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Zero-testing performance

I would like to introduce guest blogger Ken Johnson, a MATLAB Connections partner specializing in electromagnetic optics simulation. Today Ken will explore some performance subtleties of zero testing in Matlab.

I often have a need to efficiently test a large Matlab array for any nonzero elements, e.g.

>> a = zeros(1e4);
>> tic, b = any(a(:)~=0); toc
Elapsed time is 0.126118 seconds.

Simple enough. In this case, when a is all-zero, the internal search algorithm has no choice but to inspect every element of the array to determine whether it contains any nonzeros. In the more typical case where a contains many nonzeros you would expect the search to terminate almost immediately, as soon as it finds the first nonzero. But that’s not how it works:

>> a = round(rand(1e4));
>> tic, b = any(a(:)~=0); toc
Elapsed time is 0.063404 seconds.

There is significant runtime overhead in constructing the logical array “a(:)~=0”, although the “any(…)” operation apparently terminates at the first true value it finds.

The overhead can be eliminated by taking advantage of the fact that numeric values may be used as logicals in Matlab, with zero implicitly representing false and nonzero representing true. Repeating the above test without “~=0”, we get a huge runtime improvement:

>> a = round(rand(1e4));
>> tic, b = any(a(:)); toc
Elapsed time is 0.000026 seconds.

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Categories: Guest bloggers, Low risk of breaking in future versions
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AppDesigner’s mlapp file format

Six years ago, I exposed the fact that *.fig files are simply MAT files in disguise. This information, in addition to the data format that I explained in that article, can help us to introspect and modify FIG files without having to actually display the figure onscreen.

Matlab has changed significantly since 2010, and one of the exciting new additions is the AppDesigner, Matlab’s new GUI layout designer/editor. Unfortunately, AppDesigner still has quite a few limitations in functionality and behavior. I expect that this will improve in upcoming releases since AppDesigner is undergoing active development. But in the meantime, it makes sense to see whether we could directly introspect and potentially manipulate AppDesigner’s output (*.mlapp files), as we could with GUIDE’s output (*.fig files).

A situation for checking this was recently raised by a reader on the Answers forum: apparently AppDesigner becomes increasingly sluggish when the figure’s code has more than a few hundred lines of code (i.e., a very simplistic GUI). In today’s post I intend to show how we can explore the resulting *.mlapp file, and possibly manipulate it in a text editor outside AppDesigner.

Matlab's new AppDesigner (a somewhat outdated screenshot)

Matlab's new AppDesigner (a somewhat outdated screenshot)


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Categories: GUI, High risk of breaking in future versions, Undocumented feature
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Customizing axes part 5 – origin crossover and labels

When HG2 graphics was finally released in R2014b, I posted a series of articles about various undocumented ways by which we can customize Matlab’s new graphic axes: rulers (axles), baseline, box-frame, grid, back-drop, and other aspects. Today I extend this series by showing how we can customize the axes rulers’ crossover location.

Non-default axes crossover location

Non-default axes crossover location


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Categories: Handle graphics, Low risk of breaking in future versions, Stock Matlab function, Undocumented feature
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Customizing uifigures part 1

Last month, I posted an article that summarized a variety of undocumented customizations to Matlab figure windows. As I noted in that post, Matlab figures have used Java JFrames as their underlying technology since R14 (over a decade ago), but this is expected to change a few years from now with the advent of web-based uifigures. uifigures first became available in late 2014 with the new App Designer preview (the much-awaited GUIDE replacement), and were officially released in R2016a. AppDesigner is actively being developed and we should expect to see exciting new features in upcoming Matlab releases.

Matlab's new AppDesigner (a somewhat outdated screenshot)

Matlab's new AppDesigner (a somewhat outdated screenshot)

However, while AppDesigner has become officially supported, the underlying technology used for the new uifigures remained undocumented. Continue reading

Categories: Figure window, Handle graphics, Hidden property, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, Undocumented feature
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Listbox selection hacks

Last week a reader on the CSSM newsgroup asked whether it is possible to programmatically deselect all listbox items. By default, Matlab listboxes enable a single item selection: trying to deselect it interactively has no effect, while trying to set the listbox’s Value property to empty ([]) results in the listbox disappearing and a warning issued to the Matlab console:

Single-selection Matlab listbox

>> hListbox = uicontrol('Style','list', 'String',{'item #1','item #2','item #3','item #4','item #5','item #6'});
>> set(hListbox,'Value',[]);
Warning: Single-selection 'listbox' control requires a scalar Value.
Control will not be rendered until all of its parameter values are valid
(Type "warning off MATLAB:hg:uicontrol:ValueMustBeScalar" to suppress this warning.)

