The opinionated estimator

You have been lied to. By me.

Killian is lying to you

I taught once a programming class and introduced my students to the notion of an unbiased estimator of the variance of a population. The problem can be stated as follows: given a set of observations $(x_1, x_2, …, x_n)$, what can you say about the variance of the population from which this sample is drawn?

Classical textbooks, MathWorld, the Khan Academy, and Wikipedia all give you the formula for the so-called unbiased estimator of the population variance:

$$\hat{s}^2 = \frac{1}{n-1}\sum_{i=1}^n (x_i – \bar{x})^2$$

where $\bar{x}$ is the sample mean. The expected error of this estimator is zero:

$$E[\hat{s}^2 – \sigma^2] = 0$$

where $\sigma^2$ is the “true” population variance. Put another way, the expected value of this estimator is exactly the population variance:

$$E[\hat{s}^2] = \sigma^2$$

So far so good. The expected error is zero, therefore it’s the best estimator, right? This is what orthodox statistics (and teachers like me who don’t know better) will have you believe.

But Jaynes (Probability Theory) points out that in practical problems one does not care about the expected error of the estimated variances (or of any estimator for that matter). What matters is how accurate this estimator is, i.e. how close it is to the true variance. And this calls for an estimator that will minimise the expected squared error $E[(\hat{s}^2 – \sigma^2)^2]$. But we can also write this expected squared error as:

$$E[(\hat{s}^2 – \sigma^2)^2] = (E[\hat{s}^2] – \sigma^2)^2 + \mathrm{Var}(\hat{s}^2)$$

The expected squared error of our estimator is thus the sum of two terms: the square of the expected error, and the variance of the estimator. When following the cookbooks of orthodox statistics, only the first term is minimised and there is no guarantee that the total error is minimised.

For samples drawn from a Gaussian distribution, Jaynes shows that an estimator that minimises the total (squared) error is

$$\hat{s}^2 = \frac{1}{n+1}\sum_{i=1}^n (x_i – \bar{x})^2$$

Notice that the $n-1$ denominator has been replaced with $n+1$. In a fit of fancifulness I’ll call this an opinionated estimator. Let’s test how well this estimator performs.

First we generate 1000 random sets of 10 samples with mean 0 and variance 25:

samples <- matrix(rnorm(10000, sd = 5), ncol = 10)

For each group of 10 samples, we estimate the population variance first with the canonical $n-1$ denominator. This is what R’s built-in var function will do, according to its documentation:

unbiased <- apply(samples, MARGIN = 1, var)

Next we estimate the population variance with the $n+1$ denominator. We take a little shortcut here by multiplying the unbiased estimator by $(n-1)/(n+1)$, but it makes no difference:

opinionated <- apply(samples, MARGIN = 1, function(x) var(x) * (length(x) - 1) / (length(x) + 1))

Finally we combine everything in one convenient data frame:

estimators <- rbind(data.frame(estimator = "Unbiased", estimate = unbiased),
                    data.frame(estimator = "Opinionated", estimate = opinionated))

histogram(~ estimate | estimator, estimators,
          panel = function(...) {
            panel.abline(v = 25, col = "red", lwd = 5)

Unbiased vs Opinionated

It’s a bit hard to tell visually which one is “better”. But let’s compute the average squared error for each estimator:

aggregate(estimate ~ estimator, estimators, function(x) mean((x - 25)^2))

##     estimator estimate
## 1    Unbiased 145.1007
## 2 Opinionated 115.5074

This shows clearly that the $n+1$ denominator yields a smaller total (squared) error than the so-called unbiased $n-1$ estimator, at leat for a sample drawn from a Gaussian distribution.

So do your brain a favour and question everything I tell you. Including this post.

