Atchafalaya Swamp

Friday, May 5, 2006

Six Degrees Of Separation

Antara Enam Darjat Perantaraan (It’s A Small World After All)

You know how when you meet someone for the first time, whether in a personal or professional capacity, most of often you are bound to encounter the words, “Small world...ah, fancy you knew him (or her) too…ah wouldn’t you know..?”

This subject has interested me for sometime, more so with events unearthed in recent weeks that made me sometimes shake my head in disbelief at this ‘six-degrees of separation’ business.

The Internet and "Googling" in particular has made this theory all the more apparent, but first, the definition of "Six Degrees of Separation" as gleaned from http://www.whatis.com/:

Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. The theory was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called "Chains."

In the 1950's, Ithiel de Sola Pool (MIT) and Manfred Kochen (IBM) set out to prove the theory mathematically. Although they were able to phrase the question (given a set N of people, what is the probability that each member of N is connected to another member via k_1, k_2, k_3...k_n links?), after twenty years they were still unable to solve the problem to their own satisfaction. In 1967, American sociologist Stanley Milgram devised a new way to test the theory, which he called "the small-world problem." He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was personally delivered to its target recipient.

Although the participants expected the chain to include at least a hundred intermediaries, it only took (on average) between five and seven intermediaries to get each package delivered. Milgram's findings were published in Psychology Today and inspired the phrase "six degrees of separation." Playwright John Guare popularized the phrase when he chose it as the title for his 1990 play of the same name. Although Milgram's findings were discounted after it was discovered that he based his conclusion on a very small number of packages, six degrees of separation became an accepted notion in pop culture after Brett C. Tjaden published a computer game on the University of Virginia's Web site based on the small-world problem.

Teman dizaman keanak-anakkan ku Dr. L.Yong, PhD. (Konsultan Nuklear Pemerintah Amerika Syarikat)

Back in the early seventies Yong and I were classmates between Year 4 through 6 in Johor Bahru. We had lost track of each other until I “googled” him recently but unfortunately my search wasn’t refined enough. Another classmate of ours who’s also in the United States was more easily found—and sure enough—once I got a hold of Chin—the rest was easy.

There was a ‘Red Herring’ when the “googled” results came back for Chin though, because he was a listed as a US State Attorney. No, it couldn't be. But in the that land where re-inventing oneself is a given, anything was a possible. Last I heard Chin had studied Geophysics at Houston's Rice University in the mid-eighties. But happily it was the right Chin, and of course he had kept in touch with Yong. After all they were émigrés there. By the way, he now prosecutes white-collar criminals in the State of Oregon.

Nuke scientist Dr. Yong (left) and US Attorney Chin in the latter's garage enjoying smokoes circa 2005. Photo courtesy of L.Yong, PhD.

But all this is beside the point. I had also been “blogging” recently and Yong was a diligent reader. He had made a small innocuous comment in a private email that his family in J.B. was once close to Musa Hitam’s brother, a Mr Kadir who’s into the furniture business. Yong’s father owned an “engineering” workshop, and their families traded visits for Hari Rayas and Chinese New Years’. Furthermore, Yong's late uncle was also Tan Sri Dato Musa Hitam's classmate in English College (now known as Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar).

This is where the “6 degrees” stuff started creeping in.

A few years ago I had taken up Mountain Biking (MTB) in a small way and a few of my initial pathetic attempts started with going around the park in Taman Tun. This was before the park had undergone a major renovation by City Hall, and there were no proper paths. Incidentally the contractor for the park’s transformation was also a former classmate, but that’s another story (6-degrees to be pursued at another time?).

One morning after going around the paths on my shiny new bike I stopped to take a breather under a tree. OK-lah-- a cigarette break to suck-in some Dunhills! Out came this small wiry chap, who had been out jogging. He looked a bit older than me, and I thought he just wanted to look at my bike and make small talk. It turned out he was in need of a cigarrette break too!

Abang Zainal and I thus became fast friends. Not too mention the similarities in our marque of choice for smokoes, he was also an avid Mountain Biker and outdoorsman. Besides, he’s a Captain for Malaysia Airlines so he also knew another (high school) classmate of mine, Captain Pakern, and they both worked the long-haul ‘747 routes. On his days-off from there-on, and if it coincided with mine, we’ll go on our group rides. Sometimes we blow-off the rides altogether and sit in his porch smoking and strumming old tunes on his guitar.

It was only after a few years after we met that I found out he was Musa Hitam’s nephew. Therefore, Kadir is his Dad. So back in Johor Bharu when Yong and I were bosom buddies, Yong and Zainal were already acquainted !

