Most of you are familiar with the virtues of a programmer. There are three, of course: laziness, impatience, and hubris.

Larry Wall


The first deep thing I remember learning about mathematics (and have since applied to programming and data science) isn’t a formula. It’s that mathematicians should be lazy. Don’t waste time doing X when Y is quicker. Maths is all about finding Y. Computer science is about building Y.

One aspect of laziness can be expressed as “Don’t Repeat Yourself,” and it comes with a handy three-letter acronym: DRY. Of course, as aphorisms tend to, this means different things to different people, but one interpretation is don’t write the same code twice.

There are lots of strategies to avoid repeatedly typing. One of the most powerful, and most commonly used is iteration. Roughly this refers to creating a loop that repeats itself with some changes each time through. It’s very Groundhog Day1 or Edge of Tomorrow2 or Source Code3 or there’s a list here if you still don’t get it.

Iteration has been easy since the creation of high-level programming languages, but the strategy is much, much older than anything to do with computers. You can argue iteration has been around as long as the idea of an algorithm, which precedes programming by some hundreds or thousands of years. A simple example is “Newton’s method”, described by old Isaac in the 1670s but with its origins dating back to ancient times (see the Babylonian method for computing square roots).

We owe the idea of iteration in programming to – you guessed it – Ada Lovelace, but she and Babbage gained inspiration from the Jacquard loom, which also allowed iteration. A long discussion of the history can be found at stackexchange.

Iteration has, like other fashions in coding, been in and out and then in again. It went through a lull for me because I spent a lot of time teaching our students coding in Matlab, and Matlab (like R and many other similar languages) did not have an efficient iterator. Hence, you tended to vectorise loops out of code whenever possible. One of the GREAT things about Julia is that its loops are blindingly fast4. I actually got told off once when I tried to contribute code to a project, and I hadn’t used loops (I had written by by-now-standard vectorised version of the algorithm even though the loop-based code was easier, and in Julia it was faster).

In this blog entry, I want explain Julia’s iteration/loop capabilities and get to the point of explaining how to create custom iterators. I also want to get to the point of discussing the somewhat controversial loop-scope rules, but I want to start off really simply.

Simple Iteration in Julia 

In almost any high-level programming language there are multiple strategies to create a loop. The most basic, perhaps, is the while loop. In Julia it looks like this:


The idea is that it will repeat the DO THIS STUFF commands until the CONDITION is false. I don’t know many high-level languages5 that can’t do this type of loop and the syntax for most of them looks very much like Julia’s.

Implicit in this construction is the assumption that each time through the loop, something will change, and so each execution cycle will be slightly different, and hence the CONDITION can change from true to false6.

A very simple example follows:

counter = 1
while counter <= 10
   @show counter
   counter += 1

This loop counts from 1 to 10 and then stops. Maintaining a counter is such a common requirement in so many loops that there is a short cut called a for loop, which in Julia looks like

for counter = 1:10
   @show counter

This loop does exactly what the previous while loop does, with fewer lines of code. For loops are about as common in high-level languages as while loops, but the syntax for a for loop can be pretty arcane in some languages (I have an example in C below).

There are other types of loops out there, e.g., repeat-until or do-while loops. Technically they fall into two categories: the condition controlled loops (the while loop) and the count-controlled loop (the for loop) but we will see the difference is not so cut and dried. And there are all sorts of extra syntax, e.g., break and continue that help out in special cases.

You probably already knew all of that. It’s computing 101, but I needed to make sure we are clear in what follows.

Iteration again 

Traditionally, for loops (dating back to ALGOL) used a start value, a condition (much like a while loop) and a rule about what to do with the counter. For instance, in C you would write

for (int counter=1; counter<=10; counter++)  

The line defining the for loop has three clauses:

  1. int counter=1 initialises the counter to be an integer starting at 1;
  2. counter<=10 terminates the loop when the counter exceeds 10; and
  3. counter++ increments the counter by 1 for each run through the loop.

Modern languages like Julia define an iterator that wraps up all of these three into one. For instance, in my Julia for loop, the iterator is 1:10, which is technically a UnitRange, but when used as part of a for loop it iterates through the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 10.

Iterators are a flexible bit of syntactic sugar designed to both:

  • make it very obvious what the loop does; and
  • make it easy and quick to create a for loop.