The SIM4Blocks project kick-off meeting

The SIM4Blocks European project held its kick-off meeting on 5 and 6 April 2016 in Stuttgart, Germany. A consortium of 17 European partners (including 3 Swiss organisations) have answered the H2020-EE-2015-2-RIA call for proposals for:

… real time optimisation of energy demand, storage and supply (including self-production when applicable) using intelligent energy management systems with the objective of reducing the difference between peak power demand and minimum night time demand, thus reducing costs and greenhouse gas emissions. …

The official, “long” title of the project is Simulation Supported Real Time Energy Management in Building Blocks. Led by the Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart, the 5.5 MEUR project will:

… develop innovative demand response (DR) services for smaller residential and commercial customers, implement and test these services in three pilot sites and transfer successful DR models to customers of project partners in further European countries. …

SIM4Blocks kick-off meeting

The kick-off meeting was held in the traditional manner: after an introduction by the coordinator, and a short (remote) intervention by our project officer, each work package leader presented their work packages, going through the tasks that were defined, clarifying questions and making sure we had a common understanding of what was to be done.

Neurobat’s part will consist in offering our online heating optimisation server in order to help the manager of a group of buildings optimise the timing of the operation of their heat pumps. The goal is to avoid excessive peak power, for example when all pumps run at the same time.

One the second day we went north to the Wüstenrot village, where a cluster of single family houses (and a couple of commercial buildings) draw their heating power from what some call an energy ring, a cold water circuit from which the heat pumps draw the heat for each building. This will be one of three pilot sites, the other two being in Spain and in Switzerland.

The Wüstenrot pilot site

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 695965. It will last four years and we are honored to have been invited to join it. We look forward to a successful collaboration with the other members of the consortium.

Biblical kings and boxplots

When you read through the biblical books of Kings, you may have been struck by a phrase that repeats itself for every monarch:

In the Xth year of (king of kingdom B), (name of king) became king of (kingdom A). He reigned N years, and did (evil|good) in the sight of the Lord.

If you’ve read through these books several times, you will probably have noticed that the shorter reigns tend to belong to kings deemed to have done evil, with a record-breaking 3 months for Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin. Let’s see if there’s any relationship between reign duration and “goodness” of the king. First we prepare the data in a form suitable for analysis: <- c("Name Deeds Reign
                David Good 40
                Solomon Good 40
                Rehoboam Evil 17
                Abijah Evil 3
                Asa Good 41
                Jehoshaphat Good 25
                Jehoram Evil 8
                Ahaziah Evil 1
                Joash Good 40
                Amaziah Good 29
                Azariah Good 52
                Jotham Good 16
                Ahaz Evil 16
                Hezekiah Good 29
                Manasseh Evil 55
                Amon Evil 2
                Josiah Good 31
                Jehoahaz Evil 0.25
                Jehoiakim Evil 11
                Jehoiachin Evil 0.25
                Zedekiah Evil 11")

kings <- read.table(textConnection(,
                    header = TRUE,
                    row.names = 1)

The kings data frame holds one row for each king. The row names are the names of the kings; the column Deeds is a two-level factor telling if their reign was deemed good or evil. (We assume here that Solomon was a good guy in spite of what happened towards the end of his life.) The Reign column records the length of the reign as given in the Bible in years, with fractional values for reigns shorter than one year.

We have 11 evil kings and 10 good kings:

> table(kings$Deeds)

Evil Good 
  11   10 

Here we compute the median reign duration depending on the rating of the deeds:

> with(kings, tapply(Reign, Deeds, median))
Evil Good 
 8.0 35.5 

There’s already a good indication that the length of the reign depends on the deeds. We can now plot the length of the reigns:

Boxplot(Reign ~ Deeds,

Duration of biblical reign, depending whether the Bible judges the king to have been a just or an evil one

This plot confirms our impression: “evil” kings tend to have shorter reigns that “good” kings, with the obvious exception of Manasseh, the same one of whom it was said

I’ve arranged for four kinds of punishment: death in battle, the
corpses dropped off by killer dogs, the rest picked clean by vultures,
the bones gnawed by hyenas. They’ll be a sight to see, a sight to
shock the whole world—and all because of Manasseh son of Hezekiah and
all he did in Jerusalem. (Jer 15:3-4)

So what does this all prove? Probably nothing. Plotting data is its own reward. :-)

C++: when delete doesn’t delete

We once spent almost a week chasing after a mysterious memory leak in our application, built on top of the highly regarded eCos real-time operating system. The leak appeared after we had rewritten some of our code in C++ after recognising that C’s object-oriented capabilities were no longer adequate for our needs.

