Monday, February 14, 2011

Matching Up in Hyperspace (or, Thirty Dancing)

Maybe it's because I've been writing about basketball a lot, but I thought today I'd do something a little different before continuing on, as promised, with a second game theory post.

A while ago, I remember reading an analogy about why it is that oil and water don't mix. (I don't remember where I read it, though, so if you recognize it, please tell me.) Is it that water molecules only "like" water molecules, and oil molecules only "like" oil molecules? Not at all—they all like water molecules!

A water molecule is often drawn as H-O-H, but that drawing is a bit misleading. The hydrogen atoms are actually attached at an angle, as below.

This one looks a bit like a Japanese cartoon character, if you ask me. At any rate, this asymmetry, top to bottom (as drawn here), means that we can speak of an oxygen end (the bottom) and a hydrogen end (the top). What's more, because of the way that electrons are arranged in each atom, the oxygen atom tends to draw electrons away from the hydrogen atoms. The oxygen end, so to speak, has more electrons hanging around it than the hydrogen end. Since electrons are negatively charged, the water molecule has a positive pole (the hydrogen end) and a negative pole (the oxygen end), and we say that the water is a polar molecule.

Water molecules attract each other because they are polar. The positively charged hydrogen end of one attracts the negatively charged oxygen end of another. In steam, the gaseous form, this is almost impossible to make out, because the molecules are too far apart and energetic, bouncing around far too wildly to show any mutual attraction. However, in ice, the solid form, the attraction is much more obvious.

It's a bit hard to tell which hydrogen atoms are associated with each oxygen atoms, but that's because in ice, the bonds are a bit confused. Even so, however, it's clear that we don't have water molecules bonding together oxygen-to-oxygen, or hydrogen-to-hydrogen. They only attach oxygen-to-hydrogen (in the hexagonal arrangement that yields those lovely snowflakes), because the molecules are polar that way. That's the way water molecules "like" each other.

Liquid water is intermediate between ice and steam. The molecules aren't fixed in place to each other as they are in ice, but neither are they bouncing wildly as they are in steam. Instead, they wander amongst each other, like people milling about in a crowd. And as they wander around, they stick to each other a bit, on account of their polarity. They attach and cohere, which makes water bead up, among other things.
What about oil molecules? Oil molecules tend to be symmetric in such a way that there is no clear polar end as there is in water. As a result, they are much less polar than water molecules are. Nonetheless, being weakly polar (under appropriate circumstances), they "like" other polar molecules, too. So why don't they attach to the water molecules, too?

The reason is that there is only so much room for molecules to attract each other. And here's where the analogy I mentioned earlier comes into play. You often find, at a school, that the most popular kids date other most popular kids (when they date), and the least popular kids date other least popular kids (again, when they date). Why is that? Is it that the least popular kids aren't attracted to the most popular kids? Well, it might sometimes be because of that, but often, they are attracted to the most popular kids; that is, after all, part of what makes someone most popular.

What gets in the way, however, is that the most popular kids, like most others perhaps, are also attracted to the most popular kids, and since such pairings satisfy both attractions, they get paired first. Then the next most popular kids pair up with other next most popular kids, they get paired next. And so on down the line. Or so the story goes.

Of course, it isn't quite that neat and clean with kids, but it is a reasonable approximation with what happens when you combine oil and water. They don't mix because the most popular water molecules hook up with other most popular water molecules, while the least attractive oil molecules are left hooking up with each other.

So much for oil and water. But now let's go back to that analogy, which as it so happens is what I really wanted to talk about. (The rest of that science was just for show?!) It doesn't ring true because we all know couples where we think, "Wow, she paired up with him?" How does that happen? It happens because people aren't one-dimensional.

Suppose all people were one-dimensional. Then you could rate each person with a number x—say, from 0 to 100. (I hate it when things are rated from 1 to 100. What's middle-of-the-road on such ratings? 50.5?) In such a case, if you have two 100's, wouldn't they choose each other above all others? You couldn't easily see a 100 pairing with a 25, if there's another 100 to choose from. Under such circumstances, the nth highest-rated male would always match up with the nth highest-rated female. Just like the kids at our hypothetical school.

Note: For reasons I despise (expositional convenience, basically), I'm writing this out heterosexually. Let it be clear that this isn't mandated in any way, and I'm aware of that. This treatment unfortunately makes it easiest for me to separate out two groups and draw what amounts to a bipartite graph between them. Sorry!

We might say, callously, that only one pair of people would say they feel completely satisfied with the pairing; everyone else is "envious" in the sense that there's someone else with whom they would rather have paired up. That's inevitable with one-dimensional people.

