ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Superchickens —

So there’s some stories I like to tell.

OK, fine, there’s a lot of stories to tell. Like, I’d never run out, and if I had to fill 3 hours of talking in a conference or on a podcast or some other forum, I could just sit there and spin them out indefinitely.

Most of the stories stand out on their own. Usually, I’m an eyewitness or the progenitor or otherwise able to verify the story. Unless it’s movie trivia, which I often repeat verbatim and then find out 10 years down the road I was entirely wrong. But hey, movie trivia.

For most of the rest, I can know that the story is true and verify it. For example, I remember during my childhood I was at a snow hill on the back of a elementary school in Brewster, NY. Brewster being what it is in the intelligence soup, this snow hill went down a bunch of sizable bumps and then ultimately shot over a 6 foot wall directly into traffic. Obviously, it was incumbent upon children/teens going down this hill to veer off at some point before going off the wall onto certain death, in the path of cars going between 20 and 50 miles per hour.

So, not content to rest on the mere idea of hurling towards a road on a sled down bumpy hills, someone devised an even better idea: take a Red Ryder sled, put some inner tubes on it, and load THAT with a bunch of kids.

So there we have it, a bunch of kids perilously loaded on a sled piled on another sled, going down a very steep hill that was in fact a series of large jumps, ending in a drop-off into traffic. We did this. We piled into it and we went down this hill.

For the happiness of all involved, the sled naturally capsized after two major jumps and sent 7 kids tumbling in all directions and tumbling the sleds instead of sending them flying at top speed into some hapless driver’s passenger window.

I was there, this happened, and if I think it fits into a conversation (or weblog entry), it goes in.

On the other hand, the superchickens story was unverified, and that was a shame because I saw a neat lesson in it.

The story goes like this.

For most of the 20th century, there’s been aggressive breeding of most farmstock, be it cows, horses, what have you. This includes chickens. You take an animal that shows promise in some aspect of itself that you want, let it make lots of little friends, and the resultant baby animals are checked for that aspect. Then you let the ones with that aspect breed, ideally with others of the same quality, and so on. You watch out for inbreeding, you make sure the little suckers are happy, and so on. Pretty simple.

The result of intense breeding resulted in the Leghorn Chicken, which is heralded for its prolific egg-laying. You can get well in the triple digits with these gals, some of them laying over 300 eggs a year. This is from nearly a century of selective breeding for egg-laying abilities.

The problem is, they didn’t check a lot of the other attributes. The reason that this strain of chicken lays so many eggs is because it’s an asshole.

The chickens attack each other mercilessly. They freak out in close quarters. By breeding for egg-laying abilities, they were also breeding for meaner, huger chickens. These things are massive (for chickens) and will eat a nearby neighbor if the mood strikes it. The mortality rate is through the roof, as much as 80%.

The solution, therefore, was plain: debeak the chickens. Hundreds of thousands of these White Leghorn chickens have their beaks ripped off by machines so they won’t kill each other. Regardless, tons of them die anyway, and they can’t be jammed together in close quarters dependably.

So I had no direct links to any papers or sources about this. But now I do. Trust in the Chickens: Group Selection and Heterogeneous Multi-Agent Systems by Benjamin McGee Good (April 26, 2000) which specifically references the work of Muir, W.M. (1996). Group selection for adaptation to multiple-hen cages: selection program and direct responses. Journal of Poultry Science 75, (pp 447-458). Once I had that, the world opened up to me and I’ve found a lot of citations of this paper, in many locations online.

Now, why do I care about this? Because this whole situation is a perfect parable for unintended consequences. And I was inspired, some time ago, by a small rash of comparisons to chickens and Enron. Here’s a good entry on such with bonus over-the-top conspiracy theories in the comments, trying to derail the conversation! Two for one.

Anyway, it’s good to have the papers and links for my stories. They feel stronger and healthier, that way.

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  1. Chris Barts says:

    Selective breeding has been going on ever since humans began to farm, as opposed to hunting and gathering exclusively. Sheep are one result: Do you think any quadruped is that stupid naturally? It took thousands of years to make an animal that docile! Corn is another: Those big, sweet kernels just dripping off the stalk did not come from natural selection. Humans carefully and deliberately created those plants out of grass.

    Those are the genetically-modified foods we rely upon. Monsanto has got nothing on a process that began over ten thousand years ago.

  2. Jim Leonard says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite mental images: I was having a discussion many years ago with coworkers trying to figure out why McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets were all the same shape and consistency when someone volunteered that it was because they were poured from molds. Yes, this person claimed, McNuggets were formed by a puree’d chicken mixture being poured into one of four molds and then processed to become the tasty treat we all know and love.

    If this were all that there was to the story, it wouldn’t be one of my favorites. The best part is when he described the carnage that occured when a McD’s 18-wheeler jacknifed on the highway, spilling several of these chicken drums onto the road and causing a massive slippery mess that caused a pileup. The concept of an accident caused by LIQUID CHICKEN is almost as hilarious as the concept of LIQUID CHICKEN ITSELF.

  3. I like just posted this story online the other day. Here it is again, for your enjoyment.

    Back in 1991, after quitting/getting fired from Mazzio’s Pizza, I took a job at Grandy’s. Grandy’s, for those who don’t know, is a “homestyle cooking” fast food restaurant. Their slogan was “Fast Food That Doesn’t Taste Fast,” although those of us who worked there usually substituted the second “Fast” with “Good”. Truth be told, the fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and fried okra were all pretty good … and fried. When you’re a high school senior without a lot of spending money for eating out, free food is good food, and based on that criteria Grandy’s wasn’t half bad.

    I started at Grandy’s as counter help but moved to the kitchen after one of the three night cooks quit. One of the first things you learn how to do at Grandy’s is “drop chicken,” a process that involves battering pieces of chicken and dropping them into huge vats of scalding hot grease.

    The trick to dropping chicken into grease, it turns out, is to get really close to the grease. The closer you are, the less likely it is to splash. Of course, that’s not your natural instinct, which is to drop or toss the chicken into the vat while keeping your hands far away from the grease. That’s exactly what I did, launching a couple of wings into the grease from a few feet away. Some of the grease splashed back, out of the vat, and back into my crotch.

    There is nothing scarier to a seventeen-year-old boy than the possibility of a permanent crotch injury. Before I could even react, I felt the warmth of the grease on my lap. I dropped what I was doing, screamed, turned around and ran toward the freezer. My screams were heard by everyone in the restaurant.

    I ran to the freezer, threw open the door, and grabbed the first thing I got my hands on — a whole chicken, sitting in a tub of ice. I dropped my pants to my knees, held the chicken to my crotch, and used it as an ice pack.

    By this time both managers and coworkers were searching for me, wondering what all the shouting was about. Moments later they opened the walk-in door and found me standing there, pants around my ankles, holding a chicken on my crotch.

    After an awkward moment of silence they backed away and closed the door very slowly …