Probability distribution in Python


I have a bunch of keys that each have an unlikeliness variable. I want to randomly choose one of these keys, yet I want it to be more unlikely for unlikely (key, values) to be chosen than a less unlikely (a more likely) object. I am wondering if you would have any suggestions, preferably an existing python module that I could use, else I will need to make it myself.

I have checked out the random module; it does not seem to provide this.

I have to make such choices many millions of times for 1000 different sets of objects each containing 2,455 objects. Each set will exchange objects among each other so the random chooser needs to be dynamic. With 1000 sets of 2,433 objects, that is 2,433 million objects; low memory consumption is crucial. And since these choices are not the bulk of the algorithm, I need this process to be quite fast; CPU-time is limited.



Ok, I tried to consider your suggestions wisely, but time is so limited...

I looked at the binary search tree approach and it seems too risky (complex and complicated). The other suggestions all resemble the ActiveState recipe. I took it and modified it a little in the hope of making more efficient:

def windex(dict, sum, max):
    '''an attempt to make a random.choose() function that makes
    weighted choices accepts a dictionary with the item_key and
    certainty_value as a pair like:
    >>> x = [('one', 20), ('two', 2), ('three', 50)], the
    maximum certainty value (max) and the sum of all certainties.'''
    n = random.uniform(0, 1)
    sum = max*len(list)-sum 
    for key, certainty in dict.iteritems():
        weight = float(max-certainty)/sum
        if n < weight:
        n = n - weight
    return key

I am hoping to get an efficiency gain from dynamically maintaining the sum of certainties and the maximum certainty. Any further suggestions are welcome. You guys saves me so much time and effort, while increasing my effectiveness, it is crazy. Thx! Thx! Thx!


I decided to make it more efficient by letting it choose more choices at once. This will result in an acceptable loss in precision in my algo for it is dynamic in nature. Anyway, here is what I have now:

def weightedChoices(dict, sum, max, choices=10):
    '''an attempt to make a random.choose() function that makes
    weighted choices accepts a dictionary with the item_key and
    certainty_value as a pair like:
    >>> x = [('one', 20), ('two', 2), ('three', 50)], the
    maximum certainty value (max) and the sum of all certainties.'''
    list = [random.uniform(0, 1) for i in range(choices)]
    (n, list) = relavate(list.sort())
    keys = []
    sum = max*len(list)-sum 
    for key, certainty in dict.iteritems():
        weight = float(max-certainty)/sum
        if n < weight:
            if list: (n, list) = relavate(list)
            else: break
        n = n - weight
    return keys
def relavate(list):
    min = list[0]
    new = [l - min for l in list[1:]]
    return (min, new)

I haven't tried it out yet. If you have any comments/suggestions, please do not hesitate. Thx!


I have been working all day on a task-tailored version of Rex Logan's answer. Instead of a 2 arrays of objects and weights, it is actually a special dictionary class; which makes things quite complex since Rex's code generates a random index... I also coded a test case that kind of resembles what will happen in my algo (but I can't really know until I try!). The basic principle is: the more a key is randomly generated often, the more unlikely it will be generated again:

import random, time
import psyco

class ProbDict():
    Modified version of Rex Logans RandomObject class. The more a key is randomly
    chosen, the more unlikely it will further be randomly chosen. 
    def __init__(self,keys_weights_values={}):
        self._effort = 0.15
        self._fails = 0
    def __iter__(self):
    def __getitem__(self, key):
        return self._kw[key]
    def __setitem__(self, key, value):
        self.append(key, value)
    def __len__(self):
        return self._len
    def next(self):
        while key:
            yield key
            key = self._key()
    def __contains__(self, key):
        return key in self._kw
    def items(self):
        return self._kw.items()
    def pop(self, key):  
            (w, value) = self._kw.pop(key)
            self._len -=1
            if w == self._seniorW:
                self._seniors -= 1
                if not self._seniors:
                    #costly but unlikely:
            return [w, value]
        except KeyError:
            return None
    def popitem(self):
        return self.pop(self._key())
    def values(self):
        values = []
        for key in self._keys:
            except KeyError:
        return values
    def weights(self):
        weights = []
        for key in self._keys:
            except KeyError:
        return weights
    def keys(self, imperfect=False):
        if imperfect: return self._keys
        return self._kw.keys()
    def append(self, key, value=None):
        if key not in self._kw:
            self._len +=1
            self._kw[key] = [0, value]
    def _key(self):
        for i in range(int(self._effort*self._len)):
            ri=random.randint(0,self._len-1) #choose a random object
            rkey = self._keys[ri]
                w = self._kw[rkey][0]
                if rx >= w: # test to see if that is the value we want
                    w += 1
                    self._kw[rkey][0] = w
                    return rkey
            except KeyError:
        # if you do not find one after 100 tries then just get a random one
        self._fails += 1 #for confirming effectiveness only
        for key in self._keys:
            if key in self._kw:
                w = self._kw[key][0] + 1
                self._kw[key][0] = w
                return key
        return None
    def _findSeniors(self):
        '''this function finds the seniors, counts them and assess their age. It
        is costly but unlikely.'''
        seniorW = 0
        seniors = 0
        for w in self._kw.itervalues():
            if w >= seniorW:
                if w == seniorW:
                    seniors += 1
                    seniorsW = w
                    seniors = 1
        self._seniors = seniors
        self._seniorW = seniorW
    def _warnSeniors(self, w):
        #a weight can only be incremented...good
        if w >= self._seniorW:
            if w == self._seniorW:
                self._seniors = 1
                self._seniorW = w
def test():
    #test code
    iterations = 200000
    size = 2500
    nextkey = size 

