July "“ not long before their only surviving traveling companion, John King, met the Aborigines, and stayed with them until a rescue party found him in September. Their timing, like everything else, was fatally flawed.

4. Raelene Boyle

aussie-luck.jpgMost Australian sports fans will agree that Raelene Boyle was one of the country's best-ever female athletes. If things had happened as expected, she would have four Olympic gold medals. But as luck would have it, she was forever denied sports' greatest honor "“ despite competing in three Olympics. At Mexico City in 1968, aged 17, she won silver in the women's 200-meter dash. She was beaten by East Germany's Renate Stecher, who was later revealed to be on stimulants. In Munich 1972, despite being the favorite, she again had to settle for silver in 100-meter and 200-meter races "“ again beaten by steroid-pumped East German athletes. Her last opportunity was in Montreal 1976. Unfortunately, that happened to be an Olympiad in which the entire Australian team seemed cursed "“ and Boyle, true to form, was no exception. In the 200-meter semi-finals, the starter claimed that she had rolled her shoulder, and she was disqualified for two false starts "“ even though the assistant starter told her: "You didn't break. I don't know why he's given you one." (Both the footage and an electronic starter's report would confirm that there was no break, but it was too late.) "I'm pretty certain that the race would have been mine," said Boyle. "I was running very well and I was in the best shape of my life." To win gold, all she needed to do was equal her time in Munich.

For most athletes, of course, three silver medals would be brilliant. Boyle, however, was a step above most athletes. While she easily had the ability to be an Olympic champion, she didn't have the good fortune.

5. Second placers

hinkler_badge_350.jpgAs Raelene Boyle proved, Aussies have often had to make do with coming second. Charles Lindbergh became an American hero (and international superstar) when he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Most people have forgotten the second man to fly solo across the Atlantic: Bert Hinkler, a Queensland aviator. Four years after Linbergh's celebrated journey, he flew faster, chose a better route and used less fuel. Sadly for him, coming second just isn't the same. Even more sadly, he didn't have much time to promote himself, because he was killed in a plane crash in Italy in 1933.

Australia was also late to the four-minute mile. As athletics fans can easily tell you, this milestone was achieved in 1954 by Britain's Roger Bannister. But less than a month later (as you probably didn't know), his record was broken by Australia's John Landy, after many attempts to break four minutes. Outside Australia, where he is a national sporting hero, almost nobody remembers the man who was once the world's best one-mile runner. Timing is everything.

6. Australia's relay swimming team

Fukuoka2001.pngAt the 2001 World Swimming Championships at Fukuoka, Australia's 4x200-meter women's medley relay team swam the fastest drug-free time in history for that event. Excitedly, they jumped back in the pool to celebrate, looking forward to their gold medals.

They were not aware, however, of an obscure rule: they could not re-enter the pool until the race was over. The Italian team was still finishing, so the Australians were shocked to discover that they had been disqualified, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Australian media, which takes swimming very seriously, were unforgiving. One newspaper, which would otherwise have praised them to the skies, dismissed them as "four silly girls" "“ which was hardly fair, as the final swimmer was supposed to be in the water anyway, and the others insisted (convincingly enough) that they knew nothing of that rule. When you're busy training, memorizing little known sections of the rulebook is not really on your mind.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]