Date functions in Mathematica

The date functions in Mathematica are in some regards excellent — you can use almost any common date format and the program will decipher it, and it computes date additions and date differences to high precision, and the date graphing functions work well. However these features come at a cost, the date functions in Mathematica are quite slow.

When writing functions that involve dates, the most important speed optimization is typically to move all date functions outside the inner loops, even if this means doing elaborate computations of all possible date combinations in advance, so that the inner loops can do table lookups for needed results. I have even created my own date functions that, though interpreted rather than compiled as Mathematica’s built in functions are, run ten times faster. (One difference being that my function is less flexible in the format of the inputs it accepts, and can proceed directly with date addition or subtraction, whereas Mathematica’s built-in function must spend epic amounts of time trying to figure out what precisely is meant by, for example “11/5/1980”. However even when you convert all Mathematica dates to AbsoluteTime[] format, it’s still slow.)

I ran some benchmarks tonight, comparing Mathematica to Visual Basic for Applications. This seems a fair comparison, as both are interpreted lanaguages. The inner loop in Mathematica looks like

{DateDifference["11/15/1997", "12/1/1998", "Day"],
DatePlus["11/15/1997", {36, "Day"}],
AbsoluteTime["December 30, 1997"]}

While the equivalent code in VBA is

diff = DateDiff("d", #11/15/97#, #12/1/98#)
sum = DateAdd("d", 36, #11/15/97#)
intTime = DateValue("December 30 1997")

Mathematica 8.01 runs that triad of lines 121 times/second, while VBA completes it about 10,000 times/second. VBA is about 82 times as fast.

An amusing quine in Mathematica

I had the idea for this Quine even before writing the longer, more traditional quine I posted yesterday. That one actually took hours to craft; this one practically wrote itself. It is based on the TextRecognize[] command that was introduced in Mathematica 8. Essentially, I wrote a line of code that prints a picture, then runs OCR on that picture and prints the result. The seed picture is an image of the program’s own source code.

Mathematica reduces the size of the picture so it fits neatly on a line of text, which makes it hard for a human to read. As they appear in the notebook, the Quine and its output look like
image quine

If we zoom in on the guinePNG image, we see


The only time consuming part of the process was selecting a font that led to an accurate OCR result. The TextRecognize command seems to do best with dictionary words, and does a comparatively lousy job of recognizing Mathematica code, which is full of odd terms and punctuation. I changed the name of the variable from “quinePNG” to “guinePNG” because TextRecognize[] was identifying the “q” as a “g” anyway.

Quine in Mathematica

A “quine” is a curious object in computer science of far-reaching implications. It is a program that generates itself as output. This is more complex than it sounds, as if you have your program source, to print that source requires that the program have something like Print[program source], but then to capture that leading print command, you need to amend your code to something like Print[“Print[”,program source,“]”], and to capture the new complexity you need another level of nesting, ad infinitum. Some people, discovering this problem upon their initial efforts to write a quine, conclude the problem is hopeless.

However, it is not at all hopeless. These can be created in every Turing-complete computer language, and in fact can be created an infinite number of ways in each language. I learned about quines recently from their Wikipedia page, and from a very nice discussion at the web page of David Madore. Reading Madore’s page, I immediately realized an extremely slick implementation that would be possible in Mathematica 8, but before trying to implement that I thought I would try a more general approach first.

Three different techniques seemed promising. The first involved putting a program that uses ToExpression[] to render a string into a string, and then run ToExpression on it. My efforts in this direction all hit infinite recursion loops.

The second direction involved using StringReplace to print a string that contained its own StringReplace command. The substring being replaced seemed to get Held, however, and I couldn’t get it to behave as desire.

The third way uses the Print command, thusly:

quine[x_String] := Print[x, ";", FromCharacterCode[10] , "quine[", InputForm[x], "]"];

The output is precisely as we want —

I think this meets the definition of Quine. I’ll set to the elegant Mathematica 8 only version shortly.

Happy Birthday, Bob

Seven minutes remain in Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday. I’m listening to Eliza Gilkyson’s new cover of “Jokerman,” and remembering that on the occasion of Bob’s fiftieth birthday I hosted a 24 hour Orgy™ of his music on WHRB-FM. I collected an array of bootlegs for the event, a project that was a lot more fun in the days before digital piracy. During the show, in the middle of the night, an enormous manic-depressive named Wombat stopped by the studio to join us. The station got appreciative letters for weeks, including some from people who drove their cars to a parking lot near our offices in Memorial Hall and sat, listening for hours. One man wrote about holding his young son in front of the radio in the hopes the boy would grow up to appreciate the music the way his father did. Funny the things you remember, decades later.

I found a copy of the Adobe Pagemaker 4 file for the poster we used to advertise the event. The screenshot below is from an emulator running Macintosh System 7 without Adobe Type Manager but I don’t think it looks too terrible.

Bob Dylan Poster