Tag Archives: programming

The homogenization of scientific computing, or why Python is steadily eating other languages’ lunch

Over the past two years, my scientific computing toolbox been steadily homogenizing. Around 2010 or 2011, my toolbox looked something like this:

  • Ruby for text processing and miscellaneous scripting;
  • Ruby on Rails/JavaScript for web development;
  • Python/Numpy (mostly) and MATLAB (occasionally) for numerical computing;
  • MATLAB for neuroimaging data analysis;
  • R for statistical analysis;
  • R for plotting and visualization;
  • Occasional excursions into other languages/environments for other stuff.

In 2013, my toolbox looks like this:

  • Python for text processing and miscellaneous scripting;
  • Ruby on Rails/JavaScript for web development, except for an occasional date with Django or Flask (Python frameworks);
  • Python (NumPy/SciPy) for numerical computing;
  • Python (Neurosynth, NiPy etc.) for neuroimaging data analysis;
  • Python (NumPy/SciPy/pandas/statsmodels) for statistical analysis;
  • Python (MatPlotLib) for plotting and visualization, except for web-based visualizations (JavaScript/d3.js);
  • Python (scikit-learn) for machine learning;
  • Excursions into other languages have dropped markedly.

You may notice a theme here.

The increasing homogenization (Pythonification?) of the tools I use on a regular basis primarily reflects the spectacular recent growth of the Python ecosystem. A few years ago, you couldn’t really do statistics in Python unless you wanted to spend most of your time pulling your hair out and wishing Python were more like R (which, is a pretty remarkable confession considering what R is like). Neuroimaging data could be analyzed in SPM (MATLAB-based), FSL, or a variety of other packages, but there was no viable full-featured, free, open-source Python alternative. Packages for machine learning, natural language processing, web application development, were only just starting to emerge.

These days, tools for almost every aspect of scientific computing are readily available in Python. And in a growing number of cases, they’re eating the competition’s lunch.

Take R, for example. R’s out-of-the-box performance with out-of-memory datasets has long been recognized as its achilles heel (yes, I’m aware you can get around that if you’re willing to invest the time–but not many scientists have the time). But even people who hated the way R chokes on large datasets, and its general clunkiness as a language, often couldn’t help running back to R as soon as any kind of serious data manipulation was required. You could always laboriously write code in Python or some other high-level language to pivot, aggregate, reshape, and otherwise pulverize your data, but why would you want to? The beauty of packages like plyr in R was that you could, in a matter of 2 – 3 lines of code, perform enormously powerful operations that could take hours to duplicate in other languages. The downside was the intensive learning curve associated with learning each package’s often quite complicated API (e.g., ggplot2 is incredibly expressive, but every time I stop using ggplot2 for 3 months, I have to completely re-learn it), and having to contend with R’s general awkwardness. But still, on the whole, it was clearly worth it.

Flash forward to The Now. Last week, someone asked me for some simulation code I’d written in R a couple of years ago. As I was firing up R Studio to dig around for it, I realized that I hadn’t actually fired up R studio for a very long time prior to that moment–probably not in about 6 months. The combination of NumPy/SciPy, MatPlotLib, pandas and statmodels had effectively replaced R for me, and I hadn’t even noticed. At some point I just stopped dropping out of Python and into R whenever I had to do the “real” data analysis. Instead, I just started importing pandas and statsmodels into my code. The same goes for machine learning (scikit-learn), natural language processing (nltk), document parsing (BeautifulSoup), and many other things I used to do outside Python.

It turns out that the benefits of doing all of your development and analysis in one language are quite substantial. For one thing, when you can do everything in the same language, you don’t have to suffer the constant cognitive switch costs of reminding yourself say, that Ruby uses blocks instead of comprehensions, or that you need to call len(array) instead of array.length to get the size of an array in Python; you can just keep solving the problem you’re trying to solve with as little cognitive overhead as possible. Also, you no longer need to worry about interfacing between different languages used for different parts of a project. Nothing is more annoying than parsing some text data in Python, finally getting it into the format you want internally, and then realizing you have to write it out to disk in a different format so that you can hand it off to R or MATLAB for some other set of analyses*. In isolation, this kind of thing is not a big deal. It doesn’t take very long to write out a CSV or JSON file from Python and then read it into R. But it does add up. It makes integrated development more complicated, because you end up with more code scattered around your drive in more locations (well, at least if you have my organizational skills). It means you spend a non-negligible portion of your “analysis” time writing trivial little wrappers for all that interface stuff, instead of thinking deeply about how to actually transform and manipulate your data. And it means that your beautiful analytics code is marred by all sorts of ugly open() and read() I/O calls. All of this overhead vanishes as soon as you move to a single language.

