Monday, December 23, 2013

A Sporcle-ing opportunity for the holidays

We are pleased to announce that Who's Bigger has hit the world of Sporcle, the popular website offering "mentally stimulating diversions".   In particular, check out your sense of the biggest actors, actresses, and directors at

We thank Patrick Kelly for his interest and efforts in putting this together.  He is a very experienced hand at this: his Sporcle quizzes have been played more than 10,000,000 times!   He promises more Who's Bigger games on Sporcle in the near future, and we will let you know soon as they are available.

The results of the early responses has been quite revealing.  In particular, our most significant director has proven to be the hardest question on the entire board, being answered correctly by only 6.6% of the players.  And yet in their post-game comments, this question was called a "head-banger", which I interpret as a problem where you recognize the right answer soon as you are told.   This, to me, captures exactly what is interesting about our Who's Bigger rankings.  We generally reflect things that you know, but not necessarily what you know you know.


Patrick has just posted a presidential Who's Bigger quiz, which has already gotten some interesting comments.   Check it out at

Friday, December 20, 2013

Who Reads the Papers?

We have been very gratified by the large volume of press interest in our book/rankings from news outlets in the United Kingdom.  I've personally been interviewed by the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and substantive articles have also appeared in the Independent, the Telegraph and the Guardian, plus an appearance on the Newstalk radio show with Sean Moncrieff (listen 35 minutes in).

This response has put to shame what we have received from American newspapers to date.  It is probably partially explained by the fact that Cambridge University Press is a British publisher, and presumably has better press contacts there.   But it also reflects the greater competition and depth of the British newspaper establishment, with a dozen or so newspapers fighting for circulation among the same population.   Not exactly the same.   Each newspaper there aims for a distinct audience, as shown in the comedy sketch "Who reads the papers?"

The truth of this came clear to me during my interviews.  The reporter from the Sunday Times sounded like Hugh Grant [6623], an Oxbridge-type whose accent made him appear more cultured and sophisticated than any human can possibly be.  By comparison, the reporter from the Daily Mail came across as a street-smart urchin banging out his text from the local pub.   When I corresponded with him the next day, he was trapped covering a court hearing in some (no doubt) tawdry case.  But I must credit him on his very fast work.  We talked only 15 minutes, and I could hear him typing up a quite reasonable story even we spoke.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Other People's PageRanks

Two recent studies have been brought to our attention, both using PageRank on Wikipedia to analyze historical figures. We were previously unaware of them, and it seems of interest to report how these relate to our own work.

In Biographical Social Networks on Wikipedia - A cross-cultural study of links that made history by Aragón, Kaltenbrunner, Laniado, and Volkovich, the authors conduct a study on several graph properties (including in-degree, PageRank, and betweeness) for a large set of people pages. Particularly interesting is the fact that they performed their analysis in 15 major languages, providing a test of how the top ranked figures vary across languages.

These rosters "reveal remarkable similarities between distinct groups of language Wikipedias", which is important in countering a frequent criticism that our English-only analysis results in a grave cultural bias. The differentially ranked figures across different languages are quite interesting, but the take-home lesson is that English-only rankings like ours are more stable than might generally be appreciated.  They also observed the women were apparently underrepresented in Wikipedia: see the article in MIT Technology Review.

The second paper, Highlighting Entanglement of Cultures via Ranking of Multilingual Wikipedia Articles by Eom and Shepelyansky, was published on October 3, 2013, well after our book went to press. They analyze Wikipedia in nine languages, using three measures of network centrality: PageRank (based on in-coming links), CheiRank (based on out-going links), and 2DRank (based on both). PageRank generally resulted in the most informative analysis.

