December 25, 2013

Duffelblog – NSA intercepted letters to Santa

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Just when you thought the NSA scandal couldn’t get any worse, it now appears that the secretive intelligence gathering agency has a special program in place to intercept letters to Santa:

The National Security Agency routinely intercepts children’s letters to Santa, internal agency documents have revealed.

The documents describe an operation known as MILK COOKIES, based out of Fort Meade and run in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Service. COOKIES is the interception of the letters while MILK feeds them through a complex series of algorithms to spot any hidden messages.

Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander had previously testified to Congress in 2011 that the NSA would occasionally collect letters addressed to Santa, but insisted that it was totally accidental and that no one was actually reading or storing them.

The NSA is prohibited from directly monitoring American citizens under both Executive Order 12333 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, because the letters are addressed to the North Pole, which falls outside of U.S. territory, they are considered potential foreign intelligence signals which the NSA is authorized to intercept.


Four years later the NSA began MILK COOKIES in response to the Secret Santa program, which the agency initially thought was a Soviet operation after a flier for the program mistakenly replaced the picture of Santa with Karl Marx.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NSA began an almost-relentless campaign to insert itself both legally and covertly into the Christmas spirit.

First the NSA managed to get language inserted into the PATRIOT Act which required Santa to file a flight plan with NORAD and submit to random TSA inspections at select chimneys. Then came the 2002 judgment in United States v. Kringle, when the NSA and the Justice Department ordered him to deliver multiple GPS devices to the location of Usama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders.

When Santa refused and was put on a no-fly list he briefly had to outsource all his American operations to Canada, which handles diplomatic issues for the North Pole.

December 24, 2013

“I want an Official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot Range Model air rifle”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01


H/T to KA-CHING! for the image.

December 23, 2013

Induced aversion to a particular Christmas song

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Media, Personal — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Earlier this year, I had occasion to run a Google search for “Mr Gameway’s Ark” (it’s still almost unknown: the Googles, they do nothing). However, I did find a very early post on the old site that I thought deserved to be pulled out of the dusty archives, because it explains why I can — to this day — barely stand to listen to “Little Drummer Boy”:

Seasonal Melodies

James Lileks has a concern about Christmas music:

This isn’t to say all the classics are great, no matter who sings them. I can do without “The Little Drummer Boy,” for example.

It’s the “Bolero” of Christmas songs. It just goes on, and on, and on. Bara-pa-pa-pum, already. Plus, I understand it’s a sweet little story — all the kid had was a drum to play for the newborn infant — but for anyone who remembers what it was like when they had a baby, some kid showing up unannounced to stand around and beat on the skins would not exactly complete your mood. Happily, the song has not spawned a sequel like “The Somewhat Larger Cymbal Adolescent.”

This reminds me about my aversion to this particular song. It was so bad that I could not hear even three notes before starting to wince and/or growl.

Back in the early 1980’s, I was working in Toronto’s largest toy and game store, Mr Gameway’s Ark. It was a very odd store, and the owners were (to be polite) highly idiosyncratic types. They had a razor-thin profit margin, so any expenses that could be avoided, reduced, or eliminated were so treated. One thing that they didn’t want to pay for was Muzak (or the local equivalent), so one of the owners brought in his home stereo and another one put together a tape of Christmas music.

Note that singular. “Tape”.

Christmas season started somewhat later in those distant days, so that it was really only in December that we had to decorate the store and cope with the sudden influx of Christmas merchandise. Well, also, they couldn’t pay for the Christmas merchandise until sales started to pick up, so that kinda accounted for the delay in stocking-up the shelves as well …

So, Christmas season was officially open, and we decorated the store with the left-over krep from the owners’ various homes. It was, at best, kinda sad. But — we had Christmas music! And the tape was pretty eclectic: some typical 50’s stuff (White Christmas and the like), some medieval stuff, some Victorian stuff and that damned Drummer Boy song.

We were working ten- to twelve-hour shifts over the holidays (extra staff? you want Extra Staff, Mr. Cratchitt???), and the music played on. And on. And freaking on. Eternally. There was no way to escape it.

To top it all off, we were the exclusive distributor for a brand new game that suddenly was in high demand: Trivial Pursuit. We could not even get the truck unloaded safely without a cordon of employees to keep the random passers-by from snatching boxes of the damned game. When we tried to unpack the boxes on the sales floor, we had customers snatching them out of our hands and running (running!) to the cashier. Stress? It was like combat, except we couldn’t shoot back at the buggers.

