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Trapping warnings efficiently

Posted By Yair Altman On July 11, 2012 | 10 Comments

A not-well-known performance improvement trick for catching errors is to place the entire code section within a trycatch block. This is more efficient than constantly checking for some condition. For example:

% Standard code
for loopIndex = 1 : N
   refIndex = someCalculation();
   if refIndex > 0
      A(loopIndex) = B(refIndex);
      A(loopIndex) = loopIndex;
% Faster code
for loopIndex = 1 : N
   refIndex = someCalculation();
      A(loopIndex) = B(refIndex);
      A(loopIndex) = loopIndex;

Trapping warnings

However, what should we do in case the checked condition is meant to prevent a warning (e.g., file-access warnings) rather than an error? It would make sense to use the same exception-handling trick, but unfortunately warnings do not normally raise a trappable exception. This question was asked [3] on the CSSM newsgroup many years ago and received no answer, until Michael Wengler recently provided the undocumented solution on that thread:

It appears that in addition to the documented alternatives for the value of the warning function’s first parameter (namely ‘Message’, , ‘On’, ‘Off’ and ‘Query’), there is also an undocumented alternative of ‘Error’. The effect is to turn the specified warning ID into an error, that can then be trapped in a standard trycatch block. After we have finished processing, we can return the warning state to its previous value.

For example:

% Set a couple of warnings to temporarily issue errors (exceptions)
s = warning('error', 'MATLAB:DELETE:Permission');
warning('error', 'MATLAB:DELETE:FileNotFound');
% Run the processing section
filesList = {'a.doc', 'b.doc', 'c.doc'};
for fileIndex = 1 : length(filesList)
      % Regular processing part
      fileToDelete = filesList{fileIndex};
      % Exception-handling part
      fprintf('Can''t delete %s (reason: %s)\n', fileToDelete, lasterr);
% Restore the warnings back to their previous (non-error) state

For the record, this warning(‘error’,…) trick appears to work in Matlab releases as far back as R14SP3 (2005), and possibly even earlier (I don’t have older releases readily available, so I couldn’t check). This looks like a pretty stable feature, as far as undocumented features go. Of course, it could well be taken out at any future Matlab release, but for the time being we can definitely make good use of it.

Trapping specific warning IDs

How can we know the specific warning IDs (e.g., ‘MATLAB:DELETE:FileNotFound’) to use? The answer is to call warning(‘on’,’verbose’) and then simulate the warning. For example:

>> warning on verbose
>> delete sadfsefgsdfg
Warning: File 'sadfsefgsdfg' not found.
(Type "warning off MATLAB:DELETE:FileNotFound" to suppress this warning.)

Within the exception-handling part, we could check the specific exception that was thrown and possibly act differently. For example:

   % Regular processing part
   fileToDelete = filesList{fileIndex};
   % Exception-handling part
   err = lasterror;
   switch identifier
      case 'MATLAB:DELETE:Permission'
         fprintf('Can''t delete %s (reason: no permission)\n', fileToDelete);
      case 'MATLAB:DELETE:FileNotFound'
         fprintf('Can''t delete %s (reason: file not found)\n', fileToDelete);
         fprintf('Can''t delete %s (reason: %s)\n', fileToDelete, lasterr);

Note that within the exception-handling part, I used the lasterr and lasterror functions, rather than lastwarn. The reason is that the warnings have been converted into standard errors, and are no longer even reported by lastwarn.

The acute reader will have noticed that I am using the older (deprecated) manner of exception handling, that does not directly pass the error struct into an identifier next to the catch keyword. The reason is that I usually intend my code to be backward compatible. Had I used the newer syntax, the code would not have worked on old Matlab releases; this way it does, subject to the availability of the above-mentioned undocumented warning(‘error’,…) trick. If you read through the code of my numerous submissions [4] on the File Exchange, you will see that this is a recurring theme. I often use old deprecated syntax to ensure that my code will run on as many Matlab releases as possible.

Are you interested in learning more performance improvement methods? Then consider joining my Matlab Performance Tuning [5] seminar/workshop in Geneva on August 21, 2012 – email me [6] (altmany at gmail dot com) for details.

Categories: Medium risk of breaking in future versions, Stock Matlab function, Undocumented feature

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Trapping warnings efficiently"

#1 Comment By John Thompson On August 19, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

Very informative post. I found a bug in the code in the ‘Trapping warnings block’: you initialize your counter with filesIndex = 1, but index with filesList{fileIndex}. There is a mismatch between filesIndex and fileIndex (i.e. one is plural and the other is singular).


