DGFF 4 – Properties of the Green’s function

I’m at UBC this month for the PIMS probability summer school. One of the long courses is being given by Marek Biskup about the Discrete Gaussian Free Field (notes and outline here) so this seems like a good moment to revive the sequence of posts about the DGFF. Here’s DGFF1, DGFF2, DGFF3 from November.

The first draft of this post was about the maximum of the DGFF in a large box V_N, and also about the Green’s function G^{V_N}(x,y), which specifies the covariance structure of the DGFF. This first draft also became too long, so I’m splitting it into two somewhat shorter ones. As we’ll see, some understanding and standard estimates of the Green’s function is enough to say quite a bit about the maximum. In this first post, we’ll explore some ‘low-hanging fruit’ concerning the Green’s function, as defined through a simple random walk, which are useful, but rarely explained in the DGFF literature.

Symmetry of Green’s function

We start with one of these low-hanging fruit. If G^{V_N} is to be a covariance matrix, it has to be symmetric. In the first post, showing that the definition of the DGFF as a random field with given Hamiltonian is equivalent to \mathcal{N}(0,G^{V_N}) certainly can be viewed as a proof of symmetry. However, it would be satisfying if there was a direct argument in the language of the definition of the Green’s function.

To make this self-contained, recall the random walk definition of G^{V_N}(x,y). Let (S_m)_{m\ge 0} be simple random walk on V_N, and \mathbb{P}_x,\,\mathbb{E}_x denote starting the random walk at x\in V_N. As usual, let \tau_y,\,\tau_A denote the hitting time of a vertex y or a set A respectively. Then

G^{V_N}(x,y):= \mathbb{E}_x \left[ \sum_{m=0}^{\tau_{\partial V_N}}1_{(S_m=y) }\right].

That is, G^{V_N}(x,y) is the expected number of visits to y by a random walk from x, before it exits V_N.

Let’s drop the superscript for now, as everything should hold for a more general subset of the lattice. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious at the level of Markov chains why G(x,y)=G(y,x). In particular, it’s not the case that

\mathbb{P}_x(\tau_y < \tau_{D^c}) = \mathbb{P}_y(\tau_x <\tau_{D^c}),

and it feels that we can’t map between paths x \to \partial D and y\to \partial D in a way that preserves the number of visits to y and x, respectively. However, we can argue that for any m

\mathbb{P}_x(S_m=y, \tau_{D^c}>m) = \mathbb{P}_y(S_m=x, \tau_{D^c}>m),

by looking at the suitable paths of (S_m). That is, if we have a path x=S_0,S_1,\ldots,S_m=y that stays within D, then the probability of seeing this path starting from x and its reverse direction starting from y are equal. Why? Because

\mathbb{P}_x(S_0=x,S_1=v_1,\ldots,S_{m-1}=v_{m-1},S_m=y) = \prod_{\ell=0}^{m-1} \frac{1}{\mathrm{deg}(v_\ell)},


\mathbb{P}_y(S_0=y,S_1=v_{m-1},\ldots,S_{m-1}=v_1, S_m=x) = \prod_{\ell=0}^{m-1} \frac{1}{\mathrm{deg}(v_{m-\ell})} = \prod_{\ell=1}^m \frac{1}{\mathrm{deg}(v_\ell)}.

Since D\subset \mathbb{Z}^d and x,y are in the interior of D, we must have \mathrm{deg}(x)=\mathrm{deg}(y), and so these two expressions are equal. Summing over all such two-way paths, and then all m gives the result.

Fixing one argument

We now focus on G^D(\cdot,y), where the second argument is fixed. This is the solution to the Poisson equation

\Delta G^D(\cdot,y) = -\delta_y(\cdot),\quad G^D(x,y)=0,\; \forall x\in \partial D.

To see this, can use a standard hitting probability argument (as here) with the Markov property. This is harmonic in D\backslash \{y\}, and since we know

G^D(y,y)= \frac{1}{\mathbb{P}_y(\text{RW hits }\partial D\text{ before returning to }y)},

this uniquely specifies G^D(\cdot,y). Anyway, since harmonic functions achieve their maxima at the boundary, we have G(y,y)\ge G(x,y) for all x\in D. We can also see this from the SRW definition as

G(x,y)=G(y,x) = \mathbb{P}_y (\tau_x < \tau_{\partial D} ) G(x,x) \le G(x,x).

Changing the domain

Now we want to consider nested domains D\subset E, and compare G^D(\cdot,\cdot) and G^E(\cdot,\cdot) on DxD. The idea is that for SRW started from x\in D, we have \tau_{\partial D}\le \tau_{\partial E}, since one boundary is contained within the other. From this, we get

G^D(x,y)\le G^E(x,y),\quad \forall x,y\in D,

and we will use the particular case y=x.

For example, if x\in V_N, the box with width N, then the box with width 2N centred on x contains the whole of V_N. So, if we set \bar {V}_{2N}:= [-N,N]^d, then with reference to the diagram, we have

G^{V_N}(x,x)\le G^{\bar{V}_{2N}}(0,0),\quad x\in V_N.

As we’ll see when we study the maximum of the DGFF on V_N, uniform control over the pointwise variance will be a useful tool.

Maximising the Green’s function

The idea of bounding G^{V_N}(x,x) by G^{\bar V_{2N}}(0,0) for any x\in V_N is clever and useful. But a more direct approach would be to find the value of x that maximises G^{V_N}(x,x). We would conjecture that when V_N has a central vertex, then this is the maximiser.

We can prove this directly from the definition of the Green’s function in terms of random walk occupation times. Let’s assume we are working with \bar{V}_N for even N, so that 0 is the central vertex. Again, since

G^D(x,x)=\frac{1}{\mathbb{P}_x(\text{RW hits }\partial D\text{ before returning to }x)}, (*)

it would suffice to show that this probability is minimised when x=0. This feels right, since 0 is furthest from the boundary. Other points are closer to the boundary in some directions but further in others, so we can’t condition on the maximum distance from its start point achieved by an excursion of SRW (we’re vertex-transitive, so these look the same from all starting points), as even allowing for the four possible rotations, for an excursion of diameter slightly larger than N, starting at the centre is maximally bad.

However, intuitively it does feel as if being closer to the boundary makes you more likely to escape earlier. In fact, with a bit more care, we can couple the SRW started from 0 and the SRW started from r=(r^x,r^y)\ne 0 such that the latter always exits first. For convenience we’ll assume also that r^x,r^y are both even.

I couldn’t find any reference to this, so I don’t know whether it’s well-known or not. The following argument involves projecting into each axis, and doing separate couplings for transitions in the x-direction and transitions in the y-direction. We assume WLOG that x is in the upper-right quadrant as shown. Then, let 0=S_0,S_1,S_2,\ldots be SRW started from 0, and we will construct r=R_0,R_1,R_2,\ldots on the same probability space as (S_m)_{m\ge 0} as follows. For every m, we set the increment R_{m+1}-R_m to be \pm(S_{m+1}-S_m). It remains to specify the sign, which will be determined by the direction of the S-increment, and a pair of stopping times. The marginal is therefore again an SRW, started from r. Temporarily, we use the unusual notation S_m= (S^x_m,S^y_m) for the coordinates of S_m.

So, if S_{m+1}-S_m=(1,0), (-1,0), ie S moves left or right, then we set

R_{m+1}-R_m = \begin{cases} -(S_{m+1}-S_m) &\quad \text{if }m<T^x\\ S_{m+1}-S_m&\quad \text{if }m>T^x.\end{cases} (*)

where T^x:= \min\{m\,:\, R^x_m=S^x_m\}. That is, R^x moves in the opposing direction to S^x until the first time when they are equal (hence the parity requirement), and then they move together. WLOG assume that r^x>0. Then suppose S^x_m=\pm N and such m is minimal. Then by construction, if m\ge T^x, then R^x_m=\pm N also. If m<T^x, then we must have S^x_m=-N, and so since R^x‘s trajectory is a mirror image of S^x‘s, in fact R^x_m = N+r^x>N, so R^x hit +N first. In both cases, we see that R^x hits \pm N at the same time or before S^x.

In other words, when S^x_m has non-negative x coordinate, the lazy random walk R^x follows the same trajectory as S^x, and when it has negative x coordinate, the R^x mirrors S^x. At some time, it may happen that S^x_m= R^x_m=0 (recall the parity condition on r). Call this time T^x. We then adjust the description of the coupling so that (*) is the mechanism for m<T^x, and then for m\ge T^x, we take S^x_m=R^x_m.

