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Brainiac

Eminem: Important after all?

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

The Sunday after Thanksgiving I wrote about a new book, “Who’s Bigger?” that uses an algorithm to chew on Wikipedia data and rank the most significant people who ever lived. There are some obvious problems with using Wikipedia as a data source, including its tendency to overemphasize the stature of English speakers, Americans, and contemporary figures. I mentioned these issues and noted that contemporary celebrities like Eminem (ranked the 823d most important person who ever lived) and Miley Cyrus (2,009th) might land a bit too high on the book’s list.

In a blog post published several days later, Steven Skienna, coauthor of the book with Google engineer Charles Ward, jumped in to defend his method. He argued that both Eminem and Miley are “among the most famous individuals in the world, and that has to count for something.” Skienna also wrote that their rankings start to look sturdier when compared with celebrities whose reputations have largely solidified:

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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.

He allows that Miley Cyrus is “more of a stretch”, but not exactly an outlier: Shirley Temple, another child star whose reputation survived, isn’t far away at 2,177.

Ultimately, any argument like this ends up with the question: What is significance? The authors argue that we should think about historical figures as memes that propagate or fade through history. And in this view, they argue that Wikipedia is a particularly good place to measure meme strength—and to find out whether, in the end, Miley Cyrus turns out to matter just as much as Shirley Temple.

A region of American ‘first-footers’

The Dictionary of American Regional English, which for the last 30 years has been the authoritative source on American colloquialisms and local slang, is now online. As a result, you don’t need to consult the five-volume print edition to drop some fresh folk sayings at parties this holiday season. Like “first-footer,” which describes the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day, or “slick and a promise,” which hails from New Jersey, means “a hasty or superficial performance (of a task),” and might be used to describe last-minute scrambling to fill Christmas stockings.

The online dictionary, which was produced by Harvard University Press, lets you look at 100 sample entries for free, beyond which you need a subscription. The website features a map that lets you browse entries by state (Massachusetts’ page features “two-toilet Irish,” “pinkletink”—a young frog on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—and “joe flogger”) and original audio recordings, thick with twang and drawl, made during the initial round of data collection in the late 1960s.

How to keep amazing cooking affordable

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If you follow the high-end food scene, you may have heard of a particular paradox: Winning a Michelin star can actually kill a restaurant. Starred restaurants often spend big to maintain their newly lofty status, which drives up food prices, which drives away diners, which sometimes drives them out of business.

Is it possible to break the cycle—and, generally, the cost traps that make top restaurants almost impossibly expensive for normal people? That’s the question behind a new study by Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano. Pisano studied Davide Oldani, chef/owner of D’O in Cornaredo, Italy, which opened in 2003 and won a single Michelin star a year later. Pisano was drawn to the way Oldani had merged his culinary skills with a management consultant’s eye for efficiency. As a result, dinner at D’O costs around $68 per person—more than a burrito, but far less than you might pay at restaurants of similar esteem.

Pisano’s research—which was published as a business school case study and featured on the HBS website last week—shows how. To keep staffing costs low, Oldani’s chefs double as waiters. He is also “fervent about not wasting food,” charting the “edible share” of different ingredients (a sea bass is 47 percent edible, a hake is 60 percent edible, and a strawberry is 99 percent edible), and only using ingredients when they’re in season, and cheaper. He chooses glassware based on what Pisano calls “breakage costs.”

Of course, Oldani’s remarkable price-quality combination has made his restaurant inaccessible in a whole different way: If you want a table, be prepared to wait at least 18 months.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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