I'm currently using an SVM with a linear kernel to classify my data. There is no error on the training set. I tried several values for the parameter C (10^-5, ..., 10^2). This did not change the error on the test set. Now I wonder: is this an error caused by the ruby bindings for libsvm I am using (https://github.com/febeling/rb-libsvm) or is this theoretically explainable? Should the parameter C always change the performance of the classifier?
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The C parameter tells the SVM optimization how much you want to avoid misclassifying each training example. For large values of C, the optimization will choose a smaller-margin hyperplane if that hyperplane does a better job of getting all the training points classified correctly. Conversely, a very small value of C will cause the optimizer to look for a larger-margin separating hyperplane, even if that hyperplane misclassifies more points. For very tiny values of C, you should get misclassified examples, often even if your training data is linearly separable.
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C is essentially a regularisation parameter, which controls the trade-off between achieving a low error on the training data and minimising the norm of the weights. It is analageous to the ridge parameter in ridge regression (in fact in practice there is little difference in performance or theory between linear SVMs and ridge regression, so I generally use the latter - or kernel ridge regression if there are more attributes than observations).
Tuning C correctly is a vital step in best practice in the use of SVMs, as structural risk minimisation (the key principle behind the basic approach) is party implemented via the tuning of C. The parameter C enforces an upper bound on the norm of the weights, which means that there is a nested set of hypothesis classes indexed by C. As we increase C, we increase the complexity of the hypothesis class (if we increase C slightly, we can still form all of the linear models that we could before and also some that we couldn't before we increased the upper bound on the allowable norm of the weights). So as well as implementing SRM via maximum margin classification, it is also implemented by the limiting the complexity of the hypothesis class via controlling C.
Sadly the theory for determining how to set C is not very well developed at the moment, so most people tend to use cross-validation (if they do anything).