Similarly, if S_{m+1}-S_m =(0,1), (0,-1), ie S moves up or down, then we set

R_{m+1}-R_m = \begin{cases} -(S_{m+1}-S_m)&\quad \text{ if }m<T^y\\  S_{m+1}-S_m&\quad \text{if }m\le T^y,\end{cases}

with corresponding definition of the stopping time T^y.

This completes the coupling, and by considering T^x\wedge T^y, we have shown what that the exit time for the walk started from zero dominates the exit time for walk started from r. Recall that so far we are in the case where the box has even width and r=(r^x,r^y) has even coordinates.

This exit time comparison isn’t exactly what we need to compare G^N(0,0) and G^N(x,x). It’s worth remarking at this stage that if all we cared about was the Green’s function on the integer line [-N,N], we would have an easier argument, as by the harmonic property of G(\cdot,y)


G^{[-N,N]}(r,0) = \frac{N}{N+r}G^{[-N,N]}(r,r),

and so G(0,0)>G(r,r) follows by symmetry. To lift from 1D to 2D directly, we need a bit more than this. It’s possible that S returns in both x- and y- coordinates more often than R, but never at the same time. Fortunately, the coupling we defined slightly earlier does give us a bit more control.

Let \tau^x(S), \tau^x(R) be the first times that S^x, R^x hit \pm N. Under this coupling, for any m\ge 0

\mathbb{P}(S^x_m=0, m<T^x) = \mathbb{P}(R^x_m=r^x, m<T^x)

since these events are literally equal. Since we showed that \tau^x(R)\le \tau^x(S) almost surely, we can further deduce

\mathbb{P}(S^x_m=0,m<T^x\wedge \tau^x(S)) \ge \mathbb{P}(S^x_m=0,m<T^x\wedge \tau^x(R))

=\mathbb{P}(R^x_m=r^x, m <T^x \wedge \tau^x(R)).

To address the corresponding events for which m\ge T^x, we apply the strong Markov property at T^x, to obtain SRW Z_m started from r/2, and let \tau_{-N},\tau_{+N} be the hitting times of -N,+N respectively and \tau_{\pm N}=\tau_{-N}\wedge \tau_{+N}. It will now suffice to prove that

\mathbb{P}(Z_m=0, m< \tau_{\pm N}) \ge \mathbb{P}(Z_m=r,m<\tau_{\pm N}), (**)

as then we can apply the law of total probability and sum over values of T^x and m\ge 0.

To prove this result, we consider the following bijection between trajectories of length m from r/2 to {0,r}. We decompose the trajectories into excursions away from r/2, and then a final meander from r/2 to {0,r} that stays on the same side of r/2. We construct the new trajectory by preserving all the initial excursions, but reversing all the steps of the final meander. So if the original trajectory ended up at 0, the image ends up at r. Trivially, the initial excursions in the image only hit \pm N if the excursions in the original trajectory did this too. But it’s also easy to see, by a similar argument to the coupling at the start of this section, that if the original trajectory ends at r and does not hit \pm N, then so does the image. However, the converse is not true. So we conclude (**), and thus

\mathbb{P}(S_m^x=0) \ge \mathbb{P}(R_m^x=0)

for all m by combining everything we have seen so far. And so we can now lift to a statement about S_m itself, that is considering both coordinates separately.


The remaining cases for r require a little more care over the definition of T^x, though the same projection argument works, for fundamentally the same reason. (Note that in the above argument, if S^x_m=-N and m<T^x, then in fact R^x_m\ge N+2, and so it’s not hard to convince yourself that a sensible adjustment to the stopping time will allow a corresponding result with R^x_m\ge N+1 in the odd r^x case.) The case for N odd is harder, since in one dimension there are two median sites, and it’s clear by symmetry that we can’t couple them such that RW from one always exits at least as early as RW from the other. However, the distributions of exit times started from these two sites are the same (by symmetry), and so although we can’t find a coupling, we can use similar stopping times to obtain a result in probability.

In the next post, we’ll see how to apply this uniform bound on G^{V_N}(x,x) to control the maximum of the DGFF on V_N. In particular, we address how the positive correlations of DGFF influence the behaviour of the maximum by comparison with independent Gaussians at each site.

When is a Markov chain a Markov chain?

I’ve been taking tutorials on the third quarter of the second-year probability course, in which the student have met discrete-time Markov chains for the first time. The hardest aspect of this introduction (apart from the rapid pace – they cover only slightly less material than I did in Cambridge, but in half the time) is, in my opinion, choosing which definition of the Markov property is most appropriate to use in a given setting.

We have the wordy “conditional on the present, the future is independent of the past”, which is probably too vague for any precise application. Then you can ask more formally that the transition probabilities are the same under two types of conditioning, that is conditioning on the whole history, and conditioning on just the current value

\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=i_{n+1} \,\big|\, X_n=i_n,\ldots,X_0=i_0) = \mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=i_{n+1} \,\big |\, X_n=i_n), (*)

and furthermore this must hold for all sets of values (i_{n+1},\ldots,i_0) and if we want time-homogeneity (as is usually assumed at least implicitly when we use the word ‘chain’), then these expressions should be functions of (i_n,i_{n+1}) but not n.

Alternatively, one can define everything in terms of the probability of seeing a given path:

\mathbb{P}(X_0=i_0,\ldots,X_n=i_n)= \lambda_{i_0}p_{i_0,i_1}\ldots p_{i_{n-1}i_n},

where \lambda is the initial distribution, and the p_{i,j}s are the entries of the transition matrix P.

Fortunately, these latter two definitions are equivalent, but it can be hard to know how to proceed when you’re asked to show that a given process is a Markov chain. I think this is partly because this is one of the rare examples of a concept that students meet, then immediately find it hard to think of any examples of similar processes which are not Markov chains. The only similar concept I can think of are vector spaces, which share this property mainly because almost everything in first-year mathematics is linear in some regard.

Non-examples of Markov chains

Anyway, during the tutorials I was asking for some suggestions of discrete-time processes on a countable or finite state space which are not Markov chains. Here are some things we came up with:

  • Consider a bag with a finite collection of marbles of various colours. Record the colours of marbles sampled repeatedly without replacement. Then the colour of the next marble depends on the set you’ve already seen, not on the current colour. And of course, the process terminates.
  • Non-backtracking random walk. Suppose you are on a graph where every vertex has degree at least 2, and in a step you move to an adjacent vertex, chosen uniformly among the neighbours, apart from the one from which you arrived.
  • In a more applied setting, it’s reasonable to assume that if we wanted to know the chance it will rain tomorrow, this will be informed by the weather over the past week (say) rather than just today.

Showing a process is a Markov chain

We often find Markov chains embedded in other processes, for example a sequence of IID random variables X_1,X_2,\ldots. Let’s consider the random walk S_n=\sum_{i=1}^n X_i, where each X_i =\pm 1 with probability p and (1-p). Define the running maximum M_n=\max_{m\le n}S_m, and then we are interested in Y_n:=M_n-S_n, which we claim is a Markov chain, and we will use this as an example for our recipe to show this in general.

We want to show (*) for the process Y_n. We start with the LHS of (*)

\mathbb{P}(Y_{n+1}=i_{n+1} \,\big|\, Y_n=i_n,\ldots,Y_0=i_0),

and then we rewrite Y_{n+1} as much as possible in terms of previous and current values of Y, and quantities which might be independent of previous values of Y. At this point it’s helpful to split into the cases i_n=0 and i_n\ne 0. We’ll treat the latter for now. Then


so we rewrite as

=\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=i_{n+1}-i_n \, \big |\, Y_n=i_n,\ldots, Y_0=i_0),

noting that we substitute i_n for Y_n since that’s in the conditioning. But this is now ideal, since X_{n+1} is actually independent of everything in the conditioning. So we could get rid of all the conditioning. But we don’t really want to do that, because we want to have conditioning on Y_n left. So let’s get rid of everything except that:

=\mathbb{P}(X_{n+1}=i_{n+1}-i_n\, \big |\, Y_n=i_n).

Now we can exactly reverse all of the other steps to get back to

= \mathbb{P}(Y_{n+1}=i_{n+1} \,\big|\, Y_n=i_n),

which is exactly what we required.

The key idea is that we stuck to the definition in terms of Y, and held all the conditioning in terms of Y, since that what actually determines the Markov property for Y, rearranging the event until it’s in terms of one of the underlying Xs, at which point it’s easy to use independence.

Showing a process is not a Markov chain

Let’s show that M_n is not a Markov chain. The classic mistake to make here is to talk about possible paths the random walk S could take, which is obviously relevant, but won’t give us a clear reason why M is not Markov. What we should instead do is suggest two paths taken by M, which have the same ‘current’ value, but induce transition probabilities, because they place different restrictions on the possible paths taken by S.