Convenience aside, another thing that’s impressive about the Python scientific computing ecosystem is that a surprising number of Python-based tools are now best-in-class (or close to it) in terms of scope and ease of use–and, in virtue of C bindings, often even in terms of performance. It’s hard to imagine an easier-to-use machine learning package than scikit-learn, even before you factor in the breadth of implemented algorithms, excellent documentation, and outstanding performance. Similarly, I haven’t missed any of the data manipulation functionality in R since I switched to pandas. Actually, I’ve discovered many new tricks in pandas I didn’t know in R (some of which I’ll describe in an upcoming post). Considering that pandas considerably outperforms R for many common operations, the reasons for me to switch back to R or other tools–even occasionally–have dwindled.

Mind you, I don’t mean to imply that Python can now do everything anyone could ever do in other languages. That’s obviously not true. For instance, there are currently no viable replacements for many of the thousands of statistical packages users have contributed to R (if there’s a good analog for lme4 in Python, I’d love to know about it). In signal processing, I gather that many people are wedded to various MATLAB toolboxes and packages that don’t have good analogs within the Python ecosystem. And for people who need serious performance and work with very, very large datasets, there’s often still no substitute for writing highly optimized code in a low-level compiled language. So, clearly, what I’m saying here won’t apply to everyone. But I suspect it applies to the majority of scientists.

Speaking only for myself, I’ve now arrived at the point where around 90 – 95% of what I do can be done comfortably in Python. So the major consideration for me, when determining what language to use for a new project, has shifted from what’s the best tool for the job that I’m willing to learn and/or tolerate using? to is there really no way to do this in Python? By and large, this mentality is a good thing, though I won’t deny that it occasionally has its downsides. For example, back when I did most of my data analysis in R, I would frequently play around with random statistics packages just to see what they did. I don’t do that much any more, because the pain of having to refresh my R knowledge and deal with that thing again usually outweighs the perceived benefits of aimless statistical exploration. Conversely, sometimes I end up using Python packages that I don’t like quite as much as comparable packages in other languages, simply for the sake of preserving language purity. For example, I prefer Rails’ ActiveRecord ORM to the much more explicit SQLAlchemy ORM for Python–but I don’t prefer to it enough to justify mixing Ruby and Python objects in the same application. So, clearly, there are costs. But they’re pretty small costs, and for me personally, the scales have now clearly tipped in favor of using Python for almost everything. I know many other researchers who’ve had the same experience, and I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to suggest that, at this point, Python has become the de facto language of scientific computing in many domains. If you’re reading this and haven’t had much prior exposure to Python, now’s a great time to come on board!

Postscript: In the period of time between starting this post and finishing it (two sessions spread about two weeks apart), I discovered not one but two new Python-based packages for data visualization: Michael Waskom’s seaborn package–which provides very high-level wrappers for complex plots, with a beautiful ggplot2-like aesthetic–and Continuum Analytics’ bokeh, which looks like a potential game-changer for web-based visualization**. At the rate the Python ecosystem is moving, there’s a non-zero chance that by the time you read this, I’ll be using some new Python package that directly transliterates my thoughts into analytics code.

 

* I’m aware that there are various interfaces between Python, R, etc. that allow you to internally pass objects between these languages. My experience with these has not been overwhelmingly positive, and in any case they still introduce all the overhead of writing extra lines of code and having to deal with multiple languages.

** Yes, you heard right: web-based visualization in Python. Bokeh generates static JavaScript and JSON for you from Python code, so  your users are magically able to interact with your plots on a webpage without you having to write a single line of native JS code.

R, the master troll of statistical languages

Warning: what follows is a somewhat technical discussion of my love-hate relationship with the R statistical language, in which I somehow manage to waste 2,400 words talking about a single line of code. Reader discretion is advised.

I’ve been using R to do most of my statistical analysis for about 7 or 8 years now–ever since I was a newbie grad student and one of the senior grad students in my lab introduced me to it. Despite having spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours in R, I have to confess that I’ve never set aside much time to really learn it very well; what basic competence I’ve developed has been acquired almost entirely by reading the inline help and consulting the Oracle of Bacon Google when I run into problems. I’m not very good at setting aside time for reading articles or books or working my way through other people’s code (probably the best way to learn), so the net result is that I don’t know R nearly as well as I should.

That said, if I’ve learned one thing about R, it’s that R is all about flexibility: almost any task can be accomplished in a dozen different ways. I don’t mean that in the trivial sense that pretty much any substantive programming problem can be solved in any number of ways in just about any language; I mean that for even very simple and well-defined tasks involving just one or two lines of code there are often many different approaches.

