Data Mining 614 Letters to Santa Claus

Image: Flickr/ Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar cc license

Image: Flickr/ Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar cc license

The Universal Postal Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, counted more than 6 million letters to Santa Claus sent in its most recent, 2007 survey. But in the immortal words of Austin Powers, “Whoop-de-doo! What does it all mean, Basil?” ‘Tis the season of nostalgia and so to discover the meaning of kids’ Santa Claus letters, we turn to the ghost of Christmas past, namely a 1994 study published in the Journal of Popular Culture that mined 614 letters to Santa Claus delivered through the post office of a major city in the U.S. Southwest.

After chucking all the letters that were obviously written by an adult for a child, those that were illegible, and those that were deemed to be gift lists written by adults pretending to be children (imagine the implications…), the researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were left with exactly 344 notes — written by children expressing their deepest desires.

In these 344 letters were 2,475 gift requests for an average 7.2 gifts per letter — boys requested slightly fewer at 6.7 and girls slightly more at 7.7 per child. Almost exactly half of these were branded requests – not just a talking doll, but a “Tickle Me Elmo” and not just a magic kit but the “Magic Circle Deluxe Box of Tricks” and not just laser tag guns, but the “Sega Lock On” system. Interestingly, the longer the list, the higher percentage of the items likely to come with specific brand requests.

Here’s another interesting part: despite a fairly equal number of brands available to boys and girls, and despite a fairly equal percentage of toys requested by brand name by boys and girls, boys tended to cluster their requests in only the top few brands, while girls spread their brand requests over a wider range of brands.

“Boys may be more concerned that the brand-named gifts they request are more popular (and thus more desired) among their peers,” the authors write.

That said, while girls spread their love among brands, they did not spread it among categories of toys, with the vast majority of requests from this (hopefully bygone…) era being for dolls or for “New Kids on the Block,” which the researchers note were “themselves dolls that represented the individual band members.” (Another note: an eBay search returns a full set of 5 NKOTB action figures still in packages selling for $60, and you can buy just Dannie and Donnie now for $13.19!) Girls were also more willing to cross the gender boundary than were boys, with 49 requests for “boy brands” from the girls and only 4 requests for “girl brands” from the boys.

Does all this mean that “boys are more concerned with acquiring popular, brand-name items than girls?” the researchers ask. Are boys and not girls are more bound by the perceptions of what they “should” want? Or are boys more susceptible to the advertisements of the big brand names, which did, in fact, receive the lion’s share of the brand requests?

“Given that the Santa Claus myth appears to be an integral — and perhaps even sacred — part of the celebration of Christmas in American culture, studies exploring the issues raised in this study would certainly seem warranted,” the researchers write.

God bless us, everyone.

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WATCH: Automatic Rubik’s Cube Solver

Take a click and slow jam with me: the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that without the addition of work, the entropy of a system will increase. In other words, left alone a system becomes more disordered: molecules disperse, heat homogenizes, and if you drop a Rubik’s Cube, it ain’t real likely to solve itself. Instead, random processes applied to this best selling toy of all time tend to increase its disorder. Of the 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold to date, how many do you think are sitting at the bottom of the toy box or even on the kitchen counter, unsolved? According to this lovely 2nd Law, the correct answer is lots.

The Boulder startup Kitables is out to change that.

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The Employee Dogs and Asymmetric Facial Hair of SparkFun’s New Building


The offspring pretending they are SparkFun engineers.

I’m more science geek than technology geek, but lately I’ve been doing my best — learning how to solder and code by building SparkFun kits along with my kids (6 and 8), first the WeevilEye, then Herbie the little mouse kit and now into the world of Arduino. (My daughter, Kestrel, bounces off furniture and people and walls as if she were the cue ball of a billiards trick shot, but she’ll sit and solder for a straight hour.) What this means is that instead of looking at soldering kits from the perspective of an electrical engineer who, I’m sure, sees these kits as simple teaching tools, I’m completely flabbergasted along with my kids when Herbie hits a wall and his electrical whiskers make the mouse turn. Wow! When we reach the great moment of flipping the switch to “on,” my armpits sweat.

