Friday, January 23, 2015

BigThinker Talk: Video Available On-Line

Last week I had a very pleasant visit to Yahoo Research in Sunnyvale CA, giving a BigThinker talk about our Who's Bigger rankings.   They pulled out all stops for me during my visit, although the Purple Carpet treatment was really for a delegation from Brazil.   But still, I am very appreciative for their hospitality.

Yahoo has made available the video of this talk below.  Particularly amusing is the reputation battle I pose between Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and rival AOL CEO Tim Armstrong.   The Yahoo folk's impressive loyalty was well justified, as she crushed him in historical significance rank, by a score of 86,140 to 133,490.

Monday, November 17, 2014

They've Put Us in The Smithsonian!

Being put in the Smithsonian Institution is perhaps the the most prestigious destination possible for any material object.  The flag that is the star-spangled banner is in the Smithsonian.  The Hope Diamond is in the Smithsonian.  The ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz" is in the Smithsonian.

Now I can proudly say that I, too, am in The Smithsonian.

In particular, Smithsonian magazine is running a special issue on ``The 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time", with their rankings powered by our book Who's Bigger.  It was an interesting exercise to come up with these rankings, because it is a challenge to define exactly who is an American.   Did they have to be born here?   Live most of their life here?   Die here?  Become a citizen?

The editor of this special issue (Tom Frail) broke our rankings into ten different subdomains, and provided a nice capsule biography and often-surprising picture for each of the chosen people (was Ronald Reagan really ever that young?).   It is a fun read and easy entree to the Who's Bigger universe.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Avery Fisher and his Hall

Today's news has an interesting story about how the family of businessman / donor Avery Fisher reached a settlement with the management of Lincoln Center to take his name off of the New York Philharmonic's Avery Fisher Hall to free it up for a new, presumably much larger donor.

This story resonates with me for two reasons.   First, attaching your name to an important building is an excellent way to retain historical significance.   Our rankings puts Avery Fisher at 199,082, meaning he ranks among the top quarter of Wikipedia figures.   The company where he made his money (Fisher Radio) has long since been absorbed, and his name is no longer that of an active brand.  Giving up his name on the building will condemn his fame to decline with time consistently with other mortals.

Avery Fisher in important to me because my father Morris Skiena worked for him as a radio repairman early on, at a time when Fisher had only three employees.  Indeed in this 1946 Fortune Magazine article about Fisher, my father is the guy at the bench with his back to you on the lower left of page 161.

My father knew the future was television, not radio.  So, by employing the business sense that Skienas are famous for, Dad left the company before Fisher hit it big to become a television repairman.  I get reminded of this story every time I pass Avery Fisher Hall.   I still call other city landmarks by their old, honest names: the PanAm Building, the Triborough Bridge, and the RCA building in Rockefeller Center, so I suspect it will always be Avery Fisher Hall to be regardless of which swell ultimately coughs up the dough to choose its name.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I was a Rebel at the Wisest Place on Earth

On Labor Day I gave my Who's Bigger talk to students and faculty at the University of Virginia College in Wise, Virginia as part of their ``Digitial Rebel'' series.  Thanks to Daniel Ray and the rest of their faculty for very gracious hosting.  It was an interesting experience, and from their questions I can safely assert that I never spoke to a Wiser audience.

This visit was particularly meaningful to me because I received my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which serves as the mother ship to Wise.  It was nice to see connections in the names of the sport teams (the Cavaliers), the school logo (a representation of Thomas Jefferson [10]'s Rotunda building at UVa, and even an architectural remnant left after the 1895 Rotunda fire.

Wise is a small town is in the Appalachian Mountains not far from the corner where Virginia meets Tennessee and Kentucky.   Life there appears quite different than living in Manhattan, but has its own advantages.  Driving around town, I noticed a sign proclaiming actor George C. Scott [12170] as a local product.  Our rankings mark him as the biggest of the Wise men.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Star Sighting: Who's Bigger at Cafe Boulud?

My wife and I took advantage of a beautiful New York evening with kids away at camp to dine tonight  al fresco at Cafe Boulud, one of the nicest restaurants in the city.  We tried to take advantage of Restaurant Week prices to learn they apply only to lunch, but that is not the story I am trying to tell.

As we finished our entree, we were surprised to see television talk show host Charlie Rose sit down at the table next to us.  And then at the next table sat down William Goldman, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and countless other prominent films.  They chatted together like old friends, as perhaps they are.

