Embedded DSLs for Bayesian Modelling and Inference: a Retrospective

Why does my blog often feature its typical motley mix of probability, functional programming, and computer science anyway?

From 2011 through 2017 I slogged through a Ph.D. in statistics, working on it full time in 2012, and part-time in every other year. It was an interesting experience. Although everything worked out for me in the end – I managed to do a lot of good and interesting work in industry while still picking up a Ph.D. on the side – it’s not something I’d necessarily recommend to others. The smart strategy is surely to choose one thing and give it one’s maximum effort; by splitting my time between work and academia, both obviously suffered to some degree.

That said, at the end of the day I was pretty happy with the results on both fronts. On the academic side of things, the main product was a dissertation, Embedded Domain-Specific Languages for Bayesian Modelling and Inference, supporting my thesis: that novel and useful DSLs for solving problems in Bayesian statistics can be embedded in statically-typed, purely functional programming languages.

It helps to remember that in this day and age, one can still typically graduate by, uh, “merely” submitting and defending a dissertation. Publishing in academic venues certainly helps focus one’s work, and is obviously necessary for a career in academia (or, increasingly, industrial research). But it’s optional when it comes to getting your degree, so if it doesn’t help you achieve your goals, you may want to reconsider it, as I did.

The problem with the dissertation-first approach, of course, is that nobody reads your work. To some extent I think I’ve mitigated that; most of the content in my dissertation is merely a fleshed-out version of various ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Here I’ll continue that tradition and write a brief, informal summary of my dissertation and Ph.D. more broadly – what I did, how I approached it, and what my thoughts are on everything after the fact.

The Idea

Following the advice of Olin Shivers (by way of Matt Might), I oriented my work around a concrete thesis, which wound up more or less being that embedding DSLs in a Haskell-like language can be a useful technique for solving statistical problems. This thesis wasn’t born into the world fully-formed, of course – it began as quite a vague (or misguided) thing, but matured naturally over time. Using the tools of programming languages and compilers to do statistics and machine learning is the motivation behind probabilistic programming in general; what I was interested in was exploring the problem in the setting of languages embedded in a purely functional host. Haskell was the obvious choice of host for all of my implementations.

It may sound obvious that putting together a thesis is a good strategy for a Ph.D. But here I’m talking about a thesis in the original (Greek) sense of a proposition, i.e. a falsifiable idea or claim (in contrast to a dissertation, from the Latin disserere, i.e. to examine or to discuss). Having a central idea to orient your work around can be immensely useful in terms of focus. When you read a dissertation with a clear thesis, it’s easy to know what the writer is generally on about – without one it can (increasingly) be tricky.

My thesis is pretty easy to defend in the abstract. A DSL really exposes the structure of one’s problem while also constraining it appropriately, and embedding one in a host language means that one doesn’t have to implement an entire compiler toolchain to support it. I reckoned that simply pointing the artillery of “language engineering” at the statistical domain would lead to some interesting insight on structure, and maybe even produce some useful tools. And it did!

The Contributions

Of course, one needs to do a little more defending than that to satisfy his or her examination committee. Doctoral research is supposed to be substantial and novel. In my experience, reviewers are concerned with your answers to the following questions:

  • What, specifically, are your claims?
  • Are they novel contributions to your field?
  • Have you backed them up sufficiently?

At the end of the day, I claimed the following advances from my work.

  • Novel probabilistic interpretations of the Giry monad’s algebraic structure. The Giry monad (Lawvere, 1962; Giry, 1981) is the “canonical” probability monad, in a meaningful sense, and I demonstrated that one can characterise the measure-theoretic notion of image measure by its functorial structure, as well as the notion of product measure by its monoidal structure. Having the former around makes it easy to transform the support of a probability distribution while leaving its density structure invariant, and the latter lets one encode probabilistic independence, enabling things like measure convolution and the like. What’s more, the analogous semantics carry over to other probability monads – for example the well-known sampling monad, or more abstract variants.

  • A novel characterisation of the Giry monad as a restricted continuation monad. Ramsey & Pfeffer (2002) discussed an “expectation monad,” and I had independently come up with my own “measure monad” based on continuations. But I showed both reduce to a restricted form of the continuation monad of Wadler (1994) – and that indeed, when the return type of Wadler’s continuation monad is restricted to the reals, it is the Giry monad.

    To be precise it’s actually somewhat more general – it permits integration with respect to any measure, not only a probability measure – but that definition strictly subsumes the Giry monad. I also showed that product measure, via the applicative instance, yields measure convolution and associated operations.

  • A novel technique for embedding a statically-typed probabilistic programming language in a purely functional language. The general idea itself is well-known to those who have worked with DSLs in Haskell: one constructs a base functor and wraps it in the free monad. But the reason that technique is appropriate in the probabilistic programming domain is that probabilistic models are fundamentally monadic constructs – merely recall the existence of the Giry monad for proof!

    To construct the requisite base functor, one maps some core set of concrete probability distributions denoted by the Giry monad to a collection of abstract probability distributions represented only by unique names. These constitute the branches of one’s base functor, which is then wrapped in the familiar ‘Free’ machinery that gives one access to the functorial, applicative, and monadic structure that I talked about above. This abstract representation of a probabilistic model allows one to implement other probability monads, such as the well-known sampling monad (Ramsey & Pfeffer, 2002; Park et al., 2008) or the Giry monad, by way of interpreters.

