How I learned MATLAB inside out

Back when I was in struggling graduate student working 3 university jobs to stay afloat, one of the job was to build a multi-center data collection system that take cares of remote data upload, store it in a database and visualize the waveforms and records.

I surveyed other platforms and languages for a couple of months and finally settled on MATLAB because at the time MATLAB had the most convenient data types (cells), data loading/saving (‘.mat’ files so I don’t have to manage the datatypes/format), external interfaces, and most importantly MATLAB FileExchange (FEX) pretty much cover every generic idea I can think of. With MATLAB, my work is pretty much down to coding the high level ‘business’ logic.

And no, I wasn’t biased towards MATLAB at the time because I have a signal processing background. I didn’t know much about MATLAB’s programming support back then other than number crunching (just like the 90% of the public who misundestood the power of the language), so I wouldn’t choose it for a software project at that level of complexity without much research.

Learning the guts of MATLAB, architecturing and coding the entire system took me only 3 months (well, it included a 1 month non-stop 16 hours a day, 7-days a week shut-in programming). Not a shabby platform for a project that is supposed to take 4 years. In fact, the rest of the time was spent

  1. reading the last owners *#@&ed up perl code and fighting to get the fragile linux setup to work on other machines, then reverse the entire project requirements from the source code because there wasn’t any documentation and the previous owners graduated.
  2. reconstruct Guidant’s half-finished (done by a 3rd party then abandoned) binary data reader by finishing the hardest part of the incomplete XSLT code.

The rest that has to do with MATLAB was relatively easy once I learned the main ideas through their documentation, newsgroups, Loren’s blog and the official support.

To understand and appreciate the beauty of MATLAB and use it effectively, you have to get past the following hurdles:

  1. Basic data structures: cell, struct and language features.
  2. Vectorization: use for-loops only in limited cases
  3. Anonymous function (Lambdas), cellfun(), arrayfun(), bsxfun(), structfun()
  4. Overloading and OOP
  5. Tables (Heterogeneous data structures) and Categorical objects (Nominal, Ordinal)

or else you are coding it like a C programmer: a complete waste of MATLAB’s license fees. If you know these 5 aspects of MATLAB well and would say there are strictly superior options out there, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll look into it.


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