Category Archives: Statistics

Smoking and creativity: a few data points

Bruce Charlton recently posted on a possible link between smoking and creative accomplishment. In the comments, Dennis Mangan said that nicotine seemed especially helpful for writers and even asked, “Has there ever been a great writer who wasn’t a smoker?” Out of curiosity, I decided to check.

I took out Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, looked at the highest-ranking writers in his roster of significant figures in Western literature — those with a score of at least 25 on a scale from 1 (Joyce Cary, DuBose Heyward, and others of like stature) to 100 (Shakespeare) — and tried to find out who smoked and who didn’t. I had originally planned to check a larger number of writers, but sleuthing out the smoking habits of historical figures quickly becomes tedious. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I found. If you have additional information about the smoking habits of any of these people, please leave a comment.

Smokers

  • Molière: “No matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living.”
  • Lord Byron: “Sublime tobacco! which from east to west / Cheers the tar’s labor or the Turkman’s rest. / Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe / When tipp’d with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe; / Like other charmers, wooing the caress / More dazzlingly when daring in full dress; / Yet thy true lovers more admire by far / Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!”
  • Dostoevsky: a heavy smoker, rolled his own cigarettes
  • Schiller
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • T. S. Eliot: died of emphysema reportedly brought on by his heavy smoking
  • Milton: smoked a pipe every night before going to bed
  • Baudelaire
  • Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
  • Dickens
  • Keats

Smokers who quit

  • Tolstoy
  • Émile Zola: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco.”

Non-smokers by choice

These people lived at a time when tobacco was available but did not use it.

  • Goethe: “Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison. These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and [cross].”
  • Rousseau
  • Voltaire
  • Victor Hugo: hated smoking, refused to allow anyone to smoke around him

Non-smokers of necessity

These people lived and died before tobacco had been introduced into the Old World.

  • Dante
  • Virgil
  • Homer
  • Petrarch
  • Boccaccio
  • Euripides
  • Horace
  • Cicero
  • Ovid
  • Aeschylus
  • Sophocles

Unknown

I’ve been unable to find any definite information on these people’s smoking habits.

  • Shakespeare: never mentions tobacco in his writing, but that doesn’t prove anything
  • Jean Racine
  • Ibsen
  • Balzac
  • James Joyce
  • Cervantes
  • Gogol
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rilke: a biography mentions that he at first considered tobacco smoke “vile” but later got used to the smell; implies that he was a non-smoker, though I suppose he may have taken up the habit later
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Trends in Mormon scripture citations 2: Who cites what

I’ve been playing with BYU’s LDS Scripture Citation Index again. This time, instead of looking at general trends over time, I focused on the citation habits of individual church leaders — all Apostles and First Presidency members who have at least 300 citations in the database, 48 individuals in all. (Heber J. Grant is excluded, as are all Apostles junior to Henry B. Eyring.)

In the social network diagram below, gray ellipses represent church leaders (labeled with their initials; GaS is George A. Smith, GAS is George Albert Smith, and jfs is Joseph Fielding Smith). The darker the shade of gray, the more recently the person was ordained an Apostle. Colored rectangles represent books of scripture. A link between a leader and a book means that the leader’s number of citations from that book (measured as a percentage of his total citations) is at least one standard deviation above the average for the 48 leaders in the database. Six of the 48 leaders analyzed — including current church president Thomas S. Monson and the late James E. Faust, recently of the First Presidency — don’t show up on the diagram at all because their quoting habits are so utterly unexceptional. (The other four are Heber C. Kimball, Franklin D. Richards, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith.)

The links do not necessarily indicate which books a given leader cites the most often. For example, Brigham Young quoted from the New Testament twice as much as from the Old (46% and 23%, respectively) — but when you compare those figures to the average rates of citation (40% for the New Testament, 15% for the Old), he stands out as an Old Testament man.

The diagram illustrates very clearly the recent rise of the Book of Mormon, pioneered by Ezra Taft Benson and followed by every apostle ordained under his leadership.

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Trends in Mormon scripture citations

Someone recently referred me to Brigham Young University’s online LDS Scripture Citation Index, a database of scripture citations from General Conference (an event, held twice a year, in which the top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints give speeches addressed to the general membership), and, just as I usually do when presented with a lot of data on a topic that interests me, I proceeded to waste far too much of my rather limited free time crunching numbers and looking for interesting patterns.

