## Scala for Data Science [book review]

This post will review the book:

Disclaimer: This book review has not been solicited by the publisher (or anyone else) in any way. I purchased the review copy of this book myself. I have not received any benefit from the writing of this review.

## Introduction

On this blog I previously reviewed the (terrible) book, Scala for machine learning by the same publisher. I was therefore rather wary of buying this book. But the topic coverage looked good, so I decided to buy it, and wasn’t disappointed. Scala for Data Science is my top recommendation for getting started with statistical computing and data science applications using Scala.

## Overview

The book assumes a basic familiarity with programming in Scala, at around the level of someone who has completed the Functional Programming Principles in Scala Coursera course. That is, it (quite sensibly) doesn’t attempt to teach the reader how to program in Scala, but rather how to approach the development of data science applications using Scala. It introduces more advanced Scala idioms gradually (eg. typeclasses don’t appear until Chapter 5), so it is relatively approachable for those who aren’t yet Scala experts. The book does cover Apache Spark, but Spark isn’t introduced until Chapter 10, so it isn’t “just another Spark book”. Most of the book is about developing data science applications in Scala, completely independently of Spark. That said, it also provides one of the better introductions to Spark, so doubles up as a pretty good introductory Spark book, in addition to being a good introduction to the development of data science applications with Scala. It should probably be emphasised that the book is very much focused on data science, rather than statistical computing, but there is plenty of material of relevance to those who are more interested in statistical computing than applied data science.

## Chapter by chapter

1. Scala and Data Science – motivation for using Scala in preference to certain other languages I could mention…
2. Manipulating data with BreezeBreeze is the standard Scala library for scientific and statistical computing. It’s pretty good, but documentation is rather lacking. This Chapter provides a good tutorial introduction to Breeze, which should be enough to get people going sufficiently to be able to make some sense of the available on-line documentation.
3. Plotting with breeze-viz – Breeze has some support for plotting and visualisation of data. It’s somewhat limited when compared to what is available in R, but is fine for interactive exploratory analysis. However, the available on-line documentation for breeze-viz is almost non-existent. This Chapter is the best introduction to breeze-viz that I have seen.
4. Parallel collections and futures – the Scala standard library has built-in support for parallel and concurrent programming based on functional programming concepts such as parallel (monadic) collections and Futures. Again, this Chapter provides an excellent introduction to these powerful concepts, allowing the reader to start developing parallel algorithms for multi-core hardware with minimal fuss.
5. Scala and SQL through JDBC – this Chapter looks at connecting to databases using standard JVM mechanisms such as JDBC. However, it gradually introduces more functional ways of interfacing with databases using typeclasses, motivating:
6. Slick – a functional interface for SQL – an introduction to the Slick library for a more Scala-esque way of database interfacing.
7. Web APIs – the practicalities of talking to web APIs. eg. authenticated HTTP requests and parsing of JSON responses.
8. Scala and MongoDB – working with a NoSQL database from Scala
9. Concurrency with Akka – Akka is the canonical implementation of the actor model in Scala, for building large concurrent applications. It is the foundation on which Spark is built.
10. Distributed batch processing with Spark – a tutorial introduction to Apache Spark. Spark is a big data analytics framework built on top of Scala and Akka. It is arguably the best available framework for big data analytics on computing clusters in the cloud, and hence there is a lot of interest in it. Indeed, Spark is driving some of the interest in Scala.
11. Spark SQL and DataFrames – interfacing with databases using Spark, and more importantly, an introduction to Spark’s DataFrame abstraction, which is now fundamental to developing machine learning pipelines in Spark.
12. Distributed machine learning with MLLib – MLLib is the machine learning library for Spark. It is worth emphasising that unlike many early books on Spark, this chapter covers the newer DataFrame-based pipeline API, in addition to the original RDD-based API. Together, Chapters 10, 11 and 12 provide a pretty good tutorial introduction to Spark. After working through these, it should be easy to engage with the official on-line Spark documentation.
13. Web APIs with Play – is concerned with developing a web API at the end of a data science pipeline.
14. Visualisation with D3 and the Play framework – is concerned with integrating visualisation into a data science web application.

## Summary

This book provides a good tutorial introduction to a large number of topics relevant to statisticians and data scientists interested in developing data science applications using Scala. After working through this book, readers should be well-placed to augment their knowledge with readily searchable on-line documentation.

In a follow-up post I will give a quick overview of some other books relevant to getting started with Scala for statistical computing and data science.

## One-way ANOVA with fixed and random effects from a Bayesian perspective

This blog post is derived from a computer practical session that I ran as part of my new course on Statistics for Big Data, previously discussed. This course covered a lot of material very quickly. In particular, I deferred introducing notions of hierarchical modelling until the Bayesian part of the course, where I feel it is more natural and powerful. However, some of the terminology associated with hierarchical statistical modelling probably seems a bit mysterious to those without a strong background in classical statistical modelling, and so this practical session was intended to clear up some potential confusion. I will analyse a simple one-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) model from a Bayesian perspective, making sure to highlight the difference between fixed and random effects in a Bayesian context where everything is random, as well as emphasising the associated identifiability issues. R code is used to illustrate the ideas.

