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8 People Who Played Presidential Candidates in Mock Debates

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You’ve probably heard that Barack Obama recruited Massachusetts senator and ketchup-magnate-by-marriage John Kerry to play Mitt Romney in mock debates. But Obama certainly isn’t the first president to fine-tune his skills through pseudo smackdowns. In fact, almost every presidential candidate in recent years has hired a surrogate sparring partner. Here are 8 all-star stand-ins and the politicians they portrayed.

1. Television Monitor as Jimmy Carter (1976)

Gerald Ford staged the first full-scale practice sessions in 1976. Ford had a few different people play his opponent, Jimmy Carter. But when a human sparring partner wasn’t around, Ford used a television monitor to play sound bites from Carter’s interview with Meet the Press. Mock panelists asked the monitor questions, and Carter’s pre-taped response would play back. To practice looking confident, Ford was supposed to gaze forcefully at his TV opponent during the replays.

2. Samuel Popkin as Ronald Reagan (1980)

At first, Jimmy Carter thought the notion of practicing with a “dummy opponent” was nuts. But the incumbent president softened his stance when he was forced to square off with show business veteran Ronald Reagan.

Carter hired political science professor Sam Popkin to play ol’ Dutch. Popkin studied Reagan’s rhetoric extensively and devised a strategy memo for outwitting him called “Popping Balloons.” Popkin told Carter if he couldn’t beat one of Reagan’s stories with a fact, he should try to beat it with another story. He also tried to familiarize Carter with his opponent’s folksy oratory style by recycling old Reagan speeches during debates.

3. David Stockman as Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale (1980 and 1984)

Eager to master the art of full-scale debate rehearsal, Ronald Reagan had his garage converted into a professional quality television studio and hired congressman David Stockman to stand in for Jimmy Carter. The practice proved helpful, helping to familiarize the veteran actor with a debate format . . . and landing Stockman a job as budget director once Reagan was elected.

But in 1984, all that practice backfired. Reagan’s team believed Mondale would be a scrappy fighter, so they encouraged Stockman to really bully the president during mock debates. Stockman’s brow beatings destroyed the president’s confidence – to the point where his wife asked, “What have you done to my husband?” After a rough first debate, the Reagan campaign staged a pep rally at the president’s Kansas City hotel to boost his spirits before the second face-off. Reagan rebounded – and ended up winning 49 out of the 50 states.

4. Fred Thompson as Bill Clinton (1996)

Bob Dole hired former actor Fred Thompson to fill the shoes of Bill Clinton. A fellow Southerner, Thompson could replicate Clinton’s raspy drawl with astounding accuracy. And when it came to attacking Dole, Thompson didn’t pull any punches. “I tried to beat him down!” Thompson once told NPR. “If you can generate a bit of hostility, that’s a good thing.”

5. Bob Barnett as George H.W. Bush/ Dick Cheney (Many Times)

This Washington D.C. attorney played a Republican rival in five campaigns – filling in for George H.W. Bush in 1984, 1988, and 1992 and Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004.

Barnett’s relentless baiting drove his mock opponents crazy. During his 1984 practice debates with Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential hopeful often became so irritated with Barnett that she walked over and slugged him on the arm. And after grueling 1992 debate preparations, Bill Clinton said, “I was just so glad I didn’t have to debate [him]. The election might have turned out differently.”

6. Judd Gregg as Al Gore/John Kerry (2000 and 2004)

New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg acted as Democratic doppelgangers in 2000 and 2004. For Gregg, playing Gore was a piece of cake. He claimed that the then-vice president was mechanical, scientific, and uber-predictable. But he had a tougher time playing Kerry. He maintained that the notoriously flip-flopping senator was hard to pin down because he went in a few different directions when he spoke.

But regardless of whom he was playing, Gregg’s job was to push George Bush’s buttons – and he was good at it. On one occasion in 2000, Gregg’s relentless bushwhacking (no pun intended) sent the presidential hopeful over the edge. Bush became flustered and started angrily repeating the same points in a raised voice. Worried that the pseudo sparring match had gotten too real, an aide stopped the debate to let things cool down.

7. Greg Craig as George W. Bush/John McCain (2004 and 2008)

In the past two elections, Democrats called on Washington lawyer (and former White House counsel) Greg Craig to prep presidential hopefuls to face-off with Republican rivals. Craig was no stranger to controversial debates – he won an acquittal for John W. Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Moreover, Craig directed the team defending Clinton against impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The powerhouse attorney was no Dana Carvey; he didn’t mimic his doppelgangers’ body language or accents. Instead, he focused on suffocating his pseudo-opponents with airtight logic.

8. Rob Portman as Half the Democratic Party (1996-)

For years, Ohio congressman Rob Portman has been the GOP’s go-to guy for getting inside the heads of Democratic rivals. Since 1996, Portman’s filled the shoes of Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even Hillary Clinton.

Portman had an uncanny ability to capture the mannerisms of the candidates – right down to subtle body movements and vocal pauses. Republicans claimed he magically “became Barack Obama” during the 2008 practice debates with John McCain. Rick Lazio, who ran against Clinton for the Senate, remarked on his astounding ability to channel the first lady – even without a wig or makeup. And Joe Lieberman jokingly referred to Portman as his alter ego. Lieberman once said, "I've tried on occasion when I couldn't make it to a speaking engagement to send Rob Portman."

And Three All-Star Vice-Presidential Stand-ins...

Jennifer Granholm as Sarah Palin

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Tina Fey and Julianne Moore aren't the only women to portray Sarah Palin onstage. Michigan governor and fellow beauty pageant winner Jennifer Granholm helped Joe Biden practice debating the Alaska governor in 2008. Granholm studied Palin nonstop. To get in character, she wore glasses and a red suit. But did she go the extra mile and try her hand at that famously folksy Alaska accent? You betcha.

Randy Scheunemann as Joe Biden

To prep Palin for the 2008 vice presidential debates, neoconservative lobbyist Randy Scheunemann played Joe Biden. He really got into character – so much so that Palin could barely keep a straight face. Scheunemann peppered his performance with frequent mentions of “God love ya” and “literally.” He also copied Biden’s loquacious speaking style, going on rants about everything from gun control to his own mother.

But while Palin was certainly convinced by her faux-opponent’s performance, she kept accidentally calling him “O’Biden.” That’s when Scheunemann suggested that she take a folksy approach and start calling him “Joe.”

Dennis Eckart as Dan Quayle

Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Eckart had a lot in common with the then-vice president. Both were young, telegenic Midwesterners who loved golf. Eckart joked that he got into character by spending hours at the Congressional Country Club. Once he even went through a mock debate with a golf tee stuck behind his ear. Eckart, a former college actor, said he loved “getting into the head” of people he played. But when reporters asked him what he found inside Quayle’s head, he answered, “Room to maneuver.”

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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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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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