Tuesday, August 10, 2021

"April 1865: The Month That Saved America"

Most people know that Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, and that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox that same month. It was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

What most people don't know (but I learned from Jay Winik's excellent book, April 1865: The Month That Saved America) is that the military and political leadership of both the Union and the Confederacy were involved in momentous decisions in April that helped bring the war to an end, and bring the country back together. These were decisions that, had they been made differently, could've resulted in catastrophe for our nation. Even if the Union had won the war, and the South readmitted, our identity as a unified country might have been in jeopardy had these decisions been made differently. 

As Winik points out, using contemporary examples, some countries and regions never fully recover from civil wars. To increase the probability of long-lasting peace, Lincoln and Grant chose to disregard the railings of those who would bring shame and severe punishment on the heads of their conquered enemy. Though Jefferson Davis was all for a last-ditch attempt at preserving the Confederacy by sending the army into the hills for prolonged guerrilla warfare, Lee chose the high road, knowing the impact of a sustained war would only make matters far worse than they already were. Winik covers both the strengths and faults of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Johnson, Davis, and Forrest, and shows that, despite these faults, they made the decisions at the end of the war that enabled the U.S. to come back together.

The only thing I wish Winik had not omitted was a discussion of Lincoln's presidential pardons for high-ranking Confederate officers and officials, and how that played out with Andrew Johnson once he assumed the presidency. I believe Lincoln's policies in this regard played an important role in achieving peace, and Johnson's policies almost aborted this.

For a different but equally engaging account of events in April and May 1865, I highly recommend James L. Swanson's Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

How to Get from Jazz to Math in Sixty Seconds

In my post of June 29, I talked about connections among people, types of music, inspiration for writers, etc. Sometimes it's fun to play a game of "connect the dots." Here's a series of connections I recently picked up on:

Beginning with jazz

My wife and I recognize that we were not born with the gene for appreciating jazz. I have a feeling that that would apply to "progressive" jazz as well (if not more so). 

But progressive rock is a different story. I appreciate it a great deal, and my wife appreciates some of it too. This genre of music is represented by many bands, including Dream Theater (official website here), perhaps my favorite band of all time.

... to a progressive rock guitarist

Dream Theater's lead guitarist, John Petrucci, is an award-winning virtuoso.

Petrucci has also had a side gig, a band called Liquid Tension Experiment.

... and on to math

Liquid Tension Experiment is a favorite band of two German mathematicians, Peter Scholze and Johan Commelin.

"Liquid Tensor Experiment" was the title of a post on mathematician Kevin Buzzard's blog in December 2020, in which Peter Scholze described some of his recent work.

This work included the use of mathematical objects called liquid real vector spaces in a proof that was verified by a breakthrough computer system named "Lean".

Try it yourself!

Start with this and see where you can go with it: "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes", a song by Jefferson Starship whose lyrics reference Einstein: "I like to move at the speed of light / Albert says I can't but I can".

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Four Ministers and a Confederate Colonel

In a recent post I explained how network science shows that any two arbitrary people in the world may be more closely linked, through a chain of social connections, than one might expect. In exploring the history of my great-great-grandfather Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy's service in Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, I discovered a chain of associations among army chaplains, ministers, and the commander of Lieutenant Lacy's regiment.

The Needs of Body and Soul

In a letter he wrote a month after joining Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, Lieutenant Lacy spoke of going to church and hearing "Dr. Pendergrass" preach. The chaplain of Lacy's regiment, the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, was Charles Wylie Witt, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. "Parson" Witt's nephew, Travis Witt Pendergrass, actually accompanied this regiment for several months, attending to the needs of both body (surgery) and soul (exhortation). Like his uncle, Pendergrass was a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. His three younger brothers were all in the same company as Lieutenant Lacy. (1)

