# Variable length Markov chains (VLMC)

library(mixvlmc)
library(geodist) ## used in the earth quake example
library(ggplot2) ## used in the earth quake example

A Markov chain is a probabilistic model for time series in which the probability of the next state depends only on finite memory of previous states (including the current state). The most common case is the order one Markov chain, in which the memory is limited to the current state.

We consider here only Markov chains with finite state spaces.

## Theoretical aspects

### High order Markov chains

Let us denote $$X_1, X_2, \ldots, X_n, \ldots$$ a sequence of random variables. It is a (stationary) Markov chain of order $$m$$ is for all $$n>m$$ $\begin{multline} \mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n-1}=x_{n-1}, X_{n-2}=x_{n-2}, \ldots, X_{1}=x_{1})=\\ \mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n-1}=x_{n-1}, X_{n-2}=x_{n-2}, \ldots, X_{n-m}=x_{n-m}). \end{multline}$ To specify such a Markov chain of order $$m$$, one needs to describe the conditional distribution on the right hand side of the previous equation for all values of the past, i.e. for all contexts (see vignette("context-trees")).

For a state space with $$k$$ states, we need $$k-1$$ parameters to specify completely $\mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n-1}=x_{n-1}, X_{n-2}=x_{n-2}, \ldots, X_{n-m}=x_{n-m})$ for all values of $$x_n$$ and for a single context $$(x_{n-m}, \ldots, x_{n-2}, x_{n-1})$$.
There are $$k^{m-1}$$ such contexts and thus we need a total of $$(k-1)k^{m-1}$$ parameters to specify completely a Markov chain of order $$m$$ on a state space with $$k$$ states.

Unfortunately, the exponential growth with respect to the order makes high order Markov chain unrealistic on a statistical point of view: the number of parameters to estimate grows too quickly compared to the typical length of a time series.

If we consider a gene as a sequence of (pair of) bases, we have a state space with $$k=4$$ states. The mean protein-coding length for humans is roughly 66,000 (pairs of) bases. The following table shows the growth of the parameter number for $$k=4$$ with the order of a Markov chain. There are already way too many parameter with $$m=7$$ for a proper estimation based on a single gene of an average length. Even the longest genes would be insufficient for $$m=10$$.

m parameters
1 12
2 48
3 192
4 768
5 3072
6 12288
7 49152
8 196608
9 786432
10 3145728

### Sparse models

While higher order Markov chains would be very useful to capture long memory in time series, the exponential growth of their parameter space is incompatible with this goal. Variable length Markov chains provide a compromise between the controlled number of parameters of low order Markov chains and the long memory of high order ones. The key idea is to consider that the dependency order can depend on the context itself.

Let us consider a simple example with a binary valued time series ($$k=2$$) and a Markov chain of order 3. We need to specify for instance the probability of $$X_n=1$$ given the eight possible contexts, from $$(0, 0, 0)$$ to $$(1, 1, 1)$$. A possible choice is

n-3 n-2 n-1 Probablity
0 0 0 0.1
1 0 0 0.1
0 1 0 0.1
1 1 0 0.1
0 0 1 0.2
1 0 1 0.4
0 1 1 0.3
1 1 1 0.3

In this table, several contexts share the same conditional probability distribution. For instance $\mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=0, X_{n-2}=0,X_{n-3}=0)=\mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=0, X_{n-2}=1,X_{n-3}=0).$

In fact, a careful look at the table shows that \begin{align*} \mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=0, X_{n-2}=a, X_{n-3}=b)&=0.1&\forall a, \forall b,\\ \mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=1, X_{n-2}=1, X_{n-3}=c)&=0.3&\forall c,\\ \mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=1, X_{n-2}=0, X_{n-3}=0)&=0.2,&\\ \mathbb{P}(X_n=1|X_{n-1}=1, X_{n-2}=0, X_{n-3}=1)&=0.4, \end{align*} and thus the Markov chain can be described by only 4 probability distributions rather than 8. The corresponding contexts are:

• $$(0)$$ : short memory only when the last state is 0
• $$(1, 1)$$ : second order memory when the two last states are 1
• $$(0, 0, 1)$$ and $$(1, 0, 1)$$ : full third order memory

This third order Markov chain is parsimonious in the sense that it can be described by the four contexts and their associated probability distributions rather than by the full collection needed for an arbitrary third order Markov chain.

