Making Bacon with Golang July 10, 2018

The previous post in this series disussed at some length the idea of embedding a database into a Lambda function.

As noted in that post, I enjoy the Kevin Bacon game (which we used to play back in Ye Olde Times from memory), and the classic online version, the Oracle of Bacon.

The goal of the game is to be able to take a pair of actor’s names, and find the shortest path between them via the films they (or other actors) have been in. The length of this path is the “bacon number”.

I knew I wanted to

  • Run in a Lambda
  • Be written in Go (since it is the best intersection of ‘favorite’ and ‘best performance’ under the languages supported by Lambda)
  • Have the dataset be < 150MB
  • Query with low latency – less than a network hop, ideally, to test possible performance gains from embedding.

First Attempt: Cayley

My initial thought was to use Cayley. It’s an embeddable graph database, written in Go, which supports a variety of backend stores, including on-disk KVs.

However, I hit a few snags. The README said:

Rough performance testing shows … a multi-hop intersection query – films starring X and Y – takes ~150ms

I was hoping to have performance significantly better than that, on what I expected to be more challenging queries.

The second thing I noticed was that there was no obvious way to get the shortest path, the single graph operation I most needed. There’s even a closed issue from April 2016 about it.

So, back to basics. Though I sadly don’t recall everything I learned in my CS classes, I do know that breadth-first search is a good way to find the shortest through an unweighted graph. And, interestingly, I later found the Oracle of Bacon’s “how it works” page, which explains that they also use BFS.

How to do BFS in Go

I’m not a fan of reinventing any wheels I don’t need to, so after googling :allthethings:, I found a fantastic article by Egon Elbre called A Tale of BFS. It’s an excellent exploration of how to optimize and iteratively improve software, and a true gem given my need for it’s ultimate conclusion. Not only does Egon know a lot about graphs and performance improvement, he also draws gophers, so he’s pretty much the best.

The basic algorithm for BFS is very simple.

Movie Graph

  • Start at a node. (This will be an actor, for our purposes.)
  • Queue up all the nodes connected to your source node. (These will all be movies, labeled as ‘1st queue’)
  • Visit them all, collecting any as-yet unvisited node connected to them in a separate queue to visit on the next path. (2nd queue).
  • Continue building queues for each ‘level’ and visiting them until the target node is found, at which point we can halt immediately.

You can halt immediately, because if you see a node, it means you’ve found (one of the) shortest paths to that node.

Sounds straightforward enough! So, how to represent this data structure in Go?

Data Structure

My intuition was to build this with pointers. Each node would be a struct, which had a slice of all it’s neighbors, whose members were pointers to node objects. Egon’s article pointed out something which in retrospect seems obvious – this is a terrible idea. Not only do you have to allocate a lot of memory incrementally to build this system, it’s also expensive to search, because your CPU-level caching will be very ineffective.

He proposed a different data structure which was new to me: the Compact Adjacency List.

Compact Adjacency List

Every node gets an integer id. There’s a slice (List) that keeps track of all the neighbors for every node. And there’s another slice (Span) which, given a node id, returns the offset into the List where the neighbors are stored.

// Graph is the graph storage data
type Graph struct {
	// List is the list of neighbors
	List []Node   `json:"list"`
	Span []uint64 `json:"span"`

So to find the neighbors of node 4:

  • Look up Span[4], which is 8
  • Look up Span[4+1], which is 12
  • This means the neighbors of node 4 are in List[8:12]

Easy peasy. No pointers, and highly efficient to serialize, deserialize, and search.

Searching the Struct

The code below is very similar to Egon’s (including his very clever bitset storage of visited nodes), with one minor extension – I needed to track the actual path that was taken through the graph.

There’s one extra slice for bookkeeping, called parentNode. Every time a new neighbor is discovered (meaning it’s not already contained in visited), store the node id which led to the discovery. For example, the parent node of “Josh Brolin” might be “Avengers: Infinity War”, or it might be “True Grit”, (or any of his other movies), depending on the path taken to find him.

for len(currentLevel) > 0 {
		for _, node := range currentLevel {
			for _, neighbor := range g.Neighbors(node) {
				if !visited.Contains(neighbor) {
					nextLevel = append(nextLevel, neighbor)
					parentNode[neighbor] = node
				if neighbor == dest {
					return NewPath(source, dest, parentNode, b)
    // Sorting the next level to search means we'll search it linearly
    // which will lead to better use of the CPU Cache
		zuint32.SortBYOB(nextLevel, currentLevel[:cap(currentLevel)])

		currentLevel = currentLevel[:0:cap(currentLevel)]
		currentLevel, nextLevel = nextLevel, currentLevel
	return nil, errors.New("No path found")

When the node that’s being searched for is actually discovered, it’s a simple matter of starting at parentNode[target], and working backwards until the original source node is found.


In the example diagram, the parent of node 5 is 4, so parentNode[5] == 4.

Making it legible

The next step was converting the paths to a human readable string. (And, in this case, since a target application is Alexa, a string which works well read aloud.)

$ ./baconcli path "Tom Hanks" "Benedict Cumberbatch"

Start Node: {Tom Hanks true 31 3543}
End Node: {Benedict Cumberbatch true 71580 48}

2018/07/11 08:13:54 Search took 1.396419ms

Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hanks are separated by 2 degrees. Benedict Cumberbatch was in "Avengers: Infinity War" with Paul Bettany, who was in "The Da Vinci Code" with Tom Hanks

This was the first time I’d used the strings.Builder that came out in go 1.10, and it’s a very nice API.

// Prose converts a path into readable text
func (p Path) Prose() string {
	var sb strings.Builder
	fmt.Fprintf(&sb, "%s and %s are separated by %d degrees. ", p[0].Name, p[len(p)-1].Name, p.Degrees())
	fmt.Fprintf(&sb, "%s was in \"%s\" with %s", p[0].Name, p[1].Name, p[2].Name)
	for i := 3; i < len(p); i += 2 {
		fmt.Fprintf(&sb, ", who was in \"%s\" with %s", p[i].Name, p[i+1].Name)
	return sb.String()

Fixing Broken Names

Since the spelling of actor’s names is hard to get right, I implemented a basic auto-correct function as well.

There are much better algorithms but FindPerson works well enough for now.

It was actually pretty amusing to see a precise description of my approach as the “Naive approach” in that “better algorithms” link!

Naive approach

The obvious way of doing this is to compute the edit distance from the query term to each dictionary > term, before selecting the string(s) of minimum edit distance as spelling suggestion. This exhaustive search is inordinately expensive.

I think for this application a spell check which was “popularity-biased” would be useful.

$ ./baconcli path "Martin Shorts" "Michael Myers"
Name not found, using most similar
Fuzzy Finding took 236.114282ms
Name not found, using most similar
Fuzzy Finding took 232.003397ms

Start Node: {Martin Short true 519 21298}
End Node: {Michaela Myers true 971867 168181}

2018/07/11 08:24:05 Search took 9.689411ms

Michaela Myers and Martin Short are separated by 4 degrees. Michaela Myers was in "Bridegroom" with Sasha Andreev , who was in "Best Man Down" with Evan Jones, who was in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" with Zoe Saldana, who was in "Get Over It" with Martin Short

In this case, “Michael Myers” should probably become “Mike Myers”, not “Michaela Myers”, even though her name is has a lower edit distance.

In the next post, I’ll get into how I gathered the data, and got it into an embeddable compact adjacency list form.

Check out the full source to explore further.