API for MCMC Proposal Selection

Pavel N. Krivitsky


This document describes the process by which ergm and related packages selects the MCMC proposal for a particular analysis. Note that it is not intended to be a tutorial as much as a description of what inputs and outputs different parts of the system expect. Nor does it cover the C API.



There is a number of factors that can affect MCMC sampling, some of them historical and some of them new:


functions and other structures defined in an accessible namespace

  • ergm_proposal_table() a function that if called with no arguments returns a table of registered proposals and updates it otherwise. See ? ergm_proposal_table for documentation and the meaning of its columns. Of particular interest is its Constraints column, which encodes which constraints the proposal does (always) enforce and which it can enforce.
  • InitErgmReference.<REFERENCE> a family of initializers for the reference distribution. For the purposes of the proposal selection, among its outputs should be $name specifying the name of the reference distribution.
  • InitErgmConstraint.<CONSTRAINT> a family of initializers for constraints, weightings, and other high-level specifiers of the proposal distribution. Hard constraints, probabilistic weights, and hints all use this API. For the purposes of the proposal selection, its outputs include
    • $constrain (defaulting to <CONSTRAINT>) a character vector specifying which constraints are enforced, and can include several semantically nested elements;
    • $dependence (defaulting to TRUE) specifying whether the constraint is dyad-dependent;
    • $priority (defaulting to Inf) specifying how important it is that the constraint is met (with Inf meaning that it must be met); and
    • $implies/$impliedby specifying which other constraints this constraint enforces or is enforced by, and this can include itself for constraints, such as edges that can only be applied once.
    • $free_dyads either an RLEBDM or a function with no arguments that returns an RLEBDM specifying which dyads are not constrained by this constraint.

arguments and settings passed to the call or as control parameters.

  • constraints= argument (top-level): A one-sided formula containing a +- or --separated list of constraints. + terms add additional constraints to the model whereas - constraints relax them. - constraints are primarily used internally observational process estimation and are not described in detail, except to note that 1) they must be dyad-independent and 2) they necessitate falling back to the RLEBDM sampling API.
  • reference= argument (top-level): A one-sided formula specifying the ERGM reference distribution, usually as a name with parameters if appropriate.
  • control$MCMC.prop= control parameter: A formula whose RHS containing +-separated “hints” to the sampler; an optional LHS may contain the proposal name directly.
  • control$MCMC.prop.weights= control parameter: A string selecting proposal weighting (probably deprecated)
  • control$MCMC.prop.args= control parameter: A list specifying information to be passed to the proposal

Code Path

Most of this is implemented in the ergm_proposal.formula() method:

  1. InitErgmReference.<REFERENCE> is called with arguments of reference=’s LHS, obtaining the name of the reference.
  2. For each term in the following formula’s RHS, the corresponding InitErgmConstraint.<CONSTRAINT> function is called and their outputs are stored in a list of initialized constraints (an ergm_conlist object). .dyads pseudo-constraint is added to dyad-independent constraints (not to hints with $priority < Inf).
    1. constraints=
    2. MCMC.prop=
  3. Constraint lists from the previous two steps are concatenated, with redundant constraints removed based on their $implies/$impliedby settings.
  4. Proposal candidates returned by ergm_proposal_table() are filtered by Class, Reference, Weights (if MCMC.prop.weights differs from "default"), and Proposal (if the LHS of MCMC.prop is provided).
  5. Each candidate proposal is “scored” as follows:
    1. If a proposal does enforce a constraint that is not among the requested by the constraints list, it is discarded.
    2. If a proposal cannot enforce a constraint that is among the requested with priority==Inf, it is discarded.
    3. For each constraint that is among requested with priority<Inf and that the proposal doesn’t and can’t enforce, its (innate, specified in the column of the ergm_proposal_table()) Priority value is penalised by the priority of that constraint.
  6. If there are no candidate proposals left, an error is raised.
  7. If more than one is left,
    1. Calls to InitErgmProposal.* functions are attempted. If a call returns NULL, next proposal is attempted. (This can be useful if a proposal handles a particular special case that is not accounted for by constraints.)