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.