Visual Studio as an interactive technical computing environment

A year ago, we were experimenting with an extensive sample that would illustrate the linear algebra capabilities of our math library. Unfortunately, M#, the .NET Matrix Workbench didn’t get very far. We’re technical guys. Building user interfaces just isn’t our cup of tea, and the IDE we built wasn’t stable enough to make it into an end-user product.

At the time, I realized that much of the functionality needed for this kind of interactive computing environment was already present in Visual Studio .NET. For example, we already have an excellent code editor, a project workspace, and tool windows that display variables and their values. Moreover, in the Visual Studio SDK, we have a framework for extending that environment with visualizers for specific types of variables, intellisense, custom project items, and so on.

Plus, you have a great library (the .NET Base Class Libraries) that you can use to do just about anything you’d like.

In short, Visual Studio is the ideal starting point to build a great technical computing IDE.

A couple of recent news items bring this vision closer to reality. Aaron Marten reports that the February 2006 CTP of the Visual Studio 2005 SDK now contains a tool window that hosts an IronPython console. And just a few days ago, Don Syme gave us a taste of what is to come in the next release of F#. The screen shot is the kind you would expect from Matlab. (I guess I was right when I wrote that Don gets what scientists and engineers need.)

Now, all we need is a Matlab-like language for the .NET platform…

Yahoo Finance miscalculates monthly average daily volume

Am I missing something here?

While testing some time series functionality in the new version of our statistics library, we came across a rather curious discrepancy. We used the historical quotes available from Yahoo Finance as a reference resource. As it turns out, comparison with our data appears to show that Yahoo miscalculates some summary statistics.

The error occurs on the Historical Prices page when using a monthly timeframe. Take the monthly data for 2005 for Microsoft’s stock (symbol MSFT). This shows an average daily volume for January of 79,642,818 shares. According to the help document, this is “the average daily volume for all trading days in the reported month.”

When we look at the daily prices for January 2005, we find 20 trading days. When we add up all the daily volumes, we find 1,521,414,280 shares changed hands that month. That should give an average daily volume of 76,070,714 shares, more than 3 million shares less than Yahoo’s figure. Why the difference?

A brief investigation showed that the difference can be explained because Yahoo includes the volume on the last trading day of the month twice. If you add the volume of Jan. 1st to the total, we get 1,592,856,376. Dividing by the number of trading days (20) gives 79,642,818.8.

When we look at other months, we find the same pattern: Yahoo consistently overstates the average daily volume for the month by a few percentage points. Each time, this difference can be explained by the double inclusion of the volume of the last trading day in the total volume for the month.

Here’s a random sample: Research in Motion for June 2000. Yahoo gives an average daily volume of 4,262,160 shares. Our calculation shows an average of 3,870,800 shares corresponding to a total volume of 77,416,000 for the month. Yahoo’s total corresponds to 85,243,200 shares. The difference of 7,820,200 shares is exactly the volume for June 30th.

The weekly average daily volume appears to be correct.

I find it hard to believe that a service that is as widely used as Yahoo would show such an error. So, my question to the experts in technical analysis out there is: What am I missing???

Overload resolution in C#

Programming language design is a very tough discipline. You can be sure that every feature will be used and just as often abused in unexpected ways. Mistakes are close to impossible to fix.

C# is a great language. It’s my language of choice for most applications. It derives a lot of its quality from the cautious nature of its lead architect, Anders Hejlsberg, who tries to guide programmers into writing good code. That’s why unsafe code is called unsafe. Not because it is a security risk, but because it is really easy to get yourself into a buggy mess with it. It is why methods and properties have to be explicitly declared virtual, because people tend to override methods when it is not appropriate.

In some cases, however, this protecting developers against themselves can go to far. Overload resolution is one example I came across recently.

Consider a Curve class that represents a mathematical curve. It has a ValueAt method which gets the value of the curve at a specific x-value, which is passed in as a Double argument. This is a virtual method, of course, and specific types of curves, like Polynomial or CubicSpline, provide their own implementation.

Now, for polynomials in particular, it is sometimes desirable to get the value of the polynomial for a complex argument. So we define an overload that takes a DoubleComplex argument and also returns a DoubleComplex.

So far so good.

But now we want to add a conversion from Double to DoubleComplex. This is a widening conversion: every real number is also a complex number. So it is appropriate to make the conversion implicit. We can then write things like:

DoubleComplex a = 5.0;

instead of

DoubleComplex a = new DoubleComplex(5.0);

Unfortunately, this change breaks existing code. The following snippet will no longer compile:

Polynomial p = new Polynomial(1.0, 2.0, 3.0);
double y = p.ValueAt(1.0);

On the second line, we get an error message: “Cannot implicitly convert type DoubleComplex to Double.” Why? Because of the way C# resolves method overloads.

