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Symbolism and the $1 Bill

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Crack open your wallet, pull out everyone's favorite portrait of George Washington, and be prepared to learn about some odd symbolism that probably seemed perfectly normal in the 18th century. Here are the explanations behind some of the more baffling parts of our nation's smallest bills.

What's that weird pyramid drawing on the reverse of the bill?

The two circular drawings on the reverse of the bill are actually parts of the two-sided Great Seal of the United States. Although we don't see the entire seal outside of our wallets too often, the notion of having a great seal is actually as old as the country itself. The Continental Congress passed a resolution on July 4, 1776, to create a committee to design a great seal for the fledgling nation, and heavy hitters John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson got the first crack at creating the seal.

dollar-seal

Congress wasn't so keen on the design these big names brought back, though, and it took nearly six years and several drafts to finally find a suitable seal. Congress finally approved of a design on June 20, 1782.

What's the story behind the Great Seal of the United States?

sealAccording to the State Department, which has been the official trustee of the seal since 1789, both the obverse (front) and reverse (back) of the seal are rich with symbolism. The obverse picturing the eagle is a bit easier to explain. The bird holds 13 arrows to show the nation's strength in war, but it also grasps an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 olives that symbolize the importance of peace. (The recurring number 13, which also appears in the stripes on the eagle's shield and the constellation of stars over its head, is a nod to the original 13 states.) The shield floats unsupported over the eagle as a reminder that Americans should rely on their own virtue and strength.

The symbolism of the pyramid on the seal's reverse is trickier. The pyramid has 13 steps—the designers apparently never got tired of the 13 motif—and the Roman numeral for 1776 is emblazoned across the bottom. The all-seeing Eye of Providence at the top of the pyramid symbolizes the divine help the early Americans needed in establishing the new country. The pyramid itself symbolizes strength and durability.

The divine overtones don't stop with the unblinking eye, though. The Latin motto Annuit Ceptis appears over the pyramid; it translates into "He [God] has favored our undertaking." The scroll underneath the pyramid reads Novus Ordo Seclorum, or "A new order of the ages," which was meant to signify the dawn of the new American era.

How did the seal end up on our dollar bill?

We can thank former Secretary of State Cordell Hull's busy schedule for that one. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace had to wait for a meeting with Hull in 1934 and decided to kill time by thumbing through a State Department pamphlet on the Great Seal. The pamphlet contained an illustration of the reverse side of the seal with the pyramid, and Wallace was quite taken with the drawing. He took the seal to President Franklin Roosevelt and suggested the country mint a coin using the two sides of the seal.

FDR liked the seal, too. (Roosevelt and Wallace were both Masons and loved the all-seeing eye part of the reverse design, which echoed the concept of the Great Architect of the Universe.) He thought the seal should be on the reverse of the dollar bill rather than a coin, but he was worried the mystical imagery would offend Catholics. After Postmaster General James Farley assured FDR he didn't think his fellow Catholics would have any problem with the design, Roosevelt approved a new dollar bill design that first appeared in 1935.

Did the Founding Fathers swipe any ideas from a magazine?

Possibly. The familiar E Pluribus Unum motto that the eagle holds in its beak underscores the union and togetherness of the 13 colonies. It might also underscore early Americans' love of periodicals.

According to the State Department, recent historical research has indicated that this Latin motto may have been borrowed from Gentlemen's Magazine, a London publication that ran from 1732 to 1922.

The magazine was popular in the colonies, and its title page always carried the E Pluribus Unum motto.

Why don't the dates on the front of the bills change that often?

At the lower right of the portrait on the bill's obverse you'll see the word "Series" and a year. You might notice that these don't change each year the way the numbers on minted coins do. Why not?

According to the Treasury, the series date only changes when there's a new design for a bill, a new Treasurer of the United States, or a new Secretary of the Treasury. (These are the two officials whose signatures appear on either side of the portrait.) The series year itself changes when the Secretary of the Treasury changes, while a change in the Treasurer of the United States means that the series year remains the same, but a suffix letter gets tacked onto the end of the year.

What are the various other numbers on the obverse of the bill?

The bill's serial number is the most prominently displayed set of digits on the dollar, but they're not alone. If you take out a dollar, you'll notice there are four large numbers in the corners of the bill's open space. Like the encircled letter to the left of Washington's portrait, FW-dollarthese numbers tell which Federal Reserve Bank issued the note. (Each Fed's number corresponds the letter of the alphabet assigned to the bank, with A=1, B=2, and so on.)

The tiny letters and numbers that appear on the top left and bottom right of the bill's obverse indicate the position of the note on the Treasury's printing plates. If your dollar bill has a tiny "FW" before this code, those letters indicate that it was printed at the Treasury's facility in Fort Worth, Texas, rather than in Washington, D.C.

See Also: The Curious Case of the $2 Bill

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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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