## Python notes for MATLAB users

September 22nd, 2014

The Mathematics department at The University of Manchester runs a third year undergraduate module called ‘Problem solving by computer’ which invites students to solve complex mathematical problems by doing a little programming. Along with some interesting mathematics, the course exposes students to a wide variety of languages and numerical libraries including MATLAB, Octave, NAG, Mathematica and, most recently, Python.

Earlier this year, Python was introduced as an option for students who wanted to use it for a project in this course and, despite only being given two lectures in the language, quite a few people chose to use it. Much of this success must be attributed to the Python for MATLABers notes written by Manchester PhD student, Sophia Coban which is why I’m providing links to them here.

## MATLAB’s Mersenne Twister Random Number Generator: Seed 0 gives the same numbers as Seed 5489

June 18th, 2014

Something that became clear from my recent comparison of Numpy’s Mersenne Twister implementation with MATLAB’s is that there is something funky going on with seed 0 in MATLAB. A discussion in the comments thread helped uncover what was going on. In short, seed 0 gives exactly the same random numbers as seed 5489 in MATLAB (unless you use their deprecated rand(‘twister’,0) syntax).

This is a potential problem for anyone who performs lots of simulations that make use of random numbers such as monte-carlo simulations. One common work-flow is to run the same program hundreds of times where only the seed differs between runs. This is probably good enough to ensure that each simulation uses a random number stream that is statistically independent from all of the others — There is a risk that some streams will overlap but the probability is low and most people are content to live with that risk.

The practical upshot of this is that if you intend on sticking with Mersenne Twister for your MATLAB monte-carlo simulations, it might be wise to avoid seed 0. Alternatively, move to a random number generator that guarantees non-overlapping, independent streams – something that any implementation of Mersenne Twister cannot do.

Here’s a demo run in MATLAB 2014a on Windows 7.

```>> format long
>> rng(0)
>> rand(1,5)'

ans =

0.814723686393179
0.905791937075619
0.126986816293506
0.913375856139019
0.632359246225410

>> rng(5489)
>> rand(1,5)'

ans =

0.814723686393179
0.905791937075619
0.126986816293506
0.913375856139019
0.632359246225410```

## Reproducing MATLAB random numbers in Python

June 16th, 2014

When porting code between MATLAB and Python, it is sometimes useful to produce the exact same set of random numbers for testing purposes.  Both Python and MATLAB currently use the Mersenne Twister generator by default so one assumes this should be easy…and it is…provided you use the generator in Numpy and avoid the seed 0.

Generate some random numbers in MATLAB

Here, we generate the first 5 numbers for 3 different seeds in MATLAB. Our aim is to reproduce these in Python.

```>> format long
>> rng(0)
>> rand(1,5)'

ans =

0.814723686393179
0.905791937075619
0.126986816293506
0.913375856139019
0.632359246225410

>> rng(1)
>> rand(1,5)'

ans =

0.417022004702574
0.720324493442158
0.000114374817345
0.302332572631840
0.146755890817113

>> rng(2)
>> rand(1,5)'

ans =

0.435994902142004
0.025926231827891
0.549662477878709
0.435322392618277
0.420367802087489```

Python’s default random module

According to the documentation,Python’s random module uses the Mersenne Twister algorithm but the implementation seems to be different from MATLAB’s since the results are different.  Here’s the output from a fresh ipython session:

```In [1]: import random

In [2]: random.seed(0)

In [3]: [random.random() for _ in range(5)]
Out[3]:
[0.8444218515250481,
0.7579544029403025,
0.420571580830845,
0.25891675029296335,
0.5112747213686085]

In [4]: random.seed(1)

In [5]: [random.random() for _ in range(5)]
Out[5]:
[0.13436424411240122,
0.8474337369372327,
0.763774618976614,
0.2550690257394217,
0.49543508709194095]

In [6]: random.seed(2)

In [7]: [random.random() for _ in range(5)]
Out[7]:
[0.9560342718892494,
0.9478274870593494,
0.05655136772680869,
0.08487199515892163,
0.8354988781294496]```

The Numpy random module

Numpy’s random module, on the other hand, seems to use an identical implementation to MATLAB for seeds other than 0. In the below, notice that for seeds 1 and 2, the results are identical to MATLAB’s. For a seed of zero, they are different.

