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Hacking Santa

For the past two years, whenever Josh McCormick went Christmas shopping at his local Wal-Mart in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a five-foot-tall audio-animatronic Santa Claus, spouting baritone holiday bromides, was there to greet him. At first, McCormick, a computer whiz with a yen for techie tinkering, was intrigued by this jolly old android. But, after multiple visits to the store, Saint Nick started to get annoying.

"Every time I went, it hadn’t changed," he writes via e-mail. "I wouldn’t have bought one to put in my own home if all it did was what I could watch it do in the store for free. It would drive me crazy." So McCormick got an idea. He forked over $49.84 for the Kringle robot. Then, like a mischievous workshop elf with a knowledge of microcircuitry, he hacked it.

First he found the "personality chip," and the tangle of red and green wires secreted in Santa’s shiny left boot. Then he set to work soldering, rewiring, soldering some more, and augmenting those mechanical guts with a Parallax BS2P40 BASIC stamp, a Quadravox QV306M4P playback module, and a couple 24LC515 EEPROM chips. Pretty simple, really. (McCormick annotates the process in exhaustive detail on his Web site, but doesn’t think the instructions are detailed enough for the non-tech-savvy to understand.)

After hours of toying around and having overcome several near-disastrous setbacks, McCormick had a Bad Santa of his very own, one who uttered wicked witticisms — in a voice sounding suspiciously like McCormick’s — such as "I save the best toys for the rich children; poor children can’t be trusted with nice toys," and "I can give you free stuff because I skimp on elf health care! HO HO HO!" before jiggling merrily with a tipsy twist.

"Same is boring," says McCormick. "Mass production is boring. Different is good. Mass customization is wonderful. And that’s why people hack things. To get them to do neat things that their original designers never expected."

McCormick, 33, is a systems administrator for a Fortune 100 company — a job, in other words, that involves ensuring the reliability and stability of computer systems. "You might see some irony in that," he says. "If I were charged with managing an animatronic Santa Claus, my job would be to prevent other people from doing exactly what I’ve done."

But he had some big ideas. Initially, he’d considered nailing his Santa Claus to a cross, and "having him ask for a sacrifice of milk and cookies for your sins." It would be a "powerful way to explore the mixed and conflicting meanings of what we call the holiday season," but he decided it might not go over too well in Tulsa, a city sometimes called the Buckle of the Bible Belt.

So instead McCormick asks another question: "Who controls Santa Claus?" The corporations, of course. "You’ve got the manufacturers creating Santas of all shapes, sizes, and purposes. You’ve got the media companies who create stories in print, film, and video about Santa Claus. These corporate forces control Santa through their wide influence. We hear what they authorize Santa to say."

McCormick toyed with the idea of bringing the hacked Santa back to Wal-Mart, surreptitiously replacing the store’s display version. "It would make for some hilarious moments, and probably make a few kids cry," he says. But, again, fear of repercussions stayed his hand. (Instead, he put video of the Santa on his Web site.)

"Another idea would be simply to return the Santa and let them put it back on the shelf to sell to some unsuspecting family. What a surprise that would have been!"

Indeed. One can only imagine little Jr., eyes tear-filled, mouth agape, upon hearing, "Hello, little one. Your parents told me to give you lots of presents because they feel guilty about their impending divorce!" Or, "Last year’s Rudolph was eaten by a polar bear, so I bought a new one from Wal-Mart! Such wonderful things at Wal-Mart." Or, "The polar icecaps are melting. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. What have you people done? Coal for everyone this year."

Learn more at http://members.cox.net.nyud.net:8090/jmccorm/santa.html

Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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