## vertical likelihood Monte Carlo integration

Posted in Books, pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on April 17, 2015 by xi'an

A few months ago, Nick Polson and James Scott arXived a paper on one of my favourite problems, namely the approximation of normalising constants (and it went way under my radar, as I only became aware of it quite recently!, then it remained in my travel bag for an extra few weeks…). The method for approximating the constant Z draws from an analogy with the energy level sampling methods found in physics, like the Wang-Landau algorithm. The authors rely on a one-dimensional slice sampling representation of the posterior distribution and [main innovation in the paper] add a weight function on the auxiliary uniform. The choice of the weight function links the approach with the dreaded harmonic estimator (!), but also with power-posterior and bridge sampling. The paper recommends a specific weighting function, based on a “score-function heuristic” I do not get. Further, the optimal weight depends on intractable cumulative functions as in nested sampling. It would be fantastic if one could draw directly from the prior distribution of the likelihood function—rather than draw an x [from the prior or from something better, as suggested in our 2009 Biometrika paper] and transform it into L(x)—but as in all existing alternatives this alas is not the case. (Which is why I find the recommendations in the paper for practical implementation rather impractical, since, were the prior cdf of L(X) available, direct simulation of L(X) would be feasible. Maybe not the optimal choice though.)

“What is the distribution of the likelihood ordinates calculated via nested sampling? The answer is surprising: it is essentially the same as the distribution of likelihood ordinates by recommended weight function from Section 4.”

The approach is thus very much related to nested sampling, at least in spirit. As the authors later demonstrate, nested sampling is another case of weighting, Both versions require simulations under truncated likelihood values. Albeit with a possibility of going down [in likelihood values] with the current version. Actually, more weighting could prove [more] efficient as both the original nested and vertical sampling simulate from the prior under the likelihood constraint. Getting away from the prior should help. (I am quite curious to see how the method is received and applied.)

## MCMskv, Lenzerheide, Jan. 5-7, 2016

Posted in Kids, Mountains, pictures, R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by xi'an

Following the highly successful [authorised opinion!, from objective sources] MCMski IV, in Chamonix last year, the BayesComp section of ISBA has decided in favour of a two-year period, which means the great item of news that next year we will meet again for MCMski V [or MCMskv for short], this time on the snowy slopes of the Swiss town of Lenzerheide, south of Zürich. The committees are headed by the indefatigable Antonietta Mira and Mark Girolami. The plenary speakers have already been contacted and Steve Scott (Google), Steve Fienberg (CMU), David Dunson (Duke), Krys Latuszynski (Warwick), and Tony Lelièvre (Mines, Paris), have agreed to talk. Similarly, the nine invited sessions have been selected and will include Hamiltonian Monte Carlo,  Algorithms for Intractable Problems (ABC included!), Theory of (Ultra)High-Dimensional Bayesian Computation, Bayesian NonParametrics, Bayesian Econometrics,  Quasi Monte Carlo, Statistics of Deep Learning, Uncertainty Quantification in Mathematical Models, and Biostatistics. There will be afternoon tutorials, including a practical session from the Stan team, tutorials for which call is open, poster sessions, a conference dinner at which we will be entertained by the unstoppable Imposteriors. The Richard Tweedie ski race is back as well, with a pair of Blossom skis for the winner!

As in Chamonix, there will be parallel sessions and hence the scientific committee has issued a call for proposals to organise contributed sessions, tutorials and the presentation of posters on particularly timely and exciting areas of research relevant and of current interest to Bayesian Computation. All proposals should be sent to Mark Girolami directly by May the 4th (be with him!).

## Hamiltonian ABC

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on March 13, 2015 by xi'an

On Monday, Ed Meeds, Robert Leenders, and Max Welling (from Amsterdam) arXived a paper entitled Hamiltonian ABC. Before looking at the paper in any detail, I got puzzled by this association of antagonistic terms, since ABC is intended for complex and mostly intractable likelihoods, while Hamiltonian Monte Carlo requires a lot from the target, in order to compute gradients and Hessians… [Warning: some graphs on pages 13-14 may be harmful to your printer!]

