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What Happened to the X-Rating?

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Once a pariah among concerned parents and a source of snickers among schoolchildren, the dreaded X-rating has all but vanished. What made this formerly MPAA-sanctioned rating go away?

The Rating Game

Hollywood has enforced an evolving system of self-regulation since the 1920s to avoid government intervention. In 1922, studio bosses answered the threat of censorship by creating the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. In 1945, the name was truncated to the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA. But it wasn't until Jack Valenti stepped in as President that the modern ratings system we know took shape.

Responding to the demand for a more complex system of regulation than simply “approved” or “not approved,” the MPAA launched a four-tier ratings system on November 1, 1968. The original system included the ratings of G, M, R and X. An “X” rating was meant to signal for “adults only,” with no one under 18 admitted. The age cut-off was lowered to 17 the following year.

The rating system was and remains entirely voluntary. However, the National Association of Theater Owners (the other NATO) has an agreement with MPAA to enforce the system. In other words, circumnavigate an MPAA judgment and very few theaters will show your movie. To receive a rating, a producer submitted his/her completed film for review by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), comprised entirely of parents with no ties to the entertainment industry. If this film contained extreme sexual or violent content, then it would receive an X rating.

The greatest success for an X-rated film came just a year after the rating was created. Midnight Cowboy (1969), the story of a young hustler in New York City, received six Academy Award nominations and won three, including the award for Best Picture, despite its X. The film was later awarded an R-rating without having to cut anything. The X-rating struck Oscar gold again in 1971 with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which received four nominations from the Academy. Though Kubrick would cut a few scenes to procure an R rating for a 1973 release, all current DVD versions of the film contain the “X-rated” version.


The last major Hollywood film to embrace the X-rating was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, released in 1972. The film’s adult content shocked critics and audiences alike, but could hardly be considered pornographic. Like its X-rated peers, Last Tango in Paris was nominated for two Academy Awards.

That juicy X seemed to give a film art house street cred. Yet, the film industry essentially stopped putting out X-rated movies in the 1970s, sending a film back to the cutting room until it could be rated R. So what happened?

The XXX Loophole

It would be easy to blame the porn industry boom of the 1970s, but the X’s demise can be pinned on a simpler culprit: trademark.

When creating its new system, the MPAA failed to copyright it. Ratings like the G did not suffer from the oversight, but it may have single-handedly caused the demise of the X. With no registered trademark, the X could legally be self-applied to any film—a loophole pornography happily exploited. For example, the notorious 1972 porn Deep Throat gave itself a tongue-in-cheek “X,” and many other adult films followed suit.

Soon one X wasn’t enough. Films like Debbie Does Dallas boasted a self-designated rating of XXX, promising three times the adult material. While the arbitrary XXX rating has since become standard for the adult film industry, the damage was done to the singular X. An X rating became synonymous with “hardcore,” and mainstream advertisers and distributors would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.

CARA became the moral litmus for films, leading to outcries of artistic censorship. When George Romero submitted his seminal zombie film Dawn of the Dead to the MPAA, it was returned to him with an X. Refusing the rating, he instead released his film unrated. But for the most part, filmmakers were forced to return to their editing suites and cut any content deemed unfit by a board of parents.

In 1990, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Miramax took the ratings system to court. They filed a civil suit over the X-rating given to their film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Though Almodovar & co. ultimately lost, the MPAA would eliminate the X-rating altogether only a few months later, replacing it with the freshly trademarked NC-17 rating.

Henry & June became the first NC-17 film, narrowly escaping the X curse. NC-17 may still carry a stigma, but one thing is for certain: you won’t be seeing a Triple NC-17 film any time soon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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