Archive for Carnegie Mellon University

“a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity”

Posted in Books, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2020 by xi'an

“I don’t object to speculation or radical proposals, even to radical, grandiose speculative proposals; I just want there to be arguments to back them up, reasons to take them seriously. I don’t object to scientists displaying personality in their work, or staking out positions in vigorous opposition to much of the opinion in their field, and engaging in heated debate; I do object to ignoring criticism and claiming credit for commonplaces, especially before popular audiences who won’t pick up on it.”

A recent post by Andrew on Stephen Wolfram’s (mega) egomania led to a much older post by Cosma Shalizi reviewing the perfectly insane 5.57 pounds of a New Kind of Science. An exhilarating review, trashing the pretentious self-celebration of a void paradigm shift advanced by Wolfram and its abyssal lack of academic rigour, showing anew that a book recommended by Bill Gates is not necessarily a great book. (Note that A New Kind of Science is available for free on-line.)

“Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community.”

When I bought this monstrous book (eons before I started the ‘Og!), I did not get much further into it than the first series of cellular automata screen copies that fill page after page. And quickly if carefully dropped it by my office door in the corridor. Where it stayed for a few days until one of my colleagues most politely asked me if he could borrow it. (This happens all the time: once I have read or given up on a book I do not imagine reopening again, I put it in the coffee room or, for the least recommended books, on the floor by my door and almost invariably whoever is interested will first ask me for permission. Which is very considerate and leads to pleasant discussions on the said books. Only recently did the library set shelves outside its doors for dropping books free for the taking, but even there I sometimes get colleagues wondering [rightly] if I was the one abandoning there a particular book.)

“I am going to keep my copy of A New Kind of Science, sitting on the same shelf as Atlantis in Wisconsin, The Cosmic Forces of Mu, Of Grammatology, and the people who think the golden ratio explains the universe.”

In case the review is not enough to lighten up your day, in these gloomy times, there is a wide collection of them from the 2000’s, although most of the links have turned obsolete. (The Maths Reviews review has not.) As presumably this very post about a eighteen-years-old non-event…

principles of uncertainty (second edition)

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2020 by xi'an

A new edition of Principles of Uncertainty is about to appear. I was asked by CRC Press to review the new book and here are some (raw) extracts from my review. (Some comments may not apply to the final and published version, mind.)

In Chapter 6, the proof of the Central Limit Theorem utilises the “smudge” technique, which is to add an independent noise to both the sequence of rvs and its limit. This is most effective and reminds me of quite a similar proof Jacques Neveu used in its probability notes in Polytechnique. Which went under the more formal denomination of convolution, with the same (commendable) purpose of avoiding Fourier transforms. If anything, I would have favoured a slightly more condensed presentation in less than 8 pages. Is Corollary 6.5.8 useful or even correct??? I do not think so because the non-centred average rescaled by √n diverges almost surely. For the same reason, I object to the very first sentence of Section 6.5 (p.246)

In Chapter 7, I found a nice mention of (Hermann) Rubin’s insistence on not separating probability and utility as only the product matters. And another fascinating quote from Keynes, not from his early statistician’s years, but in 1937 as an established economist

“The sense in which I am using the term uncertain is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know. Nevertheless, the necessity for action and for decision compels us as practical men to do our best to overlook this awkward fact and to behave exactly as we should if we had behind us a good Benthamite calculation of a series of prospective advantages and disadvantages, each multiplied by its appropriate probability, waiting to the summed.”

(is the last sentence correct? I would have expected, pardon my French!, “to be summed”). Further interesting trivia on the criticisms of utility theory, including de Finetti’s role and his own lack of connection with subjective probability principles.