Specifically, C# considers methods declared in a type before anything else, including override methods. Section 7.3 of the C# spec (“Member lookup“) states:

First, the set of all accessible (Section 3.5) members named N declared in T and the base types (Section 7.3.1) of T is constructed. Declarations that include an override modifier are excluded from the set. If no members named N exist and are accessible, then the lookup produces no match, and the following steps are not evaluated.

In this case, because there is an implicit conversion from Double to DoubleComplex, the ValueAt(DoubleComplex) overload is applicable. Even though there is an overload whose parameters match exactly, it isn’t even considered here, because it is an override.

This highly unintuitive behavior is justified by the following two rules:

  1. Whether or not a method is overridden is an implementation detail that should be allowed to change without breaking client code.
  2. Changes to a base class that don’t break an inherited class should not break clients of the inherited class.

Even though neither of these actually applies to our example, I can understand that these rules are useful in many situations. In this case, however, it essentially hides the ValueAt(Double) overload I defined, unless I use an ugly upcast construct like

double y = ((Curve)p).ValueAt(1.0);

My problem is this: If I define an overload that takes a specific argument type, clearly my intent is for that overload to be called whenever the argument is of that exact type. This rule violates that intent.

In my view, it was a mistake to violate developer intent in this way and not give an exact signature match precedence over every other overload candidate. Unfortunately, this is one of those choices that in all likelihood is next to impossible to fix.

Visual Basic has a different set of overload resolution rules. It looks for the overload with the least widening conversion, and so would pick the correct overload in this case.

Thanks to Neal Horowitz for helping me clear up this issue.

Accessing floating-point context from .NET applications

A few days ago, I wrote about the need for the .NET framework to support floating-point exceptions. Although the solution I proposed there goes some way towards fixing the problem, it would create a few of its own as well.

The main issue is that the processor’s FPU (floating-point unit) is a global resource. Therefore it should be handled with extreme care.

For an example of what can go wrong if you don’t, we can look at the story of Managed DirectX. DirectX is the high-performance multimedia/graphics/gaming API on the Windows platform. Because performance is of the essence, the DirectX guys decided to ask the processor to do its calculations in single precision by default. This is somewhat faster than the default, and all that is generally needed for the kinds of applications they encountered.

When people started using the .NET framework to build applications using Managed DirectX, some people found that it broke the .NET math functions. The reason: the precision setting of the FPU is global. It therefore affected all floating-point code in the application, including the calls into the .NET Base Class Libraries.

The problem with our initial solution is that it doesn’t behave nicely. It doesn’t isolate other code from changes to the floating-point state. This can affect code in unexpected ways.

So how do we fix this?

One option is to flag code that uses special floating-point settings with an attribute like “FloatingPointContextAware.” Any code that has this attribute can access floating-point state. However, any code that does not have this attribute would require the CLR to explicitly save the floating-point state.

Unfortunately, this fix suffers from a number of drawbacks:

  1. In some applications, like error analysis, you want to set global state. For example, one way to check whether an algorithm is stable is to run it twice using different rounding modes. If the two results are significantly different, you have a problem.
  2. It is overkill in most situations. If you’re going to use special floating-point features, you should be able to isolate yourself properly from any changes in floating-point state. If you have no knowledge such features exist, chances are your code won’t break if, say, the rounding mode is changed.
  3. It is a performance bottleneck. You can’t require all your client code to also have this attribute. Remember the goal was to allow ‘normal’ calculations to be done as fast as possible while making the edge cases reasonably fast as well. It is counter-productive to impose a performance penalty on every call.

The best solution I can think of is to actually treat the floating-point unit for what it is: a resource. If you want to use its special features, you should inform the system when you plan to use them, and also when you’re done using them.

We make floating-point state accessible only through instances of a FloatingPointContext class, which implements IDisposable and does the necessary bookkeeping. It saves enough of the floating-point state when it is constructed, and restores it when it is disposed. You don’t always have to save and restore the full floating-point state, including values on the stack, etc. In most cases, you only need to save the control word, which is relatively cheap.

A typical use for this class would be as follows:

using (FloatingPointContext context = new FloatingPointContext())
    context.RoundingMode = RoundingMode.TowardsZero;
    // Do some calculations
    if (context.IsExceptionFlagRaised(
      // Do some more stuff

I have submitted a proposal for a FloatingPointContext class to the CLR team. So far they have chosen to keep it under consideration for the next version. Let’s hope they’ll choose to implement it.