Archive for John von Neumann

of first importance

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2022 by xi'an

My PhD student Charly Andral came with the question of the birthdate of importance sampling. I was under the impression that it had been created at the same time as the plain Monte Carlo method, being essentially the same thing since

\int_{\mathfrak X} h(x)f(x)\,\text dx = \int_{\mathfrak X} h(x)\frac{f(x)}{g(x)}g(x)\,\text dx

hence due to von Neumann or Ulam, but he could not find a reference earlier than a 1949 proceeding publication by Hermann Kahn in a seminar on scientific computation run by IBM. Despite writing a series of Monte Carlo papers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Kahn is not well-known in these circles (although mentioned in Fishman’s book), while being popular to some extent for his theorisation of nuclear war escalation and deterence. (I wonder if the concept is developed in some of his earlier 1948 papers. In a 1951 paper with Goertzel, a footnote signals than the approach was called quota sampling in their earlier papers. Charly has actually traced the earliest proposal as being Kahn’s, in a 14 June 1949 RAND preprint, beating Goertzel’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory preprint on quota sampling and importance functions by five days.)

(As a further marginalia, Kahn wrote with T.E. Harris an earlier preprint on Monte Carlo methods in April 1949, the same Harris as in Harris recurrence.)

a film about Stan [not a film review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2021 by xi'an

poster of Adventures of a Mathematician

R rexp()

Posted in Books, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2021 by xi'an

Following a question on X validated about the reasons for coding rexp() following Ahrens & Dieter (1972) version, I re-read Luc Devroye’s explanations. Which boils down to an optimised implementation of von Neumann’s Exponential generator. The central result is that, for any μ>0, M a Geometric variate with failure probability exp(-μ) and Z a positive Poisson variate with parameter μ


is distributed as an Exp(1) random variate. Meaning that for every scale μ, the integer part and the fractional part of an Exponential variate are independent, the former a Geometric. A refinement of the above consists in choosing

exp(-μ) =½

as the generation of M then consists in counting the number of 0’s before the first 1 in the binary expansion of UU(0,1). Actually the loop used in Ahrens & Dieter (1972) seems to be much less efficient than counting these 0’s

> benchmark("a"={u=runif(1)
  test elapsed relative user.self 
1    a  32.92  557.966    32.885
2    b  0.123    2.085     0.122
3    c  0.113    1.915     0.106
4    g  0.059    1.000     0.058

Obviously, trying to code the change directly in R resulted in much worse performances than the resident rexp(), coded in C.

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.

Bernoulli factory in the Riddler

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2020 by xi'an

“Mathematician John von Neumann is credited with figuring out how to take a p biased coin and “simulate” a fair coin. Simply flip the coin twice. If it comes up heads both times or tails both times, then flip it twice again. Eventually, you’ll get two different flips — either a heads and then a tails, or a tails and then a heads, with each of these two cases equally likely. Once you get two different flips, you can call the second of those flips the outcome of your “simulation.” For any value of p between zero and one, this procedure will always return heads half the time and tails half the time. This is pretty remarkable! But there’s a downside to von Neumann’s approach — you don’t know how long the simulation will last.” The Riddler

The associated riddle (first one of the post-T era!) is to figure out what are the values of p for which an algorithm can be derived for simulating a fair coin in at most three flips. In one single flip, p=½ sounds like the unique solution. For two flips, p²,(1-p)^2,2p(1-p)=½ work, but so do p+(1-p)p,(1-p)+p(1-p)=½, and the number of cases grows for three flips at most. However, since we can have 2³=8 different sequences, there are 2⁸ ways to aggregate these events and thus at most 2⁸ resulting probabilities (including 0 and 1). Running a quick R code and checking for proximity to ½ of any of these sums leads to

[1] 0.2062997 0.7937005 #p^3
[1] 0.2113249 0.7886753 #p^3+(1-p)^3
[1] 0.2281555 0.7718448 #p^3+p(1-p)^2
[1] 0.2372862 0.7627143 #p^3+(1-p)^3+p(1-p)^2
[1] 0.2653019 0.7346988 #p^3+2p(1-p)^2
[1] 0.2928933 0.7071078 #p^2
[1] 0.3154489 0.6845518 #p^3+2p^2(1-p)
[1] 0.352201  0.6477993 #p^3+p(1-p)^2+p^2(1-p)
[1] 0.4030316 0.5969686 #p^3+p(1-p)^2+3(1-p)p^2
[1] 0.5

which correspond to

1-p³=½, p³+(1-p)³=½,(1-p)³+(1-p)p²=½,p³+(1-p)³+p²(1-p),(1-p)³+2(1-p)p²=½,1-p²=½, p³+(1-p)³+p²(1-p)=½,(1-p)³+p(1-p)²+p²(1-p)=½,(1-p)³+p²(1-p)+3p(1-p)²=½,p³+p(1-p)²+3(p²(1-p)=½,p³+2p(1-p)²+3(1-p)p²=½,p=½,

(plus the symmetric ones), leading to 19 different values of p producing a “fair coin”. Missing any other combination?!

Another way to look at the problem is to find all roots of the 2^{2^n} equations



0\le a_i\le{n \choose i}

(None of these solutions is rational, by the way, except p=½.) I also tried this route with a slightly longer R code, calling polyroot, and finding the same 19 roots for three flips, [at least] 271 for four, and [at least] 8641 for five (The Riddler says 8635!). With an imprecision in the exact number of roots due to rather poor numerical rounding by polyroot. (Since the coefficients of the above are not directly providing those of the polynomial, I went through an alternate representation as a polynomial in (1-p)/p, with a straightforward derivation of the coefficients.)

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