Pitman medal for Kerrie Mengersen

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by xi'an

My friend and co-author of many years, Kerrie Mengersen, just received the 2016 Pitman Medal, which is the prize of the Statistical Society of Australia. Congratulations to Kerrie for a well-deserved reward of her massive contributions to Australian, Bayesian, computational, modelling statistics, and to data science as a whole. (In case you wonder about the picture above, she has not yet lost the medal, but is instead looking for jaguars in the Amazon.)

This medal is named after EJG Pitman, Australian probabilist and statistician, whose name is attached to an estimator, a lemma, a measure of efficiency, a test, and a measure of comparison between estimators. His estimator is the best equivariant (or invariant) estimator, which can be expressed as a Bayes estimator under the relevant right Haar measure, despite having no Bayesian motivation to start with. His lemma is the Pitman-Koopman-Darmois lemma, which states that outside exponential families, sufficient is essentially useless (except for exotic distributions like the Uniform distributions). Darmois published the result first in 1935, but in French in the Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences. And the measure of comparison is Pitman nearness or closeness, on which I wrote a paper with my friends Gene Hwang and Bill Strawderman, paper that we thought was the final paper on the measure as it was pointing out several majors deficiencies with this concept. But the literature continued to grow after that..!

slice sampling revisited

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2016 by xi'an

Thanks to an X validated question, I re-read Radford Neal’s 2003 Slice sampling paper. Which is an Annals of Statistics discussion paper, and rightly so. While I was involved in the editorial processing of this massive paper (!), I had only vague memories left about it. Slice sampling has this appealing feature of being the equivalent of random walk Metropolis-Hastings for Gibbs sampling, without the drawback of setting a scale for the moves.

“These slice sampling methods can adaptively change the scale of changes made, which makes them easier to tune than Metropolis methods and also avoids problems that arise when the appropriate scale of changes varies over the distribution  (…) Slice sampling methods that improve sampling by suppressing random walks can also be constructed.” (p.706)

One major theme in the paper is fighting random walk behaviour, of which Radford is a strong proponent. Even at the present time, I am a bit surprised by this feature as component-wise slice sampling is exhibiting clear features of a random walk, exploring the subgraph of the target by random vertical and horizontal moves. Hence facing the potential drawback of backtracking to previously visited places.

“A Markov chain consisting solely of overrelaxed updates might not be ergodic.” (p.729)

Overrelaxation is presented as a mean to avoid the random walk behaviour by removing rejections. The proposal is actually deterministic projecting the current value to the “other side” of the approximate slice. If it stays within the slice it is accepted. This “reflection principle” [in that it takes the symmetric wrt the centre of the slice] is also connected with antithetic sampling in that it induces rather negative correlation between the successive simulations. The last methodological section covers reflective slice sampling, which appears as a slice version of Hamiltonian Monte Carlo (HMC). Given the difficulty in implementing exact HMC (reflected in the later literature), it is no wonder that Radford proposes an approximation scheme that is valid if somewhat involved.

“We can show invariance of this distribution by showing (…) detailed balance, which for a uniform distribution reduces to showing that the probability density for x¹ to be selected as the next state, given that the current state is x0, is the same as the probability density for x⁰ to be the next state, given that x¹ is the current state, for any states x⁰ and x¹ within [the slice] S.” (p.718)

In direct connection with the X validated question there is a whole section of the paper on implementing single-variable slice sampling that I had completely forgotten, with a collection of practical implementations when the slice

S={x; u < f(x) }

cannot be computed in an exact manner. Like the “stepping out” procedure. The resulting set (interval) where the uniform simulation in x takes place may well miss some connected component(s) of the slice. This quote may sound like a strange argument in that the move may well leave a part of the slice off and still satisfy this condition. Not really since it states that it must hold for any pair of states within S… The very positive side of this section is to allow for slice sampling in cases where the inversion of u < f(x) is intractable. Hence with a strong practical implication. The multivariate extension of the approximation procedure is more (potentially) fraught with danger in that it may fell victim to a curse of dimension, in that the box for the uniform simulation of x may be much too large when compared with the true slice (or slice of the slice). I had more of a memory of the “trail of crumbs” idea, mostly because of the name I am afraid!, which links with delayed rejection, as indicated in the paper, but seems awfully delicate to calibrate.

