Archive for the Mountains Category

a glacial PhD in Iceland [job announcement]

Posted in Kids, Mountains, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 3, 2016 by xi'an

[Here is a PhD offer at the University of Iceland that may be of interest to some readers or their students. I would have been interested 30 years ago!]

The Department of Mathematics at the University of Iceland (UI) seeks applicants for a fully funded 3 year PhD position for the project Statistical Models for Glaciology.

The student will develop Bayesian hierarchical spatio-temporal models to the field of glaciology, working with a consortium of experts at the University of Iceland, the University of Missouri and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The key people in the consortium are Prof. Birgir Hrafnkelsson at UI, Prof. Chris Wikle, and Prof. Håvard Rue, experts in spatial statistics and Bayesian computation. Another key person is Prof. Gudfinna Adalgeirsdottir at UI, an expect in glaciology. The Glaciology group at UI possesses extensive data and knowledge about the Icelandic glaciers.

The application deadline is February 29, 2016.

Detailed project description

Job ad with information on how to apply:

expectation-propagation from Les Houches

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2016 by xi'an

ridge6As CHANCE book editor, I received the other day from Oxford University Press acts from an École de Physique des Houches on Statistical Physics, Optimisation, Inference, and Message-Passing Algorithms that took place there in September 30 – October 11, 2013.  While it is mostly unrelated with Statistics, and since Igor Caron already reviewed the book a year and more ago, I skimmed through the few chapters connected to my interest, from Devavrat Shah’s chapter on graphical models and belief propagation, to Andrea Montanari‘s denoising and sparse regression, including LASSO, and only read in some detail Manfred Opper’s expectation propagation chapter. This paper made me realise (or re-realise as I had presumably forgotten an earlier explanation!) that expectation propagation can be seen as a sort of variational approximation that produces by a sequence of iterations the distribution within a certain parametric (exponential) family that is the closest to the distribution of interest. By writing the Kullback-Leibler divergence the opposite way from the usual variational approximation, the solution equates the expectation of the natural sufficient statistic under both models… Another interesting aspect of this chapter is the connection with estimating normalising constants. (I noticed a slight typo on p.269 in the final form of the Kullback approximation q() to p().

high dimension Metropolis-Hastings algorithms

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2016 by xi'an

When discussing high dimension models with Ingmar Schüster Schuster [blame my fascination for accented characters!] the other day, we came across the following paradox with Metropolis-Hastings algorithms. If attempting to simulate from a multivariate standard normal distribution in a large dimension, when starting from the mode of the target, i.e., its mean γ, leaving the mode γis extremely unlikely, given the huge drop between the value of the density at the mode γ and at likely realisations (corresponding to the blue sequence). Even when relying on the very scale that makes the proposal identical to the target! Resorting to a tiny scale like Σ/p manages to escape the unhealthy neighbourhood of the highly unlikely mode (as shown with the brown sequence).

Here is the corresponding R code:

mh=mu #mode as starting value
for (t in 1:T){
if (log(runif(1))<logdmvnorm(prop,mu,sigma)-
   logdmvnorm(mh,mu,sigma)) mh=prop

Rams [Hrútar]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2016 by xi'an

After two failed attempts [first time, the movie USB stick had been lost by the Alpine post-office; second time, the Montparnasse cinema was packed by busloads of senior citizens on a New Year afternoon], we managed to get two seats at an afternoon show of Rams, an Icelandic movie about sheep, brothers, and Northern Iceland. Both funny and moving. Mostly moving actually, as the film director does not push the absurdity of the not-talking brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, into a comedy, only allowing a few bursts of hilarious moments. Indeed, the core story is pretty dire as the brothers are ordered (by a Danish veterinarian!) to kill both their flocks of scrapie infected sheep, which constitute the last representatives of a local race.  Obviously, the setting in rural (i.e., deserted) Iceland helps with the story and with getting immersed with the fate of the characters (esp. the sheep!), but this is not a scenery film and the actors convey more by their silence and stares than through the few dialogues. The final scenes are even more dramatic and the film ends up on a question mark… Not to forget, the fairly long credits include the names of a few sheep, as well as an horse and possibly the shepherd dog [but I missed it!]

MCMskv #5 [future with a view]

Posted in Kids, Mountains, R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2016 by xi'an

As I am flying back to Paris (with an afternoon committee meeting in München in-between), I am reminiscing on the superlative scientific quality of this MCMski meeting, on the novel directions in computational Bayesian statistics exhibited therein, and on the potential settings for the next meeting. If any.

First, as hopefully obvious from my previous entries, I found the scientific program very exciting, with almost uniformly terrific talks, and a coverage of the field of computational Bayesian statistics that is perfectly tuned to my own interest. In that sense, MCMski is my “top one” conference! Even without considering the idyllic location. While some of the talks were about papers I had already read (and commented here), others brought new vistas and ideas. If one theme is to emerge from this meeting it has to be the one of approximate and noisy algorithms, with a wide variety of solutions and approaches to overcome complexity issues. If anything, I wish the solutions would also incorporate the Boxian fact that the statistical models themselves are approximate. Overall, a fantastic program (says one member of the scientific committee).

Second, as with previous MCMski meetings, I again enjoyed the unique ambience of the meeting, which always feels more relaxed and friendly than other conferences of a similar size, maybe because of the après-ski atmosphere or of the special coziness provided by luxurious mountain hotels. This year hotel was particularly pleasant, with non-guests like myself able to partake of some of their facilities. A big thank you to Anto for arranging so meticulously all the details of such a large meeting!!! I am even more grateful when realising this is the third time Anto takes over the heavy load of organising MCMski. Grazie mille!

