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Pony Express - Small world?

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DETROIT LAKES - Do we live in a small world? When two neighbors accidentally bump into one another five miles from home, one of them will undoubtedly express surprise and say "small world!" But it's not small world, it's just small township. Now if the same two neighbors meet in a coffee shop in Istanbul, Turkey, that is a small world incident -- unless they got there in the same tour group on the same bus.


In 1929 a Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called "Chain Links" based on the theory that as the population of the world grew and technology developed, the world got smaller due to ever increasing travel and connectedness between people. As a result, any person on earth could connect with any other person in six steps. If you take all your acquaintances (step one) and all their acquaintances (step two) and so on, by the sixth step you will have reached an acquaintance on the other side of the globe.

Stanley Milgram was an American researcher in experimental social psychology at Harvard. In 1967 he began experimenting to investigate the truth of the "small world" theory. Milgram's experiments proved that people in the United States are connected by approximately six friendship links.

Finally, in 2001, Duncan Watts, a professor at Columbia University, recreated Milgram's experiment on the internet using an e-mail message that needed to be delivered with 48,000 senders and 19 targets in 157 countries. I don't understand those numbers, but Watts found that the average number of intermediaries was six.

This concept has been called "six degrees of separation." If I understand this fascinating formula, I am connected to everyone on our planet by a trail of only six people.

But what does it really mean? If a roughneck named Robert Craig Knievel, Jr. goes to jail for reckless driving and gets thrown into a cell next to a guy named William Knofel who was known as "Awful Knofel," inspiring Knievel to call himself "Evel Knievel" from that time forward, does that prove it's a small world? No, that just proves it was a small jail. A coincidence doesn't make a small world.

The trouble with connectedness thinking is that it encourages folks to send chain letters. You know the old gimmick -- you get a chain letter and send a dollar each to the last three people listed, then send the letter to six of your friends who send dollars and letters and if everything works the way its suppose to, somehow you end up with a huge pile of dollar bills. But the letters warn that if you break the chain you'll be cursed with bad luck for a long time. Or the chain letter may have a religious message that you pass along. But if you break that chain, the curse is almost the same -- the devil will visit you and cause you great suffering and grief. Chain letters depend more on greed, superstition and fear than on optimism and faith. They don't work because doubters like me keep breaking the chains. But if they did work, everybody on earth would get a letter within about six weeks. And if they did, would everybody get a bucket of bucks? Of course not -- somehow it has to be mathematically impossible.

When you throw a stone into calm water the ripples go on and on and on. Our ripples can go on and on too -- far beyond what we might expect. Years ago I wrote an article that included a comment about shoes in the closet. I said something like "five pair of shoes is a lot of shoes." The paper that carried the article somehow went to New York City and somebody left it on the seat of a subway there. Some rider picked up the paper and read it. Then he sent me a letter pointing out that I had made a serious error. You can have one pair of shoes, but more than one is pairs of shoes. I looked it up -- he was right. I have never made that mistake again -- in writing. The morals of that story are many: our ripples go farther than we expect; one man's litter is another man's literature; and, the plural of pair is pairs.

So there you have it -- we're all connected: brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. It's a small world after all.