### Example scenario

We will consider the body mass index (BMI) of new male undergraduate students at a selection of UK Universities. Let us suppose that our data consist of measurements of (log) BMI for a random sample of 1,000 males at each of 8 Universities. We are interested to know if there are any differences between the Universities. Again, we want to model the process as we would simulate it, so thinking about how we would simulate such data is instructive. We start by assuming that the log BMI is a normal random quantity, and that the variance is common across the Universities in question (this is quite a big assumption, and it is easy to relax). We assume that the mean of this normal distribution is University-specific, but that we do not have strong prior opinions regarding the way in which the Universities differ. That said, we expect that the Universities would not be very different from one another.

### Simulating data

A simple simulation of the data with some plausible parameters can be carried out as follows.

set.seed(1)
Z=matrix(rnorm(1000*8,3.1,0.1),nrow=8)
RE=rnorm(8,0,0.01)
X=t(Z+RE)
colnames(X)=paste("Uni",1:8,sep="")
Data=stack(data.frame(X))
boxplot(exp(values)~ind,data=Data,notch=TRUE)


Make sure that you understand exactly what this code is doing before proceeding. The boxplot showing the simulated data is given below.

### Frequentist analysis

We will start with a frequentist analysis of the data. The model we would like to fit is

$y_{ij} = \mu + \theta_i + \varepsilon_{ij}$

where i is an indicator for the University and j for the individual within a particular University. The “effect”, $\theta_i$ represents how the ith University differs from the overall mean. We know that this model is not actually identifiable when the model parameters are all treated as “fixed effects”, but R will handle this for us.

> mod=lm(values~ind,data=Data)
> summary(mod)

Call:
lm(formula = values ~ ind, data = Data)

Residuals:
Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max
-0.36846 -0.06778 -0.00069  0.06910  0.38219

Coefficients:
Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept)  3.101068   0.003223 962.244  < 2e-16 ***
indUni2     -0.006516   0.004558  -1.430 0.152826
indUni3     -0.017168   0.004558  -3.767 0.000166 ***
indUni4      0.017916   0.004558   3.931 8.53e-05 ***
indUni5     -0.022838   0.004558  -5.011 5.53e-07 ***
indUni6     -0.001651   0.004558  -0.362 0.717143
indUni7      0.007935   0.004558   1.741 0.081707 .
indUni8      0.003373   0.004558   0.740 0.459300
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 0.1019 on 7992 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.01439,	Adjusted R-squared:  0.01353
F-statistic: 16.67 on 7 and 7992 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16


We see that R has handled the identifiability problem using “treatment contrasts”, dropping the fixed effect for the first university, so that the intercept actually represents the mean value for the first University, and the effects for the other Univeristies represent the differences from the first University. If we would prefer to impose a sum constraint, then we can switch to sum contrasts with

options(contrasts=rep("contr.sum",2))


and then re-fit the model.

> mods=lm(values~ind,data=Data)
> summary(mods)

Call:
lm(formula = values ~ ind, data = Data)

Residuals:
Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max
-0.36846 -0.06778 -0.00069  0.06910  0.38219

Coefficients:
Estimate Std. Error  t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept)  3.0986991  0.0011394 2719.558  < 2e-16 ***
ind1         0.0023687  0.0030146    0.786 0.432048
ind2        -0.0041477  0.0030146   -1.376 0.168905
ind3        -0.0147997  0.0030146   -4.909 9.32e-07 ***
ind4         0.0202851  0.0030146    6.729 1.83e-11 ***
ind5        -0.0204693  0.0030146   -6.790 1.20e-11 ***
ind6         0.0007175  0.0030146    0.238 0.811889
ind7         0.0103039  0.0030146    3.418 0.000634 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 0.1019 on 7992 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared:  0.01439,	Adjusted R-squared:  0.01353
F-statistic: 16.67 on 7 and 7992 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16


This has 7 degrees of freedom for the effects, as before, but ensures that the 8 effects sum to precisely zero. This is arguably more interpretable in this case.

### Bayesian analysis

We will now analyse the simulated data from a Bayesian perspective, using JAGS.

#### Fixed effects

All parameters in Bayesian models are uncertain, and therefore random, so there is much confusion regarding the difference between “fixed” and “random” effects in a Bayesian context. For “fixed” effects, our prior captures the idea that we sample the effects independently from a “fixed” (typically vague) prior distribution. We could simply code this up and fit it in JAGS as follows.

require(rjags)
n=dim(X)[1]
p=dim(X)[2]
data=list(X=X,n=n,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (j in 1:p) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,0.0001)
for (i in 1:n) {
X[i,j]~dnorm(mu+theta[j],tau)
}
}
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)
autocorr.plot(output)
pairs(as.matrix(output))
crosscorr.plot(output)


On running the code we can clearly see that this naive approach leads to high posterior correlation between the mean and the effects, due to the fundamental lack of identifiability of the model. This also leads to MCMC mixing problems, but it is important to understand that this computational issue is conceptually entirely separate from the fundamental statisticial identifiability issue. Even if we could avoid MCMC entirely, the identifiability issue would remain.

A quick fix for the identifiability issue is to use “treatment contrasts”, just as for the frequentist model. We can implement that as follows.

data=list(X=X,n=n,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (j in 1:p) {
for (i in 1:n) {
X[i,j]~dnorm(mu+theta[j],tau)
}
}
theta[1]<-0
for (j in 2:p) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,0.0001)
}
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)
autocorr.plot(output)
pairs(as.matrix(output))
crosscorr.plot(output)


Running this we see that the model now works perfectly well, mixes nicely, and gives sensible inferences for the treatment effects.