Eom and Shepelyansky are interested in how different cultures evaluate people. By looking at the 30 highest ranked figures of each language, they can identify which historical figures are globally of interest and who are local to particular editions. Generally-speaking, political figures like kings and presidents of nations rank as local heros. By taking a consensus of the figures in the nine languages worth of Wikipedia's, they obtain a global hero ranking. Their top ten are shown below, along with where they appear in our historical ranking:
  1. Napoleon (2)
  2. Jesus (1)
  3. Carl Linnaeus (31)
  4. Aristotle (8)
  5. Adolf Hitler (7)
  6. Julius Caesar (15)
  7. Plato (25)
  8. Charlemagne (22)
  9. William Shakespeare (4)
  10. Pope John Paul II (91)
Another just-published article of theirs,  Time Evolution of Wikipedia Network Ranking, tracks changes in PageRank and other centrality measures in Wikipedia over time.  Finally, in earlier work, they prepared rankings of universities, companies, and several groups of people, including comparisons of PageRank against Hart's ``The 100''.

Obviously the high PageRank figures both teams found in English were exactly the same as we found, modulo minor differences of Wikipedia version number and technical decisions about which pages/links to include. This results in a bit of deja vu as people like Linnaeus, Napoleon, and Elizabeth II rise to uncomfortably high places.

What we see as the major contributions of our work revolve around: 
  • Integrating other sources of information, like hits, article length, and page edits.
  • Isolating the distinct factors of celebrity and gravitas underlying all these variables.
  • Developing a reputation decay model to permit fair comparisons of contemporary and distant historical figures.
  • Evaluating the resulting rankings against a variety of gold-standards and independent metrics, including other published rankings, public opinion polls, frequency in published books, sports statistics, and the prices of autographs and paintings. We note that our combined significance score significantly outperformed PageRank on these metrics. See page 37 in "Who's Bigger" for details. 
  • And finally using this rankings to perform a systematic study of issues like who belongs in children's American history textbooks, the effectiveness of human decision processes (like recognizing the most appropriate members of a Hall of Fame) and the underrepresentation of women in the historical record.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our View of "The View"

Our book "Who's Bigger" was the topic of a segment today on the popular ABC-TV talk show "The View", starring Whoopi Goldberg (ranked 3728) and Barbara Walters (ranked 7184).   Please check it out: Whoopi's issues with the word "algorithm'' are worth the price of admission.  

The notion of identifying the ten most significant people in history clearly caught their fancy, but the four all-women hosts and apparently all-women audience were distressed to learn that our top ten list contained all men.   To their credit, the three women they came up with as candidates for our list are exactly the top three women in our rankings: Elizabeth I [13], Queen Victoria [16], and Joan of Arc [95]. Further, they listed them in exactly the right order.  Other candidates they proposed included physicist Marie Curie [667] and the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, Madam C. J. Walker [7730], shown above.

We believe they would be more pleased to hear our results concerning the relative significance of the men and women appearing in Wikipedia, which we write about in ``Who's Bigger''.   Over the past 300 years, the average women in Wikipedia is notably more significant than the average man.  Our results reveal that women required greater accomplishments (analogous to 4 IQ points in the mean) to be recognized than men, up until very recent history.

Monday, December 9, 2013


This week marked the passing of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who was a beacon for the world.   An article by Paul Brill in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant included a discussion of our book to ask the question, "How big was Mandela?"

Our methods rank Nelson Mandela at 356, which puts him as the preeminent African leader in history.   We rank him in the same neighborhood of other important nation builders, like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [360] of Turkey and Giuseppe Garibaldi [352] of Italy, and these seem like proper comparisons to me.

I am fortunate to be able to say I once laid eyes on this man.  During a trip to London, my attempt to visit a cathedral was blocked by a large crowd, waiting patiently.   Mandela was inside, they told me. When he emerged, I was really struck by his presence, his height and erect bearing.   He looked every inch the giant that he was.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Boston Globe Article: Where should Eminem rank?

Kevin Hartnett of the Boston Globe wrote a nice article about the Who's Bigger methodology for ranking people for the Sunday paper, including a nifty online graphic showing our analysis of painting prices by artist significance.  It gave me a fresh chance to kvetch about the $142.4 million recently paid for the Francis Bacon [3470] triptych, discussed in my previous blog post.