```In [1]: import numpy as np

In [2]: np.set_printoptions(suppress=True)

In [3]: np.set_printoptions(precision=15)

In [4]: np.random.seed(0)

In [5]: np.random.random((5,1))
Out[5]:
array([[ 0.548813503927325],
[ 0.715189366372419],
[ 0.602763376071644],
[ 0.544883182996897],
[ 0.423654799338905]])

In [6]: np.random.seed(1)

In [7]: np.random.random((5,1))
Out[7]:
array([[ 0.417022004702574],
[ 0.720324493442158],
[ 0.000114374817345],
[ 0.30233257263184 ],
[ 0.146755890817113]])

In [8]: np.random.seed(2)

In [9]: np.random.random((5,1))
Out[9]:
array([[ 0.435994902142004],
[ 0.025926231827891],
[ 0.549662477878709],
[ 0.435322392618277],
[ 0.420367802087489]])```

Checking a lot more seeds

Although the above interactive experiments look convincing, I wanted to check a few more seeds. All seeds from 0 to 1 million would be a good start so I wrote a MATLAB script that generated 10 random numbers for each seed from 0 to 1 million and saved the results as a .mat file.

A subsequent Python script loads the .mat file and ensures that numpy generates the same set of numbers for each seed. It outputs every seed for which Python and MATLAB differ.

On my mac, I opened a bash prompt and ran the two scripts as follows

```matlab -nodisplay -nodesktop -r "generate_matlab_randoms"
python python_randoms.py```

The output was

```MATLAB file contains 1000001 seeds and 10 samples per seed
Random numbers for seed 0 differ between MATLAB and Numpy```

System details

• Late 2013 Macbook Air
• MATLAB 2014a
• Python 2.7.7
• Numpy 1.8.1

## Chapter 1 of ‘The MATLAB Guide’ converted to IPython notebook

May 16th, 2014

One of my favourite MATLAB books is The MATLAB Guide by Desmond and Nicholas Higham. The first chapter, called ‘A Brief Tutorial’ shows how various mathematical problems can be easily explored with MATLAB; things like continued fractions, random fibonacci sequences, fractals and collatz iterations.

Over at the SIAM blog, Don MacMillen, demonstrates how its now possible, trivial even, to rewrite the entire chapter as an IPython notebook with all MATLAB code replaced with Python.

The notebook is available as a gist and can be viewed statically on nbviewer.

What other examples of successful MATLAB->Python conversions have you found?

## MATLAB Home Edition launched

March 11th, 2014

If you’ve ever wanted to use MATLAB to develop personal projects or as a hobby but have been put off by the eye-watering commercial prices, the new MATLAB Home edition might be for you.

For £85 you get full powered MATLAB without any toolboxes. This is the same version that the professionals use but there are various restrictions on its use. The FAQ states “The MATLAB® Home license is for your personal use only. It is not available for government, academic, research, commercial, or other organizational use.”

It is possible to buy toolboxes for an extra £25 each but, at the time of writing at least, it is not possible to buy ALL available toolboxes on the home license.

Some of Mathworks’ competitors have had similar home-use licenses available for some time – Mathematica and Maple to name two – it’s great to see MATLAB added to this list.

Other WalkingRandomly posts you may be interested in

## Floating point addition is not associative

February 28th, 2014

A lot of people don’t seem to know this….and they should. When working with floating point arithmetic, it is not necessarily true that a+(b+c) = (a+b)+c. Here is a demo using MATLAB

```>> x=0.1+(0.2+0.3);
>> y=(0.1+0.2)+0.3;
>> % are they equal?
>> x==y

ans =
0

>> % lets look
>> sprintf('%.17f',x)
ans =
0.59999999999999998

>> sprintf('%.17f',y)
ans =
0.60000000000000009```

These results have nothing to do with the fact that I am using MATLAB. Here’s the same thing in Python

```>>> x=(0.1+0.2)+0.3
>>> y=0.1+(0.2+0.3)
>>> x==y
False
>>> print('%.17f' %x)
0.60000000000000009
>>> print('%.17f' %y)
0.59999999999999998```

If this upsets you, or if you don’t understand why, I suggest you read the following

Does anyone else out there have suggestions for similar resources on this topic?