Oh, and those were also the days that Ontario had a Sunday closing law, so we were violating all sorts of labour laws on top of the Sunday closing laws, so the Police were regular visitors. Given that some of our staff spent their spare time hiding from the Police, it just added immeasurably to the tension levels on the shop floor.

And all of this to the background soundtrack of Christmas music. One tape of Christmas music. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

It’s been over 20 years, and I still feel the hackles rise on the back of my neck with this song … but I’m over the worst of it now: I can actually listen to it without feeling that all-consuming desire to rip out the sound system and dance on the speakers. After two decades.

December 22, 2013

Fairytale of New York

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01


“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This song came into being after Elvis Costello bet The Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet. The outcome: a call-and-response between a bickering couple that’s just as sweet as it is salty.

December 21, 2013

QotD: Baldrick and the workhouse Nativity play

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Baldrick: I’ve been helping out with the workhouse Nativity play.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, of course. How did it go?

Baldrick: Well, not very well. At the last moment, the baby playing Jesus died!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, dear! This high infant mortality rate’s a real devil when it comes to staging quality children’s theatre. What did you do?

Baldrick: Got another Jesus.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, thank goodness. And his name?

Baldrick: “Spot.” There weren’t any more children so we had to settle for a dog instead.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, dear. I’m not convinced that Christianity would have established its firm grip over the hearts and minds of mankind, if all Jesus had ever said was “woof!”

Baldrick: Well, it went all right until the shepherds came on. See, we haven’t been able to get any real sheep, so we had to stick some wool…

Ebenezer Blackadder: On some other dogs!

Baldrick: Yeah. And the moment Jesus got a whiff of them, he’s away! While the angel’s singing “peace on earth, good will to mankind,” Jesus scampers across and tries to get one of the sheep to give him a piggy-back ride!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Scarcely appropriate behavior for the Son of God, Mister Baldrick! Weren’t the children upset?

Baldrick: No, they loved it! They want us to do another one at Easter. They want to see us nail up the dog!

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.

December 19, 2013

QotD: Blackadder greets Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Ebenezer Blackadder: Cork it, fatso! Don’t you realise that this is the Victorian Age, where apart from Queen Piglet-Features herself, women and children are to be seen and not heard!

Prince Albert: Queen Piglet-Features!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Yes! “Empress Oink,” us lads call her. The only person in the kingdom who looks dafter than her is that stupid Frankfurter of a husband. “The Pig and the Prig,” we call them. How they ever managed to produce their one hundred and twelve children is quite beyond me. The bed-chambers of Buckingham Palace must be copiously supplied with blindfolds!

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.

December 18, 2013

QotD: Blackadder and Melchet exchange Christmas greetings

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:51

Lord Edmund Blackadder: I trust Christmas brings to you its traditional mix of good food and violent stomach cramp.

Lord Melchet: Greetings of the season to you, Blackadder! May the Yule log slip from your fire and burn your house down!

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.

December 17, 2013

Io Saturnalia!

Filed under: History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

In History Today, Matt Salusbury traces the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which was celebrated on December 17th) and its relationship to Christmas in the late empire:

It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity’s most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?

The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.


Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to December 25th in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45- 95), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.

December 8, 2013

An annotated child’s Christmas wish list

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:54

Drew Magary got the list of things his daughter wants for Christmas this year. He explains why she’s not getting some of her wishes:

Now I’m the parent and it’s my turn to engage in the futile task of managing my child’s expectations. This is the actual wish list that my daughter, who is 7, handed me a few weeks ago. It’s completely unreasonable and I have no way of explaining this to her without being a dick, or without her thinking I’m pulling some reverse-psychology shit on her. Let’s take a look at this thing, item by item.


“A little thing that can turn into anything at anytime.” The fuck is this? What am I, Galactus? Do you understand the catastrophic universal implications of possessing a shape-shifting, time-traveling device? Even Rob Gronkowski knows that isn’t to be toyed with. You could turn it into a separate moon any time you like and then the Earth would be fucking DESTROYED by the additional gravitation. You cannot be trusted with this at age 7. If such a thing existed and were affordable, I wouldn’t have children. I would have a SPACE BROTHEL. There’s a reason that we have the laws of physics in place. And you expect this thing to be portable as well? You cannot have this.

“1,000 bucks.” This is Christmas, not an Italian wedding. Uncle Vito isn’t gonna slip you an envelope in between stints at the raw bar. We put thought into our gifts here. You want cash? Clear the spiders out of the attic. I’ll give you three bucks for it. A thousand dollars. Jesus Christ. I’m sorry, but you cannot have this.


