December 2008 Archives

NORAD Tracks Santa

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NORAD tracks Santa. Too bad this wasn't around when my kids were awaiting Santa.

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And the history of this 50-year tradition:

Last year, NORAD's Santa tracking center answered 94,000 calls and responded to 10,000 e-mails. About 10.6 million visitors went to the Web site, which can be viewed in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese.

NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears, Roebuck & Co. ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number was one digit off, and the first child to get through reached the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.


Col. Harry W. Shoup answered.

Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, said her dad, now 91, was surprised to hear that the little voice on the other end thought he was Santa.

"Dad thought, `What the heck? This must be some kind of code,'" said Van Keuren, 59.

Shoup, described by his daughter as "just a nut about Christmas," didn't want to break the boy's heart, so he sounded a booming "Ho, ho, ho!" and pretended to be Santa Claus.

Enough calls followed that Shoup assigned an officer to answer them while the problem was fixed. But Shoup and the staff he was directing to "locate" Santa on radar ended up embracing the idea. NORAD picked up the tradition when it was formed 50 years ago.

Standing in someone else's shoes ... almost literally

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Swedish scientists have demonstrated one of the brain's more unusual abilities: the brain, "when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own."

The technique is simple. A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist's containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist's arms, and below is the scientist's body.

To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other's hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and "feel" the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete. In a series of studies, using mannequins and stroking both bodies' bellies simultaneously, the Karolinska researchers have found that men and women say they not only feel they have taken on the new body, but also unconsciously cringe when it is poked or threatened.

In previous work, neuroscientists have induced various kinds of out-of-body experiences using similar techniques. The brain is so easily tricked, they say, precisely because it has spent a lifetime in its own body. It builds models of the world instantaneously, based on lived experience and using split-second assumptions -- namely, that the eyes are attached to the skull.

The article goes on to discuss possible therapeutic applications, using results developed from virtual reality studies to outline what might be possible.

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