## MATLAB: Repeated multiplication is faster than integer powers

February 26th, 2014

Consider the following code

```function testpow()
%function to compare integer powers with repeated multiplication

rng default
a=rand(1,10000000)*10;

disp('speed of ^4 using pow')
tic;test4p = a.^4;toc
disp('speed of ^4 using multiply')
tic;test4m = a.*a.*a.*a;toc

disp('maximum difference in results');
max_diff = max(abs(test4p-test4m))

end```

On running it on my late 2013 Macbook Air with a Haswell Intel i5 using MATLAB 2013b, I get the following results

```speed of ^4 using pow
Elapsed time is 0.527485 seconds.
speed of ^4 using multiply
Elapsed time is 0.025474 seconds.
maximum difference in results
max_diff =
1.8190e-12```

In this case (derived from a real-world case), using repeated multiplication is around twenty times faster than using integer powers in MATLAB. This leads to some questions:-

• Why the huge speed difference?
• Would a similar speed difference be seen in other systems–R, Python, Julia etc?
• Would we see the same speed difference on other operating systems/CPUs?
• Are there any numerical reasons why using repeated multiplication instead of integer powers is a bad idea?

## Checkpointing MATLAB Programs

February 19th, 2014

I occasionally get emails from researchers saying something like this

‘My MATLAB code takes a week to run and the cleaner/cat/my husband keeps switching off my machine  before it’s completed — could you help me make the code go faster please so that I can get my results in between these events’

While I am more than happy to try to optimise the code in question, what these users really need is some sort of checkpointing scheme. Checkpointing is also important for users of high performance computing systems that limit the length of each individual job.

The solution – Checkpointing (or ‘Assume that your job will frequently be killed’)

The basic idea behind checkpointing is to periodically save your program’s state so that, if it is interrupted, it can start again where it left off rather than from the beginning. In order to demonstrate some of the principals involved, I’m going to need some code that’s sufficiently simple that it doesn’t cloud what I want to discuss. Let’s add up some numbers using a for-loop.

```%addup.m
%This is not the recommended way to sum integers in MATLAB -- we only use it here to keep things simple
%This version does NOT use checkpointing

mysum=0;
for count=1:100
mysum = mysum + count;
pause(1);           %Let's pretend that this is a complicated calculation
fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end

fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

Using a for-loop to perform an addition like this is something that I’d never usually suggest in MATLAB but I’m using it here because it is so simple that it won’t get in the way of understanding the checkpointing code.

If you run this program in MATLAB, it will take about 100 seconds thanks to that pause statement which is acting as a proxy for some real work. Try interrupting it by pressing CTRL-C and then restart it. As you might expect, it will always start from the beginning:

```>> addup
Completed iteration 1
Completed iteration 2
Completed iteration 3
Operation terminated by user during addup (line 6)

Completed iteration 1
Completed iteration 2
Completed iteration 3
Operation terminated by user during addup (line 6)```

This is no big deal when your calculation only takes 100 seconds but is going to be a major problem when the calculation represented by that pause statement becomes something like an hour rather than a second.

Let’s now look at a version of the above that makes use of checkpointing.

```%addup_checkpoint.m
if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it

else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
end

for count = countmin:100
mysum = mysum + count;
pause(1);           %Let's pretend that this is a complicated calculation

%save checkpoint
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
fprintf('Saving checkpoint\n');
save('checkpoint.mat');

fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

Before you run the above code, the checkpoint file checkpoint.mat does not exist and so the calculation starts from the beginning. After every iteration, a checkpoint file is created which contains every variable in the MATLAB workspace. If the program is restarted, it will find the checkpoint file and continue where it left off. Our code now deals with interruptions a lot more gracefully.

