# The Yule Process

The second problem sheet for classes on the Applied Probability course this term features a long question about the Yule process. This is probably the simplest example of a birth process. It’s named for the British statistician George Udny Yule, though some sources prefer to call it the Yule-Furry process for the American physicist Wendell Furry who used it as a model of a radioactive reaction.

The model is straightforward. At any time there is some number of individuals in the population, and each individual gives birth to an offspring at constant rate $\lambda$, independently from the rest of the population. After a birth has happened, the parent and child evolve independently. In the notation of general birth processes, the birth rate when there are n individuals is $\lambda_n=\lambda n$.

Note that if we start with two or more individuals, the sizes of the two or more families of descendents evolve as a continuous-time Polya’s urn. The arrivals process speeds up with time, but the jump chain is exactly Polya’s urn. Unsurprisingly, the Yule process can be found embedded in preferential attachment models, and other processes which are based around Polya’s urn with extra information.

This is a discrete, random version of exponential growth. Since the geometric distribution is the discrete analogue of the exponential distribution, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is indeed the distribution of the process at some fixed time t, when it is started from a single original ancestor. This is all we care about, since the numbers of descendents from each different original ancestors are independent. In general, the distribution of the population size at some fixed time will be negative binomial, that is, a sum of IID geometric distributions.

The standard method here is to proceed using generating functions. Conditioning on the first splitting time gives two independent copies of the original process over a shorter time-scale. One derives an ODE in time for the generating function evaluated at any particular value z. This can be solved uniquely for each z, and patching together gives the generating function of the distribution at any specific time t, which can be seen to coincide with the corresponding generating function of the geometric distribution with parameter $e^{-\lambda t}$.

So we were trying to decide whether there might be a more heuristic argument for this geometric distribution. The method we came up with is not immediate, but does justify the geometric distribution in a couple of steps. First, we say that the birth times are $T_2,T_3,\ldots$, so between times $[T_n,T_{n+1})$ there are n individuals, with $T_1:=0$ for concreteness. Then by construction of the birth process, $T_{n+1}-T_n\stackrel{d}{=}\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda n)$.

We now look at these ‘inter-birth times’ backwards, starting from $T_{n+1}$. Note that $\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda n)$ is the distribution of the time for the first of n IID $\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda)$ clocks to ring. But then, looking backwards, the next inter-birth time is thus the distribution of the time for one of (n-1) IID $\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda)$ clocks to ring. So by memorylessness of the exponential distribution (discussed at great length on the first problem sheet), we can actually take these (n-1) clocks to be exactly those of the original n clocks which did not ring first. Continuing this argument, we can show that the first (in the original time direction) inter-birth time corresponds to the time spent waiting for the final clock to ring. Rewriting this observation formally:

$T_{n+1}\stackrel{d}{=}\max\{X_i : X_1,\ldots,X_n\stackrel{\text{iid}}{\sim}\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda)\}.$ (*)

To return to justifying the geometric form of the distribution, we need to clarify the easiest relationship between the population size at a fixed size and these birth times. As we are aiming for the geometric distribution, the probability of the event $\{X_t>n\}$ will be most useful. Clearly this event is the same as $\{T_{n+1}, and from the description involving maxima of IID exponentials, this is easy to compute as $(1-e^{-\lambda t})^n$, which is exactly what we want.

There are two interesting couplings hidden in these constructions. On closer inspection they turn out to be essentially the same from two different perspectives.

We have specified the distribution of $T_n$ at (*). Look at this distribution on the right hand side. There is a very natural way to couple these distributions for all n, namely to take some infinite sequence $X_1,X_2,\ldots$ of IID $\mathrm{Exp}(\lambda)$ random variables, then use initial sequences of these to generate each of the $T_n$s as described in (*).

