The future is a shoe being thrown at a human face – forever!

by Daniel on December 23, 2008

Ahhh, the curse of a title that you like too much to throw away, but not enough to write a relevant post about. Lengthy, multiply footnoted philosophical meanderings, below the fold.

Update: Unaccountably, I forgot to thank “Robotslave” for massive amounts of help provided in this research. Sorry and thanks!

This was meant to be a title for a post about the utterly fallacious but surprisingly common wishful-thinking belief on the part of wowsers, prigs and other good-government types that “seeing someone throwing a shoe (or custard pie or whatever) at a political figure makes most people think worse of the thrower and his political cause, and sympathetic toward the target”. This simply isn’t true[1]. The instinct to support the underdog isn’t there in nature and one has to arrive at a very high level of civilisation before it becomes a firmly established reaction. And at the sight of airborne humiliation flying toward a political foe, all those centures of evolution drip away, and one’s left just simply pointing and chortling. It’s perhaps not the noblest expression of the human mind, but frankly, any political movement which doesn’t regard this as funny, well, it’s the Emma Goldman moment as far as I’m concerned.

God, I’m never going to get tired of that. Anyway, there’s clearly a Laffer Curve here; on the one hand, if there were no pieings of politicians, the world would be a sad and sorry place, but I’m guessing that if people like Friedman were pied every time they went out, they’d never go out, and we’d still have to read their columns without seeing them occasionally pied. I suspect that we’re not actually on the rightward slope of the Laffer Curve[3] yet and that the world could stand having a few more of these incidents rather than less, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

On the other hand, I never really finished that post because of course, although seeing Bush get shoed was a laugh, it’s a nervous sort of laugh for anyone who is worried about the possibility of President Obama being assassinated, which I know that a lot of people are. And statistically, they’re right to be worried. Roughly 10% of all US Presidents ever elected have been assassinated (4 out of 43), which is roughly as high a death rate as street drug dealers[4]

Which brings me to the actual topic of the post; a link to a post on my other blog where, in comments, we have been working out job-related mortality rates for a variety of professions. To date, we have:

President of the USA: Five job related deaths since 1789 (assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy, plus death of William Henry Harrison from job-related stress illness). That’s 0.022831 job related fatalities per year, in a job that can have only one person doing it at a time. Converting this to more normal units of occupational fatality for comparison with other jobs, that’s 2283 deaths per 100,000 President/years. This compares to 117 deaths per 100k worker/years for timber-cutters, the most dangerous standard occupational category.
Soldier, US Army, Iraq war: Up to March 2006, 392 fatalities per 100k soldier years spent in the Iraqi theatre. But of course, soldiers don’t spend all their time in battle zones, so based on reasonable estimates of fatalities outside combat zones, something around 80 would be more reasonable, more or less comparable to fishermen (anecdotally, the in-Iraq death rate would be comparable to Pacific Northwest crab fishermen, the single most dangerous occupation anyone could find).

Soldier, Iraqi Army, Iraq war: On the other hand, the Iraqi Army doesn’t get rotated out of Iraq, and thus by reasonably sourced estimates sees a job-related fatality rate of close to 800/100kwy.

Prime Minister, United Kingdom: It now gets rather controversial. Spencer Perceval was assassinated (definitely work-related) and Lord Palmerston died of a chill caught while on an official trip to Russia. Henry Pelham’s death in office was regarded at the time to have been related to the stress of his job, but how do we code the deaths of Pitt the Younger, and Lord Wilmington? How about George Canning, whose health was in rapid decline by his second appointment as PM? What about Thomas Cromwell, whose execution was clearly a job-related fatality, but who wasn’t head of government? On reflection, I would count three fatalities since 1688, for a job related fatality rate of 937.5/100k Pmy, but I can see how rates as high as twice that could be supported.

Pope: Even more controversial, here. By definition, all Popes die in office and it is very hard to get any data about Popes having died from job-related illnesses, so we had to scale back the project to estimate the rate of violent job related deaths of Popes. The consensus of historians has seven popes definitely having been murdered, which would give a job-related mortality rate of 476/100k Pope years since Gregory the Great in 540 AD. However …

There are a further ten Popes listed by Wikipedia as possibly having been murdered (this number includes John Paul I, so it apparently doesn’t take much in the way of real evidence to get on this list). Adding them in would boost the Papal fatality rate to 1158/100kPy. And furthermore …

The first 25 Popes were martyred. This is surely the very definition of a job related death, and I don’t really see much case for excluding them as an outlier[6] – in any long run of data, you’re bound to get a couple of periods under which Europe was dominated by a vehemently anti-Christian empire[7]. In order to take this additional data into account, we have to extend the window back to St Peter and 33AD[8], but you still get 2126 job related deaths/100kPy.