The reader’s question was whether there is a way to bypass this limitation so that no listbox item will be selected. The answer to this question was provided by MathWorker Steve(n) Lord. Steve is a very long-time benefactor of the Matlab community with endless, tireless, and patient advise to queries small and large (way beyond the point that would have frustrated mere mortals). Steve pointed out that by default, Matlab listboxes only enable a single selection – not more and not less. However, when the listbox’s Max value is set to be >1, the listbox enables multiple-items selection, meaning that Value accepts and reports an array of item indices, and there is nothing that prevents this array from being empty (meaning no items selected):

>> hListbox = uicontrol('Style','list', 'Max',2, 'String',{'item #1','item #2','item #3','item #4','item #5','item #6'});
>> set(hListbox,'Value',[]);  % this is ok - listbox appears with no items selected

Note: actually, the listbox checks the value of MaxMin, but by default Min=0 and there is really no reason to modify this default value, just Max.

While this makes sense if you think about it, the existing documentation makes no mention of this fact:
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Categories: GUI, Java, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, UI controls, Undocumented feature
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A few parfor tips

Matlab Expo 2016 keynote presentation

Matlab Expo 2016 keynote presentation

A few days ago, MathWorks uploaded a video recording of my recent keynote presentation at the Matlab Expo 2016 in Munich, Germany. During the presentation, I skimmed over a few tips for improving performance of parallel-processing (parfor) loops. In today’s post I plan to expand on these tips, as well as provide a few others that for lack of space and time I did not mention in the presentation.

The overall effect can be dramatic: The performance (speed) difference between a sub-optimal and optimized parfor‘ed code can be up to a full order of magnitude, depending on the specific situation. Naturally, to use any of today’s tips, you need to have MathWorks’ Parallel Computing Toolbox (PCT).

Before diving into the technical details, let me say that MathWorks has extensive documentation on PCT. In today’s post I will try not to reiterate the official tips, but rather those that I have not found mentioned elsewhere, and/or are not well-known (my apologies in advance if I missed an official mention of one or more of the following). Furthermore, I limit myself only to parfor in this post: much can be said about spmd, GPU and other parallel constructs, but not today.
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Categories: Medium risk of breaking in future versions, Public presentation, Undocumented function
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Handling red Java console errors

Anyone who has worked with non-trivial Matlab GUIs knows that from time to time we see various red Java stack-trace errors appear in the Matlab console (Command Window). These errors do not appear often when using documented Matlab controls, but they do from time to time. The errors appear significantly more frequently when working with undocumented Java-based hacks that I often show on this blog, and especially when working with complex controls such as uitable or uitree. Such controls have a very large code-base under the hood, and the Matlab code and data sometimes clashes with the asynchronous Java methods that run on a separate thread. Such clashes and race conditions often lead to red Java stack-trace errors that are spewed onto the Matlab console. For example:

Exception in thread "AWT-EventQueue-0" java.lang.NullPointerException
	at com.jidesoft.plaf.basic.BasicCellSpanTableUI.paint(Unknown Source)
	at javax.swing.plaf.ComponentUI.update(Unknown Source)
	at javax.swing.JComponent.paintComponent(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.CellStyleTable.paintComponent(Unknown Source)
	at javax.swing.JComponent.paint(Unknown Source)
	at javax.swing.JComponent.paintToOffscreen(Unknown Source)
	...

Exception in thread "AWT-EventQueue-0" java.lang.ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException: 1 >= 0
	at java.util.Vector.elementAt(Unknown Source)
	at javax.swing.table.DefaultTableColumnModel.getColumn(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.ContextSensitiveTable.getCellRenderer(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.CellSpanTable.getCellRenderer(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.TreeTable.getActualCellRenderer(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.GroupTable.getCellRenderer(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.JideTable.b(Unknown Source)
	at com.jidesoft.grid.CellSpanTable.calculateRowHeight(Unknown Source)
	...

