Gaussian hare and Laplacian tortoise

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2018 by xi'an

A question on X validated on the comparative merits of L¹ versus L² estimation led me to the paper of Stephen Portnoy and Roger Koenker entitled “The Gaussian Hare and the Laplacian Tortoise: Computability of Squared-Error versus Absolute-Error Estimators”, which I had missed at the time, despite enjoying a subscription to Statistical Science till the late 90’s.. The authors went as far as producing a parody of Granville’s Fables de La Fontaine by sticking Laplace’s and Gauss’ heads on the tortoise and the hare!

I remember rather vividly going through Steve Stigler’s account of the opposition between Laplace’s and Legendre’s approaches, when reading his History of Statistics in 1990 or 1991… Laplace defending the absolute error on the basis of the default double-exponential (or Laplace) distribution, when Legendre and then Gauss argued in favour of the squared error loss on the basis of a defaul Normal (or Gaussian) distribution. (Edgeworth later returned to the support of the L¹ criterion.) Portnoy and Koenker focus mostly on ways of accelerating the derivation of the L¹ regression estimators. (I also learned from the paper that Koenker was one of the originators of quantile regression.)

Riddler collector

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on September 22, 2018 by xi'an

Once in a while a fairly standard problem makes it to the Riddler puzzle of the week. Today, it is the coupon collector problem, explained by W. Huber on X validated. (W. Huber happens to be the top contributor to this forum, with over 2000 answers, and the highest reputation closing on 200,000!) With nothing (apparently) unusual: coupons [e.g., collecting cards] come in packs of k=10 with no duplicate, and there are n=100 different coupons. What is the expected number one has to collect before getting all of the n coupons?  W. Huber provides an R code to solve the recurrence on the expectation, obtained by conditioning on the number m of different coupons already collected, e(m,n,k) and hence on the remaining number of collect, with an Hypergeometric distribution for the number of new coupons in the next pack. Returning 25.23 packs on average. As is well-known, the average number of packs to complete one’s collection with the final missing card is expensively large, with more than 5 packs necessary on average. The probability distribution of the required number of packs has actually been computed by Laplace in 1774 (and then again by Euler in 1785).

an interesting identity

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2018 by xi'an

Another interesting X validated question, another remembrance of past discussions on that issue. Discussions that took place in the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, nearby this painting of Laplace, when working on our cosmostats project. Namely the potential appeal of recycling multidimensional simulations by permuting the individual components in nearly independent settings. As shown by the variance decomposition in my answer, when opposing N iid pairs (X,Y) to the N combinations of √N simulations of X and √N simulations of Y, the comparison

$\text{var} \hat{\mathfrak{h}}^2_N=\text{var} (\hat{\mathfrak{h}}^1_N)+\frac{mn(n-1)}{N^2}\,\text{var}^Y\left\{ \mathbb{E}^{X}\left\{\mathfrak{h}(X,Y)\right\}\right\}$

$+\frac{m(m-1)n}{N^2}\,\text{var}^X\left[\mathbb{E}^Y\left\{\mathfrak{h}(X,Y)\right\}\right]$

unsurprisingly gives the upper hand to the iid sequence. A sort of converse to Rao-Blackwellisation…. Unless the production of N simulations gets much more costly when compared with the N function evaluations. No wonder we never see this proposal in Monte Carlo textbooks!

El asiedo [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2018 by xi'an

Just finished this long book by Arturo Pérez-Reverte that I bought [in its French translation] after reading the fascinating Dos de Mayo about the rebellion of the people of Madrid against the Napoleonian occupants. This book, The Siege, is just fantastic, more literary than Dos de Mayo and a mix of different genres, from the military to the historical, to the criminal, to the chess, to the speculative, to the romantic novel..! There are a few major characters, a police investigator, a trading company head, a corsair, a French canon engineer, a guerilla, with a well-defined unique location, the city of Cádiz under [land] siege by the French troops, but with access to the sea thanks to the British Navy. The serial killer part is certainly not the best item in the plot [as often with serial killer stories!], as it slowly drifts to the supernatural, borrowing from Laplace and Condorcet to lead to perfect predictions of where and when French bombs will fall. The historical part also appears to be rather biased against the British forces, if this opinion page is to be believed, towards a nationalist narrative making the Spanish guerilla resistance bigger and stronger than it actually was. But I still read the story with fascination and it kept me awake past my usual bedtime for several nights as I could not let the story go!

