10 Things I Didn’t know about P.T. Barnum (1810-1891)

Barnum_Humbug
Contemporary cartoon of Barnum as a “humbug”

Sure, we all know him as a great promoter, showman and founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus (at age 60) but here are some things I didn’t know.

  1. He created America’s first aquarium.
  2. He was a Republican member of the Connecticut legislature and the mayor of Bridgeport.
  3. He started Bridgeport Hospital.
  4. He almost bought the birth home of William Shakespeare.
  5. He created the concept of matinées to encourage families to come to the theater and to lessen the fear of crime.
  6. A self-proclaimed humbug himself, he offered $500 to any medium who could prove power to communicate with the dead in his book Humbugs of the World.
  7. He sponsored a law against contraception that was not overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965.
  8. He made significant contributions to Tufts University, including Jumbo the circus elephant.
  9. He never actually said “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
  10. He made arrangements to read his own obituary shortly before he died.

Source: Wikipedia, “P.T. Barnum”

Bara, Theda (1885-1955)

Silent Film Actress Theda Bara in
1915 — Theda Bara, epitome of the vamps, in a scene from “Carmen.” Undated movie still. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Theda Bara is one of the most famous actresses you’ve never heard of.

As one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, she was one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname “The Vamp” (short for vampire). Critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, cold-hearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded, “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin. For I believe that humanity needs the moral lesson and it needs it in repeatedly larger doses.”  She did claim, however, that “[t]here’s a little bit of vampire instinct in every woman (IMDB.com).”

At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week ($81,900 per week in today’s dollars). She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.

It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious, with an exotic background. The studios promoted Bara with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed she had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, then moved to France to become a stage actress. (None of these claims was true.) They called her the “Serpent of the Nile” and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews.

Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic “wanton woman” to develop a more versatile career.  She was philosophical about it: “To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad, I’ll always be remembered (IMDB.com).”

Bara represented several Hollywood firsts: sex appeal, publicity and press agents, and typecasting.  Bara herself suggested one Hollywood last:

To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion. Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them. Why, women kicked my photographs as they went into the theaters where my pictures were playing. And once on the streets of New York, a woman called the police because her child spoke to me (IMDB.com).

Credits:

  1. Information from Wikipedia, “Theda Bara”
  2. Conversion of dollar values from http://bit.ly/1QLGgXT
  3. IMDB: http://imdb.to/1ViZ5ZM
  4. Photo from http://bit.ly/1RPY9d0

 

 

auction

Peep-at-Christies-Gillray_jpeg

Are misspelled ads an opportunity to make money on eBay?  Is there a strategy for “Rock, Paper, Scissors”?  Why do lobbyists spend so little money to influence our politics?  Why are online betting sites better at predicting election results than pollsters like Gallup?

All these and other questions were raised by the article on auctions.  The EB‘s article is fairly brief, defining English auctions (with ascending prices) and Dutch auctions (used for tulips, with descending prices), but giving little history.  Wikipedia points out that in 193 A.D. the Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire up for auction in 193 A.D.  (Giving new meaning to the phrase “Winner’s Curse,” the auction winner was later beheaded after a civil war.)

I started wondering about the mathematics and strategies behind auctions.  Is one form of auction (e.g., silent, English, Dutch) always better than another, or do some auction forms suit some products better than others?  What strategies and tactics tend to produce auction wins?  Are there behaviors that harm everyone in an auction?  It turns out that economists have done a lot of work in the game theory of auctions.  Here are some fun facts about auctions, with a bit of game theory thrown in occasionally.

1)  In a form of “auction arbitrage,” some people seek out misspelled ads on eBay (e.g., labtop, saphire, or dimond), knowing that there will be fewer bidders and thus lower prices.  They buy at a low price and immediately resell at the “correct” price (http://bit.ly/1HiGIwY).

2)  Takashi Hashiyama, president of a Japanese electronics firm, couldn’t decide which auction house to use to unload the company’s art collection.  He decided to use “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  Sotheby’s left it to chance, and Christie’s used scissors to beat their rival’s paper (http://cbsn.ws/1HiF52j).  Mathematicians have suggested that if there is only one round of the game, chance is the best strategy, but if there is more than one round certain reactions to your opponent’s play will give an edge (http://bit.ly/1HiG2HS).

3)  Why do the 35,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. spend only $2 billion every year trying to influence Congress?  If government spending is $10 trillion for every 4-year election cycle, either lobbyists are getting a fabulous bargain when they “buy” our government, or our government is only .1% corrupt.  You decide (http://slate.me/1HiDMAl).

4)  In the last four presidential contests, the Iowa Electronic Market’s market price odds on the eve of election were off by an average of just 1.37 percent — better than Gallup, which had error margins of between 1.5 and 2 percent.  It is thought that such auctions tap into a consensus of the more well-informed (http://bit.ly/1HiHGtb).

5)  If you spend much time on eBay, you’re very familiar with sniping, which is attempting to win an auction with a bid at the last possible moment.  This is a very old tactic.  In some parts of England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries auction by candle began to be used for the sale of goods.  The end of the auction was signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid.  One highly successful bidder had observed that, just before expiring, a candle-wick always flares up slightly.  On seeing this, he would shout his final — and winning — bid.  Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auction)

So, the next time you are watching the television show Storage Wars, and you see Dave Hester trying to bid up a unit and dump it on someone else, ask yourself “What does game theory have to say about this?”

Illustration source: http://bit.ly/1AYmJfN.