In both diagrams, the red line indicates a possible path taken by (M_0,M_1,\ldots,M_4), and the blue lines show possible paths of S which could induce these.

In the left diagram, clearly there’s only one such path that S could take, and so we know immediately what happens next. Either X_5=+1 (with probability p) in which case M_5=S_5=3, otherwise it’s -1, in which case M_5=2.

In the right diagram, there are two possibilities. In the case that S_4=0, clearly there’s no chance of the maximum increasing. So in the absence of other information, for M_5=3, we must have X_4=X_5=+1, and so the chance of this is p^2.

So although the same transitions are possible, they have different probabilities with different information about the history, and so the Markov property does not hold here.

Hitting Probabilities for Markov Chains

This continues my previous post on popular questions in second year exams. In the interest of keeping it under 2,500 words I’m starting a new article.

In a previous post I’ve spoken about the two types of Markov chain convergence, in particular, considering when they apply. Normally the ergodic theorem can be used to treat the case where the chain is periodic, so the transition probabilities do not converge to a stationary distribution, but do have limit points – one at zero corresponding to the off-period transitions, and one non-zero. With equal care, the case where the chain is not irreducible can also be treated.

A favourite question for examiners concerns hitting probabilities and expected hitting times of a set A. Note these are unlikely to come up simultaneously. Unless the hitting probability is 1, the expected hitting time is infinite! In both cases, we use the law of total probability to derive a family of equations satisfied by the probabilities/times. The only difference is that for hitting times, we add +1 on the right hand side, as we advance one time-step to use the law of total probability.

The case of hitting probabilities is perhaps more interesting. We have:

h_i^A = 1,\; i\in A, \quad h_i^A=\sum_{j\in S}p_{ij}h_j^A,\; i\not\in A.

There are two main cases of interest: where the chain is finite but has multiple closed communicating classes, and where the chain is infinite, so even though it is irreducible, a trajectory might diverge before hitting 0.

For the case of a finite non-irreducible Markov chain, this is fairly manageable, by solving backwards from states where we know the values. Although of course you could ask about the hitting probability of an open state, the most natural question is to consider the probability of ending up in a particular closed class. Then we know that the hitting probability starting from site in the closed class A is 1, and the probability starting from any site in a different closed class is 0. To find the remaining values, we can work backwards one step at a time if the set of possible transitions is sparse enough, or just solve the simultaneous equations for \{h_i^A: i\text{ open}\}.

We therefore care mainly about an infinite state-space that might be transient. Typically this might be some sort of birth-and-death chain on the positive integers. In many cases, the hitting probability equations can be reduced to a quadratic recurrence relation which can be solved, normally ending up with the form


where \lambda might well be q/p or similar if the chain is symmetric. If the chain is bounded, typically you might know h_0=1, h_N=0 or similar, and so you can solve two simultaneous equations to find A and B. For the unbounded case you might often only have one condition, so you have to rely instead on the result that the hitting probabilities are the minimal solution to the family of equations. Note that you will always have h^i_i=1, but with no conditions, h^i_j\equiv 1 is always a family of solutions.

It is not clear a priori what it means to be a minimal solution. Certainly it is not clear why one solution might be pointwise smaller than another, but in the case given above, it makes sense. Supposing that \lambda<1, and A+B=1 say, then as we vary the parameters, the resulting set of ‘probabilities’ does indeed vary monotically pointwise.

Why is this true? Why should the minimum solution give the true hitting probability values? To see this, take the equations, and every time an h_i^A appears on the right-hand side, substitute in using the equations. So we obtain, for i\not\in A,

h_i^A=\sum_{j\in A}p_{ij}+\sum_{j\not\in A} p_{ij}h_j^A,

and after a further iteration

h_i^A=\sum_{j_1\in A}p_{ij_1}+\sum_{j_1\not\in A, j_2\in A}p_{ij_1}p_{j_1j_2}+\sum_{j_1,j_2\not\in A}p_{ij_1}p_{j_1j_2}h_{j_2}^A.

So we see on the RHS the probability of getting from i to A in one step, and in two steps, and if keep iterating, we will get a large sum corresponding to the probability of getting from i to A in 1 or 2 or … or N steps, plus an extra term. Note that the extra term does not have to correspond to the probability of not hitting A by time N. After all, we do not yet know that (h_{i}^A) as defined by the equations gives the hitting probabilities. However, we know that the probability of hitting A within N steps converges to the probability of hitting A at all, since the sequence is increasing and bounded, so if we take a limit of both sides, we get h_i^A on the left, and something at least as large as the hitting probability starting from i on the right, because of the extra positive term. The result therefore follows.

It is worth looking out for related problems that look like a hitting probability calculation. There was a nice example on one of the past papers. Consider a simple symmetric random walk on the integers modulo n, arranged clockwise in a circle. Given that you start at state 0, what is the probability that your first return to state 0 involves a clockwise journey round the circle?

Because the system is finite and irreducible, it is not particularly interesting to consider the actual hitting probabilities. Also, note that if it is convenient to do so, we can immediately reduce the problem when n is even. In two steps, the chain moves from j to j+2 and j-2 with probability ¼ each, and stays at j with probability ½. So the two step chain is exactly equivalent to the lazy version of the same dynamics on n/2.

Anyway, even though the structure is different, our approach should be the same as for the hitting probability question, which is to look one step into the future. For example, to stand a chance of working, our first two moves must both be clockwise. Thereafter, we are allowed to move anticlockwise. There is nothing special about starting at 0 in defining the original probability. We could equally well ask for the probability that starting from j, the first time we hit 0 we have moved clockwise round the circle.

The only thing that is now not obvious is how to define moving clockwise round the circle, since it is not the case that all the moves have to be clockwise to have experienced a generally clockwise journey round the circle, but we definitely don’t want to get into anything complicated like winding numbers! In fact, the easiest way to make the definition is that given the hitting time of 0 is T, we demand that the chain was at state n at time T-1.

For convenience (ie to make the equations consistent) we take h_0=0, h_n=1 in an obvious abuse of notation, and then

h_j=\frac12h_{j-1}+\frac12 h_{j+1},

from which we get

h_j=a+bj \Rightarrow h_j=\frac{j}{n}.

Of course, once we have this in mind, we realise that we could have cut the circle at 0 (also known as n) and unfolded it to reduce the problem precisely to symmetric gambler’s ruin. In particular, the answer to the original problem is 1/2n, which is perhaps just a little surprising – maybe by thinking about the BM approximation to simple random walk, and that BM started from zero almost certainly crosses zero infinitely many times near we might have expected this probability to decay faster. But once it is unfolded into gambler’s ruin, we have the optimal stopping martingale motivation to reassure us that this indeed looks correct.

Coupling from the Past

In a long series of previous posts I have talked about mixing times for Markov chains. We consider how long it takes for the distribution of a particular Markov chain to approach equilibrium. We are particularly interested in the asymptotics when some parameter of the model grows, such as the size of the state space, grows to infinity.

But why are we interested in the underlying problem? The idea of Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods is to sample from an intractable distribution by instead sampling from a Markov chain which approximates the distribution well at large times. A distribution might be intractable because it is computationally demanding to work out the normalising constant, or it might be distributed uniformly on a complicated combinatorial set. If, however, the distribution is the equilibrium distribution of some Markov chain, then we know how to at least sample from a distribution which is close to the one we want. But we need to know how long to run the process. We will typically tolerate some small error in approximating the distribution (whether we measure this in terms of total variation distance or some other metric doesn’t really matter at this heuristic level), but we need to know how it scale. If we double the size of the system, do we need to double the number of iterations of the chain, or square it. This is really important if we are going to use this for large real-world models with finite computing power!

Sometimes though, an approximation is not enough. If we want an exact sample from the equilibrium distribution, Markov chains typically will not help us as it is only in very artificial examples that the distribution after some finite time is actually the equilibrium distribution. One thing that we might use is a stationary time, which is a stopping time T, for which X_T\stackrel{d}{=}\pi. Note that there is one trivial way to do this. We can sample Y from distribution \pi before starting the process, then stop X at the first time T for which X_T=Y. But this is no help really, as we need to have Y in the first place!

So we are really interested in less trivial stationary times. Perhaps the best example is the top-to-random shuffle. Here we are given a pack of labelled cards, WLOG initially in descending order at each step we move the top card in the pile to a randomly-chosen location in the pile (which includes back onto the top). Then it turns out that the first time we move the card originally at the bottom from the top to somewhere is a strong stationary time. This is fairly natural, as by this time, every card has been involved in at least one randomising event.

Anyway, so this gives a somewhat artificial way to sample from the uniform distribution on a pack of cards. This strong stationary time is almost surely finite, with distribution given by the coupon collector problem, for which the expectation grows as n\log n, where n is the number of cards.