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by xi'an

“If no information is available, π(α|M) must not deliver information about α.”

In a recent arXival apparently submitted to Bayesian Analysis, Giovanni Mana and Carlo Palmisano discuss of the choice of priors in metrology. Which reminded me of this meeting I attended at the Bureau des Poids et Mesures in Sèvres where similar debates took place, albeit being led by ferocious anti-Bayesians! Their reference prior appears to be the Jeffreys prior, because of its reparameterisation invariance.

“The relevance of the Jeffreys rule in metrology and in expressing uncertainties in measurements resides in the metric invariance.”

This, along with a second order approximation to the Kullback-Leibler divergence, is indeed one reason for advocating the use of a Jeffreys prior. I at first found it surprising that the (usually improper) prior is used in a marginal likelihood, as it cannot be normalised. A source of much debate [and of our alternative proposal].

“To make a meaningful posterior distribution and uncertainty assessment, the prior density must be covariant; that is, the prior distributions of different parameterizations must be obtained by transformations of variables. Furthermore, it is necessary that the prior densities are proper.”

The above quote is quite interesting both in that the notion of covariant is used rather than invariant or equivariant. And in that properness is indicated as a requirement. (Even more surprising is the noun associated with covariant, since it clashes with the usual notion of covariance!) They conclude that the marginal associated with an improper prior is null because the normalising constant of the prior is infinite.

“…the posterior probability of a selected model must not be null; therefore, improper priors are not allowed.”

mixtures are slices of an orange

Posted in Kids, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2016 by xi'an

After presenting this work in both London and Lenzerheide, Kaniav Kamary, Kate Lee and I arXived and submitted our paper on a new parametrisation of location-scale mixtures. Although it took a long while to finalise the paper, given that we came with the original and central idea about a year ago, I remain quite excited by this new representation of mixtures, because the use of a global location-scale (hyper-)parameter doubling as the mean-standard deviation for the mixture itself implies that all the other parameters of this mixture model [beside the weights] belong to the intersection of a unit hypersphere with an hyperplane. [Hence the title above I regretted not using for the poster at MCMskv!]This realisation that using a (meaningful) hyperparameter (μ,σ) leads to a compact parameter space for the component parameters is important for inference in such mixture models in that the hyperparameter (μ,σ) is easily estimated from the entire sample, while the other parameters can be studied using a non-informative prior like the Uniform prior on the ensuing compact space. This non-informative prior for mixtures is something I have been seeking for many years, hence my on-going excitement! In the mid-1990‘s, we looked at a Russian doll type parametrisation with Kerrie Mengersen that used the “first” component as defining the location-scale reference for the entire mixture. And expressing each new component as a local perturbation of the previous one. While this is a similar idea than the current one, it falls short of leading to a natural non-informative prior, forcing us to devise a proper prior on the variance that was a mixture of a Uniform U(0,1) and of an inverse Uniform 1/U(0,1). Because of the lack of compactness of the parameter space. Here, fixing both mean and variance (or even just the variance) binds the mixture parameter to an ellipse conditional on the weights. A space that can be turned into the unit sphere via a natural reparameterisation. Furthermore, the intersection with the hyperplane leads to a closed form spherical reparameterisation. Yay!

While I do not wish to get into the debate about the [non-]existence of “non-informative” priors at this stage, I think being able to using the invariant reference prior π(μ,σ)=1/σ is quite neat here because the inference on the mixture parameters should be location and scale equivariant. The choice of the prior on the remaining parameters is of lesser importance, the Uniform over the compact being one example, although we did not study in depth this impact, being satisfied with the outputs produced from the default (Uniform) choice.

