## efficient exploration of multi-modal posterior distributions

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , on September 1, 2014 by xi'an

The title of this recent arXival had potential appeal, however the proposal ends up being rather straightforward and hence  anti-climactic! The paper by Hu, Hendry and Heng proposes to run a mixture of proposals centred at the various modes of  the target for an efficient exploration. This is a correct MCMC algorithm, granted!, but the requirement to know beforehand all the modes to be explored is self-defeating, since the major issue with MCMC is about modes that are  omitted from the exploration and remain undetected throughout the simulation… As provided, this is a standard MCMC algorithm with no adaptive feature and I would rather suggest our population Monte Carlo version, given the available information. Another connection with population Monte Carlo is that I think the performances would improve by Rao-Blackwellising the acceptance rate, i.e. removing the conditioning on the (ancillary) component of the index. For PMC we proved that using the mixture proposal in the ratio led to an ideally minimal variance estimate and I do not see why randomising the acceptance ratio in the current case would bring any improvement.

## understanding the Hastings algorithm

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , on August 26, 2014 by xi'an

David Minh and Paul Minh [who wrote a 2001 Applied Probability Models] have recently arXived a paper on “understanding the Hastings algorithm”. They revert to the form of the acceptance probability suggested by Hastings (1970):

$\rho(x,y) = s(x,y) \left(1+\dfrac{\pi(x) q(y|x)}{\pi(y) q(x|y)}\right)^{-1}$

where s(x,y) is a symmetric function keeping the above between 0 and 1, and q is the proposal. This obviously includes the standard Metropolis-Hastings form of the ratio, as well as Barker’s (1965):

$\rho(x,y) = \left(1+\dfrac{\pi(x) q(y|x)}{\pi(y) q(x|y)}\right)^{-1}$

which is known to be less efficient by accepting less often (see, e.g., Antonietta Mira’s PhD thesis). The authors also consider the alternative

$\rho(x,y) = \min(\pi(y)/ q(y|x),1)\,\min(q(x|y)/\pi(x),1)$

which I had not seen earlier. It is a rather intriguing quantity in that it can be interpreted as (a) a simulation of y from the cutoff target corrected by reweighing the previous x into a simulation from q(x|y); (b) a sequence of two acceptance-rejection steps, each concerned with a correspondence between target and proposal for x or y. There is an obvious caveat in this representation when the target is unnormalised since the ratio may then be arbitrarily small… Yet another alternative could be proposed in this framework, namely the delayed acceptance probability of our paper with Marco and Clara, one special case being

$\rho(x,y) = \min(\pi_1(y)q(x|y)/\pi_1(x) q(y|x),1)\,\min(\pi_2(y)/\pi_1(x),1)$

where

$\pi(x)\propto\pi_1(x)\pi_2(x)$

is an arbitrary decomposition of the target. An interesting remark in the paper is that any Hastings representation can alternatively be written as

$\rho(x,y) = \min(\pi(y)/k(x,y)q(y|x),1)\,\min(k(x,y)q(x|y)/\pi(x),1)$

where k(x,y) is a (positive) symmetric function. Hence every single Metropolis-Hastings is also a delayed acceptance in the sense that it can be interpreted as a two-stage decision.

The second part of the paper considers an extension of the accept-reject algorithm where a value y proposed from a density q(y) is accepted with probability

$\min(\pi(y)/ Mq(y),1)$

and else the current x is repeated, where M is an arbitrary constant (incl. of course the case where it is a proper constant for the original accept-reject algorithm). Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say! While I think I have read some similar proposal in the past, I am a wee intrigued at the appear of using only the proposed quantity y to decide about acceptance, since it does not provide the benefit of avoiding generations that are rejected. In this sense, it appears as the opposite of our vanilla Rao-Blackwellisation. (The paper however considers the symmetric version called the independent Markovian minorizing algorithm that only depends on the current x.) In the extension to proposals that depend on the current value x, the authors establish that this Markovian AR is in fine equivalent to the generic Hastings algorithm, hence providing an interpretation of the “mysterious” s(x,y) through a local maximising “constant” M(x,y). A possibly missing section in the paper is the comparison of the alternatives, albeit the authors mention Peskun’s (1973) result that exhibits the Metropolis-Hastings form as the optimum.

Posted in Mountains, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by xi'an

As I was flying over Skye (with [maybe] a first if hazy perspective on the Cuillin ridge!) to Iceland, three long sets of replies to some of my posts appeared on the ‘Og:

Thanks to them for taking the time to answer my musings…

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by xi'an

“At equilibrium, we thus should not expect gains of several orders of magnitude.”

As was signaled to me several times during the MCqMC conference in Leuven, Rémi Bardenet, Arnaud Doucet and Chris Holmes (all from Oxford) just wrote a short paper for the proceedings of ICML on a way to speed up Metropolis-Hastings by reducing the number of terms one computes in the likelihood ratio involved in the acceptance probability, i.e.