This kind of thing doesn't happen to us much, but I couldn't help wondering: Who's Bigger?  Through the miracle of cell phone technology I looked it up.   They are amazingly similar.   Our algorithms rank Charlie Rose at 13,760, a bit ahead of William Goldman at 15,213.

I would like to report that I told them their rankings, which they found fascinating, and that I am now booked to appear on the next Charlie Rose Show.   The truth is, I behaved like a proper New Yorker and let them eat.

I guess I am better at network algorithms like PageRank than networking.  At least I hope so.

The Biggest Americans (The Atlantic)

Identifying the most historically significant figures in American History is a natural question for our analysis methods.  Indeed, our rankings will be used to fuel a special issue of The Smithsonian magazine this fall on the top figures in American history.  Look for details to come in a future post.

But here we react to a special issue on the 100 most influential figures in American history under the aegis of Ross Douthat, which appeared in the The Atlantic Monthly in December 2006.  Their methodology was based a historian poll, where rankings from ten historians were combined into a single consensus ranking.   This inspires the obvious question of how our top 100 Americans compare to the Atlantic's choices.

To proceed, one must move past the definitional issues of who qualifies as American.  Is an explorer like Columbus American?   A naturalized citizen like Albert Einstein?   Someone born in the U.S. who established themselves elsewhere, like the poet T.S. Eliot?   Our opinions on these matters are, respectively no, yes, and no, to be broadly consistent with the Atlantic.

How did the historians do?   Pretty well, since there is great overlap between our rankings and theirs. Fully fifty of The Atlantic's top 100 rank in our top 100, with another twenty listed in our second hundred candidates. Our top three figures are exactly their top three figures (Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson), in the same order.  The rank correlation between the orders we rank their top 100 is 0.654, demonstrated by the dot plot below:

Perhaps the most important difference between our two rankings is how we deal with the Presidents of the United States.   Our rankings put 41 of the 43 men to serve as president in our 100 most significant historical figures (our apologies to Jimmy Carter and Chester Alan Arthur, who just got nosed out).  By contrast, only 17 presidents made the Atlantic's top 100 Americans.

We think this reflects a clear editorial judgement on their part: it seems less interesting for readers when half your list is stuffed with presidents.  Ten of their top 20 Americans were presidents, yet only two of the men ranked 51 to 100 (including Richard Nixon sitting provocatively at 99).   One can hear the summons for diversity and controversy (Ralph Nader?) affecting the historian's better judgement.   My guess is that the historians were confronted with a pre-selected group of figures, who they generally ordered in a sensible manner.

Here are the ten Atlantic figures with the weakest Who's Bigger rankings.  Three are journalist/media figures (Gallup, Bennett, and Lippmann), while three others are scientists (Salk, Watson, and Mead):

Name Atlantic Ranking WB Ranking Norm A Rank Norm WB Rank
George_Gallup 83 29736 82 100
James_Gordon_Bennett,_Sr. 69 19473 68 99
Benjamin_Spock 88 8638 87 98
Walter_Lippmann 90 5854 89 97
Betty_Friedan 78 5553 77 96
Lyman_Beecher 92 5203 91 95
Sam_Walton 73 4923 72 94
Jonas_Salk 34 3775 33 93
James_D._Watson 68 3619 67 92
Margaret_Mead 82 3025 81 91

By contrast, here are the ten highest ranking Americans missing from the Atlantic:

Name                                          WB

George_W._Bush                          36    (our algorithm's most-regretted ranking)
Edgar_Allan_Poe                          54
John_F._Kennedy                        71
Nikola_Tesla                                  93
Grover_Cleveland                        98
Andrew_Johnson                        105
Barack_Obama                           111   (admittedly, elected after the Atlantic article)
Bill_Clinton                                  115
Madonna                                         121
Bob_Dylan                                   130

These might not personally all be my choices for the ten most historically-significant missing Americans.   But I have no doubt that I would put our team ahead of the Atlantic's in any game of Who's Bigger.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Re-ranking the Pantheon

At the suggestion of Cesar Hidalgo, the leader of the Pantheon project, we repeated our previous analysis restricted to the top 1000 people in the Pantheon rankings.   This better captures the people their rankings think are important, so differences in our relative rankings become more meaningful.

