Archive for the Books Category

maximum likelihood: an introduction

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , on December 20, 2014 by xi'an

“Basic Principle 0. Do not trust any principle.” L. Le Cam (1990)

Here is the abstract of a International Statistical Rewiew 1990 paper by Lucien Le Cam on maximum likelihood. ISR keeping a tradition of including an abstract in French for every paper, Le Cam (most presumably) wrote his own translation [or maybe wrote the French version first], which sounds much funnier to me and so I cannot resist posting both, pardon my/his French! [I just find “Ce fait” rather unusual, as I would have rather written “Ceci fait”…]:

Maximum likelihood estimates are reported to be best under all circumstances. Yet there are numerous simple examples where they plainly misbehave. One gives some examples for problems that had not been invented for the purpose of annoying maximum likelihood fans. Another example, imitated from Bahadur, has been specially created with just such a purpose in mind. Next, we present a list of principles leading to the construction of good estimates. The main principle says that one should not believe in principles but study each problem for its own sake.

L’auteur a ouï dire que la méthode du maximum de vraisemblance est la meilleure méthode d’estimation. C’est bien vrai, et pourtant la méthode se casse le nez sur des exemples bien simples qui n’avaient pas été inventés pour le plaisir de montrer que la méthode peut être très désagréable. On en donne quelques-uns, plus un autre, imité de Bahadur et fabriqué exprès pour ennuyer les admirateurs du maximum de vraisemblance. Ce fait, on donne une savante liste de principes de construction de bons estimateurs, le principe principal étant qu’il ne faut pas croire aux principes.

The entire paper is just as witty, as in describing the mixture model as “contaminated and not fit to drink”! Or in “Everybody knows that taking logarithms is unfair”. Or, again, in “biostatisticians, being complicated people, prefer to work out not with the dose y but with its logarithm”… And a last line: “One possibility is that there are too many horse hairs in e”.

a neat (theoretical) Monte Carlo result

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , on December 19, 2014 by xi'an

Mark Huber just arXived a short paper where he develops a Monte Carlo approach that bounds the probability of large errors

\mathbb{P}(|\hat\mu_t-\mu|>\epsilon\mu) < 1/\delta

by computing a lower bound on the sample size r and I wondered at the presence of μ in the bound as it indicates the approach is not translation invariant. One reason is that the standard deviation of the simulated random variables is bounded by cμ. Another reason is that Mark uses as its estimator the median


where the S’s are partial averages of sufficient length and the R’s are independent uniforms over (1-ε,1+ε): using those uniforms may improve the coverage of given intervals but it also means that the absolute scale of the error is multiplied by the scale of S, namely μ. I first thought that some a posteriori recentering could improve the bound but since this does not impact the variance of the simulated random variables, I doubt it is possible.

full Bayesian significance test

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2014 by xi'an

Among the many comments (thanks!) I received when posting our Testing via mixture estimation paper came the suggestion to relate this approach to the notion of full Bayesian significance test (FBST) developed by (Julio, not Hal) Stern and Pereira, from São Paulo, Brazil. I thus had a look at this alternative and read the Bayesian Analysis paper they published in 2008, as well as a paper recently published in Logic Journal of IGPL. (I could not find what the IGPL stands for.) The central notion in these papers is the e-value, which provides the posterior probability that the posterior density is larger than the largest posterior density over the null set. This definition bothers me, first because the null set has a measure equal to zero under an absolutely continuous prior (BA, p.82). Hence the posterior density is defined in an arbitrary manner over the null set and the maximum is itself arbitrary. (An issue that invalidates my 1993 version of the Lindley-Jeffreys paradox!) And second because it considers the posterior probability of an event that does not exist a priori, being conditional on the data. This sounds in fact quite similar to Statistical Inference, Murray Aitkin’s (2009) book using a posterior distribution of the likelihood function. With the same drawback of using the data twice. And the other issues discussed in our commentary of the book. (As a side-much-on-the-side remark, the authors incidentally  forgot me when citing our 1992 Annals of Statistics paper about decision theory on accuracy estimators..!)

Topological sensitivity analysis for systems biology

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by xi'an

Michael Stumpf sent me Topological sensitivity analysis for systems biology, written by Ann Babtie and Paul Kirk,  en avant-première before it came out in PNAS and I read it during the trip to NIPS in Montréal. (The paper is published in open access, so everyone can read it now!) The topic is quite central to a lot of debates about climate change, economics, ecology, finance, &tc., namely to assess the impact of using the wrong model to draw conclusions and make decisions about a real phenomenon. (Which reminded me of the distinction between mechanical and phenomenological models stressed by Michael Blum in his NIPS talk.) And it is of much interest from a Bayesian point of view since assessing the worth of a model requires modelling the “outside” of a model, using for instance Gaussian processes as in the talk Tony O’Hagan gave in Warwick earlier this term. I would even go as far as saying that the issue of assessing [and compensating for] how wrong a model is, given available data, may be the (single) most under-assessed issue in statistics. We (statisticians) have yet to reach our Boxian era.

