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Chris Carter, Creator of The X-Files

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A lot can change in 15 years. National Geographic Channel's upcoming three-part miniseries The '90s: The Last Great Decade? makes that quite apparent, with a look back on the decade that gave us Bill Clinton's presidency, the rise of America Online, the musical stylings of Vanilla Ice, and a spooky little television series called The X-Files.

Created by Chris Carter, The X-Files debuted in September 1993 and quickly became a touchstone for an entire generation of skeptics, sci-fi enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, and audiences in search of something that was unlike anything else on television. The series went on to set the record for a sci-fi series with nine seasons of adventures featuring FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and their successors investigating all manner of extraterrestrial and supernatural phenomena.

With a run that spanned most of the decade and storylines that were often ripped from the headlines, The X-Files was truly a product of its time. That's why mental_floss was happy to speak with Carter—who reflects on the show's success in The '90s: The Last Great Decade?—and have the chance to discuss the beloved series he created, the decade that nurtured it, and whether the truth is still out there.

MENTAL FLOSS: It's great to chat with you, Chris. What do you think it was about the '90s and that period of time that helped make The X-Files the hit that it was?

CHRIS CARTER: It's funny. I always liken myself to a child of Watergate, and that's where I developed my kind of distrust of the government. I was a journalism major, so I was a big fan of Woodward and Bernstein and investigative journalists, so there was a personal thing for me, too—but we were a long way away from that. It was 1974 when Nixon resigned, but I still think there was a residual distrust of authority, and The X-Files capitalized on that. When the show ended in the early 2000s, it was really coincidental with the 9/11 attack and a time when we had placed absolute trust in the government, and I don't think the show would have worked a decade later.

Really? Do you think the show only works in the '90s? 

I think it would work today, because I think our distrust has not only been reconstituted but amplified by current events. But I think in the '00s, though, it would not have worked. 

Along with being inspired itself by past television series, The X-Files also inspired quite a few subsequent shows that became popular in recent years. Do you look at some of the television shows that are on today and see that evolution from The X-Files

You know, people always ask me about shows that they think are a direct result or product of The X-Files, and I simply think that what we did was tell interesting stories with interesting characters, and we were mining genres that had already proven itself in my childhood to be popular, which were horror and science-fiction. We were capitalizing on it in a new way and in a new era, and I think that if I can take any credit for anything, it's that we were, I think, effective storytellers that had a relentless pursuit of excellence. We never wanted to do a bad episode. That's not to say we didn't do some that were not as good as others, but I think the thing The X-Files did was show that you could tell really scary and suspenseful stories cinematically on network television. 

One of the things that The X-Files also did was to usher in a new way of interacting with fans—especially in the online environment, which was really still in its infancy at that point. These days, it seems like a show needs to account for that interaction with fans if it's going to succeed. Have you observed this trend? It has to be fascinating for you to watch this evolution of the relationship between shows and their fans...

It's very interesting, especially as I've jumped back into television now and it seems like it's almost a necessity to have some sort of greater online connection with your fans. Online chat rooms were just beginning when we started [on The X-Files], so we were doing it kind of surreptitiously and we were kind of feeling our way along in that sort of infancy of the internet. Now it's a completely different situation, and all of a sudden there's this second-screen experience along with the primary storytelling. It seems to me that a lot of energy can be expended trying to satisfy something that is, in a way, a sideshow for the actual storytelling. 

How are things going with your new series produced by Amazon, The After?

It's going real well. We're finished with the plotting of the eight episodes that have been ordered, and we are now creating the outlines that Amazon will take a look at and give us feedback on. We'll probably be shooting in the mid- to late Fall. You'll see those eight episodes in 2015.

You mentioned one of the questions people always ask you about other shows, but what's the episode of The X-Files that you get the most questions about? Which episode do you feel like you've talked about more than any other? 

There's an episode called “Home”... 

Ah, yes... That's an episode that gave quite a few people nightmares.

Yeah, in Season Four there was an episode with these mutant brothers who may or may not have had sex with their mother, and this was on broadcast network television... Anyway, it wasn't a violent episode but it actually felt like a violent episode, and there were people who felt that the subject matter had pushed beyond the limits. I received a very angry call the day after that episode aired, saying that we could never do something like this again, and that it had upset executives at News Corp in New York City and they were very concerned. So the episode was pronounced an example of what we couldn't do from that point on, and it would never air again. Now, years later, I'd say it's one of the most beloved episodes, considered to be a standard of what you can accomplish on television. 

Is there an episode that you're most proud of personally? 

There was a very personal episode for me in Season Five. I had written it for Roseanne Barr and Cher, both of whom had expressed interest in being on the show, and neither of them ended up being available to do the episode. But that didn't stop us. I decided to film it in black and white and it's called "The Post-Modern Prometheus." It's about an ultimately very sympathetic monster who has an obsession with Cher. That sounds crazy, but somehow it worked. It really worked for me on another level in that there's a final image that shows Mulder and Scully in a sort of embrace, and we had led people on with such a tremendous sexual tension throughout those first four seasons that we were finally, in a way, showing the true connection that those characters had. So I always think of that episode as firing on all cylinders. 

What do you think Mulder and Scully would be up to these days? So much as changed since the series went off the air in the world, so would they still be doing the same sort of things today? What would have changed in the way that they're sort of interacting with the world?

I think Scully was a scientist through and through, so she would still be a scientist and a doctor. I think Mulder would still be searching for the truth, whatever that is. I always said that the show ultimately was a search for God, but that could be said about any show, in a way. [Laughs] It was about faith, and just the different aspects of faith, so I think those characters would be true to themselves. I actually just saw David this morning, so I know what the real-life Fox Mulder is up to.

The show had some pretty amazing guest stars and some surprising cameos over nine seasons, from Ryan Reynolds' blink-and-you-miss-it appearance to Jack Black appearing in an episode. Were there any guest stars or cameos that really stick out in your mind?

Well, you could certainly look at Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan as a connection being made on The X-Files that would turn out to make television history with Breaking Bad. That combination created what is, in my mind, a masterpiece. 

And that episode, “Drive,” was their first time working together, correct?

Yes, they had never worked together before, but it was clearly something that got Vince thinking, and I think that ended up giving Bryan Cranston the role of a lifetime.

You talked about being able to include some of these things that occurred around you in the show, but it always seemed like The X-Files was very topical—very timely. Things would happen in the real world, and then they might end up factoring into an episode of The X-Files. How far ahead were you usually able to write? Was this immediacy intentional?

[Laughs] Well, we weren't able to write very far ahead at all—in fact, we mostly were scrambling to make our deadlines. We worked 11 and a half months each year, and I'd say by the end of the first month we were already behind and trying to do our best just to feed this monster that needs scripts to shoot. What I think is interesting for us doing science-fiction is that we started writing about things like clones, and there were no clones when we were writing about them—and then during the course of the show, all of a sudden this sheep named Dolly was cloned. So we were, in a way, sort of predictive of certain scientific realities, and that was really fun, too.

We've talked a lot about the past, but is there any update on the future of The X-Files? I know there's a Season Ten comic book that's being published, but is there any update on a potential movie? What does the future hold for The X-Files

I'd say there's no update to give you right now, but will it happen again? Will there be another X-Files? I'm going to give you a really bad answer and just say, “The truth is out there.”

The '90s: The Last Great Decade? premieres July 6 at 9pm ET on National Geographic Channel. The three-part miniseries will continue July 7 and July 8.

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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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