```>> addup_checkpoint
No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning
Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 1
Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 2
Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 3
Operation terminated by user during addup_checkpoint (line 16)

Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 4
Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 5
Saving checkpoint
Completed iteration 6
Operation terminated by user during addup_checkpoint (line 16)```

Note that we’ve had to change the program logic slightly. Our original loop counter was

`for count = 1:100`

In the check-pointed example, however, we’ve had to introduce the variable countmin

`for count = countmin:100`

This allows us to start the loop from whatever value of countmin was in our last checkpoint file. Such minor modifications are often necessary when converting code to use checkpointing and you should carefully check that the introduction of checkpointing does not introduce bugs in your code.

Don’t checkpoint too often

The creation of even a small checkpoint file is a time consuming process. Consider our original addup code but without the pause command.

```%addup_nopause.m
%This version does NOT use checkpointing
mysum=0;
for count=1:100
mysum = mysum + count;
fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

On my machine, this code takes 0.0046 seconds to execute. Compare this to the checkpointed version, again with the pause statement removed.

```%addup_checkpoint_nopause.m

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it

else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
end

for count = countmin:100
mysum = mysum + count;

%save checkpoint
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
fprintf('Saving checkpoint\n');
save('checkpoint.mat');

fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

This checkpointed version takes 0.85 seconds to execute on the same machine — Over 180 times slower than the original! The problem is that the time it takes to checkpoint is long compared to the calculation time.

If we make a modification so that we only checkpoint every 25 iterations, code execution time comes down to 0.05 seconds:

```%Checkpoint every 25 iterations

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it

else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
end

for count = countmin:100
mysum = mysum + count;
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration

if mod(count,25)==0
%save checkpoint
fprintf('Saving checkpoint\n');
save('checkpoint.mat');
end

fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

Of course, the issue now is that we might lose more work if our program is interrupted between checkpoints. Additionally, in this particular case, the mod command used to decide whether or not to checkpoint is more expensive than simply performing the calculation but hopefully that isn’t going to be the case when working with real world calculations.

In practice, we have to work out a balance such that we checkpoint often enough so that we don’t stand to lose too much work but not so often that our program runs too slowly.

Checkpointing code that involves random numbers

Extra care needs to be taken when running code that involves random numbers. Consider a modification of our checkpointed adding program that creates a sum of random numbers.

```%addup_checkpoint_rand.m
%Adding random numbers the slow way, in order to demo checkpointing
%This version has a bug

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it

else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
rng(0);     %Seed the random number generator for reproducible results
end

for count = countmin:100
mysum = mysum + rand();
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
pause(1); %pretend this is a complicated calculation

%save checkpoint
fprintf('Saving checkpoint\n');
save('checkpoint.mat');

fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

In the above, we set the seed of the random number generator to 0 at the beginning of the calculation. This ensures that we always get the same set of random numbers and allows us to get reproducible results. As such, the sum should always come out to be 52.799447 to the number of decimal places used in the program.

The above code has a subtle bug that you won’t find if your testing is confined to interrupting using CTRL-C and then restarting in an interactive session of MATLAB. Proceed that way, and you’ll get exactly the sum you’ll expect : 52.799447.  If, on the other hand, you test your code by doing the following

• Run for a few iterations
• Interrupt with CTRL-C
• Restart MATLAB
• Run the code again, ensuring that it starts from the checkpoint

You’ll get a different result. This is not what we want!

The root cause of this problem is that we are not saving the state of the random number generator in our checkpoint file. Thus, when we restart MATLAB, all information concerning this state is lost. If we don’t restart MATLAB between interruptions, the state of the random number generator is safely tucked away behind the scenes.

Assume, for example, that you stop the calculation running after the third iteration. The random numbers you’d have consumed would be (to 4 d.p.)

0.8147
0.9058
0.1270

Your checkpoint file will contain the variables mysum, count and countmin but will contain nothing about the state of the random number generator. In English, this state is something like ‘The next random number will be the 4th one in the sequence defined by a starting seed of 0.’