#2 Comment By Yair Altman On August 19, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

@John – thanks, corrected

#3 Comment By Baz On November 12, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Hi there, I have tried to use your template above to do my own error trapping. However, I have found some rather strange behavior. When I run the code as shown below, the code runs and delivers the correct results. However when I %matlabpool open, %matlabpool close and change parfor to a simple for, the code will not run and I get the following error:

Running...       ??? Error using ==> mldivide
Matrix is singular to working precision.
Error in ==> NSS_betas at 11
    betas = G\data.y2.';
Error in ==> DElambda at 19
        betas(:,ii) = NSS_betas(P1(:,ii),data); end
Error in ==> Individual_Lambdas at 46
    beta{ii} = DElambda(de,dataList, @OF_NSS);

Now I am not surprised to be getting the error, this is the result of the

warnState(1) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:singularMatrix');
warnState(2) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:illConditionedMatrix');

I included (there is not try catch yet included yet in the function DElambda). What confuses me though it why when I run this code as part of a parallel loop no errors are generated? Do trapping warnings work with parfor?

clear all, clc
load Euro_CRM_22_12.mat
matlabpool open
warnState(1) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:singularMatrix'); 
warnState(2) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:illConditionedMatrix'); 
mats  = 1:50;
mats2 = [2 5 10 30];
% RO: unloop these
de = struct(...
    'min', [0;0],...
    'max', [50;50],...
    'd'  , 2,...
    'nP' , 500,...
    'nG' , 600,...
    'ww' , 0.1,...
    'F'  , 0.5,...
    'CR' , 0.99,...
    'R'  , 0,...
% RO: initialize beta
beta  = cell(size(rates,1),1);
clc, fprintf('Running...       ');
%for ii = 1:size(rates,1)
parfor ii = 1:size(rates,1)    
    % RO: use status indicator for things that take this long
    %fprintf('\b\b\b\b\b\b\b%6.2f%%', ii/size(rates,1)*100);
    dataList = struct(...
        'yM'   , rates(ii,:),...
        'mats' , mats,...
        'model', @NSS,...
        'mats2', mats2,...
        'y2'   , rates(ii,mats2));
    beta{ii} = DElambda(de,dataList, @OF_NSS);
matlabpool close

#4 Comment By Yair Altman On November 12, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

@Baz – apparently this only works in a non-distributed environment…

#5 Comment By Baz On November 12, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

Thanks, the reason I am doing the coding this way is that rdivide is generating these error messages when it enounters a singular/badly conditioned matrix, so rdivide is clearly already using rcond() to test the conditioning of the matrices. I need to check the conditioning of the matrices, rather than me having to call rcond() again to duplicate this work, I would just like to get access to the rcond values and/or the decision as to whether the matrix is badly conditioned or not that rdivide is already producing. Ideally within a parallel structure if this is possible?

To be clear the parallel toolbox does still produce these warning messages, its just when I add:

warnState(1) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:singularMatrix'); 
warnState(2) = warning('error', 'MATLAB:illConditionedMatrix');

to turn them into errors that the divergence between parfor and for arises.

Would I be better to just call rcond() myself, this will mean duplication of work (which is annoying), but as least it will work.

#6 Comment By Steve Coleman On June 19, 2013 @ 8:37 am

Just a note. The Try/Catch construct can have a tremendous performance hit if used inside a loop that is executed many many times, but this can very by environment. I have one report that would run fine on my laptop in a matter of hours, but when placed on the Big-Server in the basement that time literally turned into days. Profiling on each machine showed a very clear difference in the time allocated to the same try/catch, running on the same dataset, in the two different environments. After removing the try/catch statement from a very tight loop in the core of the main algorithm, that change made all the difference.

Try/Catch by its very nature does a *lot* of housekeeping under the covers, to build stack frames that can be unwound back up to higher levels, which the if/else construct does not have to do. If a condition is a simple test (e.g. >0 or isempty) and in a very tight loop, it can be much more efficient to just use the if/else construct.

After the above experience I now reserve try/catch for main-level to second-tier level functions and try to keep them out of the often called modules. Try/catch is great, but use them wisely. If its called more than 100 times in a given run then if/else may be a better bet. For checking user input or possibly tainted network data, try/catch is great! Using it in a loop running a million times, maybe not so much.

#7 Comment By Yair Altman On June 19, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

@Steve – thanks for the clarification, duly noted.

#8 Pingback By Matlab warning('error') produces not enough arguments error – DexPage On July 17, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

[…] additional input (a message identifier). It is used for trapping/catching warnings as errors. See this Undocumented Matlab post and this MathWorks Newsgroup […]

#9 Comment By Noam G On October 26, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

Hi Yair,
Do you have any idea how could I find all the warnings occurred since a certain point and on?
lastwarn returns only the last warning, but let’s say that I want to test some code, and I want to track ALL the warnings it had produced.
Do you think it’s possible?

#10 Comment By Yair Altman On October 27, 2015 @ 9:15 am

@Noam – I am not aware of any way to achieve this. But I very rarely say that anything is impossible

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