[R] two questions for R beginners

Paul Hiemstra p.hiemstra at geo.uu.nl
Fri Feb 26 16:18:28 CET 2010

Ivan Calandra wrote:
> You are definitely right...
> What to do with bad beginner's questions is not a simple issue.
> If a "beginner's mailing list" is created, who will answer to such 
> questions? And moreover, the beginners won't take advantage of the other 
> questions (I've personally learned a lot trying to understand the 
> questions and answers to other's problems). And also, as you said, the 
> problems might persist.
> The beginner's mailing list might be good in one aspect though: the 
> "experts" who subscribe to it would be willing to help the beginners to 
> get started with R, knowing that the questions might not be clearly stated.
> As you pointed out, the mailing list is not the best for basic stuff 
> (the question is of course "what is basic?"). Not everybody knows some 
> colleagues who work with R (I'm personally the 1st one to use R in my lab).
> I think, somehow and I have no idea how, documentation and guidance to 
> search for help should be more accessible as soon as you start with R. 
> Maybe a _*clear*_ section on the R homepage or in the "introduction to 
> R" manual like "where to find help", including all of the most common 
> and useful resources available (from "?" and RSiteSearch() to R Wiki and 
> Crantastic).
Hi Ivan (and list),

I think the main problem is not as much that there isn't structure in 
the way R provides documentation / tutorials, but that people have a 
hard time finding the structure. There are task views for certain 
specific fields, but I think a lot of beginners do not know that they 
exist. There are separate mailing lists for specific fields, but I often 
see geographical (my field of expertise) oriented questions on R-help 
that would fit much better on R-sig-geo.

So I think a "O my God, I've downloaded R and what now" tutorial might 
be a good idea to put very close to the download button of R on CRAN. 
This tutorial would focus not on how to do things in R, but would 
provide guidance to the most obvious sources of information such as Task 
views, specific mailing lists, ways to search list archives, information 
for beginners how to write a good e-mail etc. I think for a lot of 
beginners it is not as much the answer to a specific question that they 
need, but more guidance how to look for answers themselves.

But at the end of the day, R is still not very easy to learn when coming 
from GUI oriented stats programs. In addition, to become reasonably 
fluent in R, you need spend at least a few hours a week on it. SO I 
think we can ease the pain for beginners, but not take away that it 
takes quite some time to become fluent in R.

> I hope that this whole discussion might help to make the R world better.
> Thank you Patrick for initiating it!
> Regards,
> Ivan
> Le 2/26/2010 15:09, Paul Hiemstra a écrit :
>> Ivan Calandra wrote:
>>> Since you want input from beginners, here are some thoughts
>>> I had and still have two big problems with R:
>>> - this vectorization thing. I've read many manuals (including R 
>>> inferno), but I'm still not completely clear about it. In simple 
>>> examples, it's fine. But when it gets a bit more complex, then...
>>> Related to it, the *apply functions are still a bit difficult to 
>>> understand. When I have to use them, I just try one and see what 
>>> happens. I don't understand them well enough to know which one I need.
>>> - the second problem is where to find the functions/packages I need. 
>>> There are many options, and that's actually the problem. R Wiki, 
>>> Rseek, RSiteSearch, Crantastic, etc... When you start with R, you 
>>> discover that the capabilities of R are almost unlimited and you 
>>> don't really know where to start, where to find what you need.
>>> As noted in earlier posts, the mailing list is really great, but some 
>>> people are really hard with beginners. It was noted in a discussion a 
>>> few days ago, but it looks like some don't realize how difficult it 
>>> is at the beginning to formulate a good question, clear, with 
>>> self-contained example and so on. Moreover, not everybody speaks 
>>> English natively. I don't mean that you must help, even when the 
>>> question is really vague and not clear and whatever. I'm just saying 
>>> that if you don't want to help (whatever the reason), you don't have 
>>> to say it badly. But in any cases, the mailing list is still really 
>>> helpful. As someone noted (sorry I erased the email so I don't 
>>> remember who), it might be a good idea to split it.
>> Hi everyone,
>> My 2ct about the mailing list :). I understand that beginners have a 
>> hard time formulating a good question. But the problem is that we 
>> can't answer the question when it is unclear. So either I:
>> - Don't bother answering
>> - Try do discuss with the author of the question, taking lots of time 
>> to find out what exactly is the question.
>> - Send a "read the posting guide" answer
>> I mostly do the first, as I have to get things done during my PhD :). 
>> So this leaves us with kind of a problem, the person mailing the list 
>> doesn't have the knowledge to ask the right question, the list can't 
>> answer properly and consequently, the person mailing the list still 
>> doesn't get the information he/she needs. We could start an R-beginner 
>> mailing list, but this would also suffer from this problem. What do 
>> you guys think?
>> Maybe the mailing list is not the right medium for really basic stuff. 
>> For that I would recommend a good R-book or (better) a course in R or 
>> (even better) some colleagues who work with R that you can ask 
>> questions to.
>> cheers,
>> Paul
>>> Hope that's what you wanted
>>> Ivan
>>> Le 2/26/2010 08:39, Dieter Menne a écrit :
>>>> Patrick Burns wrote:
>>>>> * What were your biggest misconceptions or
>>>>> stumbling blocks to getting up and running
>>>>> with R?
>>>> (This derives partly from teaching)
>>>> The fact that this xapply-stuff was not idempotent (worse: not 
>>>> always) and
>>>> that you need a monster like do.call() to straighten this out. 
>>>> Nowadays,
>>>> plyr comes close.
>>>> The concept of environment. With S it was worse, though.
>>>> That you cannot change values "passed by reference". I noted that 
>>>> the latter
>>>> is no problem for students who have not worked with c(++/#) before. 
>>>> That
>>>> there is only one return-result in functions.
>>>> "[" and the likes as an operator.
>>>> 10 years ago, when I started, the message was: S4 is the future, S3 is
>>>> legacy. So I learned S4. Only to never use is in self-written code 
>>>> later.
>>>> Might be different for BioConductor people.
>>>> That sometimes you can use vectors not in data= (lattice), and 
>>>> sometimes not
>>>> (ggplot2). Still a VERY confusing inconsistency.
>>>> The "why-does-this-not-print" FAQ.
>>>> Why does par(oma..) not work with lattice?
>>>> Dieter
>>> ______________________________________________
>>> R-help at r-project.org mailing list
>>> https://stat.ethz.ch/mailman/listinfo/r-help
>>> PLEASE do read the posting guide 
>>> http://www.R-project.org/posting-guide.html
>>> and provide commented, minimal, self-contained, reproducible code.
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Drs. Paul Hiemstra
Department of Physical Geography
Faculty of Geosciences
University of Utrecht
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P.O. Box 80.115
3508 TC Utrecht
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