[Bioc-devel] Making non-bioconductor packages play nice with bioc (and vice versa)

Steve Lianoglou mailinglist.honeypot at gmail.com
Tue Sep 6 00:57:03 CEST 2011

Hi Martin,

First -- thanks for taking the time to reply to Q's over the holiday.

Second -- I don't want this to come across as a rant or anything, and
clearly this isn't a bioconductor thing, but more of a core R thing so
feel free to tune out if you like. If there was an R-philosophy list,
perhaps that'd be the best venue for further discussion, since what
follows from here on out doesn't amount to much more than navel gazing
at this point.

Your reply is interesting since it shows how people think of what it
means to be a "generic function" in different ways ... and when I say
"people" I guess I really mean me :-)

In short, I've always thought "the idea" of generic functions is that
there isn't an IRanges version of cbind, and an xxx version of cbind,
but rather "cbind" is a function that different classes can register
functionality against if they so choose. Maybe a better example would
be for the function `length` -- it's a function that is just defined
in different ways for different classes of things, but you expect most
all types of classes to respond to `length`, so they should be free to
implement this generic.

After all, you are provided with a warning when you create a generic
(say from a base function) that differs in signature from one that's
already loaded in the working environment. True that warnings aren't
errors, but still, I take it as something you're not *really* supposed
to do.

And actually, I think the way exporting of S3 methods from packages
works is more inline with how I imagine S4 exports *should* work, ie.
in the NAMESPACE you could have `S3method(cbind, data.table)` and it
just "registers" it to the generic `cbind` without masking `cbind`
from base, or whatever other package wants to register a cbind method
(too bad there are no "dummy" S4 versions of some of the functions
found in base R (cbind, rbind, length, plot, etc. as I reckon that
will solve all these problems).

So -- with that in mind, I would like to just "add" my definition of
`cbind` or `length` or whatever to the S4 generic that's already
loaded (or make one, if there is no such generic). Particularly since
these types of functions are broadly applicable to different types of

at the risk of being redundant:

On Mon, Sep 5, 2011 at 5:50 PM, Martin Morgan <mtmorgan at fhcrc.org> wrote:
> Hi Steve --
> On 09/05/2011 11:29 AM, Steve Lianoglou wrote:

>> I've tried to "guard" against an already defined cbind generic (say,
>> from IRanges), like:
>> if (!isGeneric("cbind")) {
>>   setGeneric("cbind", function(..., deparse.level=1)
>> standardGeneric("cbind"), signature="...")
>> }
> I don't really like this idea. It implies you'll take whatever cbind comes
> along, whereas you're really interested in only specific cbinds (the one in
> base, for instance).
> You've already used a NAMESPACE to determine what
> functions are reliably available, so either there's a cbind generic that
> you're interested in attaching methods to or there isn't.

That's the nut right there. I don't see it as taking "whatever cbind
comes along" (even though that's what I'm doing I guess).

I'm not interested in a specific cbind, I just want to add my specific
implementation of cbind to list of classes that a call to "cbind" will
dispatch to ... making a user call data.table::cbind(...) makes me sad
... especially since I'll be one of those users ;-)

I mean -- ultimately that's the whole point of generic functions (S3,
S4, whatever) vs. "normal" functions, no? If I didn't use any generic
function (S3, S4, or otherwise), I would expect to have to do
IRanges::something vs. data.table::something, but in my mind generics
are supposed to solve that problem.

Anyway ... thanks again for taking the time to reply,


> Likely you want to
> promote base cbind to a generic (since as you say it doesn't make sense to
> introduce IRanges as a dependency).
>  setGeneric("cbind")
>> but exporting cbind from data.table's NAMESPACE will trample the cbind
>> methods from IRanges (if IRanges is loaded first). Loading IRanges
>> after data.table will hose the cbind/rbind defined in data.table.
> Conceptually, and my story might depart from reality here, I'd think that
> data.table::cbind and IRanges::cbind are distinct generics, and that when
> you say 'trample' you mean mask, i.e., IRanges generic and methods are still
> available, just further down the search path than is found by default. So
> the user has to IRanges::cbind or data.table::cbind. Within either package,
> they both know the appropriate cbind generic and hence cbind methods, so no
> need for pkg::cbind. Likewise, in a package that import(IRanges, cbind),
> dispatch within the package is un-affected by what data.table does.
>> I guess one way to do it is to importFrom(IRanges, cbind, rbind) in
>> data.table's NAMESPACE, but it wouldn't really be appropriate to
>> introduce an IRanges dependency to data.table.
> agreed, this doesn't sound appropriate.
>>> From reading through the R-exts doc, I get the feeling that what I'm
>> trying to do is not possible, but maybe there's a way for me to do
>> this that I'm overlooking?
>> Will two different packages that declare and implement S4 functions by
>> the same name always trample over one another unless one of them
>> imports these functions from the other?
>> And a random (somehow related), stylistic question. Out of curiosity:
>> why doesn't IRanges "export" rbind,cbind through the exportMethods()
>> directive, since its an S4/generic (instead of just export())?
> I'm not the author so don't know for sure, and again my story might depart
> from reality. But I think of the setGeneric in IRanges as producing a new
> generic function, and the function is exported. This is different from
> adding methods to an existing, perhaps already visible (e.g., 'show')
> generic.
>> Thanks,
>> -steve
>> [1] data.table:
>> http://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/data.table/index.html
> --
> Computational Biology
> Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
> 1100 Fairview Ave. N. PO Box 19024 Seattle, WA 98109
> Location: M1-B861
> Telephone: 206 667-2793

Steve Lianoglou
Graduate Student: Computational Systems Biology
 | Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
 | Weill Medical College of Cornell University
Contact Info: http://cbio.mskcc.org/~lianos/contact

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