### Variable length Markov chain

A variable length Markov chain (VLMC) is a sparse high order Markov chain. Let us denote $$X_1, X_2, \ldots, X_n, \ldots$$ a sequence of random variables taking values in the finite state space $$S$$. The sequence is a VLMC if there is a maximal order $$l_{\max}$$ and a function $$l$$ from $$S^{l_{\max}}$$ to $$\{0,\ldots,l_{\max}\}$$ such that for all $$n>l_{\max}$$ $\begin{multline} \mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n-1}=x_{n-1}, X_{n-2}=x_{n-2}, \ldots, X_{1}=x_{1})=\\ \mathbb{P}(X_n=x_n|X_{n-1}=x_{n-1}, X_{n-2}=x_{n-2}, \ldots, X_{n-l(x_{n-l_{\max}}, \ldots, x_{n-1})}=x_{n-l(x_{n-l_{\max}}, \ldots, x_{n-1})}). \end{multline}$ In other words, the memory length (the order) is variable and given by $$l(x_{n-l_{\max}}, \dots, x_{n-1})$$.

The memory length function generates a context function $$c$$ which keeps in the past the part needed to obtain the conditional distribution: $$c$$ is a function from $$S^{l_{\max}}$$ to $$\bigcup_{k=0}^{l_{\max}}S^k$$ given by: $c(x_{n-l_{\max}}, \ldots, x_{n-1})=(x_{l(x_{n-l_{\max}}, \ldots, x_{n-1})}, \ldots, x_{n-1})$ The image by $$c$$ of $$S^{l_{\max}}$$ is the set of contexts of the VLMC which is entirely specified by $$l$$ and one conditional distribution by unique context.

In the above example, $$l_{\max}=3$$ and $$l$$ is defined from $$\{0, 1\}^3$$ to $$\{0, 1, 2, 3\}$$ by \begin{align*} l(a, b, 0)&=1&\forall a, \forall b,\\ l(c, 1, 1)&=2&\forall c,\\ l(0, 0, 1)&=3,&\\ l(1, 0, 1)&=3.&\\ \end{align*}

### VLMC estimation

If we assume that an observed time series has been generated by a VLMC, we can try and estimate from it the $$l$$ function and the corresponding conditional probabilities. This is a non-parametric estimation problem as $$l_{\max}$$ is unknown. A natural way to carry on the estimation is to use some form of penalized likelihood approach.

This is done by first extracting from the time series its context tree (see vignette("context-trees")), a sparse representation of all the sub-sequences (i.e. contexts) that appear at least a few times in the time series. Each unique sub-sequence/context is followed by a state in the time series: this is used to estimate the conditional probabilities (from frequencies). Finally a pruning algorithm is applied to balance the complexity of the tree with its likelihood (given the time series).

## VLMC in practice

### Estimation

VLMC estimation is provided by the vlmc() function as in the following example.

set.seed(0)
x <- sample(c(0L, 1L, 2L), 200, replace = TRUE)
model <- vlmc(x)
model
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 2.996 (quantile: 0.05)
#>  Number of contexts: 4
#>  Maximum context length: 3

The estimation process is controlled by three parameters:

• max_depth: the largest order/memory considered for the VLMC (defaults to 100). This parameter is essentially a computational burden control parameter and should be increased to a larger value if the final model has contexts that reach the maximum value (this is done automatically in tune_vlmc());
• min_size: the minimum number of occurrences of a context in the time series for it to be included in the context tree during the first phase of the algorithm. The default 2 value is very conservative. Larger values will produce simpler trees;
• alpha/cutoff: this is the main complexity control parameter, which can be expressed in two different scales. cutoff is expressed in the native Kullback-Liebler divergence scale used to assess the difference between conditional probability distributions given different contexts. alpha is expressed in a more convenient universal scale based on the quantiles of the Chi-Squared distribution that appears when the pruning criterion is interpreted as a likelihood ratio test (the default is alpha=0.05).

