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The Evolution of Rod Blagojevich's Favorite Phrase

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Back in 1967, tough-talking Chicago journalist Mike Royko concocted a new slogan for the City of Strong Shoulders—"Ubi Est Mea," or: "Where's mine?"

Although Mike's phrase has had a good run, I think it's time the Windy City got a new Latin M.O., inspired by Illinois' favorite windbag, Governor Rod Blagojevich.

"Carpe Momento," or: "Seize the moment."

A look back at Blago's political career reveals a certain fondness for these rather tragically clichéd words—not only did he employ them during his State of the State Address in 2004, 2005 and 2007, but also on myriad occasions throughout his political career: from urging action in restricting gun sales to fixing the city's crumbling transit system.

My personal favorite utterance, however, occurred in 2003, when Blago pledged to tackle state corruption: "We have to seize this moment and enact meaningful ethics reform," Blagojevich said. "After all we've been through, we cannot expect the people just instinctively to trust their government."

Truer—or more ironic—words were never spoken.

According to recent events, it seems the only carpe dieming the Gov. has been up to has involved seizing the moment to ask "Ubi Est Mea?"

Before we close the book on Royko's words of wicked wisdom, let's take a look back at the history of Blago's favored phrase: from its blissful conception, to its rather more spotted current state.

Carpe Diem

Once upon a time, before "seize the moment" adorned posters plastered with frolicking kittens and parachutes and the like, people actually used the original Latin words—and a bigger increment of time: "Carpe Diem," or: "Seize the day." The phrase came courtesy of poet Horativs Flaccvs, and basically means: Life is short; enjoy it. Blago could take a scroll from Horace's book at this point in time—at least with regard to his governorship.

"Seize the moment of excited curiosity on any subject to solve your doubts; for if you let it pass, the desire may never return, and you may remain in ignorance."

In 1833, US Attorney General William Wirt shared this sentiment with Mr. H.W. Miller, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was after some advice on the mysteries of success. At this junction, the meaning of "Carpe Diem" drifts a bit farther away from fun and spontaneity, and closer to the smashing of noses to grindstones.

"Seize the Day"

Published in 1956 by Saul Bellow, this novella tells the tale of Tommy Wilhelm, a man on the hunt for the elusive American Dream. The phrase acquires an even stronger taste of shoe leather here—smacking of utter boot-strappery.

So many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently;
The world rolls on,
Time presses.
Ten thousand years are too long,
Seize the day, seize the hour!

Mao Zedong's famous poem, "Reply to Comrade Guo Moruo," penned in 1961, added a decidedly warlike edge to the phrase as it boosted Communism. It also inspired the next usage on our list"¦

Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower World


Nixon's book, published in 1992, is all about America's future: how the US should handle the end of the Cold War, the fall of Communism, etc, etc. More importantly, it cemented the term in the political realm—especially since old Tricky Dick had made good use of it in the past, particularly in his 1971 State of the Union Address. Guess Nixon and Blago have more in common than the specter of impeachment.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]