Certain themes are starting to emerge as reviewers get their hands on our book.   In particular, there seems a natural instinct to hunt for people whose rankings offend the reviewer's sense of propriety, with the sense of casting doubt on our methods.  Typically these suspect cases prove to be popular celebrities such as Eminem [823] and Miley Cyrus [2009], both cited in Hartnett's article.

It seems wrong to rate these figures as high as our algorithms do, and indeed my gut instinct is that our rankings of these individuals may be a little too high.  But it should be clear that historically placing contemporary figures is a particularly difficult task.   Reputations are dynamic.  Part of our model is based on the frequency people read Wikipedia pages.   If ten or twenty years from now such interest in these people declines faster than our current model predicts, their rankings will go down.  But today both are among the most famous individuals in the world, and that has to count for something.

Another way to think about this is to look for the rankings of comparable figures.   We rank Mick Jagger at 1055, essentially equivalent to Eminem.  My guess is many readers will not blanch at where our algorithms put the Rolling Stones lead singer. It seems to me that Eminem's cultural significance in his time is grossly analogous to that of Jagger in his.  Miley Cyrus is more of a stretch at her current ranking, but it seems fair to put her somewhere in the child-star league between Shirley Temple [2177] and Annette Funicello [15957].

Further, both are young enough that their full story isn't yet written.  Our analysis of Google Ngrams suggests that people generally reach their peak book-reference frequency around ages 60 to 70.  While this is probably optimistic for most young musicians, it proved to be true for Elvis Presley [69].  Much of what is written about Eminem and Miley Cyrus today could have been said of Elvis in 1960, and yet there are not many figures from the 1950's who will endure with greater historical/cultural significance than the King of Rock and Roll.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bringing home the Bacon

The big news in the art world is the record $142.4 million auction price of a Francis Bacon [3470] triptych (three panel painting) of his friend and rival Lucian Freud [9347].  The paintings are large and of an attractive yellow color, and we congratulate the winner on their purchase.

An analysis in our book Who's Bigger (page 297) correlates the significance of artists to the (logarithm) of their highest sale price.   There is a very strong correlation here (0.52): more significant artists command higher prices.   My question is whether Francis Bacon, the artist, is big enough for his painting to justify this valuation.

The previous auction price record was held by "The Scream", by Edvard Munch [944], at a mere $119.9 million.  This is a much more famous image, by a much more significant artist than Bacon.   We identified over a dozen painters more significant than Munch; indeed we identified a dozen sculptors (a much less elite crowd than painters) more significant than Bacon.

In our price model, the previous top price for a Francis Bacon painting ($86.2 million) was already an outlier as too expensive for his level of significance.   You can get more bang for your buck with several classical or impressionistic masters than star modern painters.   I also would personally have one of these hanging on my wall, yellow color or not.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

When Death Didn't Take a Holiday

November 22, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [71]. Among the flood of commemorations was the article ``A Bad Day to Die'' by Christopher Buckley [48317] recalling that writers C. S. Lewis [327] and Aldous Huxley [1179] died on the very same date, and hence were cheated out of a newspaper headline in the aftermath of the assassination.

This is conjunction was a very impressive coincidence, and motivates a search for what days that were a bad day for getting recognized in the obituaries.    The most prominent obituary victim is John Adams [61], who famously died July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend and rival Thomas Jefferson [10]. Other interesting conjunctions include:

  • Scientists Pierre-Simon Laplace [660] and Alessandro Volta [633] (both on March 5, 1827)
  • Philosopher Gottlob Frege [839] and William Jennings Bryan [699] (both on July 26, 1925)
  • Composer Sergei Prokofiev [1177] and Joseph Stalin [18] (both on March 5, 1953)

Our methodology here involved summing up the significance scores of all the people who died on a given date.  One might quibble whether this is truly the best criteria, for it can turn a larger number of smaller figures into a badder day than a smaller number of bigger figures.