It is recommended to use the default value for min_size, to increase max_depth only in case of “overflow” (i.e. when the maximum context length reaches max_depth) and to use only alpha to control the complexity of the VLMC, preferably automatically with tune_vlmc(). An important point to note is that a higher value of alpha leads to a more complex model as does a lower value of cutoff.

Based on theoretical results, the order of magnitude of cutoff should be in $$K \log n$$ (for $$n$$ observations), where $$K$$ depends on the type of convergence analysis conducted. For instance a BIC inspired value for $$K$$ is $$(|S|-1)/2$$ for a state space $$S$$ (of size $$|S|$$). In the above example, we get:

model_theo <- vlmc(x, cutoff = log(length(x)))
model_theo
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 5.298 (quantile: 0.005)
#>  Number of contexts: 1
#>  Maximum context length: 0

The result is a memory less model, as expected based on the way x was generated. In this situation, the chosen value of cutoff leads to the optimal model, but this is not always the case as this choice is only informed by asymptotic analysis.

### Model choice

In practice, it is recommended to start with a conservative value of cutoff (or alpha) and to use a penalized criterion to find the best model in a way that balances likelihood and complexity (see vignette("likelihood") for details on likelihood calculation for VLMC). A conservative value of cutoff is a small one, while alpha should be high to be conservative. A possible choice is to use the BIC inspired cutoff divided by a fixed value, for instance $$\frac{1}{4}(|S|-1)\log n$$.

Once a “large” model has been obtained, two functions can be used to generate the collection of simpler models that would have been obtained by using larger values of cutoff. The function cutoff() returns a list of values (in alpha scale by default) that are guaranteed to contain all values that can generate simpler models that the reference one. For instance in the following code

model_large <- vlmc(x, cutoff = 0.5 * log(length(x)))
model_large
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 2.649 (quantile: 0.07071)
#>  Number of contexts: 6
#>  Maximum context length: 3
model_cutoff <- cutoff(model_large, scale = "native")
model_cutoff
#> [1] 3.177898 3.784875

we first adjust a “complex” model using cutoff=2.65 and find then that 2 other values can be used to build simpler models, using prune() as follows:

model_medium <- prune(model_large, cutoff = model_cutoff[1])
model_medium
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 3.178 (quantile: 0.04167)
#>  Number of contexts: 4
#>  Maximum context length: 3
model_small <- prune(model_large, cutoff = model_cutoff[2])
model_small
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 3.785 (quantile: 0.02271)
#>  Number of contexts: 1
#>  Maximum context length: 0

The final model model_small is again the memory less model.

### Automatic model choice

The pair cutoff()/prune() can be used to implement advanced model selection techniques, for instance based on the quality of the predictions of the model on a hold-out example. For a more standard use, the tune_vlmc() provides a fully automated solution, including the choice of conservative values of the initial cut off and of a large enough max_depth, as demonstrated below:

model_tune <- tune_vlmc(x)
model_opt <- as_vlmc(model_tune)
model_opt
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1, 2
#>  cutoff: 3.785 (quantile: 0.02271)
#>  Number of contexts: 1
#>  Maximum context length: 0

We obtain directly an optimal model according to the BIC criterion.

### Model choice representation

The object returned by tune_vlmc() contains a summary of the fitting process. Let us consider a realistic example using the globalearthquake data set included in the package. In this simple example we extract from the data set the earth quakes that took place within a 2,000 km radius around the centre of California.

