You present me with a general rule, I'm usually going to spend the next few minutes trying to explain why it doesn't apply to me: this wanderer-in-the-wilderness shtick served me well for many years, and I was sufficiently out of phase with my demographics and with my presumed peers that often as not, I could get away with it.

Then came this notion:

Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It was originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 and popularized by a 1990 play written by John Guare.

I have not read Karinthy's Láncszemek ("Chains"), the short story in which the notion is first floated, though I'm thinking I should probably try to track down a translation of it. The subject certainly never came up when I was in school. I knew I had family in Georgia, and family in Texas, but it seemed unlikely that they two would ever meet each other, let alone the families of classmates.

Nothing happened to upset this notion until 1985, when, after watching a friend fooling around with a TRS-80 and a strange device called a "modem," I went out and bought a computer (a Commodore 64) and a similarly strange device, not because I wanted to generate fractals and write programs, but because I thought it was sort of cool to talk to people across town — no farther than that, it was long distance, and that cost money — without, you know, actually having to talk to them. Given my control-freak tendencies, this seemed the ideal way to break out of my isolation while keeping the door-pulls close at hand.

Then came Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and I was startled to discover than people I actually knew had actual Bacon numbers: they were within six levels. One of them had a 3. Okay, her name wasn't exactly above the title. But still, the connection could be constructed: she was in a film with Guy A, who was in a film with Guy B, who was in a film with Kevin Bacon. Even more startling, there were multiple paths from that first film, all the same length. (The Oracle discards all paths but the shortest ones.) This was almost as disconcerting as discovering that other people I knew could be found in Wikipedia.

Then the hammer-blow came: when Facebook suggested I might want to be friends with Al Jardine of the Beach Boys. I stared, refusing to believe. A click revealed the trail. Number of intermediate steps: one. Now I'm not the strictest person around Facebook: if I can see any reasonable connection, I'm willing to go with it. Most recent add was from an author whose memoir I'd reviewed; she'd actually sought me out, since she'd been happy with the review and suspected I might be worth listening to. I did not bother to correct her on that matter.

Were I as mercenary as I like to pretend, I suppose I'd try to leverage these connections into something for myself. I discovered this past week, for instance, that someone I once knew is very high up in Big Data. Not that I need any data at that level of embiggenment, of course, and really there's no reason that this person should remember me at all. Besides, I am not at all proficient at the dubious art of wheedling people out of stuff, and not at all comfortable with the concept. Perhaps it's just as well.

The Vent

  25 January 2016

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