When we restart MATLAB, the default seed is 0 so we’ll be using the right sequence (since we explicitly set it to be 0 in our code) but we’ll be starting right from the beginning again. That is, the 4th,5th and 6th iterations of the summation will contain the first 3 numbers in the stream, thus double counting them, and so our checkpointing procedure will alter the results of the calculation.

In order to fix this, we need to additionally save the state of the random number generator when we save a checkpoint and also make correct use of this on restarting. Here’s the code

```%addup_checkpoint_rand_correct.m
%Adding random numbers the slow way, in order to demo checkpointing

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it

%use the saved RNG state
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
stream.State = savedState;

else % otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
rng(0);     %Seed the random number generator for reproducible results
end

for count = countmin:100
mysum = mysum + rand();
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
pause(1); %pretend this is a complicated calculation

%save the state of the random number genertor
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
savedState = stream.State;
%save checkpoint
fprintf('Saving checkpoint\n');
save('checkpoint.mat');

fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);
end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);```

Ensuring that the checkpoint save completes

Events that terminate our code can occur extremely quickly — a powercut for example. There is a risk that the machine was switched off while our check-point file was being written. How can we ensure that the file is complete?

The solution, which I found on the MATLAB checkpointing page of the Liverpool University Condor Pool site is to first write a temporary file and then rename it.  That is, instead of

`save('checkpoint.mat')/pre>`

we do

```if strcmp(computer,'PCWIN64') || strcmp(computer,'PCWIN')
%We are running on a windows machine
system( 'move /y checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
else
%We are running on Linux or Mac
system( 'mv checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
end
```

As the author of that page explains ‘The operating system should guarantee that the move command is “atomic” (in the sense that it is indivisible i.e. it succeeds completely or not at all) so that there is no danger of receiving a corrupt “half-written” checkpoint file from the job.’

Only checkpoint what is necessary

So far, we’ve been saving the entire MATLAB workspace in our checkpoint files and this hasn’t been a problem since our workspace hasn’t contained much. In general, however, the workspace might contain all manner of intermediate variables that we simply don’t need in order to restart where we left off. Saving the stuff that we might not need can be expensive.

For the sake of illustration, let’s skip 100 million random numbers before adding one to our sum. For reasons only known to ourselves, we store these numbers in an intermediate variable which we never do anything with. This array isn’t particularly large at 763 Megabytes but its existence slows down our checkpointing somewhat. The correct result of this variation of the calculation is 41.251376 if we set the starting seed to 0; something we can use to test our new checkpoint strategy.

Here’s the code

```% A demo of how slow checkpointing can be if you include large intermediate variables

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it
%use the saved RNG state
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
stream.State = savedState;
else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
rng(0);     %Seed the random number generator for reproducible results
end

for count = countmin:100
%Create and store 100 million random numbers for no particular reason
randoms = rand(10000);
mysum = mysum + rand();
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);

if mod(count,25)==0
%save the state of the random number generator
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
savedState = stream.State;
%save and time checkpoint
tic
save('checkpoint_tmp.mat');
if strcmp(computer,'PCWIN64') || strcmp(computer,'PCWIN')
%We are running on a windows machine
system( 'move /y checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
else
%We are running on Linux or Mac
system( 'mv checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
end
timing = toc;
fprintf('Checkpoint save took %f seconds\n',timing);
end

end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);
```

On my Windows 7 Desktop, each checkpoint save takes around 17 seconds:

```Completed iteration 25
1 file(s) moved.
Checkpoint save took 17.269897 seconds```

It is not necessary to include that huge random matrix in a checkpoint file. If we are explicit in what we require, we can reduce the time taken to checkpoint significantly. Here, we change

`save('checkpoint_tmp.mat');`

to

`save('checkpoint_tmp.mat','mysum','countmin','savedState');`

This has a dramatic effect on check-pointing time:

```Completed iteration 25
1 file(s) moved.
Checkpoint save took 0.033576 seconds```

Here’s the final piece of code that uses everything discussed in this article