To illustrate, consider the simple task of selecting a column from a data frame (data frames in R are basically just fancy tables). Suppose you have a dataset that looks like this:

In most languages, there would be one standard way of pulling columns out of this table. Just one unambiguous way: if you don’t know it, you won’t be able to work with data at all, so odds are you’re going to learn it pretty quickly. R doesn’t work that way. In R there are many ways to do almost everything, including selecting a column from a data frame (one of the most basic operations imaginable!). Here are four of them:

 

I won’t bother to explain all of these; the point is that, as you can see, they all return the same result (namely, the first column of the ice.cream data frame, named ‘flavor’).

This type of flexibility enables incredibly powerful, terse code once you know R reasonably well; unfortunately, it also makes for an extremely steep learning curve. You might wonder why that would be–after all, at its core, R still lets you do things the way most other languages do them. In the above example, you don’t have to use anything other than the simple index-based approach (i.e., data[,1]), which is the way most other languages that have some kind of data table or matrix object (e.g., MATLAB, Python/NumPy, etc.) would prefer you to do it. So why should the extra flexibility present any problems?

The answer is that when you’re trying to learn a new programming language, you typically do it in large part by reading other people’s code–and nothing is more frustrating to a newbie when learning a language than trying to figure out why sometimes people select columns in a data frame by index and other times they select them by name, or why sometimes people refer to named properties with a dollar sign and other times they wrap them in a vector or double square brackets. There are good reasons to have all of these different idioms, but you wouldn’t know that if you’re new to R and your expectation, quite reasonably, is that if two expressions look very different, they should do very different things. The flexibility that experienced R users love is very confusing to a newcomer. Most other languages don’t have that problem, because there’s only one way to do everything (or at least, far fewer ways than in R).

Thankfully, I’m long past the point where R syntax is perpetually confusing. I’m now well into the phase where it’s only frequently confusing, and I even have high hopes of one day making it to the point where it barely confuses me at all. But I was reminded of the steepness of that initial learning curve the other day while helping my wife use R to do some regression analyses for her thesis. Rather than explaining what she was doing, suffice it to say that she needed to write a function that, among other things, takes a data frame as input and retains only the numeric columns for subsequent analysis. Data frames in R are actually lists under the hood, so they can have mixed types (i.e., you can have string columns and numeric columns and factors all in the same data frame; R lists basically work like hashes or dictionaries in other loosely-typed languages like Python or Ruby). So you can run into problems if you haphazardly try to perform numerical computations on non-numerical columns (e.g., good luck computing the mean of ‘cat’, ‘dog’, and ‘giraffe’), and hence, pre-emptive selection of only the valid numeric columns is required.

Now, in most languages (including R), you can solve this problem very easily using a loop. In fact, in many languages, you would have to use an explicit for-loop; there wouldn’t be any other way to do it. In R, you might do it like this*:

numeric_cols = rep(FALSE, ncol(ice.cream))
for (i in 1:ncol(ice.cream)) numeric_cols[i] = is.numeric(ice.cream[,i])

We allocate memory for the result, then loop over each column and check whether or not it’s numeric, saving the result. Once we’ve done that, we can select only the numeric columns from our data frame with data[,numeric_cols].

This is a perfectly sensible way to solve the problem, and as you can see, it’s not particularly onerous to write out. But of course, no self-respecting R user would write an explicit loop that way, because R provides you with any number of other tools to do the job more efficiently. So instead of saying “just loop over the columns and check if is.numeric() is true for each one,” when my wife asked me how to solve her problem, I cleverly said “use apply(), of course!”

apply() is an incredibly useful built-in function that implicitly loops over one or more margins of a matrix; in theory, you should be able to do the same work as the above two lines of code with just the following one line:

apply(ice.cream, 2, is.numeric)

Here the first argument is the data we’re passing in, the third argument is the function we want to apply to the data (is.numeric()), and the second argument is the margin over which we want to apply that function (1 = rows, 2 = columns, etc.). And just like that, we’ve cut the length of our code in half!

Unfortunately, when my wife tried to use apply(), her script broke. It didn’t break in any obvious way, mind you (i.e., with a crash and an error message); instead, the apply() call returned a perfectly good vector. It’s just that all of the values in that vector were FALSE. Meaning, R had decided that none of the columns in my wife’s data frame were numeric–which was most certainly incorrect. And because the code wasn’t throwing an error, and the apply() call was embedded within a longer function, it wasn’t obvious to my wife–as an R newbie and a novice programmer–what had gone wrong. From her perspective, the regression analyses she was trying to run with lm() were breaking with strange messages. So she spent a couple of hours trying to debug her code before asking me for help.