Somewhat obviously (ex-post!), the paper suggests to use Hamiltonian dynamics on ABC approximations of the likelihood. They compare a Gaussian kernel version

$\frac{1}{S}\sum_{s=1}^S \varphi(y^\text{obs}-x_s(\theta);\epsilon^2)$

with the synthetic Gaussian likelihood version of Wood (2010)

$\varphi(y^\text{obs}-\mu(\theta);\sigma(\theta)^2+\epsilon^2)$

where both mean and variance are estimated from the simulated data. If ε is taken as an external quantity and driven to zero, the second approach is much more stable. But… ε is never driven to zero in ABC, or fixed at ε=0.37: It is instead considered as a kernel bandwidth and hence estimated from the simulated data. Hence ε is commensurable with σ(θ).  And this makes me wonder at the relevance of the conclusion that synthetic is better than kernel for Hamiltonian ABC. More globally, I wonder at the relevance of better simulating from a still approximate target when the true goal is to better approximate the genuine posterior.

Some of the paper covers separate issues like handling gradient by finite differences à la Spall [if you can afford it!] and incorporating the random generator as part of the Markov chain. And using S common random numbers in computing the gradients for all values of θ. (Although I am not certain all random generators can be represented as a deterministic transform of a parameter θ and of a fixed number of random uniforms. But the authors may consider a random number of random uniforms when they represent their random generators as deterministic transform of a parameter θ and of the random seed. I am also uncertain about the distinction between common, sticky, and persistent random numbers!)

## Unbiased Bayes for Big Data: Path of partial posteriors [a reply from the authors]

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by xi'an

[Here is a reply by Heiko Strathmann to my post of yesterday. Along with the slides of a talk in Oxford mentioned in the discussion.]

Thanks for putting this up, and thanks for the discussion. Christian, as already exchanged via email, here are some answers to the points you make.

First of all, we don’t claim a free lunch — and are honest with the limitations of the method (see negative examples). Rather, we make the point that we can achieve computational savings in certain situations — essentially exploiting redundancy (what Michael called “tall” data in his note on subsampling & HMC) leading to fast convergence of posterior statistics.

Dan is of course correct noticing that if the posterior statistic does not converge nicely (i.e. all data counts), then truncation time is “mammoth”. It is also correct that it might be questionable to aim for an unbiased Bayesian method in the presence of such redundancies. However, these are the two extreme perspectives on the topic. The message that we want to get along is that there is a trade-off in between these extremes. In particular the GP examples illustrate this nicely as we are able to reduce MSE in a regime where posterior statistics have *not* yet stabilised, see e.g. figure 6.

“And the following paragraph is further confusing me as it seems to imply that convergence is not that important thanks to the de-biasing equation.”

To clarify, the paragraph refers to the additional convergence issues induced by alternative Markov transition kernels of mini-batch-based full posterior sampling methods by Welling, Bardenet, Dougal & co. For example, Firefly MC’s mixing time is increased by a factor of 1/q where q*N is the mini-batch size. Mixing of stochastic gradient Langevin gets worse over time. This is not true for our scheme as we can use standard transition kernels. It is still essential for the partial posterior Markov chains to converge (if MCMC is used). However, as this is a well studied problem, we omit the topic in our paper and refer to standard tools for diagnosis. All this is independent of the debiasing device.

Yesterday in Oxford, Pierre Jacob pointed out that if MCMC is used for estimating partial posterior statistics, the overall result is not unbiased. We had a nice discussion how this bias could be addressed via a two-stage debiasing procedure: debiasing the MC estimates as described in the “Unbiased Monte Carlo” paper by Agapiou et al, and then plugging those into the path estimators — though it is (yet) not so clear how (and whether) this would work in our case.
In the current version of the paper, we do not address the bias present due to MCMC. We have a paragraph on this in section 3.2. Rather, we start from a premise that full posterior MCMC samples are a gold standard. Furthermore, the framework we study is not necessarily linked to MCMC – it could be that the posterior expectation is available in closed form, but simply costly in N. In this case, we can still unbiasedly estimate this posterior expectation – see GP regression.

“The choice of the tail rate is thus quite delicate to validate against the variance constraints (2) and (3).”

It is true that the choice is crucial in order to control the variance. However, provided that partial posterior expectations converge at a rate n with n the size of a minibatch, computational complexity can be reduced to N1-α (α<β) without variance exploding. There is a trade-off: the faster the posterior expectations converge, more computation can be saved; β is in general unknown, but can be roughly estimated with the “direct approach” as we describe in appendix.