Does this coupling correspond to the use of these IID RVs in the birth process? Well, in fact it doesn’t. Examining the argument, we can see that $X_1$ gives a different inter-birth time for each value of t in the correspondence proposed. Even more concretely, in the birth process, almost surely $T_{n+1}>T_n$ for each n. This is not true if we take the canonical coupling of (*). Here, if $X_n<\max\{X_1,\ldots,X_{n-1}\}$, which happens with high probability for large n, we have $T_{n+1}=T_n$ in the process of running maxima.

Perhaps more interestingly, we might observe that this birth process gives a coupling of the geometric distributions. If we want to recover the standard parameterisation of the geometric distribution, we should reparameterise time. [And thus generate an essentially inevitable temptation to make some joke about now having a Yule Log process.]

Let’s consider what the standard coupling might be. For a binomial random variable, either on [n] or some more exotic set, as in percolation, we can couple across all values of the parameter by constructing a family independent uniform random variables, and returning a 1 if $U_i>1-p$ and so on, where p is the parameter of a specific binomial realisation.

We can do exactly the same here. A geometric distribution can be justified as the first success in a sequence of Bernoulli trials, so again we can replace the relevant Bernoulli distribution with a uniform distribution. Take $U_1,U_2,\ldots$ to be IID U[0,1] random variables. Then, we have:

$X_t=\stackrel{d}{=}\bar X_t:= \max\{n: U_1,\ldots,U_{n-1}\ge e^{-\lambda t}\}.$

The equality in distribution holds for any particular value of t by constructing. But it certainly doesn’t hold uniformly in t. Note that if we define $\bar X_t$ as a process, then typically the jumps of this process will be greater than 1, which is forbidden in the Yule process.

So, we have seen that this Yule process, even though its distribution at a fixed time has a standard form, provides a coupling of such distributions that is perhaps slightly surprising.

# Mixing Times 1 – Reversing Markov Chains

A small group of us have started meeting to discuss Levin, Peres and Wilmer’s book on Markov Chains and Mixing Times. (The plan is to cover a couple of chapters every week, then discuss points of interest and some of the exercises – if anyone is reading this and fancies joining, let me know!) Anyway, this post is motivated by something we discussed in our first session.

Here are two interesting facts about Markov Chains. 1) The Markov property can be defined in terms of products of transition probabilities giving the probability of a particular initial sequence. However, a more elegant and general formulation is to say that, conditional on the present, the past and the future are independent. 2) All transition matrices have at least one equilibrium distribution. In fact, irreducible Markov Chains have precisely one equilibrium distribution. Then, if we start with any distribution, the distribution of the chain at time t converges to the equilibrium distribution.

But hang on. This might be a fairly serious problem. On the one hand we have given a definition of the Markov property that is symmetric in time, in the sense that it remains true whether we are working forwards or backwards. While, on the other hand, the convergence to equilibrium is very much not time-symmetric: we move from disorder to order as time advances. What has gone wrong here?

We examine each of the properties in turn, then consider how to make them fit together in a non-contradictory way.

Markov Property

As many of the students in the Applied Probability course learned the hard way, there are many ways to define the Markov property depending on context, and some are much easier to work with than others. For a Markov chain, you can find a way to say that the transition probability $\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=x_{n+1}\,|\,X_n=x_n,\ldots,X_0=x_0)$ is independent of $x_0,\ldots,x_{n-1}$. Alternatively, you can use this to give an inductive specification for the probability of the first n values of X being some sequence.

It requires a moment’s checking to see that the earlier definition of past/future independence is consistent with this. Let’s first check that we haven’t messed up a definition somewhere, and that the time-reversal of a general Markov chain does have the Markov property, even as defined in the context of a Markov chain.

For clarity, consider $X_0,X_1,\ldots, X_N$ a Markov chain on some finite state space, with N some fixed finite end time. We aren’t losing anything by reversing over a finite time interval – after all, we need to know how to do it over a finite time interval before it could possibly make sense to do it over $(-\infty,\infty)$. We examine $(Y_n)_{n=0}^N$ defined by $Y_n:= X_{N-n}$.