In Babtie et al., the space or universe of models is represented by network topologies, each defining the set of “parents” in a semi-Markov representation of the (dynamic) model. At which stage Gaussian processes are also called for help. Alternative models are ranked in terms of fit according to a distance between simulated data from the original model (sounds like a form of ABC?!). Obviously, there is a limitation in the number and variety of models considered this way, I mean there are still assumptions made on the possible models, while this number of models is increasing quickly with the number of nodes. As pointed out in the paper (see, e.g., Fig.4), the method has a parametric bootstrap flavour, to some extent.

What is unclear is how one can conduct Bayesian inference with such a collection of models. Unless all models share the same “real” parameters, which sounds unlikely. The paper mentions using uniform prior on all parameters, but this is difficult to advocate in a general setting. Another point concerns the quantification of how much one can trust a given model, since it does not seem models are penalised by a prior probability. Hence they all are treated identically. This is a limitation of the approach (or an indication that it is only a preliminary step in the evaluation of models) in that some models within a large enough collection will eventually provide an estimate that differs from those produced by the other models. So the assessment may become altogether highly pessimistic for this very reason.

“If our parameters have a real, biophysical interpretation, we therefore need to be very careful not to assert that we know the true values of these quantities in the underlying system, just because–for a given model–we can pin them down with relative certainty.”

In addition to its relevance for moving towards approximate models and approximate inference, and in continuation of yesterday’s theme, the paper calls for nested sampling to generate samples from the posterior(s) and to compute the evidence associated with each model. (I realised I had missed this earlier paper by Michael and co-authors on nested sampling for system biology.) There is no discussion in the paper on why nested sampling was selected, compared with, say, a random walk Metropolis-Hastings algorithm. Unless it is used in a fully automated way,  but the paper is rather terse on that issue… And running either approach on 10⁷ models in comparison sounds like an awful lot of work!!! Using importance [sampling] nested sampling as we proposed with Nicolas Chopin could be a way to speed up this exploration if all parameters are identical between all or most models.

an extension of nested sampling

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on December 16, 2014 by xi'an

I was reading [in the Paris métro] Hastings-Metropolis algorithm on Markov chains for small-probability estimation, arXived a few weeks ago by François Bachoc, Lionel Lenôtre, and Achref Bachouch, when I came upon their first algorithm that reminded me much of nested sampling: the following was proposed by Guyader et al. in 2011,

To approximate a tail probability P(H(X)>h),

  • start from an iid sample of size N from the reference distribution;
  • at each iteration m, select the point x with the smallest H(x)=ξ and replace it with a new point y simulated under the constraint H(y)≥ξ;
  • stop when all points in the sample are such that H(X)>h;
  • take


as the unbiased estimator of P(H(X)>h).

Hence, except for the stopping rule, this is the same implementation as nested sampling. Furthermore, Guyader et al. (2011) also take advantage of the bested sampling fact that, if direct simulation under the constraint H(y)≥ξ is infeasible, simulating via one single step of a Metropolis-Hastings algorithm is as valid as direct simulation. (I could not access the paper, but the reference list of Guyader et al. (2011) includes both original papers by John Skilling, so the connection must be made in the paper.) What I find most interesting in this algorithm is that it even achieves unbiasedness (even in the MCMC case!).

broken homes [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2014 by xi'an

London by Delta, Dec. 14, 2011Even though this is the fourth volume in the Peter Grant series, I did read it first [due to my leaving volume one in my office in Coventry and coming across this one in an airport bookstore in Düsseldorf], an experiment I do not advise anyone to repeat as it kills some of the magic in Rivers of London [renamed Midnight Riots on the US market, for an incomprehensible reason!, with the series being recalled Rivers of London, but at least they left the genuine and perfect covers…, not like some of the other foreign editions!] and makes reading Broken homes an exercise in guessing. [Note for ‘Og’s readers suffering from Peter Grant fatigue: the next instalment, taking the seemingly compulsory trip Outside!—witness the Bartholomew series—, is waiting for me in Warwick, so I will not read it before the end of January!]

“I nodded sagely. `You’re right,’ I said. `We need a control.’
`Seriously?’she asked.
`Otherwise, how do you know the variable you’ve changed is the one having the effect?’ I said.”

Now, despite this inauspicious entry, I did enjoy Broken homes as much [almost!] as the other volumes in the series. It mostly takes place in a less familiar [for a French tourist like me] part of London, but remains nonetheless true to its spirit of depicting London as a living organism! There are mostly characters from the earlier novels, but the core of the story is an infamous housing estate built by a mad architect in Elephant and Castle, not that far from Waterloo [Station], but sounding almost like a suburb from Aaronovitch’s depiction! Actually, the author has added a google map for the novel locations on his blog, wish I had it at the time [kind of difficult to get in a plane!].