```%Final checkpointing demo

if exist( 'checkpoint.mat','file' ) % If a checkpoint file exists, load it
%use the saved RNG state
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
stream.State = savedState;
else %otherwise, start from the beginning
fprintf('No checkpoint file found - starting from beginning\n');
mysum=0;
countmin=1;
rng(0);     %Seed the random number generator for reproducible results
end

for count = countmin:100
%Create and store 100 million random numbers for no particular reason
randoms = rand(10000);
mysum = mysum + rand();
countmin = count+1;  %If we load this checkpoint, we want to start on the next iteration
fprintf('Completed iteration %d \n',count);

if mod(count,25)==0 %checkpoint every 25th iteration
%save the state of the random number generator
stream = RandStream.getGlobalStream;
savedState = stream.State;
%save and time checkpoint
tic
%only save the variables that are strictly necessary
save('checkpoint_tmp.mat','mysum','countmin','savedState');
%Ensure that the save completed
if strcmp(computer,'PCWIN64') || strcmp(computer,'PCWIN')
%We are running on a windows machine
system( 'move /y checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
else
%We are running on Linux or Mac
system( 'mv checkpoint_tmp.mat checkpoint.mat' );
end
timing = toc;
fprintf('Checkpoint save took %f seconds\n',timing);
end

