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The 12 Biggest Blackouts In History

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 13, 1977, a power outage in New York City pushed its residents to the brink. Frustration with a failing economy, anxiety over the at-large serial killer Son of Sam, and a sweltering summer day and night resulted in mass looting across the city. It wasn't all bad news, however; legend has it that the stealing of DJ equipment from hi-fi stores propelled DJ culture and hip hop music in the city. But the city was no stranger to being forced into darkness

Fifty years ago today, The Great Northeast Blackout affected approximately 30 million people in both the U.S. and Canada, making it the single biggest power failure in U.S. history at the time. In remembrance of its 50th anniversary, here are 12 of the biggest power failures around the world.

1. NORTHEAST UNITED STATES AND NORTHERN CANADA // NOVEMBER 9, 1965

A faulty relay at Sir Adam Beck Station on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls led to what was then the biggest power failure in U.S. history. At 5:16 p.m., the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line began a domino effect resulting in a surge of power that overwhelmed transmission lines and put New York City in the dark at the height of a Tuesday rush hour. 800,000 people were reported trapped in the subway.

In addition to New York, power overloads and automatic system shutdowns affected 30 million people in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire,Vermont, Quebec, and Ontario. 10,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty police officers were called into service to prevent looting, although it turned out to be relatively calm and peaceful. Power was restored for most people within 13 hours.

2. THAILAND NATIONWIDE BLACKOUT // MARCH 18, 1978

When generators in the South Pranakhorn Powerplant in Samut Prakan failed, a nationwide blackout spread throughout Thailand. It would be over nine hours before authorities were able to restore power. In May 2013, Thailand suffered another major power failure, sparking memories of the massive incident of '78.

3. CANADA'S GEOMAGNETIC STORM // MARCH 13, 1989

On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout lasting 12 hours—and it was all thanks to the sun.

Sometimes, the sun emits billion-ton clouds of ionized gas, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). On March 10, 1989, a CME "about the size of 36 Earths" and equivalent to "the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time" escaped. On the 12th, the gas cloud crashed against Earth's magnetosphere and caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Texas and Cuba.

Because of this celestial event, six million Quebec residents were thrust into darkness when the province's power grid lost power. Schools and businesses were forced to close during the 12 hour blackout, as well as the Montreal Metro and Dorval Airport.

4. SOUTHERN BRAZIL // MARCH 11, 1999

In 1999, approximately 97 million of the 160 million people living in Brazil lost power in what was the biggest blackout ever at the time. A bolt of lightning struck an electricity substation, which in turn shut down Itaipu, which was the largest power plant in the world.

1,200 military police officers were placed in Rio to avoid looting, while city tunnels in São Paulo were closed to prevent assaults. 60,000 subway riders were heavily inconvenienced. To make matters more complicated, the power system of Brazil was privatized days before the event. Mines and Energy Minister Rodolpho Tourinho assured that this had nothing to do with the outage, saying, "A lightning bolt is an exceptional fact, there is no reason for doubting the reliability of the Brazilian electrical system."

5. INDIA // JANUARY 2, 2001

A 12-hour power outage caused by a failure of an Uttar Pradesh substation triggered India's northern grid to collapse. This affected about 226 million people, or roughly a quarter of the country's population. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimated that the loss to business amounted to about $107.1 million.

Despite economic expansion in India, the blackout was used by some as an excuse to push for privatization of the electrical industry to bring it up to date. Enron was reported to have been contacted to help supply electricity during the crisis but insisted on a price that was three times higher than usual.

6. NORTHEAST UNITED STATES AND CANADA // AUGUST 14-15, 2003

It took months before the real cause of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 was finally determined. Initially, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum blamed an outage at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, which the state's Emergency Management Agency denied. What actually happened was a high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees, causing it to shut down. When the alarm system that would typically alert FirstEnergy Corporation failed, the incident was ignored. In the next 90 minutes, system operators tried to figure out what happened while three other lines switched off as a consequence of the first line's failure.

This started a domino effect, and by 4:05 p.m. Southeast Canada and eight Northeastern U.S. states were without power. 50 million people were inconvenienced for up to two days in what turned out to be the biggest blackout in North American history. 11 people died and there was a reported $6 billion in damages. The incident prompted the creation of a joint task force between the U.S. and Canada to minimize future blackouts.

7. ITALY // SEPTEMBER 28, 2003

Italy's 2003 blackout affected almost all of the country's 57 million people. Usually a middle-of-the-night power outage means that few people will notice it. However, this event occurred during the early morning hours after Rome's Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival. Because of this, trains were still running at 3:01 a.m. when a fault on the Swiss power system caused the overloading of two internal lines near to the Italian border. About 110 trains carrying more than 30,000 passengers were stranded as a result.

8. JAVA AND BALI, INDONESIA // AUGUST 18, 2005

At 10:23 a.m. on a Thursday morning, a failure in a 500 kilovolt transmission line between Cilegon and Saguling in West Java cut electricity supplies, leading to a massive 5,000 megawatt shutdown. Jakarta, the capital of the fourth most populated country in the world, lost power, and half of the Indonesian population — 100 million people — were without electricity for almost 11 hours.

The event didn't come completely without warning. The state power company had been struggling to fulfill electricity demand following the 1997 monetary crisis and, one year earlier, the government held a special energy summit to plan for increasing the country's electrical capacity.

9. GERMANY, FRANCE, ITALY, AND SPAIN // NOVEMBER 4, 2006

When German power company switched off a high-voltage line across the River Ems in order to let a cruise ship pass, 10-15 million Europeans lost power. The company said that the problems began in northwestern Germany when its network became overloaded, possibly due to that manual switch off (although transmission lines had been shut down in the past without incident). The blackouts stopped trains in Germany and trapped dozens of people in elevators in France and Italy. Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected by the outage.

10. CHENZHOU, CHINA // JANUARY 24 - FEBRUARY 2008

Winter storms resulted in a nearly two-week blackout for 4.6 million people around the central Chinese city of Chenzhou. Frustratingly, many citizens were without power during Chinese New Year celebrations. Some residents told reporters that they had to walk one kilometer to a well and back in freezing temperatures just to procure water. The official Xinhua News Agency said 11 electricians died while working to restore power, and the storm's death toll exceeded 60.

11. BRAZIL AND PARAGUAY // NOVEMBER 10-11, 2009

When the Itapiu hydroelectric dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border suddenly stopped producing 17,000 megawatts of power, outages quickly spread through both countries. Suspiciously, the blackouts came two days after 60 Minutes reported that previous Brazilian power outages were caused by hackers. The CBS news magazine would later report that the 2009 incident was also the work of hackers, but a Wikileaks document would eventually refute that claim.

To prevent hacking, a voice command was now necessary to disrupt the power system, and access was only given to a small group of authorized operators. Any sabotage from internal employees would be deadly to the saboteur, and investigators would have found "physical evidence, including the body of the perpetrator," had the 2009 incident been the work of foul play.

12. INDIA // JULY 30-31, 2012

In the largest electrical outage in history (so far), the July 31st blackout of India affected an area encompassing about 670 million people, which is around 9% of the world’s population. On the 31st, three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, affecting 22 states from the country's Eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.

Citizens of Delhi dealt with 89% humidity and, in West Bengal, hundreds of miners were trapped underground for hours after their lifts broke down. In the most disturbing and vivid detail, The Guardian reported that electric crematoriums stopped operating, some with bodies left half burnt before wood was brought in to stoke the furnaces. Overloading and human error were eventually blamed for the troubles.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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