$\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n+1}=x_{n+1},\ldots,X_N=x_N)=\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n+1}=x_{n+1})$

is the statement of the Markov property for $(Y_n)$. We rearrange the left hand side to obtain:

$=\frac{\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n,X_{n+1}=x_{n+1},\ldots,X_N=x_N)}{\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=x_{n+1},\ldots,X_N=x_N)}$

$=\frac{\mathbb{P}(X_N=x_N|X_n=x_n,\ldots,X_{N-1}=x_{N-1})\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n,\ldots,X_{N-1}=x_{N-1})}{\mathbb{P}(X_N=x_N|X_{n+1}=x_{n+1},\ldots,X_{N-1}=x_{N-1})\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=x_{n+1},\ldots,X_{N-1}=x_{N-1})}.$

Now, by the standard Markov property on the original chain $(X_n)$, the first probability in each of the numerator and denominator are equal. This leaves us with exactly the same form of expression as before, but with one fewer term in the probability. So we can iterate until we end up with

$\frac{\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n,X_{n+1}=x_{n+1})}{\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=x_{n+1})}=\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n+1}=x_{n+1}),$

as required.

So there’s nothing wrong with the definition. The reversed chain Y genuinely does have this property, regardless of the initial distribution of X.

In particular, if our original Markov chain starts at a particular state with probability 1, and we run it up to time N, then saying that the time-reversal is a Markov chain too is making a claim that we have a non-trivial chain that converges from some general distribution at time 0 to a distribution concentrated at a single point by time N. This seems to contradict everything we know about these chains.

Convergence to Equilibrium – Markov Property vs Markov Chains

It took us a while to come up with a reasonable explanation for this apparent discrepancy. In the end, we come to the conclusion that Markov chains are a strict subset of stochastic processes with the Markov property.

The key thing to notice is that a Markov chain has even more regularity than the definition above implies. The usual description via a transition matrix says that the probability of moving to state y at time t+1 given that you are at state x at time t is some function of x and y. The Markov property says that this probability is independent of the behaviour up until time t. But we also have that the probability is independent of t. The transition matrix P has no dependence on time t – for example in a random walk we do not have to specify the time to know what happens next. This is the property that fails for the non-stationary time-reversal.

In the most extreme example, we say $X_0=x_0$ with probability 1. So in the time reversal, $\mathbb{P}(Y_N=x_0|Y_{N-1}=y_{N-1})=1$ for all $y_{N-1}$. But it will obviously not be the case in general that $\mathbb{P}(Y_n=x_0|Y_{n-1}=y_{n-1})=1$ for all $y_{n-1}$, as this would mean the chain Y would be absorbed after one step at state $x_0$, which is obviously not how the reversal of X should behave.

Perhaps the best way to reconcile this difference is to consider this example where you definitely start from $x_0$. Then, a Markov chain in general can be thought of as a measure on paths, that is $\Omega^N$, with non-trivial but regular correlations between adjacent components. (In the case of stationarity, all the marginals are equal to the stationary distribution – a good example of i.d. but not independent RVs.) This is indexed by the transition matrix and the initial distribution. If the initial distribution is a single point mass, then this can be viewed as a restriction to a smaller set of possible paths, with measures rescaled appropriately.

What have we learned?

Well, mainly to be careful about assuming extra structure with the Markov property. Markov Chains are nice because there is a transition matrix which is constant in time. Other processes, such as Brownian motion are space-homogeneous, where the transitions, or increments in this context, are independent of time and space. However, neither of these properties are true for a general process with the Markov property. Indeed, we have seen in a post from a long time ago that there are Markov processes which do not have the Strong Markov Property, which seems unthinkable if we limit our attention to chain-like processes.