California_centre <- data.frame(longitude = -119.449444, latitude = 37.166111)
distances <- geodist(globalearthquake[, c("longitude", "latitude")],
California_centre,
measure = "geodesic"
)
California_earth_quakes <- globalearthquake[distances < 2e6, ] ## distances are in meters

Then we study this collection at the week level, building a binary sequence of weeks with or without earthquake(s).

California_weeks <- rep(0, max(globalearthquake$nbweeks)) California_weeks[California_earth_quakes$nbweeks] <- 1

And finally we adjust automatically a VLMC.

California_weeks_earth_quakes_model <- tune_vlmc(California_weeks, initial = "truncated")
plot(California_weeks_earth_quakes_model)

The resulting model remains relatively simple with an interesting increase of the risk of observing an earth quake after 6 weeks after the last one.

draw(as_vlmc(California_weeks_earth_quakes_model))
#> * (0.7988, 0.2012)
#> +-- 0 (0.8166, 0.1834)
#> |   +-- 0 (0.8268, 0.1732)
#> |   |   '-- 0 (0.8332, 0.1668)
#> |   |       '-- 0 (0.8398, 0.1602)
#> |   |           '-- 1 (0.7766, 0.2234)
#> |   '-- 1 (0.771, 0.229)
#> '-- 1 (0.7281, 0.2719)

The tuning process can be summarised using the summary() function as follows.

summary(California_weeks_earth_quakes_model)
#> VLMC tune results
#>
#> Best VLMC selected by BIC (6408.344) with likelihood function "truncated" (-3182.077)
#> VLMC context tree on 0, 1
#>  cutoff: 6.041 (quantile: 0.0005092)
#>  Number of contexts: 6
#>  Maximum context length: 5
#>
#> Pruning results
#>     cutoff        alpha depth nb_contexts loglikelihood      AIC      BIC
#>   2.191676 3.629154e-02    29         152     -3040.206 6384.411 7412.262
#>   2.201782 3.586391e-02    29         139     -3046.470 6370.940 7310.883
#>   2.228217 3.477002e-02    29         132     -3051.316 6366.632 7259.239
#>   2.279152 3.275949e-02    29         132     -3053.566 6371.133 7263.740
#>   2.339072 3.054872e-02    29         132     -3055.875 6375.750 7268.357
#>   2.372521 2.938285e-02    29         132     -3058.245 6380.490 7273.097
#>   2.381973 2.906186e-02    29         131     -3062.226 6386.452 7272.297
#>   2.394852 2.863036e-02    29         130     -3066.502 6393.004 7272.087
#>   2.404277 2.831881e-02    29         127     -3069.036 6392.071 7250.868
#>   2.416055 2.793443e-02    29         116     -3072.629 6377.258 7161.671
#>   2.445039 2.701147e-02    29         114     -3076.648 6381.296 7152.184
#>   2.506516 2.515721e-02    29         110     -3080.985 6381.970 7125.810
#>   2.577905 2.316872e-02    29         110     -3083.533 6387.066 7130.905
#>   2.625968 2.192238e-02    29         108     -3088.617 6393.233 7123.548
#>   2.751151 1.899146e-02    29         103     -3093.269 6392.538 7089.042
#>   2.893754 1.614045e-02    29         103     -3096.132 6398.264 7094.769
#>   3.125676 1.240985e-02    29         103     -3099.057 6404.114 7100.618
#>   3.344228 9.703925e-03    29          95     -3106.293 6402.587 7044.993
#>   3.417970 8.934162e-03    27          90     -3111.183 6402.366 7010.962
#>   3.536173 7.828270e-03    27          87     -3115.488 6404.977 6993.286
#>   3.737381 6.256985e-03    27          63     -3127.105 6380.209 6806.226
#>   4.077262 4.295389e-03    27          45     -3134.606 6359.212 6663.510
#>   4.382147 3.071849e-03    27          43     -3139.254 6364.508 6655.281
#>   4.507405 2.678006e-03    10          26     -3144.971 6341.943 6517.759
#>   4.628051 2.347121e-03    10          21     -3151.114 6344.228 6486.234
#>   4.763629 2.024423e-03    10          14     -3156.689 6341.378 6436.048
#>   5.090995 1.418191e-03     7          11     -3162.313 6346.626 6421.010
#>   5.678601 7.515599e-04     7           8     -3170.633 6357.267 6411.364
#>   6.040782 5.092285e-04     5           6     -3177.886 6367.771 6408.344
#>   6.183282 4.370913e-04     5           6     -3184.021 6380.042 6420.615
#>  10.764714 3.484403e-06     1           2     -3196.481 6396.961 6410.486
#>  26.426030 3.596414e-13     0           1     -3215.076 6432.152 6438.914