Another source of confusion for models of this type is data formating and indexing in JAGS models. For our balanced data there was not problem passing in data to JAGS as a matrix and specifying the model using nested loops. However, for unbalanced designs this is not necessarily so convenient, and so then it can be helpful to specify the model based on two-column data, as we would use for fitting using lm(). This is illustrated with the following model specification, which is exactly equivalent to the previous model, and should give identical (up to Monte Carlo error) results.

N=n*p
data=list(y=Data$values,g=Data$ind,N=N,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (i in 1:N) {
y[i]~dnorm(mu+theta[g[i]],tau)
}
theta[1]<-0
for (j in 2:p) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,0.0001)
}
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)


As suggested above, this indexing scheme is much more convenient for unbalanced data, and hence widely used. However, since our data is balanced here, we will revert to the matrix approach for the remainder of the post.

One final thing to consider before moving on to random effects is the sum-contrast model. We can implement this in various ways, but I’ve tried to encode it for maximum clarity below, imposing the sum-to-zero constraint via the final effect.

data=list(X=X,n=n,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (j in 1:p) {
for (i in 1:n) {
X[i,j]~dnorm(mu+theta[j],tau)
}
}
for (j in 1:(p-1)) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,0.0001)
}
theta[p] <- -sum(theta[1:(p-1)])
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)


Again, this works perfectly well and gives similar results to the frequentist analysis.

#### Random effects

The key difference between fixed and random effects in a Bayesian framework is that random effects are not independent, being drawn from a distribution with parameters which are not fixed. Essentially, there is another level of hierarchy involved in the specification of the random effects. This is best illustrated by example. A random effects model for this problem is given below.

data=list(X=X,n=n,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (j in 1:p) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,taut)
for (i in 1:n) {
X[i,j]~dnorm(mu+theta[j],tau)
}
}
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
taut~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","taut","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)


The only difference between this and our first naive attempt at a Bayesian fixed effects model is that we have put a gamma prior on the precision of the effect. Note that this model now runs and fits perfectly well, with reasonable mixing, and gives sensible parameter inferences. Although the effects here are not constrained to sum-to-zero, like in the case of sum contrasts for a fixed effects model, the prior encourages shrinkage towards zero, and so the random effect distribution can be thought of as a kind of soft version of a hard sum-to-zero constraint. From a predictive perspective, this model is much more powerful. In particular, using a random effects model, we can make strong predictions for unobserved groups (eg. a ninth University), with sensible prediction intervals based on our inferred understanding of how similar different universities are. Using a fixed effects model this isn’t really possible. Even for a Bayesian version of a fixed effects model using proper (but vague) priors, prediction intervals for unobserved groups are not really sensible.

Since we have used simulated data here, we can compare the estimated random effects with the true effects generated during the simulation.

> apply(as.matrix(output),2,mean)
mu           tau          taut      theta[1]      theta[2]
3.098813e+00  9.627110e+01  7.015976e+03  2.086581e-03 -3.935511e-03
theta[3]      theta[4]      theta[5]      theta[6]      theta[7]
-1.389099e-02  1.881528e-02 -1.921854e-02  5.640306e-04  9.529532e-03
theta[8]
5.227518e-03
> RE
[1]  0.002637034 -0.008294518 -0.014616348  0.016839902 -0.015443243
[6] -0.001908871  0.010162117  0.005471262


We see that the Bayesian random effects model has done an excellent job of estimation. If we wished, we could relax the assumption of common variance across the groups by making tau a vector indexed by j, though there is not much point in persuing this here, since we know that the groups do all have the same variance.

#### Strong subjective priors

The above is the usual story regarding fixed and random effects in Bayesian inference. I hope this is reasonably clear, so really I should quit while I’m ahead… However, the issues are really a bit more subtle than I’ve suggested. The inferred precision of the random effects was around 7,000, so now lets re-run the original, naive, “fixed effects” model with a strong subjective Bayesian prior on the distribution of the effects.

data=list(X=X,n=n,p=p)
init=list(mu=2,tau=1)
modelstring="
model {
for (j in 1:p) {
theta[j]~dnorm(0,7000)
for (i in 1:n) {
X[i,j]~dnorm(mu+theta[j],tau)
}
}
mu~dnorm(0,0.0001)
tau~dgamma(1,0.0001)
}
"
model=jags.model(textConnection(modelstring),data=data,inits=init)
update(model,n.iter=1000)
output=coda.samples(model=model,variable.names=c("mu","tau","theta"),n.iter=100000,thin=10)
print(summary(output))
plot(output)


This model also runs perfectly well and gives sensible inferences, despite the fact that the effects are iid from a fixed distribution and there is no hard constraint on the effects. Similarly, we can make sensible predictions, together with appropriate prediction intervals, for an unobserved group. So it isn’t so much the fact that the effects are coupled via an extra level of hierarchy that makes things work. It’s really the fact that the effects are sensibly distributed and not just sampled directly from a vague prior. So for “real” subjective Bayesians the line between fixed and random effects is actually very blurred indeed…

## A functional Gibbs sampler in Scala

For many years I’ve had a passing interest in functional programming and languages which support functional programming approaches. I’m also quite interested in MOOCs and their future role in higher education. So I recently signed up for my first on-line course, Functional Programming Principles in Scala, via Coursera. I’m around half way through the course at the time of writing, and I’m enjoying it very much. I knew that I didn’t know much about Scala before starting the course, but during the course I’ve also learned that I didn’t know as much about functional programming as I thought I did, either! 😉 The course itself is very interesting, the assignments are well designed and appropriately challenging, and the web infrastructure to support the course is working well. I suspect I’ll try other on-line courses in the future.