a quincunx on NBC

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2017 by xi'an

Through Five-Thirty-Eight, I became aware of a TV game call The Wall [so appropriate for Trumpian times!] that is essentially based on Galton’s quincunx! A huge [15m!] high version of Galton’s quincunx, with seven possible starting positions instead of one, which kills the whole point of the apparatus which is to demonstrate by simulation the proximity of the Binomial distribution to the limiting Normal (density) curve.

But the TV game has obvious no interest in the CLT, or in the Beta binomial posterior, only in a visible sequence of binary events that turn out increasing or decreasing the money “earned” by the player, the highest sums being unsurprisingly less likely. The only decision made by the player is to pick one of the seven starting points (meaning the outcome should behave like a weighted sum of seven Normals with drifted means depending on the probabilities of choosing these starting points). I found one blog entry analysing an “idiot” strategy of playing the game, but not the entire game. (Except for this entry on the older Plinko.) And Five-Thirty-Eight surprisingly does not get into the optimal strategies to play this game (maybe because there is none!). Five-Thirty-Eight also reproduces the apocryphal quote of Laplace not requiring this [God] hypothesis.

[Note: When looking for a picture of the Quincunx, I also found this desktop version! Which “allows you to visualize the order embedded in the chaos of randomness”, nothing less. And has even obtain a patent for this “visual aid that demonstrates [sic] a random walk and generates [re-sic] a bell curve distribution”…]

10 great ideas about chance [book preview]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by xi'an

[As I happened to be a reviewer of this book by Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms, I had the opportunity (and privilege!) to go through its earlier version. Here are the [edited] comments I sent back to PUP and the authors about this earlier version. All in  all, a terrific book!!!]

The historical introduction (“measurement”) of this book is most interesting, especially its analogy of chance with length. I would have appreciated a connection earlier than Cardano, like some of the Greek philosophers even though I gladly discovered there that Cardano was not only responsible for the closed form solutions to the third degree equation. I would also have liked to see more comments on the vexing issue of equiprobability: we all spend (if not waste) hours in the classroom explaining to (or arguing with) students why their solution is not correct. And they sometimes never get it! [And we sometimes get it wrong as well..!] Why is such a simple concept so hard to explicit? In short, but this is nothing but a personal choice, I would have made the chapter more conceptual and less chronologically historical.

“Coherence is again a question of consistent evaluations of a betting arrangement that can be implemented in alternative ways.” (p.46)

The second chapter, about Frank Ramsey, is interesting, if only because it puts this “man of genius” back under the spotlight when he has all but been forgotten. (At least in my circles.) And for joining probability and utility together. And for postulating that probability can be derived from expectations rather than the opposite. Even though betting or gambling has a (negative) stigma in many cultures. At least gambling for money, since most of our actions involve some degree of betting. But not in a rational or reasoned manner. (Of course, this is not a mathematical but rather a psychological objection.) Further, the justification through betting is somewhat tautological in that it assumes probabilities are true probabilities from the start. For instance, the Dutch book example on p.39 produces a gain of .2 only if the probabilities are correct.

> gain=rep(0,1e4)
> for (t in 1:1e4){
+ p=rexp(3);p=p/sum(p)
+ gain[t]=(p[1]*(1-.6)+p[2]*(1-.2)+p[3]*(.9-1))/sum(p)}
> hist(gain)

As I made it clear at the BFF4 conference last Spring, I now realise I have never really adhered to the Dutch book argument. This may be why I find the chapter somewhat unbalanced with not enough written on utilities and too much on Dutch books.

