Archive for George Louis Leclerc

Buffon machines

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by xi'an

By chance I came across a 2010 paper entitled On Buffon Machines and Numbers by Philippe Flajolet, Maryse Pelletier and Michèle Soria. Which relates to Bernoulli factories, a related riddle, and the recent paper by Luis Mendo I reviewed here. What the authors call a Buffon machine is a device that produces a perfect simulation of a discrete random variable out of a uniform bit generator. Just like (George Louis Leclerc, comte de) Buffon’s needle produces a Bernoulli outcome with success probability π/4. out of a real Uniform over (0,1). Turned into a sequence of Uniform random bits.

“Machines that always halt can only produce Bernoulli distributions whose parameter is a dyadic rational.”

When I first read this sentence it seemed to clash with the earlier riddle, until I realised the later started from a B(p) coin to produce a fair coin, while this paper starts with a fair coin.

The paper hence aims at a version of the Bernoulli factory problem (see Definition 2), although the term is only mentioned at the very end, with the added requirement of simplicity and conciseness translated as a finite expected number of draws and possibly an exponential tail.

It first recalls the (Forsythe–)von Neumann method of generating exponential (and other) variates out of a Uniform generator (see Section IV.2 in Devroye’s generation bible). Expanded into a general algorithm for generating discrete random variables whose pmf’s are related to permutation cardinals,

\mathbb P(N=n)\propto P_n\lambda^n/n!

if the Bernoulli generator has probability λ. These include the Poisson and the logarithmic distributions and as a side product Bernoulli distributions with some logarithmic, exponential and trigonometric transforms of λ.

As a side remark, a Bernoulli generator with probability 1/π is derived from Ramanujan identity

\frac{1}{\pi} = \sum_{n=0}^\infty {2n \choose n}^3 \frac{6n+1}{2^{8n+2}}

as “a discrete analogue of Buffon’s original. In a neat connection with Mendo’s paper, the authors of this 2010 paper note that Euler’s constant does not appear to be achievable by a Buffon machine.