The problem with this method is that it is not easy in general to come up with a non-contrived stationary time such as this one. The idea of coupling from the past, discussed by some previous authors but introduced in this context by Propp and Wilson in the mid ’90s, is another method to achieve perfect sampling from the equilibrium distribution of a Markov chain. The idea here is to work backwards rather than forwards. The rest of this post, which discusses this idea, is based on the talk given at the Junior Probability Seminar by Irene, and on the chapter in the Levin, Peres, Wilmer book.

The key to the construction is a coupling of the transitions of a Markov chain. In the setting of a simple random walk, we have by construction a coupling of the transitions. It doesn’t matter which state we are at: we toss a coin to decide whether to move up or down, and we can do this without reference to our current position. Levin, Peres and WIlmer call this a random mapping representation in general, and it is yet another concept that is less scary than its definition might suggest.

Given a transition matrix P on state space S, such a representation is a function

\phi: S\times[0,1]\rightarrow S,\text{ s.t. }\mathbb{P}(\phi(i,U)=j)=p_{ij},

where U is a U(0,1) random variable independent of choice of i. In particular, once we have the random value of u, we can consider \phi(i,u) as i varies, to obtain a random map S\rightarrow S. Crucially, this map is not necessarily a bijection.

Note first that there are many possibilities for constructing the representation \phi. For some chains, and some representations, in particular random walks on vertex-transitive graphs (such as SRW – only for now we are restricting attention to finite state spaces) it is possible to choose \phi so that it always gives a bijection, but it is also always possible to choose it so that there is some probability it doesn’t give a bijection.

Let U_1,U_2,\ldots be an IID sequence of U[0,1] random variables, and write \phi_i for the random map induced by U_i. Then consider the sequence of iterated maps:

\phi_1, \phi_1\circ \phi_2, \ldots, \phi_1\circ\ldots\circ\phi_n,

and let T be the (random) smallest time such that the image of \phi_1\circ\ldots\circ \phi_T is a single state. Ie, as we go backwards in time through the maps \phi_i, we are gradually losing various states, corresponding to the maps not being bijections. Since the state space is finite, and the probability of not being a bijection is positive, it can be shown that T is almost surely finite. The claim then is that

Y=\text{Im}(\phi_1\circ\ldots\circ \phi_T)

is distributed as the equilibrium distribution of the chain. We finish by proving this.

Proof: Since the algorithm terminates after finite time almost surely, given any \epsilon>0, we can choose N such that the probability the algorithm stops in at most N steps is greater than 1-\epsilon.

Now run the Markov chain from time -N, started in the equilibrium distribution, with the transition from time -t to -(t-1) given by the random mapping driven by U_t. Thus at time 0, the distribution of the chain is still the equilibrium distribution. But if we condition on the event that T\le N, then X_0=\phi_1\circ \ldots \circ\phi_n(X_{-N})=Y regardless of the initial value. So \mathbb{P}(X_0\ne Y)<\epsilon, and hence the result follows, since \epsilon>0 was arbitrary.

What makes this easier than strong stationary times is that we don’t have to be clever to come up with the stopping time. It is however still important to know how long on average it takes to run the algorithm. At the end of her talk, Irene showed how to adapt this algorithm to deal with Probabilistic Cellular Automata. Roughly speaking, these are a sequence of infinite strings of 0s and 1s. The value of some element is determined randomly as a function of the values in the row underneath, say the element directly underneath and the two either side. In that setting, if you start with a finite subsequence and couple from the past by looking down to lower rows, each time you drop down a row you consider one further element, so in fact the coupling from the past algorithm has to eliminate possibilities fast enough to make up for this, if we want to terminate almost surely in finite time.

Here’s a link to the paper which discusses this in fuller detail.

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Lamperti Walks


The theory of simple random walks on the integer lattice is a classical topic in probability theory. Polya proved in the 1920s that such a SRW on \mathbb{Z}^d is recurrent only for d=1 or 2. The argument is essentially combinatorial. We count the number of possible paths from 0 back to itself and show that this grows fast enough that even with the probabilistic penalty of having a particular long path we will still repeatedly see this event happening. In larger dimensions there is essentially ‘more space’ at large distances, at least comparatively, so a typical walk is more likely to escape into this space.

As Kakutani (of the product martingale theorem) said, and was subsequently quoted as the dedication on every undergraduate pdf about random walks: “A drunk man will find his way home, whereas a drunk bird may get lost forever.”

But transience in some sense a long-distance property. We can fiddle with the transition rates near zero and, so long as we don’t make anything deterministic this shouldn’t affect transience properties. Obviously if we have a (space-)homogeneous nearest-neighbour random walk on the integers with non-zero drift the process will be transient: it drifts towards positive infinity if the drift is positive. But can we have a random walk with non-zero drift, but where the drift tends to zero at large distances fast enough, and the process is still recurrent? What is the correct scaling for the decay of the drift to see interesting effects?

The answers to these questions is seen in the so-called Lamperti random walks, which were a recurring theme of the meeting on Aspects of Random Walks held in Durham this week. Thanks to the organisers for putting on such an excellent meeting. I hadn’t known much about this topic before, so thought it might be worth writing a short note.

As explained above, we consider time-homogeneous random walks. It will turn out that the exact distributions of the increments is not hugely important. Most of the properties we might care about will be determined only by the first two moments, which we define as:

\mu_1(x)=\mathbb{E}[X_{t+1}-X_t | X_t=x],

\mu_2=\mathbb{E}[(X_{t+1}-X_t)^2 | X_t=x].

Note that because the drift will be asymptotically zero, the second term is asymptotically equal to the variance of the increment. It will also turn out that the correct scaling for \mu_1 to see a phase transition is \mu_1(x)\sim \frac{c}{x}.

We begin by seeing how this works in the simplest possible example, from Harris (1952). Let’s restrict attention to a random walk on the non-negative integers, and impose the further condition that increments are +1 or -1. In the notation of a birth-and-death process from a first course on Markov chains, we can set:

p_j:=\mathbb{P}(X_{t+1}=j+1| X_t=j), \quad q_j=1-p_j.

We will set p_j=\frac12 + \frac{c}{2j}. Then a condition for transience is that

1+\frac{q_1}{p_1}+\frac{q_1q_2}{p_1p_2}+\ldots <\infty.

In our special case:

\frac{q_1\ldots q_r}{p_1\ldots p_r}\approx\frac{(r-2c)(r-1-2c)(r-2-2c)\ldots}{r!}\approx \frac{1}{r^{2c}}.

So we can deduce that this sum converges if c>1/2, giving transience. A similar, but slightly more complicated calculation specifies the two regimes of recurrence. If -1/2<=c<=1/2 then the chain is null-recurrent, meaning that the expected time to return to any given state is infinite. If c<-1/2, then it is positive recurrent.

In general, we assume \mu_1(x)\sim \frac{c}{x} and \mu_2(x)\approx s^2. In the case above, obviously s^2=1. The general result is that under mild assumptions on the increment distributions, for instance a (2+\epsilon)-moment, if we define r=-\frac{2c}{s^2}, then the RW is transient if r<-1, positive-recurrent if r>1, and null-recurrent otherwise. This is the main result of Lamperti.

To explain why we have parameterised exactly like this, it makes sense to talk about the more general proof methods, as obviously the direct Markov chain calculation won’t work in general. The motivating idea is that we can deal well with the situation where the drift is zero, so let’s transform the random walk so that the drift becomes zero. A function of a Markov chain that is more stable (in some sense) that the original MC, for analysis at least, is sometimes called a Lyapunov function. Here, the sensible thing is to consider Y_t=X_t^\gamma, for some exponent \gamma>0.

So long as our distributions are fairly well-behaved (eg a finite 2+\epsilon-moment), we can calculate the drift of Y as

\mathbb{E}[Y_{t+1}-Y_t| X_t=x]=\frac{\gamma}{2}x^{\gamma-2}(2c+(1-\gamma)s^2) +o(x^{\gamma-2}).

In particular, taking \gamma=1+r results in a random walk that is ‘almost’ a martingale. Note that the original RW was almost a martingale, in the sense that the drift is asymptotically zero, but now it is zero to second order as well.

To draw any rigorous conclusions, we need to be careful about exactly how precise this approximation is, but we won’t worry about that now. In particular, we need to know whether we can take this approximation over the optional stopping theorem, as this allows us to say:

\mathbb{P}(X\text{ hits }x\text{ before 0})=\mathbb{P}(Y\text{ hits }x^\gamma\text{ before 0})\sim x^{-\gamma}.

This is particularly useful for working out the expected excursion time away from 0, which precisely leads to the condition for null-recurrence.