After about half a day we could reproduce the memory leak on the target system with code that essentially looked like this:

Controller* controller = new Controller();
delete controller;

What baffled us most was that running this code in unit tests on the development machines exposed no such memory leak. We routinely run all our unit tests under Valgrind to identify memory usage errors, but in this case there was none. It was very unlikely that the leak was caused by defective code.

What’s more, the leak was almost-but-not-quite consistent. We leaked about 952 bytes on average, but that figure could be as low as 920 or as high as 968. It was always a multiple of 8 bytes. After about 8.5 hours, the system would reboot, presumably because it ran out of memory. We used the mallinfo() function to display the amount of available memory.

After almost a week we found the answer. According to the documentation, the default implementation of the delete operator in eCos is a no-op! I suppose the rationale is that most developers of embedded systems tend to shy away from dynamic memory allocation, and that it is better to reduce the size of the firmware by not providing a (rarely-needed) delete operator.

Except when we need one, of course.

To enable a proper delete operator you simply disable the CYGFUN_INFRA_EMPTY_DELETE_FUNCTIONS option in your eCos configuration file.

Going for one-week sprints: a good wrong idea

A few weeks ago, our team held a sprint retrospective (which I unfortunately couldn’t attend) during which it was decided to shorten our sprint length from two weeks to one. The team was right in their decision, but probably for the wrong reasons and here’s why I think so.

The main driver behind this decision was Neurobat’s involvement with the Aargau Heizt Schlau project: a canton-wide project to measure the efficiency of our system on 50-100 individual houses in the Aargau canton during the 2015-2016 winter. The goal is to have an independent assessment of the energy-savings potential of our product, a replication of our own peer-reviewed investigation. The project is mostly driven from a team in Brugg, with ample support from our R&D team in Meyrin.

Keeping the project on track and on schedule turned out to be extremely challenging. Very soon, urgent support requests began to come at unpredictable times, and we were having trouble keeping our sprint commitments.

The realisation that urgent, random support requests were going to be the norm for this heating season is the main reason why the team decided to experiment with one-week sprints. They have a 5-year long history of sprint retrospectives and I’m convinced they collectively understand the principles underlying the practice of timeboxed iterations. (A practice always proceeds from a principle, and can be modified only when the principle is fully understood.) A less mature team should not have made this decision and should stick with 2-week sprints; but I believe our team was mature enough to carry out this experiment.

Many teams, when they begin with Scrum, will object to the “overhead” introduced by daily standups, sprintly retrospectives and planning meetings. And since they are likely to miss their sprint commitments during the first few months, they are very likely to ask for longer sprints. Resist this temptation.

Mike Cohn tells the story of a team facing exactly this problem: good quality work but systematic overcommitments. He agreed to let the team change the sprint duration, but went against the team’s request for longer sprints. Instead, they went for shorter ones. His rationale against longer sprints is simple:

The team was already pulling too much work into a four-week sprint.
They were, in fact, probably pulling six weeks of work into each
four-week sprint. But, if they had gone to a six-week sprint, they
probably would have pulled eight or nine weeks of work into those!

So if shorter sprints are generally to be preferred over longer ones, why do I think the decision was a solution to the wrong problem? Because I believe that switching to shorter sprints will only perpetuate the root cause of the situation we are in. We decided to go for shorter sprints because urgent support requests were coming in more frequently than ever. How will switching to shorter sprints solve that problem?