    pd = ProbDict(dict([(i,[0,i]) for i in xrange(size)]))
    start = time.clock()
    for i in xrange(iterations):
        if random.randint(0,1+pd._seniorW-w):
            #the heavier the object, the more unlikely it will be removed
        probAppend = float(500+(size-len(pd)))/1000
        if random.uniform(0,1) < probAppend:
    print (time.clock()-start)*1000/iterations, "msecs / iteration with", pd._fails, "failures /", iterations, "iterations"
    weights = pd.weights()
    print "avg weight:", float(sum(weights))/pd._len, max(weights), pd._seniorW, pd._seniors, len(pd), len(weights)
    print weights

Any comments are still welcome. @Darius: your binary trees are too complex and complicated for me; and I do not think its leafs can be removed efficiently... Thx all

2/10/2009 3:56:55 PM

Accepted Answer

This activestate recipe gives an easy-to-follow approach, specifically the version in the comments that doesn't require you to pre-normalize your weights:

import random

def weighted_choice(items):
    """items is a list of tuples in the form (item, weight)"""
    weight_total = sum((item[1] for item in items))
    n = random.uniform(0, weight_total)
    for item, weight in items:
        if n < weight:
            return item
        n = n - weight
    return item

This will be slow if you have a large list of items. A binary search would probably be better in that case... but would also be more complicated to write, for little gain if you have a small sample size. Here's an example of the binary search approach in python if you want to follow that route.

(I'd recommend doing some quick performance testing of both methods on your dataset. The performance of different approaches to this sort of algorithm is often a bit unintuitive.)

Edit: I took my own advice, since I was curious, and did a few tests.

I compared four approaches:

The weighted_choice function above.

A binary-search choice function like so:

def weighted_choice_bisect(items):
    added_weights = []
    last_sum = 0

    for item, weight in items:
        last_sum += weight

    return items[bisect.bisect(added_weights, random.random() * last_sum)][0]

A compiling version of 1:

def weighted_choice_compile(items):
    """returns a function that fetches a random item from items

    items is a list of tuples in the form (item, weight)"""
    weight_total = sum((item[1] for item in items))
    def choice(uniform = random.uniform):
        n = uniform(0, weight_total)
        for item, weight in items:
            if n < weight:
                return item
            n = n - weight
        return item
    return choice

A compiling version of 2:

def weighted_choice_bisect_compile(items):
    """Returns a function that makes a weighted random choice from items."""
    added_weights = []
    last_sum = 0

    for item, weight in items:
        last_sum += weight

    def choice(rnd=random.random, bis=bisect.bisect):
        return items[bis(added_weights, rnd() * last_sum)][0]
    return choice

I then built a big list of choices like so:

choices = [(random.choice("abcdefg"), random.uniform(0,50)) for i in xrange(2500)]

And an excessively simple profiling function:

def profiler(f, n, *args, **kwargs):
    start = time.time()
    for i in xrange(n):
        f(*args, **kwargs)
    return time.time() - start

The results:

(Seconds taken for 1,000 calls to the function.)

  • Simple uncompiled: 0.918624162674
  • Binary uncompiled: 1.01497793198
  • Simple compiled: 0.287325024605
  • Binary compiled: 0.00327413797379

The "compiled" results include the average time taken to compile the choice function once. (I timed 1,000 compiles, then divided that time by 1,000, and added the result to the choice function time.)

So: if you have a list of items+weights which change very rarely, the binary compiled method is by far the fastest.

2/9/2009 4:48:48 AM

In comments on the original post, Nicholas Leonard suggests that both the exchanging and the sampling need to be fast. Here's an idea for that case; I haven't tried it.

If only sampling had to be fast, we could use an array of the values together with the running sum of their probabilities, and do a binary search on the running sum (with key being a uniform random number) -- an O(log(n)) operation. But an exchange would require updating all of the running-sum values appearing after the entries exchanged -- an O(n) operation. (Could you choose to exchange only items near the end of their lists? I'll assume not.)

