Archive for Brisbane

unbiased consistent nested sampling via sequential Monte Carlo [a reply]

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2018 by xi'an

Rob Salomone sent me the following reply on my comments of yesterday about their recently arXived paper.

Our main goal in the paper was to show that Nested Sampling (when interpreted a certain way) is really just a member of a larger class of SMC algorithms, and exploring the consequences of that. We should point out that the section regarding calibration applies generally to SMC samplers, and hope that people give those techniques a try regardless of their chosen SMC approach.
Regarding your question about “whether or not it makes more sense to get completely SMC and forego any nested sampling flavour!”, this is an interesting point. After all, if Nested Sampling is just a special form of SMC, why not just use more standard SMC approaches? It seems that the Nested Sampling’s main advantage is its ability to cope with problems that have “phase transition’’ like behaviour, and thus is robust to a wider range of difficult problems than annealing approaches. Nevertheless, we hope this way of looking at NS (and showing that there may be variations of SMC with certain advantages) leads to improved NS and SMC methods down the line.  
Regarding your post, I should clarify a point regarding unbiasedness. The largest likelihood bound is actually set to infinity. Thus, for the fixed version of NS—SMC, one has an unbiased estimator of the “final” band. Choosing a final band prematurely will of course result in very high variance. However, the estimator is unbiased. For example, consider NS—SMC with only one strata. Then, the method reduces to simply using the prior as an importance sampling distribution for the posterior (unbiased, but often high variance).
Comments related to two specific parts of your post are below (your comments in italicised bold):
“Which never occurred as the number one difficulty there, as the simplest implementation runs a Markov chain from the last removed entry, independently from the remaining entries. Even stationarity is not an issue since I believe that the first occurrence within the level set is distributed from the constrained prior.”
This is an interesting point that we had not considered! In practice, and in many papers that apply Nested Sampling with MCMC, the common approach is to start the MCMC at one of the randomly selected “live points”, so the discussion related to independence was in regard to these common implementations.
Regarding starting the chain from outside of the level set. This is likely not done in practice as it introduces an additional difficulty of needing to propose a sample inside the required region (Metropolis–Hastings will have non—zero probability of returning a sample that is still outside the constrained region for any fixed number of iterations). Forcing the continuation of MCMC until a valid point is proposed I believe will be a subtle violation of detailed balance. Of course, the bias of such a modification may be small in practice, but it is an additional awkwardness introduced by the requirement of sample independence!
“And then, in a twist that is not clearly explained in the paper, the focus moves to an improved nested sampler that moves one likelihood value at a time, with a particle step replacing a single  particle. (Things get complicated when several particles may take the very same likelihood value, but randomisation helps.) At this stage the algorithm is quite similar to the original nested sampler. Except for the unbiased estimation of the constants, the  final constant, and the replacement of exponential weights exp(-t/N) by powers of (N-1/N)”
Thanks for pointing out that this isn’t clear, we will try to do better in the next revision! The goal of this part of the paper wasn’t necessarily to propose a new version of nested sampling. Our focus here was to demonstrate that NS–SMC is not simply the Nested Sampling idea with an SMC twist, but that the original NS algorithm with MCMC (and restarting the MCMC sampling at one of the “live points’” as people do in practice) actually is a special case of SMC (with the weights replaced with a suboptimal choice).
The most curious thing is that, as you note, the estimates of remaining prior mass in the SMC context come out as powers of (N-1)/N and not exp(-t/N). In the paper by Walter (2017), he shows that the former choice is actually superior in terms of bias and variance. It was a nice touch that the superior choice of weights came out naturally in the SMC interpretation! 
That said, as the fixed version of NS-SMC is the one with the unbiasedness and consistency properties, this was the version we used in the main statistical examples.

unbiased consistent nested sampling via sequential Monte Carlo

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by xi'an

“Moreover, estimates of the marginal likelihood are unbiased.” (p.2)

Rob Salomone, Leah South, Chris Drovandi and Dirk Kroese (from QUT and UQ, Brisbane) recently arXived a paper that frames the nested sampling in such a way that marginal likelihoods can be unbiasedly (and consistently) estimated.