Reconnected in the Middle of War

A few months after Lieutenant Lacy heard Pendergrass preach, the Eighth Cavalry was sent to Florence, Alabama.  There Pendergrass was surprised to run into a fellow Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Thomas Fletcher Bates.  Then, to his further surprise, he encountered Rev. R. A. Young, a prominent preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, currently serving as president of the Wesleyan University in Florence.  Pendergrass had met Young in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1853, shortly before Young was reassigned to a pastorate in St. Louis, Missouri. (2)

A Confederate Colonel

In 1846, Reverend Young had met the "plain, quiet" son of his friend, Anthony Dibrell. That son, George Gibbs Dibrell, was now a colonel commanding the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Of Colonel Dibrell's religious convictions, Young said "When his [Dibrell's] chaplain preached to his command, standing between two tallow candles, one of his most devout listeners was the commander in chief."  The chaplain he refers to is most likely Charles Witt. (3)

And the Lacy Family Is Indebted to Chaplain Charles Witt

Before Lieutenant Lacy's regiment returned to Tennessee from Alabama, Charles Witt resigned as chaplain, complaining that the varicose veins in his legs made riding a horse very uncomfortable. Pendergrass signed off on a medical discharge for his uncle. When Witt left Florence for Jackson County, Tennessee, he delivered to Lacy's family an accounting that Lieutenant Lacy had kept of all the operations of the Eighth Cavalry up to that point. The family owns that document today. (4)

(1) Lacy, Mark E. MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry. 2019.

(2)Pendergrass, T. W. to Nancy Pendergrass, 15 March 1863. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pendergrass/pics/travis/pics_travis.html 

(3) Young, R. A. Reminiscences. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1900. https://readux.library.emory.edu/books/emory%3A7sv2p/pdf/

(4) Lacy, Mark E. Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents. 2020.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Murder and Mayhem: When In-Laws are Out-Laws

Jube Lee Whitson (left) and unknown person,
location unknown, before 1935. (Courtesy of Ed Mason).
From a young age, my great-aunt's brother-in-law was a criminal. In time, Jube Whitson would be convicted of murder and sent to prison, then eight years later escape from prison, and two years later, be killed rather than be taken prisoner again.

Early life

Jube Lee Whitson was born July 20, 1888. At age 16 he was working at the Harley Pottery in Nashville, Tennessee, where my great-grandfather, William Woolsey Lacy, also worked. Jube was only 17 when he married Sallie Rawley in Jackson County, Tennessee. Justice of the Peace John P. Mayberry, a neighbor and Confederate veteran, officiated. And by age 19, Jube was a young father on the run from the law. My great-grandmother (Martha Jane Lacy) wrote in a letter to her son, Edward Jackson Lacy, in January 1908:

"Jube Clinton Jim Flat is [illegible]. Well tha say the government has ofered hundred dolars reward for Jube. But I tell Alvin [Lacy] the sed about Jube is the best for he is mean. He come over here to see if he cood get Alvin to take him to the [Cookeville] depo. He sad he had him to the place where you are. He sed you coud go thare on the train to where you are [Eureka, California]. If Jube ever comes out thare dont hav now use for him. Tha say that have teliphone to ever station so he cant pass but he may slip thru."

A week or two later, Thomas H. Byers, a cousin to Jackson Lacy who lived in San Francisco, wrote Jackson, saying:

"I got a letter from F. D. Byers the other day. He was teling me all a bout Jube Whitson. It would be a good thing if tha could cetch him and stop his way of geting a long in this world."

In June 1908, Tom Byers' brother, W. A. Byers in San Francisco wrote Jackson Lacy, saying

"Jub Whitson cut a gut [expression derived from when a hunter or farmer does a poor job of dressing an animal] dident he? I told Anderson Byers when he was here that Jub was dangeres and I was a fraid of him."

Little is known about Jube's service in the "Great War" (World War I). He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, while he was in Denver, Colorado. A year later he shipped out as a private in the 46th Engineers, Co. C, leaving from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the Sierra. Four months later, the war ended. Whatever self-discipline Jube might have picked up in the military was not enough to keep him out of future trouble.

