Archive for coupling from the past

perfect sampling, just perfect!

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2016 by xi'an

Great news! Mark Huber (whom I’ve know for many years, so this review may be not completely objective!) has just written a book on perfect simulation! I remember (and still share) the excitement of the MCMC community when the first perfect simulation papers of Propp and Wilson (1995) came up on the (now deceased) MCMC preprint server, as it seemed then the ideal (perfect!) answer to critics of the MCMC methodology, plugging MCMC algorithms into a generic algorithm that eliminating burnin, warmup, and convergence issues… It seemed both magical, with the simplest argument: “start at T=-∞ to reach stationarity at T=0”, and esoteric (“why forward fails while backward works?!”), requiring simple random walk examples (and a java app by Jeff Rosenthal) to understand the difference (between backward and forward), as well as Wilfrid Kendall’s kids’ coloured wood cubes and his layer of leaves falling on the ground and seen from below… These were exciting years, with MCMC still in its infancy, and no goal seemed too far away! Now that years have gone, and that the excitement has clearly died away, perfect sampling can be considered in a more sedate manner, with pros and cons well-understood. This is why Mark Huber’s book is coming at a perfect time if any! It covers the evolution of the perfect sampling techniques, from the early coupling from the past to the monotonous versions, to the coalescence principles, with applications to spatial processes, to the variations on nested sampling and their use in doubly intractable distributions, with forays into the (fabulous) Bernoulli factory problem (a surprise for me, as Bernoulli factories are connected with unbiasedness, not stationarity! Even though my only fieldwork [with Randal Douc] in such factories was addressing a way to turn MCMC into importance sampling. The key is in the notion of approximate densities, introduced in Section 2.6.). The book is quite thorough with the probabilistic foundations of the different principles, with even “a [tiny weeny] little bit of measure theory.

Any imperfection?! Rather, only a (short too short!) reflection on the limitations of perfect sampling, namely that it cannot cover the simulation of posterior distributions in the Bayesian processing of most statistical models. Which makes the quote

“Distributions where the label of a node only depends on immediate neighbors, and where there is a chance of being able to ignore the neighbors are the most easily handled by perfect simulation protocols (…) Statistical models in particular tend to fall into this category, as they often do not wish to restrict the outcome too severely, instead giving the data a chance to show where the model is incomplete or incorrect.” (p.223)

just surprising, given the very small percentage of statistical models which can be handled by perfect sampling. And the downsizing of perfect sampling related papers in the early 2000’s. Which also makes the final and short section on the future of perfect sampling somewhat restricted in its scope.

So, great indeed!, a close to perfect entry to a decade of work on perfect sampling. If you have not heard of the concept before, consider yourself lucky to be offered such a gentle guidance into it. If you have dabbled with perfect sampling before, reading the book will be like meeting old friends and hearing about their latest deeds. More formally, Mark Huber’s book should bring you a new perspective on the topic. (As for me, I had never thought of connecting perfect sampling with accept reject algorithms.)

understanding computational Bayesian statistics: a reply from Bill Bolstad

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2011 by xi'an

Bill Bolstad wrote a reply to my review of his book Understanding computational Bayesian statistics last week and here it is, unedited except for the first paragraph where he thanks me for the opportunity to respond, “so readers will see that the book has some good features beyond having a “nice cover”.” (!) I simply processed the Word document into an html output and put a Read More bar in the middle as it is fairly detailed. (As indicated at the beginning of my review, I am obviously biased on the topic: thus, I will not comment on the reply, lest we get into an infinite regress!)

The target audience for this book are upper division undergraduate students and first year graduate students in statistics whose prior statistical education has been mostly frequentist based. Many will have knowledge of Bayesian statistics at an introductory level similar to that in my first book, but some will have no previous Bayesian statistics course. Being self-contained, it will also be suitable for statistical practitioners without a background in Bayesian statistics.

The book aims to show that:

  1. Bayesian statistics makes different assumptions from frequentist statistics, and these differences lead to the advantages of the Bayesian approach.
  2. Finding the proportional posterior is easy, however finding the exact posterior distribution is difficult in practice, even numerically, especially for models with many parameters.
  3. Inferences can be based on a (random) sample from the posterior.
  4. There are methods for drawing samples from the incompletely known posterior.
  5. Direct reshaping methods become inefficient for models with large number of parameters.
  6. We can find a Markov chain that has the long-run distribution with the same shape as the posterior. A draw from this chain after it has run a long time can be considered a random draw from the posterior
  7. We have many choices in setting up a Markov chain Monte Carlo. The book shows the things that should be considered, and how problems can be detected from sample output from the chain.
  8. An independent Metropolis-Hastings chain with a suitable heavy-tailed candidate distribution will perform well, particularly for regression type models. The book shows all the details needed to set up such a chain.
  9. The Gibbs sampling algorithm is especially well suited for hierarchical models.

I am satisfied that the book has achieved the goals that I set out above. The title “Understanding Computational Bayesian Statistics” explains what this book is about. I want the reader (who has background in frequentist statistics) to understand how computational Bayesian statistics can be applied to models he/she is familiar with. I keep an up-to-date errata on the book website..The website also contains the computer software used in the book. This includes Minitab macros and R-functions. These were used because because they had good data analysis capabilities that could be used in conjunction with the simulations. The website also contains Fortran executables that are much faster for models containing more parameters, and WinBUGS code for the examples in the book. Continue reading

understanding computational Bayesian statistics

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2011 by xi'an

I have just finished reading this book by Bill Bolstad (University of Waikato, New Zealand) which a previous ‘Og post pointed out when it appeared, shortly after our Introducing Monte Carlo Methods with R. My family commented that the cover was nicer than those of my own books, which is true. Before I launch into a review, let me warn the ‘Og reader that, as an author of three books on computational Bayesian statistics, I cannot be very objective on the topic: I do favour the way we approached Bayesian computational methods and, after reading Bolstad’s Understanding computational Bayesian statistics, would still have written the books the way we did. Be warned, thus.

Understanding computational Bayesian statistics is covering the basics of Monte Carlo and (fixed dimension) Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods, with a fair chunk dedicated to prerequisites in Bayesian statistics and Markov chain theory. Even though I have only glanced at the table of contents of Bolstad’s Introduction to Bayesian Statistics [using almost the same nice whirl picture albeit in bronze rather than cobalt], it seems to me that the current book is the continuation of the earlier one, going beyond the Binomial, Poisson, and normal cases, to cover generalised linear models, via MCMC methods. (In this respect, it corresponds to Chapter 4 of Bayesian Core.) The book is associated with Minitab macros and an R package (written by James Curran), Bolstad2, in continuation of Bolstad, written for Introduction to Bayesian Statistics. Overall, the level of the book is such that it should be accessible to undergraduate students, MCMC methods being reduced to Gibbs, random walk and independent Metropolis-Hastings algorithms, and convergence assessments being done via autocorrelation graphs, the Gelman and Rubin (1992) intra-/inter-variance criterion, and a forward coupling device. The illustrative chapters cover logistic regression (Chap. 8), Poisson regression (Chap. 9), and normal hierarchical models (Chap. 10). Again, the overall feeling is that the book should be understandable to undergraduate students, even though it may make MCMC seem easier than it is by sticking to fairly regular models. In a sense, it is more a book of the [roaring MCMC] 90’s in that it does not incorporate advances from 2000 onwards (as seen from the reference list) like adaptive MCMC and the resurgence of importance sampling via particle systems and sequential Monte Carlo.

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