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9 Comedians Who Ran for Office (Including Some Who Won)

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© T.J. Kirkpatrick/Corbis

Stephen Colbert's satirical campaign for "President of the United States of South Carolina" made headlines Friday, as he appeared with Herman Cain at the "Rock Me Like a Herman Cain South Cain-olina Primary Rally." Colbert, who's not actually on the ballot on South Carolina, is using his pseudo candidacy to shed light on campaign finance reform and the Citizens United ruling. For his part, according to ABC News, Cain recited a few lines from the Pokemon movie.

Election seasons are great for comedians, but the following people did more than make fun of the candidates. They actually campaigned. And some ended up winning.

1. Jón Gnarr

Everything about Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr’s 2010 mayoral campaign was a joke. That is, until he was actually elected mayor of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.

With the help of his comedian and musician friends, Gnarr had formed the Besti Flokkurin, or Best Party. To join the party, one must have seen all five seasons of The Wire. They promised to halt corruption by participating in it, but transparently. Construction has yet to begin on the airport Disneyland he promised a kindergarten class.

2. Pat Paulsen

It was on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where Pat Paulsen rose to fame, first as a songwriter and then as their “editorialist.” It was also the Smothers Brothers who suggested he run for president in 1968. According to Paulsen's biography, his main motivation was that he couldn’t think of a good reason not to. His campaign was run on “outright lies, double talk and unfounded attacks on his challengers.” For his satirical work, he won both an Emmy in 1968 and later the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. He never formally ended his presidential campaign — Paulsen’s name was still showing up on primary ballots as recently as 1996.

3. Will Rogers

Will Rogers was Colbert before Colbert. This cowboy-turned-vaudeville comedian openly referred to politics as the “best show on earth” and Congress the “national joke factory.” Americans took a real shine to his style. During the 1920s, appreciation turned into nominations. Though he didn’t campaign, nor were there formal elections, Rogers was named honorary mayor of Beverly Hills in 1925. He turned down a nomination for Oklahoma governor, but in 1928 he accepted the presidential nod for Life’s newly created Anti-Bunk party. The campaign never went much further than the pages of Life, but it cemented Rogers as America’s favorite political satirist of the times.

4. Al Franken

After years of skewering politics in books and on the radio, Franken believed he was good enough, smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people liked him enough to make a real run for Minnesota’s junior Senate seat in 2008. The long-time Saturday Night Live writer/performer was right, though he won by only a little over 300 votes.

5. Dick Gregory

Pat Paulsen wasn’t the only comedian running for president in 1968. Civil rights activist and legendary stand-up comedian Dick Gregory did not let an unsuccessful bid for Chicago mayor deter him from running for president that year, as the Peace and Freedom Party’s write-in candidate. It didn’t lead to a victory, but it did lead to a book about the experience called Write Me In.

6. Howard Stern

The self-described “King of All Media” attempted to extend his reign to the political arena in 1994. He announced on his radio show his intention to run for Governor of New York as a Libertarian. He had only three tenets to his platform: pass the death penalty, restrict road crew work to the nighttime, and stagger highway tolls. Once he achieved these, he promised he’d quit office. It was never clear whether this was all a big hoax, but after refusing to disclose his finances, Stern was forced to withdraw.

7. Drew Hastings

In 2005, stand-up comedian Drew Hastings left Hollywood for Hillsboro, Ohio, population: 6600. He continued his comedy career, taping a Comedy Central special in 2008, but began investing in the upkeep of his new town. By 2011, he made a sincere run for mayor on the Republican ticket, and defeated his Democrat opponent 773 votes to 440. Unless this was all one big joke, he assumes office this year.

8. Hideo Higashikokubaru

Japanese comedian Hideo Higashikokubaru, known also by his stage name Sonomanma Higashi, appeared in several films and television shows before entering politics. He was best known for his role on the game show Takeshi’s Castle, known in America as Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. In 2007, he decided to run a serious campaign for governor of the Miyazaki Prefecture. He won. The media speculated his election signified the youth culture’s disillusionment with government, and the enduring appeal of celebrity.

9. Tião the Chimp

To be fair, Brazilian ape Tião might have been less of a comedian and more of a chimpanzee with a notoriously nasty attitude. Nonetheless, he was the nominee of choice for a spoof political party running in the 1988 mayoral election of Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian Banana Party chose Tião to symbolize how terrible all of the candidates were for this position, but they underestimated the power of the monkey’s appeal. The BB Party candidate ended up getting almost 10% of the votes, forcing the Electoral Tribunal to publicly address the election of a monkey. Tião was ultimately disqualified.

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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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