    (N.b. Ścibior et al. (2015) did some very similar work to this, although the monad they used was arguably more operational in its flavour.)

  • A novel characterisation of execution traces as cofree comonads. The idea of an “execution trace” is that one runs a probabilistic program (typically generating a sample) and then records how it executed – what randomness was used, the execution path of the program, etc. To do Bayesian inference, one then runs a Markov chain over the space of possible execution traces, calculating statistics about the resulting distribution in trace space (Wingate et al., 2011).

    Remarkably, a cofree comonad over the same abstract probabilistic base functor described above allows us to represent an execution trace at the embedded language level itself. In practical terms, that means one can denote a probabilistic model, and then run a Markov chain over the space of possible ways it could have executed, without leaving GHCi. You can alternatively examine and perturb the way the program executes, stepping through it piece by piece, as I believe was originally a feature in Venture (Mansinghka et al., 2014).

    (N.b. this really blew my mind when I first started toying with it, converting programs into execution traces and then manipulating them as first-class values, defining other probabilistic programs over spaces of execution traces, etc. Meta.)

  • A novel technique for statically encoding conditional independence of terms in this kind of embedded probabilistic programming language. If you recall that I previously demonstrated the monoidal (i.e. applicative) structure of the Giry monad encodes the notion of product measure, it will not be too surprising to hear that I used the free applicative functor (Capriotti & Kaposi, 2014) (again, over the same kind of abstract probabilistic base functor) to reify applicative expressions such that they can be identified statically.

  • A novel shallowly-embedded language for building custom transition operators for use in Markov chain Monte Carlo. MCMC is the de-facto standard way to perform inference on Bayesian models (although it is not limited to Bayesian models in particular). By wrapping a simple state monad transformer around a probability monad, one can denote Markov transition operators, combine them, and transform them in a few ways that are useful for doing MCMC.

    The framework here was inspired by the old parallel “strategies” idea of Trinder et al. (1998). The idea is that you want to “evaluate” a posterior via MCMC, and want to choose a strategy by which to do so – e.g. Metropolis (Metropolis, 1953), slice sampling (Neal, 2003), Hamiltonian (Neal, 2011), etc. Since Markov transition operators are closed under composition and convex combinations, it is easy to write a little shallowly-embedded combinator language for working with them – effectively building evaluation strategies in a manner familiar to those who’ve worked with Haskell’s parallel library.

    (N.b. although this was the most trivial part of my research, theoretical or implementation-wise, it remains the most useful for day-to-day practical work.)

The Execution

One needs to stitch his or her contributions together in some kind of over-arching narrative that supports the underlying thesis. Mine went something like this:

The Giry monad is appropriate for denoting probabilistic semantics in languages with purely-functional hosts. Its functorial, applicative, and monadic structure denote probability distributions, independence, and marginalisation, respectively, and these are necessary and sufficient for encoding probabilistic models. An embedded language based on the Giry monad is type-safe and composable.

Probabilistic models in an embedded language, semantically denoted in terms of the Giry monad, can be made abstract and interpretation-independent by defining them in terms of a probabilistic base functor and a free monad instead. They can be forward-interpreted using standard free monad recursion schemes in order to compute probabilities (via a measure intepretation) or samples (via a sampling interpretation); the latter interpretation is useful for performing limited forms of Bayesian inference, in particular. These free-encoded models can also be transformed into cofree-encoded models, under which they represent execution traces that can be perturbed arbitrarily by standard comonadic machinery. This representation is amenable to more elaborate forms of Bayesian inference. To accurately denote conditional independence in the embedded language, the free applicative functor can also be used.

One can easily construct a shallowly-embedded language for building custom Markov transitions. Markov chains that use these compound transitions can outperform those that use only “primitive” transitions in certain settings. The shallowly embedded language guarantees that transitions can only be composed in well-defined, type-safe ways that preserve the properties desirable for MCMC. What’s more, one can implement “transition transformers” for implementing still more complex inference techniques, e.g. annealing or tempering, over existing transitions.

Thus: novel and useful domain-specific languages for solving problems in Bayesian statistics can be embedded in statically-typed, purely-functional programming languages.

I used the twenty-minute talk period of my defence to go through this narrative and point out my claims, after which I was grilled on them for an hour or two. The defence was probably the funnest part of my whole Ph.D.

The Product

In the end, I mainly produced a dissertation, a few blog posts, and some code. By my count, the following repos came out of the work:

If any of this stuff is or was useful to you, that’s great! I still use the declarative libraries, flat-mcmc, mwc-probability, and sampling pretty regularly. They’re fast and convenient for practical work.

Some of the other stuff, e.g. measurable, is useful for building intuition, but not so much in practice, and deanie, for example, is a work-in-progress that will probably not see much more progress (from me, at least). Continuing from where I left off might be a good idea for someone who wants to explore problems in this kind of setting in the future.

General Thoughts

When I first read about probabilistic (functional) programming in Dan Roy’s 2011 dissertation I was absolutely blown away by the idea. It seemed that, since there was such an obvious connection between the structure of Bayesian models and programming languages (via the underlying semantic graph structure, something that has been exploited to some degree as far back as BUGS), it was only a matter of time until someone was able to really create a tool that would revolutionize the practice of Bayesian statistics.

