The Living Thing / Notebooks :

R (the language)

tl;dr R is a powerful, effective, diverse, well-supported, free, nightmware de-facto standard. As far as statistical languages go, this is outstandingly good.

Pros and cons



Use the tidyverse

Most lucid explanation of everything is Hadley Wickham’s Advanced R book which is free and only “Advanced” in the sense that your knowledge of R will be advanced after reading it, not in the sense of being forbiddingly complicated for beginners.

Kieran Healy advises the following set up for visualisation in the tidyverse style :

my_packages <- c("tidyverse", "broom", "coefplot", "cowplot",
                 "gapminder", "GGally", "ggrepel", "ggridges",X "gridExtra",
                 "interplot", "margins", "maps", "mapproj", "mapdata",
                 "MASS", "quantreg", "scales", "survey", "srvyr",
                 "viridis", "viridisLite", "devtools")

                 repos = "")



Useful functions: semi_join etc.


Surprising connections

You can run keras, and hence presumably tensorflow via Rstudio’s keras.

General Tips

Generic introductions

But maybe don’t use generic R? Use the tidyverse, a nearly-functional sub-ecosystem, mentioned below

subsetting hell

To subset a list based object:


to subset and optionally downcast the same:


to subset a matrix-based object:

x[1, , drop=FALSE]

to subset and optionally downcast the same:


How to pass sparse matrices between R and Python

My hdf5 hack

Counter-intuitively, this FS-backed method was a couple of orders of magnitude faster than rpy2 last time I tried to pass more than a few MB of data.

Apparently you can use feather for this these days, although there is little documentation. Also, you can try rccpcnpy (pronounced Arrsikpeekernoppy) which is a numpy-matrix-loader for R.

Upgrading R breaks the installed packages

update: no longer broken by default in latest R!

This is the fix:

update.packages(checkBuilt=TRUE, ask=FALSE)

Bioconductor’s horrifyingly pwnable install

What, you’d like to install some biostatistics software on your campus supercomputing cluster? Easy! Simply download and run this unverifiable obligatedly unencrypted unsigned script from a webserver of unknown provenance!


It is probably usually not often script kiddies spoofing you so as to to trojan your campus computing cluster to steal CPU cycles. After all, who would do that?

On an unrelated note, I am looking for investors in a distributed bitcoin mining operation. Contact me privately.

Writing packages

How do you do that? It’s not so hard, and as Hilary Parker points out, saves you time.

Easy project reload

Devtools for lazy people:

Make a folder called MyCode with a DESCRIPTION file. Make a subfolder called R. Put R code in .R files in there. Edit, load_all("MyCode"), use the functions.

Hadley Wickham pro-style

Install his devtools.

Devtools/RStudio workflow

Here’s an intro that explains how to use the OO facilities of R - although I recommend going for a functional style to avoid pain. You don’t want to have to learn about multiple different object model versions.

There are step debuggers and other such modern conveniences

R for Pythonistas

Many things about R are surprising to me, coming as I do most recently from Python. I’m documenting my perpetual surprise here, in order that it may save someone else the inconvenience of going to all that trouble to be personally surprised.

Opaque imports

Importing an R package, unlike importing a python module, brings in random cruft that may have little to do with the names of the thing you just imported. That is, IMO, poor planning, although history indicates that most language designers don’t agree with me on that:

> npreg
Error: object 'npreg' not found
> library("np")
Nonparametric Kernel Methods for Mixed Datatypes (version 0.40-4)
> npreg
function (bws, ...) #etc

Further, Data structures in R can do, and are intended to, provide first class scopes for looking up of names. You are, as apt of your explorations into data to bring the names of columns in a data set into scope just as much as the names of functions in a library. This is kind of useful, although the scoping proceedings do make my eyes water when this intersects with function definition.

Formulas are cool and ugly, like Adult Swim, and intimately bound up in the prior point.

Object methods look like function call assignments

I need to learn the R terminology to describe this.

It’s not bad as such, it’s just bloody weird-lookin’ and counterintuitive for outsiders

R fosters a style of programming where attributes and metadata of data objects are set by using accessor functions, e.g. in matrix column naming:

> m=matrix(0, nrow=2,ncol=2)
> m
    [,1] [,2]
[1,]   0   0
[2,]   0   0
> colnames(m)
> colnames(m)=c('a','b')
> colnames(m)
[1] “a” "b"
> m
     a b
[1,] 0 0
[2,] 0 0

If you want to know by observing its effects whether an apparent function returns some massaged product of is argument, or whether it invokes a method of the argument the argument, well, check the manual. As a rule, the accessor functions operate on one object and return null which is a hint, although so can, e.g., plotting functions.

No scalar types…

A float is a float vector of size 1:

> 5
[1] 5

…yet verbose vector literal syntax

You makes vectors by using a call to a function called c. Witness:

> c('a', 'b', 'c', 'd')
[1] “a” "b"c"d"

If you type a literal vector in though, it will throw an error:

> 'a', 'b', 'c', 'd'
Error: unexpected ',' in "'a',"

I’m sure there are Reasons for this; it’s just that they are reasons that I don’t care about.