In Chapter 8, a major remark (iii) is found p.293 about the fact that a conjugate family requires a dominating measure (although this is expressed differently since the book shies away from introducing measure theory, ) reminds me of a conversation I had with Jay when I visited Carnegie Mellon in 2013 (?). Which exposes the futility of seeing conjugate priors as default priors. It is somewhat surprising that a notion like admissibility appears as a side quantity when discussing Stein’s paradox in 8.2.1 [and then later in Section 9.1.3] while it seems to me to be central to Bayesian decision theory, much more than the epiphenomenon that Stein’s paradox represents in the big picture. But the book dismisses minimaxity even faster in Section 9.1.4:

As many who suffer from paranoia have discovered, one can always dream-up an even worse possibility to guard against. Thus, the minimax framework is unstable. (p.336)

Interesting introduction of the Wishart distribution to kindly handle random matrices and matrix Jacobians, with the original space being the p(p+1)/2 real space (implicitly endowed with the Lebesgue measure). Rather than a more structured matricial space. A font error makes Corollary 8.7.2 abort abruptly. The space of positive definite matrices is mentioned in Section8.7.5 but still (implicitly) corresponds to the common p(p+1)/2 real Euclidean space. Another typo in Theorem 8.9.2 with a Frenchised version of Dirichlet, Dirichelet. Followed by a Dirchlet at the end of the proof (p.322). Again and again on p.324 and on following pages. I would object to the singular in the title of Section 8.10 as there are exponential families rather than a single one. With no mention made of Pitman-Koopman lemma and its consequences, namely that the existence of conjugacy remains an epiphenomenon. Hence making the amount of pages dedicated to gamma, Dirichlet and Wishart distributions somewhat excessive.

In Chapter 9, I noticed (p.334) a Scheffe that should be Scheffé (and again at least on p.444). (I love it that Jay also uses my favorite admissible (non-)estimator, namely the constant value estimator with value 3.) I wonder at the worth of a ten line section like 9.3, when there are delicate issues in handling meta-analysis, even in a Bayesian mood (or mode). In the model uncertainty section, Jay discuss the (im)pertinence of both selecting one of the models and setting independent priors on their respective parameters, with which I disagree on both levels. Although this is followed by a more reasonable (!) perspective on utility. Nice to see a section on causation, although I would have welcomed an insert on the recent and somewhat outrageous stand of Pearl (and MacKenzie) on statisticians missing the point on causation and counterfactuals by miles. Nonparametric Bayes is a new section, inspired from Ghahramani (2005). But while it mentions Gaussian and Dirichlet [invariably misspelled!] processes, I fear it comes short from enticing the reader to truly grasp the meaning of a prior on functions. Besides mentioning it exists, I am unsure of the utility of this section. This is one of the rare instances where measure theory is discussed, only to state this is beyond the scope of the book (p.349).

dominating measure

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2019 by xi'an

Yet another question on X validated reminded me of a discussion I had once  with Jay Kadane when visiting Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Namely the fundamentally ill-posed nature of conjugate priors. Indeed, when considering the definition of a conjugate family as being a parameterised family Þ of distributions over the parameter space Θ stable under transform to the posterior distribution, this property is completely dependent (if there is such a notion as completely dependent!) on the dominating measure adopted on the parameter space Θ. Adopted is the word as there is no default, reference, natural, &tc. measure that promotes one specific measure on Θ as being the dominating measure. This is a well-known difficulty that also sticks out in most “objective Bayes” problems, as well as with maximum entropy priors. This means for instance that, while the Gamma distributions constitute a conjugate family for a Poisson likelihood, so do the truncated Gamma distributions. And so do the distributions which density (against a Lebesgue measure over an arbitrary subset of (0,∞)) is the product of a Gamma density by an arbitrary function of θ. I readily acknowledge that the standard conjugate priors as introduced in every Bayesian textbook are standard because they facilitate (to a certain extent) posterior computations. But, just like there exist an infinity of MaxEnt priors associated with an infinity of dominating measures, there exist an infinity of conjugate families, once more associated with an infinity of dominating measures. And the fundamental reason is that the sampling model (which induces the shape of the conjugate family) does not provide a measure on the parameter space Θ.

