informed proposals for local MCMC in discrete spaces

Last year Giacomo Zanella published a paper entitled informed proposals for local MCMC in discrete spaces in JASA. Which I had missed somehow and only discovered through another paper, and which we recently discussed at Paris-Dauphine with graduate students, marooned by COVID-19 . Probability targets in discrete spaces are intrinsically hard[er] to simulate in my opinion if only because there is no natural distance, hence no natural neighbourhood. A random walk proposal like the reference kernel in the paper is not directly calibrated. Without demarginalisation there is neither a clear version of calculus for implementing MALA or HMC. What indeed is HMC on a discrete space? If this requires “embedding the binary space in a continuous space”, it does not sound very enticing if the construct is context dependent.

“This would allow for more moves to be accepted and longer moves to be performed, thus improving the algorithm’s efficiency.”

A interesting aspect of the paper is that for near atomic transition kernels K, informally for small σ’s, the proposal switch to Q finds target x normalising constant as new stationary and close to the actual target. Which incidentally reminded me of our vanilla Rao-Blackwellisation with Randal Douc. This however begets the worry that it may prove unwieldy in continuous cases, as except for Gaussian kernels, the  proposal switch to Q may prove intractable and requires further MCMC steps, in a form of infinite regress. Plus a musing that, were the original kernel K to be replaced with the new Q, another informed proposal transform could be applied to Q. Further infinite regress…

“[The optimality of the Metropolis-Hastings choice of acceptance probability] does not translate to the context of balancing functions.”

The paper indeed exhibits a setting that is rehabilitating Barker’ (1965) version of the acceptance probability, but I never  was very much convinced there was a significant difference in using one or the other. During our virtual (?) discussion, we also wondered at the adaptive abilities of the approach, e.g., selecting among a finite family of g’s (according to which criterion) or parameterising g towards an optimal choice of its parameter. And at the capacity for Rao-Blackwellisation since the proposal have to consider the entire set of neighbours prior to moving to a likely one.

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