First we look at the people from this pool who our methods rank higher than Pantheon.  By definition, all of these people will be highly regarded by both of our rankings.  It is clear that we favor American and British leaders higher than they do, because we analyze only the English Wikipedia :

860      907     47      Woodrow Wilson                    U.S. President 
841      996     155     Edward I of England              British King
776      961     185     Leonhard Euler                       Mathematician
674      697     23      Theodore Roosevelt                 U.S. President
634      799     165     John Milton                             British Poet/Philosopher
600      985     385     Alexander II of Russia            Russian Czar
583      789     206     Edward VI of England           British King
556      666     110     Dwight D. Eisenhower           U.S. President
553      970     417     John Dewey                            American Educator
550      954     404     Alexander I of Russia             Russian Czar
542      636     94      Harry S. Truman                      U.S. President                    
539      654     115     Bill Clinton                              U.S. President
538      889     351     Francis I of France                  French King
536      936     400     Soren Kierkegaard                  Danish Philosopher  
530      563     33      Charles Dickens                       British Writer
524      594     70      William the Conqueror             British King
509      815     306     Jacques Cartier                         French explorer of America
505      742     237     Henry IV of France                 French King
503      677     174     Geoffrey Chaucer                    British Writer
498      616     118     Lewis Carroll                           British Writer
495      762     267     Alfred the Great                       British King
486      962     476     Eleanor of Aquitaine                French/British Queen Consort
446      809     363     George H. W. Bush                  U.S. President
442      983     541     Archduke Franz Ferdinand      Proximate cause of WWI
441      900     459     John Wayne                             U.S. actor and "Duke"
439      545     106     Alexander Graham Bell           Inventor of the telephone

Still, these are figures who are generally quite familiar to me: I've heard of all of them, although I would not be confident in my ability to tell one Alexander from the other.  By contrast, there are several figures among the ones they rank much higher than we do who I could not place, or place as celebrities more than historical figures:

-7960    673     8633    Justin Bieber                             Teenaged popular singer
-8008    943     8951    Haruki Murakami                     Japanese novelist
-8460    850     9310    Carus                                          Short-ruling Roman Emperor
-8463    765     9228    Antisthenes                               Greek Philosopher
-8601    880     9481    Jenna Jameson                          American porn star
-8630    734     9364    Anacreon                                   Greek Poet
-8746    363     9109    Anaximenes of Miletus          Greek Philosopher
-8836    352     9188    James   son of Alphaeus         One of Jesus' twelve apolstles
-8932    919     9851    Polykleitos                                Greek sculptor
-9008    934     9942    Lysippos                                    Greek sculptor
-9674    851     10525   Carinus                                     Roman Emperor with Carus (above)
-9866    671     10537   Hor-Aha                                    Egyptian Pharaoh
-10628   920     11548   Kaka                                         Brazilian soccer player
-10696   775     11471   Orhan Pamuk                          Turkish novelist
-11153   839     11992   Abu Nuwas                              Classical Arabic poet
-11722   906     12628   Trebonianus Gallus               Short-ruling Roman Emperor
-11771   560     12331   Praxiteles                                 Greek sculptor
-11834   368     12202   Vitellius                                   Very short-ruling Roman Emperor
-13291   607     13898   Gaius Maecenas                      Roman political advisor
-14507   701     15208   Milan Kundera                        Contemporary Czech novelist
-14571   843     15414   Emir Kusturica                        Bosnian filmmaker
-16783   610     17393   Paulo Coelho                          Brazilian novelist
-19060   820     19880   Monica Bellucci                     Italian actress and model
-21652   737     22389   Francois Villon                       French poet of the Middle Ages
-22604   974     23578   Pedro Almodovar                   Spanish Film director
-22754   935     23689   Quintillus                                Short-lived Roman Emperor
-26427   963     27390   Jean Reno                                French actor

This roster makes clear the differences in our models for aging historical reputations.   About half of these historically-overvalued people are relatively minor figures from ancient times: short-lived Emperors and second-tier philosophers/poets/artists.  Many of the rest are contemporary celebrities who don't really belong in anyone's top thousand historical figures, like porn star Jenna Jameson.

There are also a few international artists of real stature (including Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, and Pedro Almodvar) who might be undervalued by the English Wikipedia relative to international editions.  Still, I think our rankings place them in the right order of magnitude.