Functional programming emphasises immutability, and discourages imperative programming approaches that use variables that can be modified during run-time. There are many advantages to immutability, especially in the context of parallel and concurrent programming, which is becoming increasingly important as multi-core systems become the norm. I’ve always found functional programming to be intellectually appealing, but have often worried about the practicalities of using functional programming in the context of scientific computing where many algorithms are iterative in nature, and are typically encoded using imperative approaches. The Scala programming language is appealing to me as it supports both imperative and functional styles of programming, as well as object oriented approaches. However, as a result of taking this course I am now determined to pursue functional approaches further, and get more of a feel for how practical they are for scientific computing applications.

For my first experiment, I’m going back to my post describing a Gibbs sampler in various languages. See that post for further details of the algorithm. In that post I did have an example implementation in Scala, which looked like this:

object GibbsSc {

import cern.jet.random.tdouble.engine.DoubleMersenneTwister
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.Normal
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.Gamma
import Math.sqrt
import java.util.Date

def main(args: Array[String]) {
val N=50000
val thin=1000
val rngEngine=new DoubleMersenneTwister(new Date)
val rngN=new Normal(0.0,1.0,rngEngine)
val rngG=new Gamma(1.0,1.0,rngEngine)
var x=0.0
var y=0.0
println("Iter x y")
for (i <- 0 until N) {
for (j <- 0 until thin) {
x=rngG.nextDouble(3.0,y*y+4)
y=rngN.nextDouble(1.0/(x+1),1.0/sqrt(2*x+2))
}
println(i+" "+x+" "+y)
}
}

}


At the time I wrote that post I knew even less about Scala than I do now, so I created the code by starting from the Java version and removing all of the annoying clutter! 😉 Clearly this code has an imperative style, utilising variables (declared with var) x and y having mutable state that is updated by a nested for loop. This algorithm is typical of the kind I use every day, so if I can’t re-write this in a more functional style, removing all mutable variables from my code, then I’m not going to get very far with functional programming!

In fact it is very easy to re-write this in a more functional style without utilising mutable variables. One possible approach is presented below.

object FunGibbs {

import cern.jet.random.tdouble.engine.DoubleMersenneTwister
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.Normal
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.Gamma
import java.util.Date
import scala.math.sqrt

val rngEngine=new DoubleMersenneTwister(new Date)
val rngN=new Normal(0.0,1.0,rngEngine)
val rngG=new Gamma(1.0,1.0,rngEngine)

class State(val x: Double,val y: Double)

def nextIter(s: State): State = {
val newX=rngG.nextDouble(3.0,(s.y)*(s.y)+4.0)
new State(newX,
rngN.nextDouble(1.0/(newX+1),1.0/sqrt(2*newX+2)))
}

def nextThinnedIter(s: State,left: Int): State = {
if (left==0) s
else nextThinnedIter(nextIter(s),left-1)
}

def genIters(s: State,current: Int,stop: Int,thin: Int): State = {
if (!(current>stop)) {
println(current+" "+s.x+" "+s.y)
genIters(nextThinnedIter(s,thin),current+1,stop,thin)
}
else s
}

def main(args: Array[String]) {
println("Iter x y")
genIters(new State(0.0,0.0),1,50000,1000)
}

}


Although it is a few lines longer, it is a fairly clean implementation, and doesn’t look like a hack. Like many functional programs, this one makes extensive use of recursion. This is one of the things that has always concerned me about functional programming – many scientific computing applications involve lots of iteration, and that can potentially translate into very deep recursion. The above program has an apparent recursion depth of 50 million! However, it runs fine without crashing despite the fact that most programming languages will crash out with a stack overflow with recursion depths of more than a couple of thousand. So why doesn’t this crash? It runs fine because the recursion I used is a special form of recursion known as a tail call. Most functional (and some imperative) programming languages automatically perform tail call elimination which essentially turns the tail call into an iteration which runs very fast without creating new stack frames. In fact, this functional version of the code runs at roughly the same speed as the iterative version I presented first (perhaps just a few percent slower – I haven’t done careful timings), and runs well within a factor of 2 of imperative C code. So actually this seems perfectly practical so far, and I’m looking forward to experimenting more with functional programming approaches to statistical computation over the coming months…

## Introduction to Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC)

Many of the posts in this blog have been concerned with using MCMC based methods for Bayesian inference. These methods are typically “exact” in the sense that they have the exact posterior distribution of interest as their target equilibrium distribution, but are obviously “approximate”, in that for any finite amount of computing time, we can only generate a finite sample of correlated realisations from a Markov chain that we hope is close to equilibrium.

Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC) methods go a step further, and generate samples from a distribution which is not the true posterior distribution of interest, but a distribution which is hoped to be close to the real posterior distribution of interest. There are many variants on ABC, and I won’t get around to explaining all of them in this blog. The wikipedia page on ABC is a good starting point for further reading. In this post I’ll explain the most basic rejection sampling version of ABC, and in a subsequent post, I’ll explain a sequential refinement, often referred to as ABC-SMC. As usual, I’ll use R code to illustrate the ideas.

#### Basic idea

There is a close connection between “likelihood free” MCMC methods and those of approximate Bayesian computation (ABC). To keep things simple, consider the case of a perfectly observed system, so that there is no latent variable layer. Then there are model parameters $\theta$ described by a prior $\pi(\theta)$, and a forwards-simulation model for the data $x$, defined by $\pi(x|\theta)$. It is clear that a simple algorithm for simulating from the desired posterior $\pi(\theta|x)$ can be obtained as follows. First simulate from the joint distribution $\pi(\theta,x)$ by simulating $\theta^\star\sim\pi(\theta)$ and then $x^\star\sim \pi(x|\theta^\star)$. This gives a sample $(\theta^\star,x^\star)$ from the joint distribution. A simple rejection algorithm which rejects the proposed pair unless $x^\star$ matches the true data $x$ clearly gives a sample from the required posterior distribution.

#### Exact rejection sampling

• 1. Sample $\theta^\star \sim \pi(\theta^\star)$
• 2. Sample $x^\star\sim \pi(x^\star|\theta^\star)$
• 3. If $x^\star=x$, keep $\theta^\star$ as a sample from $\pi(\theta|x)$, otherwise reject.

This algorithm is exact, and for discrete $x$ will have a non-zero acceptance rate. However, in most interesting problems the rejection rate will be intolerably high. In particular, the acceptance rate will typically be zero for continuous valued $x$.

#### ABC rejection sampling

The ABC “approximation” is to accept values provided that $x^\star$ is “sufficiently close” to $x$. In the first instance, we can formulate this as follows.

• 1. Sample $\theta^\star \sim \pi(\theta^\star)$
• 2. Sample $x^\star\sim \pi(x^\star|\theta^\star)$
• 3. If $\Vert x^\star-x\Vert< \epsilon$, keep $\theta^\star$ as a sample from $\pi(\theta|x)$, otherwise reject.

Euclidean distance is usually chosen as the norm, though any norm can be used. This procedure is “honest”, in the sense that it produces exact realisations from

$\theta^\star\big|\Vert x^\star-x\Vert < \epsilon.$

For suitable small choice of $\epsilon$, this will closely approximate the true posterior. However, smaller choices of $\epsilon$ will lead to higher rejection rates. This will be a particular problem in the context of high-dimensional $x$, where it is often unrealistic to expect a close match between all components of $x$ and the simulated data $x^\star$, even for a good choice of $\theta^\star$. In this case, it makes more sense to look for good agreement between particular aspects of $x$, such as the mean, or variance, or auto-correlation, depending on the exact problem and context.

In the simplest case, this is done by forming a (vector of) summary statistic(s), $s(x^\star)$ (ideally a sufficient statistic), and accepting provided that $\Vert s(x^\star)-s(x)\Vert<\epsilon$ for some suitable choice of metric and $\epsilon$. We will return to this issue in a subsequent post.

#### Inference for an intractable Markov process

I’ll illustrate ABC in the context of parameter inference for a Markov process with an intractable transition kernel: the discrete stochastic Lotka-Volterra model. A function for simulating exact realisations from the intractable kernel is included in the smfsb CRAN package discussed in a previous post. Using pMCMC to solve the parameter inference problem is discussed in another post. It may be helpful to skim through those posts quickly to become familiar with this problem before proceeding.

So, for a given proposed set of parameters, realisations from the process can be sampled using the functions simTs and stepLV (from the smfsb package). We will use the sample data set LVperfect (from the LVdata dataset) as our “true”, or “target” data, and try to find parameters for the process which are consistent with this data. A fairly minimal R script for this problem is given below.

require(smfsb)
data(LVdata)

N=1e5
message(paste("N =",N))
prior=cbind(th1=exp(runif(N,-6,2)),th2=exp(runif(N,-6,2)),th3=exp(runif(N,-6,2)))
rows=lapply(1:N,function(i){prior[i,]})
message("starting simulation")
samples=lapply(rows,function(th){simTs(c(50,100),0,30,2,stepLVc,th)})
message("finished simulation")

distance<-function(ts)
{
diff=ts-LVperfect
sum(diff*diff)
}

message("computing distances")
dist=lapply(samples,distance)
message("distances computed")

dist=sapply(dist,c)
cutoff=quantile(dist,1000/N)
post=prior[dist<cutoff,]

op=par(mfrow=c(2,3))
apply(post,2,hist,30)
apply(log(post),2,hist,30)
par(op)


This script should take 5-10 minutes to run on a decent laptop, and will result in histograms of the posterior marginals for the components of $\theta$ and $\log(\theta)$. Note that I have deliberately adopted a functional programming style, making use of the lapply function for the most computationally intensive steps. The reason for this will soon become apparent. Note that rather than pre-specifying a cutoff $\epsilon$, I’ve instead picked a quantile of the distance distribution. This is common practice in scenarios where the distance is difficult to have good intuition about. In fact here I’ve gone a step further and chosen a quantile to give a final sample of size 1000. Obviously then in this case I could have just selected out the top 1000 directly, but I wanted to illustrate the quantile based approach.