“Search as I might, nobody else was offering free [wifi] connections to the good people of Elephant and Castle.”

The plot itself is centred on this estate [not really a spoiler, is it?] and the end is outstanding in that it is nothing like one would expect. With or without reading the other volumes. I still had trouble understanding the grand scheme of the main villain, while I have now entirely forgotten about the reasons for the crime scene at the very beginning of Broken homes. Rereading the pages where the driver, Robert Weil, appears did not help. What was his part in the story?! Despite this [maybe entirely personal] gap, the story holds well together, somewhat cemented by the characters populating the estate, who are endowed with enough depth to make them truly part of the story, even when they last only a few pages [spoiler!]. And as usual style and grammar and humour are at their best!

Quasi-Monte Carlo sampling

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, Travel, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2014 by xi'an

RSS wine“The QMC algorithm forces us to write any simulation as an explicit function of uniform samples.” (p.8)

As posted a few days ago, Mathieu Gerber and Nicolas Chopin will read this afternoon a Paper to the Royal Statistical Society on their sequential quasi-Monte Carlo sampling paper.  Here are some comments on the paper that are preliminaries to my written discussion (to be sent before the slightly awkward deadline of Jan 2, 2015).

Quasi-Monte Carlo methods are definitely not popular within the (mainstream) statistical community, despite regular attempts by respected researchers like Art Owen and Pierre L’Écuyer to induce more use of those methods. It is thus to be hoped that the current attempt will be more successful, it being Read to the Royal Statistical Society being a major step towards a wide diffusion. I am looking forward to the collection of discussions that will result from the incoming afternoon (and bemoan once again having to miss it!).

“It is also the resampling step that makes the introduction of QMC into SMC sampling non-trivial.” (p.3)

At a mathematical level, the fact that randomised low discrepancy sequences produce both unbiased estimators and error rates of order

\mathfrak{O}(N^{-1}\log(N)^{d-}) \text{ at cost } \mathfrak{O}(N\log(N))

means that randomised quasi-Monte Carlo methods should always be used, instead of regular Monte Carlo methods! So why is it not always used?! The difficulty stands [I think] in expressing the Monte Carlo estimators in terms of a deterministic function of a fixed number of uniforms (and possibly of past simulated values). At least this is why I never attempted at crossing the Rubicon into the quasi-Monte Carlo realm… And maybe also why the step had to appear in connection with particle filters, which can be seen as dynamic importance sampling methods and hence enjoy a local iid-ness that relates better to quasi-Monte Carlo integrators than single-chain MCMC algorithms.  For instance, each resampling step in a particle filter consists in a repeated multinomial generation, hence should have been turned into quasi-Monte Carlo ages ago. (However, rather than the basic solution drafted in Table 2, lower variance solutions like systematic and residual sampling have been proposed in the particle literature and I wonder if any of these is a special form of quasi-Monte Carlo.) In the present setting, the authors move further and apply quasi-Monte Carlo to the particles themselves. However, they still assume the deterministic transform

\mathbf{x}_t^n = \Gamma_t(\mathbf{x}_{t-1}^n,\mathbf{u}_{t}^n)

which the q-block on which I stumbled each time I contemplated quasi-Monte Carlo… So the fundamental difficulty with the whole proposal is that the generation from the Markov proposal


has to be of the above form. Is the strength of this assumption discussed anywhere in the paper? All baseline distributions there are normal. And in the case it does not easily apply, what would the gain bw in only using the second step (i.e., quasi-Monte Carlo-ing the multinomial simulation from the empirical cdf)? In a sequential setting with unknown parameters θ, the transform is modified each time θ is modified and I wonder at the impact on computing cost if the inverse cdf is not available analytically. And I presume simulating the θ’s cannot benefit from quasi-Monte Carlo improvements.

The paper obviously cannot get into every detail, obviously, but I would also welcome indications on the cost of deriving the Hilbert curve, in particular in connection with the dimension d as it has to separate all of the N particles, and on the stopping rule on m that means only Hm is used.

Another question stands with the multiplicity of low discrepancy sequences and their impact on the overall convergence. If Art Owen’s (1997) nested scrambling leads to the best rate, as implied by Theorem 7, why should we ever consider another choice?

In connection with Lemma 1 and the sequential quasi-Monte Carlo approximation of the evidence, I wonder at any possible Rao-Blackwellisation using all proposed moves rather than only those accepted. I mean, from a quasi-Monte Carlo viewpoint, is Rao-Blackwellisation easier and is it of any significant interest?

What are the computing costs and gains for forward and backward sampling? They are not discussed there. I also fail to understand the trick at the end of 4.2.1, using SQMC on a single vector instead of (t+1) of them. Again assuming inverse cdfs are available? Any connection with the Polson et al.’s particle learning literature?

Last questions: what is the (learning) effort for lazy me to move to SQMC? Any hope of stepping outside particle filtering?


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