Archive for Oaxaca


Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2020 by xi'an

First, I really have to congratulate my friend Jim Hobert for a great organisation of the meeting adopting my favourite minimalist principles (no name tag, no “goodies” apart from the conference schedule, no official talks). Without any pretense at objectivity, I also appreciated very much the range of topics and the sweet frustration of having to choose between two or three sessions each time. Here are some notes taken during some talks (with no implicit implication for the talks no mentioned, re. above frustration! as well as very short nights making sudden lapse in concentration highly likely).

On Day 1, Paul Fearnhead’s inaugural plenary talk was on continuous time Monte Carlo methods, mostly bouncy particle and zig-zag samplers, with a detailed explanation on the simulation of the switching times which likely brought the audience up to speed even if they had never heard of them. And an opening on PDMPs used as equivalents to reversible jump MCMC, reminding me of the continuous time (point process) solutions of Matthew Stephens for mixture inference (and of Preston, Ripley, Møller).

The same morn I heard of highly efficient techniques to handle very large matrices and p>n variables selections by Akihiko Nishimura and Ruth Baker on a delayed acceptance ABC, using a cheap proxy model. Somewhat different from indirect inference. I found the reliance on ESS somewhat puzzling given the intractability of the likelihood (and the low reliability of the frequency estimate) and the lack of connection with the “real” posterior. At the same ABC session, Umberto Picchini spoke on a joint work with Richard Everitt (Warwick) on linking ABC and pseudo-marginal MCMC by bootstrap. Actually, the notion of ABC likelihood was already proposed as pseudo-marginal ABC by Anthony Lee, Christophe Andrieu and Arnaud Doucet in the discussion of Fearnhead and Prangle (2012) but I wonder at the focus of being unbiased when the quantity is not the truth, i.e. the “real” likelihood. It would seem more appropriate to attempt better kernel estimates on the distribution of the summary itself. The same session also involved David Frazier who linked our work on ABC for misspecified models and an on-going investigation of synthetic likelihood.

Later, there was a surprise occurrence of the Bernoulli factory in a talk by Radu Herbei on Gaussian process priors with accept-reject algorithms, leading to exact MCMC, although the computing implementation remains uncertain. And several discussions during the poster session, incl. one on the planning of a 2021 workshop in Oaxaca centred on objective Bayes advances as we received acceptance of our proposal by BIRS today!

On Day 2, David Blei gave a plenary introduction to variational Bayes inference and latent Dirichlet allocations, somewhat too introductory for my taste although other participants enjoyed this exposition. He also mentioned a recent JASA paper on the frequentist consistency of variational Bayes that I should check. Speaking later with PhD students, they really enjoyed this opening on an area they did not know that well.

A talk by Kengo Kamatani (whom I visited last summer) on improved ergodicity rates for heavy tailed targets and Crank-NIcholson modifications to the random walk proposal (which uses an AR(1) representation instead of the random walk). With the clever idea of adding the scale of the proposal as an extra parameter with a prior of its own. Gaining one order of magnitude in the convergence speed (i.e. from d to 1 and from d² to d, where d is the dimension), which is quite impressive (and just published in JAP).Veronica Rockova linked Bayesian variable selection and machine learning via ABC, with conditions on the prior for model consistency. And a novel approach using part of the data to learn an ABC partial posterior, which reminded me of the partial  Bayes factors of the 1990’s although it is presumably unrelated. And a replacement of the original rejection ABC via multi-armed bandits, where each variable is represented by an arm, called ABC Bayesian forests. Recalling the simulation trick behind Thompson’s approach, reproduced for the inclusion or exclusion of variates and producing a fixed estimate for the (marginal) inclusion probabilities, which makes it sound like a prior-feeback form of empirical Bayes. Followed by a talk of Gregor Kastner on MCMC handling of large time series with specific priors and a massive number of parameters.

The afternoon also had a wealth of exciting talks and missed opportunities (in the other sessions!). Which ended up with a strong if unintended French bias since I listened to Christophe Andrieu, Gabriel Stolz, Umut Simsekli, and Manon Michel on different continuous time processes, with Umut linking GANs, multidimensional optimal transport, sliced-Wasserstein, generative models, and new stochastic differential equations. Manon Michel gave a highly intuitive talk on creating non-reversibility, getting rid of refreshment rates in PDMPs to kill any form of reversibility.

L’Armée Furieuse [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , on December 9, 2018 by xi'an

“On dit que les Normands n’aiment pas beaucoup parler… Ce n’est pas qu’ils n’aiment pas parler, c’est qu’ils n’aiment pas répondre. Ce n’est pas la même chose.”