“Why isn’t nested sampling more popular with statisticians?” (p.7)

A most interesting question, especially given its popularity in cosmology and other branches of physics. A first drawback pointed out in the c is the requirement of independence between the elements of the sample produced at each iteration. Which never occurred as the number one difficulty there, as the simplest implementation runs a Markov chain from the last removed entry, independently from the remaining entries. Even stationarity is not an issue since I believe that the first occurrence within the level set is distributed from the constrained prior.

A second difficulty is the use of quadrature which turns integrand into step functions at random slices. Indeed, mixing Monte Carlo with numerical integration makes life much harder, as shown by the early avatars of nested sampling that only accounted for the numerical errors. (And which caused Nicolas and I to write our critical paper in Biometrika.) There are few studies of that kind in the literature, the only one I can think of being [my former PhD student] Anne Philippe‘s thesis twenty years ago.

The third issue stands with the difficulty in parallelising the method. Except by jumping k points at once, rather than going one level at a time. While I agree this makes life more complicated, I am also unsure about the severity of that issue as k nested sampling algorithms can be run in parallel and aggregated in the end, from simple averaging to something more elaborate.

The final blemish is that the nested sampling estimator has a stopping mechanism that induces a truncation error, again maybe a lesser problem given the overall difficulty in assessing the total error.

The paper takes advantage of the ability of SMC to produce unbiased estimates of a sequence of normalising constants (or of the normalising constants of a sequence of targets). For nested sampling, the sequence is made of the prior distribution restricted to an embedded sequence of level sets. With another sequence restricted to bands (likelihood between two likelihood boundaries). If all restricted posteriors of the second kind and their normalising constant are known, the full posterior is known. Apparently up to the main normalising constant, i.e. the marginal likelihood., , except that it is also the sum of all normalising constants. Handling this sequence by SMC addresses the four concerns of the four authors, apart from the truncation issue, since the largest likelihood bound need be set for running the algorithm.

When the sequence of likelihood bounds is chosen based on the observed likelihoods so far, the method becomes adaptive. Requiring again the choice of a stopping rule that may induce bias if stopping occurs too early. And then, in a twist that is not clearly explained in the paper, the focus moves to an improved nested sampler that moves one likelihood value at a time, with a particle step replacing a single particle. (Things get complicated when several particles may take the very same likelihood value, but randomisation helps.) At this stage the algorithm is quite similar to the original nested sampler. Except for the unbiased estimation of the constants, the final constant, and the replacement of exponential weights exp(-t/N) by powers of (N-1/N).

The remainder of this long paper (61 pages!) is dedicated to practical implementation, calibration and running a series of comparisons. A nice final touch is the thanks to the ‘Og for its series of posts on nested sampling, which “helped influence this work, and played a large part in inspiring it.”

In conclusion, this paper is certainly a worthy exploration of the nested sampler, providing further arguments towards a consistent version, with first and foremost an (almost?) unbiased resolution. The comparison with a wide range of alternatives remains open, in particular time-wise, if evidence is the sole target of the simulation. For instance, the choice of this sequence of targets in an SMC may be improved by another sequence, since changing one particle at a time does not sound efficient. The complexity of the implementation and in particular of the simulation from the prior under more and more stringent constraints need to be addressed.

positions at QUT stats

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by xi'an

Chris Drovandi sent me the information that the Statistics GroupQUT, Brisbane, is advertising for three positions:

This is a great opportunity, a very active group, and a great location, which I visited several times, so if interested apply before October 1.

