Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My apologies if I get some terminology wrong, I don't have a formal math background; half my problem is articulating what I'm trying to do and identifying the domain of math that deals with this kind of problem.

I am working on a problem where I would like to run an optimization algorithm to find values for an n-dimensional dense matrix (actually, the matrix is the conditional probability table of a node on a probabilistic graphical model, but I'm not sure if that's relevant)

I'm familiar with some basic types of optimization such as constraint logic programming and linear programming. However, I'm having a hard time formalizing my problem because it doesn't fall neatly into either category; it inherently has both one continuous dimension and any number of discrete dimensions.

I'll give a concrete example. Say I have three sets, each with three members:

X = {x₀, x₁, x₂}
Y = {y₀, y₁, y₂}
Z = {z₀, z₁, z₂}

If I take one element from each set, there are 27 possible permutations (or 27 elements, if you view the sets as axes of a matrix). For each of those permutations I would like to assign a real number p between 0 and 1, subject to certain constraints and an optimization function.

For example, say I wanted to give the following constraints:

  • For each x ∈ X and y ∈ Y, the sum of {x, y, z₀...z₂} = 1
  • For each x ∈ X and y ∈ Y, {x, y, z₀} ≥ {x, y, z₁} + 0.5
  • {x₂, y₁, z₂} = 0.5

Using an optimization function keep each p as close as possible, the following matrix population might be a solution (done by hand, so there might be errors):

|    |        x₀       |        x₁       |        x₂       |
|    |  y₀ |  y₁ |  y₂ |  y₀ |  y₁ |  y₂ |  y₀ |  y₁ |  y₂ |
| z₀ | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 | 0.6 |
| z₁ | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 | 0.1 |
| z₂ | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 | 0.3 |

What is a mathematical approach for the general version of this problem, with N discrete dimension, N constraints, and an arbitrary optimization function?

share|cite|improve this question
I don't understand the second condition "For each $y \in Y$ and $z\in Z$..." -- should it be "For each $x \in X$ and $y \in Y$..."? Also, it would help to clarify "optimization function keep each $p$ as close as possible". Does this mean the optimization function is $\max(p)-\min(p)$, where the maximum and minimum are taken over all $p$-values in the table? Also, it seems that the entries in the second-to-last column do not add up to $1$. I guess they should be $0.5, 0, 0.5$? – user90090 Aug 16 '13 at 23:17
@user90090, yes, thank you. You're correct on each count. I actually couldn't think of the formalization for the optimization function, but that indeed is it. – levand Aug 17 '13 at 17:45

According to the comments, I take the function to be minimized as $\max (p)-\min(p)$, with maximum and minimum taken over all $p$-values in the tables. If we did not have the constraint $p(x_2,y_1,z_2)= 0.5$, a natural solution for general $N$ would be: $$ p(x,y,z_0) =\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{2N}, \quad p(x,y,z_i) = \frac{1}{2N} \quad \text{ for } i\ge 1 $$ Indeed, the first two constraints are satisfied by the above, and the spread between the maximal and minimal $p$ is $1/2$, which is as small as it can be (due to the second constraint).

For $N=3$ the above gives $(2/3,1/6,1/6)$ in each column, which are closer together than the values in your example.

But then there's the constraint $p(x_2,y_1,z_2)=0.5$. It immediately determines the values in the $(x_2,y_1)$-column, because $p(x_2,y_1,z_0)\ge0.5$, and the sum of column must be $1$. Thus, $p(x_2,y_1,z_0)=0.5$, $p(x_2,y_1,z_2)=0.5$, and all other entries in that column are zero.

The presence of zero somewhere makes $\min (p)=0$. Then the optimal choice is to let all columns to be the same: $(1/2,0,1/2,0,0,0,\dots,0)$. Now all $p$ values are between $0$ and $1/2$. However, having most probabilities as zeros is probably not what you had in mind for your model. You may want to revise the optimization design.

share|cite|improve this answer
Thanks! This is definitely on the track I was looking for. I see what you're saying, though I am curious if there's a more generalized way of modeling constraints rather than handling each type of constraint seperately. Also, I think the last problem you mention could be avoided if I make the optimization function to be max(p) - min(p) for each value of X,Y rather than globally. – levand Aug 19 '13 at 13:58

For reference: I ended up solving my problem using linear programming to optimize the values in the matrix by turning each cell into its own variable.

As it happens, I could express all the constraints I was interested in terms of linear inequalities.

The optimization function was a bit more difficult because I didn't want to maximize or minimize on any axis. Rather, I wanted to find the center of the feasible region. However, it turns out that its possible to manipulate all the constraints to introduce a Chebychev hypersphere (a hypersphere constrained to fit within the feasible region). When you maximize the radius of the hypersphere, the center of the sphere will be somewhere near the center of the feasible region.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.