Monarch, England/United Kingdom. By the time we got onto these, I was getting a lot better at devising coding schemes, and so stipulated that for monarchs, I would count assassination (with a broad criterion for including rumoured murders), execution, death in battle, or death from illness or accident while travelling with an army in the field as job-related fatalities, and would require the record to be of a serving monarch in order to count (deaths post-abdication[9] not counting). On this basis, since 1066, there have been two deaths in battle (Harold Godwinson, Richard III), four murders (Edward II, Henry IV, Henry VI, Edward V), two executions (Jane Grey, Charles I) and one death during random pillaging on the way back from a Crusade (Richard I). That would make 955 job related deaths/100k king-years. But …

Starting the clock at 1066 seems very arbitrary. Although before Harold Godwinson there wasn’t really a king who controlled a territory recognisable as modern England, are we really going to say that Alfred the Great wasn’t King of England? A more logical place to start IMO would be Egbert of Wessex in 802, which means we have to add Edmund the Magnificent and Saint Edward the Martyr to the tally, but brings the overall death rate down to 912/100kky.

Monarch, France: By this time, very easy – having set up the coding for English monarchs, I knew exactly what to do with difficult cases like Napoleon I (out; would have been in on the basis of the inclusive criterion for rumoured murder, but abdicated and thus was not a monarch at the time of death). The only tricky bit was in adding up the denominator; since the first Carolingian monarch in 843, there have been 1010 years and 100 days of French monarchy, during which there were 9 work-related fatalities. That’s only 890 work related deaths/kky, which is doubly interesting as it is lower than the English figure, even though the French data doesn’t have the benefit of the massive improvements in monarchical health and safety which have been seen in the last couple of hundred years.

Active Party Member, Hezbollah. Data nearly impossible to get, but including suicide bombers[10] and dependent on an estimate of the size of Hezbollah, it’s as much as 1,000 to 2,000 per 100kHy. In any case, it’s very difficult to get any estimate under which being a Hezbollah member is as dangerous as being President.

So, recapitulating and tabulating, worst to safest:

President, USA - 2283
Pope – 2126
Hezbollah, active member – 1000-2000
Prime Minister, UK - 937
Monarch, England/UK – 912
Monarch, France – 890
Soldier, Iraqi Army – 800
Soldier, US Army (while in Iraq, March 2003-March 2006) – 392
Fisherman, Pacific Northwest crab fishing – c400
Timber-cutter – 117
Fisherman, overall – 85
Soldier, US Army – c80

Not necessarily what you’d have expected to see, is it? So anyway, where are we going with this?

First, a plug for The Politics of Large Numbers by Alain Desrosière, translated by Camille Naish. Although the translation is rather unfortunately accurate in rendering dry, pedantic officialese French into dry and pedantic English, it’s a great book (thanks to Laleh and Colin Danby in comments to this thread for encouraging me to persist with it). As you can see above, in order to get to my table of dangerous jobs, I had to make a lot of very arguable coding decisions which had a material effect on the relative positions (as far as I can see, no matter how I cut the numbers, I couldn’t have got the political and spiritual leaders down to the level of Pacific Northwest crab fishermen, but by making different judgement calls, I could certainly have made “Pope” look a lot safer). This is the nuts and bolts of the creation of official statistics and Desrosière’s book is very good on the history of their development and the various stages at which key decisions were made, almost always for political reasons (Germany, France and the UK had very different tracks for the development of their official statistics which reflected the realities of their administration in the 19th century).

Even something as seemingly straightforward as the space on hospital forms for “cause of death” is a minefield. Do you classify medical deaths by listing the organ which failed, or the cause of its failure (infection, trauma, etc)? The question always comes back to – what are you trying to achieve with these statistics? “The Politics of Large Numbers” is an excellent book for anyone who is ever tempted to think Bruno Latour’s work never had any really useful applications.