In almost all such Java error messages, the error is asynchronous to the Matlab code and does not interrupt it. No error exception is thrown (or can be trapped), and the Matlab code proceeds without being aware that anything is wrong. In fact, in the vast majority of such cases, nothing is visibly wrong – the program somehow overcomes the reported problem and there are no visible negative effects on the GUI. In other words, these error messages are harmless and can almost always be ignored. Still, if we could only stop those annoying endless red stack-trace messages in the Matlab console!
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Categories: Desktop, Java, Low risk of breaking in future versions
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MEX ctrl-c interrupt

I recently became aware of a very nice hack by Wotao Yin (while at Rice in 2010; currently teaching at UCLA). The core problem is that unlike m-files that can be interrupted in mid-run using ctrl-c, MEX functions cannot be interrupted in the same way. Well, not officially, that is.

Interrupts are very important for long-running user-facing operations. They can even benefit performance by avoiding the need to periodically poll some external state. Interrupts are registered asynchronously, and the program can query the interrupt buffer at its convenience, in special locations of its code, and/or at specific times depending on the required responsiveness.

Yin reported that the libut library that ships with Matlab contain a large set of undocumented functions, including utIsInterruptPending() that can be used to detect ctrl-c interrupt events. The original report of this feature seems to be by Matlab old hand Peter Boettcher back in 2002 (with a Fortran wrapper reported in 2013). The importance of Yin’s post is that he clearly explained the use of this feature, with detailed coding and compilation instructions. Except for Peter’s original report, Yin’s post and the Fortran wrapper, precious few mentions can be found online (oddly enough, yours truly mentioned it in the very same CSSM newsletter post in which I outed this blog back in 2009). Apparently, this feature was supposed to have been made documented in R12.1, but for some reason it was not and people just moved on and forgot about it.
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Categories: High risk of breaking in future versions, Mex
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Figure window customizations

A friend recently asked me, in light of my guesstimate that Java-based Matlab figures will be replaced by web-based figures sometime around 2018-2020, whether there are any “killer features” that make it worthwhile to use undocumented Java-based tricks today, despite the fact that they will probably break in 2-5 years. In my opinion, there are many such features; today I will focus on just a subset of them – those features that relate to the entire figure window.

Over the years I wrote many articles here about figure-level customizations, as well as an entire chapter in my Matlab-Java programming book. So today’s post will be a high-level overview, and users who are interested in any specific topic can visit the referenced links for the implementation details.

An undecorated Matlab figure window - one of many possible figure-level customizations
An undecorated Matlab figure window – one of many possible figure-level customizations

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Categories: Figure window, GUI, Hidden property, High risk of breaking in future versions, Java, Undocumented feature
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rmfield performance

Once again I would like to introduce guest blogger Hanan Kavitz of Applied Materials. Several months ago Hanan discussed some quirks with compiled Matlab DLLs. Today Hanan will discuss how they overcame a performance bottleneck with Matlab’s builtin rmfield function, exemplifying the general idea that we can sometimes improve performance by profiling the core functionality that causes a performance hotspot and optimizing it, even when it is part of a builtin Matlab function. For additional ideas of improving Matlab peformance, search this blog for “Performance” articles, and/or get the book “Accelerating MATLAB Performance“.

Accelerating MATLAB Performance
I’ve been using Matlab for many years now and from time to time I need to profile low-throughput code. When I profile this code sometimes I realize that a computational ‘bottleneck’ is due to a builtin Matlab function (part of the core language). I can often find ways to accelerate such builtin functions and get significant speedup in my code.

I recently found Matlab’s builtin rmfield function being too slow for my needs. It works great when one needs to remove a few fields from a small structure, but in our case we needed to remove thousands of fields from a structure containing about 5000 fields – and this is executed in a function that is called many times inside an external loop. The program was significantly sluggish.

It started when a co-worker asked me to look at a code that looked just slightly more intelligent than this:

for i = 1:5000
    myStruct = rmfield(myStruct,fieldNames{i});
end

Running this code within a tic/toc pair yielded the following results:

>> tic; myFunc(); t1 = toc
t1 =
      25.7713

In my opinion 25.77 secs for such a simple functionality seems like an eternity…
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Categories: Guest bloggers, Low risk of breaking in future versions, Stock Matlab function
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