Earning a reputation for ruthlessness

Even when Jube was in the neighborhood, people were reluctant to turn him in. They were probably afraid of what he'd do to them once he got out of jail. One time Jim (James Isaac) Flatt was taking a wagonload of railroad crossties to Cookeville when Jube stopped him to catch a ride. Jim began to tease Jube, saying he could turn him in and collect the reward. In response, Jube cut Jim's throat and threw him off in a ditch, leaving him for dead. Jim's brothers got their guns and went after Jube but failed to find him.

Jim Flatt recovered, but from that day on, folks called him "Cutthroat Jim."

Convicted and sent to prison

By the early 1920s, Jube Whitson had divorced his first wife Sallie and moved to Oklahoma. Whitson's crimes have never been completely chronicled, but the one that sent him to prison was the murder of his second wife, Ada. (Adah Larkins Whitson.)

Jube and Ada had moved to Muskogee in the summer of 1925. Pauline Binkley, age 28, had worked as a housekeeper for the Whitsons while they lived in Tennessee, and she accompanied them when they moved.

The killing of Ada Whitson took place on September 20, 1925, a few miles east of Muskogee. Jube and Ada were sharing a picnic and hunting in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, when, as Jube claimed, he tripped and fell and his gun went off, killing his wife. Investigations began immediately. On the evening of September 30, Pauline Binkley confessed to officers at Tahlequah, the county seat for Cherokee County, that she knew Jube wanted to rid himself of his wife. Pauline said she helped Jube obtain the gun he used to kill his wife, knowing what Jube planned. Jube denied this, of course.

But Ada's family was not buying that explanation. They pressed the law for justice.

While Jube Whitson remained in the Cherokee County Jail, officials grew nervous. The jail was not considered a particularly secure one, and they feared Whitson would try to escape.

The Cherokee County court worked feverishly to clear its docket before the Christmas holidays, holding nightly sessions to make that happen. Jube's murder trial only took a few days. The prosecution claimed that Jube was accused of slaying his wife Ada to marry Pauline, and to collect the life insurance on Ada. Counsel for both sides in the case finished their closing arguments at 3 AM on a Tuesday morning. Jube was convicted of first degree murder, and Pauline was convicted of being an accessory to the crime. Each of them were given life sentences and sent to the maximum-security state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. New Year's Day, 1926, would be Jube Whitson's first full day in prison.


For some reason, after the lovers had served several years of their sentences, someone pressed for more details on the murder. Pauline Binkley was brought before the Pardon and Parole Board at the state prison. She was told the Board was inclined to consider clemency for her if she cooperated in providing details about the murder. But all Pauline could say was, "I don't know anything about the shooting of Mrs. Whitson except the things I was told." Parole was denied.

Parole was highly unlikely to be a part of Jube Whitson's future. The only way he would see the outside of a prison would be by escaping. It took some time for Jube to find a way to break out of prison. With the help of his son, Fred, Jube planned his escape. 

Jube's escape took place on September 11, 1933. According to Ray Flatt, after serving eight years of his life sentence, Jube was outside the prison on a work detail one day when he got down on his knees, pretending to look at something. When the guard knelt to see what Jube was looking at, Jube hit him over the head and ran. Fred was waiting, and when he got the signal from his father, he drove by and picked him up. The two returned to Middle Tennessee.

In 1932 and 1933, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation began publishing personal details to help in finding and identifying fugitives. Jube Whitson was described as being about 5'10" in height, 151 1/2 pounds, medium build, gray-black hair, green eyes, and a medium complexion. He had three vaccination scars on his upper left arm, while on his right arm he sported tattoos of a nude woman, a sailor, an American eagle, a flag, and a wreath. His residence was listed as Muskogee, Oklahoma; his occupation, florist; and nationality, American.