One problem with the above script is that all proposed samples are stored in memory at once. This is problematic for problems involving large numbers of samples. However, it is convenient to do simulations in large batches, both for computation of quantiles, and also for efficient parallelisation. The script below illustrates how to implement a batch parallelisation strategy for this problem. Samples are generated in batches of size 10^4, and only the best fitting samples are stored before the next batch is processed. This strategy can be used to get a good sized sample based on a more stringent acceptance criterion at the cost of addition simulation time. Note that the parallelisation code will only work with recent versions of R, and works by replacing calls to lapply with the parallel version, mclapply. You should notice an appreciable speed-up on a multicore machine.

require(smfsb)
require(parallel)
options(mc.cores=4)
data(LVdata)

N=1e5
bs=1e4
batches=N/bs
message(paste("N =",N," | bs =",bs," | batches =",batches))

distance<-function(ts)
{
diff=ts[,1]-LVprey
sum(diff*diff)
}

post=NULL
for (i in 1:batches) {
message(paste("batch",i,"of",batches))
prior=cbind(th1=exp(runif(bs,-6,2)),th2=exp(runif(bs,-6,2)),th3=exp(runif(bs,-6,2)))
rows=lapply(1:bs,function(i){prior[i,]})
samples=mclapply(rows,function(th){simTs(c(50,100),0,30,2,stepLVc,th)})
dist=mclapply(samples,distance)
dist=sapply(dist,c)
cutoff=quantile(dist,1000/N)
post=rbind(post,prior[dist<cutoff,])
}
message(paste("Finished. Kept",dim(post)[1],"simulations"))

op=par(mfrow=c(2,3))
apply(post,2,hist,30)
apply(log(post),2,hist,30)
par(op)


Note that there is an additional approximation here, since the top 100 samples from each of 10 batches of simulations won’t correspond exactly to the top 1000 samples overall, but given all of the other approximations going on in ABC, this one is likely to be the least of your worries.

Now, if you compare the approximate posteriors obtained here with the “true” posteriors obtained in an earlier post using pMCMC, you will see that these posteriors are really quite poor. However, this isn’t a very fair comparison, since we’ve only done 10^5 simulations. Jacking N up to 10^7 gives the ABC posterior below.

This is a bit better, but really not great. There are two basic problems with the simplistic ABC strategy adopted here, one related to the dimensionality of the data and the other the dimensionality of the parameter space. The most basic problem that we have here is the dimensionality of the data. We have 16 (bivariate) observations, so we want our stochastic simulation to shoot at a point in a 16- or 32-dimensional space. That’s a tough call. The standard way to address this problem is to reduce the dimension of the data by introducing a few carefully chosen summary statistics and then just attempting to hit those. I’ll illustrate this in a subsequent post. The other problem is that often the prior and posterior over the parameters are quite different, and this problem too is exacerbated as the dimension of the parameter space increases. The standard way to deal with this is to sequentially adapt from the prior through a sequence of ABC posteriors. I’ll examine this in a future post as well, once I’ve also posted an introduction to the use of sequential Monte Carlo (SMC) samplers for static problems.

For further reading, I suggest browsing the reference list of the Wikipedia page for ABC. Also look through the list of software on that page. In particular, note that there is a CRAN package, abc, providing R support for ABC. There is a vignette for this package which should be sufficient to get started.

## Getting started with parallel MCMC

### Introduction to parallel MCMC for Bayesian inference, using C, MPI, the GSL and SPRNG

#### Introduction

This post is aimed at people who already know how to code up Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) algorithms in C, but are interested in how to parallelise their code to run on multi-core machines and HPC clusters. I discussed different languages for coding MCMC algorithms in a previous post. The advantage of C is that it is fast, standard and has excellent scientific library support. Ultimately, people pursuing this route will be interested in running their code on large clusters of fast servers, but for the purposes of development and testing, this really isn’t necessary. A single dual-core laptop, or similar, is absolutely fine. I develop and test on a dual-core laptop running Ubuntu linux, so that is what I will assume for the rest of this post.

There are several possible environments for parallel computing, but I will focus on the Message-Passing Interface (MPI). This is a well-established standard for parallel computing, there are many implementations, and it is by far the most commonly used high performance computing (HPC) framework today. Even if you are ultimately interested in writing code for novel architectures such as GPUs, learning the basics of parallel computation using MPI will be time well spent.

#### MPI

The whole point of MPI is that it is a standard, so code written for one implementation should run fine with any other. There are many implementations. On Linux platforms, the most popular are OpenMPI, LAM, and MPICH. There are various pros and cons associated with each implementation, and if installing on a powerful HPC cluster, serious consideration should be given to which will be the most beneficial. For basic development and testing, however, it really doesn’t matter which is used. I use OpenMPI on my Ubuntu laptop, which can be installed with a simple:

sudo apt-get install openmpi-bin libopenmpi-dev


That’s it! You’re ready to go… You can test your installation with a simple “Hello world” program such as:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <mpi.h>

int main (int argc,char **argv)
{
int rank, size;
MPI_Init (&argc, &argv);
MPI_Comm_rank (MPI_COMM_WORLD, &rank);
MPI_Comm_size (MPI_COMM_WORLD, &size);
printf( "Hello world from process %d of %d\n", rank, size );
MPI_Finalize();
return 0;
}


You should be able to compile this with

mpicc -o helloworld helloworld.c


and run (on 2 processors) with

mpirun -np 2 helloworld


#### GSL

If you are writing non-trivial MCMC codes, you are almost certainly going to need to use a sophisticated math library and associated random number generation (RNG) routines. I typically use the GSL. On Ubuntu, the GSL can be installed with:

sudo apt-get install gsl-bin libgsl0-dev


A simple script to generate some non-uniform random numbers is given below.

