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

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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Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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