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Curious, Bizarre & Storied State Symbols

Almost everyone knows that each state of the Union has its own flag. State flags, however, are just the most visible elements of an elaborate, esoteric system of legalized symbols that characterize and codify our united states. For example, "Do You Realize??" by the Flaming Lips was just named the official Oklahoma State Rock Song. It's time we were all exposed to the bizarre symbology of state identity-politics.

A Lesser-Known Tale of Badgers and Suckers

To begin with, some of the most well-known state symbols allude to lesser-known meanings and histories. I grew up in Wisconsin and only recently learned that the Badger State title originally refers not to Bucky, nor to the savage beast itself, but to lead miners in the 1820s and 30s. These miners moved from prospect to prospect in southwestern Wisconsin, traveling light and often, with little money for luxury. When winter came and conditions worsened, those miners too far from home to migrate would dig themselves sheltering caves in the hills -- like badgers. These temporary dwellings could be abandoned if a prospect proved fruitless, without much regret; and if the lead pickings were good, the lucky miner could fluff up his badger hole or upgrade to a more traditional Euro-American residence. For this practice Wisconsin miners were dubbed "badgers" -- a jibe that was soon appropriated as a proud, statewide nickname. Bucky didn't come along until 1949; the furry, quadruped badger, notoriously vicious when cornered, wasn't declared Wisconsin's state animal until 1957.

Other miners migrated south for the winter to the far end of Illinois, much like the region's sucker fish; which earned them the nickname of Suckers, and their state of Illinois its unenviable nickname, The Sucker State.

The Rebel Woodpecker

alabama-bird.jpgThe state bird of Alabama has another tale behind it. They honor a little woodpecker they call the yellowhammer, which is known outside of Alabama as the northern flicker, the common flicker, or simply The Flicker. (It eats a lot of ants, and is not to be confused with the yellowhammer bunting of Europe and New Zealand.) State birds are chosen for reasons many and varied, some meaningful and others frivolous -- from the pretty songs they sing to their proximity to extinction -- and I believe this is the only bird singled out for its resemblance to Confederate uniforms. The story goes that a clean, trim, flashy bunch of new Confederate recruits one day passed by a weary, bedraggled, dusty pod of veterans, and their fresh uniforms, grey tinged with brilliant yellow, reminded some jokester vet of the woodpecker, so he let out a mocking call: "Yallerhammer, yallerhammer, flicker, flicker!" The jeer stuck, and the recruits were soon labeled the Yellowhammer Company. Later, as these things go, all Alabama troops were known as Yellowhammers, the whole state as the Yellowhammer State, and Confederate veterans developed a habit of wearing yellow feathers in their caps and lapels to dress up for post-war reunions.

How entertaining and informative. But the real fun starts when these state symbols more shamelessly approach the ridiculous. Let us consider some of the finest specimens:

Eat and Drink to the Honor of the State

Kool-Aid.jpgMost states have at least one form of official food. In Louisiana, the official doughnut is the beignet. (I'm unaware of any other state doughnuts -- and I'm disappointed.) New York's official muffin is made with apples; Minnesota's with blueberries; and none have yet found it fit to honor the vegan bran and raisin muffin, despite whatever strange wonders it works on the abdominal tubing. Vermont is the only state with an official flavor: maple, as in maple syrup -- but because they've designated the "flavor," not the "syrup," we can assume the appointment includes everything from maple-glaze for ham to autumnal maple lattes. Shockingly, Oklahoma has recognized a complete (and daunting) meal: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbeque pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, chicken friend steak, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pies. As for state drinks, Nebraska has Kool-Aid, Indiana has water (hubris!), and Alabama, the standout, has Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey -- a re-creation of some well-regarded illegal moonshine made in the backwoods by a man named Clyde May.

The Silly, Sentimental, and Insulting Songs that Define Us

hang-on-sloopy.jpgAll states have songs, too, except New Jersey, where good cheer goes to die. Most states have more than one. There are state ballads, state marches, state waltzes, and so on. Connecticut has a state cantata (a narrative piece intermixed with solos and choruses); Louisiana has a state environmental song ("The Gifts of the Earth"); Massachusetts a polka ("Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts"); a couple states have lullabies; and Ohio has an official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy." Two state anthems, Maryland's and Iowa's, are set to the familiar tune of "O Tannenbaum!", or "O Christmas Tree!"; but no states have designated official Christmas songs. And despite Texas' toughboy image (their official footwear is the cowboy boot), it's the only state with an official flower song -- in praise of its state flower, the bluebonnet. Many of the traditional states songs are brazenly effusive. Arizona's begins, "I love you, Arizona," and continues, rather romantically, "You're the magic in me." California's is similar, without the magic: "I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all." South Dakotans use the superlative when singing to "The state we love the best."

Usually they're just hilarious, but a few of these songs bear some heinously outdated lyrics. With a nod to the old Eternal Feminine, North Carolina praises its women as Queens of the Forest, "So graceful, so constant, yet to gentlest breath trembling." The real trouble comes, though, with old minstrel tunes that portray humble "darkies" praising "old Massa" in song and romanticizing their cotton-picking servitude. Kentucky changed the language for "My Old Kentucky Home" in 1986 to glaze over such indiscretions. But Virginia still seems to have trouble acknowledging its error, and simply demoted its song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," to the status of "state song emeritus." Virginia still seeks an adequate replacement, preferably one that doesn't idealize slavery -- but, of course, those are hard to come by.

Every State For Itself

gusty.jpgBesides these strange variations on common themes, many states have even more idiosyncratic symbols. Since 1962, the official sport of Maryland has been jousting, and more recently, the state's official "exercise" was declared to be walking. Not even mall-walking or speed-walking -- just "walking." Kentucky doesn't have a "sport," but it does have an official tug-of-war: the Fordsville Tug-of-War Championship. Mississippi has a state toy, the teddy bear; Massachusetts a state bean, the navy bean; and Oklahoma proudly boasts the only state cartoon character, a gust of wind named Gusty that was used to report weather and news, between 1954 and 1989. (You can order commemorative Gusty artwork here.)

While many designations seem absurd, most aim to represent some definite aspect of a state's intended "character." Legislators want icons that mean something, that give you a sense of the land and its people -- something like the bolo tie. Arizona named the bolo tie its official neckwear back in 1971. And more recently, in 2007, New Mexico added the same to its list of emblems. Apparently, it was an Arizona silversmith who invented the string-and-buckle necktie when he took off his hatband to avoid losing the precious buckle during a high-wind horse ride, and hung it around his neck. This discovery occurred as late as 1940, but the bolo's become such an icon that it's hard to imagine a Wild West without it.

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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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