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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ranking the Pantheon

A previous post described the MIT Pantheon, another project which used Wikipedia data to rank historical figures.   We (meaning Charles, of course) extracted their rankings and matched them to our historical significance rankings, so we could compare them.   There is some subtlety in algorithmic name matching, such as determining whether our "Jesus" is the same person as their "Jesus Christ", but we succeeded in matching 10,116 of the Pantheon names to our Who's Bigger rankings.  This is roughly 90% of the total, providing a reasonable basis for comparison.

First off: it is clear that there is substantial agreement among our placement of historical figures, with a Spearman rank correlation of 0.65 between us and them.   Both sets of rankings incorporate aging as part of the methodology, so much of this agreement rests on our preferences for the tried and true.  The Who's Bigger rankings of these figures have a rank correlation of 0.58 with year-of-birth (older historical figures being more highly ranked), while the comparable number is 0.53 with Pantheon.

More revealing is to look at the extremes: the figures whom we assign very different ranks from them.   In particular, we computed the difference between our ranks (Pantheon - us) and present the figures with the largest and smallest differences.   This is not a perfect statistic, since Pantheon ranks less than 12,000 people while our numbers go well above 800,000.   But it is revealing none the less.

Diff       Panrank  BigRank       Name                                    Who's Dat?
10120     10521       401        'John Marshall'                            Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court
10058     11184     1126        'Donald Bradman'                       Great Cricket champion
10027     10823       796        'William H. Seward'                    U.S. Secretary of State (bought Alaska)
9963       11077     1114        'Gough Whitlam'                         Australian Prime Minister
9933       10812       879        'John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough'     English Statesman
9915       10802       887        'George Washington Carver'       African-American Inventor
9886       10405       519        'Tipu Sultan'                                Ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore
9735       10146       411        'John Jay'                                     Early U.S. Statesman
9536        9935        399         'John C. Calhoun'                       U.S. Senator /VP (nullification)
9454        9886        432         'Susan B. Anthony'                     U.S. Suffragist (women's right to vote)
9439      11243      1804         'Alexander Mackenzie'                Second Prime Minister of Canada
9243      10064        821         'Abigail Adams'                           Wife of President John Adams
9215      10729      1514         'Robert Menzies'                          Longest serving Australian Prime Min.
9207      10917      1710         'Robert Byrd'                               Long-serving U.S. Senator
9175      10406      1231         'Sojourner Truth'                         African-American abolitionist
9171      10562      1391         'Lucille Ball'                                TV Comedian (I Love Lucy)
9171        9330        159         'John A. Macdonald'                   First Prime Minister of Canada
9165      10466      1301         'Edmund Barton'                         First Prime Minister of Australia
9130      10318      1188         'Mary Todd Lincoln'                   Wife of President Abraham Lincoln
9008      10086      1078         'Svetlana Kuznetsova'                 Russian tennis star

Almost all of these figures are from the English-speaking world: United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain.   It is no surprise that our methods (which only analyze the English language Wikipedia) generally rank these people higher than Pantheon (which analyzes editions from all languages).  I personally recognize 14 of the twenty names here, and think they are generally quite Big, although I cringe a bit where some of our rankings are clearly too high (particularly Sultan and Kuznetsova).

The major American figures here are generally from the 19th century, which makes sense given the difference between our aging model and the one employed in Pantheon (full disclosure: Pantheon has recently changed its rankings, and what we have here may not be their current rankings).   In particular, our rankings have fully discounted a historical figure 160 years after birth, while they continued historical discounting arbitrarily far into the past).   Thus 19th century figures have generally achieved steady state by our analysis, so we value them relatively higher than Pantheon would.