However, it does a terrific job identifying dates which are readily understandable as to why several prominent people died that day.  See if you can guess why just by looking at the date:

  • October 16, 1946  (total significance 31.57) -- This was the day of ultimate judgement at Nuremberg: when nine Nazi war criminals were hung for their crimes against humanity.  The most significant in this batch was Joachim von Ribbentrop [16547], the German Foreign Minister.  He would have taken a back seat to Gestapo founder Hermann Goering, who killed himself the night before to avoid execution.
  • September 11, 2001 (total significance 30.37) -- The attack on the World Trade Center in New York.  Several prominent victims died in these attacks, but much of this total comes from the rankings of the terrorists themselves.
  • April 15, 1912 (total significance 25.31) -- The sinking of the Titanic.  The most prominent single victim was John Jacob Astor IV, one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time.
  • July 17, 1918 (total significance 16.95) -- The execution of the Romanoffs, most prominently Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
  • November 22, 1963 (total significance 15.24) -- The assassination of President Kennedy, with coincidental deaths of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley
  • June 25, 1876 (total significance 15.79) -- The Battle of the Little Bighorn, a.k.a as Custer's Last Stand.  The most prominent victim was, not surprisingly, George Armstrong Custer [379] himself.
  • July 3, 1863 (total significance 14.95) -- The last day of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. 
  • February 3, 1959 (total significance 13.97) -- The day the music died: the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly [4408], Ritchie Valens [51845], and The Big Bopper [103549].
  • March 5, 1953 (total significance 13.25) -- Coincidental deaths of two prominent Russians:, Joseph Stalin [18] and composer Sergei Prokofiev.
  • June 30, 1934 (total significance 12.83) -- Night of the Long Knives, a purge when Hitler and the Nazis murdered many opposing German political leaders.
  • July 4, 1826 (total significance 12.46) -- 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the well-known coincidental deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Sunday, November 10, 2013

First Bookstore Sighting!

Pride of place for the first Who's Bigger bookstore sighting goes to our alert research assistant Qi Chou, at the NYU Bookstore on Sunday November 10th:

We seem to be in good company, surrounded by Woodrow Wilson [47], T. E. Lawrence [1306], and Al Sharpton [6589]

Friday, November 8, 2013

Cousin Hal and Spiro Agnew

I received the notice that my cousin Harold Birnbaum just passed away after a long and happy life.  He is the source of one of my favorite stories, which essentially revolves around Who's Bigger reasoning for the punch line.

Cousin Hal had a engineering firm in Iran, prior to the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [1347]. He and his local business partner were discussing the fall of Spiro Agnew [3271], Nixon's first Vice President, who was forced to resign for taking bribes.   The amounts involved seem staggeringly small by today's standards, but no one regretted his departure when Nixon himself had to resign just a few years later.

After thinking the matter over, his partner sighed and remarked: ``America.  What a country!  You can buy a Vice President for what it costs us to pay off a building inspector!"

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


The perfect rating of "Who's Bigger"on Amazon has just been lost by the following "book review":

"24 out of the 100 most important historical figures are US Americans (and colonial Americans)? That seems somewhat unlikely, even assuming that the US is the greatest thing since sliced bread."

I suspect we will be fielding similar complaints from other readers, so let's consider this issue in a rational way.  What faction of the most historically significant figures should be from the United States?

First, we will confess to some Anglocentric bias in our results, because our analysis is based almost completely on the English language Wikipedia.   Figures from the English-speaking world are much more likely to be recognized here than comparable figures from other cultures.  An example from our book is Chinese painter Li Keran [663492], whose paintings have been sold for prices similar to Cy Twombly [37124].  Running our methodology on the Wikipedias of other languages would yield different results, and is a project in progress.

But back to the question: what fraction of historically significant figures should be from the United States?  One answer might be 5%, the fraction of the world's population that lives in the US.  Because of explosive population growth, most of the people in human history have lived quite recently, making this a reasonable proxy for population over time.