ABC²DE

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2018 by xi'an

A recent arXival on a new version of ABC based on kernel estimators (but one could argue that all ABC versions are based on kernel estimators, one way or another.) In this ABC-CDE version, Izbicki,  Lee and Pospisilz [from CMU, hence the picture!] argue that past attempts failed to exploit the full advantages of kernel methods, including the 2016 ABCDE method (from Edinburgh) briefly covered on this blog. (As an aside, CDE stands for conditional density estimation.) They also criticise these attempts at selecting summary statistics and hence failing in sufficiency, which seems a non-issue to me, as already discussed numerous times on the ‘Og. One point of particular interest in the long list of drawbacks found in the paper is the inability to compare several estimates of the posterior density, since this is not directly ingrained in the Bayesian construct. Unless one moves to higher ground by calling for Bayesian non-parametrics within the ABC algorithm, a perspective which I am not aware has been pursued so far…

The selling points of ABC-CDE are that (a) the true focus is on estimating a conditional density at the observable x⁰ rather than everywhere. Hence, rejecting simulations from the reference table if the pseudo-observations are too far from x⁰ (which implies using a relevant distance and/or choosing adequate summary statistics). And then creating a conditional density estimator from this subsample (which makes me wonder at a double use of the data).

The specific density estimation approach adopted for this is called FlexCode and relates to an earlier if recent paper from Izbicki and Lee I did not read. As in many other density estimation approaches, they use an orthonormal basis (including wavelets) in low dimension to estimate the marginal of the posterior for one or a few components of the parameter θ. And noticing that the posterior marginal is a weighted average of the terms in the basis, where the weights are the posterior expectations of the functions themselves. All fine! The next step is to compare [posterior] estimators through an integrated squared error loss that does not integrate the prior or posterior and does not tell much about the quality of the approximation for Bayesian inference in my opinion. It is furthermore approximated by  a doubly integrated [over parameter and pseudo-observation] squared error loss, using the ABC(ε) sample from the prior predictive. And the approximation error only depends on the regularity of the error, that is the difference between posterior and approximated posterior. Which strikes me as odd, since the Monte Carlo error should take over but does not appear at all. I am thus unclear as to whether or not the convergence results are that relevant. (A difficulty with this paper is the strong dependence on the earlier one as it keeps referencing one version or another of FlexCode. Without reading the original one, I spotted a mention made of the use of random forests for selecting summary statistics of interest, without detailing the difference with our own ABC random forest papers (for both model selection and estimation). For instance, the remark that “nuisance statistics do not affect the performance of FlexCode-RF much” reproduces what we observed with ABC-RF.

The long experiment section always relates to the most standard rejection ABC algorithm, without accounting for the many alternatives produced in the literature (like Li and Fearnhead, 2018. that uses Beaumont et al’s 2002 scheme, along with importance sampling improvements, or ours). In the case of real cosmological data, used twice, I am uncertain of the comparison as I presume the truth is unknown. Furthermore, from having worked on similar data a dozen years ago, it is unclear why ABC is necessary in such context (although I remember us running a test about ABC in the Paris astrophysics institute once).

Steve Fienberg’ obituary in Nature

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by xi'an

“Stephen Fienberg was the ultimate public statistician.”

Robin Mejia from CMU published in the 23 Feb issue of Nature an obituary of Steve Fienberg that sums up beautifully Steve’s contributions to science and academia. I like the above quote very much, as indeed Steve was definitely involved in public policies, towards making those more rational and fair. I remember the time he came to Paris-Dauphine to give a seminar and talk on his assessment in a NAS committee on the polygraph (and my surprise at it being used at all in the US and even worse in judiciary issues). Similarly, I remember his involvement in making the US Census based on surveys rather than on an illusory exhaustive coverage of the entire US population. Including a paper in Nature about the importance of surveys. And his massive contributions to preserving privacy in surveys and databases, an issue in which he was a precursor (even though my colleagues at the French Census Bureau did not catch the opportunity when he spent a sabbatical in Paris in 2004). While it is such a sad circumstance that lead to statistics getting a rare entry in Nature, I am glad that Steve can also be remembered that way.