From a computational perspective, the new parametrisation can be easily turned into the old parametrisation, hence leads to a closed-form likelihood. This implies a Metropolis-within-Gibbs strategy can be easily implemented, as we did in the derived Ultimixt R package. (Which programming I was not involved in, solely suggesting the name Ultimixt from ultimate mixture parametrisation, a former title that we eventually dropped off for the paper.)

Discussing the paper at MCMskv was very helpful in that I got very positive feedback about the approach and superior arguments to justify the approach and its appeal. And to think about several extensions outside location scale families, if not in higher dimensions which remain a practical challenge (in the sense of designing a parametrisation of the covariance matrices in terms of the global covariance matrix).

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on December 4, 2014 by xi'an

Today was the second session of our Reading Classics Seminar for the academic year 2014-2015. I have not reported on this seminar so far because it has had starting problems, namely hardly any student present on the first classes and therefore several re-starts until we reach a small group of interested students. Actually, this is the final year for my TSI Master at Paris-Dauphine, as it will become integrated within the new MASH Master next year. The latter started this year and drew away half of our potential applicants, presumably because of the wider spectrum between machine-learning, optimisation, programming and a tiny bit of statistics… If we manage to salvage [within the new Master] our speciality of offering the only Bayesian Statistics training in France, this will not be a complete disaster!

Anyway, the first seminar was about the great 1939 Biometrika paper by Pitman about the best invariant estimator appearing magically as a Bayes estimator! Alas, the student did not grasp the invariance part and hence focussed on less relevant technical parts, which was not a great experience (and therefore led me to abstain from posting the slides here). The second paper was not on my list but was proposed by another student as of yesterday when he realised he was to present today! This paper, entitled “The Counter-intuitive Non-informative Prior for the Bernoulli Family”, was published in the Journal of Statistics Education in 2004 by Zu and Liu, I had not heard of the paper (or of the journal) previously and I do not think it is worth advertising any further as it gives a very poor entry to non-informative priors in the simplest of settings, namely for Bernoulli B(p) observations. Indeed, the stance of the paper is to define a non-informative prior as one returning the MLE of p as its posterior expectation (missing altogether the facts that such a definition is parameterisation-invariant and that, given the modal nature of the MLE, a posterior mode would be much more appropriate, leading to the uniform prior of p as a solution) and that the corresponding prior was made of two Dirac masses at 0 and 1! Which again misses several key points like defining properly convergence in a space of probability distributions and using an improper prior differently from a proper prior. Esp. since in the next section, the authors switch to Haldane’s prior being the Be(0,0) distribution..! A prior that cannot be used since the posterior is not defined when all the observations are identical. Certainly not a paper to make it to the list! (My student simply pasted pages from this paper as his slides and so I see again no point in reposting them here. )

label switching in Bayesian mixture models

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2014 by xi'an

A referee of our paper on approximating evidence for mixture model with Jeong Eun Lee pointed out the recent paper by Carlos Rodríguez and Stephen Walker on label switching in Bayesian mixture models: deterministic relabelling strategies. Which appeared this year in JCGS and went beyond, below or above my radar.

Label switching is an issue with mixture estimation (and other latent variable models) because mixture models are ill-posed models where part of the parameter is not identifiable. Indeed, the density of a mixture being a sum of terms

$\sum_{j=1}^k \omega_j f(y|\theta_i)$

the parameter (vector) of the ω’s and of the θ’s is at best identifiable up to an arbitrary permutation of the components of the above sum. In other words, “component #1 of the mixture” is not a meaningful concept. And hence cannot be estimated.

This problem has been known for quite a while, much prior to EM and MCMC algorithms for mixtures, but it is only since mixtures have become truly estimable by Bayesian approaches that the debate has grown on this issue. In the very early days, Jean Diebolt and I proposed ordering the components in a unique way to give them a meaning. For instant, “component #1” would then be the component with the smallest mean or the smallest weight and so on… Later, in one of my favourite X papers, with Gilles Celeux and Merrilee Hurn, we exposed the convergence issues related with the non-identifiability of mixture models, namely that the posterior distributions were almost always multimodal, with a multiple of k! symmetric modes in the case of exchangeable priors, and therefore that Markov chains would have trouble to visit all those modes in a symmetric manner, despite the symmetry being guaranteed from the shape of the posterior. And we conclude with the slightly provocative statement that hardly any Markov chain inferring about mixture models had ever converged! In parallel, time-wise, Matthew Stephens had completed a thesis at Oxford on the same topic and proposed solutions for relabelling MCMC simulations in order to identify a single mode and hence produce meaningful estimators. Giving another meaning to the notion of “component #1”.