$\prod_{i=1}^n\frac{L(\theta^\prime|x_i)}{L(\theta|x_i)}.$

The observations appearing in this likelihood ratio are a random subsample from the original sample. Even though this leads to an unbiased estimator of the true log-likelihood sum, this approach is not justified on a pseudo-marginal basis à la Andrieu-Roberts (2009). (Writing this in the train back to Paris, I am not convinced this approach is in fact applicable to this proposal as the likelihood itself is not estimated in an unbiased manner…)

In the paper, the quality of the approximation is evaluated by Hoeffding’s like inequalities, which serves as the basis for a stopping rule on the number of terms eventually evaluated in the random subsample. In fine, the method uses a sequential procedure to determine if enough terms are used to take the decision and the probability to take the same decision as with the whole sample is bounded from below. The sequential nature of the algorithm requires to either recompute the vector of likelihood terms for the previous value of the parameter or to store all of them for deriving the partial ratios. While the authors adress the issue of self-evaluating whether or not this complication is worth the effort, I wonder (from my train seat) why they focus so much on recovering the same decision as with the complete likelihood ratio and the same uniform. It would suffice to get the same distribution for the decision (an alternative that is easier to propose than to create of course). I also (idly) wonder if a Gibbs version would be manageable, i.e. by changing only some terms in the likelihood ratio at each iteration, in which case the method could be exact… (I found the above quote quite relevant as, in an alternative technique we are constructing with Marco Banterle, the speedup is particularly visible in the warmup stage.) Hence another direction in this recent flow of papers attempting to speed up MCMC methods against the incoming tsunami of “Big Data” problems.

## running MCMC for too long, and even longer…

Posted in Books, pictures, Running, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2013 by xi'an

Following my earlier post about the young astronomer who feared he was running his MCMC for too long, here is an update from his visit to my office this morning.  This visit proved quite an instructive visit for both of us. (Disclaimer: the picture of an observatory seen from across Brunel’s suspension bridge in Bristol is as earlier completely unrelated with the young astronomer!)

First, the reason why he thought MCMC was running too long was that the acceptance rate was plummeting down to zero, whatever the random walk scale. The reason for this behaviour is that he was actually running a standard simulated annealing algorithm, hence observing the stabilisation of the Markov chain in one of the (global) modes of the target function. In that sense, he was right that the MCMC was run for “too long”, as there was nothing to expect once the mode had been reached and the temperature turned down to zero. So the algorithm was working correctly.

Second, the astronomy problem he considers had a rather complex likelihood, for which he substituted a distance between the (discretised) observed data and (discretised) simulated data, simulated conditional on the current parameter value. Now…does this ring a bell? If not, here is a three letter clue: ABC… Indeed, the trick he had found to get around this likelihood calculation issue was to re-invent a version of ABC-MCMC! Except that the distance was re-introduced into a regular MCMC scheme as a substitute to the log-likelihood. And compared with the distance at the previous MCMC iteration. This is quite clever, even though this substitution suffers from a normalisation issue (that I already mentioned in the post about Holmes’ and Walker’s idea to turn loss functions into pseudo likelihoods. Regular ABC does not encounter this difficult, obviously. I am still bemused by this reinvention of ABC from scratch!

So we are now at a stage where my young friend will experiment with (hopefully) correct ABC steps, trying to derive the tolerance value from warmup simulations and use some of the accelerating tricks suggested by Umberto Picchini and Julie Forman to avoid simulating the characteristics of millions of stars for nothing. And we agreed to meet soon for an update. Indeed, a fairly profitable morning for both of us!

## running MCMC for too long…

Posted in Books, pictures, Running, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2013 by xi'an

Here is an excerpt from an email I just received from a young astronomer with whom I have had many email exchanges about the nature and implementation of MCMC algorithms, not making my point apparently:

The acceptance ratio turn to be good if I used (imposed by me) smaller numbers of iterations. What I think I am doing wrong is the convergence criteria. I am not stopping when I should stop.

To which I replied he should come (or Skype) and talk with me as I cannot get into enough details to point out his analysis is wrong… It may be the case that the MCMC algorithm finds a first mode, explores its neighbourhood (hence a good acceptance rate and green signals for convergence), then wanders away, attracted by other modes. It may also be the case the code has mistakes. Anyway, you cannot stop a (basic) MCMC algorithm too late or let it run for too long! (Disclaimer: the picture of an observatory seen from across Brunel’s suspension bridge in Bristol is unrelated to the young astronomer!)

## accelerated ABC

Posted in R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2013 by xi'an

On the flight back from Warwick, I read a fairly recently arXived paper by Umberto Picchini and Julie Forman entitled “Accelerating inference for diffusions observed with measurement error and large sample sizes using Approximate Bayesian Computation: A case study” that relates to earlier ABC works (and the MATLAB abc-sde package) by the first author (earlier works I missed). Among other things, the authors propose an acceleration device for ABC-MCMC: when simulating from the proposal, the Metropolis-Hastings acceptance probability can be computed and compared with a uniform rv prior to simulating pseudo-data. In case of rejection, the pseudo-data does not need to be simulated. In case of acceptance, it is compared with the observed data as usual. This is interesting for two reasons: first it always speeds up the algorithm. Second, it shows the strict limitations of ABC-MCMC, since the rejection takes place without incorporating the information contained in the data. (Even when the proposal incorporates this information, the comparison with the prior does not go this way.) This also relates to one of my open problems, namely how to simulate directly summary statistics without simulating the whole pseudo-dataset.

Another thing (related with acceleration) is that the authors use a simulated subsample rather than the simulated sample in order to gain time: this worries me somehow as the statistics corresponding to the observed data is based on the whole observed data. I thus wonder how both statistics could be compared, since they have different distributions and variabilities, even when using the same parameter value. Or is this a sort of pluggin/bootstrap principle, the true parameter being replaced with its estimator based on the whole data? Maybe this does not matter in the end (when compared with the several levels of approximation)…