In his talk, Ostap Hryniv showed that this Lyapunov function analysis can be taken much further, to derive much more precise results about excursions, maxima and ergodicity. Results of Menshikov and Popov from the 90s further specify the asymptotics for the invariant distribution, if it exists, in terms of r.

One cautionary remark I should make is that earlier I implied that once we know the drift of such a random walk is zero, we have recurrence. This is true on \mathbb{Z} with very mild restrictions, but is not necessarily true in higher dimensions. For example, consider the random walk on \mathbb{R}^2, where conditional on X_t, the increment is X_{t+1}-X_t is of length 1 and perpendicular to the vector X_t. The two possible directions are equally likely. The drift is therefore 0 everything, and the second moment is also well-behaved, but note that ||X_t||^2=t^2, just by considering Pythagoras. So in higher dimensions, we have to be a bit more careful, and put restrictions on the covariance structure of the increment distributions.

As a final comment, note that from Lamperti’s result, we can re-derive Polya’s result about SRW in higher dimensions. If we have X_t an SRW on \mathbb{Z}^d, then consider Y_t=||X_t||. By considering a couple of examples in two-dimensions, it is clear that this is not Markov. But the methods we considered above for the Lamperti walks were really martingale methods rather than Markov chain methods. And indeed this process Y has asymptotically zero drift with the right scaling. Here,

c=\frac{1}{2}(1-\frac{1}{d}),\quad s^2=\frac{1}{d},

and so r=d-1, leading to exactly the result we know to be true, that the SRW is transient precisely in three dimensions and higher.


Harris – First Passage and Recurrence Distributions (1952)

The slides from Ostap Hryniv’s talk, on which this was based, can be found here.

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Convergence of Transition Probabilities

As you can see, I haven’t got round to writing a post for a while. Some of my reasons for this have been good, and some have not. One reason has been that I’ve had to give a large number of tutorials for the fourth quarter of the second year probability course here in Oxford. The second half of this course concerns discrete-time Markov chains, and the fourth problem sheet discusses various modes of convergence for such models, as well as a brief tangent onto Poisson Processes. I’ve written more about Poisson Processes than perhaps was justifiable in the past, so I thought I’d say some words about convergence of transition probabilities in discrete-time Markov chains.

Just to be concrete, let’s assume the state space K is finite, and labelled {1,2,…,k}, so that it becomes meaningful to discuss


That is, the probability that if we start at state 1, then after n ‘moves’ we are at state 2. We are interested in the circumstances under which this converges to the stationary distribution. The heuristic is that we can view a time-step of a Markov chain as an operation on the space of distributions on K. Note that this operation is deterministic. If this sounds complicated, what we mean is that we specify an initial distribution, that is the distribution of X_0. If we consider the distribution of X_1, this is given by \lambda P, where \lambda is the initial distribution, and P the transition matrix.

Anyway, the heuristic is that the stationary distribution is the unique fixed point of this operation on the space of distributions. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that unless there are some periodic effects, we expect repeated use of this operation to move us closer to this fixed point.

We can further clarify this by considering the matrix form. Note that a transition P always has an eigenvalue equal to 1. This is equivalent to say that there is a solution to \pi P=\pi. Note it is not immediately equivalent to saying that P has a stationary distribution, as the latter must be non-negative and have elements summing to one. Only the first property is difficult, and relies on some theory or cleverness to prove. It can also be shown that all eigenvalues satisfy |\lambda|\le 1, and in general, there will be a single eigenvalue (ie dimension 1 eigenspace) with |\lambda|=1, and the rest satisfies |\lambda|<1. Then, if we diagonalise P, it is clear why \pi P^n converges entry-wise, as \pi UP^n U^{-1} converges. In the latter, only the entries in the row corresponding to \lambda=1 converge to something non-zero.

In summary, there is a strong heuristic for why in general, the transition probabilities should converge, and if they converge, that they should converge to the stationary distribution. In fact, we can prove that for any finite Markov chain, p_{ij}^{(n)}\rightarrow \pi_j, provided we two conditions hold. The conditions are that the chain is irreducible and aperiodic.

In the rest of this post, I want to discuss what might go wrong when these conditions are not satisfied. We begin with irreducibility. A chain is irreducible if it has precisely one communicating class. That means that we can get from any state to any other state, not necessarily in one step, with positive probability. One obvious reason why the statement of the theorem cannot hold in this setting is that \pi is not uniquely defined when the chain is not irreducible. Suppose, for example, that we have two closed communicating classes A and B. Then, supported on each of them is an invariant distribution \pi^A and \pi^B, so any affine combination of the two \lambda \pi^A+(1-\lambda) \pi^B will give a stationary distribution for the whole chain.

In fact, the solution to this problem is not too demanding. If we are considering p_{ij}^{(n)} for i\in A a closed communicating class, then we know that p_{ij}^{(n)}=0 whenever j\not\in A. For the remaining j, we can use the theorem in its original form on the Markov chain, with state space reduced to A. Here, it is now irreducible.

The only case left to address is if i is in an open communicating class. In that case, it suffices to work out the hitting probabilities starting from i of each of the closed communicating classes. Provided these classes themselves satisfy the requirements of the theorem, we can write

p_{ij}^{(n)}\rightarrow h_i^A \pi^A_j,\quad i\not\in A, j\in A.

To prove this, we need to show that as the number of steps grows to infinity, the probability that we are in closed class A converges to h_i^A. Then, we decompose this large number of steps so to say that not only have we entered A with roughly the given probability, but in fact with roughly the given probability we entered A a long time in the past, and so there has been enough time for the original convergence result to hold in A.

Now we turn to periodicity. If a chain has period k, this says that we can split the state space into k classes A_1,\ldots,A_k, such that p_{ij}^{(n)}=0 whenever n\not\equiv j-i \mod k. Equivalently, the directed graph describing the possible transitions of the chain is k-partite. This definition makes it immediately clear that p_{ij}^{(n)} cannot converge in this case. However, it is possible that p_{ij}^{(kn)} will converge. Indeed, to verify this, we would need to consider the Markov chain with transition matrix P^k. Note that this is no longer irreducible, as it there are no transitions allowed between classes A_1,\ldots,A_k. Indeed, a more formal definition of the period, in terms of the lcd of possible return times allows us to conclude that there is no finer reducibility structure. That is, A_1,\ldots,A_k genuinely are the closed classes when we consider the chain with matrix P^k. And so the Markov chain with transition matrix P^k restricted to any of the A_is satisfies the conditions of the theorem.

There remains one case which I’ve casually brushed over. When we were discussing the irreducible case, I said that if we had at least one communicating classes, then we could work out the limiting transition probabilities from a state in an open class to a state in a closed class by calculating the hitting probability of that closed class, then applying the standard version of the theorem to that closed class. This relies on the closed class being aperiodic.

Suppose otherwise that the destination closed class A has period k as before. If it were to be the case that the number of steps required to arrive at A had some fixed value mod k, or modulo a non-trivial divisor of k, then we certainly wouldn’t have convergence, for the same reasons as in the globally periodic case. However, we should ask whether we can ever have convergence?

In fact, the answer is yes. For concreteness, and because it’s easier to write ‘odd’ and ‘even’ than m \mod k, let’s assume A has size 2 and period 2. That is, once we arrive in A, thereafter we alternate deterministically between the two states. Anyway, for some large time n, we can write p_{ca}^{(n)} for a\in A, c\not\in A as:


where the latter term is the probability that we arrive in A at a time-step which has the same parity as n. It’s not terribly hard to come up with an example where this holds, and this idea holds in greater generality, where A has period k (and not necessarily just k states), we have to demand that the probability of arriving at a time which is a mod k is equal for all a in [0,k-1].

Of course, for applications, we don’t normally care much about irreducible chains, and we can easily remove periodicity by introducing so-called laziness, whereby on each time-step we flip a coin (biased if necessary) and stay put if it comes up heads, and apply the transition matrix if it comes up tails. Then it’s possible to get from any state to itself in one step, and so we are by construction aperiodic.

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Recent Research Activity

I’ve spent this week in Luminy, near Marseille, attending a summer school run by ALEA, the organisation of French probabilists. We’ve been staying in CIRM, a dedicated maths research conference centre at the edges of the calanques, the area of mountains and jagged coastal inlets between Marseille and Cassis. The walking possibilities have been excellent, as have the courses and lectures, on a range of topics in probability theory.

Anyway, the time here has been an excellent moment to reflect on my research progress, and try to come up with the sort of fresh ideas that are perhaps slightly inhibited by sitting at a desk with an endless supply of paper on which to try calculations. When I get back, I have to submit a first-year report, so at least for a little while I will have to suppress the desire to make further progress and instead diligently assemble the progress I have made.

