[R] two questions for R beginners
Jack Siegrist
jacksie at eden.rutgers.edu
Fri Feb 26 20:56:10 CET 2010
My biggest impediment, as a scientist without previous programming
experience, is that the R help is not beginner-friendly. I think it is
probably great for experienced programmers and for the people who helped to
create the software, to help them remember what they did, but I think it is
very difficult for a newcomer without a strong programming background to
learn about a new function or to discover the name of a function that you
are pretty sure should already exist. Maybe this wouldn’t matter for most
programming languages, but as free statistics software R is obviously going
to attract many scientists who want to get an analysis done and have varying
levels of experience with programming.
I found it much easier to learn how to use Mathematica, using only the
online help. With R I had to buy several books to get a handle on it, which
is fine, but even the books that I have found to be most useful tend to be
didactically lacking—either too cursory or mired in unexplained programming
jargon. They are OK just not great.
What I think would be very helpful is an introduction to programming using
R, preferably a big thick college textbook that takes at least a semester to
go through, which should be a prerequisite for going through the
Introduction to R available on CRAN.
Also to do any analysis on real data you have to use the apply family of
functions to perform different functions by groups. A long introduction to
these functions, with lots of comparisons and contrasts between them would
be very helpful.
A few random examples concerning the R help:
In my version of R (2.7.0 on Windows XP) typing
> ?+
doesn’t do anything, but then if you type in the next line
+ ?sum
you get the “Arithmetic Operators” help page.
If you had just typed
> ?sum
in the first place you get the “Sum of Vector Elements” help page.
Most examples in the R help pages use way to many other functions to be
useful to a beginner. If an example uses 10 other functions besides the one
being described, chances are a beginner won’t know what one of them does,
which can set off a chain of having to look up other irrelevant functions.
Some function names in the base package are goofy, such as “rowsum” which is
used to “compute column sums across rows”, not to be confused with “rowSums”
which computes row sums.
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