It was Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, who first posited the principle of six degrees of separation -- that it would take no more than six connections to link any two people in the world. Marconi was actually talking about telegraph stations, not personal affinity, but the idea caught on with social scientists and even epidemiologists, not to mention playwright John Guare, who made the phrase famous with a 1990 script about a charming huckster.
The concept captures the imagination. Could each of us truly be connected to every other person in the world through a chain of no more than six acquaintances, if only we knew the right people to pick as links?
In diverse Southern California, though, six degrees feels like a few too many, especially in the wake the devastating South Asian tsunami. More than 150,000 Southern California residents trace their ancestry to the nations with casualties.
Chances are good that your neighbor, your child's school chum or the owner of a local eatery is mourning one -- or many -- of the dead, or anxiously waits to learn a loved one's fate or worries about a survivor's chances of finding shelter and clean water to live through the aftermath.
The multitudes of dead are scattered among 10 countries, all of them represented among Southern California's population. Two or three degrees of acquaintance brings us to a tragic story halfway around the world.
There's no getting away from the local connection to almost any major news event anywhere. Japan, China, Russia, South Africa, Australia -- there are few places on Earth that could suffer devastation without causing pain here.
Violence erupts in the Middle East and stabs at hearts here with links to Israel or the Palestinian territories. A massacre in Honduras brings tears in Los Angeles as well as San Pedro Sula.
The internationalism of the Los Angeles area makes us cosmopolitan, multilayered, economically dynamic. It also strips us of any pretense that foreign disaster is a faraway event that doesn't strike us at home, every time.