Second, though, there’s a philosophical issue here. More thoughtful readers will have looked through these mortality table calculations with a growing feeling of unease. The first instinct is to say that the sample sizes are too small for a lot of them, and that therefore the confidence intervals are too wide to make any meaningful comparisons. In my view, though, while that’s certainly evidence of good habits of thought, the actual numbers are large enough to be pretty sure that you can make at least some statements with decent confidence. In particular, it really does look to me as if the risk of assassination faced by a President of the USA is a lot higher than the risk of battlefield death faced by an American soldier. It’s true that the sample size is small nd the confidence interval is wide, but qualitatively, the facts are that modern military casualties are low compared to history[11].

I think the real source of philosophical unease at comparing death rates between heads of state and timber cutters as if it were an apples-to-apples basis[12] is not the small sample in and of itself, but the difference between a historical and a statistical mode of thinking. We’re tempted to think of the deaths of Popes, Presidents and kings as unique historical events, each with an individual set of causes. We know about them through their individual details, and in many cases we speculate and investigate to get a fuller picture of how they came about, whether we’re looking at the minutiae of the Texas Book Depository, or the grand sweep of the Hundred Years’ War.

The occupational deaths of fishermen and lumberjacks, on the other hand, for the most part appear to us mediated through lists of statistics[13], as risks which are part of the job. And in these occupations particularly, because the main sources of risk are such things as the pattern of storms and the direction of a falling tree, it’s even easier to fall into thinking of them in the whole, as stochastic processes, with the individual outcomes as the natural results of a stable distribution.

But on the other hand, of course, ordinary industrial fatalities (including those of timber cutters and fisher men) are unique historical events too, with their own individual causes. And these causes are both proximate and world-historical too; the families of many fishermen who died at sea are entirely aware of the way in which the European Single Market contributed to their bereavement. Similarly, there are statistical regularities even in the assassinations of kings and Popes.

The point is (and it’s a point that’s entirely relevant to a number of our present concerns)[14] that both these points of view need to be held at once[16]. As we head into a New Year which is likely to present uncommon challenges to all of us, bear in mind that nearly everything and everyone in the world is both unique unto themselves, and an example of any number of more general classes. Happy Christmas.

[1] Consider, for example, Bernard-Henri Levy. How many of us know anything about his philosophy in any real depth? How many of us, on the other hand, just know him as the repeated victim of a series of pieings from Noel Godin, and presume “hmmm, BH Levy must be a real pompous twat in order to provoke so many pieings”? In my case, I have read a bit of B-H L, and what I read pretty much confirmed my original opinion based on the pieings. Score one point for Malcom “Blink” Gladwell[2].

[2] Who surely must be well past his pie-by date?

[3] Obviously the equivalent to the tax rate here would be the strength and severity of the security response to pieings, in which context I suppose a few words on the vicious beating of Muntazer al-Zaidi are in order. Like any instance of police brutality, this is of course unacceptable. There is certainly a case to be made that given the high assassination risk faced by US Presidents, there is a public interest in dissuading pieings or shoeings of them, because having loads of “false positives” interferes with their security. But really; was there an epidemic of President-pieings beforehand? I would have thought that the normal legal risks and more or less certainty of getting caught would be deterrent enough in the general case.

[4] The death rate of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation gang studied by Sudhir Venkatesh was much higher – it went up to 25% for a four year period. However, this is generally recognised to have been anomalously high and probably reflects the peak of the crack epidemic rather than a “normal”[5] rate.

[5] What constitutes a “normal” death rate? What’s a “normal” environment for crack gangs, a population who are pretty much by definition abnormal? These and other highly politicised questions of statistics addressed further on down the post.

[6] I suspect that David Kane may take the fact that I have discussed the status of outliers here as being some sort of indication that he is not banned, or that I am interested in once more entering into discussion with him about the Lancet studies of Iraq and the correct treatment of Fallujah. Neither is the case.

[7] You might think that the experience of the Early Christians isn’t terribly relevant to someone considering a career as a Pope today but come on; this really is Mediocristan type of thinking! Lots of people didn’t think that there could be a sustained fall in nominal housing prices either!

[8] Using BCE notation seems something of an affectation in context.

[9] This stipulation also avoids having to consider what to do with Oliver Cromwell in the data for “British Head of State”; Cromwell was executed by beheading, but this wasn’t his cause of death.

[10] The death rate for suicide bombers per mission is obviously high, but less than 100%, as it is surprisingly common for Israeli police to successfully intercept them and take them alive.

