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Friday, December 22, 2017

Before Seinfeld: The Origins of Festivus, plus my favorite Festivus song

"Happy Festivus" is the traditional greeting of Festivus, a holiday featured in "The Strike" episode in Season 9 of Seinfeld. The episode first aired on December 18, 1997. Since then many people have been inspired by this zany, offbeat Seinfeld holiday and they now celebrate Festivus as any other holiday.

According to the Seinfeld model, Festivus is celebrated each year on December 23rd. However many people celebrate it other times in December and even at other times throughout the year.

The slogan of Festivus is "A Festivus for the rest of us!" The usual holiday tradition of a tree is manifested in an unadorned aluminum pole, which is in direct contrast to normal holiday materialism. Those attending Festivus may also participate in the "Airing of Grievances" which is an opportunity to tell others how they have disappointed you in the past year, followed by a Festivus dinner, and then completed by the "Feats of Strength" where the head of the household must be pinned. All of these traditions are based upon the events in the Seinfeld episode, however, strangely enough, Festivus has roots that pre-date Seinfeld.


The Festivus idea originally came to Seinfeld writer Dan O'Keefe from a tradition started by his father Daniel O'Keefe. The original Festivus had all the markings of a crazy fun holiday. There were taped recordings and even a "clock in a bag".

The tradition of Festivus dated back to a time when Dan O'Keefe (Senior) had discovered the Festivus holiday in a book, published in 1966, that outlined obscure holidays. The book described many of the features later included in the Seinfeld episode. He was also inspired inspired by the Samuel Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape, whose protagonist tapes himself speaking at different times in his life.

The original Airing of Grievances was spoken into a tape recorder, and the O'Keefe family even retains some of the tapes.

The following is taken from a 2004 article, based on an interview with Dan O'Keefe and his father:
"It was entirely more peculiar than on the show," the younger Mr. O'Keefe said from the set of the sitcom "Listen Up," where he is now a writer. There was never a pole, but there were airings of grievances into a tape recorder and wrestling matches between Daniel and his two brothers, among other rites.
"There was a clock in a bag," said Mr. O'Keefe, 36, adding that he does not know what it symbolized.
"Most of the Festivi had a theme," he said. "One was, `Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?' Another was, `Too easily made glad?'"
His father, a former editor at Reader's Digest, said the first Festivus took place in February 1966, before any of his children were born, as a celebration of the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Deborah. The word "Festivus" just popped into his head, he said from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
The holiday evolved during the 1970's, when the elder Mr. O'Keefe began doing research for his book "Stolen Lightning" (Vintage 1983), a work of sociology that explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures.
Here's the clip from Seinfeld:

Festivus songs, including my favorite:

It's a Pole (sung to the tune of Let it Snow)

Oh the Festivus party is starting,
And the guests are just arriving.
What's that thing over there?
It's a pole! It's a pole! It's a pole!

It doesn't require decorating,
Because tinsel is way too distracting.
It's unadorned and made of aluminum,
It's a pole! It's a pole! It's a pole!

Finally we air our grievances,
There's problems with all you people.
But if you really do it right,
Somebody will be sobbing tonight.

There's still more fun to unfold,
Cause it's time to pin the head of the household.
The feats of strength will happen now!
Move the pole! Move the pole! Move the pole!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The NORAD Santa tracker, plus the story of why NORAD started tracking Santa

On December 24, 1955, a local newspaper in Colorado ran a Sears Roebuck ad inviting kids to contact Santa. 

“Hey Kiddies!” the ad read. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” The ad listed Santa’s direct line, but the number in the copy was off by a digit. Instead of connecting to the special line Sears set up with a Santa impersonator, kids wound up calling a secret air defense emergency number.

On December 24, 1955, the red telephone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado began ringing.
The red phone meant it was either the Pentagon or CONAD commander in chief General Earle Partridge on the other end, and their reason for calling would probably not be pleasant.
U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the center, rushed over to the phone and grabbed it.
“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup,” he barked.
Nothing but silence in response.
“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said.
Silence again.
“Sir? Can you read me alright?”
Finally, a soft voice on the other end.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” a little girl asked.
After a few more Santa-related calls, Shoup pulled a few airmen aside and gave them a special assignment. They would answer the phone and give callers—barring the Pentagon, we assume—Santa’s current location as they “tracked” him on their radar.