Anyway, I took a look at the help documentation, and the source of the problem turned out to be the following: apply() only operates over matrices or vectors, and not on data frames. So when you pass a data frame to apply() as the input, it’s implicitly converted to a matrix. Unfortunately, because matrices can only contain values of one data type, any data frame that has at least one string column will end up being converted to a string (or, in R’s nomenclature, character) matrix. And so now when we apply the is.numeric() function to each column of the matrix, the answer is always going to be FALSE, because all of the columns have been converted to character vectors. So apply() is actually doing exactly what it’s supposed to; it’s just that it doesn’t deign to tell you that it’s implicitly casting your data frame to a matrix before doing anything else. The upshot is that unless you carefully read the apply() documentation and have a basic understanding of data types (which, if you’ve just started dabbling in R, you may well not), you’re hosed.

At this point I could have–and probably should have–thrown in the towel and just suggested to my wife that she use an explicit loop. But that would have dealt a mortal blow to my pride as an experienced-if-not-yet-guru-level R user. So of course I did what any self-respecting programmer does: I went and googled it. And the first thing I came across was the all.is.numeric() function in the Hmisc package which has the following description:

Tests, without issuing warnings, whether all elements of a character vector are legal numeric values.

Perfect! So now the solution to my wife’s problem became this:

library(Hmisc)
apply(ice.cream, 2, all.is.numeric)

…which had the desirable property of actually working. But it still wasn’t very satisfactory, because it requires loading a pretty large library (Hmisc) with a bunch of dependencies just to do something very simple that should really be doable in the base R distribution. So I googled some more. And came across a relevant Stack Exchange answer, which had the following simple solution to my wife’s exact problem:

sapply(ice.cream, is.numeric)

You’ll notice that this is virtually identical to the apply() approach that crashed. That’s no coincidence; it turns out that sapply() is just a variant of apply() that works on lists. And since data frames are actually lists, there’s no problem passing in a data frame and iterating over its columns. So just like that, we have an elegant one-line solution to the original problem that doesn’t invoke any loops or third-party packages.

Now, having used apply() a million times, I probably should have known about sapply(). And actually, it turns out I did know about sapply–in 2009. A Spotlight search reveals that I used it in some code I wrote for my dissertation analyses. But that was 2009, back when I was smart. In 2012, I’m the kind of person who uses apply() a dozen times a day, and is vaguely aware that R has a million related built-in functions like sapply(), tapply(), lapply(), and vapply(), yet still has absolutely no idea what all of those actually do. In other words, in 2012, I’m the kind of experienced R user that you might generously call “not very good at R”, and, less generously, “dumb”.

On the plus side, the end product is undeniably cool, right? There are very few languages in which you could achieve so much functionality so compactly right out of the box. And this isn’t an isolated case; base R includes a zillion high-level functions to do similarly complex things with data in a fraction of the code you’d need to write in most other languages. Once you throw in the thousands of high-quality user-contributed packages, there’s nothing else like it in the world of statistical computing.

Anyway, this inordinately long story does have a point to it, I promise, so let me sum up:

  • If I had just ignored the desire to be efficient and clever, and had told my wife to solve the problem the way she’d solve it in most other languages–with a simple for-loop–it would have taken her a couple of minutes to figure out, and she’d probably never have run into any problems.
  • If I’d known R slightly better, I would have told my wife to use sapply(). This would have taken her 10 seconds and she’d definitely never have run into any problems.
  • BUT: because I knew enough R to be clever but not enough R to avoid being stupid, I created an entirely avoidable problem that consumed a couple of hours of my wife’s time. Of course, now she knows about both apply() and sapply(), so you could argue that in the long run, I’ve probably still saved her time. (I’d say she also learned something about her husband’s stubborn insistence on pretending he knows what he’s doing, but she’s already the world-leading expert on that topic.)

Anyway, this anecdote is basically a microcosm of my entire experience with R. I suspect many other people will relate. Basically what it boils down to is that R gives you a certain amount of rope to work with. If you don’t know what you’re doing at all, you will most likely end up accidentally hanging yourself with that rope. If, on the other hand, you’re a veritable R guru, you will most likely use that rope to tie some really fancy knots, scale tall buildings, fashion yourself a space tuxedo, and, eventually, colonize brave new statistical worlds. For everyone in between novice and guru (e.g., me), using R on a regular basis is a continual exercise in alternately thinking “this is fucking awesome” and banging your head against the wall in frustration at the sheer stupidity (either your own, or that of the people who designed this awful language). But the good news is that the longer you use R, the more of the former and the fewer of the latter experiences you have. And at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it: the language is powerful enough to make you forget all of the weird syntax, strange naming conventions, choking on large datasets, and issues with data type conversions.