So let's give people another dimension: Let them now be rated with two numbers (x, y). Now, there is no universal and complete ordering on people. We might agree that if someone has both numbers higher than someone else, they are more appealing, but there is no universally accepted way to compare two people with one number higher and one number lower. This is akin to the problem with PER. It's entirely possible that everyone could be envy-free.

Here's what I mean. Suppose you have three males and three females. The three males are (60, 30), (50, 50), and (30, 60). So are the three females. Now there's no way you can say that the (60, 30) male is inherently superior to the (50, 50) male, or vice versa. The same is true of any other two males, or any two females. To decide amongst the alternatives, one needs a discriminating function of some sort. Let's say your function is 2x+2y. Then you would rank your three choices 180, 200, and 180, and you would choose the (50, 50) over either the (60, 30) or the (30, 60). If, on the other hand, your function was 3x+y, you would rank your choices 210, 200, and 150, and you'd choose the (60, 30) over the other two. Finally, if your function was x+3y, you'd pick the (30, 60) first. So it's possible for each of the alternatives to be first in someone's eyes.

Of course, to be a completely satisfactory pairing, both sides of the pairing must feel they got the best catch. But consider the (60, 30) male. Being a high-x kind of guy, he naturally values x more than y, perhaps, and his discriminating function will reflect that. (Some people, all they care about is x.) He might be exactly the sort of guy with a function like 3x+y, and would therefore pick the (60, 30) female. She, thinking likewise, would pick the (60, 30) male back. Likewise, the (50, 50) people might pair up with each other as mutually optimal choices, and the (30, 60) people too. It doesn't have to match that way, of course; it just has to match one-to-one. Maybe the (60, 30)'s love the (30, 60)'s, for instance, and vice versa.

On the other hand, this matching leaves someone who's (40, 40) out in the cold, because no discriminating function will rate them ahead of everybody else. Whoever matched up with them would always be upset that they didn't at least match up with ol' (50, 50).

It boils down to who's on the orthogonally convex hull. The hull is made up of everyone who isn't universally worse than any other option. An illustration of this in two dimensions should hopefully make it clear why it's called the hull:

It's called an orthogonally convex hull because everyone is contained in it. [Note: I had previously written just convex hull here, but it later occurred to me that what I mean is an orthogonally convex hull.] Everyone on the hull could be someone's optimal choice; everyone else would be a consolation prize. It's possible that everyone would be on the hull, but it's unlikely, given a random selection of people.

Let's not be too hasty, though. There's an interesting dependency between dimensionality and being on the hull. In one dimension, exactly one person is on the hull (barring ties); everyone else is beneath him or her. In two dimensions, it's a bit more complex, but suppose you had a hundred people, evenly spread out between (0, 0) and (100, 100). On average, maybe five people would be on the hull. (The actual average is the sum 1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + ... + 1/100.)

Now let's increase it to three dimensions. If you have a hundred people spread out between (0, 0, 0) and (100, 100, 100), on average about 14 people would be on the hull. All 14 could be the optimal choice for some prospective mate. As the number of dimensions goes up (and the number of possible discriminating functions, too!), the percentage of people on the hull also goes up. With four dimensions, the average number of people on the hull is 28; with five, it's 44; with six, 59—more than half! Ten dimensions are sufficient to push it up to 94, and by the time you have, oh, let's say thirty dimensions, the odds are about ten million to one in favor of every last person being on the hull. Remember, it isn't necessary to have a highest value in any of the dimensions to be on the hull; all you need is to not be lower than anyone else in all of the dimensions. As the number of dimensions goes up, it becomes awfully unlikely that you'll be lower than anyone else in every single dimension. We can have an entirely envy-free matching, all with the help of increased dimensionality.

OK, this may seem completely crazy, and I wouldn't blame you for calling shenanigans. Who would actually go and rank people using a set of thirty numbers? But this is exactly what one of those on-line dating sites advertises it does. Well, not exactly; it actually claims to use 29 dimensions. Why 29? I would imagine because it sounds somewhat more scientific than thirty. But beyond that, I think that they use as many as 29 because it makes it almost inevitable that you'll be on the hull, that there'll be someone who you find optimal (or very nearly so), for whom you will likewise be optimal (or very nearly so). And although I think that's partly a marketing gimmick, I think there's some truth to it, too; if there weren't, the human race would have died out long ago.

I mean, how else does Ric Ocasek land Paulina Porizkova? For real, I mean!

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