I emailed Yong about this, much to his amusement. The irony is our families (mine and Zainal’s) had bumped into each other just weeks prior at a restaurant in Taman Tun (well-known for its Chinese halal dishes) called Restoran Muhibbah. If we had known about the “Yong connection” earlier, there would have been stories to tell for sure.

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A little piece of "six-degrees" trivia: In the late seventies and early eighties and upon finishing MCE, our intrepid duo Yong and Chin enrolled at Taylors College for a few months prior to leaving for the 'States. In those days Taylors was located in Pantai Luar near Bangsar. So they rented rooms in a small terrace house in Lucky Garden, Bangsar.

The other tenant in the house was a creature called Mamat Gantung. He was, of course, my high school classmate.

This was the beginning of the Star 2 (JB Primary School)-English College-Malay College connection that will forever haunt me into adulthood.

The Car Club and the Trengganu Connection

Some two years ago my wife had bought a Honda Stream, a vehicle some would classify as a midi-MPV. Not too long after this purchase, a young Chinapek guy had “accosted” (for lack of a better term) me outside the shops around my house soon after stepping out of the Stream. The bloke pointed me to his Stream parked nearby that had a “MyStream.VeryCool.AT” sticker in the rear window. Lua was from Kuala Terengganu (Kg.Cina) and asked whether I cared to join a “Streamer” club founded by his Terengganu buddy, Dennis.

To cut the story short, I became an active member of this group composed mainly of thirty-something professionals. Some were a bit older (me). The group currently has in excess of 300 members, of which about 50 are considered active. We often have monthly dinners and “teh-tarik” sessions, and even our very own website http://www.mystream.cc/ where we exchange threads on our favorite ride, and even on other topics deemed to our liking.

One of the topics in the website, apart from Mods, Tires and so on, is the “Off Topic” thread. Another popular thread is the Jalan Jalan Cari Makan" where members gleefully contribute their thoughts on favorite foods, restaurants and such.

A certain Chris, who is an instructor chef at KDU’s International College asked if there was any Streamers out there are into mountain biking? He had just become a “newbie”. As far as I know, it was just Captain Pandi (a marine captain who is now with the marine institute) and myself. So we had this thread going in the" Off Topics" section, favorite single-tracks, gear (as in equipment) used, proper rack systems, etc.

In comes this guy Lim SS who works in BP Chemicals Kuantan and started offering his “two-cents worth”.
Lim SS was not into MTB per se but “road” bikes—as in shaved-legs and Lance Armstrong. And then Dennis (the founder of the group) chimed in and said how come he hasn’t heard about Lim, especially since they were about the same age and from the same hometown?

Lim replied in the thread he was once a Terengganu state cyclist. Fuuyooo! So I asked when? He said this was all in the early nineties while still in high school. The Terengganu Cycling Association had given him a cheap Olmo for national meets. This is all heady stuff as Lim was once a “serious” roadie during the M. Kumaresan era. I know a bit about "roadies" though, having participated in a 100 km road race in 2004, albeit on a borrowed bike. The owner of the RM 10,ooo Italian hand-made steel Colnago loaned it to me because he had just acquaired a mind-boggling RM 30,000 carbon-fibre Pinarello! The Compagnolo Hyperion wheelset (the rims and tires) alone mind you, costs a staggering RM 6,000!

Not to be outdone, I said I had once raced head-to-head against Ng Joo Ngan in the ’99 Selangor International MTB (Simbo 1999) where I passed and saw our national coach fell off his bike. Joo Ngan is at least 15-20 years older, and he was racing in the Men’s Sr. Veteran class. I was battling it out to make top 20 in the Jr. Veteran category. I had failed miserably of course, but had at least completed the 6 km by 4-lap grueling course in the rubber estates of Sungai Buluh near the old Subang Airport. Lim also knew of Joo Ngan’s son who was once-promising national cyclist who now runs his dad's cycle shop in Damansara Utama.

Lim SS being new to the group and living in Kuantan has precluded him in our occasional meets around KL. So most of us Streamers had not met him yet. But a big “Family Day” weekend is in the works this coming June: A two-day affair at the Swiss Garden Kuantan resort that will bring at least 50 Bolehland and Kiasuland Streamers and their families together. Unfortunately I won’t make it to this event as I will be “jealously guarding” my newborn baby girl then…

But I haven’t got to the 6-degrees stuff in this story yet, haven’t I?

In the “MTB” discussion, I casually let on to Lim that I’m very familiar with Terengganu and that I once worked offshore there...and how unfortunate we hadn’t met back then (although he was merely a schoolboy).

