It’s so hard to compare the efficiency of MCMC samplers

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I thought I’d share a comment I made on Perry de Valpine‘s post on the NIMBLE blog,

Perry was posting about a paper that tried to compare efficiency of Stan, NIMBLE, and JAGS for some linear modeling problems. You can find the link in Perry’s post if you really care and then the paper links to their GitHub. Perry was worried they were misrepresenting NIMBLE and users would get the wrong idea. We decided to take the approach of established companies and simply ignore this kind of criticism. But this time I couldn’t resist as it’s not really about us.

Here’s my comment (lightly edited):

Comparing systems on an equal footing is a well-nigh impossible task, which is why we shy away from doing it in Stan. The polite thing to do with these kinds of comparisons is to send your code to the devs of each system for tuning. That’s what we did for our autodiff eval paper.

I don’t like this paper’s evaluation any more than you do! I’d like to see an evaluation with (a) arithmetic on an equal footing, (b) the kinds of priors we actually use in our applied work, and (c) something higher dimensional than p = 100 (as in p = 10,000 or even p = 100,000 like in the genomics regressions I’m working on now). Then the evaluation I care about is time to ESS = 100 as measured by our conservative cross-chain ESS evaluations that also allow for antithetical sampling (Stan can produce samples whose ESS is higher than the number of iterations; may estimators just truncate at the number of iterations because they don’t understand ESS and its relation to square error through the MCMC CLT). The problem with this kind of eval is that we want to represent actual practice but also minimize warmup to put systems in as favorable a light as possible. In simple GLMs like these, Stan usually only needs 100 or maybe 200 iterations of warmup compared to harder models. So if you use our default of 1000 warmup iterations and then run sampling until you hit ESS = 100, then you’ve wasted a lot of time in too much iteration. But in practice, you don’t know if you can get away with less warmup (though you can use something like iterative deepening algorithms to probe deeper, they’re not built in yet).

One way to get around this sensitivity to warmup is to evaluate ESS/second after warmup (or what you might call “burnin” if you’re still following BUGS’s terminology). But given that we rarely need more than ESS = 100 and want to run at least 4 parallel chains to debug convergence, that’s not many iterations and you start getting a lot of variance in the number of iterations it takes to get there. And things are even more sensitive to getting adaptation right. And also, I don’t think ESS/second after warmup is the metric practitioners care about unless they’re trying to evaluate tail statistics, at which point they should be seriously considering control variates rather than more sampling.

In other words, this is a really hard problem.

I then read Perry’s follow up and couldn’t help myself. I actually looked at their Stan code. Then I had a follow up comment.

I just read their source code. It’s not exactly Stan best practices for statistics or computation. For instance, in mixture_model.stan, there are redundant data computations per iteration (line 25), redundant distributions (also line 25), inefficient function calls (line 31), and a conjugate parameterization inducing extra work like sqrt (line 23). Then in AFT_non_informative.stan, they use very weakly informative priors (so it’s misnamed), there are missing constraints on constrained variables (lines 17, 32), redundant computation of subexpressions and of constants (lines 26, 27), missing algebraic reductions (also lines 26 and 27), redundant initialization and setting (lines 22/23 and 26/27), redundant computations (line 32).

The worst case for efficiency is in their coding of linear models where they use a loop rather than a matrix multiply (LinearModel_conjugate.stan, lines 30–32, which also violates every naming convention in the world by mixing underscore separators and camel case). This code also divides by 2 everywhere when it should be multiplying by 0.5 and it also has a bunch of problems like the other code of missing constraints (this one’s critical—`sigma` needs to be constrained to be greater than 0).

Then when we look at LinearModel_non_informative_hc.stan, things get even worse. It combines the problems of LinearModel_conjugate with two really bad ones for performance: not vectorizing the normal distribution and needlessly truncating the Cauchy distribution. These would add up to at least a factor of 2 and probably much more.

And of course, none of these exploited within-chain parallelization or GPU. And no use of sufficient stats in the conjugate cases like Linear_model_conjugate.stan.

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