The other side of the coin are the people who Pantheon ranks very much higher than we do.   The figures below all ranked in the bottom half of Wikipedia figures by our analysis, yet were identified by Pantheon among the 12,000 most interesting figures for analysis:

Diff            Panrank  BigRank       Name                                    Who's Dat?
-472241      8052         480293  'Alexandra Stan'                       Romanian singer and model
-484757      11086      495843  'Serge Haroche'                         French Nobel Prize winner in Physics, 2012
-493874      9471        503345  'Lola Pagnani'                            Italian actress
-495688      11148      506836  'Stephane Lannoy'                    French soccer referee
-497360      10133      507493  'Olivier Giroud'                         French soccer player
-517354      11160      528514  'Wouter Weylandt'                   Belgian professional cyclist killed in 2011
-525449      9576        535025  'Nathalia Dill'                            Brazilian television actress
-525475      10601      536076  'Milos Zeman'                           Current president of the Czech Republic
-525633      11232      536865  'David J. Wineland'                  Nobel Prize winner in Physics, 2012
-526148      10774      536922  'Gianluca Ramazzotti'             Italian singer-songwriter
-555909      11029      566938  'Linda Maria Baros'                 Contemporary French poet
-558970      10942      569912  'Jules A. Hoffmann'                  French Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, 2011
-573789      11144      584933  'Pastora Soler'                           Spanish Eurovision singer
-581161      11286      592447  'Sun Yang'                                Chinese Olympic swimmer
-601660      10310      611970  'Kevin Grobkreutz'                 German soccer player
-607491      11318      618809  'Missy Franklin'                      American Olympic Swimmer, 2012
-613223      11278      624501  'Brian Kobilka'                        American Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, 2011
-632278      11224      643502  'Lobsang Sangay'                    Prime minister in exile for Tibet
-685152      10556      695708  'Bernice Bejo'                          French-Argentine actress
-689256      11296      700552  'Vaclav Pilar'                            Czech soccer player
-693543       9577       703120  'Raphael Varane'                      French soccer player
-717448       11231     728679  'Ludmilla Radchenko'            Russian model and active 
-751460       10907     762367  'Anton Lamazares'                   Contemporary Spanish painter
-803441       11270      814711  'Petr Jiracek'                             Czech soccer player

These people are generally Europeans, who have the easiest time rising to the Pantheon Wikipedia language threshold.   They are also all very contemporary figures, many of who achieved their greatest renown for achievements occurring after the Wikipedia edition we analyzed in our rankings (October 11, 2010), so presumably they would be ranked somewhat higher if we reran our analysis today.

However, I personally only recognized one name here, and it required some prompting. Bernice Bejo was the lead actress in "The Artist" which, by the way, was a wonderful picture.   These people would generally not be in my 12,000 most significant (or famous) historical figures, but Pantheon's objectives are somewhat different than ours.   My guess is the both groups are content with our ranking differences given our different motivations.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Big Data Done Wrong?

An Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis present Who's Bigger as the seventh of eight (or nine) problems with Big Data, specifically "giving scientific-sounding solutions to hopelessly imprecise questions".  They acknowledge that we get many things right, but complain about "egregious errors".

But guys: given a 379 page book with thousands of rankings to pick from, your killer example is that we ranked Francis Scott Key at position 19 on the poets list?   If they don't have a complaint until position 19 on one of several dozens of tables in our book, well, we must be doing pretty darn good.

But their chosen example is illuminating, because it gets to the heart of what our rankings are and are not designed to do.  Our book carefully claims to measure "historical significance" or "meme strength", not "importance" as they insist on misrepresenting in the article.

So how historically durable will the Francis Scott Key meme be, say 100 years from now?   If there is still a United States stuck with the same national anthem (I'd take that bet), then we can be pretty certain the Marcus and Davis great-great-great-grandchildren will learn Key's words and the story behind his work.

"Oh say can you see?"  Only if you are willing to look at what data is actually trying to tell you.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Time Magazine's College Rankings

Time Magazine has launched an interactive feature ranking colleges by the prominence of the Wikipedia pages of their living graduates.   Harvard appears to be the top dog by this measure, just edging past Stony Brook (which again failed to make its way into the NCAA basketball tournament, the event which inspired Time's feature):

Their ranking methodology includes certain Wikipedia variables analogous to what we have used, including length and links in/out of the page -- which serves as a poor man's version of PageRank.  But PageRank is much better for meaningful notions of importance: links into a page only matter if they are from prominent individuals, and links out have little obvious meaning except that it should be correlated strongly with article length.

The other aspect of such an analysis is properly attributing alumni to schools.   The Wikipedia categories give fairly unreliable annotations, although after checking I can confirm that Pat Benatar in fact did attend Stony Brook for a year before dropping out.  I guess we "hit her with our best shot".