Now I’m much more skeptical. It’s true that probabilistic programming tends to expose some beautiful structure in statistical models, and that a probabilistic programming language that was easy to use and “just worked” for inference would be a very useful tool. But putting something expressive and usable together that also “just works” for that inference step is very, very difficult. Very difficult indeed.

Almost every probabilistic programming framework of the past ten years, from Church down to my own stuff, has more or less wound up as “thesisware,” or remains the exclusive publication-generating mechanism of a single research group. The exceptions are almost unexceptional in of themselves: JAGS and Stan are probably the most-used such frameworks, certainly in statistics (I will mention the very honourable PyMC here as well), but they innovate little, if at all, over the original BUGS in terms of expressiveness. Similarly it’s very questionable whether the fancy MCMC algo du jour is really any better than some combination of Metropolis-Hastings (even plain Metropolis), Gibbs (or its approximate variant, slice sampling), or nested sampling in anything outside of favourably-engineered examples (I will note that Hamiltonian Monte Carlo could probably be counted in there too, but it can still be quite a pain to use, its variants are probably overrated, and it is comparatively expensive).

Don’t get me wrong. I am a militant Bayesian. Bayesian statistics, i.e., as far as I’m concerned, probability theory, describes the world accurately. And there’s nothing wrong with thesisware, either. Research is research, and this is a very thorny problem area. I hope to see more abandoned, innovative software that moves the ball up the field, or kicks it into another stadium entirely. Not less. The more ingenious implementations and sampling schemes out there, the better.

But more broadly, I often find myself in the camp of Leo Breiman, who in 2001 characterised the two predominant cultures in statistics as those of data modelling and algorithmic modelling respectively, the latter now known as machine learning, of course. The crux of the data modelling argument, which is of course predominant in probabilistic programming research and Bayesian statistics more generally, is that a practitioner, by means of his or her ingenuity, is able to suss out the essence of a problem and distill it into a useful equation or program. Certainly there is something to this: science is a matter of creating hypotheses, testing them against the world, and iterating on that, and the “data modelling” procedure is absolutely scientific in principle. Moreover, with a hat tip to Max Dama, one often wants to impose a lot of structure on a problem, especially if the problem is in a domain where there is a tremendous amount of noise. There are many areas where this approach is just the thing one is looking for.

That said, it seems to me that a lot of the data modelling-flavoured side of probabilistic programming, Bayesian nonparametrics, etc., is to some degree geared more towards being, uh, “research paper friendly” than anything else. These are extremely seductive areas for curious folks who like to play at the intersection of math, statistics, and computer science (raises hand), and one can easily spend a lifetime chasing this or that exquisite theoretical construct into any number of rabbit holes. But at the end of the day, the data modelling culture, per Breiman:

.. has at its heart the belief that a statistician, by imagination and by looking at the data, can invent a reasonably good parametric class of models for a complex mechanism devised by nature.

Certainly the traditional statistics that Breiman wrote about in 2001 was very different from probabilistic programming and similar fields in 2018. But I think there is the same element of hubris in them, and to some extent, a similar dissociation from reality. I have cultivated some of the applied bent of a Breiman, or a Dama, or a Locklin, so perhaps this should not be too surprising.

I feel that the 2012-ish resurgence of neural networks jolted the machine learning community out of a large-scale descent into some rather dubious Bayesian nonparametrics research, which, much as I enjoy that subject area, seemed more geared towards generating fun machine learning summer school lectures and NIPS papers than actually getting much practical work done. I can’t help but feel that probabilistic programming may share a few of those same characteristics. When all is said and done, answering the question is this stuff useful? often feels like a stretch.

So: onward & upward and all that, but my enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat, is all.


Administrative headaches and the existential questions associated with grad school aside, I had a great time working in this area for a few years, if in my own aloof and eccentric way.

If you ever interacted with this area of my work, I hope you got some utility out of it: research ideas, use of my code, or just some blog post that you thought was interesting during a slow day at the office. If you’re working in the area, or are considering it, I wish you success, whether your goal is to build practical tools, or to publish sexy papers. :-)

Fubini and Applicatives

Take an iterated integral, e.g. . Fubini’s Theorem describes the conditions under which the order of integration can be swapped on this kind of thing while leaving its value invariant. If Fubini’s conditions are met, you can convert your integral into and be guaranteed to obtain the same result you would have gotten by going the other way.

What are these conditions? Just that you can glue your individual measures together as a product measure, and that is integrable with respect to it. I.e.,

Say you have a Giry monad implementation kicking around and you want to see how Fubini’s Theorem works in terms of applicative functors, monads, continuations, and all that. It’s pretty easy. You could start with my old measurable library that sits on GitHub and attracts curious stars from time to time and cook up the following example:

import Control.Applicative ((<$>), (<*>))
import Measurable

dx :: Measure Int
dx = bernoulli 0.5

dy :: Measure Double
dy = beta 1 1

dprod :: Measure (Int, Double)
dprod = (,) <$> dx <*> dy

Note that ‘dprod’ is clearly a product measure (I’ve constructed it using the Applicative instance for the Giry monad, so it must be a product measure) and take a simple, obviously integrable function:

add :: (Int, Double) -> Double
add (m, x) = fromIntegral m + x

Since ‘dprod’ is a product measure, Fubini’s Theorem guarantees that the following are equivalent:

i0 :: Double
i0 = integrate add dprod

i1 :: Double
i1 = integrate (\x -> integrate (curry add x) dy) dx

i2 :: Double
i2 = integrate (\y -> integrate (\x -> curry add x y) dx) dy

And indeed they are – you can verify them yourself if you don’t believe me (or our boy Fubini).