He said his uncles worked offshore.

Poof, something flashed in my head. No, it just couldn’t be.

I still don’t believe in coincidences, so I said I knew a bunch of Lims, but from Dungun whose brothers all worked on the rig. All this time I had assumed this Lim SS hails from Kuala Terengganu, and so did Dennis.

In fact, one Lim Dow Fatt was especially close to me since he worked with me for two straight years in the mid-nineties. This was during my Baker-Hughes days. I mean this Ah Fatt, as I called him, lived with me in the same cramped offshore cabin for two whole years. This was a time when I spent at least 70 percent of the year offshore, so you can say I slept with Ah Fatt more than I did my beloved wife during that period.

I also mentioned to Lim that Ah Fatt’s father owned that cinema in Dungun that got burned down. I needn't have bothered to mention about the cinema. His late grandpa owned it.

Which means Ah Fatt is his uncle!

So I said, “whose son are you? Dow Hee’s or Dow Kwang’s?” I knew Ah Fatt had three younger boys, much too young to be this Stream-owning professional. Like I said, Ah Fatt and I were close and I had often been to his house in Dungun.

“Dow Hee”, said Lim SS.

Alaa-mak! Of course I knew you’re father laa!” I replied in amazement.

That ‘ol “6 degrees” at work again. How many times had I shared a cuppa with his dad shooting the breeze (Dow Hee works as a Production Supervsior for ExxonMobil) while waiting to board the chopper? Countless of times I’m afraid, and so it was with his other uncle too, the elder Dow Kwang.

But you know what, folks? This incident left me feeling “old”. Here I am, by a lucky stroke being connected with a former colleague’s nephew.

Has father time really moved that fast?

Stream Club, Dr. L. Yong and (the late) MGG Pillai

Now this might seem a bit of a stretch, trying to tie all three together. More of this “6-degrees” stuff again? Maybe. This is all a matter of conjecture of course, since MGG Pillai has passed on.

Yong had just emailed me saying the late MGGP was an alumnus of his high school, JB’s famed English College. ‘How ‘bout that?’ he said. Included in his email is a link to EC’s website so I gamely pointed my cursor there, just to see what their site looked like. You can see for yourself here http://www.ecesa.com.my/ .

The main members'list page showed two names that jumped out of the page—or screen, rather—at me. Partly because the names were listed higher and prominently displayed above MGGP’s. I assumed they were committee members, and in fact, they were. So that’s why their names were listed on the main page. Personalities like Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam (him again!), Gen (rtd) Tan Sri Dato’ Mohd Ghazali Mohd Seth, Dato’ J. Dominic Puttucheary and Richard Azlan Abbas, to name a few, were also listed.

But one of the two names--who served along with the late MGG in EC’s committee I know REAL WELL. Encik Irlan Norris Ishak is also a “Streamer”, what do you know?

EC 'orang kuat' Encik Irlan Norris Ishak (foreground, left) at a recent Stream "TT' session in March 2006. matsalo gambaqs copyrighted.

But it gets even better. The other name on the committe was Encik Mohd Redza Shah A. Wahid.

Redza was another childhood friend of mind. In fact, Redza (he’s a year younger than me) and I for a time were practically neighbors in JB. In those days I go over his house for Quran lessons. His dad (famed owner of Johor Bahru’s Central Store (JCS), probably the biggest bookstore south of KL) had contracted an Ustadz to come every other day to teach Redza, his older brother Dr. Mohd Ibrahim or Yem (now the country’s leading oncologist at Pantai Hospital), and myself. So we had learned how to recite prayers together. Afterwards we often go to my place to play football.

Since I had just found this out, Irlan and Redza and who knew each other from the EC committee have no inkling of the Mat Salo connection. But they’re about to find out soon, and perhaps from reading this blog. In the earlier stories too, some parties have yet to be informed--like Ah Fatt for instance. Yong and Chin had also forgotten that Redza and Yem were once my neighbors. Later I went to a boarding school far away from JB. Yong, Redza and Yem served as prefects in EC. Incidentally, Yong and Yem were in EC's legendary rugby team back in the late seventies.

I’m sure YOU probably have plenty of your own “6-degrees” stories to tell don’t you?

* * *

May 10, 2006 Update: In today's Star p.55 in the Obituaries Section, the Family of the late MGG Pillai invite "relatives and friends for lunch @ Kalamandabam, Lrg Scott, Brickfields on Saturday 13/05/06 @ 12.15pm. Kindly treat this as a personal invitation 03-2274 2147"