But do the people around the globe have equal chance to lead historically-significant lives? Unfortunately, the answer is no: access to education, resources, and opportunities have been concentrated in wealthier nations.   The United States slice of the world's economic pie has long been disproportionally large.  Indeed, the first reference I found on the web authoritatively states that the United States represented 25.3% of the world's GDP in 2012, essentially identical to the fraction which so offended this reviewer.

The United States has been the world's dominant economic, cultural, political, and military power for the past hundred years.  Roughly half of all the figures in appearing in Wikipedia had lifespans which intersect this period.  The prominence of Americans here seems quite explainable here for reasons beyond simple Anglocentric bias.

Indeed, our analysis unintentionally biases the rankings against the United States in certain ways.  One important factor is a reputation decay model, which awards greater prominence to figures from earlier times.   There are essentially no recorded American historical figures from before Columbus, or past 500 years ago.  Compare this to European, Asian, and Middle-Eastern civilizations which stretch back thousands of years.  The leading figures of these cultures are highly regarded by our algorithms.

What is the right fraction of Americans among the 100 most significant figures in history?  Our algorithms say 24%, and that seems generally plausible to me.  If you really think this is wildly out of range, OK, but tell me what the right answer is and why.   I'd like to know.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Biggest Man in Azerbaijan?

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Azerbaijan, where I served as a keynote speaker at the AICT2013 conference in Baku.   The hospitality I received was overwhelming: I thank everyone there for making me feel welcome.  The only purchase I was allowed to make during my five days in the country was one bottle of Coca-Cola, and this required my sneaking away during a conference session. Further, they saw to it that I appeared on the local equivalent of  ``Good Morning America'' (see photos) and generally made me feel like the biggest man in Azerbaijan.

But the ever present pictures of the nation's founding president Heydar Aliyev tell the true story of Who's Biggest. The airport is named after him, as well as the billion dollar Heydar Aliyev cultural center designed by Zaha Hadid.   The opening ceremony of AICT2013 included a visit to the president's grave, where each participant was given a carnation to place by his tomb.  We rank Heydar Aliyev as the 17,917th most historically significant figure of all time, an impressive showing for a twenty year-old country with only nine million people.   His son Ilham Aliyev took over upon his father's death in 2003, and now himself ranks 20,860th.

I presented my hosts (Abzetdin Adamov and Shamil Mehdiyev) with signed copies of ``Who's Bigger'' as a small token of my appreciation.   With a ratio of one copy per 4.5 million people, Azerbaijan currently ranks as the world's biggest country in copies per capita!  We hope such ratios will decline worldwide after our official date of publication, December 4, 2013.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Prior Work in Ranking People

Check out the third panel in this xkcd comic strip apropos Who's Bigger, which we are proud to say is in stock at Amazon now, although the official release date is still December 4.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

First Printing Has Arrived!

Tonight, I opened an express mail package from Cambridge University Press with the first copies of "Who's Bigger"!   I did it with Charles on the line via Skype, so we could share this historical moment together:

The book looks good: better than we do in the picture above.  It will presumably take a few more weeks until copies materialize in book stores and online: but you can order now and beat the rush.

One other note.  My first author interview has appeared in Critical Margins, so check it out.   The interviewer did a good job, but seemed to want to argue with us about the rankings of various historical figures.   Argue with our algorithms, not us.    None of these rankings reflect our personal judgements, although generally we tend to agree with most of them.  In particular, in almost all the cases she questioned in the interview we feel quite good about where they were placed.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hall of Fame commercial

Cambridge University Press has started a video series highlighting some of their new book releases.  Who's Bigger? got the star treatment at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx.  If you have never been there this video will give you the lowdown on this little known but fascinating place.   It also explains the methodology and behind our rankings, and some of our findings -- as well as hawking the book.   Do you think I have a future in television?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

First blurb: ``Absolutely groundbreaking''