Jeff down-under

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2016 by xi'an

amsi_ssaJeff Rosenthal is the AMSI-SSA (Australia Mathematical Sciences Institute – Statistical Society of Australia) lecturer this year and, as I did in 2012, will tour Australia giving seminars. Including this one at QUT. Enjoy, if you happen to be down-under!

scalable Bayesian inference for the inverse temperature of a hidden Potts model

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2015 by xi'an

Brisbane, summer 2008Matt Moores, Tony Pettitt, and Kerrie Mengersen arXived a paper yesterday comparing different computational approaches to the processing of hidden Potts models and of the intractable normalising constant in the Potts model. This is a very interesting paper, first because it provides a comprehensive survey of the main methods used in handling this annoying normalising constant Z(β), namely pseudo-likelihood, the exchange algorithm, path sampling (a.k.a., thermal integration), and ABC. A massive simulation experiment with individual simulation times up to 400 hours leads to select path sampling (what else?!) as the (XL) method of choice. Thanks to a pre-computation of the expectation of the sufficient statistic E[S(Z)|β].  I just wonder why the same was not done for ABC, as in the recent Statistics and Computing paper we wrote with Matt and Kerrie. As it happens, I was actually discussing yesterday in Columbia of potential if huge improvements in processing Ising and Potts models by approximating first the distribution of S(X) for some or all β before launching ABC or the exchange algorithm. (In fact, this is a more generic desiderata for all ABC methods that simulating directly if approximately the summary statistics would being huge gains in computing time, thus possible in final precision.) Simulating the distribution of the summary and sufficient Potts statistic S(X) reduces to simulating this distribution with a null correlation, as exploited in Cucala and Marin (2013, JCGS, Special ICMS issue). However, there does not seem to be an efficient way to do so, i.e. without reverting to simulating the entire grid X…

Statistical modeling and computation [book review]

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by xi'an

Dirk Kroese (from UQ, Brisbane) and Joshua Chan (from ANU, Canberra) just published a book entitled Statistical Modeling and Computation, distributed by Springer-Verlag (I cannot tell which series it is part of from the cover or frontpages…) The book is intended mostly for an undergrad audience (or for graduate students with no probability or statistics background). Given that prerequisite, Statistical Modeling and Computation is fairly standard in that it recalls probability basics, the principles of statistical inference, and classical parametric models. In a third part, the authors cover “advanced models” like generalised linear models, time series and state-space models. The specificity of the book lies in the inclusion of simulation methods, in particular MCMC methods, and illustrations by Matlab code boxes. (Codes that are available on the companion website, along with R translations.) It thus has a lot in common with our Bayesian Essentials with R, meaning that I am not the most appropriate or least unbiased reviewer for this book. Continue reading

Bayesian inference for low count time series models with intractable likelihoods

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

sunset over the Brisbane river, Australia, Aug. 17, 2012Last evening, I read a nice paper with the above title by Drovandi, Pettitt and McCutchan, from QUT, Brisbane. Low count refers to observation with a small number of integer values. The idea is to mix ABC with the unbiased estimators of the likelihood proposed by Andrieu and Roberts (2009) and with particle MCMC… And even with a RJMCMC version. The special feature that makes the proposal work is that the low count features allows for a simulation of pseudo-observations (and auxiliary variables) that may sometimes authorise an exact constraint (that the simulated observation equals the true observation). And which otherwise borrows from Jasra et al. (2013) “alive particle” trick that turns a negative binomial draw into an unbiased estimation of the ABC target… The current paper helped me realise how powerful this trick is. (The original paper was arXived at a time I was off, so I completely missed it…) The examples studied in the paper may sound a wee bit formal, but they could lead to a better understanding of the method since alternatives could be available (?). Note that all those examples are not ABC per se in that the tolerance is always equal to zero.

The paper also includes reversible jump implementations. While it is interesting to see that ABC (in the authors’ sense) can be mixed with RJMCMC, it is delicate to get a feeling about the precision of the results, without a benchmark to compare to. I am also wondering about less costly alternatives like empirical likelihood and other ABC alternatives. Since Chris is visiting Warwick at the moment, I am sure we can discuss this issue next week there.