Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Terminator, Crickets, Kevin Bacon, and Freedom

You are a critical link. The liberty of two young men depends on you reading this entire post.

The Terminator

When I held a more conventional job, one that actually pays, my colleagues would occasionally mention they had met someone noteworthy. It happened so often, I maintained a Claim-To-Fame list of such encounters. People then sought me out to tell me of their encounters.

One colleague played against Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tennis match. Arnold apparently played tennis pretty much as he acted: without much subtlety. My colleague won easily. ("Lub fordy. Don't return dis serve if you want to live.")

One colleague carried Mandy Patinkin's laundry to the cleaners. ("Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to martinize.")

One had urinated next to Bill Monbouquette. ("A finesse pitcher who relied on changing speeds and a superb control, Monbouquette was signed by the Boston Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1955 ...") Apparently as a young man, this particular colleague had attended a Boston Red Sox game with his father, had availed himself of the restroom facilities, and was taking advantage of the urinal when the guy beside him decided it was an appropriate time for an introduction: "Hi. I'm Bill Monbouquette."

Still another colleague had an aunt who was a professor at some big-name university. The aunt  hosted frequent parties for the intelligentsia. My colleague claimed, that his aunt claimed, that at different times, five different (and apparently besotted) nobel prize winners knocked over her mail box as they backed out of her driveway.

I myself was on a commercial flight with Peter Graves. I sat somewhat further back in the airplane so we never had a chance to speak. However, we both experienced one of the most terrifying flights I've ever been on, the details of which are beyond this post. I'm serious about this claim to fame, and I'm not talking about the movie: "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"

In the unofficial parlance of the small world phenomenon, I claim to be only one degree of separation away from Peter Graves. Each of you can now claim to be only two degrees away. "I read this blog by some guy who thought he might die on an airplane with Peter Graves, so it's like we're almost friends."

The small world phenomenon was first discussed soon after Marconi invented the radio. Seemingly impressed by Marconi's work and its implications, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy challenged his readers to find someone he could not be connected to by five or fewer people. Frigyes was apparently the first person ever to suggest than anyone on earth is no more than six degrees of separation away from anyone else on earth.

After more than a century of observation, experiment, and theoretical modelling, Frigyes seems to have come pretty darn close to the answer. Amazing.


Duncan Watts is a bright and curious man. Currently he is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. Previously, he pondered how crickets managed to synchronize their chirps over long distances. His research into synchronized crickets inspired him (along with Steven Strogatz) to develop the first network model of the small world phenomenon. They discovered that the small world phenomonenon is applicable not just to people who know people, but to brains, power grids, computer security schemes and a seemingly endless list of natural and man-made systems.
"I think I've been contacted by someone from just about every field outside of English literature. I've had letters from mathematicians, physicists, biochemists, neurophysiologists, epidemiologists, economists, sociologists; from people in marketing, information systems, civil engineering, and from a business enterprise that uses the concept of the small world for networking purposes on the Internet."
Think Facebook.

One of Watts' conclusions I find interesting is that randomness is critical to the small world phenomenon.  A perfectly ordered system is a horrifically ineffective means of spreading information. Add just a few random links, however, say one or two percent of the total, and the system becomes very efficient.

To understand this, assume everyone on earth is ordered in a gigantic square. (When we had only 4.9 billion people on earth, that would be a square with 70,000 rows of 70,000 people.)  Assume you can communicate with people in no larger than a fifty person radius, and you want to contact Juan Luigi Chan, Jr. You know Juan Luigi is somewhere in the far corner of the square. The best you can do is yell to someone fifty people away in that direction, asking them to relay a message to Juan Luigi Chan, Jr. who is somewhere in the far corner. That person can then yell to someone else fifty people away and so on. It's going to take a while for your message to get there.

Assume people on average are half a grid away, on a diagonal somewhere. It would take (excuse me while I make use of the Pythagorean theorem) 990 links minimum to get close, then a few more to home in on Juan Luigi Chan, Jr.

Now assume you are also friends with 100 or so people scattered randomly around the huge grid, and you know exactly where each of those friends is, and you can call any one of them on your cell phone. You don't yell to your buddy fifty feet away. You call your friend who near the far corner of the humanity grid. "There's someone in your area named Juan Luigi Chan, Jr. I want to talk to him. I figure you don't know him, but check someone you think might, and see if that person knows him. Pass along my phone number and have Juan give me a call. Thanks, I owe you a solid."

