Tweet Santa? System might crumble under demand

Q. What if all the world's couple of billion kids tweeted Santa at the same time? Could the social network bear up under the weight? What if the Jolly Old Gent also had a Facebook account? –M. Zuckerberg
A. All communications systems have limits, points out Purdue's Douglas Comer. For example, the old Bell Telephone system was designed to handle all the calls on Mother's Day, but it could become overloaded and a caller would hear the message, "All circuits are busy; try again later."

The Internet, however, is more analogous to a highway system where there may be a traffic jam at 5pm, but eventually all drivers get home. Twitter doesn't have a dedicated network but uses the Internet and the cell phone network instead, both shared with other uses. You don't need a dedicated circuit for each tweet. Rather, senders take turns.

But still, if billions of kids tried to tweet Santa at the same time, Twitter would become overloaded. This happened the day Apple CEO Steve Jobs died, when the tweet rate peaked at 10,000 per second, says Case-Western Reserve doctoral student Tom Callahan. Even if the kids spread their tweets out over 24 hours, the average tweet rate would still be more than twice that peak, meaning many tweets would not get through.

As to Facebook, it has more capacity than Twitter, with 2 billion-plus posts liked or commented on every day. If, in the spirit of the season, we're willing to relax the time frame to a 24-hour period to accommodate a world full of kids, then "clearly Facebook would be well-equipped to handle the whole range of comments on Santa's wall."

Santa's distant historical relative was a fourth- century bishop in what is now Turkey, renowned for his generosity to all in need and for his love of children. People eventually began giving presents in his name on his feast day, December 6. Today he's known as "St. Nicholas." Or should that be "Saint Nicholas"? –J.O. Elf
The rule is to spell out the word "Saint" for people and personages, says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage. The abbreviation "St." is more properly used for places, as in St. Louis, Missouri and St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

One thing you don't want to talk about this holiday season is "gifting" your wife with a diamond necklace or your husband with a new computer. Why not? –N. Webster
Because "gifting" is not as good as receiving, adds communications scholar Mark Davidson. Though "gift" has a long history as a verb, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "gifting" in Modern English is irredeemably tainted (as is its derivative “giftable”) by its association with the language of advertising (as in “Gift her with this copper warming plate”)." The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage warns that the verbified "gift," though dating back to the 17th century, "has drawn scorn and even expressions of despair from some current commentators on language."

And here's something else you doubly don't want to do: gift someone with a "free gift," as is commonly used by advertisers for emphasis. That's certainly no excuse for the rest of us to forget that a gift by definition is something bestowed without compensation. "Whether ANY gift is entirely free– free of strings, free of expectation of reciprocity– is another question," Davidson notes.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada or anywhere else in North America, what will you experience on December 22, 2011, for the last time in your life? –A. Pagan
A December 22 solstice, or the shortest day that marks the beginning of winter, says Bob Berman in Strange Universe. The year 2011 is the last year this will occur on December 22– hereafter and for the rest of our lives the winter solstice will fall on December 21.
The great irony of the solstice is that at the moment winter starts, days begin lengthening and solar intensity starts growing. And when the calendar marks the summer solstice, that's the day when days start getting shorter.
With this installment of holiday fun, the self-syndicated Strange But True column ends its ten-year run in the Hook. Email your thanks or questions to brothers Bill and Rich at

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