For an example of a where interchanging the order of integration would be impossible, we can construct some other measure:

dpair :: Measure (Int, Double)
dpair = do
  x <- dx
  y <- fmap (* fromIntegral x) dy
  return (x, y)

It can be integrated as follows:

i3 :: Double
i3 = integrate (\x -> integrate (curry add x) (fmap (* fromIntegral x) dy)) dx

But notice how ‘dpair’ is constructed: it is strictly monadic, not applicative, so the order of the expressions matters. Since ‘dpair’ can’t be expressed as a product measure (i.e. by an applicative expression), Fubini says that swapping the order of integration is a no-no.

Note that if you were to just look at the types of ‘dprod’ and ‘dpair’ – both ‘Measure (Int, Double)’ – you wouldn’t be able to tell immediately that one represents a product measure while the other one does not. If being able to tell these things apart statically is important to you (say, you want to statically apply order-of-integration optimisations to integral expressions or what have you), you need look no further than the free applicative functor to help you out.

Fun fact: there is a well-known variant of Fubini’s Theorem, called Tonelli’s Theorem, that was developed by another Italian guy at around the same time. I’m not sure how early-20th century Italy became so strong in order-of-integration research, exactly.

Byzantine Generals and Nakamoto Consensus

You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.

– Richard Feynman (attributed)

In one of his early emails on the Cryptography mailing list, Satoshi claimed that the proof-of-work chain is a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem (BGP). He describes this via an example where a bunch of generals – Byzantine ones, of course – collude to break a king’s wifi.

It’s interesting to look at this a little closer in the language of the originally-stated BGP itself. One doesn’t need to be too formal to glean useful intuition here.

What, more precisely, did Satoshi claim?

The Decentralized Timestamp Server

Satoshi’s problem is that of a decentralized timestamp server (DTS). Namely, he posits that any number of nodes, following some protocol, can together act as a timestamping server – producing some consistent ordering on what we’ll consider to be abstract ‘blocks’.

The decentralized timestamp server reduces to an instance of the Byzantine Generals Problem as follows. There are a bunch of nodes, who could each be honest or dishonest. All honest nodes want to agree on some ordering – a history – of blocks, and a small number of dishonest nodes should not easily be able to compromise that history – say, by convincing the honest nodes to adopt some alternate one of their choosing.

(N.b. it’s unimportant here to be concerned about the contents of blocks. Since the decentralized timestamp server problem is only concerned about block orderings, we don’t need to consider the case of invalid transactions within blocks or what have you, and can safely assume that any history must be internally consistent. We only need to assume that child blocks depend utterly on their parents, so that rewriting a history by altering some parent block also necessitates rewriting its children, and that honest nodes are constantly trying to append blocks.)

As demonstrated in the introduction to the original paper, the Byzantine Generals Problem can be reduced to the problem of how any given node communicates its information to others. In our context, it reduces to the following:

Byzantine Generals Problem (DTS)

A node must broadcast a history of blocks to its peers, such that:

  • (IC1) All honest peers agree on the history.
  • (IC2) If the node is honest, then all honest peers agree with the history it broadcasts.

To produce consensus, every node will communicate its history to others by using a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem.

Longest Proof-of-Work Chain

Satoshi’s proposed solution to the BGP has since come to be known as ‘Nakamoto Consensus’. It is the following protocol:

Nakamoto Consensus

  • Always use the longest history.
  • Appending a block to any history requires a proof that a certain amount of work – proportional in expectation to the total ‘capability’ of the network – has been completed.

To examine how it works, consider an abstract network and communication medium. We can assume that messages are communicated instantly (it suffices that communication is dwarfed in time by actually producing a proof of work) and that the network is static and fixed, so that only active or ‘live’ nodes actually contribute to consensus.

The crux of Nakamoto consensus is that nodes must always use the longest available history – the one that provably has the largest amount of work invested in it – and appending to any history requires a nontrivial amount of work in of itself. Consider a set of nodes, each having some (not necessarily shared) history. Whenever any node broadcasts a one-block longer history, all honest nodes will immediately agree on it, and conditions (IC1) and (IC2) are thus automatically satisfied whether or not the broadcasting node is honest. Nakamoto Consensus trivially solves the BGP in this most important case; we can examine other cases by examining how they reduce to this one.

If two or more nodes broadcast longer histories at approximately the same time, then honest nodes may not agree on a single history for as long as it takes a longer history to be produced and broadcast. As soon as this occurs (which, in all probability, is only a matter of time), we reduce to the previous case in which all honest nodes agree with each other again, and the BGP is resolved.

The ‘bad’ outcome we’re primarily concerned about is that of dishonest nodes rewriting history in their favour, i.e. by replacing some history by another one that somehow benefits them. The idea here is that some dishonest node (or nodes) intends to use block as some sort of commitment, but later wants to renege. To do so, the node needs to rewrite not only , but all other blocks that depend on (here , etc.), ultimately producing a longer history than is currently agreed upon by honest peers.

