In the run-up to the Christmas holidays, Jessica Elkin casts an eye over Santas data set
I would hate to state the obvious, but unfortunately I am an enthusiast when it comes to anything that is decked in tinsel, wrapped in festive paper, wearing a flimsy purple crown or filled with puzzlingly named not-actual-meat mincemeat. Therefore, good readers, I feel a strong urge to point out that it is, once again, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
In between general puerile excitement and eyes-lit-up wonderment at window displays, decorative street lighting and seasonal party invitations, my thoughts have wandered towards Father Christmas, that Coke-guzzling, beardy present-giver. Not long from now, he will be hand-delivering delightful gifts to good children far and wide. The naughty ones will get coal, but no one really minds that because if they wanted proper presents they should have behaved themselves.
Now, I think Santa Claus does an admirable job in difficult working conditions - some of us struggle to choose presents for three family members let alone billions of children - but I have been a little troubled by his gift policy.
Be good, for goodness sake
It seems safe to assume that a child needn't be perfectly behaved 100% of the time. Case in point: I once accidentally tied myself to a pipe in the playground and said I'd been left there by an invented third party to avoid the embarrassment of admitting I'd done it myself - yet my stocking was still loaded with chocolate coins and knick-knacks. So, where is the line drawn in this good-bad dichotomy, and why has it never been specified?
It doesn't feel right not to delineate the rules. One might rather suspect that the same people who choose to hide the actuarial examination pass marks were also involved in Lapland policy-making. Come on, the kids might say, I'd like to know how good my behaviour needs to be so that I can scrape my way into a full stocking while secretly staying up to watch TV past the watershed.
What if little Billy is an angel all year but in a fit of pre-Christmas zeal eats all of the Christmas pudding himself, thus ruining the festive meal for the family? What if Matilda is consistently a horrid brat but has a sudden change of heart in November and decides to devote her time to helping elderly ladies across the road and rescuing kittens from trees? Gifts or coal? And at what point does Santa make these decisions - surely he needs to know in advance so that he makes the right number of presents? Does this not truncate his data set?
O, come on, all ye faithful
Then again, as with the actuarial examiners, I feel quite sure that Santa has put plenty of thought into devising fair ways of analysing performance. Perhaps he decides how many presents he wants to give, making it easier to deal with production numbers in his toy factory, and assigns children a goodness rating before doling out presents proportionally. After all, this is (roughly) how the Pension Protection Fund decides what levies to charge individual pension schemes, and it seems to work well.
Of course, this still doesn't answer how Santa would assign the ratings in the first place. He could have categories of goodness (friendship, diligence, charity), give a child a rating in each category and create a weighted average depending on what importance he assigns to each category. And he could predict in advance how many presents are needed by getting CT6-qualified actuarial elves to calculate gift reserves. There would still be a fair amount of subjectivity here, but, as with longevity predictions, all anyone can do is be prudent, check the calculations and hope for the best. Presumably, the elves would be doing all of the legwork and Santa would peer review.
I know what you're thinking. Does it really matter? Santa has been doing this a long, long time. He knows what he's about. It's like that with actuaries: we produce numbers and explain their significance, but others must take it in good faith that we know what we're talking about. Santa is an expert at what he does: specifically, making moral sense of the present-giving. And while it may be disgruntling for a child not to know what his 'goodness' pass mark is, all he really has to do is try his best and cross his fingers. A lot of the time, hard work pays off.
And if it doesn't well, fear not, there's always next year.Merry Christmas to one and all, and here's to all a good set of exam results.