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Gypsy & Willy - The Original Libertarian Bloggers

How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Gypsy & Willy

No. 310

Do you know Tiger Woods?

February 28, 2001

Do you know Tiger Woods? No? Didn't think so. But, perhaps you know someone who knows Tiger? Or, maybe you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody...who knows Mr. Woods.

Many years ago, before the Internet was a fact of life, a social psychologist at Harvard, Stanley Milgram, carried out a landmark experiment in networking. What he did was send out a large number of letters to random addresses around the country. The recipient was asked if he or she knew a particular person at a particular address on the East Coast, we believe it was in Maryland. If that person did not, he or she was asked to pass the letter on to the person he or she thought was most likely to know that person...and so on and so forth. Each additional recipient was asked to add his or her address to the growing list of people in the chain. Eventually, it was hoped that a large number of these letters would arrive at the chosen destination. It was a type of chain letter which was meant to estimate how many "circles of acquaintance" lay between any two persons chosen at random.

The results were inconclusive, but they indicated to Milgram that the actual number was somewhat less than sixteen. Additional studies narrowed that estimate down to about six, a rather startling conclusion if you think about it, for it placed most of us much closer to people of power and influence than we would have imagined.

Indeed, the same concept was used to create a parlor game many years later. You may have heard of it. It's called "Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon." The point of the game is to name a movie actor, say Merle Streep. Then the other participants try to name a movie in which Ms. Streep performed with another actor, maybe Bacon himself, in which case the game is resolved in one step...one degree. If not, then the second actor, say Jack Nicholson, is added to the mix...he having been in at least one movie with Streep. The chain goes on until the people playing have either reached a movie in which Kevin and the current actor were in together, or everybody gives up. It is conjectured that it is always possible to determine a chain from any actor to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer steps. Our son Roger, once the Teen Movie Critic, is a master of this game. We have been totally unable to stump him with ANY actor, even obscure movie actors from the distant past. For example, for Buster Keaton, a silent movie star, we have:

There is actually a shorter path between Buster and Kevin. We leave it to you as an exercise to find it.

We think that the Internet is an ideal place to test this concept when applied to any randomly chosen person and any other, as Milgram once did. As we see it, a good first step is to link each of the two people to a known celebrity. Then, the total chain from one to the other consists of some number less than or equal to the sum of the numbers in the two chains between each person and the celebrity. The "less than" part of the conclusion means that it may happen that there are people in the chain in common to the two starting people other than the celebrity. Using a celebrity merely adds focus, since knowing which direction to proceed is exceedingly difficult if the starting points are two "unknown" individuals.

Our daughter Miranda has agreed to help us in performing an experiment along these lines. She once casually remarked to her brother, Roger, that she would like to have lunch with Tiger Woods and of course Roger, being a celebrity movie reviewer himself, put this nugget of information on the Internet. So, we decided that we would use this very essay as a chain letter in an attempt to make her wish come true. If you wish to participate, go to http://www.dreamagic.com/cgi-bin/tiger.cgi where you will find a form which will allow you to pass on this column...as a letter...to up to ten of your acquaintances whom you wish to ask to participate. Or, if you have received this column as an email letter, simply forward it to one or more of your friends. Make sure you add your own email address to the chain in the letter...as should all participants further down the chain...as a record of how the chain proceeds and how many links it requires. As in Professor Milgram's experiment, try to guess who of the people you know will be "closer" to Tiger Woods than you are. For example, if you do not play golf, send it to people who do. By the way, since YOUR email address appears somewhere in the chain, you have determined YOUR degree of separation from Tiger Woods...and, it will be closer than Miranda's!

If Mr. Woods finally receives one or more of these emails or letters...for all we know, Tiger does not have an email address and will get the letter in print format from someone who knows him personally...and, he wishes to have lunch with Miranda, or at least acknowledge that the experiment...to get the message to him...has succeeded, then he should call us at (612)-724-5934, and we will pass on Miranda's phone number and address to him. For obvious reasons, she does not wish this information to be public knowledge.

We will report the results of this experiment...in our column...whenever we have something interesting to tell you about it.

Talk to you later...


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