The Mormon scriptural canon consists of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of Joseph Smith’s “revelations”), and a slim volume of miscellanea called the Pearl of Great Price. The graph below shows how many times each book of scripture was cited each year from 1942 to 2009. (The figures for 1957 have been doubled because only one conference was held that year instead of the usual two.)

As you can see, the Book of Mormon, which had previously been languishing in Pearl-of-Great-Price-like obscurity, suddenly shot to the top in 1985, since which time it has been cited about as frequently as the New Testament (formerly the undisputed top dog) and Doctrine and Covenants. What happened in 1985? Ezra Taft Benson.

It’s also interesting to look at the changing fortunes of some individual verses. The tables below show the number of citations per decade for eleven especially prominent passages. These eleven were chosen because each of them has had at least one decade in which it was cited 30 times or more.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 has been steadily rising in popularity and is the only Bible verse to have reached the 30-citation mark in the post-Benson era.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Matthew 22:39 and John 17:3 both peaked in the sixties and have been declining — but not dramatically — since.

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Acts 4:12, which also peaked in the sixties, is clearly on the way out.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

These three verses from the Book of Mormon — 2 Nephi 31:20, Mosiah 3:19, and Mosiah 18:9 — all leapt to prominence in the Benson era and have been popular ever since.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Moroni 10:4 is the only Book of Mormon verse to have reached the 30-citation mark before Ezra Taft Benson. It actually dropped in popularity during his tenure, though it seems to be making a comeback.

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

If scriptures were stocks, this would be the one to invest in. It’s gone from zero to 36 and shows no signs of slowing down. I’m not sure what exactly that says about the Mormon zeitgeist, since it seems like a pretty nondescript verse to me.

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Although the Pearl of Great Price is consistently Mormonism’s least-cited book of scripture, the two heavyweight champion verses — Moses 1:39 and Joseph Smith History 1:17 — both come from it. Moses 1:39 is the only verse to have been cited at least 30 times in every one of the six decades.

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Euripides’s greatest hits

A quick glance at Amazon or LibraryThing is usually all it takes to find out what a given author’s most popular works are, but it’s not that easy for an author like Euripides, whose plays are published in collections more often than as stand-alone works. For the following statistics, I went to LibraryThing’s Euripides page, looked at all the books owned by at least ten users, and broke them down into their contents, given a more realistic picture of the popularity of each individual work. For example, only 64 users own Electra as a book, which would make it Euripides’s 8th most popular play; if we tally up all the collections and anthologies which include Electra, though, it shoots up to third place, owned by 2,133 users.

Medea, the most popular of Euripides’s plays, is owned by 3,246 LibraryThing users, and the numbers in parentheses below represent percentages of that number. I also note which plays won prizes at the City Dionysia.

  1. Medea (100, third prize)
  2. Bacchae (79, first prize)
  3. Electra (66)
  4. Alcestis (65, second prize)
  5. Trojan Women (54, second prize)
  6. Ion (49)
  7. Hippolytus (45, first prize)
  8. Iphigenia in Tauris (42)
  9. Hecuba (39)
  10. Iphigenia at Aulis (39, first prize)
  11. Heracles (35)
  12. Children of Heracles (34)
  13. Cyclops (33)
  14. Helen (31)
  15. Phoenician Women (27)
  16. Andromache (20)
  17. Orestes (16)
  18. Suppliant Women (15)
  19. Rhesus (14)

I’m pleased to note that the volume I own — Signet Classic’s Euripides: Ten Plays, translated by Paul Roche — matches this list very well, coinciding almost exactly with its top ten (the one exception being that it includes Cyclops rather than Hecuba). The modern popularity of Euripides’s works also seems to be in broad agreement with the judgment of his contemporaries; of his six prize-winning plays, four of them also make the top six on the above list, and one of them misses it by a hair. (The other, Iphigenia at Aulis, won the prize as part of a trilogy that included Bacchae, so it may not have been first-prize material in its own right.)

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The favorite authors of those who should know

If you’re going to take book recommendations from strangers — or, as I more often do, from statistics derived from large sets of strangers — how do you know which strangers’ opinions to take into account? Considering all opinions indiscriminately — the “bestsellers” approach — is clearly suboptimal. It’ll point you to some good books, but also to a lot of least-common-denominator crap.

