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The Curious Case of the $2 Bill

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Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing about $2 bills is that when people talk about them—and they do talk about them, in a niche but thriving community—there seems to be a step missing in the logic. And that step is the first one. Everyone who deals with American money—even people who dedicate very little thought to the matter—knows that $2 bills are something worth commenting on. They're something worth commenting on because they aren't seen very much. They aren't seen very much because they aren't printed very often. They aren't printed very often because people are disinclined to use them. People are disinclined to use them because they are thought to be special—or sometimes even fake—because of how rare they are. And now we have come full circle without establishing how this thinking got started.

$2 BILLS IN HISTORY

The first printing of $2 bills was in 1862, just one year after the U.S. Treasury began printing paper money. Initially, the bill featured Alexander Hamilton, but in 1869, the first Secretary of the Treasury was replaced with Thomas Jefferson, whose portrait still graces the tender. Production was discontinued in 1966, with the Economic Review citing "insufficient use."

A decade later, twos were revived as part of a bicentennial celebration. A New York Times article from the year before the reintroduction reminded readers that "public reluctance to accept and use the $2 bill was the principal cause of its discontinuance nine years ago, and the main reason for that reluctance was the relative scarcity of the note in circulation." Again, circular logic: No one uses them because ... no one uses them. The Times went so far as to cite a Harvard Business School study that found an unlucky reputation was not to blame in the two's demise, with only two percent of respondents claiming to have ever associated the tender with bad luck.

The article reported government trepidation that a bicentennial bill would also be held out of circulation as a souvenir. Despite this concern, the 1976 twos were released with an image of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back and a plan to print 400 million bills annually.

$2 BILLS NOW

However, these days, they're printed whenever the demand arises—which isn't often, considering the reluctance to spend them. But as recently as last year, 45 million more $2 bills were introduced into the economy. To put that in perspective, the oft-overlooked denomination still makes up a mere 3 percent of all U.S. bills in circulation.

And now, it seems, we are living in a peculiar moment in the $2 bill story. As documented in a New York Times story from earlier this year, aficionados are trying to bring the bill back into vogue. The paradox is that the appeal of these bills is their very scarcity.

Heather McCabe—who is profiled in the piece—runs a blog, Two Buckaroo, where she documents the reactions of unsuspecting cashiers when she uses $2 bills in everyday transactions. I figured she might have some insight into our mystery. First, though, we needed to establish something. "When you ask why the bills became rare in the first place, are you asking about pre-1966 or post-1976?" she asked.

THE COLLECTIBLE $2 BILL

Post-1976 is easier to understand: The ten-year gap in production meant that the bills were, at least at first, naturally rarer than other denominations. And the concern about souvenir status was apparently not unfounded. According to McCabe, "When the $2 bill was reintroduced [on April 13, 1976], people could take first-day issues of the bill to the post office to get them stamped with a postage stamp and a rubber cancellation stamp. This made the bill seem special, a collectible, a keepsake." So many people had this same idea that the postmarked bills were rendered no more special than the regular old twos, but they still couldn't shake the status as a collector's item.

Pre-1966 is trickier, but McCabe has a theory that is reinforced each time she hands a cashier a $2 bill: "There's no commercial infrastructure for the bill in retail situations. Cash registers don't have a drawer for the $2 bill. As long as that's the case, the $2 bill will be a cash outcast."

That was true before 1966, and continues to be the case to this day. It seems like such a small thing, but the process can be internally exponential in that way. If $2 bills were always just a little bit more difficult to use than other denominations, perhaps that was just the push they needed to reach the incredulity-inducing, superstitious status they hold today.

Of course, why the cash registers were originally made without room for twos is just another question in the curious case of the $2 bill, but that might be a quirk that is lost to history.

Primary photo courtesy of Christopher Hollis via creative commons.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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