Oh, except when your wife is yelling at gently reprimanding you for wasting several hours of her time on a problem she could have solved herself in 5 minutes if you hadn’t insisted that she do it the idiomatic R way. Then you remember exactly why R is the master troll of statistical languages.

 

 

* R users will probably notice that I use the = operator for assignment instead of the <- operator even though the latter is the officially prescribed way to do it in R (i.e., a <- 2 is favored over a = 2). That’s because these two idioms are interchangeable in all but one (rare) use case, and personally I prefer to avoid extra keystrokes whenever possible. But the fact that you can do even basic assignment in two completely different ways in R drives home the point about how pathologically flexible–and, to a new user, confusing–the language is.

will trade two Methods sections for twenty-two subjects worth of data

The excellent and ever-candid Candid Engineer in Academia has an interesting post discussing the love-hate relationship many scientists who work in wet labs have with benchwork. She compares two very different perspectives:

She [a current student] then went on to say that, despite wanting to go to grad school, she is pretty sure she doesn’t want to continue in academia beyond the Ph.D. because she just loves doing the science so much and she can’t imagine ever not being at the bench.

Being young and into the benchwork, I remember once asking my grad advisor if he missed doing experiments. His response: “Hell no.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I do. So I wonder if my student will always feel the way she does now- possessing of that unbridled passion for the pipet, that unquenchable thirst for the cell culture hood.

Wet labs are pretty much nonexistent in psychology–I’ve never had to put on gloves or goggles to do anything that I’d consider an “experiment”, and I’ve certainly never run the risk of  spilling dangerous chemicals all over myself–so I have no opinion at all about benchwork. Maybe I’d love it, maybe I’d hate it; I couldn’t tell you. But Candid Engineer’s post did get me thinking about opinions surrounding the psychological equivalent of benchwork–namely, collecting data form human subjects. My sense is that there’s somewhat more consensus among psychologists, in that most of us don’t seem to like data collection very much. But there are plenty of exceptions, and there certainly are strong feelings on both sides.

More generally, I’m perpetually amazed at the wide range of opinions people can hold about the various elements of scientific research, even when the people doing the different-opinion-holding all work in very similar domains. For instance, my favorite aspect of the research I do, hands down, is data analysis. I’d be ecstatic if I could analyze data all day and never have to worry about actually communicating the results to anyone (though I enjoy doing that too). After that, there are activities like writing and software development, which I spend a lot of time doing, and occasionally enjoy, but also frequently find very frustrating. And then, at the other end, there are aspects of research that I find have little redeeming value save for their instrumental value in supporting other, more pleasant, activities–nasty, evil activities like writing IRB proposals and, yes, collecting data.

To me, collecting data is something you do because you’re fundamentally interested in some deep (or maybe not so deep) question about how the mind works, and the only way to get an answer is to actually interrogate people while they do stuff in a controlled environment. It isn’t something I do for fun. Yet I know people who genuinely seem to love collecting data–or, for that matter, writing Methods sections or designing new experiments–even as they loathe perfectly pleasant activities like, say, sitting down to analyze the data they’ve collected, or writing a few lines of code that could save them hours’ worth of manual data entry. On a personal level, I find this almost incomprehensible: how could anyone possibly enjoy collecting data more than actually crunching the numbers and learning new things? But I know these people exist, because I’ve talked to them. And I recognize that, from their perspective, I’m the guy with the strange views. They’re sitting there thinking: what kind of joker actually likes to turn his data inside out several dozen times? What’s wrong with just running a simple t-test and writing up the results as fast as possible, so you can get back to the pleasure of designing and running new experiments?

This of course leads us directly to the care bears fucking tea party moment where I tell you how wonderful it is that we all have these different likes and dislikes. I’m not being sarcastic; it really is great. Ultimately, it works to everyone’s advantage that we enjoy different things, because it means we get to collaborate on projects and take advantage of complementary strengths and interests, instead of all having to fight over who gets to write the same part of the Methods section. It’s good that there are some people who love benchwork and some people who hate it, and it’s good that there are people who’re happy to write software that other people who hate writing software can use. We don’t all have to pretend we understand each other; it’s enough just to nod and smile and say “but of course you can write the Methods for that paper; I really don’t mind. And yes, I guess I can run some additional analyses for you, really, it’s not too much trouble at all.”