Jube spent the next two years in hiding, but people would still see him in public. One person who saw him was my uncle, Wesley Flatt, a great-nephew to Cutthroat Jim. Wesley was only a young boy when he and his father, Ermon Flatt, were walking in the woods one day after Jube's return. As they came around the curve of an old wagon road, they met Jube walking the other way. As Jube approached them, he brought his shotgun down from his shoulder, perhaps as a precaution, but perhaps to intimidate whomever he encountered. But when he saw it was Ermon Flatt and his boy, he said, "Good morning, gentlemen," and put his gun up again. Some folks believed Jube might have been hiding out in one of the big caves nearby.

Jube Whitson is killed

In June 1935, Jube met his end. Acting on a tip from someone living in the countryside of Putnam County, Tennessee, the law caught up to Jube.

Early on a Friday morning, the transfer agent for the Oklahoma prison and two deputy sheriffs from Putnam County waited beside a corn field seven miles northwest of Cookeville. Jube had been living with Ras and Hazel Rippetoe. Hazel was a cousin to Jube. Jube always carried a semi-automatic pistol, for, as he had told relatives on more than occasion, he would never be taken back to Oklahoma alive and any officer attempting to arrest him would have to beat him to the draw. 

The lawmen had left Cookeville at 1:15 AM and silently made their way to the Rippetoe farm, where they concealed themselves in the tall grass. They were prepared to wait all day, if necessary, for their chance to apprehend Whitson. But the day had just begun when they were presented with an opportunity.

At 6 AM, Jube and three of the Rippetoe children--Doyle (age 16), Audrey (age 14), and Willard (age 11)--were chopping out corn. Working this early in the morning was easier than working in the heat of a summer day. When Jube came near enough, the officers leapt up, demanded his surrender, and told him to raise his hands. Jube wasn't about to be captured, though. He tried to draw his gun, a German Luger. The transfer agent fired two blasts from his shotgun. One of the deputies fired his shotgun into the air over Whitson's head, and took another shot at Whitson's hand, hoping that would prevent Whitson from drawing his pistol.

Whitson fell, mortally wounded in his left breast. The officers sent the Rippetoe children to tell their parents what had happened. The children also watched over Whitson's body until an ambulance from Cookeville could arrive to recover the body. Whitson was buried in the Morgan Pippin Cemetery on the Gainesboro Road in Putnam County.

Ironically, Jube's death certificate showed him as "widowed." (True, but he was responsible for becoming widowed.)

Some different details of a desperado's demise

As with many examples of oral history (and even with "eye" witnesses) details will differ. In 2001, Dennis Rippetoe's father, Willard (Bill) Rippetoe, said his father was an eye-witness when Jube Whitson was killed. Bill told Dennis that while Jube was in prison he became a "trustee" and was allowed to go to town for supplies. It was on one of these trips to town that Fred came along and helped him escape. (To me, the idea that a convicted murderer serving a life sentence would be allowed to go to town for supplies doesn't sound very plausible.)

According to Bill Rippetoe, Jube had raised his hands when the lawmen opened fire. (Perhaps Jube raised his hands, then went for his gun.) Eneloit Smith (great-niece of Cutthroat Jim Flatt, and niece of Bert Flatt and Earlene Lacy Flatt) had heard that Jube was shot in the back. Perhaps he had started to run. As an escaped murderer, Jube Whitson may very well have been wanted dead or alive.

A final word

As I grew up, I often heard my mother quote from the Numbers 32:23 from the Bible, "Be sure your sins will find you out." Jube Whitson's sins finally caught up to him, but he had left behind him a trail of malice and tragedy.

A special thank-you to Ed Mason for research materials.

More details surrounding Jube's murder of his wife can be found in Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (see books.google.com search results here).