Most importantly, we have clarified the essential point that reversing a Markov Chain only makes sense in equilibrium. It is perfectly possibly to define the reversal of a chain not started at a stationary distribution, but lots of unwelcome information from the forward chain ends up in the reversed chain. In particular, the theory of Markov Chains is not broken, which is good.

# The Inspection Paradox and related topics

In the final class for Applied Probability, we discussed the so-called Inspection Paradox for an arrivals process. We assume that buses, sat, arrive as a Poisson process with rate 1, and consider the size of the interval (between buses) containing some fixed time T. The ‘paradox’ is that the size of this interval is larger in expectation than the average time between buses, which of course is given by an exponential random variable.

As with many paradoxes, it isn’t really that surprising after all. Perhaps what is more surprising is that the difference between the expected observed interval and the expected actual interval time is quite small here. There are several points of interest:

1) The Markov property of the Poisson process is key. In particular, this says that the expectation (and indeed the distribution) of the waiting time for a given customer arriving at T is not dependent on T, even if T is a random variable (or rather, a class of random variables, the stopping times). So certainly the inspection paradox property will hold whenever the process has the Markov property, because the inspected interval contains the inspected waiting time, which is equal in distribution to any fixed interval.

2) Everything gets slightly complicated by the fact that the Poisson process is defined to begin at 0. In particular, it is not reversible. Under the infinitesimal (or even the independent Poisson increments) definition, we can view the Poisson process not as a random non-decreasing function of time, but rather as a random collection of points on the positive reals. With this setup, it is clearly no problem to define instead a random collection of points on all the reals. [If we consider this instead as a random collection of point masses, then this is one of the simplest examples of a random measure, but that’s not hugely relevant here.]

We don’t need to worry too much about what value the Poisson process takes at any given time if we are only looking at increments, but if it makes you more comfortable, you can still safely assume that it is 0 at time 0. Crucially, the construction IS now reversible. The number of points in the interval [s,t] has distribution parameterised by t-s, so we it doesn’t matter which direction we are moving in down the real line. In this case, A_t, the time since the previous arrival, and E_t, the waiting time until the next arrival, are both Exp(1) RVs, as the memorylessness property applies in each time direction.

For the original Poisson process, we actually have A_t stochastically dominated by an Exp(1) distribution, because it is conditioned to be less than or equal to t. So in this case, the expected interval time is some complicated function of t, lying strictly between 1 and 2. In our process extended to the whole real line, the expected interval time is exactly 2.

This idea of extending onto the whole real line explains why we mainly consider delayed renewal processes rather than just normal renewal processes. The condition that we start a holding time at 0 is often not general enough, particularly when the holding times are not exponential and so the process is not memoryless.

3) There is a general size-biasing principle in action here. Roughly speaking, we are more likely to arrive in a large interval than in a small interval. The scaling required is proportional to the length of the interval. Given a density function f(x) of X, we define the size-biased density function to be xf(x). We need to normalise to give a probability distribution, and dividing by the expectation EX is precisely what is needed. Failure to account for when an observation should have the underlying distribution or the size-biased distribution is a common cause of supposed paradoxes. A common example is ‘on average my friends have more friends than I do’. Obviously, various assumption on me and my friends, and how we are drawn from the set of people (and the distribution of number of friends) is required that might not necessarily be entirely accurate in all situations.

In the Poisson process example above, the holding times have density function $e^{-x}$, so the size-biased density function if $xe^{-x}$. This corresponds to a $\Gamma(2,1)$ distribution, which may be written as the sum of two independent Exp(1) RVs as suggested above.

4) A further paradox mentioned on the sheet is the waiting time paradox. This says that the expected waiting time is longer if you arrive at a random time than if you just miss a bus. This is not too surprising: consider at least the stereotypical complaint about buses in this country arriving in threes, at least roughly. Then if you just miss a bus, there is a 2/3 chance that another will be turning up essentially immediately. On the sheet, we showed that the $\Gamma(\alpha,1)$ distribution has this property also, provided $\alpha<1$.