From that night on, tracking Santa became a yearly tradition, carried on by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when it replaced CONAD in 1958. A new phone number, separate from the red phone, was established and publicized, and people were invited to call in and find out how close Santa was to their home. Every Christmas Eve, military service members staff phones and email accounts and the Santa Tracker Twitter account to keep kids up to date on Santa’s whereabouts.

Thursday links

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year

Christmas Gift Ideas from the 19th Century.

A collection of downloadable templates for Star Wars snowflakes.

Classic Christmas drunken fruitcake recipe: Check the whiskey. Pour 1 level cup and drink. Repeat.

The Long Lost World of the Luxury Flying Boat.

Loud orgies of Mexican fish could deafen dolphins, say scientists.

ICYMI, Monday's links are here, and include the Scientific American guide to cheating in the Olympics, the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight, how to have a British Christmas, and it's not just humans - 'High-Ranking Male Primates Keep Wafting Their Sex Stink at Females, Who Hate It".

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year

In the Northern Hemisphere the December solstice (wiki) marks the longest night and shortest day of the year with the latest dawn and the sun at its lowest point in the sky. I seem to remember that when I was a kid, the first day of each new season was always considered to be the 21st (of March for Spring, June for Summer, September for Autumn, and December for Winter). I guess it's more accurate now.

In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

~William Blake

Winter is the king of showmen,
Turning tree stumps into snowmen
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing,
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.

~ Ogden Nash

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

~ John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

“Nothing burns like the cold.”

~ George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part or that. She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment. Lately we had a leafy wilderness; now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow. Some green she thinks so good for our eyes that, like blue, she never banishes it entirely from our eyes, but has created evergreens.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The winter solstice (wiki) produces the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, when darkness descends over the land to its greatest extent. For centuries, humankind has greeted the solstice with mixed emotions - with fear that the darkness might not really recede; and with hope that the cycling of the seasons would again reassert itself. 

Of the winter season, American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) complained,
"Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamn,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamn."*
* N.B. This is actually a parody of an anonymous 13th-century English song:
"Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med,
And springeth the wude nu.
Sing cuccu."
Here's a brief explanation on the mechanics of solstices and equinoxes:

And a two minute NatGeo video:

The two revolutions, I mean the annual revolutions of the declination and of the centre of the Earth, are not completely equal; that is the return of the declination to its original value is slightly ahead of the period of the centre. Hence it necessarily follows that the equinoxes and solstices seem to anticipate their timing, not because the sphere of the fixed stars moves to the east, but rather the equatorial circle moves to the west, being at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic in proportion to the declination of the axis of the terrestrial globe.

Also at this time of year:

Saturnalia (wiki):

The winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days in In Ancient Rome. These Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE to honor Saturn, the father of the gods.

Saturnalia by Antoine-Francois Callet (1741-1823) Musée du Louvre
The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.

The festival was characterized as a free-for-all when all discipline and orderly behavior was ignored.

Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.

The Saturnalia would degenerate into a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the term 'saturnalia', meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry. A mock 'king' was even chosen from a group of slaves or convicts and was allowed to behave as he pleased for seven days (until his eventual ritual execution).

Halcyon Days (wiki):

The seven days preceding, and the seven days following the shortest day, or the winter-solstice, were called by the ancients the Halcyon Days. This phrase, so familiar as expressive of a period of tranquility and happiness, is derived from a fable, that during the period just indicated, while the halcyon bird or king-fisher was breeding, the sea was always calm, and might be navigated in perfect security by the mariner. The name halcyon is derived from two Greek words: the sea & to conceive; and, according to the poetic fiction, the bird was represented as hatching her eggs on a floating nest, in the midst of the waters. Dryden thus alludes to the notion:

'Amidst our arms as quiet you shall be,
As halcyons brooding on a winter's sea.'