“The force of accumulating evidence made it less and less plausible to hold that subjective probability is, in general, approximate psychology.” (p.55)

A chapter on “psychology” may come as a surprise, but I feel a posteriori that it is appropriate. Most of it is about the Allais paradox. Plus entries on Ellesberg’s distinction between risk and uncertainty, with only the former being quantifiable by “objective” probabilities. And on Tversky’s and Kahneman’s distinction between heuristics, and the framing effect, i.e., how the way propositions are expressed impacts the choice of decision makers. However, it is leaving me unclear about the conclusion that the fact that people behave irrationally should not prevent a reliance on utility theory. Unclear because when taking actions involving other actors their potentially irrational choices should also be taken into account. (This is mostly nitpicking.)

“This is Bernoulli’s swindle. Try to make it precise and it falls apart. The conditional probabilities go in different directions, the desired intervals are of different quantities, and the desired probabilities are different probabilities.” (p.66)

The next chapter (“frequency”) is about Bernoulli’s Law of Large numbers and the stabilisation of frequencies, with von Mises making it the basis of his approach to probability. And Birkhoff’s extension which is capital for the development of stochastic processes. And later for MCMC. I like the notions of “disreputable twin” (p.63) and “Bernoulli’s swindle” about the idea that “chance is frequency”. The authors call the identification of probabilities as limits of frequencies Bernoulli‘s swindle, because it cannot handle zero probability events. With a nice link with the testing fallacy of equating rejection of the null with acceptance of the alternative. And an interesting description as to how Venn perceived the fallacy but could not overcome it: “If Venn’s theory appears to be full of holes, it is to his credit that he saw them himself.” The description of von Mises’ Kollectiven [and the welcome intervention of Abraham Wald] clarifies my previous and partial understanding of the notion, although I am unsure it is that clear for all potential readers. I also appreciate the connection with the very notion of randomness which has not yet found I fear a satisfactory definition. This chapter asks more (interesting) questions than it brings answers (to those or others). But enough, this is a brilliant chapter!

“…a random variable, the notion that Kac found mysterious in early expositions of probability theory.” (p.87)

Chapter 5 (“mathematics”) is very important [from my perspective] in that it justifies the necessity to associate measure theory with probability if one wishes to evolve further than urns and dices. To entitle Kolmogorov to posit his axioms of probability. And to define properly conditional probabilities as random variables (as my third students fail to realise). I enjoyed very much reading this chapter, but it may prove difficult to read for readers with no or little background in measure (although some advanced mathematical details have vanished from the published version). Still, this chapter constitutes a strong argument for preserving measure theory courses in graduate programs. As an aside, I find it amazing that mathematicians (even Kac!) had not at first realised the connection between measure theory and probability (p.84), but maybe not so amazing given the difficulty many still have with the notion of conditional probability. (Now, I would have liked to see some description of Borel’s paradox when it is mentioned (p.89).

“Nothing hangs on a flat prior (…) Nothing hangs on a unique quantification of ignorance.” (p.115)

The following chapter (“inverse inference”) is about Thomas Bayes and his posthumous theorem, with an introduction setting the theorem at the centre of the Hume-Price-Bayes triangle. (It is nice that the authors include a picture of the original version of the essay, as the initial title is much more explicit than the published version!) A short coverage, in tune with the fact that Bayes only contributed a twenty-plus paper to the field. And to be logically followed by a second part [formerly another chapter] on Pierre-Simon Laplace, both parts focussing on the selection of prior distributions on the probability of a Binomial (coin tossing) distribution. Emerging into a discussion of the position of statistics within or even outside mathematics. (And the assertion that Fisher was the Einstein of Statistics on p.120 may be disputed by many readers!)