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Story Time From Space: Astronauts Read Science-Based Kid’s Books!

In 2010, astronomer and author Jeffrey Bennett answered a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The voice on the other end told him that astronaut Alvin Drew wanted to read one of Bennett’s books from space — Drew needed a pdf.

“It took some convincing to make me believe it wasn’t a prank,” Bennett said last week when we met for coffee in Boulder, CO.

On the other end of the phone that day was Patricia Tribe. She’d been Director of Education at Space Center Houston and was working to design science curriculum that would appeal to school districts that had their noses to the grindstone of literacy. Bennett’s books hit two birds with one stone: the engaging stories of Bennett’s Rottweiler, Max, can be read as animal adventures in space or appreciated for the very real science content that frames Max’s adventures.

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Under the Seat (To the Tune “Under the Sea”)

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Dads, listen to me. The driver’s seat, it’s a mess. But life under the seat is more terrifying than anything we’ve got up here.

[Cue marimba]

The mucor is always greenest, just after a three-week wait

You dream about pristine floor mats, but that is a big mistake

Just look at the world beneath you, right there in your kids’ back seat

Such wonderful things surround them. What’s this, oh it’s mystery meat!

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Calculating the MPG of an EV


Blatant hero shot

The other day I was piloting the after-activity transport shuttle and my 8-year-old, Leif, really, really had to pee. There wasn’t an easy pull-off and so I tried to explain that the irony of a boy named Leif peeing in the back seat of a car named Leaf would make the act of urinating in the back seat like crossing the streams in the movie Ghostbusters, which he has thus far been too frightened to watch and so maybe wasn’t the most effective analogy.

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Zombies, Douchebags & Cutting-Edge Content Marketing: Q&A With Estately’s Ryan Nickum

Zombie.mapMaybe you’ve seen this viral map of the states most and least prepared for the zombie apocalypse. Or maybe you’ve run across postings and repostings of this map detailing the best states for douchebags based on the percentage of males listing Facebook interests like Nicklelback, Monster Energy and Bluetooth. These maps and more including overlays of kale preference, Crossfit, and livability for hippies are the brain child of one man, Ryan Nickum, blogging for the real estate site Estately.

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Brilliant, Funny, Deeply Moving: Return to Zero Premieres Saturday, May 17 on Lifetime (8/7c)

RETURN TO ZERO – Official Trailer from Sean Hanish on Vimeo.

In 2005, filmmaker Sean Hanish and his wife Kiley lost their son, Norbert, at 37 weeks into Kiley’s pregnancy. On Saturday, May 17 the movie Return To Zero starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein tells their story of stillbirth and recovery (Lifetime 8/7c). The thing is, as awful as the topic certainly is, the movie is wonderfully written, beautifully filmed, and astoundingly acted (if Minnie doesn’t get an Emmy nod for her role, I don’t know what does). It’s even, dare I say, funny as hell in parts.

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A Fundamental Question About Kids, Survival and the Zombie Apocalypse


Image: Flickr/David Williss cc license

I was at a party this weekend, a phrase that used to mean one thing and now means something else entirely. While my 7-year-old boy stared blissfully into the light breeze having his face painted by a classmate and his 5-year-old sister tried to catch his terrified friends and kill them with a badminton racket, I found myself chatting with a circle of dads. Of course, the topic turned to the zombie apocalypse.

The question was this: When the apocalypse comes, would you want you and your children to survive, only your children to survive, only you to survive, or everyone to go as quickly as possible in the first wave?

Greg was sure a quick death for all was the best possible end. He should know: his popular self-published book on how to retrofit a Sprinter van as an RV puts him in contact with a population of steampunk tinkerers who have looked the awful possibility of the apocalypse in the eye.