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Pantheon

I was reading my Sunday New York Times when my heart skipped a beat.   There in the magazine was an article ``Who's More Famous than Jesus?'' which had to, just had to, be about our Who's Bigger rankings.

Well, it wasn't.  A project at MIT called Pantheon was the source of the article.   Pantheon also uses analysis of Wikipedia data to rank the fame of historical figures.    I will confess to a little sense of Schadenfreude in reading the comments complaining about theie rankings, including:

  • Their bias towards Americans in particular and the Western world in general.
  • That they contain too few women in highly ranked places
  • Gleefully pointing out occasional mechanical misclassifications of individuals (particularly problematic was identifying John Wayne Gacy as a comedian instead of a serial killer)
  • Making too big a deal of small differences between rankings of closely matched people
  • Complaining that Wikipedia is not a reliable source to analyze world culture.
This all sounded very familiar, because these comments have been made about our rankings as well.

It seems worthwhile to compare our rankings and methodology with that underlying Pantheon.  There are several differences between our approaches to using Wikipedia as a resource:
  • Languages -- Pantheon makes use of the multiplicity of Wikipedia language editions in its analysis.   To be ranked as truly famous one must appear in at least 25 different language editions.  This would make the rankings more inclusive of world opinion than our English-only analysis, although reader comments still complain about the Anglo-centric bias of the results.
  • Variables -- Of the Wikipedia variables we employ in our rankings (two forms of PageRank, hits, edits, and article lengths), Pantheon only employs page hits.   Thus their notion of Fame is more akin to our notion of Celebrity (which loads heavily on hits).  Gravitas is the other component of historical significance, which we found loading most heavily on PageRank.   Thus we would expect their rankings to over-emphasize popular culture ahead of ours.
  • Corrections for Time -- Pantheon employs an exponential decay model of fame in an attempt to correct for the recency bias of fame.   This overcompensates for the passage of time: six of the Pantheon top ten were ancient Greeks, with three others (Jesus, Confucius, and Julius Caesar) living 2,000 or more years ago.   The most recent member of the Pantheon top ten only gets us to the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci).  Our aging model is more sophisticated, and calibrated to appearances of names in 200 years of scanned books / Google Ngrams.
  • Validation -- Their website includes an analysis of how their rankings compare to performance in three sports domains: Formula 1 racing, tennis, and swimming.  Our book discusses how our rankings compare to sports statistics (particularly with respect to baseball), but we also perform a more general set of validation tests, including correlations against 35 published rankings, prices of collectables including paintings and autographs, and public opinion polls.
To their credit, their website is fun to play with and features a host of interesting visualizations.

But how good are the rankings?  It is easy to cherry-pick any set of rankings for things that look weird. They name Rasmus Lerdorf (developer of the programming language PhP, who frankly I had never heard of) among their top 11,000 people, on the strength of being in more than 25 Wikipedia editions (he is actually in 31).  By comparison, we have him as the 51,670th most significant figure.  They rank Justin Bieber at 671 to our 8633, and Johnny Depp at 203 to our 2739, suggesting an over-emphasis of celebrity at the expense of gravitas.

But the right way to compare rankings is through validation measures.   This takes work, but I hope we can do such a study soon.  We will report our results here when we do.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

First Ladies: Siena rank vs. Skiena rank?

As part of a collaboration with C-SPAN, Siena Research Institute has just presented the results of its latest historian poll ranking the top American First Ladies, i.e. the wives of the presidents.  They have conducted five such rankings over the past 31 years, through a process of asking experts where they rank in such categories as Background, Value to the Country, Leadership, Being her own Woman, Accomplishments, and Courage.

We constructed our own rankings of First Ladies in Who's Bigger, through Wikipedia analysis, so it is an interesting exercise to compare our rankings.  Bottom line -- we come off quite well.

We agree with the poll's selection of Eleanor Roosevelt as the top first lady.  In fact, six of our top ten appear among the top ten in the Siena Poll.   All of our top ten rank in the top half of the 38 first ladies ranked by Siena, except for one.   We regard Mary Todd Lincoln as the fifth most significant first lady, where they rank her as the 30th best.   There is no contradiction here: the meme associated with Mary Todd Lincoln is of a needy, crazy woman tormenting her husband when he really had other things to deal with.  She was indeed historically significant, but not in a favorable sense.

