I was running the NIST statistical test suite recently. I wanted an example of a random number generator where the tests failed, and so I used a simple generator, a linear congruence generator. But to my surprise, the generator passed nearly all the tests, even though some more sophisticated generators failed some of the same tests.

This post will implement a couple of the simplest tests in Python and show that the generator does surprisingly well.

The linear congruential generator used here starts with an arbitrary seed, then at each step produces a new number by multiplying the previous number by a constant and taking the remainder by 2^{31} – 1. The multiplier constant was chosen to be one of the multipliers recommended in [1].

We’ll need a couple math functions:

from math import sqrt, log

and we need to define the constants for our generator.

# Linear congruence generator (LCG) constants
z = 20170705 # seed
a = 742938285 # multiplier
e = 31 # will need this later
m = 2**e -1 # modulus

Next we form a long string of 0’s and 1’s using our generator

# Number of random numbers to generate
N = 100000
# Format to print bits, padding with 0's on the left if needed
formatstr = "0" + str(e) + "b"
bit_string = ""
for _ in range(N):
z = a*z % m # LCG
bit_string += format(z, formatstr)

Next we run a couple tests. First, we count the number of 1’s in our string of bits. We expect about half the bits to be 1’s. We can quantify “about” as within two standard deviations.

def count_ones(string):
ones = 0
for i in range(len(string)):
if string[i] == '1':
ones += 1
return ones
ones = count_ones(bit_string)
expected = e*N/2
sd = sqrt(0.25*N)
print( "Number of 1's: {}".format(ones) )
print( "Expected: {} to {}".format(expected - 2*sd, expected + 2*sd) )

The results are nothing unusual:

Number of 1's: 1550199
Expected: 1549683.8 to 1550316.2

Next we look at the length of the longest runs on 1’s. I’ve written before about the probability of long runs and the code below uses a couple results from that post.

def runs(string):
max_run = 0
current_run = 0
for i in range(len(string)):
if string[i] == '1':
current_run += 1
else:
current_run = 0
max_run = max(max_run, current_run)
return max_run
runlength = runs(bit_string)
expected = -log(0.5*e*N)/log(0.5)
sd = 1/log(2)
print( "Run length: {}".format(runlength) )
print( "Expected: {} to {}".format(expected - 2*sd, expected + 2*sd) )

Again the results are nothing unusual:

Run length: 19
Expected: 17.7 to 23.4

Simple random number generators are adequate for many uses. Some applications, such as high dimensional integration and cryptography, require more sophisticated generators, but sometimes its convenient and sufficient to use something simple. For example, code using the LCG generator above would be easier to debug than code using the Mersenne Twister. The entire state of the LCG is a single number, whereas the Mersenne Twister maintains an internal state of 312 numbers.

One obvious limitation of the LCG used here is that it couldn’t possibly produce more than 2^{31} – 1 values before repeating itself. Since the state only depends on the last value, every time it comes to a given output, the next output will be whatever the next output was the previous time. In fact, [1] shows that it does produce 2^{31} – 1 values before cycling. If the multiplier were not chosen carefully it could have a shorter period.

So our LCG has a period of about two billion values. That’s a lot if you’re writing a little game, for example. But it’s not enough for many scientific applications.

* * *

[1] George S. Fishman and Louis R. Moore III, An exhaustive analysis of multiplicative congruential random number generators with modulus 2^{31} – 1, SIAM Journal of Scientific and Statistical Computing, Vol. 7, no. 1, January 1986.