[11] While modern medical advances will have helped Presidents to survive assassination attempts better than they have in the past (Garfield and McKinley both died at least partly because of the inability of their doctors to find the bullet), I suspect that they have helped troops in the field even more. Presidential security protection has also improved, and it’s true that in the 107 years since the Secret Service was given the job, the death rate has been only 934/kPy, but this is still twice as high as the estimate for in-theatre troops.

[12] Which is as good an opportunity as any to make my periodic plea about “comparing apples with oranges”. Apples and oranges are really very similar things indeed. If I’ve got three apples and you’ve got two oranges, who out of us has got the most fruit? The answer is “it’s me”, isn’t it, not “who can say, you can’t compare apples with oranges”. They’re roughly the same size, roughly the same calorific value and roughly the same price. You can compare apples to oranges, in as much as you can make comparisons at all. Also, the darkest hour is not just before dawn.

[13] Stalin underestimated statisticians on this one; as few as 454 deaths (the number of fishermen who died between 1976 and 1995 according to the files of the Registrar General for Shipping and Seamen) can be a statistic.

[14] I keep hoping to write a proper review of Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan but realistically my record is not good on delivering on these promises, so I’ll just state the kernel of my disagreement with him here; Taleb rightly castigates people who simply rely on the statistical mode of thinking, but a) his criticism is more often of their use of particular kinds of statistical model rather than of the monoculture of statistical reasoning per se[15], and b) he regularly goes over the edge into claiming that one can or should throw away the whole statistical methodology, which is just as daft as relying on it entirely.

[15] And because I love to repeat a joke, I’ll repeat one of my favourite remarks on quantitative finance – the occasional necessity to remind quant modellers that the Great Depression did actually happen; it wasn’t just a particularly inaccurate observation of the underlying mean return on equities.

[16] Zizek, in The Parallax View makes a similar point and argues further than the nearest we have to an “objective” truth lies in the very act of switching between them, but everyone round here has conniptions when I mention Zizek so I’ll pursue that line no further for the sake of comity.

[17] And because I have more sense than to end on a Zizek footnote, I’ll plug my next big holiday read, “Beyond Human Error“, a book about safety science which seems to tackle the question of integrating the causal/historic and statistical modes of reasoning in a more systematic way.

{ 65 comments }

1

Dave 12.23.08 at 1:15 pm

Zizek, now there’s a face sorely in need of custard.

2

Daniel 12.23.08 at 1:19 pm

Good spot, yes!

3

Buster 12.23.08 at 1:37 pm

From lede to footnotes, a great post! Especially with that delicious Friedman filling in the middle. It’s pretty rare that I find quantitative work interesting, but you’ve successfully entertained me and shamed me into ordering The Politics of Large Numbers.

And I third the Zizek pieing proposal.

4

Tracy W 12.23.08 at 1:37 pm

Well in the spirit of the event, you are mixing up time periods here. What was the death rate for Fishermen – Overall or Timber Cutters across the relevant time periods you are measuring the death rate for the USA President, or the Popes? The death rates for those professions, or soldiering, may well have been far higher than before modern medicine and hygiene standards. Unless of course modern equipment just offers far more opportunities for killing yourself outright as opposed to opportunities for cutting off a finger, thus outweighing the lives saved from infected wounds by antibiotics.

5

Daniel 12.23.08 at 1:42 pm

The death rate for soldiers has gone up and down; the first half of the twentieth century, for example, was a very safe period to be a President, Pope or king, but the worst period on record for soldiers. In general, life-preserving and life-destroying technologies tend to improve at more or less the same rate over the long term. You’re right that boats were probably a lot safer in 1976-95 than they were a hundred years earlier though.

6

Tracy W 12.23.08 at 2:15 pm

I thought the death rate for soldiers has gone down on a broad historical scale, as soldiers now no longer drop dead in massive quantities because of fevers in the camps?

I was actually wondering about the difference in accidental lethalness between hand axes and chainsaws for timber cutters when I was talking about modern equipment. (I don’t have any data to hand.)

7

Zamfir 12.23.08 at 2:27 pm

Brilliant post, but isn’t it a big statistical no-no to include the cases that made you notice the pattern in your research, especially with samll sample sizes?

If you want to know the death rate for American presidents, you can look at all kinds of heads of state except Americans, since the high death rate of the American ones made you research the topic, even though it could be entirely incidental.

