Archive for coupling

two Parisian talks by Pierre Jacob in January

Posted in pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by xi'an

While back in Paris from Harvard in early January, Pierre Jacob will give two talks on works of his:

January 09, 10:30, séminaire d’Analyse-Probabilités, Université Paris-Dauphine: Unbiased MCMC

Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods provide consistent approximations of integrals as the number of iterations goes to infinity. However, MCMC estimators are generally biased after any fixed number of iterations, which complicates both parallel computation and the construction of confidence intervals. We propose to remove this bias by using couplings of Markov chains and a telescopic sum argument, inspired by Glynn & Rhee (2014). The resulting unbiased estimators can be computed independently in parallel, and confidence intervals can be directly constructed from the Central Limit Theorem for i.i.d. variables. We provide practical couplings for important algorithms such as the Metropolis-Hastings and Gibbs samplers. We establish the theoretical validity of the proposed estimators, and study their variances and computational costs. In numerical experiments, including inference in hierarchical models, bimodal or high-dimensional target distributions, logistic regressions with the Pólya-Gamma Gibbs sampler and the Bayesian Lasso, we demonstrate the wide applicability of the proposed methodology as well as its limitations. Finally, we illustrate how the proposed estimators can approximate the “cut” distribution that arises in Bayesian inference for misspecified models.

January 11, 10:30, CREST-ENSAE, Paris-Saclay: Better together? Statistical learning in models made of modules [Warning: Paris-Saclay is not in Paris!]

In modern applications, statisticians are faced with integrating heterogeneous data modalities relevant for an inference or decision problem. It is convenient to use a graphical model to represent the statistical dependencies, via a set of connected “modules”, each relating to a specific data modality, and drawing on specific domain expertise in their development. In principle, given data, the conventional statistical update then allows for coherent uncertainty quantification and information propagation through and across the modules. However, misspecification of any module can contaminate the update of others. In various settings, particularly when certain modules are trusted more than others, practitioners have preferred to avoid learning with the full model in favor of “cut distributions”. In this talk, I will discuss why these modular approaches might be preferable to the full model in misspecified settings, and propose principled criteria to choose between modular and full-model approaches. The question is intertwined with computational difficulties associated with the cut distribution, and new approaches based on recently proposed unbiased MCMC methods will be described.

Long enough after the New Year festivities (if any) to be fully operational for them!

unbiased HMC

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2017 by xi'an

Jeremy Heng and Pierre Jacob arXived last week a paper on unbiased Hamiltonian Monte Carlo by coupling, following the earlier paper of Pierre and co-authors on debiasing by coupling a few weeks ago. The coupling within the HMC amounts to running two HMC chains with common random numbers, plus subtleties!

“As with any other MCMC method, HMC estimators are justified in the limit of the number of iterations. Algorithms which rely on such asymptotics face the risk of becoming obsolete if computational power keeps increasing through the number of available processors and not through clock speed.”

The main difficulty here is to have both chains meet (exactly) with large probability, since coupled HMC can only bring these chain close to one another. The trick stands in using both coupled HMC and coupled Hastings-Metropolis kernels, since the coupled MH kernel allows for exact meetings when the chains are already close, after which they remain happily and forever together! The algorithm is implemented by choosing between the kernels at random at each iteration. (Unbiasedness follows by the Glynn-Rhee trick, which is eminently well-suited for coupling!) As pointed out from the start of the paper, the appeal of this unbiased version is that the algorithm can be (embarrassingly) parallelised since all processors in use return estimators that are iid copies of one another, hence easily merged into a better estimator.

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.

accelerating MCMC

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2017 by xi'an

I have recently [well, not so recently!] been asked to write a review paper on ways of accelerating MCMC algorithms for the [review] journal WIREs Computational Statistics and would welcome all suggestions towards the goal of accelerating MCMC algorithms. Besides [and including more on]

  • coupling strategies using different kernels and switching between them;
  • tempering strategies using flatter or lower dimensional targets as intermediary steps, e.g., à la Neal;
  • sequential Monte Carlo with particle systems targeting again flatter or lower dimensional targets and adapting proposals to this effect;
  • Hamiltonian MCMC, again with connections to Radford (and more generally ways of avoiding rejections);
  • adaptive MCMC, obviously;
  • Rao-Blackwellisation, just as obviously (in the sense that increasing the precision in the resulting estimates means less simulations).