And then the topic began to attract more and more researchers, being both simple to describe and frustrating in its lack of definitive answer, both from simulation and inference perspectives. Rodriguez’s and Walker’s paper provides a survey on the label switching strategies in the Bayesian processing of mixtures, but its innovative part is in deriving a relabelling strategy. Which consists of finding the optimal permutation (at each iteration of the Markov chain) by minimising a loss function inspired from k-means clustering. Which is connected with both Stephens’ and our [JASA, 2000] loss functions. The performances of this new version are shown to be roughly comparable with those of other relabelling strategies, in the case of Gaussian mixtures. (Making me wonder if the choice of the loss function is not favourable to Gaussian mixtures.) And somehow faster than Stephens’ Kullback-Leibler loss approach.

“Hence, in an MCMC algorithm, the indices of the parameters can permute multiple times between iterations. As a result, we cannot identify the hidden groups that make [all] ergodic averages to estimate characteristics of the components useless.”

One section of the paper puzzles me, albeit it does not impact the methodology and the conclusions. In Section 2.1 (p.27), the authors consider the quantity

$p(z_i=j|{\mathbf y})$

which is the marginal probability of allocating observation i to cluster or component j. Under an exchangeable prior, this quantity is uniformly equal to 1/k for all observations i and all components j, by virtue of the invariance under permutation of the indices… So at best this can serve as a control variate. Later in Section 2.2 (p.28), the above sentence does signal a problem with those averages but it seem to attribute it to MCMC behaviour rather than to the invariance of the posterior (or to the non-identifiability of the components per se). At last, the paper mentions that “given the allocations, the likelihood is invariant under permutations of the parameters and the allocations” (p.28), which is not correct, since eqn. (8)

$f(y_i|\theta_{\sigma(z_i)}) =f(y_i|\theta_{\tau(z_i)})$

does not hold when the two permutations σ and τ give different images of zi

posterior likelihood ratio is back

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2014 by xi'an

“The PLR turns out to be a natural Bayesian measure of evidence of the studied hypotheses.”

Isabelle Smith and André Ferrari just arXived a paper on the posterior distribution of the likelihood ratio. This is in line with Murray Aitkin’s notion of considering the likelihood ratio

$f(x|\theta_0) / f(x|\theta)$

as a prior quantity, when contemplating the null hypothesis that θ is equal to θ0. (Also advanced by Alan Birnbaum and Arthur Dempster.) A concept we criticised (rather strongly) in our Statistics and Risk Modelling paper with Andrew Gelman and Judith Rousseau.  The arguments found in the current paper in defence of the posterior likelihood ratio are quite similar to Aitkin’s:

• defined for (some) improper priors;
• invariant under observation or parameter transforms;
• more informative than tthe posterior mean of the posterior likelihood ratio, not-so-incidentally equal to the Bayes factor;
• avoiding using the posterior mean for an asymmetric posterior distribution;
• achieving some degree of reconciliation between Bayesian and frequentist perspectives, e.g. by being equal to some p-values;
• easily computed by MCMC means (if need be).

One generalisation found in the paper handles the case of composite versus composite hypotheses, of the form

$\int\mathbb{I}\left( p(x|\theta_1)

which brings back an earlier criticism I raised (in Edinburgh, at ICMS, where as one-of-those-coincidences, I read this paper!), namely that using the product of the marginals rather than the joint posterior is no more a standard Bayesian practice than using the data in a prior quantity. And leads to multiple uses of the data. Hence, having already delivered my perspective on this approach in the past, I do not feel the urge to “raise the flag” once again about a paper that is otherwise well-documented and mathematically rich.