8

Zamfir 12.23.08 at 2:43 pm

For emperors of the (West-) Roman Empire I get roughly 12000/100.000 years. There are alot of “Cromwell” type problem here.

9

Aaron Swartz 12.23.08 at 2:47 pm

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant post.

Does anyone have a better source for pieing statistics than http://www.nndb.com/event/911/000093632/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_who_have_been_pied

10

Eszter Hargittai 12.23.08 at 3:09 pm

This post made me LOL several times, thanks!

I would have liked to see some numbers for monarchs past the usual England/France cases, but I appreciate that you’ve already put more than enough time into this investigation.

11

Cryptic Ned 12.23.08 at 3:18 pm

Ahhh, the curse of a title that you like too much to throw away, but not enough to write a relevant post about.

I’ve long had this problem with the phrase “The enemy of my enemy is your mom”. Feel free to use it, anyone.

12

Mrs Tilton 12.23.08 at 4:01 pm

By definition, all Popes die in office

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Consider, for one, poor old Celestine V, whose gran rifiuto, so Dante assures us, landed him in hell (not so much for hanging up his boots prematurely, one suspects, as for thereby making possible the election of Benedetto Gaetani as Boniface VIII).

13

Mrs Tilton 12.23.08 at 4:06 pm

Also, I don’t believe your tendentious nonsense about all those excess deaths of popes. Why, it’s safer in the Vatican than in Washington, D.C.

14

ejh 12.23.08 at 4:17 pm

Also, the darkest hour is not just before dawn

The coldest, maybe?

15

Matt Weiner 12.23.08 at 4:23 pm

I believe Celestine V wasn’t even allowed into Hell proper, but condemned to run around outside the vestibule for what Dante describes as his “cowardice”; one source I read claimed that Celestine feared he would be condemned to Hell if he remained involved with the world as pope. Another source claims that Boniface may have had him murdered not long thereafter, which I think should count as a work-related death.

OTOH I very much doubt the claim that the first 25 popes were martyred.

16

Mrs Tilton 12.23.08 at 4:28 pm

Apples and oranges are really very similar things indeed

As are chalk and cheese, for certain values of “similar”.

17

dk.au 12.23.08 at 4:29 pm

Yes very good post. On fn14 I’ve thrown a bloggy pie of sorts at Taleb for just that reason, also the lack of internal consistency viz. his own strategies.

18

John 12.23.08 at 4:35 pm

Although before Harold Godwinson there wasn’t really a king who controlled a territory recognisable as modern England, are we really going to say that Alfred the Great wasn’t King of England?

That’s not true at all, though. Certainly there have been kings who controlled a territory recognizable as modern England since at least Athelstan in the early 10th century. There were a couple periods when it was divided (the reign of Edwig saw his brother Edgar ruling part of the country, but Edwig died shortly thereafter and Edgar ruled the whole thing; there was some confusion in the last years of Ethelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside).

On this basis, since 1066, there have been two deaths in battle (Harold Godwinson, Richard III), four murders (Edward II, Henry IV, Henry VI, Edward V), two executions (Jane Grey, Charles I) and one death during random pillaging on the way back from a Crusade (Richard I).

I assume you mean Richard II and not Henry IV. However, it should be noted that Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and Edward V had all been deposed prior to their murders; Jane Grey was deposed before her execution, and arguably was never really queen.

There’s a couple of possible ones you miss – William II died in a hunting accident, which might count. Henry I died of a surfeit of lampreys, which could be seen as an occupational hazard. King John died of dysentery due to despair at losing the crown jewels, or some such.

The only tricky bit was in adding up the denominator; since the first Carolingian monarch in 843, there have been 1010 years and 100 days of French monarchy, during which there were 9 work-related fatalities.

Okay, so, going backwards – Louis XVI (executed), Henry IV (assassinated), Henry III (assassinated), Henry II (jousting accident), Philip III (disease contracted on campaign), Louis IX (disease contracted on campaign), Louis VIII (disease contracted on campaign), Louis V (poisoned by his mother, maybe), Robert I (killed in battle). Is that right?

19

Anderson 12.23.08 at 4:40 pm

Using BCE notation seems something of an affectation in context.

Best sentence I will read this week.

20

nick s 12.23.08 at 4:43 pm

Izh it not zhe cayshe zhat a cuzhtard pie in zhe fayshe reprezshentzh zhe triumph of zhe unexshpected?

