Fixing Random, part 9

[Code is here.]

Last time on FAIC I sketched out the “alias method”, which enables us to implement sampling from a weighted discrete distribution in constant time. The implementation is slightly tricky, but we’ll go through it carefully.

The idea here is:

  • If we have n weights then we’re going to make n distributions.
  • Every distribution is either a singleton that returns a particular number, or we use a projection on a Bernoulli to choose between two numbers.
  • To sample, we uniformly choose from our n distributions, and then we sample from that distribution, so each call to Sample on the weighted integer distribution does exactly two samples of other, simpler distributions.

How are we going to implement it? The key insight is: weights which are lower than the average weight “borrow” from weights which are higher than average.

Call the sum of all weights s. We start by multiplying each weight by n, which gives us s * n “weight points” to allocate; each of the n individual distributions will have a total weight of s points.

private readonly IDistribution<int>[] distributions;
private WeightedInteger(IEnumerable<int> weights)
  this.weights = weights.ToList();
  int s = this.weights.Sum();
  int n = this.weights.Count;
  this.distributions = new IDistribution<int>[n];

All right, I am going to keep track of two sets of “weight points”: elements where the unallocated “weight points” are lower than s, and elements where it is higher than s. If we’ve got a weight that is exactly equal to the average weight then we can just make a singleton.

  var lows = new Dictionary<int, int>();
  var highs = new Dictionary<int, int>();
  for(int i = 0; i < n; i += 1)
    int w = this.weights[i] * n;
    if (w == s)
      this.distributions[i] = Singleton<int>.Distribution(i);
    else if (w < s)
      lows.Add(i, w);
      highs.Add(i, w);

If every element’s weight was average, then we’re done; the dictionaries are empty. (And we should not have created a weighted integer distribution in the first place!)

If not, then some of them must have been above average and some of them must have been below average. This isn’t Lake Wobegon; not everyone is above average. Therefore iff we have more work to do then there must be at least one entry in both dictionaries.

What we’re going to do is choose (based on no criteria whatsoever) one “low” and one “high”, and we’re going to transfer points from the high to the low. We’ll start by grabbing the relevant key-value pairs and removing them from their respective dictionaries.

    var low = lows.First();
    var high = highs.First();

The high has more than s points, and the low has less than s points; even if the low has zero points, the most we will transfer out of the high is s, so the high will still have some points when we’re done. The low will be full up, and we can make a distribution for it:

    int lowNeeds = s  low.Value;
    this.distributions[low.Key] =
        Bernoulli.Distribution(low.Value, lowNeeds)
          .Select(x => x == 0 ? low.Key : high.Key);

Even if the low column value is zero, we’re fine; Bernoulli.Distribution will return a Singleton. That’s exactly what we want; there is zero chance of getting the low column number.

If the low is not zero-weighted, then we want the low-to-high odds to be in the ratio of the low points to the stolen high points, such that their sum is s; remember, we have n*s points to distribute, and each row must get s of them.

We just filled in the distribution for the “low” element. However, the “high” element still has points, remember. There are three possible situations:

  1. the high element has exactly s points remaining, in which case it can become a singleton distribution
  2. the high element has more than s points, so we can put it back in the high dictionary
  3. the high element has one or more points, but fewer than s points, so it goes in the low dictionary

    int newHigh = high.Value – lowNeeds;
    if (newHigh == s)
      this.distributions[high.Key] =
    else if (newHigh < s)
      lows[high.Key] = newHigh;
      highs[high.Key] = newHigh;

And we’re done.

  • Every time through the loop we remove one element from both dictionaries, and then we add back either zero or one elements, so our net progress is either one or two distributions per iteration.
  • Every time through the loop we account for either s or 2s points and they are removed from their dictionaries, and we maintain the invariant that the low dictionary is all the elements with fewer than s points, and the high dictionary is all those with more.
  • Therefore we will never be in a situation where there are lows left but no highs, or vice versa; they’ll run out at the same time.

We’ve spent O(n) time (and space) computing the distributions; we can now spend O(1) time sampling. First we uniformly choose a distribution, and then we sample from it, so we have a grand total of two samples, and both are cheap.

public int Sample() 
  int i = SDU.Distribution(0, weights.Count  1).Sample();
  return distributions[i].Sample();

Aside: I’ve just committed the sin I mentioned a few episodes ago, of sampling from an array by emphasizing the mechanism in the code rather than building a distribution. Of course we could have made a “meta distribution”  in the constructor with distributions.ToUniform() and then this code would be the delightful

public int Sample() => this.meta.Sample().Sample();

What do you think? is it better in this case to emphasize the mechanism, since we’re in mechanism code, or do the double-sample?

We’ll see in a later episode another elegant way to represent this double-sampling operation, so stay tuned.

Let’s try an example with zeros:

WeightedInteger.Distribution(10, 0, 0, 11, 5).Histogram()

Sure enough:


The alias method is easy to implement and cheap to execute; I quite like it.

Remember, the whole point of this thing is to stop messing around with System.Random when you need randomness. We can now take any set of integer weights and produce a random distribution that conforms to those weights; this is really useful in games, simulations, and so on.

Exercise:  I mentioned a long time ago that I wanted to do all my weights in integers rather than doubles. It is certainly possible to make a weighted integer distribution where the weights are doubles; doing so is left as an exercise.

Be warned: this is a slightly tricky exercise. You have to be very careful when implementing the alias method in doubles because the algorithm I gave depends for its correctness on two properties: (1) every time through the loop, there are exactly s or 2s points removed from the total in the dictionaries, and (2) we are never in a situation where the “high” dictionary still has elements but the “low” dictionary does not, or vice versa.

Those conditions are easily seen to be met when all the quantities involved are small integers. Both those conditions are easily violated because of rounding errors when using doubles, so be extremely careful if you try to implement this using doubles.

Coming up on FAIC: there are (at least) two ways to apply “conditional” probabilistic reasoning; we’ll explore both of them.

4 thoughts on “Fixing Random, part 9

  1. Pingback: Dew Drop – March 1, 2019 (#2910) | Morning Dew

  2. Is the ‘SelectMany’ function one of the ways to apply conditional reasoning you alluded to? It seems that the power of this technique just explodes once you have it. On an unrelated note, do you have any plans to make this into a full-fledged open source library once the blob series is done?

    • We’ll look into “Where” first and then figure out what the “SelectMany” is of this type, yes. I have no plans to make this into anything actually useful; this series is for pedagogic purposes.

  3. Pingback: Fixing Random, part 10 | Fabulous adventures in coding

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