estimating constants [impression soleil levant]

The CRiSM workshop on estimating constants which took place here in Warwick from April 20 till April 22 was quite enjoyable [says most objectively one of the organisers!], with all speakers present to deliver their talks  (!) and around sixty participants, including 17 posters. It remains a exciting aspect of the field that so many and so different perspectives are available on the “doubly intractable” problem of estimating a normalising constant. Several talks and posters concentrated on Ising models, which always sound a bit artificial to me, but also are perfect testing grounds for approximations to classical algorithms.

On top of [clearly interesting!] talks associated with papers I had already read [and commented here], I had not previously heard about Pierre Jacob’s coupling SMC sequence, which paper is not yet out [no spoiler then!]. Or about Michael Betancourt’s adiabatic Monte Carlo and its connection with the normalising constant. Nicolas Chopin talked about the unnormalised Poisson process I discussed a while ago, with this feature that the normalising constant itself becomes an additional parameter. And that integration can be replaced with (likelihood) maximisation. The approach, which is based on a reference distribution (and an artificial logistic regression à la Geyer), reminded me of bridge sampling. And indirectly of path sampling, esp. when Merrilee Hurn gave us a very cool introduction to power posteriors in the following talk. Also mentioning the controlled thermodynamic integration of Chris Oates and co-authors I discussed a while ago. (Too bad that Chris Oates could not make it to this workshop!) And also pointing out that thermodynamic integration could be a feasible alternative to nested sampling.

Another novel aspect was found in Yves Atchadé’s talk about sparse high-dimension matrices with priors made of mutually exclusive measures and quasi-likelihood approximations. A simplified version of the talk being in having a non-identified non-constrained matrix later projected onto one of those measure supports. While I was aware of his noise-contrastive estimation of normalising constants, I had not previously heard Michael Gutmann give a talk on that approach (linking to Geyer’s 1994 mythical paper!). And I do remain nonplussed at the possibility of including the normalising constant as an additional parameter [in a computational and statistical sense]..! Both Chris Sherlock and Christophe Andrieu talked about novel aspects on pseudo-marginal techniques, Chris on the lack of variance reduction brought by averaging unbiased estimators of the likelihood and Christophe on the case of large datasets, recovering better performances in latent variable models by estimating the ratio rather than taking a ratio of estimators. (With Christophe pointing out that this was an exceptional case when harmonic mean estimators could be considered!)

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