Moreover, it needs to do this faster than honest nodes are able to produce longer histories on their own. Catching up to and exceeding the honest nodes becomes exponentially unlikely in the number of blocks to be rewritten, and so a measure of confidence can be ascribed to agreement on the state of any sub-history that has been ‘buried’ by a certain number of blocks (see the penultimate section of Satoshi’s paper for details).

Dishonest nodes that seek to replace some well-established, agreed-upon history with another will thus find it effectively impossible (i.e. the probability is negligible) unless they control a majority of the network’s capability – at which point they no longer constitute a small number of peers.


So in the language of the originally-stated BGP: Satoshi claimed that the decentralized timestamp server is an instance of the Byzantine Generals Problem, and that Nakamoto Consensus (as it came to be known) is a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem. Because Nakamoto Consensus solves the BGP, honest nodes that always use the longest proof-of-work history in the decentralized timestamp network will eventually come to consensus on the ordering of blocks.

Recursive Stochastic Processes

Last week Dan Peebles asked me on Twitter if I knew of any writing on the use of recursion schemes for expressing stochastic processes or other probability distributions. And I don’t! So I’ll write some of what I do know myself.

There are a number of popular statistical models or stochastic processes that have an overtly recursive structure, and when one has some recursive structure lying around, the elegant way to represent it is by way of a recursion scheme. In the case of stochastic processes, this typically boils down to using an anamorphism to drive things. Or, if you actually want to be able to observe the thing (note: you do), an apomorphism.

By representing a stochastic process in this way one can really isolate the probabilistic phenomena involved in it. One bundles up the essence of a process in a coalgebra, and then drives it via some appropriate recursion scheme.

Let’s take a look at three stochastic processes and examine their probabilistic and recursive structures.


To start, I’m going to construct a simple embedded language in the spirit of the ones used in my simple probabilistic programming and comonadic inference posts. Check those posts out if this stuff looks too unfamiliar. Here’s a preamble that constitutes the skeleton of the code we’ll be working with.

{-# LANGUAGE DeriveFunctor #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleContexts #-}
{-# LANGUAGE LambdaCase #-}
{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeFamilies #-}

import Control.Monad
import Control.Monad.Free
import qualified Control.Monad.Trans.Free as TF
import Data.Functor.Foldable
import Data.Random (RVar, sample)
import qualified Data.Random.Distribution.Bernoulli as RF
import qualified Data.Random.Distribution.Beta as RF
import qualified Data.Random.Distribution.Normal as RF

-- probabilistic instruction set, program definitions

data ModelF a r =
    BernoulliF Double (Bool -> r)
  | GaussianF Double Double (Double -> r)
  | BetaF Double Double (Double -> r)
  | DiracF a
  deriving Functor

type Program a = Free (ModelF a)

type Model b = forall a. Program a b

type Terminating a = Program a a

-- core language terms

bernoulli :: Double -> Model Bool
bernoulli p = liftF (BernoulliF vp id) where
    | p < 0 = 0
    | p > 1 = 1
    | otherwise = p

gaussian :: Double -> Double -> Model Double
gaussian m s
  | s <= 0    = error "gaussian: variance out of bounds"
  | otherwise = liftF (GaussianF m s id)

beta :: Double -> Double -> Model Double
beta a b
  | a <= 0 || b <= 0 = error "beta: parameter out of bounds"
  | otherwise        = liftF (BetaF a b id)

dirac :: a -> Program a b
dirac x = liftF (DiracF x)

-- interpreter

rvar :: Program a a -> RVar a
rvar = iterM $ \case
  BernoulliF p f  -> RF.bernoulli p >>= f
  GaussianF m s f -> RF.normal m s >>= f
  BetaF a b f     -> RF.beta a b >>= f
  DiracF x        -> return x

-- utilities

free :: Functor f => Fix f -> Free f a
free = cata Free

affine :: Num a => a -> a -> a -> a
affine translation scale = (+ translation) . (* scale)

Just as a quick review, we’ve got:

  • A probabilistic instruction set defined by ‘ModelF’. Each constructor represents a foundational probability distribution that we can use in our embedded programs.
  • Three types corresponding to probabilistic programs. The ‘Program’ type simply wraps our instruction set up in a naïve free monad. The ‘Model’ type denotes probabilistic programs that may not necessarily terminate (in some weak sense), while the ‘Terminating’ type denotes probabilistic programs that terminate (ditto).
  • A bunch of embedded language terms. These are just probability distributions; here we’ll manage with the Bernouli, Gaussian, and beta distributions. We also have a ‘dirac’ term for constructing a Dirac distribution at a point.
  • A single interpeter ‘rvar’ that interprets a probabilistic program into a random variable (where the ‘RVar’ type is provided by random-fu). Typically I use mwc-probability for this but random-fu is quite nice. When a program has been interpreted into a random variable we can use ‘sample’ to sample from it.

