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The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years: Thinking in Pictures

The latest issue of mental_floss just hit newsstands. Rosemary Ahern's cover story chronicles 'The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.' This week, we'll be revealing five of those influential books here on the blog. And if this puts you in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

Thinking in Pictures

by Temple Grandin (1995)

The Book That Explained Autism from the Inside Out

A leader in both autism advocacy and animal welfare, Temple Grandin is undoubtedly the most famous autistic person in the world. Her 1995 memoir let readers into the minds of autistic people, destigmatizing the disorder and debunking the myth that they can't lead fulfilling lives. As Grandin wrote, "If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am." The book covers everything from the talents of high-functioning autistics to the struggles of the most severely afflicted. It explains why autistic people often avoid direct eye contact (they're disturbed by the movements of other people's eyes) and describes why they find it easier to recognize people by their voices rather than by their faces.

In Thinking in Pictures, Grandin also talks about her personal struggles with the disorder.

In 1950, when she was 3, her nonstop tantrums and delayed speech landed her in a neurologist's office, where the doctor declared her brain-damaged. A few years later, as knowledge of autism became more widespread, her diagnosis changed, but her prognosis remained bleak. Grandin's mother was encouraged to institutionalize her daughter. Instead, she enrolled Grandin in a nursery school for speech-handicapped children and tirelessly encouraged her intelligence and creativity. By the time Grandin was a teenager, she was already making a name for herself. Because many people with autism crave pressure stimulation but cannot tolerate being touched, she invented a "squeeze machine." The device helps both children and adults cope with panic attacks, and today it's widely used within the autistic community.

Grandin went on to earn a Ph.D. in animal science and become a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology. She credits autism for giving her a unique understanding of cattle.

"I think in pictures, like an animal," she writes. "My nervous system is more like an animal's. The sounds that bother me are the same sounds that bother an animal. My emotions are simple—and the main one is fear."

Grandin's insights have revolutionized slaughtering methods for cattle, making them both more humane and more cost-effective. In the old system, electric prods drove the animals from holding pens straight to the slaughterhouse, terrifying them and producing bruised meat that couldn't be sold. Grandin's approach keeps animals calm. Instead of walking the cattle in a straight line, the cows are slowly coaxed through a curved chute that takes advantage of their natural circling behavior. The chute's high walls block random activity and images that might be confusing or frightening. At the end, the cows are gently positioned into a restraint and shot in the forehead with a pneumatic gun. They die instantly, without a moment of pain or fear. In addition to being more compassionate, Grandin's methods save meat processors between $100,000 and $1 million a year per plant.

Today, Grandin is a consultant to Burger King and McDonald's, and her systems are used by one-third of all livestock-handling facilities in the United States. She travels and lectures widely, spreading the message that autism is not a death sentence for achievement. In fact, she notes that the majority of hits on her Web site come from Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is located, and San Mateo, Calif., near Stanford University. This, she playfully interprets, is evidence that autistics are employed and flourishing.

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Food
Hate Red M&M's? You Need a Candy Color-Sorting Machine
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iStock

You don’t have to be a demanding rock star to live a life without brown M&M's or purple Skittles—all you need is some engineering know-how and a little bit of free time.

Mechanical engineering student Willem Pennings created a machine that can take small pieces of candy—like M&M's, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, etc.—and sort them by color into individual piles. All Pennings needs to do is pour the candy into the top funnel; from there, the machine separates the candy—around two pieces per second—and dispenses all of it into smaller bowls at the bottom designated for each variety.

The color identification is performed with an RGB sensor that takes “optical measurements” of candy pieces of equal dimensions. There are limitations, though, as Pennings revealed in a Reddit Q&A: “I wouldn't be able to use this machine for peanut M&M's, since the sizes vary so much.”

The entire building process lasted from May through December 2016, and included the actual conceptualization, 3D printing (which was outsourced), and construction. The entire project was detailed on Pennings’s website and Reddit's DIY page.

With all of the motors, circuitry, and hardware that went into it, Pennings’s machine is likely too ambitious of a task for the average candy aficionado. So until a machine like this hits the open market, you're probably stuck buying bags of single-colored M&M’s in bulk online or sorting all of the candy out yourself the old fashioned way.