end
fprintf('The sum is %f \n',mysum);
```

Parallel checkpointing

If your code includes parallel regions using constructs such as parfor or spmd, you might have to do more work to checkpoint correctly. I haven’t considered any of the potential issues that may arise in such code in this article

Checkpointing checklist

Here’s a reminder of everything you need to consider

• Test to ensure that the introduction of checkpointing doesn’t alter results
• Don’t checkpoint too often
• Take care when checkpointing code that involves random numbers – you need to explicitly save the state of the random number generator.
• Take measures to ensure that the checkpoint save is completed
• Only checkpoint what is necessary
• Code that includes parallel regions might require extra care

## Octave 3.8 has been released and it has a GUI

January 29th, 2014

Octave is a free, open source language for numerical computing that is mostly compatible with MATLAB. For years, the official Octave project has been strictly command-line only which puts many users off — particularly those who were used to the graphical user interface (GUI) of MATLAB. Unofficial GUIs have come and gone over the years but none of them were fully satisfactory for one reason or another.

As of the 3.8 release of Octave on 31st December 2013, this all changed when Octave started shipping with its own, official GUI. It is currently considered as ‘experimental’ by the Octave team and is obviously rough around the edges here and there but it is already quite usable.

The system includes

• An editor with syntax highlighting and code folding
• A debugger
• A file browser and workspace viewer
• The ability to hide and move different elements of the GUI around (e.g. you could swap the positions of the workspace and File Browser, or tear-off the editor into its own Window)
• A documentation browser
• The Octave command window

I’ve spent an hour or so playing with it today and like it a lot!

## First ever MATLAB-based Software Carpentry boot camp

January 28th, 2014

What is Software Carpentry?

Software Carpentry boot-camps aim to ensure that researchers have a working knowledge of several useful technologies from  the world of software development.  Concepts such as version control, unit-testing, task-automation and modular programming  are bread and butter to full time software-developers but are often completely unknown to many researchers; researchers who are nevertheless expected to develop computer code as part of their research output.

An in-depth education in all of these technologies can take a lot of time; time that many researchers simply can’t spare. Fortunately, however, it is possible to learn just enough to completely transform the quality of your workflow in a relatively short amount of time.  Software Carpentry boot camps aim to lay the foundations in around two days.

Software Carpentry…but in MATLAB

Traditionally, these bootcamps are taught using open-source languages such as Python or R but many proprietary languages are also used in academia such as  MATLAB, IDL, Mathematica and Maple to name but a few. In the most recent version of MATLAB, Mathworks introduced a unit testing framework and so now seemed like a good time to try out Software Carpentry in MATLAB.

On Tuesday 14th January I hosted the first ever MATLAB-based Software Carpentry bootcamp in conjunction with The Software Sustainability Institute (of which I am a 2013 fellow) and Mathworks. Held at The University of Manchester, this two-day event gave free software development instruction to researchers from a wide variety of disciplines and, if the feedback forms are to be believed, was a resounding success.

Shoaib Sufi and Aleksandra Pawlik of the Software Sustainability Institute taught material on bash shell scripting and git version control respectively with Ken Deeley of Mathworks providing MATLAB instruction.  I, along with Mathworks’ Jos Martin and Juan Martinez, acted as the less-than-glamourous but ever-helpful classroom assistants.

Fun and games with BYOD – Licensing

For the decade or so that I’ve been teaching programming, I’ve done so in fully equipped teaching labs containing row upon row of identical computers where each have all the required software pre-installed.  For this event, we decided to try a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach..i.e. students bring their own, personal laptops and we provided a list of required software that needed to be installed for the event.  Since Manchester’s MATLAB site license is network-based only and does not allow students to install on personally owned equipment, Mathworks kindly supplied standalone trial licenses for all course attendees.

BYOD has a number of benefits for the student and, in my mind at least, the most important of these benefits is that students are left with a fully working development environment after the course.  This means that they can start applying their new skills immediately after leaving the course which hopefully leads to them being used ‘in anger’ on their research projects.  Since the students were only supplied with trial licenses, this was not to be the case with MATLAB.  They will have to switch to using their on-campus machines or purchase their own copy of ‘standalone’ MATLAB in order to continue working.

Availability of software is not something that usually concerns an organiser of a Software Carpentry boot camp since the likes of Python and R are available everywhere for free.  When using a proprietary language such as MATLAB, however, it’s very much of an issue and I’d advise any future organiser of a MATLAB boot camp to carefully consider this before proceeding.  Of course this isn’t just true of MATLAB, it’s true of any proprietary language one may choose.  It will also be less of a problem if your institution has an all you can eat, ‘Total Academic Headcount’  unlimited site license.

Fun and games with BYOD – switches and glitches

All three major desktop operating systems were represented in the laptops of the 20 or so students — something that occasionally made for fun times.  Here is a list of some of the minor issues that arose over the two days

• Teaching bash scripting to Windows users always makes me wince a little.  Environments such as Cygwin and git bash are great and a little bit of bash never hurt anyone but I can’t help but wonder if we should be teaching a native scripting language instead such as PowerShell.  After all, Linux users would be surprised if they came to a scripting seminar and we made them use pash!  Of course, if the student ever gets access to a HPC system, it is highly probable that it will be running some variant of Linux and so perhaps everyone should learn at least a little bash.