More on the Greek myth of Halcyon and Ceyx here.

Related posts: 

Autumnal equinox science, videos, quotes, poems, Vivaldi and Copernicus.

Spring is here: science, myths, "spring spheres" and more.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Monday links

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903.

Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?

How to Have a British Christmas.

So, it's not just humans - High-Ranking Male Primates Keep Wafting Their Sex Stink at Females, Who Hate It.

5 Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Someone: Backed By Research.

ICYMI, most recent links are here, and include how rats conquered New York City, a ‘smart condom’ that will give you more insight into your sex life than you (probably) want, and calculations showing that, if spiders worked together, they could eat all the humans in a year.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to Have a British Christmas

Siobhan Thompson, explainer of all things British, on how to celebrate Christmas like a Brit
From explosives at the dinner table (aka Christmas crackers) to burning letters to Santa, Siobhan Thompson looks at 10 ways Christmas differs in Britain. (Notably, they don't call them the holidays.)

Previous post: Video: If Shakespearean Insults Were Used Today - 

Here's a day-by-day Shakespearean Insults 2018 Calendar.

This Shakespearean Insult Generator has been around since early internet days. This generate-your-own version is newer and has a heck of a lot of possibilities - choose one item from each of the four drop-down columns.

December 17 is the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight

For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.

~ Wilbur Wright (letter to Octave Chanute, 13 May 1900)


~ Orville Wright (telegram to Milton Wright, 17 December 1903)

There are no signposts in the sky to show a man has passed that way before. There are no channels marked. The flier breaks each second into uncharted seas.

~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001) (North to the Orient, Ch. 1)

Per aspera ad astra.

~ familiar Latin tag, often used as a motto

(Through adversity to the stars.)

Today is the anniversary of mankind's first powered flight, achieved at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903 by pioneer American aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright (wiki) (1867-1912 and 1871-1948, respectively). The Wrights - Dayton, Ohio bicycle mechanics - become interested in aviation as an avocation and embarked on a systematic experimental program that eventually led to their extraordinary success - of which movable wing parts and a lightweight engine were the key elements. 

Via BrainFeed:
Prior To the powered flight, the brothers completed over one thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill. These flying skills were a crucial component of their invention. Through those experiments, they had solved the problem of sustained lift and more importantly they could control an aircraft while in flight. The brothers felt they were ready to truly fly. But first, the Wrights had to power their aircraft.
Zoomable version of the cutaway here.
Gasoline engine technology had recently advanced to where its use in airplanes was feasible. Unable to find a suitable lightweight commercial engine, the brothers designed their own. Using their air tunnel data, they designed the first efficient airplane propeller, one of their most original and purely scientific achievements. (Much more on the engine design here)
The Wright brothers were finally ready on December 14th. In order to decide who would fly first, the brother tossed a coin. Wilbur won the coin toss, but lost his chance to be the first to fly when he oversteered with the elevator after leaving the launching rail. The flyer, climbed too steeply, stalled, and dove into the sand. The first flight would have to wait on repairs.
Three days later, on December 17, they were ready for the second attempt. Now it was Orville’s turn. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings. The flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. He kept it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail. Into the 27-mph wind, the groundspeed had been 6.8 mph, for a total airspeed of 34 mph. The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. Wilbur’s second flight – the fourth and last of the day – was an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.
The most striking aspect of this anniversary is how quickly the Wright Brothers' invention led to the air and space age.  Man reached the moon only 66 years later - less than a human lifetime - and this remarkable acceleration of mankind's ability to achieve its most daunting goals is both exhilarating and frightening. 

Because satellites now do it so much better, French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry** (1900-1944) seems almost naive for remarking in 1939 that

"The aeroplane has revealed to us the true face of the earth."

Footage of later Wright Brothers' flights and an explanation of the history and mechanics: 

* N.B. Apparently, the actual time duration of that first flight was 59 seconds.

** A renowned flier, who described his experiences in vivid prose, Saint-Exupéry lost his life flying for the Free French in World War II. His most famous book is the children's story, Le Petite Prince ("The Little Prince").