“So it is perfectly legitimate to use Bayes’ mathematics even if we believe that chance does not exist.” (p.124)

The seventh chapter is about Bruno de Finetti with his astounding representation of exchangeable sequences as being mixtures of iid sequences. Defining an implicit prior on the side. While the description sticks to binary events, it gets quickly more advanced with the notion of partial and Markov exchangeability. With the most interesting connection between those exchangeabilities and sufficiency. (I would however disagree with the statement that “Bayes was the father of parametric Bayesian analysis” [p.133] as this is extrapolating too much from the Essay.) My next remark may be non-sensical, but I would have welcomed an entry at the end of the chapter on cases where the exchangeability representation fails, for instance those cases when there is no sufficiency structure to exploit in the model. A bonus to the chapter is a description of Birkhoff’s ergodic theorem “as a generalisation of de Finetti” (p..134-136), plus half a dozen pages of appendices on more technical aspects of de Finetti’s theorem.

“We want random sequences to pass all tests of randomness, with tests being computationally implemented”. (p.151)

The eighth chapter (“algorithmic randomness”) comes (again!) as a surprise as it centres on the character of Per Martin-Löf who is little known in statistics circles. (The chapter starts with a picture of him with the iconic Oberwolfach sculpture in the background.) Martin-Löf’s work concentrates on the notion of randomness, in a mathematical rather than probabilistic sense, and on the algorithmic consequences. I like very much the section on random generators. Including a mention of our old friend RANDU, the 16 planes random generator! This chapter connects with Chapter 4 since von Mises also attempted to define a random sequence. To the point it feels slightly repetitive (for instance Jean Ville is mentioned in rather similar terms in both chapters). Martin-Löf’s central notion is computability, which forces us to visit Turing’s machine. And its role in the undecidability of some logical statements. And Church’s recursive functions. (With a link not exploited here to the notion of probabilistic programming, where one language is actually named Church, after Alonzo Church.) Back to Martin-Löf, (I do not see how his test for randomness can be implemented on a real machine as the whole test requires going through the entire sequence: since this notion connects with von Mises’ Kollektivs, I am missing the point!) And then Kolmororov is brought back with his own notion of complexity (which is also Chaitin’s and Solomonov’s). Overall this is a pretty hard chapter both because of the notions it introduces and because I do not feel it is completely conclusive about the notion(s) of randomness. A side remark about casino hustlers and their “exploitation” of weak random generators: I believe Jeff Rosenthal has a similar if maybe simpler story in his book about Canadian lotteries.

“Does quantum mechanics need a different notion of probability? We think not.” (p.180)

The penultimate chapter is about Boltzmann and the notion of “physical chance”. Or statistical physics. A story that involves Zermelo and Poincaré, And Gibbs, Maxwell and the Ehrenfests. The discussion focus on the definition of probability in a thermodynamic setting, opposing time frequencies to space frequencies. Which requires ergodicity and hence Birkhoff [no surprise, this is about ergodicity!] as well as von Neumann. This reaches a point where conjectures in the theory are yet open. What I always (if presumably naïvely) find fascinating in this topic is the fact that ergodicity operates without requiring randomness. Dynamical systems can enjoy ergodic theorem, while being completely deterministic.) This chapter also discusses quantum mechanics, which main tenet requires probability. Which needs to be defined, from a frequency or a subjective perspective. And the Bernoulli shift that brings us back to random generators. The authors briefly mention the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, which sounds more metaphysical than mathematical in my opinion, although they get to great details to explain Bell’s conclusion that quantum theory leads to a mathematical impossibility (but they lost me along the way). Except that we “are left with quantum probabilities” (p.183). And the chapter leaves me still uncertain as to why statistical mechanics carries the label statistical. As it does not seem to involve inference at all.

