NORAD want you to Believe

NORAD’s Numbers

My daily newspaper, Associated Press, National Public Radio, and probably most other news sources reported this week that noradsanta.org was tracking the exact whereabouts of Old St. Nick as he traveled the world, leaving presents for good girls and boys. The site last year received, we were told, “192 million hits from 181 countries.”

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NORAD’s web site repeats these “facts,” along with the fact that “Last Christmas Eve, volunteers at Cheyenne Mountain answered nearly 55,000 phone calls and 35,000 e-mails from children around the world.” This task is being done by “about 500 volunteers” — mostly military personnel and their families.

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NORAD – “North American Aerospace Defense Command” for the acronymally challenged – “monitors, validates and warns of attack against North America by aircraft, missiles or space vehicles. NORAD also provides surveillance and control of the airspace of Canada and the United States.” Important work since 1958.

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Note that it would have been NORAD who was authorized to shoot down or intercept the airplanes that eventually collided with the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. Far from being a relic of the Cold War, these are the people who we trust to keep us safe from the most most real and present danger we fear.

But each year they take time from watching for nukes and missiles and hostile space aliens to spread some cheer by tracking the movements of everybody’s favorite stealth force: Santa himself.

Journalists are famously skittish about numbers. And nothing looks so much like a fact as a number — especially large numbers and precise ones. Let’s work our way up.

500 volunteers in one 24-hour span answered 55,000 phone calls and 35,000 e-mails. If we assume each volunteered for a full day’s work (8 hours) on Christmas Eve, each fielded 110 phone calls and 70 e-mails.

Meanwhile, remember the web site was logging 192,000,000 hits from 181 countries.

The United Nations recognizes 191 countries in the world, plus Vatican City, which prefers not to participate. Add Taiwan and you have 193 nations that might be on NORAD’s computerized Caller ID. Which dozen of every nation on earth did not place at least one call to track Santa? Presumably the Vatican wouldn’t show any interest, but which other eleven?

The site does sport six different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. Unfortunately, these do not include Chinese or Hindi, the languages spoken by one third of the children in the world. Of the ten nations adding the most children to the world’s population (India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, United States of America, Bangladesh, Zaire, and Iran), only our children can track Santa on line in their native language.

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To review, 500 volunteers answered 55,000 phone calls and 35,000 e-mails on Christmas Eve, while a Web site fielded inquiries from virtually every nation on the planet, even those with no Christian traditions, no language support, and with very few computers. But since it only takes one hit per country, that statistic might be easy to achieve with one really good diplomat’s rolodex.

But 192 million hits?

This is the statistic most highly touted in each news report, proving beyond doubt that NORAD is not only reliable enough to protect us from every airborne evil, but it has worldwide popularity.

It better have, since there are only approximately 30 million children between 5 and 12 in the United States. (For every precocious four-year-old, figure there’s a skeptical 11-year-old.) That’s six or seven hits apiece; about a dozen if you figure each household needs only one update.

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Worldwide, there are between six and seven million children being born every month. The world population of 6.5 billion is growing by 1.2 percent a year, down from 1.5 percent growth in the early 1990s.

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By either calculation, there are approximately 650 million children of Santa-tracking age in the world. NORAD tells us that every Santa-tracking household on the planet averaged three hits to its site last year.

Given language, tradition, technology, and publicity barriers, this seems unlikely.

If we return to the 30 million children on the homefront. Eliminate the families that don’t have computers, or who don’t believe in Santa, or who have already called or e-mailed for their Santa Update. Guess that one in ten of those remaining knows how NORAD families spend their Christmas Eve. You’re left with a legion of kids each hitting the site a thousand times or more.

Likewise unlikely.

Where did the 912 million hits come from? Presumably, if some large portion came from outer space, NORAD would be the first to know. Maybe that’s the secret message here: There is life on other planets and they’re watching our Santa!

The more likely explanation is that much of what was reported is not exactly true. Does it matter? Of course not.

But today’s newspaper also reports that New York City Mayor Bloomberg stated that the three-day transit strike cost his city $1 billion ($125 for every man, woman and child) and that theme park owners reported that 176 million visitors came through their gates (more than half our nation’s population, regardless of age) in 2005. And that’s just on Page 2.

You could run each of these harmless little stories through the same battery of logical tests to determine whether they are to be believed, but most of us assume that’s what newspaper editors do.

Dr. O’Hanlon famously told his daughter Virginia that if she read something in their daily newspaper, New York Sun, then she could believe it was true. That was in 1897, long before NORAD, the Cold War, September 11th, the war on terrorism. And yet our innocence endures.

How many civilians have died in the conflagration in Iraq? “About 30,000”? How many Americans have been spied on by their own government in the past few years? Only a couple thousand?

Do you believe in Santa Claus?