The second point will appeal to many programmers. The first point might seem trivial, but IT IS NOT. Simple, obvious code is much easier to build and maintain.

This type of iteration is sometimes called a foreach loop because it makes it very easy to, for instance, loop through a collection, e.g., in Julia we could do

for counter = [1 3 10]
   @show counter

which will loop through only the numbers 1,3 and 10. We could replace the = sign here, which is a little confusing really, with in to write (with the same result):

for counter in [1 3 10]
   @show counter

Julia also provides a set of higher level iteration tools. One of my favourites is enumerate, which combines the foreach style of loop with a counter. For instance, we could write

for (counter, value) = enumerate( [1 3 10] )
   @show (counter, value)

which outputs

(counter, value) = (1, 1)
(counter, value) = (2, 3)
(counter, value) = (3, 10)

I often want to iterate through a collection, but also maintain a counter while doing it. I know I can do this with a couple of extra lines of code, but remember, programmers should be lazy. I certainly am.

Then there is the IterTools.jl package has all sorts of super-useful iterators we can apply on top of other simple iterators:

  • distinct: iterates on the unique elements of a collection;
  • groupby: groups consecutive values that share a result defined by a function you supply;
  • iterated: repeatedly applies a function you supply (which is common in mathematical algorithms like Newton’s method);
  • cycle: cycles through the supplied iterator n times; or
  • subsets: iterates over every subset of a collection.

There’s a whole lot more in the package. It’s worth looking into.

Custom Iterators in Julia 

So now I get to the topic I really wanted to get to – custom iterators.

First, why would you want this? Aren’t there enough ways to do iteration already? The answer comes down to laziness. If you are going to use any type of programming construction more than once, it makes sense to create a tool to avoid repetition. Usually, in procedural languages like Julia, that would take the form of a function (in other languages these might be called a procedure or method or subroutine). However, a loop is another construction and just like all of the rest, we sometimes want to create something special, and make it easy to reuse without re-typing a lot of boiler-plate code each time.

Second, why explain custom iterators here? Frankly, some of Julia’s documentation isn’t written for ordinary people like me. The descriptions of custom iterators that I have been able to find, e.g., this, are written for experts.

Third, what do you do? The starting point is to realise that for and while loops are equivalent. Either could be implemented in terms of the other, so assuming we have an iterator called iterable and a function called iterate, which I’ll describe in a second, the following codes are equivalent:

for element in iterable
    # body


iter_result = iterate(iterable)
while iter_result !== nothing
    (element, state) = iter_result
    # body
    iter_result = iterate(iterable, state)

I stole this example from Eric Davies, but I want to try to explain it a little more, and give a simpler example of how to use this. Eric did a lot of the writing on the IterTools.jl package and so he needs to create iterators that work on top of other iterators. For example, think about enumerate, which has to work on top of almost any other iterator. I don’t need to be so clever.

The first example of code given above should, I hope, be fairly straightforward at this point. The variable element iterates through the iterator creatively called iterator. For instance, the iterator could be the range 1:10.

The second example uses two functions. Both are called iterate so this might seem confusing, but remember that Julia uses multiple-dispatch to correctly call the right function even though the name iterate is overloaded with two definitions. In this case, the first definition has one input argument iterable which is the name of the iterator (we are going to create this), and the second function has two arguments iterable and state, the second of which lets us keep track of where we are.

The iterable here will be a new structure/object that we create. It will include information about

  • how to start;
  • when to stop; and
  • what to do in between.

To show you how it works I am going to create a non-trivial example. If you have a matrix X, then the matrix minor in the ith row and jth column is the determinant of the submatrix formed by taking every part of X except row i and column j. I want to iterate over all of the minors of a given matrix.

That might sound technical and difficult, so first lets just look at the submatrices that form the minors and ignore calculating the determinants7. A quick example starts with the matrix X defined to be \[ A = \left( \begin{array}{rrrr} 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 \\ 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 \\ 9 & 10 & 11 & 12 \\ 13 & 14 & 15 & 16 \\ \end{array} \right) \] The matrix minor submatrix for the 2nd row and third column would be \[ A_{2,3} = \left( \begin{array}{rrrr} 1 & 2 & 4 \\ 9 & 10 & 12 \\ 13 & 14 & 16 \\ \end{array} \right) \] Note that it is just X with the 2nd row and third column deleted.

