STUMP » Articles » Lazy Sunday: Around the Webosphere on Death, Pensions, and Achilles » 29 January 2017, 10:59

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Lazy Sunday: Around the Webosphere on Death, Pensions, and Achilles  


29 January 2017, 10:59

One of these things is not like the other….

…oh wait, it’s totally like the other things.

Before I begin, thanks to my recent linkers:

Howdy to my facebook fans interested in my Kentucky posts! There sure are a lot of you….


I told you so.

But fine, let these MIT folks tell you.

In 2016 hundreds of famous people died. David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Vera Rubin, and Thomas Schelling, are just a few names on this list. But was 2016 a particularly bad year? Or will 2017 be “worse”?

Many people think that 2016 was particularly bad, but data tells us that it is not an exception. In fact, we should expect more famous people to die in 2017 than in 2016. Why? The answer is simple: because the number of famous people has increased over time.

Of course there are a few caveats you may be considering, such as: who qualifies as famous? Or, is the increasing number of famous people just a consequence of global population growth?

To answer the first question, here we use a simple definition of fame that we can implement using data. We define someone as famous if we can read about them in many languages. How many languages? 20 or more to be exact. That is, we focus on the 29,421 people who was present in more than 20 Wikipedia language editions as of February, 2016.

The second question was whether the number of famous people has increased simply because the population of the world has increased. Our data shows that this is not the case. For centuries, the growth in famous people has been outpacing that of global population. As you can see in this paper and in this short talk, the number of famous people born in a given year used to be a fraction of global population prior to the invention of printing, and also, for the 200 years after printing (although it was a larger fraction). Since the late seventeenth century, however, the number of famous people born in each year has been proportional to the square of global population. That is, the number of births of famous people, divided by the population of the world at that time, has been increasing linearly over time. Moreover, that proportionality constant has increased with the introduction of new communication technologies. The slope that emerged with the popularization of shorter forms of printing, like journals and newspapers in the late seventeenth century, increased with the introduction of new communication technologies, like film, radio, and television. So in the twentieth century we produced famous people at a rate we never did before.
So how has the median age, or year of birth, of the globally famous people who passed away each year changed over this period? Are we observing the death of increasingly older people? To some extent. On Figure 3 we observe, in the year 2000, the median birth year of the celebrities who died was 1920. Meaning 80 years old. In 2015 and 2016 it was, respectively, 1932 and 1930, or 83 and 86 years old. So the median age of the deceased individual has increased.

Figure 4 looks at the occupational categories of the famous people who passed away each year. You can click on the names of categories to turn these on or off. The most popular category is performing artists. Its representation has increased over time. In the year 2000, performing artists deaths represented 29 percent of all celebrity deaths. In 2016, they were 36 percent of the total. Scientists, on the other hand, have been almost constant as a proportion of total celebrity deaths. They represented 10.5 percent in the year 2000 while in 2016 they were 9.9 percent. Celebrities from humanities, have slightly decreased as a proportion of total celebrity deaths. They represented 15 percent in the year 2000 while in 2016 they were less than 11 percent.

Should we expect the number of famous people who die each year to continue to increase? Probably for the next years, but not forever. The rise of communication technologies in the last six centuries, from printing to social media, has increased the number of people who see their work amplified and remembered (although fame is fleeting, meaning that not everyone that is famous in a time period is remembered forever). Despite this rise in communication technologies, we may soon reach a time when what will limit the number of famous people we produce will no longer be our means of communication, but our limited attention and human memory. Maybe, we are already there.

They’ve got some dumb interactive graphics, so here is a screenshot:

We discussed this piece a bit on the Actuarial Outpost. Yes, we have a death pool, why do you ask?

Again, as I said, the baby boom is a huge driver of these increasing numbers. There’s nothing particularly surprising going on.

And my last surviving grandparent mentioned in the post from February last year?

She is no longer surviving. Grandma Campbell died January 18, 2017, and now I’m one generation closer to death myself.

More: Death Comes for Us All


Mark Glennon is One of the Most Dangerous Men in Illinois:

Mark Glennon is a former corporate attorney and venture capitalist who understands bond markets, public sector pensions, the truth about Illinois’ confiscatory property tax system and the rest of the state’s financial house of cards and he breaks it all down at the news site he founded, Glennon’s facility with translating the Illinois Ruling Class’ fantasy math into the tangible human costs it imposes makes him a dangerous man to Illinois pols and a must-read for Illinois residents.

On this edition of Against The Current, we explore questions with Mr. Glennon like, does Illinois have problems that can be solved or is it simply in a predicament with inevitable outcomes short of changes to federal bankruptcy law? Can underfunded pension be salvaged? Is there a way to bring Illinois home values back, particularly for the 500,000 homes that are seriously underwater? What will happen to Illinois if it continues to lead the nation in out-migration?

We’ll explore all of these topics and more with Founder Mark Glennon on this installment of Against The Current.

Man, I’m almost jealous.

What’s the scotch? I favor Laphroaig myself. Not much for cigars.

Glennon isn’t the most dangerous man in Illinois (only one of them)…obviously, Madigan is the most dangerous. The Daleys would be if they hadn’t conveniently faded away as danger has only increased.

Mark Glennon’s Wirepoints has been a long-time linker of my Illinois-related blog posts. Don’t worry, Mark, I’ll be doing more Illinois & Chicago soon enough.


Okay, okay, this is more of a minireview of an audiobook than something from the webosphere.

For the longest time, I’ve preferred the Odyssey over the Iliad (and both of them over the Aeneid. Blech.)

Part of the reason I preferred the Odyssey is that Odysseus was a much more appealing hero than sulky ole Achilles.

This book changed my mind. (Not about preferring Odysseus, which I still do, but about Achilles being a poopypants.)

The War that Killed Achilles makes the argument that the Iliad is very special in being, actually, an anti-war epic, and is more tragedy than epic. The author, Caroline Alexander, sold me on this, using not only the text of the Iliad itself, but also other background material from the epic cycle as well as recent examples not only from archaeology, but the experience of more recent soldiers, from WWI to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This book steps through the 24 books of the Iliad, explaining the action (and yes, Agamemnon was an awful leader) as well as background stories that Homer’s audience would have known but we have lost over the millennia. One of the chapters is simply Alexander’s translation of the book in which Hector dies.

The point was that Achilles had a legitimate grievance and, unlike the other Greeks, had been tricked into joining the campaign. He’s not actually in it for glory, though that’s what he gets. Ultimately, he ends up fighting for personal reasons, not for Helen or the Greeks or something larger. Also, the amount of gory detail was emphasizing the “war is hell”, and the awful Agamemnon demonstrating screw-up generals that far preceded WWI.

The audiobook version is excellent, with my only quibble being how they repeat the sentence from the prior CD at the beginning of the next CD. That’s unusual (and I consume a lot of audiobooks) and I found it annoying. But other than that, it was very well done.

Enjoy what’s left of the weekend!

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