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Making Money: Currency in the Confederate States

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When the Civil War began, the Confederacy quickly found itself facing a pressing issue: fighting a protracted war is really, really expensive. Unlike their Union counterparts, the Confederate states didn’t boast vast reserves of money and precious metals, either. With a Union naval blockade diminishing the lucrative international cotton trade, the Confederacy needed a way to raise some quick cash.

The Confederacy could have gone on a taxation rampage to drum up some funds, but the Southern states weren’t exactly keen on having a national government, even a Confederate one, collecting big taxes. Plus, there wasn’t any infrastructure in place to support mass taxation. Instead, the Confederacy started printing its own money.

As short term solutions go, printing your own cash is a fairly elegant one. You don’t have to levy any unpopular taxes, and as long as people will accept and use the money as a medium for trade, you’re in good shape.

Of course, in the long term, simply setting up a printing press and cranking out money without a comprehensive monetary policy and financial system in place can be a truly terrible idea. The Confederate notes didn’t have any gold, silver, or anything else backing them; instead, they promised to be redeemable for their face value after a certain period of time, say six months or two years, “after the ratification of a treaty of peace between the Confederate States and the United States of America.”

While currencies don’t necessarily have to be backed by anything tangible to be successful – just ask the euro or the dollar - astute readers have already noticed the rub in this system: the bills would only be redeemable if there were still a Confederacy around to cash them after the ratification of a peace treaty. If the Union came out on top, the Confederate money would be worthless. In addition to this gamble about the war’s outcome, the Confederacy kickstarted inflation in its states by continuing to print more and more of the currency. In a lesson straight out of freshman economics, as the supply of Confederate bills shot up, their value crashed.

By the time the Confederacy dissolved on May 5, 1865, the currency was already effectively worthless. The combination of the inflation that had kicked in as the Confederacy kept printing more money and Southerners’ growing skepticism about the continued existence of their breakaway government cratered the currency. At the war’s end, the value of 100 Confederate dollars had plummeted to $1.76, which equates to a rate of inflation of around 9,000 percent.

When the South failed to rise again (at least in Confederate form), many Southerners were left sitting on giant piles of worthless currency from a defunct country. Tough luck, to be sure, but what they may not have known was that they could just have taken a voyage to Germany to recover some of their lost value. On May 30, 1909, The New York Times ran a story under the headline “CONFEDERATE MONEY TAKEN: German Shopkeepers Apparently Ignorant That Civil War Is Over.”

According to the story, many merchants, hoteliers, and café proprietors in Berlin were still accepting Confederate cash that hadn’t been worth its face value in over four decades. The American consulate in Berlin had been fending off German businessmen who were trying to exchange their notes from, say, the Bank of Richmond for German currency. Whoops. The article closed with the line “[S]ome of [the merchants] have left the consulate convinced that the United States Treasury has really ceased payment and is ashamed to admit it.”

The Germans eventually wised up, but apparently this question still comes up from time to time. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing feels compelled to explicitly state on its website that “Confederate States Notes were not produced by the BEP and are not obligations of the United States Government.”

Just because you can’t take your Confederate money to the bank or use it to pay off a parking ticket doesn’t mean it’s worthless, though. There’s a collector’s market for the bills that can be quite lucrative. While most bills probably aren’t valuable enough to pay Stonewall Jackson’s salary, a quick scan of eBay auctions shows that even the rattiest examples of small-denomination bills regularly sell for over $10. Mint, uncirculated bills in higher denominations can fetch hundreds of dollars at auction.

[Images courtesy of CSAnotes.com.]

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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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