Go vector or go home

September 21, 2011

(This article was first published on uu kk, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

My programming experience progressed mostly along the lines of: C, C++, shell, Java, Java, Ruby, Python, Java, Java. Only recently have I started exploring the likes of Haskell, Erlang and R. Well that evolution bit me a little while back when I tried using an iterative approach in R where a vectorized solution would have been better.

I was dealing with a vector of timestamps that were formatted as ‘seconds since the epoch’ and what I wanted was to limit that vector to weekend timestamps only.

My naive approach was to construct a simple loop over the values and apply a function to each element. I was only dealing with about 20,000 elements but the time to do this was painfully slow – roughly 20 seconds – so I started investigating an apply-like approach. R provides several ways to do this depending on the input/output requirements: lapply, sapply, and vapply. All three resulted in behavior similar to the simple loop.

The function to test for weekend-ness is as follows:

is.weekend <- function(x) {

tm <- as.POSIXlt(x,origin="1970/01/01")
format(tm,"%a") %in% c("Sat","Sun")

I don’t know the specific details of date/time conversion in R but I was pretty sure that this was not the bottleneck. After a little searching I came upon a different approach. Instead of looping over each element I should have been passing the entire vector around to the functions. I believe that the apply functions take the vector as an argument but do the manual loop internally. However, R supports a more native approach to handling vectors: vectorized operations.


use.sapply <- function(data) {


system.time(v <- use.sapply(csv.data))
user system elapsed
19.456 6.492 25.951


use.vector <- function(data) {


system.time(v <- use.vector(csv.data))
user system elapsed
0.032 0.020 0.052

Duly noted.

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