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Subject: Re: [boost] [math distributions] where to check for validity of distribution variables?
From: John Maddock (john_at_[hidden])
Date: 2008-11-22 14:22:45

Thijs van den Berg wrote:
>>> That's what the existing distributions do. In fact we could omit
>>> most of the subsequent parameter checking code if we could figure
>>> out whether the error handlers will throw or not on error (in fact
>>> we *can* get this information at compile time and make the
>>> subsequent checks a no-op if we know that the constructor would
>>> have thrown on error... we just ran out of time on that refinement).
>> I don't understand this, it has to do with my lack of knowledge on
>> this... If you ensure that the parameters get checked in the
>> constructor, why would that check *not* throw an error when needed?

Correct, the constructor might not throw if the parameters are invalid,
*and* the current policy for handling domain errors is something other than
throwing an exception. Of course exception throwing is the default, and
highly recomended, but there are some situations where exceptions aren't
allowed, and returning a NaN when a function that uses the distribution is
the correct thing to do. In fact custom error handlers can return a
*user-defined error-value* which should be propagated back to the caller of
the non-member functions if the parameters to the distribution are invalid.

The reference for error handing policies is here:,
but best to read the tutorial
first as that gives an end user perspective.

>> Compile time might be tricky depending on the complicity of the
>> parameter validation code, but simple range check on the parameters
>> could be done compile time. What mechanism are your thinking about
>> regarding compile checking, e.g. that scale>0?

Ah, I don't mean compile time checking of parameters, I mean:

If the current policy in effect (which *is* known at compile time), mandates
throwing on a domain error, then we know for sure that the constructor would
have thrown if the parameters were invalid. In that case *only* we can omit
checking the parameters again in the body of the non-member functions as we
know they must be OK.

>>>>> I'll work out the parameter idea in the Laplace distribution
>>>>> code...
>>> OK good.
>> John,
>> I got a bit of Laplace code to share!

Cool :-)

>> I still need to test the numerical results, but I compiles without
>> errors/warnings, and it throws errors when parameters are invalid.
>> Do I need to put the code somewhere? I've attached it to this mail...

Go ahead and commit to the sandbox version of Boost.Math, if you let me know
when you think it's release ready (or not), and I'll know it's OK for that
addition to be merged to the Trunk then.

>> I have 3 idea's in the code I'd like to discuss.
>> * a public member function "check_parameters" in the distribution
>> class

Looks fine, but I would make it const so that it can be called on
const-qualified distributions. If check_parameters needs to cache/change
something, then that can always be declared mutable as a last resort.

>> * a public member function operator() that allows run-time changing
>> of
>> dist parameters. I know that's a big change... I myself could use
>> something like this. E.g. I have some code that calibrates a
>> stochastic
>> model based on time series data & stores the estimated distribution
>> parameters in a file. Another program will read the distribution
>> parameters from that file, crate distributions objects, and do
>> probability calculations with that. I can only do that when I can set
>> the distribution parameters *runtime*.

*If* we support changing the parameters then IMO it shouldn't be an
operator(): that's reserved for function like objects, and that's not what
we have here.

The thing is, there are some distributions where the valid range of one
parameter may depend upon the values of others, so I'm not so keen on
setting one parameter at a time (although it could clearly be done in this
case). So what's wrong with:

mydist d(1, 2);
// do something
d = mydist(3, 4);
// do something else

Currently all the distributions are assignable and cheap to copy, is that
likely to change? We could insist that all distributions are cheap to copy,
by using the PIMPL technique and copy-on-write for distros with lots of
data. Otherwise let's add a reset() member function to set all the

>> * no more checking for distribution parameters in the non-member
>> functions. Checking is only done when the distribution parameters get
>> set or get changed. But as said before, I have no good grasp on the
>> subtle issues with that. You said "if we could figure out whether the
>> error handlers will throw or not", implying that there are
>> complexities
>> with this.

Yep: see above.

>> At the moment, I just have the code. It you think the code is ok,
>> then
>> how would I go about with documentation & testing? Do you have some
>> structure in place for that? I've seen quite some code in the
>> sandbox/math, ...concept etc...

The best thing is to see the tests for the other distributions as examples.
We try and obtain independent test data for all the distributions - even if
it's of limited precision - to sanity check our implementations.

In this case, since we're trivially calling std lib functions, there
shouldn't be any need to generate high precision test data for accuracy
testing, just make sure you test all the corner cases, and error handling.

For the docs, if you take something like the docs for the normal or
exponential as a starting point that should get you going?

Re the code:

PDF: looks like the sign of the value passed to exp() is the wrong way
around (could be wrong about that). Sign in CDF might be suspect too.

CDF: 1-exp(x) should probably -expm1(x) for accuracy.

Quantile: not sure about the formulae here, will look again when I have more

HTH, John.

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