Here is my simple function to get the submatrix minor.

function matrix_minor( X::Array, i::Int, j::Int )
    (s1,s2) = size(X)
    submatrix = Array{eltype(X),2}(undef, s1-1, s2-1)
    for (counter1,index1) = enumerate( setdiff( 1:s1, i ) )
        for (counter2,index2) = enumerate( setdiff( 1:s2, j ) )
            submatrix[counter1, counter2] = X[index1, index2]
    return submatrix

Note the nested for loops (one loop inside another) that enter all of required elements of the new matrix, omitting row i and column j of the matrix (the function setdiff is removing element i (or j) from the full range of rows (columns) being included).

The code probably isn’t the fastest, or most clever, but I wanted to use it to illustrate some points:

  1. Programmers who write a lot of Matlab, R or other similar languages might think this is bad code. It uses nested loops and that can be scarily slow in those languages. So you would vectorise, e.g., by concatenating chunks of X together. But remember that loops in Julia are FAST.
  2. I’ve used enumerate here to illustrate how great it can be to access both the element of an iterable and its index.

Matrix minor submatrices have a variety of applications, but for the moment I am just going to list all of them. To build the iterator we first create a new composite type (a struct) as follows:

struct MatrixMinor
    X::AbstractArray # a square matrix
    n::Int           # size of matrix for easy reference
function MatrixMinor(X::AbstractArray)
    (n1,n2) = size(X)
    if n1 != n2 error("matrix should be square") end
    return MatrixMinor( X, n1 )

The first part of this defines the type. I don’t really need to have the size n in here, but it makes it easy to refer to it. The second part is a convenience constructor that checks the input matrix is square. The constructor isn’t necessary, but I want to make life easy and safe for someone using the code.

You also need to write a small set of functions to work on the iterator. The functions extend Julia’s base code hence the way they are defined as Base.. The first two should be fairly straight forward. The second two are the two variants of iterate that we need.

Base.length(iter::MatrixMinor) = iter.n^2
Base.eltype(iter::MatrixMinor) = eltype(iter.X)

function Base.iterate( iter::MatrixMinor )
    element = matrix_minor( iter.X, 1, 1 ) 
    return (element, 1)

function Base.iterate( iter::MatrixMinor, state )
    count = state

    if count >= length(iter)
        return nothing
    i = div( count, iter.n ) + 1
    j = mod( count+1, 1:iter.n )
    element = matrix_minor( iter.X, i, j ) 
    return ( element, count + 1 )

The first version of iterate initialises the loop for a given MatrixMinor iterator. It returns the first element (the matrix minor for row 1 and column 1), and the state 1. In this iterator the state will simply be a counter to say how far along we are.

The second version of iterate is like a “next” function. Its inputs are an iterator and the current state/counter, and it finds the next matrix minor (we go through the matrix in row order), and updates the state/counter. It terminates by returning nothing when the state/counter reaches the nth row and nth column.

And finally here is the payoff, the code to use it.

X = [1 2 3 4; 5 6 7 8; 9 10 11 12; 13 14 15 16]
for minors in MatrixMinor(X)

I hope the code illustrates the point. We had to write a chunk of code to build this, but now, whenever I want to iterate over the minors of a matrix, I need only write a couple of lines of code.

In the code, the expression MatrixMinor(X,2) creates (constructs) the iterator, which we use immediately in the for loop. At each iteration the display command outputs the current matrix minor, for example the first three iterations are:

3×3 Array{Int64,2}:
  6   7   8
 10  11  12
 14  15  16
3×3 Array{Int64,2}:
  5   7   8
  9  11  12
 13  15  16
3×3 Array{Int64,2}:
  5   6   8
  9  10  12
 13  14  16

and we run through 16 in all before we hit the termination criteria.

My example here is more basic than the code you can see, for instance, in the IterTools.jl package. It isn’t as general (it can’t wrap around and operate on another iterator), and most likely is slower. But I wanted an example that avoided some of the more advanced complexities and laid out the ideas.


One last comment about loops in Julia.

Scope, in programming languages, refers to the (maximal) part of a program that can see a “name”. So we might say the scope of a variable named X is the function F if X can be seen inside function F, but not outside. We say a variable has global scope if it can be seen everywhere. We say it has local scope otherwise. Scope isn’t just about variables, it’s about names, so a function or structure can have local scope as well.

