The Long Tail of Trick-or-Treaters: 2006

Trick-or-treating in West Chester, PA starts precisely at six PM. If you are outside, you can hear the kids counting down. It ends at eight, and in about two hours we hand out about eight bags of candy. From six to seven, the little ones toddle up the stairs and peer shyly into the candy pail; from seven to eight, the tweens and college students bound up the stairs and… well, they peer shyly into the pail, too; it’s a pretty sedate crowd. Since I am a huge fan of Meaningless Statistical Analysis, I take a census:

  • Total trick-or-treaters at our house: 116
  • Number of distinct costumes: 71
  • Highest representations: football player and princess, at six sightings each.
  • Also popular: ghost (five), witch (five), and cowgirl (four)
  • Pareto Distribution balances at about 3 people per costume. That is to say, the number of people who arrived in a costume worn by at least two other people was about equal to the number of people who arrived in a costume worn by only one or no other people.

So as a marketer, this means that I should immediately start a tiny store selling only football helmets, pointy princess hats and low-cut glittery tops. That latter because West Chester University students also go door to door, accounting for seventeen visits, or about fifteen percent of the trick-or-treater population. The most popular WCU costume, “Woman of Loose Virtue”, accounted for six visits. Seven if you include Marilyn Monroe (Male, 1 visit) in that category. Marilyn wore a pink ballgown, though, so she doesn’t fit in my business model.

I’m quite sure the distribution curve of Halloween costume spending has been done to a nicety by marketers with backgrounds both in statistical analysis and real estate; witness the efficiency with which preda-tailer Halloween Adventure takes over entire continents’ worth of failed big-box stores around this time of year. Halloween Adventure has been doing long-tail marketing long before it was a buzzword: selling small unit volumes of a deep inventory at high margins on items with a low opportunity cost (I wonder if the entire store’s worth of inventory packs into the panel truck parked outside; I bet it does.) It’s a good business model, and they serve an important evolutionary purpose, just like cheetahs do on herds of zebras. I’m sure that when your giant Jo-Ann Craft Super Megastore Just Opened starts getting visits from the HA panel truck, it’s a sign that the end is near, like when the undertaker in a western starts measuring the hero for a coffin: “Ahh yes, we’ll put the Six Foot Robotic Butlers over HERE when you lose your lease. Did you know that last year, this was all farmland?”

Given my feelings when I see a new Halloween Adventure seize on an empty big-box retail store, it was nice to see how MOST of the costumes that we counted actually were not commercial– MOST of the costumes on both sides of the Pareto point were roll-your-own homemades. Hurrah for homemade costumes!

MY favorites were “piece of paper”, which consisted of notebook lines painted on a smock, and a family from the next block that came dressed as Santa Claus, two elves, a Christmas tree — and a pale-faced, non-Marley ghost. That middle-child boy must be the rebel in the family, and he is going to achieve Great Things.

Lydia was a ballerina in a practice skirt. Kate looped satin ribbons around her sneakers and laced them around her calves; I held them up with scotch tape. This was her first time trick-or-treating, and she had a great time.

Here’s the list of all the costumes I saw, since I assume that four hundred years from now my yearly trick-or-treat census will turn out to be an incredibly important historical record:

2006 Halloween Census
COSTUME: # of visits
Football Player: 6
Princess: 6
Woman of loose virtue: 6
Ghost: 5
Witch: 5
Cowgirl: 4
Elf: 3
Geisha: 3
Ghoul: 3
Hobo: 3
Ninja: 3
Bumblebee: 2
Buzz Lightyear: 2
Dorothy: 2
Dragon: 2
Grim Reaper: 2
Jason: 2
Pirate: 2 (1 generic, 1 Jack Sparrow)
Skeleton: 2
Slumber party-goer: 2
50s poodle-skirt dancer: 1
Alien: 1
Angel: 1
Army officer: 1
Baby: 1
Ballerina: 1
Baseball player: 1
Cat: 1
Clown: 1
Cowboy: 1
Darth Vader: 1
Doctor: 1
Dracula: 1
Equestrienne: 1
Fairy: 1
Frat boy: 1
Gorilla: 1
Gypsy: 1
Hippie: 1
Hockey player: 1
Huck Finn: 1
Hulk: 1
Incrediboy: 1
Indian Princess: 1
Ladybug: 1
Marilyn (Male): 1
Monkey: 1
Olympian: 1
Paper: 1
Penguin: 1
Pig: 1
Pimp: 1
Power Ranger: 1
Raver: 1
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: 1
Santa: 1
Scarecrow: 1
Scary jester: 1
Scooby Doo: 1
Sheep: 1
Spiderman: 1
Stormtrooper: 1
Superman: 1
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: 1 (Donatello; I asked)
Tigger: 1
Tin Man: 1
Top Gun: 1
Tree: 1
Troll: 1
Tuxedo-wearing smooth customer: 1
Woody (from Toy Story): 1

The Long Tail of Trick-or-Treaters: 2006

Kate’s mom’s campaign ad

Barb is my mother-in-law and a heck of an honest, forthright, straightforward, and caring politician. She’s running for state office in the 156th Pennsylvania Legislative district, against a Republican named Shannon Royer.

Barb’s gonna win, which is great news. Royer is not well-liked in the Republican Party in West Chester; he’s perceived as the pet of the Harrisburg party leader John Perzel, and his nomination for the seat was rammed through the committee without a vote. Partially as a result, “Republicans for Barb Smith” signs are dotted all over West Chester. Shannon’s response — “Independents for Royer” — doesn’t have the same punch. In fact, two Republicans (I swear I don’t know who, though I’m dying with curiosity) have set up a “sucks” site for Barb’s opponent at

Anyhow, I didn’t mean to carp about the other side so much, but instead to shout “yay” for Barb’s great campaign commercial. Harold and Ed (the men in suits) both live on our street, and are not professional actors. Well, I suppose they are, now, I guess.