To see Pennings’s machine in action, check out the video below:

[h/t Refinery 29]

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Pop Culture
The Strange Hidden Link Between Silent Hill and Kindergarten Cop
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

by Ryan Lambie

At first glance, Kindergarten Cop and Silent Hill don't seem to have much in common—aside from both being products of the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade came Kindergarten Cop, the hit comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring larger-than-life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the decade’s end came Silent Hill, Konami’s best-selling survival horror game that sent shivers down PlayStation owners’ spines.

As pop culture artifacts go, they’re as different as oil and water. Yet eagle-eyed players may have noticed a strange hidden link between the video game and the goofy family comedy.

In Silent Hill, you control Harry Mason, a father hunting for his daughter Cheryl in the eerily deserted town of the title. Needless to say, the things Mason uncovers are strange and very, very gruesome. Early on in the game, Harry stumbles on a school—Midwich Elementary School, to be precise—which might spark a hint of déjà vu as soon as you approach its stone steps. The building’s double doors and distinctive archway appear to have been taken directly from Kindergarten Cop’s Astoria Elementary School.

Could it be a coincidence?

Well, further clues can be found as you venture inside. As well as encountering creepy gray children and other horrors, you’ll notice that its walls are decorated with numerous posters. Some of those posters—including a particularly distinctive one with a dog on it—also decorated the halls of the school in Kindergarten Cop.

Do a bit more hunting, and you’ll eventually find a medicine cabinet clearly modeled on one glimpsed in the movie. Most creepily of all, you’ll even encounter a yellow school bus that looks remarkably similar to the one in the film (though this one has clearly seen better days).

Silent Hill's references to the movie are subtle—certainly subtle enough for them to pass the majority of players by—but far too numerous to be a coincidence. When word of the link between game and film began to emerge in 2012, some even joked that Konami’s Silent Hill was a sequel to Kindergarten Cop. So what’s really going on?

When Silent Hill was in early development back in 1996, director Keiichiro Toyama set out to make a game that was infused with influences from some of his favorite American films and TV shows. “What I am a fan of is occult stuff and UFO stories and so on; that and I had watched a lot of David Lynch films," he told Polygon in 2013. "So it was really a matter of me taking what was on my shelves and taking the more horror-oriented aspects of what I found.”

A scene from 'Silent Hill'
Divine Tokyoska, Flickr

In an interview with IGN much further back, in 2001, a member of Silent Hill’s staff also stated, “We draw our influences from all over—fiction, movies, manga, new and old.”

So while Kindergarten Cop is perhaps the most outlandish movie reference in Silent Hill, it’s by no means the only one. Cafe5to2, another prominent location in the game, is taken straight from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Elsewhere, you might spot a newspaper headline which references The Silence Of The Lambs (“Bill Skins Fifth”). Look carefully, and you'll also find nods to such films as The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and 12 Monkeys.

Similarly, the town’s streets are all named after respected sci-fi and horror novelists, with Robert Bloch, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson among the most obvious. Oh, and Midwich, the name of the school? That’s taken from the classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, twice adapted for the screen as The Village Of The Damned in 1960 and 1995.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'
Universal Pictures

The reference to Kindergarten Cop could, therefore, have been a sly joke on the part of Silent Hill’s creators—because what could be stranger than modeling something in a horror game on a family-friendly comedy? But there could be an even more innocent explanation: that Kindergarten Cop spends so long inside an ordinary American school simply gave Toyama and his team plenty of material to reference when building their game.

Whatever the reasons, the Kindergarten Cop reference ranks highly among the most strange and unexpected film connections in the history of the video game medium. Incidentally, the original movie's exteriors used a real school, John Jacob Astor Elementary in Astoria, Oregon. According to a 1991 article in People Magazine, the school's 400 fourth grade students were paid $35 per day to appear in Kindergarten Cop as extras.

It’s worth pointing out that the school is far less scary a place than the video game location it unwittingly inspired, and to the best of our knowledge, doesn't have an undercover cop named John Kimble serving as a teacher there, either.

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