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Probly is a Python-like mini-language for probabilistic estimation. It's based on Starlark and implemented in Go.

Start with Example 1

Probly syntax

You may use any Starlark syntax. There are only the following differences to Starlark:

  • A variable may follow a probability distribution, in addition to usual types like numbers or dictionaries
  • The Starlark math module is imported by default, so you can directly use it e.g. math.sqrt(2). Probly also has a built-in sum function not available in Starlark.

This page will show you the probability distributions of all the numeric (scalar or distribution) global variables in your program (except those starting with an underscore). The values are taken at the end of the program's execution.

Probability distributions

Name to
p10 to p90
pm
plus/minus
td
times/divide
Quantiles Notes
Normal mean sd 2
LogNormal mu sigma 2 Alternatively: mean, sd
Beta alpha beta
PERT min mode max [lambd] Like the triangular, but smoother (Wikipedia)
Uniform a b 2 a need not be less than b
LogUniform a b 2 a need not be less than b
Bernoulli p
Binomial n p
Discrete x_1 p_1 x_2 p_2 ... Generic discrete distribution over any finite set of values

math

These mathematical functions and constants are available in the math module:

  • pow(x, y) - Returns x raised to the power of y
  • exp(x)
  • sqrt(x)
  • log(x, [base]) - Natural logarithm by default if base is not specified
  • e
  • pi
  • Ceil, floor, and sign manipulation:
    • ceil(x)
    • floor(x)
    • fabs(x) - Returns the absolute value of x as float
    • copysign(x, y) - Returns a value with the magnitude of x and the sign of y
  • mod(x, y) - Returns x modulo y
  • remainder(x, y)
  • round(x) - Returns the nearest integer, rounding half away from zero
  • Trigonometry (in radians unless otherwise specified):
    • acos(x)
    • asin(x)
    • atan(x)
    • atan2(y, x) - Returns atan(y / x). The result is between -pi and pi
    • cos(x)
    • sin(x)
    • tan(x)
    • degrees(x) - Converts angle x from radians to degrees
    • radians(x) - Converts angle x from degrees to radians
    • acosh(x)
    • asinh(x)
    • atanh(x)
    • cosh(x)
    • sinh(x)
    • tanh(x)
  • hypot(x, y) - Returns the Euclidean norm, sqrt(x^2 + y^2); the distance from the origin to (x, y)
  • gamma(x) - Returns the Gamma function at x

Starlark syntax

This code provides an example of the syntax of Starlark:

# Define a number
number = 18

# Define a list
numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

# List comprehension
halves = [n / 2 for n in numbers]

# Define a function
def is_even(n):
    """Return True if n is even."""
    return n % 2 == 0

# Define a dictionary
people = {
    "Alice": 22,
    "Bob": 40,
    "Charlie": 55,
    "Dave": 14,
}

names = ", ".join(people.keys())  # Alice, Bob, Charlie, Dave

# Modify a variable in a loop
sum_even_ages = 0
for age in people.values():
    if is_even(age):
        sum_even_ages += age

# Append to a list in a loop
over_30_names = []
for name, age in people.items():
    if age > 30:
        over_30_names.append(name)

If you've ever used Python, this should look very familiar. In fact, the code above is also valid Python code. Still, this short example shows most of the language. Starlark is a very small language that implements a limited subset of Python.

For our purposes, one notable difference to Python is that the exponentiation operator ** is not supported. You have to use math.pow.

You can also look at the Starlark language specification.

Speed

Though not designed for speed, Probly is fast enough for practical purposes: around 10 milliseconds for 3,000 samples, for most examples on this page. This is due to being implemented in Go.

The time taken to return results on this page is spent overwhelmingly in web application code, not in Probly evaluation.

Interestingly, Probly is still slower than Python code that uses entirely numpy array operations, which are very well optimised. This should only begin to matter at very large scales, or if latency is critical.

Limitations

It's not currently possible to obtain and manipulate properties of a distribution within an Probly program, like so:

x = Normal(1 to 10)
y = x.std()  # Not possible

Supporting this would require some fundamental changes to the implementation of Probly, which is currently quite simple. I haven't prioritised this yet because I'm unsure how desirable the feature is.

Prior work

The to binary operator was inspired by Squiggle.

Example Dissolving the Fermi Paradox (Sandberg et al.)

This example follows Section 3 of Dissolving the Fermi Paradox (Sandberg and colleagues, 2018).

From the abstract:

[The Fermi paradox] arises from the use of Drake-like equations, which implicitly assume certainty regarding highly uncertain parameters. ... When the model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.

The results of our simulation should approximately match Figure 2 of the paper:

The mean for N is [...] 27 million, but the median is now only 0.32 – less than one civilization per galaxy like our own. The probability of N<1 is now 52%.

Distribution details

n

Mean 29.0 E 6
Std. dev. 445 E 6
Variance 198 E 15
Quantile
0.05 0
0.25 1.97 E -12
0.50 1.88
0.75 5 550
0.95 12.8 E 6

longevity

Mean 534 E 6
Std. dev. 1.54 E 9
Variance 2.36 E 18
Quantile
0.05 255
0.25 9 610
0.50 874 000
0.75 78.6 E 6
0.95 3.80 E 9

detectable

Mean 0.208
Std. dev. 0.245
Variance 0.059 9
Quantile
0.05 0.012 6
0.25 0.031 5
0.50 0.095 4
0.75 0.307
0.95 0.780

intelligence

Mean 0.147
Std. dev. 0.228
Variance 0.051 9
Quantile
0.05 0.001 40
0.25 0.005 49
0.50 0.032 1
0.75 0.183
0.95 0.711

life

Mean 0.512
Std. dev. 0.496
Variance 0.246
Quantile
0.05 0
0.25 3.33 E -15
0.50 0.969
0.75 1.00
0.95 1.00

r_life

Mean 103 E 72
Std. dev. 5.56 E 75
Variance 30.9 E 150
Quantile
0.05 1.72 E -36
0.25 3.33 E -15
0.50 3.47
0.75 3.10 E 15
0.95 1.21 E 36

habitable

Mean 0.387
Std. dev. 0.248
Variance 0.061 6
Quantile
0.05 0.111
0.25 0.171
0.50 0.319
0.75 0.559
0.95 0.890

planet

Mean 0.390
Std. dev. 0.247
Variance 0.060 9
Quantile
0.05 0.113
0.25 0.177
0.50 0.323
0.75 0.555
0.95 0.881

star_formation

Mean 20.9
Std. dev. 24.5
Variance 600
Quantile
0.05 1.24
0.25 3.01
0.50 10.0
0.75 30.7
0.95 77.3

Simulation data

CSV

Download CSV

Preview

star_formation planet habitable r_life ... intelligence detectable longevity n
0 9.60 0.527 0.159 199 ... 0.034 6 0.354 5 460 53.6
1 26.1 0.866 0.111 1.96 E 12 ... 0.567 0.882 147 000 184 000
2 2.46 0.586 0.899 11.4 E 9 ... 0.018 7 0.045 9 471 0.523
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
2997 39.6 0.125 0.224 4.60 E 6 ... 0.445 0.114 192 000 10 800
2998 3.01 0.674 0.340 71.5 E 12 ... 0.192 0.345 325 000 14 900
2999 11.6 0.297 0.163 6.41 E -30 ... 0.281 0.158 139 000 0

API

Get the simulation data (and more) in a machine-readable format: /api/sim/73yxX5EgtBsUf2sUpfWJxN/