Our ranking of the ten least significant First Ladies included three Siena didn't bother to rank.  Chester Arthur and Martin Van Buren were widowers when they entered the White House, so it questionable whether we should have considered their spouses at all.   William Henry Harrison died after a month in office, barely leaving his wife with time to unpack.  Our remaining seven slots are filled with four from Siena's bottom ten (the wives of Taylor, Pierce, Fillmore, and McKinley), with the remaining three all ranking in the bottom half of the Siena poll.

These results demonstrate the ability of our ranking methods to tease apart significance even of relatively minor historical figures (the average first lady ranks in the neighborhood of 15-20,000 or so). My suspicion is that Wikipedia-based rankings does particularly well at this task because the expert panelists probably snuck peaks at the encyclopedia to help answer the poll!   I expect very few historians could keep straight the accomplishments of all the first ladies without a refresher.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Moment of Wikipedia Glory!

Charles and I were surprised and flattered to discover that Who's Bigger has officially been granted its very own Wikipedia page, in English.  By repeating our computational analysis in the future, we will now be able to rigorously determine whether we are bigger than, say, the Bible.   OK, maybe this is somewhat aspirational, but as the first of my five books to earn its own Wikipedia page Who's Bigger already becomes my biggest book by default.

The coolest thing is that for eight hours starting 08:00, 21 January 2014 (UTC) our book held pride of place under Did you know? on the front page of Wikipedia!  Such placement matters.  Statistics show that our page has been accessed 7596 times over the past thirty days, exactly 5144 of which came on January 21.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Professor, R.I.P.

What one is exposed to as a youth can have a tremendous impact on future life paths.   I have spent my full working life as a college professor, but did not come from an academic family. During my youth, there was only one professor I was really aware of, and his model no doubt influenced my choice of career in ways that I am not fully aware of.

I feel moved to acknowledge the influence of Russell Johnson, the Professor on the TV show ``Gilligan's Island'', who passed away today.  He never seemed constrained by disciplinary boundaries; a generalist with deep knowledge of every subject, and a flair for creating high technology items out of coconut shells.  His model of the nerdy academic wandering his tropical island paradise was so compelling that maybe it helped turn me into a nerdy academic wandering my not-so-tropical, Long Island not-so-paradise...

This seems an appropriate opportunity to rank the seven stars of Gilligan's Island by their historical significance:
  • Jim Backus (Mr. Howell) 15,374.
  • Alan Hale, Jr. (The Captain) 23,841.
  • Bob Denver (Gilligan) 26,025.
  • Tina Louise (Ginger) 28,365.
  • Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) 35,815.
  • Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) 43,321.
  • Russell Johnson (The Professor) 48,384.
These actor rankings grossly reflect my sense of reality.   Jim Backus was a genuine movie star (remember him as the father in ``Rebel without a Cause''?) who achieved his greatest cultural role as the voice of Mr. Magoo.  I would have ranked Bob Denver ahead of Alan Hale, but the captain appeared in several movies prior to his role on the show.   None of the four supporting actors ever had any really significant roles outside the show, a typecasting fate which seemed to strike many of the television actors of the era.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Putting "Who's Bigger" in its Proper Place

Not all reviewers of our book "Who's Bigger" have been fully appreciative of our work.   Don't worry: we will look at these in a future blog post.

But the most effective job of putting "Who's Bigger" into proper perspective was done by one Abby Skiena, age 10, the daughter of mine to whom the book was dedicated to.

On the official publication date I presented both of my children with signed copies of the book for them to forever treasure.  Abby was excited enough to bring hers to school the next day for show and tell.

"Abby, did your classmates think the book was cool?," I asked when I got home.

"Kinda," she answered without enthusiasm.  "But you see, I went after Caroline."

"Oh.  What did Caroline have to show?"

"She just got back from Harry Potter World, with lots of souvenirs.  She even passed out Every Flavor Jelly Beans for us to eat.  One kid got vomit flavor..."