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7 Great Misconceptions About Australia

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As an Australian, I'm greeted with open arms whenever I go overseas. It's great to be liked"¦ but though I hate to admit it, there are a few things people get wrong about us. I'm afraid I don't have a pet kangaroo, I don't live on a wide-open Outback farm, I don't eat copious amounts of Vegemite, and I don't greet everyone by saying "G'day, mate." Some Aussies do those things, I'll admit, but most of us don't. While I'm here, I should clear up a few other misconceptions"¦

1. Captain Cook discovered Australia

Captain James Cook (who was actually a Lieutenant at the time) is famous for discovering Australia in 1770. He claimed the land for England, which duly sent the first white settlers 18 years later. But many other explorers saw Australia well before Cook's time. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Chinese discovered the land in the 15th century. Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog visited Australia in 1616, and was possibly the first European to recognize it as a new land. In 1688, William Dampier became the first Englishman to set foot on Australia, recording the sight of a "large hopping animal" in his journal. Of course, the true discoverers of the land were the Australian Aborigines, who "“ despite being properly called "native Australians" "“ probably hailed from Asia. They have only been living in Australia for tens of thousands of years.

2. Qantas never crashed

QantasRemember the scene in Rain Man when Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) refuses to travel on any airline except Qantas, claiming that "Qantas never crashed"? If you saw it as an in-flight movie, you probably don't remember that scene, because it was edited out on most airlines. (Except one... but you could probably figure that out.)

The movie has long been a source of pride (and no doubt, good business) for Qantas. Still, while Australia's national airline does have an impressive safety record, it is not perfect. And that perfect record was marred very early on in the company's history. In Queensland in 1927, a passenger flight ended tragically, killing all three people aboard. Altogether, 80 people have died in Qantas crashes, though the last fatal crash was way back in 1951. Perhaps Raymond meant that the airline has never had any fatal jet airliner crashes. All of their crashes were in small aircraft.

3. All Aussies live on the land

The image of the bronzed, rugged, Outback-dwelling bushman, as seen in the "Crocodile" Dundee movies (and more recently, Hugh Jackman's robust hero in the film Australia), is not as common as you might assume. Despite the size of the Outback (1.2 million square miles), only one percent of Australians actually live there. (As so much of the Outback is arid land, it couldn't really sustain many others.) Aussies are really rather urbanized. Half of Australia's 21 million people live in the five largest cities, with a third of all Aussies living in the metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne. Very, very few Australians eat grubs, wrestle crocodiles, or hypnotize wild animals.

4. The dangers of Australian snakes

Australia is notorious for dangerous snakes and spiders. This is partly due to a government campaign, a few years ago, to scare away prospective refugees with tales of terrible wildlife. (The campaign might have backfired, as potential tourists also decided to avoid the place!) But while it does have many venomous critters, they have killed very few people. Bushwalkers might be at risk, but if you're visiting a city (or even a country town), you can breathe easy. It is true, however, that Australia has the world's most venomous snake. The inland taipan (or fierce snake) has enough venom to kill 100 grown men. So how many people has it killed? Er"¦ none. Thanks to antivenom treatment and its own shyness (it would rather slither away quietly than stay and fight), it's been strangely harmless.

5. Saving the Brits at Gallipoli

No military battle stirs as much sentiment in Australia as the Gallipoli campaign, an ill-fated (and poorly organized) World War I offensive on the Turkish coast that killed thousands of soldiers. Though Aussies salute the heroism of their soldiers, many believe they were used as decoys to save the cowardly British officers. This legend was boosted by Gallipoli (1981), an early Mel Gibson film, which was a huge hit in Australia. In this film, Aussie soldiers die in battle while British officers stay safely in their tents, calmly drinking tea. The truth is that, during the real Gallipoli attack, the English had even more casualties than the Aussies.

The Australian cavalry, meanwhile, was commanded by Australian officers (as you might expect), not British ones. The movie implied otherwise, making it appear that it was callous British officers who sent the young Aussies to their deaths. Actually, the movie never says that the officers are British, but it does give them very strong British accents. (In fairness, perhaps the movie wasn't as historically inaccurate as it sounded. Back in World War I, it was not unusual for well-educated, affluent Australians to sound frightfully British "“ and as you might imagine, many of them became military officers.)

6. Kangaroos are brilliant

skippyPeople around the world believe that kangaroos, one of Australia's national animals, are highly intelligent, and can be trained to unlock doors, open safes, guide lost people through bushland, control helicopters, even tinker on the piano. Why do they think that? Blame the television series Skippy, which premiered in 1967, and was soon shown in 100 countries (a world record at the time) by over 300 million people. Even kids in the Eastern Bloc (where American series were banned) adored the adventures of a heroic kangaroo that (in the spirit of Lassie, Flipper and other clever TV animals) could save the day every week. The only Western nation to turn down Skippy was Sweden, which was afraid that the series gave "a misleading impression of an animal's ability."

Alas, the Swedes were right. As kangaroos are impossible to train, Skippy was played by 14 lookalikes. Before each scene, one kangaroo was kept in a hessian bag, so that she (Skippy was a girl) could emerge, dazed, to stand still and film for a few minutes before nonchalantly hopping away. Her dexterity, allowing her to open doors and pick up objects, was the work of fake paws, operated by puppeteers.

7. Koalas are bears

koalaKoalas are not bears. In fact, they are not even distantly related. Like kangaroos and Tasmanian devils, they are marsupials (carrying their young in pouches). Perhaps the only thing they have in common with bears is their propensity for sleep "“ but even bears couldn't possibly match them in this. Each day, the average adult koala spends about fourteen hours sleeping, five hours resting, roughly five hours eating and four minutes traveling (climbing further up their tree). Of course, this lifestyle doesn't require much energy, and as they eat mainly Eucalyptus leaves, they don't exactly have a high-energy diet. While they don't like to be disturbed, they wouldn't attack with the ferocity of a bear.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.