Last week, I wrote about how mobs might be predictable. One of the first tools that I mentioned was autocorrelation. This is a basic tool that we will use with the others in the list, so it's important to understand exactly what it does. That's what I want to explore this week.
Let's go back to high school geometry. We can define several properties and operations in terms of the angles and sides of the parallelogram to the right, though we'll need to dive into the cartesian coordinate system a bit to see how to move on to the next step towards the autocorrelation.
We want to look at what it means to do mathematical operations on these line segments. We know that we can add numbers together to get new numbers, but what does it mean to add line segments? If we take the segment from D to E, and add the segment from E to B, it's obvious that we end up with the segment from D to B. But what's not as obvious is that if we take D to E and add from E to C, we end up with D to C.
As a kid, I read Asimov'sFoundation series in which Hari Seldon develops a mathematical description of society called psychohistory. The science in the books is completely fictional, but it always sat at the back of my mind. What if there was a kernel of truth in the fiction? What if people could be predictable?
Psychohistory has two main axioms (taken from the Wikipedia entry):
that the population whose behaviour was modeled should be sufficiently large
that the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses
The first axiom has an analogy in statistical physics: the number of particles should be sufficiently large. A single atom doesn't really have a temperature because temperature is a measure of how quickly disorder is increasing in a system. A single atom can't increase its disorder, but it can have an energy. It just happens that the rate of entropy increase is proportional to the average energy of a group of particles, so we equate temperature with energy and assume that a single atom can have a temperature. The entropy-based definition of temperature is more general than the energy-based definition: it allows negative temperatures.
The second axiom is similar to what you might expect for a psychology experiment: knowledge of the experiment by the participants can affect the outcome. For example, using purchasing data instead of asking someone outright if they are pregnant because sometimes the contextually acceptable answer will trump the truth.
The important thing is that people are predictable in aggregate. This is what allows a political poll to predict an election outcome without having to ask everyone who will be voting, though polls aren't perfectly predictable in part because someone will be more likely to tell a pollster what they think is socially acceptable, which might not show how they vote when they think no one is watching, thus reinforcing the need for the second axiom.
In my last post, I talked some about the need to look across projects and find common elements that could be factored out. I'd like to start a series of posts in which I talk about some of the work I'm doing at MITH in developing some foundational libraries that we are using to build digital humanities projects. Along the way, I'll discuss some of the philosophy behind those libraries and our approach to the projects.