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5 Questions You've Always Had About Chickens — Answered!

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On this planet, there are now more chickens than any other bird, and many, many more chickens than humans. Nevertheless, most people know very little about the fowl they devour nearly every day. Last night, we addressed which came first, the chicken or the egg. For the enlightenment of all, here are the answers to five more questions about chickens.

What were the first chickens like, and what activities did they enjoy? And how did they become the modern chicken we love to eat today?

The ancestor of all chickens was a feathered beast we call Gallus gallus, "red junglefowl," that lived in the shade of India and southeastern Asia starting a few million years ago. These primal chickens lived in flocks, and probably liked pecking around, laying eggs, and fighting. At least that's what we presume kept them busy: but who really knows how they felt about the whole thing. Humans may have domesticated their first chickens in Thailand as early as 7500 BC, but G. gallus domesticus didn't arrive in the Mediterranean until much later, between 800 and 500 BC. Such a delay is unjustifiable, and certainly doesn't speak well for early man's priorities.

After that, everybody was eating chickens and chicken eggs. The European chicken, however, tended to be a scraggly barnyard scavenger, dropping eggs where it pleased and swallowing whatever it could, until the 19th century, when larger Chinese breeds were imported and everyone got excited about "exotic" chickens. Europeans and Americans started breeding chickens like the fate of the earth depended on it -- observers called the fad "hen fever" -- and they came out with all sorts of fanciful, colorful, curious beasts. A couple of breeds pulled through as ideal barnyard birds, favored for qualities of egg-laying (like the White Leghorn) or meaty-succulence (like the Cornish). And it was these strains that became the placid layers, roasters, broilers, and fryers we enslave to our own ends today.

If they were so smart, what did ancient Greek philosophers have to say about chickens?

For all the respect he's been given over the years, Plato had a notoriously rough time distinguishing chickens from human beings. One day at his academy, the story goes, Plato decided to define "man"; he wanted to allow plenty of leeway for variation and unknowns, so he left his statement somewhat vague: man is a biped without feathers. In response to this, a cynical rouge in the crowd by the name of Diogenes -- a thinker well-known for living in a tub and aspiring to the simplicity of street-dogs -- presented for peer review a plucked cock. "This is Plato's man," he scoffed. Of course Plato had to revise his definition -- but only slightly: man is a biped without feathers, and with broad, flat nails.

The moral of the story: philosophy is no cakewalk.

You also should know that Plato's beloved mentor, Socrates, mentioned chicken in his famous (if confounding) last words: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, so Socrates probably meant that he had been cured of some illness and had to thank the god for it. But what was the illness, and what was the cure? There's some controversy in philosophical circles over this. Was the illness unreason, cured by philosophy? Or was the illness life, cured by death? For our purposes, what matters most is that Socrates, the very egg of Western philosophy, had chicken on his mind just before he conked out.

I have excellent taste and refined moral sensibilities -- so what kind of chicken am I supposed to buy at the grocery store?

Chicken packages are dense with code, and sometimes it all gets thick enough to make a poor soul give thought to throwing in the towel. But persist.

Some words simply refer to age and weight: "broilers" and "fryers" are young (6-8 weeks) and weigh less; "roasters" are older (11-20 weeks) and weigh more. (Older chickens are supposed to have more developed flavor.) Most of the other words have to do with a chicken's diet or the conditions in which it lived and was untimely killed. Regular grocery-store chickens are reliably tortured creatures, kept in small cages, immobile, saturated with antibiotics -- lives that we good citizens would only wish on America's enemies. "Free range" chickens have some access to the out-of-doors, even if it's only a small outdoor cage connected with the standard small indoor cage. "Organic" chickens eat organic feed and are antibiotic-free. "Natural" can mean almost anything.

"Kosher" and "Halal" chickens are killed according to Jewish and Muslim law, respectively. Both are hand-slaughtered; and kosher chickens are also cold-water de-feathered, soaked, brined, and dried. These are two of the few labels that many tasters agree will actually make a consistent difference in the meat's flavor. A clean, hand-made kill, with good drainage (every assassin's goal), won't result in blot clots that can toughen the meat. And the brining that kosher chickens undergo enhances flavor so much that some cookbooks recommend you do your own brining of any non-kosher chickens you buy.

Finally, it's worth mention that different brands breed for different qualities. Murray's goes for high yield, low fat breast meat. Perdue wants a high ratio of meat to bone. Etcetera.

After all that, it certainly seems that most of us have little choice but to make a half-blind decision and stick with it. Life is very short, and there are many chickens to eat.

Is it true that the Republican Party wants to put a chicken in every American's pot?

hoover-radio.jpgWell, at least it was true. A 1928 Republican Party flyer did promise "a chicken for every pot" -- an idea they adopted from the French king Henry IV, who once wished that no peasant would be so poor as to lack a chicken in his pot on Sunday (for which he earned the tedious nickname, King of the Chicken in the Pot). The flyer was part of Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign; but Hoover never spoke the words himself, and it was his Democratic rival, Al Smith, who attributed this whimsical, easily-mockable statement to Hoover. The promised-chicken soon became a nasty joke as the Depression rolled in, and less people were eating less chicken, less of the time. It was a joke that Republicans couldn't shake for some time. Even FDR and Kennedy were known to make cracks about Hoover's chickens.

I'm not familiar with the current Party position, as far as chickens in American pots. I can only assume they'd rather we all had chickens than nothing.

Why is Werner Herzog afraid of chickens?

Contemporary German filmmaker Werner Herzog has won global acclaim for his artsy films (like Aguirre, The Wrath of God) and documentaries (like Grizzly Man). While explicit themes or ideas don't easily untangle from Herzog's weird, haunting imagery, everyone can agree on one recurrent symbol: the chicken. Even Dwarfs Started Small includes cannibalistic chickens and cock fight footage. Game in the Sand starred four children and a rooster, but wasn't released because Herzog felt the filming "got out of hand." And, climactically, Stroszek ends with a chicken dancing on tabletop for several minutes to a wild, hootin' tune.

What's the deal, Werner? Well, he explained in a 1974 interview, "chickens frighten me. I was the first to show that chickens are cannibalistic and horrible. What is most frightening about them is when you look directly into their eyes: what looks back at you is dullness, death and dullness." Watch enough of Herzog's films and you might consider your next chicken sandwich to be part of a noble crusade.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]