[R] Issues with convolve

Duncan Murdoch murdoch at stats.uwo.ca
Wed Jul 20 19:09:52 CEST 2005

On 7/20/2005 12:52 PM, Vincent Goulet wrote:
> We obtained some disturbing results from convolve() (inaccuracies and negative 
> probabilities). We'll try to make the context clear in as few lines as 
> possible...
> Our function panjer() (code below) basically computes recursively the 
> probability mass function of a compound Poisson distribution. When the 
> Poisson parameter lambda is very large, the starting value of the recursive 
> scheme --- the mass at 0 --- is 0 and the recursion fails. One way to solve 
> this problem is to divide lambda by 2^n, apply the panjer() function and then 
> convolve the result with itself n times.
> We applied the panjer() function with a lambda such that the mass at 0 is just 
> larger than .Machine$double.xmin. We thus know that once this pmf is 
> convoluted with itself, the first probabilities will be 0 (for the computer).
> Here are the two issues we have with convolve():
> 1. The probabilities we know should be 0 are rather in the vicinity of 1E-19, 
> as if convolve() could not "go lower". Using a hand made convolution function 
> (not given here), we obtained the correct values. When probabilities get 
> around 1E-12, results from convolve() and our home made function are 
> essentially identical.
> 2. We obtained negative probabilities. More accurately, the same example 
> returns negative probabilities under Windows, but not under Linux. We also 
> obtained negative probabilities for another example under Linux, though.
> We understand that convolve() computes the convolutions using fft(), but we 
> are not familiar enough with the latter to assess if the above issues are 
> some sort of bugs or normal behavior. In the latter case, is there is any 
> workaround?

Rounding will depend on the hardware and the compiler, so this might be 
normal behaviour.  It's a little disturbing, but you shouldn't expect 
calculations to be accurate to more digits than your platform supports.
Convolving using an FFT is essentially rotating the vectors in a high 
dimensional space, multiplying terms, and then rotating back.  Unless 
those rotations are unrealistically accurate very small numbers won't 
necessarily show up as zeros.

I'd suggest re-thinking your panjer function to work in log 
probabilities instead of probabilities, so that you can handle a larger 
dynamic range before you run into underflow problems, and you don't need 
to use convolve at all. Convert them back to probabilities at the very 

Duncan Murdoch

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