We can probably do slightly better than this. The memoryless property of the exponential distribution says that:

$\mathbb{P}(Z>t+s|Z>t)=\mathbb{P}(Z>s).$

In general, for the sort of holding times we might see at a bus stop, we might expect it to be the case that if we have waited a long time already, then we are less likely relatively to have to wait a long time more, that is:

$\mathbb{P}(Z>t+s|Z>t)\leq\mathbb{P}(Z>s),$

and furthermore this will be strict if neither s nor t is 0. I see no reason not to make up a definition, and call this property supermemorylessness. However, for the subclass of Gamma distributions described above, we have the opposite property:

$\mathbb{P}(Z>t+s|Z>t)\geq\mathbb{P}(Z>s).$

Accordingly, let’s call this submemorylessness. If this is strict, then it says that we are more likely to have to wait a long time if we have already been waiting a long time. This seems contrary to most real-life distributions, but it certainly explains the paradox. If we arrive at a random time, then the appropriate holding time has been ‘waiting’ for a while, so is more likely to require a longer observed wait than if I had arrived as the previous bus departed.

In conclusion, before you think of something as a paradox, think about whether the random variables being compared are being generated in the same way, in particular whether one is size-biased, and whether there are effects due to non-memorylessness.

## DBEs and stationary distributions

### Aside

The most recent Applied Probability assignment sheet featured various aspects of Detailed Balance Equations for continuous-time Markov chains. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using DBEs rather than solving for an equilibrium distribution directly. The equations used in this second case are often called Full Balance Equations.

Briefly, the advantages of DBEs are that they are easy to solve. After all, each one contains only two components of the equilibrium distribution, so generally you can solve one-at-a-time. The disadvantage is that an equilibrium distribution might not satisfy the DBEs. The deductive structure is:

$\text{Solves DBEs}\quad \stackrel{\Rightarrow}{\not\Leftarrow}\quad\text{Equilibrium distribution}$

Usually, the chain will be irreducible, so the equilibrium distribution is unique. This means that if we can solve the DBEs, the result is the unique equilibrium distribution.

The DBEs are soluble only if the situation is reversible. This is probably the best definition to use in practice, but informally we can say that this means that the behaviour looks qualitatively the same if we reverse time. For example, as in Q1:

$Q=\begin{pmatrix}-1 &1&0\\ 0& -1&1\\1&0&-1\end{pmatrix},$

gives the Q-matrix which equilibrium distribution $(\frac13,\frac13,\frac13)$, which does not satisfy DBEs. The chain is not reversible because sample paths always go clockwise, so if we reversed time they would go anti-clockwise (or vice-versa depending on how you’ve drawn the diagram).

What I wanted to say in the class, and made a mess of explaining was this, about why it was inappropriate to use DBEs to find stationary distributions in Q3d):

Reversibility is not just a function of the chain. It is a function of the chain AND the initial distribution. This is only in practice a concern when the chain is reducible, but in this case it really can lead you astray. Let’s consider an example, like

$Q=\begin{pmatrix}-3&2&0&0&1&0\\ 0&-4&3&1&0&0\\ 0&1&-4&3&0&0\\ 0&3&1&-4&0&0\\ 0&0&0&0&-5&5\\ 0&0&0&0&5&-5\end{pmatrix}.$

Then by solving as in the problem sheet, the invariant distributions are given by:

$\lambda(0,\frac13,\frac13,\frac13,0,0)+\mu(0,0,0,0,\frac12\frac12),\quad \lambda+\mu=1.$

If you attempted to solve the DBEs, you would succeed, but the only solution would be

$(0,0,0,0,\frac12,\frac12).$

The explanation is fairly simple in the end. Reversibility is a class property, and only one of the communicating classes, $\{5,6\}$ in this example admits a reversible initial distribution, so to solve the DBEs we must assign zero mass on the other class.

Anyway, I hope that clears up any residual confusion from the class.