Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page December 2000

Have you ever tried to play the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game? The aim of this game is to establish a connection between any nominated actor and Kevin Bacon based on shared billing and similar entertainment relationships. It requires a huge knowledge of movie trivia in order to be successful at it and complete the links in under the six degrees of the title. An example of this is :

Charlie Chaplin has a Bacon number of 3 (ie 3 degrees):
Charles Chaplin was in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) with Sophia Loren,
Sophia Loren was in La Mortadella (1971) with William Devane,
William Devane was in Hollow Man (2000) with Kevin Bacon.

A number of people have tried to computerise this but none have done such an amazing job as the Department of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. I got the above example by looking at their site at http://www.cs.virginia.edu/oracle which they call the Oracle of Bacon at Virginia. This site will take the name of any actor and calculate their Bacon number. It uses the IMDB database discussed in a previous column for its source data so the list of actors is very comprehensive.

The challenge at the Oracle is to see if you can find an actor with the largest finite Bacon number possible. This is harder than it sounds as it is very difficult to find any actors with a number greater than three and almost impossible to find any greater than four. However they do exist and it is a lot of fun to try. I should point out that it is relatively easy to find actors who have no connection to Kevin Bacon at all (lucky people) and so they have infinite Bacon numbers - such people do not count in the game.

You might well ask - "Why Kevin Bacon?" A good question and one to which I do not have the answer. The good people at the University of Virginia also provide Elvis and Arnie versions of the game as well as a general degrees of separation calculator which allows you to find how far any two actors are separated. They also provide a bunch of statistics about degrees of separation.

The next question that might occur to you is why is the University of Virginia Computer Science department interested in spending all this time and effort in producing a web page for this rather trivial game. Make no mistake, this is an official site and not the homepage of a bored academic. I invite you to think about the complexity of the task of traversing a database to find the most efficient path between two linked items. To make this work properly is a good challenge to software developers. This site is really very quick - somebody has done a thoughtful job of index and algorithm design here - remembering that they are working with somebody else’s database. I suspect that this site is a marketing exercise to show how clever the U of V people are.

I have been continuing on the trail of T-shirts for the club. Many of you have participated in my survey comparing the merits of black and light grey shirts. The basis of the question relating to the $8 premium we were looking at for the benefits of wearing black. Not surprisingly, light grey won by an overwhelming margin. What was a bit of a surprise was the number of people who expressed a preference for the grey even if there was no price difference. It is interesting how things like this come out as grey was hardly raised as an option in earlier meetings.

If you want a (grey) Phoenix T-shirt, they cost $23.50 with $2.00 extra for sizes 2XL and larger as part of a batch order of 20 or more. I will be taking orders up until the January meeting - payment in advance please.

A reminder to all of you that the January meeting will not be held in Turnbull house because it is closed for refurbishment. Instead we will meet at the Ferrymans bar located in the old Waterloo Hotel building next to the NZ Post building on Waterloo Quay. Since it is not really possible to have a normal meeting in such a building, we have chosen to simply nominate a designated starting conversation topic - "The role of bars in Science Fiction". This is a larger topic than you may first think, but then again those of you who have seen how keen authors are on the idea of running signing sessions in bars may already know about the close affinity so many writers have for drinking establishments. If you want to do some research on this topic try reading either Tales from the Spaceport Bar or Another Round at the Spaceport Bar edited by George H Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer. You could also take the Broderick Wells approach and research in as many of Wellington’s drinking establishments as you can find.

It was good to see Norman at the November meeting so we could find out how OdysseyCon was getting on. In case you missed his message, you should have received an e-mail update containing the latest news of the convention. If you have already registered, you may also have received a confirmation letter. If you would have expected to get either of these and have not then you should get in touch with the convention. The best place to find contact details or anything else about the state of play is to visit their web site.

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