“Monster High ear buds.” This is Monster High, and it’s completely fucked. It’s like someone at Mattel held up a market research study and screamed, “Our Barbie dolls aren’t causing as much body dysmorphia in children as they used to! MAKE ME A LINE OF BULIMIC VAMPIRE DOLLS OR YOU’RE ALL FUCKING FIRED.” How are these toys even legal? It’s like handing your child a Steve Madden ad. Anyway, these are cheap, so maybe I’ll get them if you are good. FUN FACT: A child could go on a five-state killing spree and no parent would be heartless enough to actually bail on Christmas presents. The nice list has worse grade inflation than Harvard.


“A pet puppy. Border collie with a peacesign coller, and a leash.” NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Hell no. Do you see any borders in this house that need patrolling, apart from the bathroom door when Daddy is having his alone time? No. Do you see any sheep that need herding? No. Are you gonna give a shit about walking it or feeding it after, oh, three days? No. All of the work will be left to me. This site says, “Border collies can become aggressive due to fear. … Do not approach or handle your dog suddenly from behind.” Great. Fucking great. That is the exact wrong breed for a human child. Children will sneak up behind dogs and bash a tambourine into their heads because that’s funny. You cannot have this dog.

December 7, 2013

The NFC North QBs in picture form and “Rudolph the Vikings Tight End”

Filed under: Football, Humour — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:54

After seeing several amusing retweets by @ArifHasanDN, I started following @DrawPlayDave for entertaining little things like his pictoral explanation of the quarterbacks of the NFC North and his Twitter Christmas song for Kyle Rudolph:

DrawPlayDave - The NFC North

December 25, 2012

The market failure of Christmas

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: — Nicholas @ 09:44

Not to encourage miserliness and general miserability at Christmastime, but here’s a realistic take on the deadweight loss of Christmas gift-giving:

In strict economic terms, the most efficient gift is cold, hard cash, but exchanging equivalent sums of money lacks festive spirit and so people take their chance on the high street. This is where the market fails. Buyers have sub-optimal information about your wants and less incentive than you to maximise utility. They cannot always be sure that you do not already have the gift they have in mind, nor do they know if someone else is planning to give you the same thing. And since the joy is in the giving, they might be more interested in eliciting a fleeting sense of amusement when the present is opened than in providing lasting satisfaction. This is where Billy Bass comes in.

But note the reason for this inefficient spending. Resources are misallocated because one person has to decide what someone else wants without having the knowledge or incentive to spend as carefully as they would if buying for themselves. The market failure of Christmas is therefore an example of what happens when other people spend money on our behalf. The best person to buy things for you is you. Your friends and family might make a decent stab at it. Distant bureaucrats who have never met us – and who are spending other people’s money – perhaps can’t.

So when you open your presents next week and find yourself with another garish tie or an awful bottle of perfume, consider this: If your loved ones don’t know you well enough to make spending choices for you, what chance does the government have?

Repost: ‘Tis the season to hate the senders of boastful holiday letters

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Gregg Easterbrook receives the perfect, perfect holiday letter:

Don’t you hate boastful holidays letters about other people’s fascinating lives and perfect children? Below is one Nan and I received last week.

Dear Friends,

What a lucky break the CEO sent his personal jet to pick me up from Istanbul; there’s plenty of room, since I have the entire aircraft to myself, to take out the laptop and write our annual holiday letter. Just let me ask the attendant for a better vintage of champagne, and I’ll begin.

It’s been another utterly hectic year for Chad and I and our remarkable children, yet nurturing and horizon-expanding. It’s hard to know where the time goes. Well, a lot of it is spent in the car.

Rachel is in her senior year at Pinnacle-Upon-Hilltop Academy, and it seems just yesterday she was being pushed around in the stroller by our British nanny. Rachel placed first this fall in the state operatic arias competition. Chad was skeptical when I proposed hiring a live-in voice tutor on leave from the Lyric Opera, but it sure paid off! Rachel’s girls’ volleyball team lost in the semifinals owing to totally unfair officiating, but as I have told her, she must learn to overcome incredible hardship in life.

Now the Big Decision looms — whether to take the early admission offer from Harvard or spend a year at Julliard. Plus the whole back of her Mercedes is full of dance-company brochures as she tries to decide about the summer.

Nicholas is his same old self, juggling the karate lessons plus basketball, soccer, French horn, debate club, archeology field trips, poetry-writing classes and his volunteer work. He just got the Yondan belt, which usually requires nine years of training after the Shodan belt, but prodigies can do it faster, especially if (not that I really believe this!) they are reincarnated deities.

Modeling for Gap cuts into Nick’s schoolwork, but how could I deprive others of the chance to see him? His summer with Outward Bound in the Andes was a big thrill, especially when all the expert guides became disoriented and he had to lead the party out. But you probably read about that in the newspapers.