#include <gsl/gsl_rng.h>
#include <gsl/gsl_randist.h>

int main(void)
{
int i; double z; gsl_rng *r;
r = gsl_rng_alloc(gsl_rng_mt19937);
gsl_rng_set(r,0);
for (i=0;i<10;i++) {
z = gsl_ran_gaussian(r,1.0);
printf("z(%d) = %f\n",i,z);
}
exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}


This can be compiled with a command like:

gcc gsl_ran_demo.c -o gsl_ran_demo -lgsl -lgslcblas


and run with

./gsl_ran_demo


#### SPRNG

When writing parallel Monte Carlo codes, it is important to be able to use independent streams of random numbers on each processor. Although it is tempting to “fudge” things by using a random number generator with a different seed on each processor, this does not guarantee independence of the streams, and an unfortunate choice of seeds could potentially lead to bad behaviour of your algorithm. The solution to this problem is to use a parallel random number generator (PRNG), designed specifically to give independent streams on different processors. Unfortunately the GSL does not have native support for such parallel random number generators, so an external library should be used. SPRNG 2.0 is a popular choice. SPRNG is designed so that it can be used with MPI, but also that it does not have to be. This is an issue, as the standard binary packages distributed with Ubuntu (libsprng2, libsprng2-dev) are compiled without MPI support. If you are going to be using SPRNG with MPI, things are simpler with MPI support, so it makes sense to download sprng2.0b.tar.gz from the SPRNG web site, and build it from source, carefully following the instructions for including MPI support. If you are not familiar with building libraries from source, you may need help from someone who is.

Once you have compiled SPRNG with MPI support, you can test it with the following code:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <mpi.h>
#define SIMPLE_SPRNG
#define USE_MPI
#include "sprng.h"

int main(int argc,char *argv[])
{
double rn; int i,k;
MPI_Init(&argc,&argv);
MPI_Comm_rank(MPI_COMM_WORLD,&k);
init_sprng(DEFAULT_RNG_TYPE,0,SPRNG_DEFAULT);
for (i=0;i<10;i++)
{
rn = sprng();
printf("Process %d, random number %d: %f\n", k, i+1, rn);
}
MPI_Finalize();
exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}


which can be compiled with a command like:

mpicc -I/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/include -L/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/lib -o sprng_demo sprng_demo.c -lsprng -lgmp


You will need to edit paths here to match your installation. If if builds, it can be run on 2 processors with a command like:

mpirun -np 2 sprng_demo


If it doesn’t build, there are many possible reasons. Check the error messages carefully. However, if the compilation fails at the linking stage with obscure messages about not being able to find certain SPRNG MPI functions, one possibility is that the SPRNG library has not been compiled with MPI support.

The problem with SPRNG is that it only provides a uniform random number generator. Of course we would really like to be able to use the SPRNG generator in conjunction with all of the sophisticated GSL routines for non-uniform random number generation. Many years ago I wrote a small piece of code to accomplish this, gsl-sprng.h. Download this and put it in your include path for the following example:

#include <mpi.h>
#include <gsl/gsl_rng.h>
#include "gsl-sprng.h"
#include <gsl/gsl_randist.h>

int main(int argc,char *argv[])
{
int i,k,po; gsl_rng *r;
MPI_Init(&argc,&argv);
MPI_Comm_rank(MPI_COMM_WORLD,&k);
r=gsl_rng_alloc(gsl_rng_sprng20);
for (i=0;i<10;i++)
{
po = gsl_ran_poisson(r,2.0);
printf("Process %d, random number %d: %d\n", k, i+1, po);
}
MPI_Finalize();
exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}


A new GSL RNG, gsl_rng_sprng20 is created, by including gsl-sprng.h immediately after gsl_rng.h. If you want to set a seed, do so in the usual GSL way, but make sure to set it to be the same on each processor. I have had several emails recently from people who claim that gsl-sprng.h “doesn’t work”. All I can say is that it still works for me! I suspect the problem is that people are attempting to use it with a version of SPRNG without MPI support. That won’t work… Check that the previous SPRNG example works, first.