Kate’s mom’s campaign ad

Harlan Holmes: Gardening Bodhisattva

Kate and I are taking a vegetable gardening class at Longwood Gardens, which is a little bit like taking “Figure Drawing 101” at the Louvre, I guess; you can see how that would kind of cut both ways. Maybe it’s more like taking “How to make Nourishing Stews” at a culinary institute renowned for creating giant, complicated pastoral scenes involving naiads and warthogs made entirely out of butter, or something. You figure they probably know all about stew, but on the other hand nourishing stew maybe isn’t entirely their, you know… thing.

The good news is that the instructor is not a professional horticulturist, he’s a “backyard gardener”, which is a little bit like calling Burt Rutan a “backyard hobbyist.” Harlan Holmes lives in Oxford, PA, and encourages us to “think like plants.” Some facts about Harlan Holmes:

  • He says that gardening is easy once you’ve learned to “think like a plant.” Which he does; he wears sandals, and props the doors to the classroom open on both ends to admit outside air: “Carbon dioxide buildup can kill, you know!”
  • He is a tall, upright, gray-haired guy with an accent almost like Kasey Kasem’s
  • He has five kids and had two jobs: a schoolteacher during the year, a house painter during the summer.
  • Like many schoolteachers, he’s a renaissance man: so far in the class, we’ve touched on:
    • Astrophysics, with a diagram of the analemma, the asymmetrical figure-eight made by the sun if you were to plot its position in the sky at noon through the year,
    • Chemistry: Anions! cations! pH, and the mapping of the pH scale to what farmers call “bitter” or “sweet”),
    • Physics: Root pressure, osmosis, and plough pans), and ancient languages (“Chelated iron, — from the Greek χηλή, meaning claw — means that the iron is bound up with another agent, so it’ll be available over a long period of time…”, and
    • Important Gardener’s Holidays: In our area, January 28th is the first day with 10 hours of sunlight, and marks the first of Harlan’s 17(!) yearly plantings.

Some other tidbits:

  • Harlan Holmes hates wood. He uses plastic lumber to edge his beds, and a plastic handle on the sledge he uses to pound rebar to keep the plastic lumber in place. “This stuff will outlast us all!” he says proudly.
  • To my mind, that’s a sign of legitimacy. Harlan is not a “back-to-the-land”-er, he’s a gardener, and he organizes everything along the axis of what’s good for the garden, not what’s, you know, made of indigenous materials or whatever. Amish farmers are the same way; they’re not anti-tractor, they’re anti-dependence. Amish farmers love translucent fiberglass roofing, for example.
  • He definitely prefers not to use water-soluble commercial fertilizers in his garden, though. For example, once our soil test results come back, we’ll be calculating the amount of alfalfa, soy meal, powdered greenstone, and other stuff to mix in to get the nutrient balance right. This is done, er… now-ish, and stored in plastic tubs in the garage over the winter.
  • Though on the other side once again, this guy is not averse to using technology in the service of the garden. He’s got a salt shaker that he uses to introduce trace amounts of boron to the soil when it’s needed. And he’s looking for a good source of molybdenum.

My favorite part is when Harlan showed his true colors as a 110% unrepentant, high school teacher style gardening nerd: he displayed slides of his “leaning stick”, a device he made out of a one-legged spring-tipped field stool and a Nordic Track hip pad, which he then rigged with a harness and strapped to his chest so he can lean way over in the garden and use both hands. He showed us a picture with this remarkable device attached, in which he looked EXACTLY like a confident Victorian gentleman inventor with his balsa flying machine: straps surrounding his shoulders, spring-tipped steel post protruding out in front. This guy is a sandal-wearing gardening cyborg, man.

In case it isn’t clear by this point, I’m enjoying the hell out of this class, not least because you get to go BACKSTAGE at Longwood, though so far I still haven’t seen one person doing any actual work. In all seriousness, it’s like the Wonka factory. All the work must get done between four and six AM, or something. And the classroom is an excellent throwback to middle school, with desk chairs that squeak when you deploy the folding arm, and an actual by-god transparency projector, which is such a nice change from Powerpoint decks delivered over a Proxima I can’t even tell you. Yes, Harlan! Cover up the lower half of the transparency with a sheet of paper so I don’t get distracted by the stuff you’re not talking about yet! Yes, by god, you annotate that xerox diagram with a sharpie! Hell, YEAH!

So both Kate and I are having a great time, though our to-do list gets longer by the day. I now have to go sharpen a shovel, and we need to order some planter’s paper, with which we’ll cover the sod in the area we’re going to plant in the spring. And we need to buy a min/max thermometer, and… and… phew! Lydia is having a great time planting bulbs, though, and she l-o-o-o-o-oves weeding.

So: so far, gardening hobby? Four stars. And we’d better learn fast, because after fifteen years of work, Harlan has reached 17% organic material in his beds, and a perfect balance of both primary and secondary nutrients. Next year, he’s going to try a system involving pats of hay, seeding the plants, and then basically walking away and letting nature take its course which you can do when the beds are perfectly tuned. At that point, I’m pretty sure he’s going to turn into a being of Pure Energy and become unavailable to teach classes, only appearing with a silvery nimbus to gardeners, his leaning stool sticking out from his glowing chest:

“Plastic lumber!” he will say in a chiming, ethereal voice. “It will outlast all of us!”

PS: I just went back and re-read the course description, which says that Harlan (“Jim”) will show you “…how to integrate gardening tasks into your busy life by spreading them over an entire year.” Ha ha ha ha ha! This is, of course, true for some definitions of “integrate.”

Harlan Holmes: Gardening Bodhisattva