• One Mac user had some fancy graphical overlay program which jazzed up his desktop.  Looked great but it turned out that it sometimes caused MATLAB to crash.
• Some of the MATLAB commands that interacted with the file system worked slightly differently across the three operating systems…something we hadn’t appreciated ahead of time. This caused delays while we figured out a platform-independent way to proceed.
• Some of the Linux machines exposed a bug in TLS (thread local storage) in Intel’s MKL which caused errors in MATLAB.
• MATLAB’s keyboard shortcuts are different across operating systems.  It is possible to change the behaviour but MATLABers who’ve been around a while didn’t want to. This sometimes led to confusion if the instructor mentioned an explicit keyboard shortcut that happens to be different on the students machine.

None of these issues were particularly major but the need to consider and resolve them did take up the time of instructors and demonstrators.  In a lab-setting, this extra work would not be necessary.  Obviously we’ll fix some of the above issues in the next iteration of the course but I believe that BYOD sessions will always require a higher number of demonstrators/glamorous assistants than more traditional lab-sessions simply because of the inevitable variation of software and hardware.

No toolboxes….almost!

I can see my Mathworks friends rolling their eyes already but I have to get this off my chest.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I have got some issues with Mathworks’ toolbox system in MATLAB.  I *really* wanted a software carpentry course that only included pure MATLAB–no toolboxes at all.  In the event, we decided on a set of  course materials that required the use of the statistics toolbox because it made certain things so much easier.

For example, MATLAB uses NaNs to represent missing data — a design choice that quickly leads to the desire for functions such as nanmean and nanmedian.  Unfortunately, despite their simplicity, these functions are in the statistics toolbox and so using them leads to less accessible software (since your users need to have that extra toolbox).  Of course you could code up your own versions, or use free implementations easily enough but then you are not using idiomatic MATLAB.  All very frustrating.  This wasn’t the only reason why we added the statistics toolbox to the list of requirements of course but hopefully makes my point.

OK, moan over, I’m done….for now.

Course Material

The main course page is at http://apawlik.github.io/2014-01-14-manchester/ and the course material for version control using git and shell scripting using bash are already available.  We hope to have the MATLAB material (which was developed by Mathworks) available in the near future once we’ve sorted out some legal issues.

The tutorials were very interactive with the instructors demonstrating commands while students followed along on their own machines–barely a slide to be seen, just how I like it.  There were regular exercises with a high ratio of demonstrators to students.  This was very much a hands-on course which, in my opinion, is the best way to learn programming.

One of the advantages of instructor-led courses is that students can go off-piste if they wish and learn all sorts of extra material. One student, for example, asked senior Mathworks developer, Jos Martin, for a quick code-review of her research simulation at the end of the first day.  Listening to Jos’ critique of the code was instructive for several of us.  Jos is also the lead developer of MATLAB’s parallel computing toolbox — something I took advantage of by asking him questions relevant to a code-optimization project I’m currently working on.

It’s very difficult to replicate this kind of interaction in online courses!

Useful teaching technology

The instructors used a couple of pieces of software that I believe significantly enhanced the teaching experience and I plan to use them in future courses of my own.

• ZoomIt – This is a free presentation tool that allows you to zoom into any area of the screen and subsequently annotate it.  This might not sound like much but it can really improve a presentation.  Here’s a video of some of its functionality.
• Etherpad – Etherpad is a web based collaborative document editor which we used to post code snippets, links and anything else that anyone felt was useful on the day. We also used it as a chat room which was sometimes useful.
• PostIt notes – Very low tech but very effective.  Every student had red and green sticky notes.  If a student had no sticky note on the back of their laptop, it meant they were working and would prefer to be left alone.  Green means that they had completed the exercise and red (or in our case, orange) means ‘I want help’.

Feedback and the future

Both Mathworks and the Software Sustainability Institute asked students to fill out their own course feedback forms.  Since the students had had such a great experience, they were all happy to do so but whittling those two feedback forms down to one that satisfies both institutions is something we should definitely aim for!  The feedback was extremely positive with almost everyone agreeing that they had got a lot out of the course.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect and there are several things we could do to make it better for next time:-

• Some of the ‘Fun and Games with BYOD’ described earlier could have been avoided by modifying the course material a little.
• The individual sections on bash, git and MATLAB were great but I felt that they needed to be tied together better.  They felt too much like self-contained mini-courses and it wouldn’t take much extra effort on our part to link them together a little more.
• The course was free and places were strictly limited. A couple of people cancelled less than 24 hours before the first day which didn’t give us enough time to offer the places out to others. Worse still, a few more people simply didn’t bother to turn up and didn’t offer any explanation.  I find that this often happens with free courses and I’ve yet to figure out a way to improve the situation.
• We need to get all of the course material on line!

All told, the course was a great success and I hope to be running more of them in the future. A huge thanks to the instructors, Shoaib Sufi, Alexandra Pawlik and Ken Deeley who did the lion’s share of the hard work on the day but also to Mathworks’ Jos Martin and Juan Martinez who did a great job of helping out students with the exercises, answering questions and generally ensuring that everything ran as smoothly as possible.  I’d also like to thank Mathworks’ Stasi Revel and Tanya Morton who helped out with sorting out trial licenses and, finally, thanks to Software Carpentry’s Greg Wilson who gave support and advice in the weeks leading to the event.