So: we can write simple probabilistic programs in standard monadic fashion, like so:

betaBernoulli :: Double -> Double -> Model Bool
betaBernoulli a b = do
  p <- beta a b
  bernoulli p

and then interpret them as needed:

> replicateM 10 (sample (rvar (betaBernoulli 1 8)))

The Geometric Distribution

The geometric distribution is not a stochastic process per se, but it can be represented by one. If we repeatedly flip a coin and then count the number of flips until the first head, and then consider the probability distribution over that count, voilà. That’s the geometric distribution. You might see a head right away, or you might be infinitely unlucky and never see a head. So the distribution is supported over the entirety of the natural numbers.

For illustration, we can encode the coin flipping process in a straightforward recursive manner:

simpleGeometric :: Double -> Terminating Int
simpleGeometric p = loop 1 where
  loop n = do
    accept <- bernoulli p
    if   accept
    then dirac n
    else loop (n + 1)

We start flipping Bernoulli-distributed coins, and if we observe a head we stop and return the number of coins flipped thus far. Otherwise we keep flipping.

The underlying probabilistic phenomena here are the Bernoulli draw, which determines if we’ll terminate, and the dependent Dirac return, which will wrap a terminating value in a point mass. The recursive procedure itself has the pattern of:

  • If some condition is met, abort the recursion and return a value.
  • Otherwise, keep recursing.

This pattern describes an apomorphism, and the recursion-schemes type signature of ‘apo’ is:

apo :: Corecursive t => (a -> Base t (Either t a)) -> a -> t

It takes a coalgebra that returns an ‘Either’ value wrapped up in a base functor, and uses that coalgebra to drive the recursion. A ‘Left’-returned value halts the recursion, while a ‘Right’-returned value keeps it going.

Don’t be put off by the type of the coalgebra if you’re unfamiliar with apomorphisms - its bark is worse than its bite. Check out my older post on apomorphisms for a brief introduction to them.

With reference to the ‘apo’ type signature, The main thing to choose here is the recursive type that we’ll use to wrap up the ‘ModelF’ base functor. ‘Fix’ might be conceivably simpler to start, so I’ll begin with that. The coalgebra defining the model looks like this:

geoCoalg p n = BernoulliF p (\accept ->
  if   accept
  then Left (Fix (DiracF n))
  else Right (n + 1))

Then given the coalgebra, we can just wrap it up in ‘apo’ to represent the geometric distribution.

geometric :: Double -> Terminating Int
geometric p = free (apo (geoCoalg p) 1)

Since the geometric distribution (weakly) terminates, the program has return type ‘Terminating Int’.

Since we’ve encoded the coalgebra using ‘Fix’, we have to explicitly convert to ‘Free’ via the ‘free’ utility function I defined in the preamble. Recent versions of recursion-schemes have added a ‘Corecursive’ instance for ‘Free’, though, so the superior alternative is to just use that:

geometric :: Double -> Terminating Int
geometric p = apo coalg 1 where
  coalg n = TF.Free (BernoulliF p (\accept ->
    if   accept
    then Left (dirac n)
    else Right (n + 1)))

The point of all this is that we can isolate the core probabilistic phenomena of the recursive process by factoring it out into a coalgebra. The recursion itself takes the form of an apomorphism, which knows nothing about probability or flipping coins or what have you - it just knows how to recurse, or stop.

For illustration, here’s a histogram of samples drawn from the geometric via:

> replicateM 100 (sample (rvar (geometric 0.2)))

An Autoregressive Process

Autoregressive (AR) processes simply use a previous epoch’s output as the current epoch’s input; the number of previous epochs used as input on any given epoch is called the order of the process. An AR(1) process looks like this, for example:

Here are independent and identically-distributed random variables that follow some error distribution. In other words, in this model the value follows some probability distribution given the last epoch’s output and some parameters and .

An autoregressive process doesn’t have any notion of termination built into it, so the purest way to represent one is via an anamorphism. We’ll focus on AR(1) processes in this example:

ar1 :: Double -> Double -> Double -> Double -> Model Double
ar1 a b s = ana coalg where
  coalg x = TF.Free (GaussianF (affine a b x) s (affine a b))

Each epoch is just a Gaussian-distributed affine transformation of the previous epochs’s output. But the problem with using an anamorphism here is that it will just shoot off to infinity, recursing endlessly. This doesn’t do us a ton of good if we want to actually observe the process, so if we want to do that we’ll need to bake in our own conditions for termination. Again we’ll rely on an apomorphism for this; we can just specify how many periods we want to observe the process for, and stop recursing as soon as we exceed that.

There are two ways to do this. We can either get a view of the process at periods in the future, or we can get a view of the process over periods in the future. I’ll write both, for illustration. The coalgebra for the first is simpler, and looks like:

arCoalg (n, x) = TF.Free (GaussianF (affine a b x) s (\y ->
    if   n <= 0
    then Left (dirac x)
    else Right (pred m, y)))

The coalgebra is saying:

  • Given , let have a Gaussian distribution with mean and standard deviation .
  • If we’re on the last epoch, return as a Dirac point mass.
  • Otherwise, continue recursing with as input to the next epoch.

Now, to observe the process over the next periods we can just collect the observations we’ve seen so far in a list. An implementation of the process, apomorphism and all, looks like this:

ar :: Int -> Double -> Double -> Double -> Double -> Terminating [Double]
ar n a b s origin = apo coalg (n, [origin]) where
  coalg (epochs, history@(x:_)) =
    TF.Free (GaussianF (affine a b x) s (\y ->
      if   epochs <= 0
      then Left (dirac (reverse history))
      else Right (pred epochs, y:history)))

(Note that I’m deliberately not handling the error condition here so as to focus on the essence of the coalgebra.)

