Archive for convergence assessment

assessing MCMC convergence

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2019 by xi'an

When MCMC became mainstream in the 1990’s, there was a flurry of proposals to check, assess, and even guarantee convergence to the stationary distribution, as discussed in our MCMC book. Along with Chantal Guihenneuc and Kerrie Mengersen, we also maintained for a while a reviewww webpage categorising theses. Niloy Biswas and Pierre Jacob have recently posted a paper where they propose the use of couplings (and unbiased MCMC) towards deriving bounds on different metrics between the target and the current distribution of the Markov chain. Two chains are created from a given kernel and coupled with a lag of L, meaning that after a while, the two chains become one with a time difference of L. (The supplementary material contains many details on how to induce coupling.) The distance to the target can then be bounded by a sum of distances between the two chains until they merge. The above picture from the paper is a comparison a Polya-Urn sampler with several HMC samplers for a logistic target (not involving the Pima Indian dataset!). The larger the lag L the more accurate the bound. But the larger the lag the more expensive the assessment of how many steps are needed to convergence. Especially when considering that the evaluation requires restarting the chains from scratch and rerunning until they couple again, rather than continuing one run which can only brings the chain closer to stationarity and to being distributed from the target. I thus wonder at the possibility of some Rao-Blackwellisation of the simulations used in this assessment (while realising once more than assessing convergence almost inevitably requires another order of magnitude than convergence itself!). Without a clear idea of how to do it… For instance, keeping the values of the chain(s) at the time of coupling is not directly helpful to create a sample from the target since they are not distributed from that target.

[Pierre also wrote a blog post about the paper on Statisfaction that is definitely much clearer and pedagogical than the above.]

EntropyMCMC [R package]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2019 by xi'an

My colleague from the Université d’Orléans, Didier Chauveau, has just published on CRAN a new R package called EntropyMCMC, which contains convergence assessment tools for MCMC algorithms, based on non-parametric estimates of the Kullback-Leibler divergence between current distribution and target. (A while ago, quite a while ago!, we actually collaborated with a few others on the Springer-Verlag Lecture Note #135 Discretization and MCMC convergence assessments.) This follows from a series of papers by Didier Chauveau and Pierre Vandekerkhove that started with a nearest neighbour entropy estimate. The evaluation of this entropy is based on N iid (parallel) chains, which involves a parallel implementation. While the missing normalising constant is overwhelmingly unknown, the authors this is not a major issue “since we are mostly interested in the stabilization” of the entropy distance. Or in the comparison of two MCMC algorithms. [Disclaimer: I have not experimented with the package so far, hence cannot vouch for its performances over large dimensions or problematic targets, but would as usual welcome comments and feedback on readers’ experiences.]

unbiased MCMC

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2017 by xi'an

Two weeks ago, Pierre Jacob, John O’Leary, and Yves F. Atchadé arXived a paper on unbiased MCMC with coupling. Associating MCMC with unbiasedness is rather challenging since MCMC are rarely producing simulations from the exact target, unless specific tools like renewal can be produced in an efficient manner. (I supported the use of such renewal techniques as early as 1995, but later experiments led me to think renewal control was too rare an occurrence to consider it as a generic convergence assessment method.)

This new paper makes me think I had given up too easily! Here the central idea is coupling of two (MCMC) chains, associated with the debiasing formula used by Glynn and Rhee (2014) and already discussed here. Having the coupled chains meet at some time with probability one implies that the debiasing formula does not need a (random) stopping time. The coupling time is sufficient. Furthermore, several estimators can be derived from the same coupled Markov chain simulations, obtained by starting the averaging at a later time than the first iteration. The average of these (unbiased) averages results into a weighted estimate that weights more the later differences. Although coupling is also at the basis of perfect simulation methods, the analogy between this debiasing technique and perfect sampling is hard to fathom, since the coupling of two chains is not a perfect sampling instant. (Something obvious only in retrospect for me is that the variance of the resulting unbiased estimator is at best the variance of the original MCMC estimator.)