I can compile and run the above code with

mpicc -I/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/include -L/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/lib -o gsl-sprng_demo gsl-sprng_demo.c -lsprng -lgmp -lgsl -lgslcblas
mpirun -np 2 gsl-sprng_demo


#### Parallel Monte Carlo

Now we have parallel random number streams, we can think about how to do parallel Monte Carlo simulations. Here is a simple example:

#include <math.h>
#include <mpi.h>
#include <gsl/gsl_rng.h>
#include "gsl-sprng.h"

int main(int argc,char *argv[])
{
int i,k,N; double u,ksum,Nsum; gsl_rng *r;
MPI_Init(&argc,&argv);
MPI_Comm_size(MPI_COMM_WORLD,&N);
MPI_Comm_rank(MPI_COMM_WORLD,&k);
r=gsl_rng_alloc(gsl_rng_sprng20);
for (i=0;i<10000;i++) {
u = gsl_rng_uniform(r);
ksum += exp(-u*u);
}
MPI_Reduce(&ksum,&Nsum,1,MPI_DOUBLE,MPI_SUM,0,MPI_COMM_WORLD);
if (k == 0) {
printf("Monte carlo estimate is %f\n", (Nsum/10000)/N );
}
MPI_Finalize();
exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}


which calculates a Monte Carlo estimate of the integral

$\displaystyle I=\int_0^1 \exp(-u^2)du$

using 10k variates on each available processor. The MPI command MPI_Reduce is used to summarise the values obtained independently in each process. I compile and run with

mpicc -I/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/include -L/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/lib -o monte-carlo monte-carlo.c -lsprng -lgmp -lgsl -lgslcblas
mpirun -np 2 monte-carlo


#### Parallel chains MCMC

Once parallel Monte Carlo has been mastered, it is time to move on to parallel MCMC. First it makes sense to understand how to run parallel MCMC chains in an MPI environment. I will illustrate this with a simple Metropolis-Hastings algorithm to sample a standard normal using uniform proposals, as discussed in a previous post. Here an independent chain is run on each processor, and the results are written into separate files.

#include <gsl/gsl_rng.h>
#include "gsl-sprng.h"
#include <gsl/gsl_randist.h>
#include <mpi.h>

int main(int argc,char *argv[])
{
int k,i,iters; double x,can,a,alpha; gsl_rng *r;
FILE *s; char filename[15];
MPI_Init(&argc,&argv);
MPI_Comm_rank(MPI_COMM_WORLD,&k);
if ((argc != 3)) {
if (k == 0)
fprintf(stderr,"Usage: %s <iters> <alpha>\n",argv[0]);
MPI_Finalize(); return(EXIT_FAILURE);
}
iters=atoi(argv[1]); alpha=atof(argv[2]);
r=gsl_rng_alloc(gsl_rng_sprng20);
sprintf(filename,"chain-%03d.tab",k);
s=fopen(filename,"w");
if (s==NULL) {
perror("Failed open");
MPI_Finalize(); return(EXIT_FAILURE);
}
x = gsl_ran_flat(r,-20,20);
fprintf(s,"Iter X\n");
for (i=0;i<iters;i++) {
can = x + gsl_ran_flat(r,-alpha,alpha);
a = gsl_ran_ugaussian_pdf(can) / gsl_ran_ugaussian_pdf(x);
if (gsl_rng_uniform(r) < a)
x = can;
fprintf(s,"%d %f\n",i,x);
}
fclose(s);
MPI_Finalize(); return(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}


I can compile and run this with the following commands

mpicc -I/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/include -L/usr/local/src/sprng2.0/lib -o mcmc mcmc.c -lsprng -lgmp -lgsl -lgslcblas
mpirun -np 2 mcmc 100000 1


#### Parallelising a single MCMC chain

The parallel chains approach turns out to be surprisingly effective in practice. Obviously the disadvantage of that approach is that “burn in” has to be repeated on every processor, which limits how much efficiency gain can be acheived by running across many processors. Consequently it is often desirable to try and parallelise a single MCMC chain. As MCMC algorithms are inherently sequential, parallelisation is not completely trivial, and most (but not all) approaches to parallelising a single MCMC chain focus on the parallelisation of each iteration. In order for this to be worthwhile, it is necessary that the problem being considered is non-trivial, having a large state space. The strategy is then to divide the state space into “chunks” which can be updated in parallel. I don’t have time to go through a real example in detail in this blog post, but fortunately I wrote a book chapter on this topic almost 10 years ago which is still valid and relevant today. The citation details are:

Wilkinson, D. J. (2005) Parallel Bayesian Computation, Chapter 16 in E. J. Kontoghiorghes (ed.) Handbook of Parallel Computing and Statistics, Marcel Dekker/CRC Press, 481-512.

The book was eventually published in 2005 after a long delay. The publisher which originally commisioned the handbook (Marcel Dekker) was taken over by CRC Press before publication, and the project lay dormant for a couple of years until the new publisher picked it up again and decided to proceed with publication. I have a draft of my original submission in PDF which I recommend reading for further information. The code examples used are also available for download, including several of the examples used in this post, as well as an extended case study on parallelisation of a single chain for Bayesian inference in a stochastic volatility model. Although the chapter is nearly 10 years old, the issues discussed are all still remarkably up-to-date, and the code examples all still work. I think that is a testament to the stability of the technology adopted (C, MPI, GSL). Some of the other handbook chapters have not stood the test of time so well.

For basic information on getting started with MPI and key MPI commands for implementing parallel MCMC algorithms, the above mentioned book chapter is a reasonable place to start. Read it all through carefully, run the examples, and carefully study the code for the parallel stochastic volatility example. Once that is understood, you should find it possible to start writing your own parallel MCMC algorithms. For further information about more sophisticated MPI usage and additional commands, I find the annotated specification: MPI – The complete reference to be as good a source as any.