We can generate some traces for it in the standard way. Here’s how we’d sample a 100-long trace from an AR(1) process originating at 0 with , , and :

> sample (rvar (ar 100 0 1 1 0))

and here’s a visualization of 10 of those traces:

The Stick-Breaking Process

The stick breaking process is one of any number of whimsical stochastic processes used as prior distributions in nonparametric Bayesian models. The idea here is that we want to take a stick and endlessly break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Every time we break a stick, we recursively take the rest of the stick and break it again, ad infinitum.

Again, if we wanted to represent this endless process very faithfully, we’d use an anamorphism to drive it. But in practice we’re going to only want to break a stick some finite number of times, so we’ll follow the same pattern as the AR process and use an apomorphism to do that:

sbp :: Int -> Double -> Terminating [Double]
sbp n a = apo coalg (n, 1, []) where
  coalg (epochs, stick, sticks) = TF.Free (BetaF 1 a (\p ->
    if   epochs <= 0
    then Left (dirac (reverse (stick : sticks)))
    else Right (pred epochs, (1 - p) * stick, (p * stick):sticks)))

The coalgebra that defines the process says the following:

  • Let the location of the break on the next (normalized) stick be beta-distributed.
  • If we’re on the last epoch, return all the pieces of the stick that we broke as a Dirac point mass.
  • Otherwise, break the stick again and recurse.

Here’s a plot of five separate draws from a stick breaking process with , each one observed for five breaks. Note that each draw encodes a categorical distribution over the set ; the stick breaking process is a ‘distribution over distributions’ in that sense:

The stick breaking process is useful for developing mixture models with an unknown number of components, for example. The parameter can be tweaked to concentrate or disperse probability mass as needed.


This seems like enough for now. I’d be interested in exploring other models generated by recursive processes just to see how they can be encoded, exactly. Basically all of Bayesian nonparametrics is based on using recursive processses as prior distributions, so the Dirichlet process, Chinese Restaurant Process, Indian Buffet Process, etc. should work beautifully in this setting.

Fun fact: back in 2011 before neural networks deep learning had taken over machine learning, Bayesian nonparametrics was probably the hottest research area in town. I used to joke that I’d create a new prior called the Malaysian Takeaway Process for some esoteric nonparametric model and thus achieve machine learning fame, but never did get around to that.


I got a question about how I produce these plots. And the answer is the only sane way when it comes to visualization in Haskell: dump the output to disk and plot it with something else. I use R for most of my interactive/exploratory data science-fiddling, as well as for visualization. Python with matplotlib is obviously a good choice too.

Here’s how I made the autoregressive process plot, for example. First, I just produced the actual samples in GHCi:

> samples <- replicateM 10 (sample (rvar (ar 100 0 1 1 0)))

Then I wrote them to disk:

> let render handle = hPutStrLn handle . filter (`notElem` "[]") . show
> withFile "trace.dat" WriteMode (\handle -> mapM_ (render handle) samples)

The following R script will then get you the plot:


raw = read.csv('trace.dat', header = F)

d = data.frame(t(raw), x = seq_along(raw))
m = melt(d, id.vars = 'x')

ggplot(m, aes(x, value, colour = variable)) + geom_line()

I used ggplot2 for the other plots as well; check out the ggplot2 functions geom_histogram, geom_bar, and facet_grid in particular.

The Applicative Structure of the Giry Monad

In my last two posts about the Giry monad I derived the thing from its categorical and measure-theoretic foundations. I kind of thought that those posts wouldn’t be of much interest to people but they turned out to be a hit. I clearly can’t tell what the internet likes.

Anyway, something I left out was the theoretical foundation of the Giry monad’s Applicative instance, which seemed a bit odd. I also pointed out that applicativeness in the context of probability implies independence between probability measures.

In this article I’m going to look at each of these issues. After playing around with the foundations, it looks like the applicative instance for the Giry monad can be put on a sound footing in terms of the standard measure-theoretic concept of product measure. Also, it turns out that the claim I made of applicativeness independence is somewhat ill-posed. But, using the shiny new intuition we’ll glean from a better understanding of the applicative structure, we can put that on a solid footing too.

So let’s look at both of these things and see what’s up.

Monoidal Functors

The foundational categorical concept behind applicative functors is the monoidal functor, which is a functor between monoidal categories that preserves monoidal structure.

Formally: for monoidal categories and , a monoidal functor is a functor and associated natural transformations and that satisfy some coherence conditions that I won’t mention here. Notably, if and are isomorphisms (i.e. are invertible) then is called a strong monoidal functor. Otherwise it’s called lax. Applicative functors in particular are lax monoidal functors.

This can be made much clearer for endofunctors on a monoidal category . Then you only have and to worry about. If we sub in the Giry monad from the last couple of posts, we’d want and .

Does the category of measurable spaces have a monoidal structure? Yup. Take measurable spaces and . From the Giry monad derivation we already have that the monoidal identity corresponds to a Dirac measure at a point, so that’s well and good. And we can define the tensor product between and as follows: let be the standard Cartesian product on and and let be the smallest -algebra generated by the Cartesian product of measurable sets and . Then is a measurable space, and so is monoidal.