I’m reminded of this quote, which I believe came from Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile:

Few organizations are in industries that change so rapidly that they cannot set priorities at the start of a two-week sprint and then leave them alone. Many organizations may think they exist in that environment; they don’t.

If your organisation has trouble planning for more than a week ahead, then do your development team a favour and try, at all costs, to address the underlying problem. Your team members should not be the ones whose productivity should suffer for the lack of foresight elsewhere in the organisation.

Scrum stories that are juuuust right

On thing has been bugging me for quite some time now as I observe our team at Neurobat. Most stories on our sprint board are being worked on by one developer each, leading to daily scrums where everyone reports on work that is completely independent from that of the others.

Even though we encourage people to pair program, the fact remains that most stories are such that one person can implement them by himself, with the possible exception of testing. (We have a rule that a developer may not write the acceptance tests for his own story, much less execute them.)

That, in turn, leads to a very quiet office. We work in an open-space office where the six of us are in direct line of sight of each others. Yet for most of the time, there is very little chatter as each of us is busy with “his bit”.

Perhaps Mike Cohn summarises the issue best, in his User Stories Applied:

Most user stories should be written such that they need to be worked on by more than one person, such as a user interface designer, programmer, database engineer, and a tester. If most of your stories can be completed by a single person, you should reconsider how your stories are written. Normally, this means they need to be written at a higher level so that work from multiple individuals is included with each.

I’m not a big fan of hyperbole, but this passage was a little bit of a revelation to me. Here we had been faithfully trying hard to break up stories that were too large into tiny weeny stories that could be implemented in a couple of days or two by a motivated developer; and now I’m being told that there is such a thing as a story that is too small? Talk about being in a Goldilock-ish fix.

Very well Goldilocks er… I mean Mr Cohn, I’ll bring this up at our next retrospective and we’ll see whether our stories are really too small.

Running CARNOT models under OSX

CARNOT (Conventional And Renewable eNergy systems Optimization Toolbox) is a set of MATLAB & Simulink models for simulating buildings and building systems, e.g. boilers, heat distributors etc. It’s been developed by a collaboration involving several companies and universities and is generally well-regarded. It’s one of several MATLAB toolboxes dedicated to the problem of simulating building physics; other toolboxes with a similar goal include the International Building Physics Toolbox and SIMBAD.

CARNOT is in the process of being moved to a new hosting provider. In the meantime, I’ve recently obtained a copy of this toolbox and here is my experience in getting it to run under OSX.

CARNOT is distributed as a zip file, I decompress it and find what looks like a Simulink top-level model called carnot.slx, and several sub-folders. Very encouragingly, I see there’s an installation guide:

CARNOT root folder

I move the decompressed folder to the folder where I keep all my in-progress projects, and create a symbolic link to it named more simply carnot.

The installation guide is very well written, and the main steps consist in:

  1. Decompressing the toolbox;
  2. Running the init_carnot.m script, that will setup all the paths correctly;
  3. Compiling all the MEX file with the provided script.

When I ran init_carnot.m for the first time on my Mac, it didn’t work and the error message made it very clear that most file paths have been written with the assumption that the toolbox was going to be used on Windows. At this point, I could have done either of two things:

  1. Fix the issues myself as quickly as possibly and get on with the work;
  2. Fix the issues myself carefully, making sure that my fixes could then be sent back to the maintainer of the package.

Being currently on a business trip, I felt like I had the leisure to go for option 2. Seeing that this toolbox was going to need some fixing, I made a git repo out of it and added all its files. (I didn’t know at this point which, if any, files were generated. I figured that this was something I could worry about later and remove those files from the repo.)

I fixed the paths problem, which mostly lay in path_carnot.m, called by init_carnot.m. I created a patch from it and sent it to one of the maintainers. The paths were now correctly setup.