Another approach is to use a few books you personally like as a litmus test; if somebody else also likes those books, you’ll trust their taste. This is the idea behind the “people who like this book also like…” feature found on Amazon, LibraryThing, and various other book websites. This unfortunately, tends to point you to books that are already on your radar anyway; it doesn’t expand your horizons. And if you’re not really all that extraordinarily well-read, why on earth should you take your own personal favorites as the standard by which to judge everyone else’s taste? Maybe there’s a whole universe of books out there that you would love but which you’ve never heard of because they’re far removed from the kind of stuff you usually read. Getting your recommendations from other people who read the kind of stuff you do won’t help you find them.

So, here’s an alternative standard: The more books you’ve read, the more weight I give to your opinions about books. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I’d be more likely to take restaurant recommendations from someone who’s eaten at hundreds of local restaurants than from someone who’s only been to a few. The same logic goes for books. If you say Author X is one of the best you’ve ever read, that simply means more if you’ve read thousands of books rather than dozens. Of course not everyone who’s read a lot is going to have good taste, but statistically, it seems that they’d be much more likely to have good taste — to be making informed judgments — than your average joe.

So here’s what I did. LibraryThing Zeitgeist offers statistics on which users have the largest libraries. Of course not everyone who catalogues 10,000 books on LibraryThing has actually read all 10,000 of them, but still, statistically speaking, these people are likely to be very well-read. Of the users on the biggest-libraries list, I ignored anyone whose profile didn’t list any favorite authors. Of those who remained, I looked at the 50 with the largest libraries, collected their favorite authors, and saw which authors turned up the most frequently.

Among these 50 presumably well-read people, the most popular author was Shakespeare (considered a favorite by 12 out of the 50), closely followed by P. G. Wodehouse and James Joyce. If, on the other hand, we look at the most-favorited authors of the LibraryThing community at large, we find J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, and J. K. Rowling neck-and-neck for the top position (their exact ranking changes every day, but it’s always those four). This has a certain face validity. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is universally considered the greatest of the great by people who know literature, and that the Harry Potter books are notable for being read by people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading anything at all.

Without further ado, here are my results: a list of all the authors who are considered favorites by at least 5 out of 50 of the well-read users in my sample. The list is in alphabetical order, with the number of favorites in parentheses.

  1. Douglas Adams (5)
  2. Margaret Atwood (5)
  3. Jane Austen (6)
  4. Samuel Beckett (7)
  5. Jorge Luis Borges (5)
  6. Lois McMaster Bujold (8)
  7. Italo Calvino (5)
  8. Anton Chekhov (5)
  9. C. J. Cherryh (5)
  10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (5)
  11. Charles Dickens (6)
  12. Umberto Eco (5)
  13. George Eliot (5)
  14. Neil Gaiman (8)
  15. Gabriel García Márquez (6)
  16. Nikolai Gogol (6)
  17. Henry James (5)
  18. Diana Wynne Jones (8)
  19. James Joyce (10)
  20. Franz Kafka (7)
  21. Mercedes Lackey (5)
  22. H. P. Lovecraft (5)
  23. Anne McCaffrey (5)
  24. Robin McKinley (6)
  25. Vladimir Nabokov (5)
  26. Patrick O’Brian (5)
  27. George Orwell (6)
  28. Mervyn Peake (5)
  29. Terry Pratchett (7)
  30. J. K. Rowling (6)
  31. Dorothy L. Sayers (5)
  32. W. G. Sebald (5)
  33. William Shakespeare (12)
  34. Stendhal (5)
  35. Leo Tolstoy (7)
  36. Mark Twain (5)
  37. Evelyn Waugh (5)
  38. Oscar Wilde (6)
  39. P. G. Wodehouse (11)
  40. Virginia Woolf (6)

Many of these authors are also popular with the LT community at large — there’s quite a lot of overlap, actually — but the rankings tend to be very different. Among the 50 users I looked at, for example, Jane Austen is only half as popular as Shakespeare, compared to four times as popular in the general population. Of the authors on this list, the least generally popular are Stendhal, Gogol, and Sebald. (By “generally popular,” I mean considered a favorite by a large number of LibraryThing users.) The most generally popular authors who do not make this list are J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Kurt Vonnegut.

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