Recall that and - the space of measures over and respectively - are themselves objects in . So, clearly is a measurable space, and if is monoidal then there must exist a natural transformation that can take us from there to . This is the space of measures over the product .

So the question is: does have the required monoidal structure?

Yes. It must, since is a monad, and any monad can generate the required natural transformation. Let be the monadic ‘join’ operator and be the monadic identity . We have, evaluating right-to-left:

Using makes this much easier to read:

or in code, just:

phi :: Monad m => (m a, m b) -> m (a, b)
phi (m, n) = liftM2 (,) m n

So with that we have that is a (lax) monoidal functor. And you can glean a monad-generated applicative operator from that immediately (this leads to the function called ‘ap’ in Control.Monad):

ap :: Monad m => m (a -> b) -> m a -> m b
ap f x = fmap (\(g, z) -> g z) (phi f x)

(Note: I won’t refer to as the join operator from this point out in order to free it up for denoting measures.)

Probabilistic Interpretations

Product Measure

The correct probabilistic interpretation here is that takes a pair of probability measures to the product measure over the appropriate product space. For probability measures and on measurable spaces and respectively, the product measure is the (unique) measure on such that:

for a measurable set in .

Going through the monoidal functor route seems to put the notion of the Giry applicative instance on a more firm measure-theoretic foundation. Instead of considering the following from the Giry monad foundations article:

which is defined in terms of the dubious space of measures over measurable functions , we can better view things using the monoidal structure-preserving natural transformation . For measures and on and respectively, we have:

and then for we can use the functor structure of to do:

which corresponds to a standard applicative expression g <$> mu <*> nu. I suspect there’s then some sort of Yoneda argument or something that makes currying and partial function application acceptable.


Now. What does this have to say about independence?

In particular, it’s too fast and loose to claim measures can be ‘independent’ at all. Independence is a property of measurable sets, measurable functions, and -algebras. Not of measures! But there is a really useful connection, so let’s illustrate that.

First, let’s define independence formally as follows. Take a probability space . Then any measurable sets and in are independent if

That’s the simplest notion.

Next, consider two sub--algebras and of (a sub--algebra is just a a subset of a -algebra that itself happens to be a algebra). Then and are independent if, for any in and any in , we have that and are independent.

The final example is independence of measurable functions. Take measurable functions and both from to the real numbers equipped with some appropriate -algebra . Then each of these functions generates a sub- algebra of as follows:

Then and are independent if the generated -algebras and are independent.

Note that in every case independence is defined in terms of a single measure, . We can’t talk about different measures being independent. To paraphrase Terry Tao here:

The notion of independence between [measurable functions] does not make sense if the [measurable functions] are being modeled by separate probability spaces; they have to be coupled together into a single probability space before independence becomes a meaningful notion.

To be pedantic and explicitly specify the measure by which some things are independent, some authors state that measurable functions and are -independent, for example.

We can see a connection to independence when we look at convolution and associated operators. Recall that for measures and on the same measurable space that supports some notion of addition, their convolution looks like:

The probabilistic interpretation here (see Terry Tao on this too) is that is the measure corresponding to the sum of independent measurable functions and with corresponding measures and respectively.

That looks weird though, since we clearly defined independence between measurable functions using a single probability measure. How is it we can talk about independent measurable functions and having different corresponding measures?

We first need to couple everything together into a single probability space as per Terry’s quote. Complete with some abstract probability measure to form the probability space . Now we have and measurable functions from to .

To say that and are independent is to say that their generated -algebras are -independent. And the measures that they correspond to are the pushforwards of under and respectively. So, and . The result is that the measurable functions correspond to different (pushforward) measures and , but are independent with respect to the same underlying probability measure .

The monoidal structure of then gets us to convolution. Given a product of measures and each on we can immediately retrieve their product measure via . And from there we can get to via the functor structure of - we just find the pushforward of with respect to a function that collapses a product via addition. So is defined as:

and then the convolution is thus:

Other operations can be defined similarly, e.g. for we get:

The crux of all this is whenever we apply a measurable function to a product measure, we can always extract notions of independent measurable functions from the result. And the measures corresponding to those independent measurable functions will be the components of the product measure respectively.

This is super useful and lets one claim something stronger than what the monadic structure gives you. In an expression like g <$> mu <*> nu <*> rho, you are guaranteed that the corresponding random variables , , (for suitable projections) are independent. The same cannot be said if you use the monadic structure to do something like g mu nu rho where the product structure is not enforced - in that case you’re not guaranteed anything of the sort. This is why the applicative structure is useful for encoding independence in a way that the monadic structure is not.


So there you have it. Applicativeness can seemingly be put on a straightforward measure-theoretic grounding and has some useful implications for independence.

It’s worth noting that, in the case of the Giry monad, we don’t need to go through its monadic structure in order to recover an applicative instance. We can do so entirely by hacking together continuations without using a single monadic bind. This is actually how I defined the applicative instance in the Giry monad implementation article previously:

instance Applicative Measure where
  pure x = Measure (\f -> f x)
  Measure g <*> Measure h = Measure $ \f ->
    g (\k -> h (f . k))

Teasing out the exact structure of this and its relation to the codensity monad is again something I’ll leave to others.