When discussing the implementation of coupling in Metropolis and Gibbs settings, the authors give a simple optimal coupling algorithm I was not aware of. Which is a form of accept-reject also found in perfect sampling I believe. (Renewal based on small sets makes an appearance on page 11.) I did not fully understood the way two random walk Metropolis steps are coupled, in that the normal proposals seem at odds with the boundedness constraints. But coupling is clearly working in this setting, while renewal does not. In toy examples like the (Efron and Morris!) baseball data and the (Gelfand and Smith!) pump failure data, the parameters k and m of the algorithm can be optimised against the variance of the averaged averages. And this approach comes highly useful in the case of the cut distribution,  a problem which I became aware of during MCMskiii and on which we are currently working with Pierre and others.

a programming bug with weird consequences

Posted in Kids, pictures, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by xi'an

One student of mine coded by mistake an independent Metropolis-Hastings algorithm with too small a variance in the proposal when compared with the target variance. Here is the R code of this implementation:

#target is N(0,1)
#proposal is N(0,.01)
for (t in 2:T){
  if (logu[t]>ratav){

It produces outputs of the following shape
smalvarwhich is quite amazing because of the small variance. The reason for the lengthy freezes of the chain is the occurrence with positive probability of realisations from the proposal with very small proposal density values, as they induce very small Metropolis-Hastings acceptance probabilities and are almost “impossible” to leave. This is due to the lack of control of the target, which is flat over the domain of the proposal for all practical purposes. Obviously, in such a setting, the outcome is unrelated with the N(0,1) target!

It is also unrelated with the normal proposal in that switching to a t distribution with 3 degrees of freedom produces a similar outcome:

It is only when using a Cauchy proposal that the pattern vanishes:

Unbiased Bayes for Big Data: Path of partial posteriors [a reply from the authors]

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by xi'an

[Here is a reply by Heiko Strathmann to my post of yesterday. Along with the slides of a talk in Oxford mentioned in the discussion.]

Thanks for putting this up, and thanks for the discussion. Christian, as already exchanged via email, here are some answers to the points you make.

First of all, we don’t claim a free lunch — and are honest with the limitations of the method (see negative examples). Rather, we make the point that we can achieve computational savings in certain situations — essentially exploiting redundancy (what Michael called “tall” data in his note on subsampling & HMC) leading to fast convergence of posterior statistics.

Dan is of course correct noticing that if the posterior statistic does not converge nicely (i.e. all data counts), then truncation time is “mammoth”. It is also correct that it might be questionable to aim for an unbiased Bayesian method in the presence of such redundancies. However, these are the two extreme perspectives on the topic. The message that we want to get along is that there is a trade-off in between these extremes. In particular the GP examples illustrate this nicely as we are able to reduce MSE in a regime where posterior statistics have *not* yet stabilised, see e.g. figure 6.

“And the following paragraph is further confusing me as it seems to imply that convergence is not that important thanks to the de-biasing equation.”

To clarify, the paragraph refers to the additional convergence issues induced by alternative Markov transition kernels of mini-batch-based full posterior sampling methods by Welling, Bardenet, Dougal & co. For example, Firefly MC’s mixing time is increased by a factor of 1/q where q*N is the mini-batch size. Mixing of stochastic gradient Langevin gets worse over time. This is not true for our scheme as we can use standard transition kernels. It is still essential for the partial posterior Markov chains to converge (if MCMC is used). However, as this is a well studied problem, we omit the topic in our paper and refer to standard tools for diagnosis. All this is independent of the debiasing device.

About MCMC convergence.
Yesterday in Oxford, Pierre Jacob pointed out that if MCMC is used for estimating partial posterior statistics, the overall result is not unbiased. We had a nice discussion how this bias could be addressed via a two-stage debiasing procedure: debiasing the MC estimates as described in the “Unbiased Monte Carlo” paper by Agapiou et al, and then plugging those into the path estimators — though it is (yet) not so clear how (and whether) this would work in our case.
In the current version of the paper, we do not address the bias present due to MCMC. We have a paragraph on this in section 3.2. Rather, we start from a premise that full posterior MCMC samples are a gold standard. Furthermore, the framework we study is not necessarily linked to MCMC – it could be that the posterior expectation is available in closed form, but simply costly in N. In this case, we can still unbiasedly estimate this posterior expectation – see GP regression.

“The choice of the tail rate is thus quite delicate to validate against the variance constraints (2) and (3).”

It is true that the choice is crucial in order to control the variance. However, provided that partial posterior expectations converge at a rate n with n the size of a minibatch, computational complexity can be reduced to N1-α (α<β) without variance exploding. There is a trade-off: the faster the posterior expectations converge, more computation can be saved; β is in general unknown, but can be roughly estimated with the “direct approach” as we describe in appendix.

About the “direct approach”
It is true that for certain classes of models and φ functionals, the direct averaging of expectations for increasing data sizes yields good results (see log-normal example), and we state this. However, the GP regression experiments show that the direct averaging gives a larger MSE as with debiasing applied. This is exactly the trade-off mentioned earlier.

I also wonder what people think about the comparison to stochastic variational inference (GP for Big Data), as this hasn’t appeared in discussions yet. It is the comparison to “non-unbiased” schemes that Christian and Dan asked for.