Since this is a [and even the!] BayesComp conference, the current section program chair and board must decide on the  structure and schedule of the next meeting. A few suggestions if I may: I would scrap entirely the name MCMski from the next conference as (a) it may sound like academic tourism for unaware bystanders (who only need to check the program of any of the MCMski conferences to stand reassured!) and (b) its topic go way beyond MCMC. Given the large attendance and equally large proportion of young researchers, I would also advise against hosting the conference in a ski resort for both cost and accessibility reasons [as we had already discussed after MCMskiv], in favour of a large enough town to offer a reasonable range of accommodations and of travel options. Like Chamonix, Innsbruck, Reykjavik, or any place with a major airport about one hour away… If nothing is available with skiing possibilities, so be it! While the outdoor inclinations of the early organisers induced us to pick locations where skiing over lunch break was a perk, any accessible location that allows for a concentration of researchers in a small area and for the ensuing day-long exchange is fine! Among the novelties in the program, the tutorials and the Breaking news! sessions were quite successful (says one member of the scientific committee). And should be continued in one format or another. Maybe a more programming thread could be added as well… And as we had mentioned earlier, to see a stronger involvement of the Young Bayesian section in the program would be great! (Even though the current meeting already had many young researcher  talks.)

MCMskv #2 [ridge with a view]

Posted in Mountains, pictures, R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2016 by xi'an

Tuesday at MCMSkv was a rather tense day for me, from having to plan the whole day “away from home” [8km away] to the mundane worry of renting ski equipment and getting to the ski runs over the noon break, to giving a poster over our new mixture paper with Kaniav Kamary and Kate Lee, as Kaniav could not get a visa in time. It actually worked out quite nicely, with almost Swiss efficiency. After Michael Jordan’s talk, I attended a Bayesian molecular biology session with an impressive talk by Jukka Corander on evolutionary genomics with novel ABC aspects. And then a Hamiltonian Monte Carlo session with two deep talks by Sam Livingstone and Elena Akhmatskaya on the convergence of HMC, followed by an amazing entry into Bayesian cosmology by Jens Jasche (with a slight drawback that MCMC simulations took about a calendar year, handling over 10⁷ parameters). Finishing the day with more “classical” MCMC convergence results and techniques, with talks about forgetting time, stopping time (an undervalued alternative to convergence controls), and CLTs. Including a multivariate ESS by James Flegal. (This choice of sessions was uniformly frustrating as I was also equally interested in “the other” session. The drawback of running parallel sessions, obviously.)

The poster session was busy and animated, but I alas could not get an idea of the other posters as I was presenting mine. This was quite exciting as I discussed a new parametrisation for location-scale mixture models that allows for a rather straightforward “non-informative” or reference prior. (The paper with Kaniav Kamary and Kate Lee should be arXived overnight!) The recently deposited CRAN package Ultimixt by Kaniav and Kate contains Metropolis-Hastings functions related to this new approach. The result is quite exciting, especially because I have been looking for it for decades and I will discuss it pretty soon in another post, and I had great exchanges with the conference participants, which led me to consider the reparametrisation in a larger scale and to simplify the presentation of the approach, turning the global mean and variance as hyperparameters.

The day was also most auspicious for a ski break as it was very mild and sunny, while the snow conditions were (somewhat) better than the ones we had in the French Alps two weeks ago. (Too bad that the Tweedie ski race had to be cancelled for lack of snow on the reserved run! The Blossom ski reward will have again to be randomly allocated!) Just not exciting enough to consider another afternoon out, given the tension in getting there and back. (And especially when considering that it took me the entire break time to arXive our mixture paper…)

MCMskv #1 [room with a view]

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by xi'an

That’s it!, MCMskv has now started! We hold our round-table Monday night, which ended with most of my interventions revolving about the importance of models. And of the fact that models are always approximate (and wrong), hence that uncertainty and uncertainty ascertainment is paramount. Even more with large datasets and roundtablehigh-dimensional models. Apologies to the audience if I sounded like running on a very short loop. (And maybe also for the round-table to keep them from their dinner!)  Still, I got some items for reflection out of this discussion, including the notion that big data is usually and inappropriately associated with an impression of completeness that is almost deterministic in a Laplacian sense. Namely that the available data for, say, all Facebook users, seems to allow us (or The Machine) to play Laplace’s Demon. And thus forgoes the need for uncertainty and uncertainty ascertainment. Which obviously clashes with the issues of poor data, inappropriate models, and time or space stationarity of the available information.

Two more computing-related notions that came out the discussion [for me] are asynchronicity (in the sense explored by Terenin et al. a few months ago) and subsampling, The later seems to mean many things, judging from the discussion from the panel and the audience. For me, it corresponded to the ability (or inability) to handle only part of the available data to simulate the posterior associated with this available data.

The first talk on Tuesday morning was the plenary talk by Michael Jordan about his incorporation of complexity constraints on the convergence of an MCMC variable selection algorithm. (I though I had commented this paper in the past on the ‘Og but apparently I did not!) This was quite interesting, with ultra-fast convergence of the sampler. The talk was alas made harder to follow because of a cameraman standing in front of most of the audience for the entire time, as in the above picture. (I also noticed the interesting randomness of the light panels, who all display different patterns of dots, maybe random enough to satisfy a randomness test!) Another if irrelevant annoying fact was that I discovered upon arrival that my airbnb rental was located 8 kilometres away from the conference location, in a completely different town! Thankfully, we had rented a car [for 5] which saved the day (and even more the night!).


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