So let's aim for O(log(n)) in both operations. Instead of an array, keep a binary tree for each set to sample from. A leaf holds the sample value and its (unnormalized) probability. A branch node holds the total probability of its children.

To sample, generate a uniform random number x between 0 and the total probability of the root, and descend the tree. At each branch, choose the left child if the left child has total probability <= x. Else subtract the left child's probability from x and go right. Return the leaf value you reach.

To exchange, remove the leaf from its tree and adjust the branches that lead down to it (decreasing their total probability, and cutting out any single-child branch nodes). Insert the leaf into the destination tree: you have a choice of where to put it, so keep it balanced. Picking a random child at each level is probably good enough -- that's where I'd start. Increase each parent node's probability, back up to the root.

Now both sampling and exchange are O(log(n)) on average. (If you need guaranteed balance, a simple way is to add another field to the branch nodes holding the count of leaves in the whole subtree. When adding a leaf, at each level pick the child with fewer leaves. This leaves the possibility of a tree getting unbalanced solely by deletions; this can't be a problem if there's reasonably even traffic between the sets, but if it is, then choose rotations during deletion using the leaf-count information on each node in your traversal.)

Update: On request, here's a basic implementation. Haven't tuned it at all. Usage:

>>> t1 = build_tree([('one', 20), ('two', 2), ('three', 50)])
>>> t1
Branch(Leaf(20, 'one'), Branch(Leaf(2, 'two'), Leaf(50, 'three')))
>>> t1.sample()
Leaf(50, 'three')
>>> t1.sample()
Leaf(20, 'one')
>>> t2 = build_tree([('four', 10), ('five', 30)])
>>> t1a, t2a = transfer(t1, t2)
>>> t1a
Branch(Leaf(20, 'one'), Leaf(2, 'two'))
>>> t2a
Branch(Leaf(10, 'four'), Branch(Leaf(30, 'five'), Leaf(50, 'three')))


import random

def build_tree(pairs):
    tree = Empty()
    for value, weight in pairs:
        tree = tree.add(Leaf(weight, value))
    return tree

def transfer(from_tree, to_tree):
    """Given a nonempty tree and a target, move a leaf from the former to
    the latter. Return the two updated trees."""
    leaf, from_tree1 = from_tree.extract()
    return from_tree1, to_tree.add(leaf)

class Tree:
    def add(self, leaf):
        "Return a new tree holding my leaves plus the given leaf."
    def sample(self):
        "Pick one of my leaves at random in proportion to its weight."
        return self.sampling(random.uniform(0, self.weight))
    def extract(self):
        """Pick one of my leaves and return it along with a new tree
        holding my leaves minus that one leaf."""
        return self.extracting(random.uniform(0, self.weight))        

class Empty(Tree):
    weight = 0
    def __repr__(self):
        return 'Empty()'
    def add(self, leaf):
        return leaf
    def sampling(self, weight):
        raise Exception("You can't sample an empty tree")
    def extracting(self, weight):
        raise Exception("You can't extract from an empty tree")

class Leaf(Tree):
    def __init__(self, weight, value):
        self.weight = weight
        self.value = value
    def __repr__(self):
        return 'Leaf(%r, %r)' % (self.weight, self.value)
    def add(self, leaf):
        return Branch(self, leaf)
    def sampling(self, weight):
        return self
    def extracting(self, weight):
        return self, Empty()

def combine(left, right):
    if isinstance(left, Empty): return right
    if isinstance(right, Empty): return left
    return Branch(left, right)

class Branch(Tree):
    def __init__(self, left, right):
        self.weight = left.weight + right.weight
        self.left = left
        self.right = right
    def __repr__(self):
        return 'Branch(%r, %r)' % (self.left, self.right)
    def add(self, leaf):
        # Adding to a random branch as a clumsy way to keep an
        # approximately balanced tree.
        if random.random() < 0.5:
            return combine(self.left.add(leaf), self.right)
        return combine(self.left, self.right.add(leaf))
    def sampling(self, weight):
        if weight < self.left.weight:
            return self.left.sampling(weight)
        return self.right.sampling(weight - self.left.weight)
    def extracting(self, weight):
        if weight < self.left.weight:
            leaf, left1 = self.left.extracting(weight)
            return leaf, combine(left1, self.right)
        leaf, right1 = self.right.extracting(weight - self.left.weight)
        return leaf, combine(self.left, right1)

Update 2: In answering another problem, Jason Orendorff points out that the binary trees can be kept perfectly balanced by representing them in an array just like the classical heap structure. (This saves the space spent on pointers, too.) See my comments to that answer for how to adapt his code to this problem.

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