Monday, December 29, 2014

Seven things I learned from the Norad Santa Tracker

My wife thought I was a little bit cracked, but she humored me. This Christmas Eve I kept a close and fascinated eye on the Norad Santa tracker.

If you've not heard of it, let me catch you up. In 1955, one company decided to advertise in the newspaper that kids could call in and talk to Santa Claus 24/7. The number they published was off by one digit. It actually (and I am completely not making this up)--it was actually a very restricted number for a senior officer at the command center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD (this is where they launch the nuclear missiles, kids!). The commander who answered the phone from the first kid asking to talk to Santa Claus wasn't very pleased. Apparently he made the kid cry.

Eventually he decided to play along, and a Christmas tradition was born. Every year, some people at Norad would do what Norad would do best in such a situation (beside shooting Santa out of the sky should he forget to receive permission to enter U.S. airspace before delivering the presents) which was to tell the kids where Santa had last been spotted and where he was off to next, making good use of their sophisticated tracking equipment. A few years ago, Santa got on the internet, and now you can watch him as he makes his trek across the world, zigzagging up and down, gradually making his way east to west. There is a map of the world below, with major cities and geographic points of interest marked, and you can see Santa's sleigh, naturally led by Rudolph and the elite eight, soaring high above an image of our planet brought to you by quite a number of mapping services, all working together in the spirit of the season (and good publicity). If you play with the buttons you can see him from different angles as well. It's quite a production.

I made a few comments on Facebook about the enterprise, one of which was that the Norad Santa Tracker was another way for Americans to learn geography. Some smart fellow once snarkily suggested that war was the method by which Americans learned about their world, but here, I thought, was another. Which is my first point.

1) If, like most of us, you don't spend much time thinking about the world at large, this is a chance to do it. While you are waiting for Santa to get to your little neck of the woods, you have time to notice just what all else is out there. There is a great deal of ocean, for one, and a whole lot of desert, and mountains, and places with no vegetation. There is a lot of inhospitable terrain, basically. A whole lot of it. And if you've forgotten where half the places on the news are, this is a way to remember. The Santa Tracker could be an excellent crash course in where all of those cities are that you only hear about when there is an epic disaster.

2) As I mentioned, it isn't just the places inhabited by humans that are noticeable. As Santa makes each delivery, two places are on the screen: where Santa was last seen and where he is going next (as well as his ETA to get there). As I wrote on Facebook,  "I didn't realize he delivered presents to the Amazon Rain Forest. Some tree frog must have been really good this year." If you're like me, you have no idea about Santa's methodology, nor how he could possibly cover all that terrain on 24 hours. Now you have no excuse not to know.

3) In many ways, Santa is just as ignorant as the rest of us. Most of us come out of the womb assuming that all life and all experience matches our own, and don't have much tolerance for people with other traditions and ideas. Apparently Santa is also blissfully unaware of the diversity of the earth's peoples. As he traversed the globe on the evening of the 24th of December, I watched him deliver presents to a number of places where I was sure the populace wouldn't want them: even though there is a Christian minority in many of these places I doubt they would appreciate the attention, nor would they even welcome such an display of gifts. And the Christian world itself is divided on the matter of timing. For the Eastern Orthodox world, Santa is a few weeks early, since Christmas comes to them on January 7th. In parts of Europe, Santa is three weeks late, St. Nicholas Day having passed on December 6th, when presents are given. I could see Santa wanting to get it all over with on one day, but given that it is such a gargantuan task, I wondered if he would really mind parceling it out (sorry). And it would be better customer relations than forcing one practice on everyone.

4) Santa is one lucky b----d. I noticed that Santa flew over a number of war zones; how can one with his mission avoid it? I grew white knuckled for him each time. I spent quite a lot of Christmas Eve working, and missed seeing Santa fly over the Ukraine, or Afghanistan. I did catch him delivering presents to the South Sudan. I remember him flying over Saudi Arabia, as well. I am a little surprised he was not taken out by a surface to air missile in any of the earth's "conflict" regions. If he has a way to defend against these, it is unknown to me. Not to mention he had to land in each one of these places a number of times, though the Santa tracker did not show us these (probably for security reasons).

5) Santa skipped Baltimore. I lived there for a decade and grew to appreciate our civic inferiority complex. I also noted how often we were ignored by people from the rest of the nation. My own friends and family kept asking how Boston was. Even the media at large routinely forgot about us. I remember a major snow storm with reports coming in from every major city on the east coast except Baltimore. So I'm not really surprised that Santa flew from D.C. through parts of Pennsylvania (State College, for Pete's sake!) and on to Delaware and New Jersey.

6) Apparently if you aren't in bed by 10:30 Santa will pass you by. I was surprised to see how early Santa got to parts of America. Given that most of Florida probably goes to bed by 5, I didn't think that would be much of a problem. But I had always assumed he waited until around midnight just to make sure he didn't run into any night owls. I suppose he came through Champaign while we were at the 11 o'clock service at our church. When I went to bed he was delivering to western Canada. I suppose if you want to make the whole thing work you can't be too picky about when. The Cable guy has the same window and far fewer stops to make, so I'll cut him some slack. Plus the milk is less likely to curdle that way.

7) Santa helps me think of my friends. I know people from several parts of the world, it turns out, and though I missed at least half of Santa's delivery, I noted on several occasions that Santa was delivering presents to my friends in far off places. That gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. I hope they liked what Santa got them.

I went to bed before Santa made it out to the Pacific, and missed what time he finished up. I can tell you, because I couldn't sleep the night before, that takeoff is 6am Eastern Time (noon UTC?). I hope that information doesn't compromise his flight path for next year. You can never be too sure.

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