21

roac 12.23.08 at 5:26 pm

I had always understood that the death of William II was widely ascribed at the time to his brother Henry, and that the historical consensus was “Maybe.” As recorded in the following clerihew (the work of the eponymous E.C. Bentley himself):

There exists no proof as
To who shot William Rufus
But shooting him would seem
To have been quite a sound scheme

22

oljb 12.23.08 at 5:39 pm

What about ol’ Rough and Ready? Zachary Taylor died following a work-related spell of severe indigestion after eating too much milk, cherries and ice water at an independence day function. It is likely that his end would not have come to pass in that manner had he not been President.

You could make a similar argument for FDR- one would think the extreme stress involved in the events of his administration might have accelerated his demise.

23

Steve LaBonne 12.23.08 at 5:42 pm

I believe Celestine V wasn’t even allowed into Hell proper, but condemned to run around outside the vestibule for what Dante describes as his “cowardice”

Indeed:

E io, che riguardai, vidi una ‘nsegna
che girando correva tanto ratta,
che d’ogne posa mi parea indegna;

e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

Poscia ch’io v’ebbi alcun riconosciuto,
vidi e conobbi l’ombra di colui
che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

24

John Emerson 12.23.08 at 5:57 pm

It would be interesting to compare the Scandinavian and American death rates among timber cutters. The American timber industry is famously brutal in the way it treats workers. One guy told me that he only knew one logger who ever worked until retirement, and this was partly because companies would fire people as soon as they were within a year of vesting in the retirement plan. (Treat as first-hand information to me, second hand to you). recently logging and mining have been increasingly mechanized, and death rates may have gone down for the industry as a whole, though presumably not for loggers using traditional methods.

Some of the same factors may figure in American fisheries, which also emphasize small-boat fishing by individual owners.

One friend worked on a small crab boat whose crew was otherwise Aleut. They kept looking at him and speaking Aleut to each other, and he came to believe that he’d been hired to be crab bait. Sure, he was a racist, but there’s one thing worse than being a racist, and that’s being a ex-racist who’s been eaten by crabs — Alaskan fisherman have a strong aversion to being eaten by crabs. (At the same time, “Eaten By Crabs” would be a good title for a “Titanic” sequel.)

25

John Emerson 12.23.08 at 6:00 pm

The last ten or so Roman Emperors survived in office for something like 18 months apiece, IIRC.

26

P O'Neill 12.23.08 at 6:07 pm

Didn’t John Prescott come out ahead in public opinion when the egg headed his way, not least for his innovation of landing a punch on the thrower?

27

John Emerson 12.23.08 at 6:08 pm

Jazz and rock musicians also have low life expectancies.

Alaskan Bush pilots may not be a statistical category, but some claim that the death rate is 100% for those who don’t switch careers once they figure out the odds.

28

dr. doctrine 12.23.08 at 6:10 pm

I demur on connecting pies to Zizek!’s face. Zizek! suffers from an inappropriate use of venue. Put Zizek! at The Mirage as the opening act for Siegried & Roy. Now, Zizek!’s work make sense. Context, Baby, Context (sung to the chant of Drill, Baby, Drill).

29

Matt Weiner 12.23.08 at 6:10 pm

That is to say (Mandelbaum trans., Canto II):

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on-so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people-I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

30

Matt Weiner 12.23.08 at 6:11 pm

Oops, Canto III.

31

John Emerson 12.23.08 at 6:12 pm

Nine Western Emperors in 21 years. I was wrong. 28 months per.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_Emperors

32

Donald Johnson 12.23.08 at 6:29 pm

Cryptic Ned–Wouldn’t the enemy of your enemy be your mom? No offense, but my mom is not about to take on your battles.

33

PabloK 12.23.08 at 6:33 pm

Hmmm. Not sure about the Zizek proposal. Surely pieing only really works on the pompous?

There may well be many objectionable things about The Giant Of Llubljana, and we may even condemn his philosophy as pretentious. But the man himself is much more like an over-eager prodigy. He thinks faster than he can speak, while Friedman can barely think at all (on which note – http://www.nytimes-se.com/2009/07/04/the-end-of-the-experts/).

Imagine him in Friedman’s place – would he not exactly say something like “zhe triumph of zhe unexshpected”?

34

rea 12.23.08 at 6:36 pm

Why this disrespecting of Zachery Taylor and Warren G. Harding, not to mention FDR?

