Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

A look at the Julia programming language

19th November 2022

Several open-source computing languages get mentioned when talking about working with data. Among these are R and Python, but there are others; Julia is another one of these. It took a while before I got to check out Julia because I felt the need to get acquainted with R and Python beforehand. There are others like Lua to investigate too, but that can wait for now.

With the way that R is making an incursion into clinical data reporting analysis following the passage of decades when SAS was predominant, my explorations of Julia are inspired by a certain contrariness on my part. Alongside some small personal projects, there has been some reading in (digital) book form and online. Concerning the latter of these, there are useful tutorials like Introduction to Data Science: Learn Julia Programming, Maths & Data Science from Scratch or Julia Programming: a Hands-on Tutorial. Like what happens with R, there are online versions of published books available free of charge, and they include Julia Data Science and Interactive Visualization and Plotting with Julia. Video learning can help too and Jane Herriman has recorded and shared useful beginner’s guides on YouTube that start with the basics before heading onto more advanced subjects like multiple dispatch, broadcasting and metaprogramming.

This piece of learning has been made of simple self-inspired puzzles before moving on to anything more complex. That differs from my dalliance with R and Python, where I ventured into complexity first, not least because of testing them out with public COVID data. Eventually, I got around to doing that with Julia too though my interest was beginning to wane by then, and Julia’s abilities for creating multipage PDF files were such that PDF Toolkit was needed to help with this. Along the way, I have made use of such packages as CSV.jl, DataFrames.jl, DataFramesMeta, Plots, Gadfly.jl, XLSX.jl and JSON3.jl, among others. After that, there is PrettyTables.jl to try out, and anyone can look at the Beautiful Makie website to see what Makie can do. There are plenty of other packages creating graphs such as SpatialGraphs.jl, PGFPlotsX and GRUtils.jl. For formatting numbers, options include Format.jl and Humanize.jl.

So far, my primary usage has been with personal financial data together with automated processing and backup of photo files. The photo file processing has taken advantage of the ability to compile Julia scripts for added speed because just-in-time compilation always means there is a lag before the real work begins.

VS Code is my chosen editor for working with Julia scripts, since it has a plugin for the language. That adds the REPL, syntax highlighting, execution and data frame viewing capabilities that once were added to the now defunct Atom editor by its own plugin. While it would be nice to have a keyboard shortcut for script execution, the whole thing works well and is regularly updated.

Naturally, there have been a load of queries as I have gone along and the Julia Documentation has been consulted as well as Julia Discourse and Stack Overflow. The latter pair have become regular landing spots on many a Google search. One example followed a glitch that I encountered after a Julia upgrade when I asked a question about this and was directed to the XLSX.jl Migration Guides where I got the information that I needed to fix my code for it to run properly.

There is more learning to do as I continue to use Julia for various things. Once compiled, it does run fast like it has been promised. The syntax paradigm is akin to R and Python, but there are Julia-specific features too. If you have used the others, the learning curve is lessened but not eliminated completely. This is not an object-oriented language as such, but its functional nature makes it familiar enough for getting going with it. In short, the project has come a long way since it started more than ten years ago. There is much for the scientific programmer, but only time will tell if it usurped its older competitors. For now, I will remain interested in it.

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