Scope is a really, really important tool to manage the namespace of a program. It means that I can reuse names without fear of them clashing, which is critical when multiple people are working on different parts of the same large program. Otherwise there would have to be endless committees to name each of the myriad parts of a program (which might have millions of lines of code and tens of thousands of names).

I grew up with languages where scope was primarily determined by the boundaries of functions (or methods or subroutines – whatever you call them). You could always create your own scopes, but I have rarely needed to. However, in Julia, a loop has its own scope as well8. So for instance, in Matlab the following code

for counter = 1:10
   % do nothing

will output ‘10’, but in Julia the identical-looking loop

for counter = 1:10
    # do nothing

will lead to the error ERROR: UndefVarError: counter not defined, because counter is only defined inside the scope of the loop, not where we try to display it. We can fix this for variables defined inside the loop (in version 1.5 and up) by defining them first, so that the loop will access a variable that already exists instead of creating a new one within its limited scope. You could also wrap it in a function which will create a new scope. However, this doesn’t work for the counter itself. Julia’s writers took an explicit decision that each time you create a for loop it creates its own internal counter, and we can’t (as far as I know) get to it outside the loop. If you need it (say if you break out of a loop early) then you need an extra variable, e.g.,

record_counter = 0
for counter = 1:10
	record_counter = counter

Julia’s scoping rules are there for a reason – global variables are not desirable in large programs particularly those that use parallelism, and the scope rules also help optimise the code to make it really fast – but honestly they have caused me some stress8. The most obvious source of stress is that in some versions of Julia the scope rules differ between code defined inside functions or modules, and code running in the bare REPL. Julia changed its behaviour in version 1.5 to make the REPL more like module code, which I like, but this can still cause some confusion. Particularly as this reverted a change when they introduced new scope rules in version 1.0.

In any case, this has been a really big topic of discussion out there in Julia land. You can find some links below.


To iterate is human, to recurse divine.

L. Peter Deutsch

Iteration is one of the key tools programmers use, again, and again, and again. I wanted to lay out Julia’s iteration tools, at least as a reminder for myself.

Iteration isn’t the only way to get things done. There is a general equivalence between iteration and recursion, and in some ways recursion is more elegant. However, I have usually found that students find recursion much harder to understand, at least when they are starting out, so we usually leave that until later, which is what I will do today.

Julia, like most modern languages, has some pretty sophisticated tools for iteration. They range from simple, elegant constructions for standard loops to the ability to create your own customised iterators. You might not need the latter very often, but it is really cool when you do.


Loops and iteration in general:

Loops in Julia:

Loop scope in Julia:


Just a quiet thanks to the people who have been helping me edit these blogs, notably in this case ….


  1. For those of you as old as me.
  2. For fans of Tom Cruise.
  3. For Gyllenhaal fans.
  4. Matlab’s docs mention that apart from improved performance, standard code should be replaced by vectorised code because it is easier to understand and less error prone. That is certainly true when you are writing linear-algebra code, but it is definitely untrue for many other algorithms where the sequence of operations is important, and so writing it in vectorised form is actually creating a new algorithm.

  5. Technically constructs such as loops are part of control flow in imperative programming languages. These are languages that run a sequence of commands in an order defined by the control flow. Think of them as languages where you tell the computer what to do in detail. The main alternative is a declarative language where you ask the computer to achieve the result without caring how it gets there (think Excel). Imperative languages map more naturally to how computer hardware works, and how we (or at least I) think so they are more common. Declarative languages can be fantastic though, and in reality the division is often not sharp. Declarative languages often include control flow constructs as well, and modern imperative languages often include declarative components.

  6. There are reasons you might want a loop to run nominally forever. For instance, a program that is monitoring a system for events might be expected to keep running its loop as long as the system is running. So-called infinite loops can usually be interrupted by some command (control-C in Julia), but that is getting into details we don’t need here.

  7. The term “matrix minor” is sometimes used to refer to the submatrix as well as its determinant.

  8. Julia’s scope rules (and the rules of any modern language) can be quite complicated to look at. For instance, see the docs. However, mostly I find them intuitive to use. It’s just the rules around loops are not my friends.