  1. Lacy family letters, 14 Feb 1905, 18 Jan 1908, 20 June 1908.
  2. State of Tennessee, Jackson County, Marriage License for Jube Whitson and Sallie Rawley, 23 Feb 1906.
  3. WWI Draft Registration Cards, Fold3.com.
  4. U.S. Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists, Fold3.com.
  5. Records for Adah Larkin Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  6. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 1 Oct 1925, page 11.
  7. Times-Democrat newspaper, 4 Nov 1925.
  8. The Democrat-American (Sallisaw, Oklahoma), 25 Jun 1926, page 12.
  9. Fugitives: Wanted by Police. Vol. 1 and 2. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Investigation, 1932-1933. Vol. 2, No. 11, pp. 19-20, 1 Nov 1933.
  10. Miami Daily News-Record (Miami, Oklahoma), 4 Apr 1935, page 3.
  11. State of Tennessee Certificate of Death #13703, Jube Lee Whitson, 14 Jun 1935.
  12. Cemetery marker, Jube Lee Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  13. The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 15 Jun 1935, page 2.
  14. Putnam County (Tenn.) Herald, June 1935.
  15. Email from Eneloit Smith (Doyle Eneloit Williams Smith), February 2001.
  16. Conversation with Wesley Flatt, October 2001.
  17. Email from Dennis Rippetoe, November 2001.
  18. Email from Bettie Sue Goolsby, June 2003.
  19. FamilySearch information for Hazel Whitson Rippetoe, retrieved July 18, 2021.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

My Alesis Nitro Mesh expanded set.
My wife professes to be weird. Sometimes she claims I'm weird too. I try to tell her neither one of us is weird -- we're "unique." Each of us is a statistical outlier in various ways. The old cliche, "marching to the beat of a different drummer" comes to mind. 

But the cliche is about to become literal! After a wait of about fifty years, I've started down the path of learning to play drums as I once wanted to do. The path to get here was a circular one.

"Paper" drums and "plastic" guitars

In my teenage years, when I began to listen to rock and was exposed to it at school dances, I wanted to play drums. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford a set of drums, and I had no room in our little house to set some up. And, it would be too noisy. I made do for a while by laying out pieces of paper on my bed to represent the different drums and cymbals and practicing with a couple of "real" drumsticks. When my parents bought me a cheap snare drum (one step above a toy) one Christmas, I had visions of going on to slowly build a collection somehow.

But it didn't happen. Instead, I got interested in guitar. It started with a plastic body acoustic guitar my sister had, that only had one string. I made up a song on it, and called it "Twenty-two Man." It involved playing only two notes on one string, and throwing in some lyrics I made up. It was awful. (The guitar, the song, my skill level ...) 

Graduating to "real" guitars and loud amplifiers

The following Christmas, I started down a path that would last me for decades. I progressed from a cheap guitar and a "baby" guitar amp to a larger and better guitar, a semi-acoustic Silvertone with a Bigsby tailpiece. (I couldn't yet afford the guitar of my dreams, a Gibson SG.) I graduated to a small but larger amp to play through. My father made me play through headphones so the neighbors wouldn't complain, and so he could get some work done in his office. Next, I secured a loan from my grandmother to purchase a 300-watt (125 watt RMS) Peavey 240 Standard solid-state amp with a speaker cabinet holding two 15" speakers. It was appropriately loud -- I seldom turned the volume control higher than 2 1/2. Once, in college, I plugged in a high-frequency horn and I was told people a mile away were able to hear me.

Alas, the Big Whoppin' Amp was not easy to transport back and forth to my dorm room. When it came time to buy a train ticket to travel to upstate New York and marry my first wife, I sold the amp and downsized.

Eventually I found a used Gibson SG I could afford. I purchased and played 6- and 12-string Ovation acoustic/electric guitars. I picked up a Yamaha bass guitar and learned to play it. I experimented with various synthesizers (a Casio CZ-101, a Yamaha DX7, a Kawai, a Roland, a KORG KROSS2). I played, off and on, with friends; did a few one-off gigs with people I knew; and contributed to praise bands in different churches.