What can I say regarding our Emily? She’s just been reclassified as EVVSUG&T — “Extremely Very Very Super Ultra Gifted and Talented.” The preschool retained a full-time teacher solely for her, to keep her challenged. Educational institutions are not allowed to discriminate against the gifted anymore, not like when I was young.

Yesterday Rachel sold her first still-life. It was shown at one of the leading galleries without the age of the artist disclosed. The buyers were thrilled when they learned!

Then there was the arrival of our purebred owczarek nizinny puppy. He’s the little furry guy in the enclosed family holiday portrait by Annie Leibovitz. Because our family mission statement lists cultural diversity as a core value, we named him Mandela.

Chad continues to prosper and blossom. He works a few hours a day and spends the rest of the time supervising restoration of the house — National Trust for Historic Preservation rules are quite strict. Corporate denial consulting is a perfect career niche for Chad. Fortune 500 companies call him all the time. There’s a lot to deny, and Chad is good at it.

Me? Oh, I do this and that. I feel myself growing and flowering as a change agent. I yearn to empower the stakeholders. This year I was promoted to COO and invited to the White House twice, but honestly, beading in the evening means just as much to me. I was sorry I had to let Carmen go on the same day I brought home my $14.6 million bonus, but she had broken a Flora Danica platter and I caught her making a personal call.

Chad and I got away for a week for a celebration of my promotion. We rented this quaint five-star villa on the Corsican coast. Just to ourselves — we bought out all 40 rooms so it would be quiet and contemplative and we could ponder rising above materialism.

Our family looks to the New Year for rejuvenation and enrichment. Chad and I will be taking the children to Steamboat Springs over spring break, then in June I take the girls to Paris, Rome and Seville while Chad and Nicholas accompany Richard Gere to Tibet.

Then the kids are off to camps in Maine, and before we know it, we will be packing two cars to drive Rachel’s things to college. And of course I don’t count Davos or Sundance or all the routine excursions.

I hope your year has been as interesting as ours.

Jennifer, Chad, Rachel, Nicholas & Emily

(The above is inspired by a satirical Christmas letter I did for The New Republic a decade ago. I figure it’s OK to recycle a joke once every 10 years.)

December 24, 2012

Repost: Hey Kids! Did you get your paperwork in on time?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!

December 20, 2012

Did the Germans and the British really play soccer at Christmas in 1914?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:14

In the Guardian, Scott Murray and John Ashdown discuss the rather amazing events of Christmas Day, 1914 between the combatants in France:

To borrow (and then misuse) one of the oldest football zingers in the book: in the middle of a fight, a football match broke out. A report in the Guardian on Boxing Day 1914 described how in one region “every acre of meadow under any sort of cover in the rear of the lines was taken possession of for football”. In their letters home, British soldiers told of shaking hands with their German counterparts and swapping cigarettes. A Scottish brigadier described how the Germans “came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men.”

While there was undoubtedly continued gunfire along many sections of the front, most soldiers appear to have laid down their arms and called an unofficial truce that day, with fußball uppermost in the minds of many. A letter published on New Year’s Day from a British officer reads: “I hear our fellows played the Germans at football on Christmas Day. Our own pet enemies remarked they would like a game, but as the ground in our part is all root crops and much cut up by ditches, and as, moreover, we had not got a football, we had to call it off.” A letter in the Times, meanwhile, from a major reported that a German regiment “had a football match with the Saxons [regiment], who beat them 3-2″.

One match appears to have started between the Germans and a regiment from Cheshire, one of whom years later explained how a ball suddenly came hurtling over the top from the German side. “I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee — nothing like the soccer you see on television.”

December 16, 2012

Origins of ten Christmas traditions

Filed under: History, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:39

A lot of the “traditional” Christmas things don’t have an obvious link to the season (aside from long usage):

It’s the Christmas season again, and before we get sick of the eggnog, fruitcake, and Christmas music played ad nauseum, we get to enjoy it for a couple weeks. But have you ever wondered where some of our weird Christmas traditions come from? I mean, we tell our kids that a fat man is coming into our house at night; we bring in trees in to shed all over the carpet; and we kiss under parasitic plants – all in the holiday spirit. How the hell are these even related to Jesus, whose birthday we’re supposed to be celebrating?

Well, sit back, pull in some eggnog and gingerbread, and take a ride on the 10-entry, Listverse sleigh!

H/T to Ian Geldard for the link.

Older Posts »
« « Stephen Gordon on “The Carney Affair”| Queen Victoria: not a model mother » »

Powered by WordPress