Your phone will be ringing in no time, after no more than five intermediate phone calls.

Kevin Bacon

For some reason, Kevin Bacon has become the American name most associated with the small world phenomenon. For a long time, I've heard people talking about being fewer than six degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon. In fact, Visa used the bit in a clever commercial.

Kevin Bacon is so closely tied to the small world phenomenon that when you are talking about your connection with him, you don't use the term "degrees of separation." You use the term "Bacon Number." If you are two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, your Bacon Number is 2.

In the original sense, connections to Kevin Bacon were allowed only via movie connections. Only actors or actresses could therefore have an official Bacon Number. That rule has since been substantially relaxed, as evidenced by the commercial. However, if you would like to see the small world phenomenon in action, try the brilliant and easy to use utility at The Oracle of Bacon.

According to the Oracle of Bacon, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Bacon Number of only two. Arnold appeared with Todd Stashwick in the movie The Rundown (2003) and Todd appeared with Kevin in the movie The Air I Breathe (2007). 

And with that insight, I have come full circle, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kevin Bacon. It is now time to learn about how this relates to freedom.


I estimate that there may be a quarter million people wrongfully incarcerated in this country. That's 10% of the 2.5 million people we currently have incarcerated.

Of that quarter million, there are two I am actively and persistently attempting to help free. Those two are Byron Case and Michael Ledford.

Bryon was wrongfully convicted of murder and armed criminal action. He is serving two life sentences without parole in Missouri. Byron has been through all his appeals, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court. (They simply refused to hear his case.) Byron has left to him an appeal based on actual innocence and a plea for clemency.

Michael was wrongfully convicted of murder and arson. He is serving 50 years in Virginia, which has no parole for anyone. Michael has used (or has time defaulted on) all his appeals. All of them. He has left  to him only a plea for clemency.

To free a person wrongfully convicted of a serious crime, you must prove that person to be factually innocent beyond any reasonable doubt. It's not the law, it's a fact of life. It's nowhere good enough to argue that the person did not receive a fair trial, or that the prosecution withheld evidence, or that witnesses lied. None of that matters. When it comes to freeing the wrongfully convicted, you must produce proof of innocence.

In each of the two cases, I know what really happened. I know not because someone told me, but because I've lived immersed in the data for months and months and months. In each of the two cases, I can point to the evidence which will prove innocence. It will, however, do neither of them any good, because I am not an expert in the field at question. This too is a fact of life.

I need to find, somewhere out there in the vast sea of humanity, two experts who will be the key to freeing Byron Case and Michael Ledford.

And now you can see where I'm headed. I'm trying to find two people among the great sea of humanity. I don't know their names or where they live, but I can describe them to you, and you can ask around.

Each person is intelligent, highly-qualified, and generous. Each person would be personally offended that an innocent person would be imprisoned for life for a crime they did not commit. Each person would be willing and able to provide his or her expertise pro bono to correct a terrible wrong.

The first person has expertise regarding a little-used time-of-death indicator. More specifically, the first person can speak with expertise regarding how long a person has been dead if that person's corneas are not cloudy, though the person died with their eyes open. The person probably works in the medical field, possibly as a medical examiner, pathologist, eye surgeon, or ophthalmologist. That person might work in the field of corneal transplants.

The second person should be easier to find. That person has expertise regarding the interpretation of the evidence left behind by fires. More specifically, that person can determine from photos of circuit breakers, wall outlets, cords, and plugs whether a related fire was caused by an electrical problem.

Each of you reading this post is no less than one-sixth of the distance between Bryon Case and the person who might help free him.

Each of you is also no less than one-sixth of the distance between Michael Ledford and the person who might help free him.

I suspect none of you reading this post are either of the two people I seek. I suspect also there is but little chance you know either of the people I seek. I believe, however, that you know someone who might know someone who might know one of the two people who can help.

Please ask that person you know. Please ask them to forward a message from me to someone they know who might know the person I seek.
"I need your assistance. You are a critical link. The rest of a young man's life is at stake. Please write me at"