35

apostropher 12.23.08 at 7:17 pm

With the exception of Kennedy, your list of dead presidents exited in roughly 20-yr cycles over a 60-yr span over a century ago (1841, 1865, 1881, 1901). Since then, only the one in 107 years. The trend is improving!

36

mark 12.23.08 at 7:23 pm

I’d be curious what numbers you’d crunch for US astronauts :)

37

phil 12.23.08 at 7:31 pm

Robotslave? You’re really bringing out the old Adequacy.org research guns, eh.

38

virgil xenophon 12.23.08 at 8:31 pm

I’ll add my voice to the others–what an interesting and finely reasoned post–with a bit of humor thrown in. I think Daniel means (ejh@14) that it’s always darkest before
it goes totally black.

39

Matthew Kuzma 12.23.08 at 9:28 pm

I like your conclusion. I tend to make a similar argument when it comes to issues of great social significance. Drug use is a social epidemic and we need to treat it as such, with things like education campaigns and needle-exchange programs and treatment centers and whatever. But it’s also an individual choice, every time. The problem with the “personal responsibility” line of thinking on such issues is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re only getting part of the story. When the economy gets worse, robberies go up, and while that statistic is made of individual choices and actions, it’s also clearly correlated and probably caused by gross economic trends. It’s important to remember in all those cases that both forces are at play, and each one is two problems at once.

40

Cryptic Ned 12.23.08 at 11:45 pm

Do robot slaves really care if they are thanked or not?

41

Dioktos 12.24.08 at 12:30 am

I believe the deaths per kilo-Pope-year figure is unrepresentative of the underlying process; namely, that the shorter the term of the pope, the more likely he is to have died an unnatural death. Perhaps there would be a better statistic to summarise this process?

42

roy belmont 12.24.08 at 12:47 am

The darkest apples come just before the oranges of dawn, as this post succeeds to most journalism, professional or not.
Superior in all the ways that matter, and your mom.

43

Chris A. Williams 12.24.08 at 1:24 am

” are we really going to say that Alfred the Great wasn’t King of England?”

Not as such, but I’ve just got Michael Portillo to say it for me, which is arguably cooler:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00g2zrt

44

JP Stormcrow 12.24.08 at 2:56 am

Score one point for Malcom “Blink” Gladwell.

[2] Who surely must be well past his pie-by date?

Yes, the idea of pieing him must be approaching some manner of threshold, a moment of critical mass, … something like that.

45

garymar 12.24.08 at 6:11 am

This stipulation also avoids having to consider what to do with Oliver Cromwell in the data for “British Head of State”; Cromwell was executed by beheading, but this wasn’t his cause of death.

It took me a while to get this joke. Do we get to count Jeremy Bentham’s head when doing rugby statistics?

46

Aulus Gellius 12.24.08 at 8:44 am

Why this disrespecting of Zachery Taylor and Warren G. Harding, not to mention FDR?

I’m the one who suggested W.H. Harrison over at Daniel’s other site, and this has been beginning to worry me, too. What would it take for a natural-causes death of an older man in an intensely stressful job NOT to be work-related? I’d tend to leave out FDR, actually (he seems more like one of those popes, in that they kept on electing him, and he had to die eventually); but Harding is tempting. Of course, in his case, the cause would be more disgrace than just general stress, but I don’t think that distinction matters, unless we’re prepared to leave out, e.g., fishermen who died due to poor boat-handling skills. About Taylor, I just don’t know enough to have an opinion.

(Also, I have only a dilettante’s knowledge of American History; I hope someone more expert will correct me.)

47

rea 12.24.08 at 12:01 pm

I’d tend to leave out FDR, actually (he seems more like one of those popes, in that they kept on electing him, and he had to die eventually)

He was only 63 (1882-1945)–quite young by world leader standards.

48

Mike 12.24.08 at 12:09 pm

Roughly 10% of all US Presidents ever elected have been assassinated (4 out of 43), which is roughly as high a death rate as street drug dealers

This seems quite apropos, though, were there any justice in the world, given the relative harm done, the number for presidents would be higher.

49

Mike 12.24.08 at 1:18 pm

With the exception of Kennedy, your list of dead presidents exited in roughly 20-yr cycles over a 60-yr span over a century ago (1841, 1865, 1881, 1901).