“If you don’t like calling these ignorance priors on the ground that they may be sharply peaked, call them nondogmatic priors or skeptical priors, because these priors are quite in the spirit of ancient skepticism.” (p.199)

And then the last chapter (“induction”) brings us back to Hume and the 18th Century, where somehow “everything” [including statistics] started! Except that Hume’s strong scepticism (or skepticism) makes induction seemingly impossible. (A perspective with which I agree to some extent, if not to Keynes’ extreme version, when considering for instance financial time series as stationary. And a reason why I do not see the criticisms contained in the Black Swan as pertinent because they savage normality while accepting stationarity.) The chapter rediscusses Bayes’ and Laplace’s contributions to inference as well, challenging Hume’s conclusion of the impossibility to finer. Even though the representation of ignorance is not unique (p.199). And the authors call again for de Finetti’s representation theorem as bypassing the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as chance. And escaping inductive scepticism. (The section about Goodman’s grue hypothesis is somewhat distracting, maybe because I have always found it quite artificial and based on a linguistic pun rather than a logical contradiction.) The part about (Richard) Jeffrey is quite new to me but ends up quite abruptly! Similarly about Popper and his exclusion of induction. From this chapter, I appreciated very much the section on skeptical priors and its analysis from a meta-probabilist perspective.

There is no conclusion to the book, but to end up with a chapter on induction seems quite appropriate. (But there is an appendix as a probability tutorial, mentioning Monte Carlo resolutions. Plus notes on all chapters. And a commented bibliography.) Definitely recommended!

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about Chance!]

priors without likelihoods are like sloths without…

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2017 by xi'an

“The idea of building priors that generate reasonable data may seem like an unusual idea…”

Andrew, Dan, and Michael arXived a opinion piece last week entitled “The prior can generally only be understood in the context of the likelihood”. Which connects to the earlier Read Paper of Gelman and Hennig I discussed last year. I cannot state strong disagreement with the positions taken in this piece, actually, in that I do not think prior distributions ever occur as a given but are rather chosen as a reference measure to probabilise the parameter space and eventually prioritise regions over others. If anything I find myself even further on the prior agnosticism gradation.  (Of course, this lack of disagreement applies to the likelihood understood as a function of both the data and the parameter, rather than of the parameter only, conditional on the data. Priors cannot be depending on the data without incurring disastrous consequences!)

“…it contradicts the conceptual principle that the prior distribution should convey only information that is available before the data have been collected.”

The first example is somewhat disappointing in that it revolves as so many Bayesian textbooks (since Laplace!) around the [sex ratio] Binomial probability parameter and concludes at the strong or long-lasting impact of the Uniform prior. I do not see much of a contradiction between the use of a Uniform prior and the collection of prior information, if only because there is not standardised way to transfer prior information into prior construction. And more fundamentally because a parameter rarely makes sense by itself, alone, without a model that relates it to potential data. As for instance in a regression model. More, following my epiphany of last semester, about the relativity of the prior, I see no damage in the prior being relevant, as I only attach a relative meaning to statements based on the posterior. Rather than trying to limit the impact of a prior, we should rather build assessment tools to measure this impact, for instance by prior predictive simulations. And this is where I come to quite agree with the authors.

“…non-identifiabilities, and near nonidentifiabilites, of complex models can lead to unexpected amounts of weight being given to certain aspects of the prior.”

Another rather straightforward remark is that non-identifiable models see the impact of a prior remain as the sample size grows. And I still see no issue with this fact in a relative approach. When the authors mention (p.7) that purely mathematical priors perform more poorly than weakly informative priors it is hard to see what they mean by this “performance”.

“…judge a prior by examining the data generating processes it favors and disfavors.”

Besides those points, I completely agree with them about the fundamental relevance of the prior as a generative process, only when the likelihood becomes available. And simulatable. (This point is found in many references, including our response to the American Statistician paper Hidden dangers of specifying noninformative priors, with Kaniav Kamary. With the same illustration on a logistic regression.) I also agree to their criticism of the marginal likelihood and Bayes factors as being so strongly impacted by the choice of a prior, if treated as absolute quantities. I also if more reluctantly and somewhat heretically see a point in using the posterior predictive for assessing whether a prior is relevant for the data at hand. At least at a conceptual level. I am however less certain about how to handle improper priors based on their recommendations. In conclusion, it would be great to see one [or more] of the authors at O-Bayes 2017 in Austin as I am sure it would stem nice discussions there! (And by the way I have no prior idea on how to conclude the comparison in the title!)