Russian roulette still rolling

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by xi'an

Colin Wei and Iain Murray arXived a new version of their paper on doubly-intractable distributions, which is to be presented at AISTATS. It builds upon the Russian roulette estimator of Lyne et al. (2015), which itself exploits the debiasing technique of McLeish et al. (2011) [found earlier in the physics literature as in Carter and Cashwell, 1975, according to the current paper]. Such an unbiased estimator of the inverse of the normalising constant can be used for pseudo-marginal MCMC, except that the estimator is sometimes negative and has to be so as proved by Pierre Jacob and co-authors. As I discussed in my post on the Russian roulette estimator, replacing the negative estimate with its absolute value does not seem right because a negative value indicates that the quantity is close to zero, hence replacing it with zero would sound more appropriate. Wei and Murray start from the property that, while the expectation of the importance weight is equal to the normalising constant, the expectation of the inverse of the importance weight converges to the inverse of the weight for an MCMC chain. This however sounds like an harmonic mean estimate because the property would also stand for any substitute to the importance density, as it only requires the density to integrate to one… As noted in the paper, the variance of the resulting Roulette estimator “will be high” or even infinite. Following Glynn et al. (2014), the authors build a coupled version of that solution, which key feature is to cut the higher order terms in the debiasing estimator. This does not guarantee finite variance or positivity of the estimate, though. In order to decrease the variance (assuming it is finite), backward coupling is introduced, with a Rao-Blackwellisation step using our 1996 Biometrika derivation. Which happens to be of lower cost than the standard Rao-Blackwellisation in that special case, O(N) versus O(N²), N being the stopping rule used in the debiasing estimator. Under the assumption that the inverse importance weight has finite expectation [wrt the importance density], the resulting backward-coupling Russian roulette estimator can be proven to be unbiased, as it enjoys a finite expectation. (As in the generalised harmonic mean case, the constraint imposes thinner tails on the importance function, which then hampers the convergence of the MCMC chain.) No mention is made of achieving finite variance for those estimators, which again is a serious concern due to the similarity with harmonic means…

flea circus

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by xi'an

gribAn old riddle found on X validated asking for Monte Carlo resolution  but originally given on Project Euler:

A 30×30 grid of squares contains 30² fleas, initially one flea per square. When a bell is rung, each flea jumps to an adjacent square at random. What is the expected number of unoccupied squares after 50 bell rings, up to six decimal places?

The debate on X validated is whether or not a Monte Carlo resolution is feasible. Up to six decimals, certainly not. But with some lower precision, certainly. Here is a rather basic R code where the 50 steps are operated on the 900 squares, rather than the 900 fleas. This saves some time by avoiding empty squares.


 for (t in 1:n){

   for (v in 1:T){

    if (board[1]>0){
    for (i in (2:899)[board[-1][-899]>0]){
    if (board[900]>0){

The function returns an empirical average over n replications. With a presumably awkward approach to the borderline squares, since it involves adding zeros to keep the structure the same… Nonetheless, it produces an approximation that is rather close to the approximate expected value, in about 3mn on my laptop.

> exprmt(n=1e3)
[1] 331.082
> 900/exp(1)
[1] 331.0915

Further gains follow from considering only half of the squares, as there are two independent processes acting in parallel. I looked at an alternative and much faster approach using the stationary distribution, with the stationary being the Multinomial (450,(2/1740,3/1740…,4/1740,…,2/1740)) with probabilities proportional to 2 in the corner, 3 on the sides, and 4 in the inside. (The process, strictly speaking, has no stationary distribution, since it is periodic. But one can consider instead the subprocess indexed by even times.) This seems to be the case, though, when looking at the occupancy frequencies, after defining the stationary as:



> mn=0;n=1e8 #14 clock hours!
> proz=rep(c(rep(c(0,1),15),rep(c(1,0),15)),15)*inva(30)
> for (t in 1:n)
+ mn=mn+table(rmultinom(1,450,prob=rep(1,450)))[1:4]
> mn=mn/n
> mn[1]=mn[1]-450
> mn
     0      1      2     3
166.11 164.92  82.56 27.71
> exprmt(n=1e6) #55 clock hours!!
[1] 165.36 165.69 82.92 27.57

my original confusion being that the Poisson approximation had not yet taken over… (Of course, computing the first frequency for the stationary distribution does not require any simulation, since it is the sum of the complement probabilities to the power 450, i.e., 166.1069.)

SMC 2015

Posted in Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by xi'an

Nicolas Chopin ran a workshop at ENSAE on sequential Monte Carlo the past three days and it was a good opportunity to get a much needed up-to-date on the current trends in the field. Especially given that the meeting was literally downstairs from my office at CREST. And given the top range of researchers presenting their current or past work (in the very amphitheatre where I attended my first statistics lectures, a few dozen years ago!). Since unforeseen events made me miss most of the central day, I will not comment on individual talks, some of which I had already heard in the recent past, but this was a high quality workshop, topped by a superb organisation. (I started wondering why there was no a single female speaker in the program and so few female participants in the audience, then realised this is a field with a massive gender imbalance, which is difficult to explain given the different situation in Bayesian statistics and even in Bayesian computation…)  Some key topics I gathered during the talks I could attend–apologies to the other speakers for missing their talk due to those unforeseen events–are unbiasedness, which sounds central to the SMC methods [at least those presented there] as opposed to MCMC algorithms, and local features, used in different ways like hierarchical decomposition, multiscale, parallelisation, local coupling, &tc., to improve convergence and efficiency…