The Model

I’ve defined some of these processes in past posts, but I see no harm in doing so again. We take the standard Erdos-Renyi random graph process, where edges are added one-at-a-time uniformly at random between n vertices, and amend it by adding a deletion mechanism. The aim is to arrive at a process which looks in equilibrium more like the critical random graph than either the subcritical or supercritical regimes, where the components are very small, and dominated by one giant component respectively. Rath, Toth and others have studied the process where each vertex is hit by lightning at uniform rate. When this happens, we delete all the edges in the component containing that vertex. Naturally, big components will be hit by lightning more often than small components, and so this acts as a mechanism to prevent the formation of giant components, if scaled correctly.

We take a different approach. We observe that criticality in the original random graph process is denoted by the first appearance of a giant component, but also by the first appearance of a) lots of cycles, and b) large cycles. In particular, it is very unlikely that a giant component could form without containing any cycles. We will therefore use the appearance of a cycle to trigger some form of deletion mechanism.

Our final goal is to treat the so-called ‘Cycle Deletion’ model. Here, whenever a cycle appears, we delete all the edges in that cycle immediately. There are several challenges in treating this model, because the rate at which cycles emerge in a tree is a function of the tree structure. The trees in this model will not be Uniform Spanning Trees (though it is very possible that they will be ‘almost USTs’ in some sense – we need to investigate this further) so it will be hard to make nice statements about the rates. For the standard random graph process, if we are only interested in the sizes of the components, we are actually allowed to ignore the graph structure entirely. The component sizes evolve as a discrete, stochastic version of the multiplicative coalescent (sometimes called a Marcus-Lushnikov process). We would like a deletion mechanism that has a nice interpretation as a fragmentation operation in the same sense. The rate at which a component fragments will be quadratic in the size of the component, since there are O(k^2) possible edges between k vertices forming a component, and adding any of precisely these will create a cycle.

I’ve talked previously about how to overcome the problems with the tree structure in Cycle Deletion with the so-called Uniform Cycle Deleting model. In any case, as a starting point we might consider the Cycle-Induced Forest Fire model. Here, whenever a cycle appears, we delete all the edges, including the new one, in the whole component which contains the cycle.

We suspect this model may resemble the critical random graph at all times. The main characteristic of G(n,1/n) is that the largest component is of size O(n^2/3), and indeed there are arbitrarily many components of this size, with high probability in the limit. Since CIFF is recurrent for any fixed n, meaning that it will visit any state infinitely often (rather than tending to infinity or similar), we should ask what the largest component is typically in the equilibrium distribution. Our aim is to prove that it is O(n^2/3). We might suspect that the typical size of the largest component will be greater in the Cycle Deletion model, since each fragmentation event is less severe there, removing fewer edges.

An Upper Bound

The nice thing about Markov chains is that they have an ergodic property, which means that if you run them for long enough, the proportion of time spent in any state is given by the stationary probability of being in that state. It doesn’t matter whether or not you start in equilibrium, since it will converge anyway. Thus it is meaningful to talk about properties like the average number of isolated vertices as a time-average as well as an average with respect to some distribution.

This quantity is the key to an upper bound. We can equally talk about the average change in the number of isolated vertices in a time-step. This will increase when a component fragments, and will decrease when an isolated vertex coalesces with another component. In particular, the largest possible decrease in the number of isolated vertices in a single time-step is 2, corresponding to an edge appearing between two isolated vertices.

Suppose that with probability \Theta(1) there is a component of size n^\alpha for some \alpha>2/3. Then such a component makes a contribution to the expected change in the number of isolated vertices of

\Theta(1) n^\alpha \left(\frac{n^\alpha}{n}\right)^2. (*)

Where does this come from? Well, we are tracking the contributions from the event that the largest component is of this size and that it fragments, giving n^\alpha new isolated vertices. So the \Theta(1) accounts for the probability that there is such a component to begin with. Then, conditional on that, the probability that it gets fragmented in the next time-step is the probability that both ends of the next edge added lie in that component. Since the edge is chosen uniformly at random, the probability of this is n^\alpha/n. Note that this is under a slightly odd definition of an edge, that allows loops. Basically, I don’t want to have lots of correction terms involving \binom{n}{2} floating around. However, it would make no difference to the orders of magnitude if we to do it with these.

So, this is only one contribution to the typical rate of gain of isolated vertices. Now note that if \alpha>2/3, then this expression is >> 1. This is bad since the negative contributions to this expected flux in the number of isolated vertices is O(1). So this suggests that over time, the number of isolated vertices will keep growing. This is obviously ridiculous since a) we are in equilibrium, so the expected flux should be 0 and b) the number of isolated vertices cannot exceed n, for clear reasons.

This gives us an upper bound of n^2/3 as the typical scale of the largest component. We can come up with a similar argument for the cycle deleting model. The most helpful thing to track there is the number of edges in the graph. Note that since the graph is at all times a forest on n vertices, the number of edges is equal to n minus the number of (tree) components. We use the fact that the typical fragmentation of a component of size k creates O(\sqrt{k}) new components. It is possible to argue via isolated vertices here too, but the estimates are harder, or at least less present in the literature.

Lower Bounds?

The problem with lower bounds is that it is entirely possible that the flux in the number of isolated vertices is not driven by typical behaviour. Suppose for example we had a different rule. We begin a random graph process, and the first time we see a cycle in a component with size larger than n^2/3, we delete all the edges in the whole graph. Then we will see a sequence of random graph processes starting with the empty graph and stopped at some point close to criticality (in fact, with high probability in the *critical window*), and these will all be glued together. So then, most of the time the process will look subcritical, but the gains in isolated vertices will occur only during the critical periods, which are only an asymptotically small proportion of the time.

At the moment, my approach to the lower bound is instead to prove that the upper bound is tight. I mean this in the following sense. Suppose we wanted to be sure that (*) was in fact equal to the average rate of gain of isolated vertices. We would have to check the following:

  • That the total contributions from all other components were similar or smaller than from the component(s) of size roughly n^{\alpha}.
  • That there were only a few components of size n^{\alpha}. In particular, the estimate would be wrong if there were n^\epsilon such components for any \epsilon>0.
  • That it cannot be the case that for example, some small proportion of the time there is a component of size roughly n^{\alpha+\epsilon}, and over a large enough time these make a greater contribution to the average gain in isolated vertices.

A nice way to re-interpret this is to consider some special vertex and track the size of its component in time. It will be involved in repeated fragmentations over the course of time, so it is meaningful to talk about the distribution of the size of the component containing the vertex when it is fragmented. Our aim is to show that this distribution is concentrated on the scaling O(n^\alpha).

So this has turned out to be fairly hard. Rather than try to explain some of the ideas I’ve employed in attempting to overcome this, I will finish by giving one reason why it is hard.

We have seen that the component sizes in random graphs evolve as the multiplicative coalescent, but at a fixed moment in time, we can derive good estimates from an analogy with branching processes. We might like to do that here. If we know what the system looks like most of the time, we might try to ‘grow’ a multiplicative coalescent, viewing it like a branching process, with distribution given by the typical distribution. The problem is that when I do this, I find that the expectation of the offspring distribution is \Theta(1). This looks fine, since 1 is the threshold for extinction with probability 1. However, throughout the analysis, I have only been paying attention to the exponent of n in all the time and size estimates. For example, I view n^\alpha and n^\alpha \log n as the same. This is a problem, as when I say the expectation is \Theta(1), I am really saying it is \sim n^0. This means it could be \frac{1}{\log n} or \log n. Of course, there is a massive difference between these, since a branching process grows expectationally!

So, this approach appears doomed in its current form. I have some other ideas, but a bit more background may be required before going into those. I’m going to be rather busy with teaching on my return to the office, so unfortunately it is possible that there may be many posts about second year probability and third year applied probability before anything more about CIFF.

Mixing Times 6 – Aldous-Broder Algorithm and Cover Times

In several previous posts, I’ve discussed the Uniform Spanning Tree. The definition is straightforward: we choose uniformly at random from the set of trees which span a fixed underlying graph. But for a dense underlying graph, there are a very large number spanning trees. Cayley’s formula says that the complete graph K_n has n^{n-2} spanning trees, so to select from this list is impractical.

We seek a better algorithm. In a post about a year ago, I presented the result that the path between two fixed points x and y in the UST is distributed as the path generated by Loop-Erased Random Walk, for which we start at x and delete cycles as they appear. An initial problem might be that this only gives us a single path, which might be enough in some contexts, but in general we will want to specify the whole tree. Wilson’s Algorithm is an unsurprising but useful extension to this equivalence which does just that. You start by constructing the LERW between two vertices, then you add the LERW which connects some other vertex to the path you already have. Then you take a further vertex not currently explored and start LERW there, continuing until you hit the tree that you already have. Iterate this process, which must terminate after at most n steps when there are no vertices which to start from. The tree thus obtained is the UST. The tricky part is proving that the method for selecting which unused vertices to start from has no effect on the distribution of paths between two fixed points.