Credit for the first Who's Bigger? blurb goes to Dr. Eric Siegel, founder of  Predictive Analytics World and author of Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die
"Absolutely groundbreaking: The first full scale, data driven undertaking to weigh the historical and cultural impact of persons. This work injects a much needed dose of quantitative rigor into the field of history itself. How do the greatest legacies of yesteryear stack up, not only against one another, but against the power of today's celebrity royalty? This thorough treatment illuminates, validates, and even augments history as a discipline."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ranking TenGrade

There are many ways to rank the world.   Who's Bigger does what we do through an extensive computational analysis of Wikipedia and the content of scanned books. The company I co-founded, General Sentiment, does this through an NLP sentiment analysis of the text content of news and social media.

A new startup company, TenGrade, uses a different approach, explicitly asking people to give their opinion on where something (anything in the universe) ranks on a 0 to 10 scale.   They make this fun and easy using a mobile app, and then let you compare your rankings with various slices of whatever community you care about, and how they change over time.

It is a very interesting approach.  To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot from listening to people.  As I write this, Pizza is a 7.9, where as Grapefruit is a 6.8.  Barack Obama is a 6.0, which puts him ahead of disgraced baseball player Alex Rodriguez (Arod) at 1.0.

Their rankings have the advantage of clear numerical interpretability, although I think they will eventually discover the need to normalize individual rankings: a 7.0 given by a sourpuss means something different than a 7.0 granted by some easy mark.   It will be fascinating to see what kinds of things people will feel driven to state an opinion on.  As an academic, I would love to experiment with their data and see what we could do with it.

TenGrade may face a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: the rewards from ranking something come from seeing what others say, but until they achieve critical mass there may not be enough content their to make it compelling.   Why will people bother to give their opinions ranking everything in the universe?   I don't know: but frankly I didn't know why anyone would tweet, post on Facebook or enter  Amazon reviews or complaints on TripAdvisor, either.

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Human Accomplishment", by Charles Murray

It is a strange feeling to finish writing a book, and then suddenly discover an earlier effort with similar interests, methodologies, and ambition.  This book is Human Accomplishment, published in 2003 by Charles Murray, best known for his more controversial work, The Bell Curve.

First, don't worry: this book does not make Who's Bigger? redundant.   We address different questions, about different people, in different ways, with different styles. But if you liked Human Accomplishment, you're going to love our book. :-) There are two basic similarities:
  • Both books measure the historical magnitude of important figures statistically, through analysis of the written record left behind in books and reference works.
  • Both books quest for themes of broader significance, while simultaneously enjoying the parlor-game thrills of deciding who ranks where.
We will give a more thorough analysis in future postings, but it seems useful to record quick impressions of the similarities and differences of our respective books.
    The ranking methodologies are similar in spirit but differ substantially in how they were done.   When writing his book between 1997 and 2002 Murray had access to an important lost technology, called a "secretary", who could manually curate a spreadsheet-scale data set.  By contrast, we are computer scientists who did a Big Data analysis of gigabytes of text.  These differences show up in the properties of our rankings:
    • We rank 850,000 people in all domains of interest, while Murray is interested in the top 4,000 figures in the arts and sciences.
    • We rank figures from the beginning of time until today, while Murray considers only those active before 1950 to eliminate contemporary biases.
    • Our rankings permit direct comparisons of significance to people across different domains. Was Shakespeare bigger than Newton?   We say yes, but Murray is not as interested in such comparisons.
    • Our rankings come from a computational analysis of Wikipedia, where he performs a statistical analysis of mentions in selected books and reference works.
    • We identify two different factors (celebrity and gravitas), permitting us to attribute historical significance appropriately for any given figure.   Murray is really only interested in the factor we call gravitas.
    The other differences between our book reflect the scope of questions which we believe can be addressed by this methodology.   Murray is interested in a set of big picture questions in comparing clusters:  like how much bigger are the accomplishments of the West over that of the East, or why certain religious/cultural groups punch above their weight.   His rankings seek to measure genius or greatness in an objective-enough manner to be accepted as a ground truth.

