September 20, 2012
Remember the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"? The theory was that everybody in Hollywood (and quite possibly everyone in the world) is only six degrees of separation from actor Kevin Bacon.
That is, an actor would be in the same movie with another actor, who was in a movie with yet another, until you came to one who had been in a movie with Kevin Bacon.
Why Kevin Bacon? The game began at a time when, like Keanu Reeves after him, Bacon was still a fairly young actor emerging from teen roles. It was half-mocking – but half-respectful, too, since it depended on the fact that Bacon was working. He was in movie after movie.
And the movies he was in sometimes had huge ensemble casts, who went on to be in lots of movies, too.
Since then, Bacon has become respected as a serious actor, without ever quite crossing the threshold into major stardom. (Keanu Reeves had Speed and then The Matrix, so he did cross that threshold.)
Now Google has institutionalized the game so anyone can play. Just go to Google's search window and type in "Bacon Number" and the name of any actor.
You will get back a number and a list of a chain of actors and the movies they were in together.
My wife and I happen to have several good friends who have appropriate screen credits. Actors Eric Artell and Kirby Heyborne and director Kyle Rankin all had a Bacon Number of 3. That meant that we had an implied Bacon Number of 4, three times over.
We ran the names of friends who are producers and writers with many screen credits, but apparently it's a game for actors only. Directors sometimes have Bacon Numbers – for instance, Steven Spielberg – but, like our friend Kyle Rankin, they got the number for appearances as actors. (Spielberg went onscreen in Blues Brothers.)
Then my wife said, "Wait a minute! You'll be getting a screen credit as an actor for doing that one line in Ender's Game. You were in a scene with Harrison Ford!"
That's right. I have my SAG card. I'm an actor.
Harrison Ford's Bacon Number, we soon discovered, is 2. Ford appeared with Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon were both in Animal House.
Not only is that a very low Bacon Number, it's also a very early one – Ford had that Bacon Number by 1981. Now it's almost a mark of prestige that he's been a BN2 for 31 years without ever being in a movie with Bacon himself.
Ford's BN2 means that when Ender's Game comes out and my name slips unobtrusively into the Internet Move Data Base (IMDB), I will have my own Bacon Number of 3.
I will be as Bacon-cool as my friends. And anyone who knows me will have an unofficial Bacon Number of 4.
Dear friends, family, and casual acquaintances: Soon, knowing me will bring you that much closer to greatness.
Either you enjoy doing crossword puzzles or you don't. If you don't, then skip this section because believe me, you won't care about anything I'm about to say.
In American crossword puzzles (unlike the cryptic British variety), the clues are relatively straightforward. But there's an art to them.
It's the clues more than the words in the grid that decide whether a puzzle is hard or not.
Oh, if it's a celebrity-name puzzle, and you've never heard of the "celebrities," then the puzzle is hard for you – but not for regular readers of People.
And some puzzlemakers still resort to the occasional word so obscure that the Oxford English Dictionary has it only in a footnote.
If you work a lot of crossword puzzles there are words and names that pop up again and again, which are rarely used in actual English, but which are useful because they're short and contain so many good combining letters.
For instance: "Ort" (a bit of leftover food); "aper" (someone who imitates or "apes" someone else); "Eero" (Finnish architect and designer Eero Saarinen).
In ordinary English usage, these words are never, never said. (Though of course all readers of this column will no doubt find occasion to say "ort" after a meal today. You'll be so disappointed if everyone cleans their plates.)
In Games Magazine, their feature "The World's Orneriest Crossword Puzzle" makes clear the importance of clues to the difficulty of a puzzle. There are two sets of clues to the same large grid, hard clues and easy clues.
All the clues lead to the same answers. Sometimes both lists have the same clue, because there isn't any other. I mean, if the puzzlewright resorts to "Eero," what clue is there but "Finnish architect Saarinen"? Maybe just "Finnish architect"?
Only half of the art of crossword-making is the arrangement of words in a grid; the other half is writing clues. (In British cryptics, it's more like three-fourths clue-writing.)
And, just as there are rules for creating good cryptic clues in a British puzzle, there are rules for American clues.
A clue can be categorical. "Oboe" can be clued as "woodwind" because it's a member of that category. But if you go the other way with a category – if the grid word is "woodwind" – then to use "Oboe" as a clue, you need to add "for instance" or "e.g."
Another convention is that if the answer is an abbreviation, you either say so in the clue ("abbr.") or you use an abbreviation in the clue: "Mrs" could be clued as "wife of (abbr.)" or as "Mr.'s mate." The use of "Mr." in the clue means that the grid word may be, but is not necessarily, an abbreviation.
The most common forms of clue, though, are synonyms and definitions, and a key rule is that both definitions and synonyms must lead you to the same part of speech as the answer.
So to clue the word "wife" you could use "married woman" or "mate" or "spouse" (or "wedded woman" or "female partner" or "espoused lady" and so on); but never "married" or "wedded" or "espoused," because these are adjectival forms, and the answer is a noun.
All of this is leading somewhere.
The good puzzle makers – and the good puzzle editors – make sure that all clues lead you to the right part of speech.
The other day I bought a series of crossword books titled according to how long it should take you to work the puzzle. Thus: :08 Min Crosswords, :25 Min Crosswords, and so on.
Clever idea, and I bought several of them.
There were problems with the books right away. First, they're printed on a hard-to-erase paper. Paper choice in a pencil-puzzle book is crucial, and this paper is barely tolerable.
While it is thick and firm enough not to tear, and smooth enough not to snag the pencil point (there are other puzzle books with both problems), when you erase a letter, a clearly visible residue is left behind, along with a smear.
But I can live with that if the puzzles are good. Which means if the grid words are clever and the clues are apt.
Alas, I must warn fellow crosswights away from all these books, not because of the paper, but because of the clues.
For example, in puzzle 20 of :45 Min Crosswords, the clue "spiral shaped" leads to the grid word "whorl."
While it is true that "spiral shaped" is a true statement about whorls, it is not a clue, because it is not a definition or a synonym....continued on page 2