Why is it necessary to sample from the posterior distribution if we already KNOW the posterior distribution?

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by xi'an

I found this question on X validated somewhat hilarious, the more because of the shouted KNOW! And the confused impression that because one can write down π(θ|x) up to a constant, one KNOWS this distribution… It is actually one of the paradoxes of simulation that, from a mathematical perspective, once π(θ|x) is available as a function of (θ,x), all other quantities related with this distribution are mathematically perfectly and uniquely defined. From a numerical perspective, this does not help. Actually, when starting my MCMC course at ENSAE a few days later, I had the same question from a student who thought facing a density function like

f(x) ∞ exp{-||x||²-||x||⁴-||x||⁶}

was enough to immediately produce simulations from this distribution. (I also used this example to show the degeneracy of accept-reject as the dimension d of x increases, using for instance a Gamma proposal on y=||x||. The acceptance probability plunges to zero with d, with 9 acceptances out of 10⁷ for d=20.)

ARS: when to update?

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by xi'an

An email I got today from Heng Zhou wondered about the validity of the above form of the ARS algorithm. As printed in our book Monte Carlo Statistical Methods. The worry is that in the original version of the algorithm the envelope of the log-concave target f(.) is only updated for rejected values. My reply to the question is that there is no difference in the versions towards returning a value simulated from f, since changing the envelope between simulations does not modify the accept-reject nature of the algorithm. There is no issue of dependence between the simulations of this adaptive accept-reject method, all simulations remain independent. The question is rather one about efficiency, namely does it pay to update the envelope(s) when accepting a new value and I think it does because the costly part is the computation of f(x), rather than the call to the piecewise-exponential envelope. Correct me if I am wrong!

complexity of the von Neumann algorithm

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2017 by xi'an

“Without the possibility of computing infimum and supremum of the density f over compact subintervals of the domain of f, sampling absolutely continuous distribution using the rejection method seems to be impossible in total generality.”

The von Neumann algorithm is another name for the rejection method introduced by von Neumann circa 1951. It was thus most exciting to spot a paper by Luc Devroye and Claude Gravel appearing in the latest Statistics and Computing. Assessing the method in terms of random bits and precision. Specifically, assuming that the only available random generator is one of random bits, which necessarily leads to an approximation when the target is a continuous density. The authors first propose a bisection algorithm for distributions defined on a compact interval, which compares random bits with recursive bisections of the unit interval and stops when the interval is small enough.

In higher dimension, for densities f over the unit hypercube, they recall that the original algorithm consisted in simulating uniforms x and u over the hypercube and [0,1], using the uniform as the proposal distribution and comparing the density at x, f(x), with the rescaled uniform. When using only random bits, the proposed method is based on a quadtree that subdivides the unit hypercube into smaller and smaller hypercubes until the selected hypercube is entirely above or below the density. And is small enough for the desired precision. This obviously requires for the computation of the upper and lower bound of the density over the hypercubes to be feasible, with Devroye and Gravel considering that this is a necessary property as shown by the above quote. Densities with non-compact support can be re-expressed as densities on the unit hypercube thanks to the cdf transform. (Actually, this is equivalent to the general accept-reject algorithm, based on the associated proposal.)

“With the oracles introduced in our modification of von Neumann’s method, we believe that it is impossible to design a rejection algorithm for densities that are not Riemann-integrable, so the question of the design of a universally valid rejection algorithm under the random bit model remains open.”

In conclusion, I enjoyed very much reading this paper, especially the reflection it proposes on the connection between Riemann integrability and rejection algorithms. (Actually, I cannot think straight away of a simulation algorithm that would handle non-Riemann-integrable densities, apart from nested sampling. Or of significant non-Riemann-integrable densities.)

Sobol’s Monte Carlo

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by xi'an

The name of Ilya Sobol is familiar to researchers in quasi-Monte Carlo methods for his Sobol’s sequences. I was thus surprised to find in my office a small book entitled The Monte Carlo Method by this author, which is a translation of his 1968 book in Russian. I have no idea how it reached my office and I went to check with the library of Paris-Dauphine around the corner [of my corridor] whether it had been lost: apparently, the library got rid of it among a collection of old books… Now, having read through this 67 pages book (or booklet as Sobol puts it) makes me somewhat agree with the librarians, in that there is nothing of major relevance in this short introduction. It is quite interesting to go through the book and see the basics of simulation principles and Monte Carlo techniques unfolding, from the inverse cdf principle [established by a rather convoluted proof] to importance sampling, but the amount of information is about equivalent to the Wikipedia entry on the topic. From an historical perspective, it is also captivating to see the efforts to connect physical random generators (such as those based on vacuum tube noise) to shift-register pseudo-random generators created by Sobol in 1958. On a Soviet Strela computer.

While Googling the title of that book could not provide any connection, I found out that a 1994 version had been published under the title of A Primer for the Monte Carlo Method, which is mostly the same as my version, except for a few additional sections on pseudo-random generation, from the congruential method (with a FORTRAN code) to the accept-reject method being then called von Neumann’s instead of Neyman’s, to the notion of constructive dimension of a simulation technique, which amounts to demarginalisation, to quasi-Monte Carlo [for three pages]. A funny side note is that the author notes in the preface that the first translation [now in my office] was published without his permission!

Poisson process model for Monte Carlo methods

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on February 25, 2016 by xi'an

“Taken together this view of Monte Carlo simulation as a maximization problem is a promising direction, because it connects Monte Carlo research with the literature on optimization.”

Chris Maddison arXived today a paper on the use of Poisson processes in Monte Carlo simulation. based on the so-called Gumbel-max trick, which amounts to add to the log-probabilities log p(i) of the discrete target, iid Gumbel variables, and to take the argmax as the result of the simulation. A neat trick as it does not require the probability distribution to be normalised. And as indicated in the above quote to relate simulation and optimisation. The generalisation considered here replaces the iid Gumbel variates by a Gumbel process, which is constructed as an “exponential race”, i.e., a Poisson process with an exponential auxiliary variable. The underlying variates can be generated from a substitute density, à la accept-reject, which means this alternative bounds the true target.  As illustrated in the plot above.

The paper discusses two implementations of the principle found in an earlier NIPS 2014 paper [paper that contains most of the novelty about this method], one that refines the partition and the associated choice of proposals, and another one that exploits a branch-and-bound tree structure to optimise the Gumbel process. With apparently higher performances. Overall, I wonder at the applicability of the approach because of the accept-reject structure: it seems unlikely to apply to high dimensional problems.

While this is quite exciting, I find it surprising that this paper completely omits references to Brian Ripley’s considerable input on simulation and point processes. As well as the relevant Geyer and Møller (1994). (I am obviously extremely pleased to see that our 2004 paper with George Casella and Marty Wells is quoted there. We had written this paper in Cornell, a few years earlier, right after the 1999 JSM in Baltimore, but it has hardly been mentioned since then!)