    We are less certain that our own rankings measure virtue unalloyed with notoriety.   The cultural biases inherent in depending on the English-language Wikipedia view of the world seem obvious.  The serious issues we care about more concern the processes of fame and recall.  Are women underrepresented in the historical record?  (Yes.)   Do textbooks and expert panels do a good job of recognizing historical significance, even in retrospect?  (Not really.)   How does interest in historical personages fade with time?  (In a generally predictable manner over 170 years from birth). We are more interested in historiography -- why are people remembered -- rather than history -- why should people be remembered.

    We will soon do a more detailed comparison of our rankings, but my sense is that Murray did a good job at what he sought to measure.   Both of our books are proud of the banality of our respective rankings, meaning that we expect the bulk of our readerships will agree with the bulk of where we position historical figures.   Our rankings appear to correlate quite highly with his on most of the figures I've checked.  I apologize that we did not get to include a discussion of his work in our book, but we hope to have the opportunity to chat with him sometime after our book appears in October.

    Friday, July 5, 2013

    Biggest Business Thinkers?

    The Wall Street Journal's recently published rankings of the most influential business thinkers proves
    much better than the rankings they published five years ago, in that they have identified a substantially more significant cohort of people.   Davenport and Cronin's (DC) methodology is based on Google hits, media mentions, and academic citations, whereas our result come from an analysis of Wikipedia.

    Of the top 15 from their (DC) 2013 ratings, fully 11 rank among the 20,000 most significant historical figures, and even the weakest of the bunch (Harvard Business School's Michael Porter) still ranks a respectable 32,734.   By contrast, only six of the people from the 2008 list hit the top 20K, and four of them rank substantially below Porter.  Notably Gary Hamel was their top guru of 2008, but ranks a paltry 82,551 in our assessment.

    Our rankings of their most influential business thinkers of 2013 are given in brackets, while their ranking is given in ():

    • [904] Bill Gates (3)
    • [3198] Jimmy Wales (15)
    • [3452] Paul Krugman  (1)
    • [3865] Richard Branson (7) 
    • [6419] Joseph Stiglitz  (2)
    • [6531] Niall Ferguson  (12)
    • [9828] Muhammad Yunus (11)
    • [10940] Thomas Friedman  (5)
    • [15741] Michael Dell (13)
    • [16196] Robert Reich  (9)
    • [16725] Malcolm Gladwell  (8)
    • [22424] Jack Welch  (10)
    • [24526] Eric Schmidt  (6)
    • [25654] Howard Gardner (14)
    • [32734] Michael Porter  (4)

    By contrast, our rankings of his 2008 list are:

    • [904] Bill Gates (3)
    • [3865] Richard Branson (13)
    • [10940] Thomas Friedman (2)
    • [15741] Michael Dell (15)
    • [16196] Robert Reich (7)
    • [16725] Malcolm Gladwell (4)
    • [25654] Howard Gardner (5)
    • [28999] Henry Mintzberg (9)
    • [31050] Philip Kotler (6)
    • [31899] Stephen Covey (10)
    • [32734] Michael Porter (14)
    • [45517] Peter Senge (12)
    • [61705] Daniel Goleman (8)
    • [82551] Gary Hamel (1)
    • [147612] Jeffrey Pfeffer (11)

    Friday, May 31, 2013

    Time Magazine's Person of the Year

    Each year since 1927, Time Magazine has selected an official Person of the Year.   This recognition usually goes to the individual who "has done the most to influence the events of the year."

    Our historical significance rankings provide a way to see how well these selections have stood up over time.  Do the people of the year prove to historical figures of lasting stature, or are they merely of passing interest?  We analyzed the historical significance rankings of all of Time's Person of the Year selections to find out.

    They generally are an elite bunch, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin[1014] and China's Deng Xiaoping[1163] representing median-level people of the years. Adolf Hilter [7] proves to be the most significant person of the year.  Albert Einstein [19] was the most significant modern individual never selected for the annual honor.  Time tried to make it up to him by naming him Person of the Century in 1999.  Elvis Presley [69] is the highest ranked figure who was completely dissed: no author or artist has ever so been honored.

