Why Did NORAD Start Tracking Santa?

Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

Shoup was stunned for a second. This must be a joke, he thought. He looked around the room, expecting to see his men laughing at their prank, but found stony, serious faces all around.

He realized that there was “some screwup on the phones,” and decided to play along.

“Yes, I am,” he answered. “Have you been a good little girl?"

The girl explained to Shoup that she would leave some food out for both Santa and his reindeer and then recited her Christmas list to him. Shoup thanked her for her hospitality, noting that Santa had a lot of traveling to do. How did he get to all those houses in one night, anyway, she asked.

Apparently, that was classified intelligence in Shoup’s mind. “That’s the magic of Christmas,” he said. If anyone asks her about that, he said, she should tell them to stop asking so many questions or Santa would put them on the naughty list.

“That red phone, boy,” Shoup later recalled. “That’s either the old man—the four star [General Partridge]—or the Pentagon. I was all shook up.”

The red phone would keep ringing throughout the night. Not because of Soviet nukes or fighter planes heading toward U.S. soil, but because of a typo.

That day, Shoup would later learn, a local newspaper 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.

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.

Harry Shoup passed away in 2009, remembered by his peers and the public as the “Santa Colonel” who gave a special gift to millions of kids.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

What Makes Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

iStock.com/JoeChristensen
iStock.com/JoeChristensen

By tilting its head slightly to the side, a dog can melt the heart of even the most hardened cat person. Most everyone finds this behavior adorable, but few people can explain what compels a dog to do it. Are dogs somehow aware of the effect they have on humans, using a cute trick to exploit us for affection?

Experts say the real answer has more to do with your dog's ability to empathize. Dogs are impressively good at reading and responding to our body language and vocal cues. When you're lecturing your pooch for taking food off the counter, they're taking it all in even if the literal message gets lost in translation. Same goes for when you’re giving your pup praise. Dogs are capable of recognizing certain parts of human language, so when they cock their heads as you speak to them, it's possible they're listening for specific words and inflections they associate with fun activities like meals and playtime.

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The head-tilt may also have something to do with how the canine ear is constructed. Even though dogs sense frequencies humans are incapable of hearing, their ability to detect the source of sounds is less precise than ours. A dog's brain calculates extremely minuscule differences between the time it takes a sound to reach each ear, so a simple change in head position could provide them with useful sensory information. When dogs tilt their heads, some experts believe they are adjusting their pinnae, or outer ears, in order to better pinpoint the location of a noise.

Stanley Coren of Psychology Today believes that vision also has something to do with this behavior. If you try holding your fist in front of your nose, you can get a fair sense of what it’s like to view the world with a muzzle. When watching someone speak, the "muzzle" will block the lower part of their face from view, and if you tilt your head to one side you will be able to see it more clearly. In addition to being able to perceive emotional cues in our voices, dog can also read our facial expressions. When cocking their heads to the side, Coren suggests that dogs are trying to get a better view of our mouths, where our most expressive facial cues originate.

If your dog is a frequent head-tilter, this could mean that they're especially empathetic. Some experts have reported that dogs who are more socially apprehensive are less likely to tilt their heads when spoken to. But if your dog doesn't display this behavior, there's no need to automatically label them as a canine sociopath (especially if they have pointy ears or a flatter snout). And even if the head tilt does come from instinct, the more owners respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs are to do it in search of praise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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