Moving on to drums

Many years later, I decided I could afford some drums and I had room to set them up. Volume would be a problem, though, so I opted for electronic drums. I recently purchased an Alesis Nitro Mesh expanded (10-piece) set.  Modern-day mesh drumheads are quiet enough that if I'm listening to the drums through headphones, the tapping on the drumheads is almost inaudible. (Although the tapping noise from the electronic cymbals is another story.)

My current gear includes the Alesis electronic drums and cymbals, a Behringer Xenyx Q1202 mixer to blend instrument input as well as music from an Amazon Echo, and an inexpensive Sony receiver with output to some old Bose bookshelf speakers.

It took many years to get here, but I have now returned to my percussive "first love".

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Defoliation in War, Herbicides in Peace

The Bombing of Vietnam

In 1968, our eighth grade Civics teacher, Mr. Henry, assigned debate topics to our class. Our group of four included two teams of two students each to debate whether the U.S. should pull out of Vietnam. My partner and I were to take the position that the U.S. should pull out. 

Everyone in the class had to research their topics in the school library. I quickly learned the relative liberal/conservative stances of the major news magazines. TIME Magazine seemed biased toward withdrawal. U.S. News and World Report leaned toward staying in the war. Newsweek seemed to take a more neutral stance. The only statistic I can now remember having dug up to support our position on withdrawing from the war was this: that one ton of bombs had been dropped by the U.S. for every man, woman, and child living in Vietnam. (Fifty-three years later, I'm unable to verify this statistic. But according to this article, the same statistic held for the bombing of Laos between 1964 and 1973.) 

A few years later I learned there was something more insidious taking place in the natural world of Southeast Asia. It was something that didn't leave craters in the jungle floor. It was something that didn't strike with the sudden flare of a stream of napalm laid down across a verdant jungle. 

Defoliation in Vietnam, and Sherman's "March to the Sea"

Even as the first Earth Day was being celebrated in April 1970, American forces were executing a scorched-earth policy in Vietnam, a policy with echoes of Sherman's destruction of the South during the Civil War.* Bombs and napalm were only one part of waging war in Southeast Asia. Defoliants were dropped from planes, withering every living crop, plant, or tree they touched. These herbicides were sprayed on rice paddies and other agricultural areas to deprive the Viet Cong of food, just as Union troops burned fields and crops as a means of depriving Confederate forces (both regulars and guerrillas) and their supporters of food and livestock. Defoliants were also sprayed over jungle areas with the hope that stripping the foliage would reduce the number of hiding places for the Viet Cong.** 

Agent Orange was the defoliant used in Vietnam. It contained two compounds (2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) that mimic plant hormones, and tetrachlorodioxin, and a contaminant caused by the synthesis of 2,4,5-T. Dioxin is known for being highly teratogenic (developmentally toxic, causing birth defects), much more so than the infamous morning-sickness drug, thalidomide. Sadly, a large number of citizens in Southeast Asia were born with birth defects subsequent to the defoliation campaigns during the Vietnam War. For this reason, Agent Orange is no longer used and 2,4,5-T has been banned as an herbicide since 1985.

Peaceful uses of herbicides

In the years since the Vietnam War, herbicides based on the compound glyphosate have become the world's most widely used herbicides. Glyphosate's major use is in agriculture, where it is sprayed on crops that are genetically modified to resist glyphosate, inhibiting the growth of weeds among the crops. As one would expect, because of the extensive use of glyphosate, a great deal of attention has been focused on safety concerns. Regulatory agencies around the world, as well as organizations within the United Nations, have examined data regarding glyphosate's effects on not only human health but the environment as well. Unfortunately, while glyphosate is considered safe in many instances, there is a great deal of controversy. This may be due to the huge number of different formulations of glyphosate-based herbicides. Some studies have suggested particular components in herbicide formulations -- other than the glyphosate itself -- may be significantly less safe than glyphosate.