I picked this book by Fred Vargas at the airport mostly because the back cover mentioned Orbec a town near my hometown in rural Normandy. With a slight misspelling to avoid legal issues I presume. It made for a nice read in the long trip to Oaxaca even though it is filled with impossibilities and incoherences. The crux of the story is an interesting medieval myth called l’armée furieuse (the Wild Hunt) that tells of a spectral army crossing the North of France and picking dammed souls soon to die. The wild hunt is also called la mesnie or maisnie Hellequin, from the name of the Lord leading the spectral army. According to a English monk from a Norman monastery in the 1100’s. Myth that some in current era want to exploit to cover real crimes. As in the previous novels of Fred Vargas that I read there is an interesting undercurrent of exposing the machinery of a rural community, with highly unorthodox police officers. Not that I recognized much of my hometown atmosphere. And the Deus ex Machina represented by a local count [historically speaking, Orbec is only a barony] and the industrial plot were by far too implausible! (With a geographical inaccuracy of setting La Touques river nearby. And of mentioning a train station in Cernay, to end up on a very picky note.)

a la casa matemática de Oaxaca [reminiscence]

Posted in Mountains, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by xi'an

As this was my very first trip to the CMO part of CMO-BIRS, as opposed to many visits to BIRS, Banff, here are my impressions about this other mathematical haven, aka resort, aka retreat… First definitely a very loooong trip from Paris (especially when sitting next to three drunk women speaking loudly the whole trip, thankfully incomprehensibly in Russian!), with few connections between Mexico City [airport] and Oaxaca,  adding [for me] a five and a half hour stay over in the airport, where I experimented for the first time a coffin-like “sleep pod” hostel and some welcome rest. But presumably an easier access compared with Calgary for mathematicians from the South and East of the USA. And obviously for those Central and from South Americas.Then, contrary to Banff, the place for the Casa Matemàtica Oaxaca is for the time being essentially a permanently booked hotel, rather than a dedicated conference centre. Facilities are thus less attuned to visiting mathematicians, like missing real desks in bedrooms or working rooms. Still a nice with a very peaceful inner yard (and too small a pool to consider swimming). Actually facilitating interactions when compared with Banff: blackboards in the patios, tables outside, general quiet atmosphere (except for the endlessly barking dogs in the neighbourhood). Of course the huge difference in the weathers between both places does matter. Paradoxically (given the size of Oaxaca City), CMO is more isolated than BIRS, where downtown is a mere five minute walks, even in the middle of winter. Except for the occasional blizzard. But Oaxaca offers a fabulous food scene worth the longer trip!As for outdoors, there is also a swimming pool (Cina). And back streets to run on, even though the presence of stray dogs in about every road making running broken and haphazard (never run by a dog!, which is my rule since a tiny but angry dog bit my ankle in Caracas!). Running splits up hill a few times every morning was great training! There is furthermore the possibility of sport climbing in nearby San Sebastian de Tutla, as I experienced with Aventours, a local guiding company. And bouldering in an even closer gym.

over Mexico [jatp]

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2018 by xi'an

surprises in probability [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by xi'an

A very short book (128 pages, but with a very high price!) I received from CRC Press is Henk Tijms’ Surprises in Probability (Seventeen Short Stories). Henk Tijms is an emeritus professor of econometrics at the Vrije University in Amsterdam and he wrote these seventeen pieces either for the Dutch Statistical Society magazine or for a blog he ran for the NYt. (The video of A Night in Casablanca above is only connected to this blog through Chico mimicking the word surprise as soup+rice.)

The author mentions that the book can be useful for teachers and indeed this is a collection of surprising probability results, surprising in the sense that the numerical probabilities are not necessarily intuitive. Most illustrations involve betting of one sort or another,  with only basic (combinatorial) probability distributions involved. Readers should not worry about even this basic probability background since most statements are exposed without a proof. Most examples are very classical, from the prisoner’s problem, to the Monty Hall paradox, to the birthday problem, to Benford’s distribution of digits, to gambler’s ruin, gambler’s fallacy, and the St Petersbourg paradox, to the secretary’s problem and stopping rules. The most advanced notion is the one of (finite state) Markov chains. As martingales are only mentionned in connection with pseudo-probabilist schemes for winning the lottery. For which (our very own!) Jeff Rosenthal makes an appearance, thanks to his uncovering of the Ontario Lottery scam!

“In no other branch of mathematics is it so easy for experts to blunder as in probability theory.”  Martin Gardner

A few stories have entries about Bayesian statistics, with mentions made of the O.J. Simpson, Sally Clark and Lucia de Berk miscarriages of justice, although these mentions make the connection most tenuous. Simulation is also mentioned as a manner of achieving approximations to more complex probabilities. But not to the point of discussing surprises about simulation, which could have been the case with the simulation of rare events.

Ten most beautiful probability formulas (Story 10) reminded me of Ian Steward 17 formulas that changed the World. Obviously at another scale and in a much less convincing way. To wit, the Normal (or Gauss) density, Bayes’ formula, the gambler’s ruin formula, the squared-root formula (meaning standard deviation decreases as √n), Kelly’s betting formula (?), the asymptotic law of distribution of prime numbers (??), another squared-root formula for the one-dimensional random walk, the newsboy formula (?), the Pollaczek-Khintchine formula (?), and the waiting-time formula. I am not sure I would have included any of these…

All in all this is a nice if unsurprising database for illustrations and possibly exercises in elementary probability courses, although it will require some work from the instructor to link the statements to their proof. As one would expect from blog entries. But this makes for a nice reading, especially while traveling and I hope some fellow traveler will pick the book from where I left it in Mexico City airport.

Oaxaca sunrise [#2]

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Running with tags , , , , , , , on November 15, 2018 by xi'an

sunrise in Oaxaca [#1]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , on November 12, 2018 by xi'an