in addition, a summary data frame is accessible in the results component of the object. This can be used to build e.g. custom graphical representation of the model selection process (rather than using plot.tune_vlmc() or autoplot.tune_vlmc()). A typical simple ggplot2 representation can made as follows, for instance:

ggplot(California_weeks_earth_quakes_model\$results, aes(x = alpha, y = BIC)) +
geom_line() +
geom_point()

### Diagnostics

The package provides numerous ways to analyse a VLMC. Basic functions include

• states() returns the state space of the model;
• depth() returns the length of the longest context in the model;
• context_number() returns the number of contexts in the model.

For instance, the large model obtained above has the following characteristics:

states(model_large)
#> [1] 0 1 2
depth(model_large)
#> [1] 3
context_number(model_large)
#> [1] 6

VLMC objects support classical statistical functions such as:

logLik(model_large)
#> 'log Lik.' -207.4279 (df=12)
AIC(model_large)
#> [1] 438.8558
BIC(model_large)
#> [1] 478.2542

### Contexts

The model can be explored in details by drawing its context tree (see vignette("context-trees") for details) as follows:

draw(model_large)
#> * (0.325, 0.345, 0.33)
#> '-- 1 (0.3043, 0.4203, 0.2754)
#>     +-- 1 (0.2069, 0.4828, 0.3103)
#>     |   '-- 0 (0.2222, 0.7778, 0)
#>     '-- 2 (0.3, 0.3, 0.4)
#>         '-- 2 (0, 0.375, 0.625)

To explore the contexts in a programmatic way, one should rely on the contexts() function. VLMC contexts have additional characteristics compared to context trees. In particular, the contexts() function can report the log likelihood ratio associated to each context as follows (compare to cutoff() above):

contexts(model_large, cutoff = "native")
context cutoff
0, 1, 1 3.4813864
1, 1 0.7006631
2, 2, 1 2.9008662
2, 1 0.8777091
1 0.9067789
0.0000000

Notice that by default contexts() uses the reverse representation of contexts, but they can be returned in the natural time sequence using reverse=FALSE, as in

contexts(model_large, cutoff = "quantile", reverse = FALSE, frequency = "detailed")
context freq 0 1 2 cutoff
0, 1, 1 9 2 7 0 0.0307647
1, 1 29 6 14 9 0.4962561
2, 2, 1 8 0 3 5 0.0549756
2, 1 20 6 6 8 0.4157342
1 69 21 29 19 0.4038229
200 65 69 66 1.0000000

As for context trees, focused analysis of specific contexts can be done by requesting a ctx_node representation of the context of interest, for instance via the find_sequence() function, or with the default result type of contexts()

ctxs <- contexts(model_large)
ctxs
#> Contexts:
#>  0, 1, 1
#>  1, 1
#>  2, 2, 1
#>  2, 1
#>  1
#> 

Individual contexts can be analysed using a collection of dedicated functions, for instance

counts(ctxs[[2]])
total 0 1 2
29 6 14 9
cutoff(ctxs[[3]])
#> [1] 0.05497558