There’s the well-known observation that, for a long time and until fairly recently, presidents elected in years divisible by 20 died in office:

William Henry Harrison: 1840 (d 1841)
Abraham Lincoln: 1860 (d 1865)
James Garfield: 1880 (d 1881)
William McKinley: 1900 (d 1901)
Warren Harding: 1920 (d 1923)
Franklin Roosevelt: 1940 (d 1945)
John F Kennedy: 1960 (d 1963)
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and survived an assassination attempt.

The Shrub was elected in 2000 and, astoundingly enough, nobody seems to have been sufficiently motivated to take him out. Outrage fatigue, perhaps.

50

Zamfir 12.24.08 at 2:07 pm

Paranoid security seems more likely? I suspect there have been attempts on his life every 5 days or so, but if they were to publish that, he would seem even less popular…

51

apostropher 12.24.08 at 3:31 pm

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and survived

Man, Reagan really did ruin everything.

52

Michael Drake 12.24.08 at 3:56 pm

You forgot to include the actuarials on Assistant to Otto Preminger, which I think are just slightly less favorable than those of Kamikaze.

53

KCinDC 12.24.08 at 7:07 pm

nobody seems to have been sufficiently motivated to take him out.

There was the guy with the grenade.

54

Maximus 12.24.08 at 7:14 pm

The Pie Is Flat

55

Robert 12.25.08 at 12:40 am

I think you’re simplifying the “exposure to risk” denominator. Once you allowed for a difference between the Army mortality rate in Iraq as opposed to elsewhere, you opened a can of worms. For example, surely Northern Pacific crab fishermen are at much higher risk while at sea than while on land. Thus, having opened that can, you need to argue why you shouldn’t also adjust the crab fishermen rate for their differential exposure: if they are only at sea one-third the time then the relevant job-related mortality rate should be trebled. Presidents are on duty 24/7, unless they’re reading My Pet Goat, so their exposure time is about right. In addition, one might want to look at the risks relative to the alternative occupations available; so you’d compare the mortality risk of Presidents to, say, those of governors, senators, and Hollywood actors, not crab fishermen.

56

Daniel 12.25.08 at 1:35 am

Thus, having opened that can, you need to argue why you shouldn’t also adjust the crab fishermen rate for their differential exposure: if they are only at sea one-third the time then the relevant job-related mortality rate should be trebled

See D^2D comments for lengthy and surprisingly bitter discussions of this topic.

57

Lee A. Arnold 12.25.08 at 2:55 am

Daniel I think you are one of my favorite writers. There are so many good writers on this site. Happy Holidays!

58

Barry Freed 12.25.08 at 7:29 am

I second Lee A. Arnold’s sentiment above. Also, maybe I’m just being thick but I don’t get the Cromwell joke.

59

Robert 12.25.08 at 8:54 am

See D^2D comments for lengthy and surprisingly bitter discussions of this topic.

Yow. Yes, even these light topics can leave the lingering taste of wormwood. Nonetheless, I concur with Sir S.

60

Gdr 12.26.08 at 12:02 pm

I don’t get the Cromwell joke.

Richard III was hanged, but that wasn’t his cause of death either.

61

Barry Freed 12.26.08 at 12:29 pm

Ah, drowned too, I see.

62

Chris 12.26.08 at 10:31 pm

Zamfir in comment 7 raises an interesting point:

isn’t it a big statistical no-no to include the cases that made you notice the pattern in your research, especially with samll sample sizes?

Perhaps the data on English and French monarchs are meant to address this problem to some extent, but I think the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is a real concern here – some nation’s leaders have to get killed more than any other’s, but there’s not necessarily sufficient reason to think that is anything more than bad luck.

63

Watson Aname 12.26.08 at 10:54 pm

Is there any reason to think it’s just bad luck that it happens in a nation with an inordinately high level of gun violence in general, when compared to “similar” nations?

64

John Emerson 12.27.08 at 2:18 am

Some people think of the glass as half empty. Others think of it as half full. Some think of the Presidents who were assassinated, and other of the far greater number who weren’t. And then there are the normative questions about what the optimal number would be.

65

Aulus Gellius 12.27.08 at 7:14 am

The more I think about it, the more I think more presidential deaths have to be on the list. For one thing, if you’re going to accept suspected poisonings for English kings, you ought to accept it for Harding (though probably not for Taylor): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Presidential_assassination_attempts#Warren_G._Harding

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