VenStan: Experimental Stan Integration

VentureScript programs may interoperate with models written in the popular probabilistic programming system Stan. The interface is experimental, but suffices to build joint models where, for example, one may use Stan’s NUTS sampler to make transitions over some block of continuous variables and VentureScript’s native enumerative Gibbs over a collection of discrete ones.

For a complete (if contrived) example, see examples/venstan/normal_normal.vnts in the Venture distribution.


The entry point to Stan integration is the Venture SP make_ven_stan. make_ven_stan accepts

  • a string representing a Stan model,
  • a description of the Stan names and Venture types of the inputs, and
  • a description of the Stan name and Venture type of the output, and
  • returns a Venture SP representing the model.

The SP returned by make_ven_stan accepts inputs of the specified types and returns an output of the specified type, which can be constrained (and therefore can absorb changes to its inputs).

  • The parameters (in Stan’s sense) of the model are kept internal to the SP (uncollapsed), and indexed by a latent simulation request.
  • Each application of the made SP is independent of all the others, and corresponds to a separate instance of Stan.
  • Stan inference is packaged for Venture as an AEKernel (“AE” for “arbitrary ergodic”) on the made SP.

Usage Requirements and Gotchas

  • The output datum has to appear twice in the Stan model: once as a datum that contributes to the density defined by the model, and once as a generated quantity (presumably with a different name; both names need to given to Venture). This is necessary because the VentureScript stochastic procedure is expected to be able to either forward-simulate or condition on its return value – those operations are expressed as generated quantities and input data, respectively, in Stan.

    It is up to the user to make sure that the density and the sampler define the same probability distribution (conditioned on the inputs and the Stan parameters).

  • The Stan model must be written without sampling statements, using only increment_log_prob statements. This is because sampling statements implicitly drop terms of the posterior density that do not depend on the parameters, but Venture needs those to be able to evaluate acceptance ratios for proposals that move the input data. (See here.)

  • The latent parameters are initialized by Stan’s native initialization procedure, not sampled from any prior. Consequently, forward sampling of the output follows a weird distribution, which does not correspond to anything for which a density is available.


To use VenStan, is it necessary to have pystan installed, and then to run:


This makes the make_ven_stan procedure available.

make_ven_stan(<stan_model> : string, <list of input specs>, <list of output specs>[, <cache dir> :string])

make_ven_stan will return a stochastic procedure each of whose applications will be one instantiation of the Stan model.

An input spec is a list of two elements: The Stan name of an input and the VentureScript type of that input. The returned procedure will accept inputs in that order, and map them to Stan data items of those names.

An output spec is a list of three required elements followed by any number of optional size specifications. The first element is the Stan name of the generated quantity representing the output. The second element is the Stan name of the corresponding input. The third element is the VentureScript type of that value. If the type is an array (of whatever dimension), that many additional elements are required which are strings giving Python expressions that evaluate to the sizes of each dimension of that array. These may refer to the value of other inputs by their Stan names.

For example:

    assume stan_prog = "
    data {
      int N;
      real y[N];
    generated quantities {
      real y_out[N];
    assume inputs = quote("N"("Int")());
    assume c_outputs = quote("y_out"("y", "UArray(Number)", "N")());
    assume stan_sp = make_ven_stan(stan_prog, inputs, c_outputs);

Now ``stan_sp`` is a one-input one-output VentureScript procedure
that represents the distribution on ``y`` given ``N``, taking any
parameters of the Stan model as latent variables.  Here ``y_out``
and ``y`` are a corresponding output-input pair.  Venture
synthesizes an initial ``y`` to bootstrap forward simulation
(which is why the sizes of any arrays need to be supplied).

Note: VenStan can only handle one output from Stan at present.  We
require a (one-element) list of output specs for forward

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