It is true that for certain classes of models and φ functionals, the direct averaging of expectations for increasing data sizes yields good results (see log-normal example), and we state this. However, the GP regression experiments show that the direct averaging gives a larger MSE as with debiasing applied. This is exactly the trade-off mentioned earlier.

I also wonder what people think about the comparison to stochastic variational inference (GP for Big Data), as this hasn’t appeared in discussions yet. It is the comparison to “non-unbiased” schemes that Christian and Dan asked for.

## Unbiased Bayes for Big Data: Path of partial posteriors

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by xi'an

“Data complexity is sub-linear in N, no bias is introduced, variance is finite.”

Heiko Strathman, Dino Sejdinovic and Mark Girolami have arXived a few weeks ago a paper on the use of a telescoping estimator to achieve an unbiased estimator of a Bayes estimator relying on the entire dataset, while using only a small proportion of the dataset. The idea is that a sequence  converging—to an unbiased estimator—of estimators φt can be turned into an unbiased estimator by a stopping rule T:

$\sum_{t=1}^T \dfrac{\varphi_t-\varphi_{t-1}}{\mathbb{P}(T\ge t)}$

is indeed unbiased. In a “Big Data” framework, the components φt are MCMC versions of posterior expectations based on a proportion αt of the data. And the stopping rule cannot exceed αt=1. The authors further propose to replicate this unbiased estimator R times on R parallel processors. They further claim a reduction in the computing cost of

$\mathcal{O}(N^{1-\alpha})\qquad\text{if}\qquad\mathbb{P}(T=t)\approx e^{-\alpha t}$

which means that a sub-linear cost can be achieved. However, the gain in computing time means higher variance than for the full MCMC solution:

“It is clear that running an MCMC chain on the full posterior, for any statistic, produces more accurate estimates than the debiasing approach, which by construction has an additional intrinsic source of variance. This means that if it is possible to produce even only a single MCMC sample (…), the resulting posterior expectation can be estimated with less expected error. It is therefore not instructive to compare approaches in that region. “

I first got a “free lunch” impression when reading the paper, namely it sounded like using a random stopping rule was enough to overcome unbiasedness and large size jams. This is not the message of the paper, but I remain both intrigued by the possibilities the unbiasedness offers and bemused by the claims therein, for several reasons: Continue reading

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2015 by xi'an

Today was the final session of our Reading Classics Seminar for the academic year 2014-2015. I have not reported on this seminar much so far because it has had starting problems, namely hardly any student present on the first classes and therefore several re-starts until we reached a small group of interested students. And this is truly The End for this enjoyable experiment as this is the final year for my TSI Master at Paris-Dauphine, as it will become integrated within the new MASH Master next year.

As a last presentation for the entire series, my student picked John Skilling’s Nested Sampling, not that it was in my list of “classics”, but he had worked on the paper in a summer project and was thus reasonably fluent with the topic. As he did a good enough job (!), here are his slides.

Some of the questions that came to me during the talk were on how to run nested sampling sequentially, both in the data and in the number of simulated points, and on incorporating more deterministic moves in order to remove some of the Monte Carlo variability. I was about to ask about (!) the Hamiltonian version of nested sampling but then he mentioned his last summer internship on this very topic! I also realised during that talk that the formula (for positive random variables)

$\int_0^\infty(1-F(x))\text{d}x = \mathbb{E}_F[X]$

does not require absolute continuity of the distribution F.

## the fundamental incompatibility of HMC and data subsampling

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2015 by xi'an

Last week, Michael Betancourt, from WarwickarXived a neat wee note on the fundamental difficulties in running HMC on a subsample of the original data. The core message is that using only one fraction of the data to run an HMC with the hope that it will preserve the stationary distribution does not work. The only way to recover from the bias is to use a Metropolis-Hastings step using the whole data, a step that both kills most of the computing gain and has very low acceptance probabilities. Even the strategy that subsamples for each step in a single trajectory fails: there cannot be a significant gain in time without a significant bias in the outcome. Too bad..! Now, there are ways of accelerating HMC, for instance by parallelising the computation of gradients but, just as in any other approach (?), the information provided by the whole data is only available when looking at the whole data.