    The least significant Person of the Year proves to be Harlow Curtice [224326], the president of General Motors for five years during the 1950's.   He was recognized for his decision to increase capital spending in a time of recession, which helped spur a recovery of the American economy.   It seems funny to say so, but America really needs another Harlow Curtice, now!

    The figure below plots the significance rank of People of the Year as a function of the year of their selection.   Lower rankings imply more significant figures, and the y-axis is plotted on a log scale, so the figures near the top are several orders of magnitude more significant than those on the bottom.  There is no obvious trend to suggest whether the selections are getting stronger or weaker with time.

    Other obscure selections include Hugh Samuel "Iron Pants" Johnson [32927], who Franklin Roosevelt appointed to head the depression-era National Recovery Administration, and fired less than a year later.  John Sirica [47053] was the District Court Judge who ordered President Nixon to turn over tape recordings in the Watergate Scandal.   David Ho [66267] is credited with developing the combination therapy which provided the first effective treatment for AIDS.   His contributions to human health arguably deserve a better significance rank than our algorithms gave him here.

    Friday, May 3, 2013

    15 Minutes of Fame

    Our work aims at a greater understanding of the forces of fame and historical recognition, by providing the right tools to measure these seemingly ill-defined quantities.  In particular, we like to work with scholars from the social sciences and humanities to employ our analysis for greater understanding of social and cultural phenomena.

    Such efforts recently bore fruit with the publication of our paper Only 15 Minutes? The Social Stratification of Fame in Printed Media, in the American Sociological Review, the most prestigious journal in Sociology.   We received a fair amount of coverage in the popular press, including sensible articles in the Los Angeles Times, the Pacific Standard, and the Canadian Globe and Mail.  Our co-authors here are sociologists Arnout van de Rijt from Stony Brook and Eran Shor from McGill University.

    Our study concerned the question of how enduring fame and celebrity really are.   Do we live in Andy Warhol's world, where everyone is briefly famous and then disappears without a trace, or might instead  a little fame tend to begat more fame, as the recognition leads to greater career opportunities and other self-reinforcing processes?

    To address this question, we did a computational analysis of trends extracted from our multi-year, terabyte-scale corpora of news articles, and generated time series of how often 100,000 randomly selected people appeared in the news.   Statistical analysis shows that names exhibit fast turnover only at the bottom of the public attention hierarchy.   Among the those who have achieved substantial recognition, stable coverage persists around a fixed level and rank for decades.

    That fame is generally persistent provides additional motivation for the Wikipedia-analysis we do in Who's Bigger?.   Although many figures have enjoyed surprising posthumous changes in historical recognition, by and large these forces are predictable.   In our book, we give a model of reputation decay with time that is validated by over two hundred years of data from scanned books.

    Indeed, we would never have devoted two years to writing Who's Bigger? if the historical figures we feature were in any danger of losing their fascination.    They will remain Bigger than the rest long after Charles and I are history.

    Thursday, May 2, 2013

    Welcome to the Who's Bigger Blog!

    I'd like to welcome you to the Who's Bigger blog, dedicated to making the world a Bigger place. It is part of our effort to make available all the analysis underlying our book Who's Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank on our website,

    Our goal here is to summarize all things happening in the Who's Bigger universe: milestones concerning out book, updates to our website, and new discoveries we make that would otherwise have to wait for a next book (is anyone up for Who's Even Bigger? :-)).

    Our publisher, Cambridge University Press, is currently copyediting our manuscript.  They tell us that things are on schedule to publish the book in October 2013.   Last week, I attended a meeting of the Cambridge sales representatives, who promise to try to move the thing.   You can help them: the book will make a wonderful Christmas gift to all those you love.  The website is rapidly getting into shape.  Indeed we encourage you to check out your favorite historical figures, like Barack Obama