I want to consider a different algorithm, discovered roughly simultaneously by Aldous and Broder. Start a random walk on the underlying graph at some particular vertex. Every time we traverse an edge which takes us to a vertex we haven’t yet explored, add this edge to the tree. For now I don’t want to give a proof that this algorithm works, but rather to talk about how fast it works, because it ties in nicely with something from the Mixing Times book we’ve been reading recently. It is clear that the algorithm terminates at the first time the random walk has visited every vertex. This is a stopping time, called the cover time of the Markov chain. If we are working with an underlying complete, then we notice that this is annoying, because it means that the cover time will increase like n.log n. That is, it will take an increasingly long time to gather the final few vertices into the tree. Perhaps some combination of Aldous-Broder initially then Wilson’s method for the final o(n) vertices might be preferable?

I want to discuss how to treat this cover time. Often we have information about the hitting times of states from other states \mathbb{E}_x T_y. A relationship between S, the hitting time, defined to be the maximum of the previous display over x and y, and the expected cover time would be useful, especially for a highly symmetric graph like the complete graph where the expected hitting times are all the same.

Matthews’ Method relates these two for an irreducible finite Markov chain on n states. It says:

t_{cov}\leq t_{hit}\left(1+\frac12+\ldots+\frac 1 n\right).

We first remark that this agrees with what we should get for the random walk on the complete graph. There, the hitting time of x from y is a geometric random variable with success probability 1/n, hence expectation is n. The cover time is the standard coupon collector problem, giving expectation n log n, and the sum of reciprocals factor is asymptotically a good approximation.

The intuition is that if we continue until we hit state 1, then reset and continue until we hit state 2, and so on, by the time we hit state n after (n-1) iterations, this is a very poor overestimate of the cover time, because we are actually likely to have hit most states many times. What we want to do really is say that after we’ve hit state 1, we continue until we hit state 2, unless we’ve already done so, in which case we choose a different state to aim for, one which we haven’t already visited. But this becomes complicated because we then need to know the precise conditional probabilities of visiting any site on the way between two other states, which will depend rather strongly on the exact structure of the chain.

Peres et al give a coupling proof in Chapter 11 of their book which I think can be made a bit shorter, at least informally. The key step is that we still consider hitting the sites in order, only now in a random order.

That is, we choose a permutation \sigma\in S_n uniformly at random, and we let T_k be the first time that states \sigma(1),\ldots,\sigma(k) have all been visited. This is a random time that is measurable in the product space, and for each \sigma it is a stopping time.

The key observation is that \mathbb{P}(T_{k+1}=T_k)=1-\frac{1}{k+1}. This holds conditional on any path of the Markov chain because the requirement for the event is that \sigma(k+1) is visited after \{\sigma(1),\ldots,\sigma(k)\}. The statement therefore holds as stated as well as just pathwise. Then, by the SMP, conditional on \{T_{k+1}>T_k\}, we have

T_{k+1}-T_k \leq_{st} t_{hit}.

Note that by the definition of t_{hit}, this bound on the hitting time T_{k+1} is unaffected by concerns about where the chain actually is at T_k (since it is not necessarily at \sigma(k)).

So, removing the conditioning, we have:


and so the telescoping sum gives us Matthews’ result.

One example is the cover time of random walk on the n x n torus, which turns out to be

O(n^2(\log n)^2).

If anyone remembers that Microsoft screensaver from many years ago which started with a black screen and a snake leaving a trail of white pixels as it negotiated the screen, this will be familiar. The last few black bits take a frustratingly long while to disappear. Obviously that isn’t quite a random walk, but it perhaps diminishes the surprise that it should take this long to find the cover time.

There are a couple of interesting things I wanted to say about electrical networks for Markov chains and analytic methods for mixing times, but the moment may have passed, so this is probably the last post about Mixing Times. Plans are in motion for a similar reading group next term, possible on Random Matrices.

Mixing Times 5 – Cesaro Mixing

We have just finished discussing chapters 11 and 12 of Markov Chains and Mixing Times, the end of the ‘core material’. I thought that, rather than addressing some of the more interesting but technical spectral methods that have just arisen, it would be a good subject for a quick post to collate some of the information about Cesaro mixing, which is spread throughout this first section.


A main result in the introductory theory of Markov chains is that for an irreducible aperiodic chain X, the distribution of X_t\rightarrow \pi, the (unique) equilibrium distribution. The mixing time gives the rate at which this first mode of convergence takes place. We have freedom over the initial state, so we typically consider the ‘worst case scenario’, ie the slowest convergence. The most appropriate metric is given by the total variation distance, which is defined in previous posts. The most important point to note is that the mixing time should be thought of as the correct timescale for convergence, rather than some threshold. In particular, the time at which the chain is within 1/4 of the equilibrium distribution in the TV metric has the same order magnitude (in n, some parameter controlling the number of states) as the time at which it is within 1/20 of the equilibrium distribution.

But this isn’t the only result about convergence in distribution of functionals of Markov chains. Perhaps more intuitive is the ergodic theorem which asserts that the proportion of time spent in a particular state also converges to the equilibrium probability as time advances. We might write:

\frac{1}{t}\sum_t \mathbf{1}(X_t=x)\rightarrow \pi(x),\quad \forall x\in \Omega.

Note that if the state space \Omega is finite, then we can also assume that this occurs uniformly in x. We can also think of the LHS of this convergence as a measure on \Omega varying in time

\frac{1}{t}\sum_t \mathbf{1}(X_t=\cdot),

and the mixing time for this sequence of measures is defined as for the conventional mixing time, and is called the Cesaro mixing time, at least in the Levin / Peres / Wilmer text.


There are some obvious advantages to considering Cesaro mixing. Principally, a main drawback of conventional mixing is that we are unable to consider periodic chains. This property was the main content of the previous post, but to summarise, if a chain switches between various classes in a partition of the state space in a deterministic periodic way, then the distribution does not necessarily converge to equilibrium. The previous post discusses several ways of resolving this problem in specific cases. Note that this problem does not affect Cesaro mixing as the ergodic theorem continues to hold in the periodic case. Indeed the form of the distribution (which we might call an occupation measure in some contexts) confirms the intuition about viewing global mixing as a sort of sum over mixing modulo k in time.

Other advantages include the fact that the dependence on the initial state is weaker. For instance, consider the occupation measures for a chain started at x which moves first to y, versus a chain which starts at y then proceeds as the original. It requires very little thought to see that for O(1) values of t, this difference in occupation measures between these chains becomes small.

Another bonus is that we can use so-called stationary times to control Cesaro mixing. A stationary time is a stopping time such that X_\tau\stackrel{d}{=}\pi. It is clear that if we wait until \tau, then run the chain for a further \alpha\tau, the chain will have spent \frac{\alpha}{1+\alpha} of its duration in the equilibrium distribution, and so using Markov’s inequality and bounding the total variation distance between occupation measure and \pi by 1 up until the stationary time, we can get good bounds for the Cesaro mixing time in terms of \mathbb{E}\tau.

Why does this fail to work for normal mixing? The key to the above argument was that by taking an average over time up to some T>>\tau, the dependence on the actual value of X_\tau was suppressed. Consider the deterministic walk on the cycle \mathbb{Z}_n, which advances by 1 modulo n on each go. Now sample independently a random variable Z distributed uniformly on \mathbb{Z}_n. By definition, the random hitting time \tau_Z is a stationary time, but in fact the chain’s distribution does not converge. The condition we actually require for normal mixing is that \tau be a strong stationary time, meaning that X_\tau\stackrel{d}{=}\pi, and the value of X_\tau is independent of \tau. With this definition we can proceed with a similar result for normal mixing. An example of a strong stationary time would be for shuffling a pack of cards by repeatedly inserting the top card into a random place in the rest of the pile. Then consider the moment at which the original bottom card first reaches the top of the pile. It does not take too much to reassure oneself that after the next move, we have a strong stationary time, since every card has been randomised at least once, and the position of the other cards is independent of how long it took the original bottom card to rise to the top.


So why do we not consider Cesaro mixing rather than the conventional variety? Well, mainly because of how we actually use mixing times. The Metropolis algorithm gives a way to generate chains with a particular equilibrium distribution, including ones for which it is hard to sample directly. Mixing time theory then gives a quantitative answer to the question of how long it is necessary to run such a chain for before it gives a good estimate to the equilibrium distribution. In many cases, such a random walk on a large unknown network, the main aim when applying such Monte Carlo procedures is to minimise the difficulty of calculation. For Cesaro mixing, you have to store all the information about path states, while for conventional mixing you only care about your current location.