Next I ran mex -setup and this ran fine, MATLAB picked up my XCode installation with the Clang compiler. So the next step in the installation guide was to run MakeMEX.m from the version_manager directory. That ran fine for several .c files until it tried to compile dir2_mex.c. When I opened that file in the editor I saw that it depended on the Windows API. Here I had two options:

  1. Try to understand what this file was doing and try to rewrite it without using the Windows API;
  2. Skip the compilation of this file and hope that the rest of the toolbox would run fine without it.

The problem with option 1 was that I didn’t know at this point whether there were going to be other files with the same problem. I certainly didn’t want to enter that kind of endless loop of fixing file after file that depended on the Windows API. Since the build process had stoppped on encountering the first error, I had no way of knowing if there was going to be many other problems.

So that’s why felt more appropriate to find where in the call mex was being called, and wrap that call in a try/catch block, yielding a warning if any file failed to be compiled. Re-running MakeMEX now compiled all the files correctly except the single dir2_mex.c, which I hoped would not be needed to run any of the simulations I was planning.

Once this was done, I could finally type carnot at the command line and the toolbox would open:

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 03.56.40

I was immediately drawn to the box that says double click to open examples and that yielded another set of errors, again related to file paths. After fixing those I could open an example model, the example_House_SFH45, click run, and saw the simulation running. I was all set and done.

A couple of days after writing the first draft of this article, I learned from one of the main developers that they plan to setup a proper SVN repository for the code, and that the whole toolbox was going to released under a BSD licence instead of the current LGPL. Until this is done, I’ve pushed my fixes to a pubic repository on GitHub, to which I have contributed some extra small fixes. But keep in mind that this is in no way the official repository for CARNOT; that will be announced shortly.


Book review: Advanced R

I would like to call this the best second book on R, except that I wouldn’t know what the first one would be. I learned R from classes and tutorials about 10 years ago, used it on my PhD and four articles, and use it today on a daily basis at work; yet only now, after reading this book, do I feel like I could possibly be called an R programmer rather than just a user.

The book deals with a variety of topics that are seldom discussed in the R tutorials you are likely to find freely available. Some are perhaps unnecessary in a book like this (Ch. 5 Style Guide), some could easily deserve an entire book (Ch. 7 OO field guide), but the chapters on Functions, Environments, the three chapters in Part II (Functional Programming) and the chapter on Non-standard evaluation are easily reasons enough to buy this book.

How many time indeed have you spent hours, frustrated, trying to write a function that would act as a wrapper around, say, lattice plotting functions that use non-standard evaluation? Or try to call subset() from another function, only to see cryptic error messages? Now, for the first time, the solution is not only clear to me; I feel like I could also explain to a colleague why things work the way they do.

R is incredibly powerful and dynamic and will, most of the time, do just what you expect it to do. But if you want to really understand what is going on under the hood, or if you want to write your own packages (whether for self-, internal-, or widespread use), you owe it to yourself to read this book.

The only problem with daily scrums

Over the past five years, our team has attended more than 120 daily standup meetings, carefully following the “canonical” format and having each team member answer the usual questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Any impediments?


There seems to be one flaw with this format, however. The flaw is that you cannot say what you will do for the day before having heard if anyone else has an impediment.

For example, if Alice says her bit, announcing what she intends to do for the day and declines to mention any impediments, then when Bob’s turn comes and he mentions that he’s having some trouble and could use some help, then Alice will have to come back to what she has just said and amend her plans for the day.

In Neurobat we’ve implemented a partially debugged hack around this problem by having two standup rounds. During the first round we do the canonical standup meeting, then the ScrumMaster asks if anyone needs a second round. The goal of this second round is two-fold:

  1. To let anyone say something he may have forgotten about during the first round.
  2. To let anyone amend their plans for the day due to something they may have heard during the first round.

This solution is far from ideal, and sounds annoyingly like a two-pass compiler. But it is, for now, the best approach we have found to deal with what I perceive to be the main drawback to the canonical form of the daily scrum.