If you want to kill a plant, one way is to inhibit, as glyphosate does, an enzyme that plants depend on for growth (and animals do not have). That is an example of an intervention in a botanical system. As the development of herbicide resistance is more frequently seen, intervening in two places in a botanical system could be a more powerful way to kill plants. The likelihood of plants circumventing two interventions through development of resistance is very small. This is the rationale behind new herbicides that use both glyphosate and 2,4-D in their formulations.

Not surprisingly, the companies that market glyphosate-based herbicides also market seeds for crops that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate.

Many government agencies have looked at, and continue to look at, questions of toxicity for glyphosate. We can only hope that as time goes on, we will have more answers than questions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Celtic Rock, Appalachian Stories, and Knowledge Maps

Six Degrees of Separation

Most people know of the "six degrees of separation" concept because of the popularity of the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. On average, any two actors in the world can be connected through a chain of movies in which actors have co-starred. 

More broadly, network science tells us that any two people in the world can be connected through social connections by no more than six jumps. Here are a few examples of my own:

  1. I am one degree from the deceased actor Vincent Price -- I once shook his hand at a college event. Anyone he knows, or starred in a movie with, is only two degrees from me. (Admittedly the social connection was not a remarkable one. LOL)
  2. I have met two Nobel Prize winners, which places me one degree away from each of them, and two degrees from the King of Sweden, who hands the prizes to each winner. 
  3. I have a relative who was a campaign manager for Senator Bob Dole years ago, which places me two steps from Dole and three steps from everyone Dole knew in Congress and Washington, DC. 
  4. Thanks to my father, who got Project Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra's autograph in 1964, I am three degrees from just about everyone in NASA's early space program. 
  5. Sadly, I am one degree from at least three people who took their own lives, and only two degrees from a political assassination in Venezuela.

Six degrees of separation is a social phenomenon. Work at digging up who is connected to whom, and you can wind up with a huge network of connections. Then, you can follow the network from one point to the next and uncover connections you didn't know about.

But what about other networks? A clever programmer could "scrape" (as they call it) book recommendations from Amazon's website and come up with a map of related books that might show you recommendations that were two or three or four steps away from a book you're looking at, instead of only one step away.

Still, these examples are only focused on connections between the same kinds of things (people with people, books with books). There's no a priori reason why we can't derive a network connecting different kinds of things that are related. A more sophisticated example using Amazon recommendations would include authors as well as books. Each author could be connected to every book that author has written, books could be connected to co-authors, and authors within a certain genre could all be connected. This would be useful if you wanted to use authors for recommendations, and not just books.

Discovery and knowledge

To take this one step further, consider an example network I created that connects certain authors, books, musicians, genres, and influences on musicians. The example network, shown at the bottom of this post, is something I developed using the yEd and yEd Live network drawing software, both of which are free software products from the software company yWorks. (An interactive version of this network, which includes hyperlinks, can be accessed via this link.)

At the top of the diagram are three authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Alex Bledsoe, and Sharyn McCrumb. (For more on Sharyn McCrumb, see this recent post of mine.) Beneath each author is an icon showing something that author has written. The Lord of the Rings is fantasy, of course, as are Bledsoe's "Tufa" stories, set in a modern-day part of the mountains of Tennessee. Many of Sharyn McCrumb's novels are set in the Appalachians.

Below that part of the diagram is the musician Dave Brons. Brons, who composes and performs progressive rock with a "Celtic symphonic twist", found inspiration in The Lord of the Rings. Bledsoe's "Tufa" novels inspired a group of musicians known as Tuatha Dea, also shown on the diagram, who compose and perform what they call "Appalachian Rock." Both Brons and Tuatha Dea have been influenced by Celtic culture. (And, Tuatha Dea has also been influenced by "steampunk.")

Final Remarks

The diagram I created is a small example of a knowledge map. It captures a set of connections I thought were interesting, that I can share with others, and that may lead others to consider artists or authors or works they might not realize were connected. As a knowledge map, it can be extended to include as many connections as I would like.

Knowledge map created using the free tools, yEd and yEd Live. See text for link.
Copyright Mark E. Lacy, 2021