The other phenomenon that is lacking in Cesaro mixing is cutoff. This is where the total variation distance


converges to 0 suddenly. More formally, there is some timescale f(n) such that

\lim_{n\rightarrow\infty}d_n(cf(n))=\begin{cases}1& c<1\& c>1,\end{cases}

so in the n-limit, the graph of d looks like a step-function. Several of the shuffling chains exhibit this property, leading to the statements like “7 shuffles are required to mix a standard pack of cards”. Cesaro mixing smooths out this effect on an f(n) timescale.

A Further Example

Perhaps the best example where Cesaro mixing happens faster than normal mixing is in the case of a lazy biased random walk on \mathbb{Z}_n. (Ex. 4.10 in MTMC) Here, we stay put with probability 1/2, otherwise move clockwise with probability p>1/4 and counter-clockwise with probability 1/2 – p < 1/4. This chain is not reversible, as we can determine the direction (or arrow) of time by examining a path. Roughly speaking, the chain will drift clockwise at rate 2p – 1/2 > 0. In particular, at some time Kn, where K is large, we would expect to have completed ~ \frac{K}{2p-\frac12} circuits of the vertices, and so the occupation measure will be close to the uniform equilibrium distribution if we choose K large enough.

On the other hand, the distribution of X at time Kn is still fairly concentrated. If we assume we are instead performing the random walk on \mathbb{Z}, the distribution after Kn i.i.d. increments is

X_t\sim N(Kn(2p-\frac12), Kn\sigma^2).

That is, the standard deviation is O(\sqrt{n})<<n. So, even once we return to considering the random walk on the cyclic group, if we view it as a circle, we expect most of the probability mass to be concentrated near Kn(2p-\frac12) \mod n. By an identical heuristic argument, we see that the mixing time is achieved when the variance has order n, that is when time has order n^2.

Mixing Times 4 – Avoiding Periodicity

A Markov chain is periodic if you can partition the state space such it is possible to be in a particular class only at certain, periodic times. Concretely, suppose we can find a decomposition into classes \Omega=V_1\cup\ldots\cup V_k such that conditional on X_t\in V_i, we have \mathbb{P}(X_{t+1}\in V_{i+1})=1, where the indices of the Vs are taken modulo k. Such a chain is called periodic with period k. In most cases, we would want to define the period to be the maximal such k.

Why is periodicity a problem? It prevents convergence to equilibrium. The distribution at time t has some fairly strong dependence on the initial distribution. For example, if the initial distribution is entirely supported on V_1 as defined above, then the distribution at time t will be entirely supported on V_i, where i\equiv t \mod k. In particular, this cannot converge to some equilibrium.

Aperiodicity thus becomes a necessary condition in any theorem on convergence to equilibrium. Note that by construction this is only relevant for chains in discrete time. In an first account of Markov chains, most of the examples will either have a small state space, for which the transition matrix will have to contain lots of zeros before it stands a chance of being periodic, or obviously aperiodic birth-death or queue type processes. But some of the combinatorially motivated chains we consider for interesting mixing properties are more likely to be periodic. In particular, for a random walk on a group say, the generator measure may well be supported only on a small subset of the whole group, which is completely natural (eg transpositions as a subset of the symmetric group). Then it becomes more plausible that periodicity might arise because of some underlying regularity or symmetry in the group structure.

My first claim is that periodicity is not a disaster for convergence properties of Markov chains. Firstly, by the definition above, P^k(x,y) for x,y\in V_1 is an irreducible (aperiodic if k is maximal) transition matrix on V_1, and so we have convergence to some equilibrium distribution on V_1 of (X_{kt+a}) or similar. An initial distribution mixed between classes gives a mix of such equilibria. Alternatively, we could think about large-time ergodic properties. By taking an average over all distributions up to some large t, the periodic problems get smoothed out. So, for mixing on a periodic chain, it might be possible to make headway with Cesaro mixing, which looks at the speed of convergence of the ergodic average distribution.

In most cases, though, we prefer to alter the chain directly to remove periodicity, or even any chance of periodicity. The preferred method in many contexts is to replace the transition matrix P with \frac12 (P+I). This says that at every time t, we toss an independent fair coin, and with probability 1/2 make the transition suggested by P, and with probability 1/2 we stay where we are. Note that if a chain is irreducible, and some P(x,x)>0, then it is definitely aperiodic, as x cannot be in more than one class as per the definition of periodicity.

If you want to know about the mixing time of the original chain, note that this so-called lazy chain moves at half the speed of the original, so to get exact asymptotics (eg in the case of cutoff, that is mixing speed faster than the scale of the mixing time) you must multiply by 2. Also note that all of the eigenvalues of \frac12 (P+I) are non-negative, and in fact, the eigenvalues are subject to a linear transform in the construction of the lazy transition matrix \lambda\mapsto \frac12(1+\lambda).

Note that choosing 1/2 as the parameter is unnecessary. Firstly, it would suffice to take some P(x,x)=\epsilon and rescale the rest of the row appropriately. Also, in some cases, a different constant gives a more natural interpretation of the underlying mechanism. For example, one model worth considering is the Random Transposition Random Walk on the symmetric group, where at time t we multiply (ie compose) with a transposition chosen uniformly at random. This model is interesting partly because the orbits of an element resemble, at least initially, the component size process of a Erdos-Renyi random graph, on the grounds that when the number of transpositions is small, they don’t interact too much, so can be viewed as independent edges. Anyway, some form of laziness is needed in RTRW, otherwise the chain will alternative between odd and even permutations. In this case, 1/2 is not the most natural choice. The most sensible way to sample random transpositions is to select the two elements of [n] to be transposed uniformly and independently at random. Thus each transposition is selected with probability \frac{2}{n^2}, while the identity, which corresponds to ‘lazily’ staying at the current state in the random walk, is selected with probability 1/n.

The lazy chain is also useful when the original chain has a lot of symmetry involved. In particular, if the original chain involves ‘switching’ say one coordinate. The best example is the random walk on the vertices of the n-hypercube, but there are others. Here, the most helpful way to visualise the configuration is to choose a coordinate uniformly at random and then flip its value (from 0 to 1 or 1 to 0). Now the lazy chain can be viewed similarly, but note that the dependence on the current value of the coordinate is suppressed. That is, having chosen the coordinate to be affected, we set it to be 0 with probability 1/2 and 1 with probability 1/2, irrespective of the prior value at that coordinate. Thus instead of viewing the action on coordinates to be ‘stay or switch’, we can view the action on the randomly chosen coordinate to be ‘randomly resample’, to use statistical terminology. This is ideal for coupling, because from the time coordinate j is first selected, the value at that coordinate is independent of the past, and in particular, the initial value or distribution. So we can couple arbitrary initial configurations or distributions, and we know that as soon as all coordinates have been selected (a time that can be described as a coupon collector problem), the chains are well coupled, that is, the values are the same.

Note that one way we definitely get periodicity is if the increment distribution for random walk on a group is supported entirely in a single coset of a normal subgroup. Why? Well if we take H\lhd G to be the normal subgroup, and gH to be the relevant coset, then P^t(g',\cdot) is supported entirely on g^tg'H, so is periodic with period equal to the order of gH in the quotient group G/H. Note that if the coset is the normal subgroup itself, then it might well include support on the identity, which immediately makes the chain aperiodic. However, there will be then be no transitions between cosets, so the chain is not irreducible on G.

The previous paragraph is the content of Remark 8.3 in the book we are reading. My final comment is that normality is precisely what is needed for this to hold. The key idea is that the set of subsets {gH, gHgH, gHgHgH, … } forms a partition of the group. This is certainly true if H is normal and gH generates G/H. If the latter statement is not true, then the set of subsets still forms a partition, but of some subset of G. The random walk is then neither irreducible nor aperiodic on the reduced state space. If H is not normal, then there are no such restrictions. For example, gHgH might be equal to the whole group G. Then the random walk is aperiodic, as this would imply we can move between any pair of states in two steps, and so by extension between any pair of states in three steps. (2,3)=1, hence the chain is aperiodic. As a concrete example, consider

\tau=\langle (1 2)\rangle \leq S_3,

the simplest example of a non-normal subgroup. Part of the problem is that cosets are different in the left-case and the right-case. Consider the left coset of \tau given by \sigma\tau=\{(1 2 3),(2 3)\}. These elements have order three and two respectively, and so by a similar argument to the general one above, this random walk is aperiodic.