Scott recommended all or nothing – you and the kids both live or both die – citing the idea that if the kids survive, you’d want to be around to take care of them. But then again, Scott tends sponges for a living. Okay, he’s a Berkeley-trained PhD cellular biologist, but can you really trust the reasoning of a man who grows sponges?

Chris is a toymaker. He gave my offspring blowguns for their two-years-but-one-day-apart birthdays. He said that he would choose to live after the apocalypse but wished a quick end for his kids. His reasoning is that the post-apocalypse world would suck, but that as an adult he was equipped to handle it emotionally and physically in a way that would destroy the souls of children. Then again, he gave my kids blowguns, for frick’s sake. And now my dogs are nervous.

My knee-jerk answer was for the kids to survive but for me to sacrifice my own tragically limited grey matter by taking a dive off the highest, nearest cliff to Boulder, CO as soon as the zombie horde passed critical mass. It was knee-jerk because: can you imagine wishing for the death of your kids in any circumstance? But on second thought, maybe leaving them the responsibility of continuing the human race amid certain awfulness is selfish?

I imagine there are existential, metaphysical, technical, and moral implications beyond my grasp. Can we please come to a reasoned conclusion on this important issue?

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The Science of Why I Largely Disregard Parenting Science

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

I was at the park the other day throwing pinecones at my kids when a horrified mother asked, “How can you hit your kids with pinecones!” I said it was pretty easy: you just don’t lead them as much. First, this is important because my brain is almost completely incapable of accessing the proper pop-culture comeback (in this case, Full Metal Jacket) until the middle of the night after it was needed. Second, it’s not entirely true: my 5-year-old still tends to take a vector, but my 7-year-old has learned to zig and zag in a way that makes him really hard to hit. (Note: for proper aerodynamics it’s essential to use pinecones in which the seed scales remain closed. You’ll thank me later.)

Of course, I imagine there may be studies in the fields of education or child development that recommend against pelting your offspring with small, swiftly-thrown projectiles. But gosh is it fun! And I just ran across this One Study to Rule Them All, which implies that as long as you love your kids and they love you, it takes a real, concerted effort to mess them up too badly.

The study, by the Sutton Trust, is about attachment. Now attachment is a hot topic, fraught with intrigue and argument in circles that care to intrigue and argue about this kind of thing. But basically, secure attachment describes a situation in which, “a child can safely express negative emotion, and seek proximity to the caregiver, and can expect to feel better,” the authors write.

On the flip side are two major styles of insecure attachment: avoidant in which distressed kids learn to avoid the parent, and disorganized in which the child tries desperately to break through a parent’s wall of indifference or anger with “big” and sometimes irrational emotions.

A host of studies show the benefits of secure attachment, ranging from higher cognitive and social skills, to higher incomes and lower rates of divorce and mental illness. Apparently, the benefits of secure attachment remain even across tiger parents and helicopter parents and free-play parents and parents who over-praise or under-wash or happen to have a particular fondness for watching children run in glorious mock horror as they try to make it to safe zone before being pummeled by coniferous reproductive structures.

Here’s the kicker: the study finds that a full 40 percent of children are insecurely attached. Twenty-five percent of kids avoid their parents when the kids are upset. And 15 percent “learn to resist the parent, because the parent often amplifies their distress or responds unpredictably,” they write.

Sadly, attachment tends to be a generational, trickle-down thing – the largest risk factor for having a child with insecure attachment is a parent’s own attachment. Were you or are you still in this 40 percent? If so, it’s going to take some conscious creation of a new way of relating in order to break the cycle.

Now, I don’t know nearly enough to draw the line between what is responsiveness and what is over-indulgence. But what I do know is this: after we get back from the park, my kids are going to want to snuggle in bed and look at pictures of macaroni penguins on the iPad.

I figure: love the hell out of your kids and let the rest sort itself out.


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