quality

Why I <3 R: My Not-So-Secret Valentine

My valentine is unique. It will not provide me with flowers, or chocolates, or a romantic dinner tonight, and will certainly not whisper sweet nothings into my good ear. And yet – I will feel no less loved. In contrast, my valentine will probably give me some routines for identifying control limits on control charts, and maybe a way to classify time series. I’m really looking forward to spending some quality time today with this great positive force in my life that saves me so much time and makes me so productive.

Today, on Valentine’s Day, I am serenading one of the loves of my life – R. Technically, R is a statistical software package, but for me, it’s the nirvana of data analysis. I am not a hardcore geek programmer, you see. I don’t like to spend hours coding, admiring the elegance of the syntax and data structures, or finding more compact ways to get the job done. I just want to crack open my data and learn cool things about it, and the faster and more butter-like the better.

Here are a few of the reasons why I love R:

  • R did not play hard to get. The first time I downloaded R from http://www.r-project.org, it only took about 3 minutes, I was able to start playing with it immediately, and it actually worked without a giant installation struggle.
  • R is free. I didn’t have to pay to download it. I don’t have to pay its living expenses in the form of license fees, upgrade fees, or rental charges (like I did when I used SPSS). If I need more from R, I can probably download a new package, and get that too for free.
  • R blended into my living situation rather nicely, and if I decide to move, I’m confident that R will be happy in my new place. As a Windows user, I’m accustomed to having hellacious issues installing software, keeping it up to date, loading new packages, and so on. But R works well on Windows. And when I want to move to Linux, R works well there too. And on the days when I just want to get touchy feely with a Mac, R works well there too.
  • R gets a lot of exercise, so it’s always in pretty good shape. There is an enthusiastic global community of R users who number in the tens of thousands (and maybe more), and report issues to the people who develop and maintain the individual packages. It’s rare to run into an error with R, especially when you’re using a package that is very popular.
  • R is very social; in fact, it’s on Facebook. And if you friendR Bloggersyou’ll get updates about great things you can do with the software (some basic techniques, but some really advanced ones too). Most updates from R Bloggers come with working code.
  • Instead of just having ONE nice package, R has HUNDREDS of nice packages. And each performs a different and unique function, from graphics, to network analysis, to machine learning, to bioinformatics, to super hot-off-the-press algorithms that someone just developed and published. (I even learned how to use the “dtw” package over the weekend, which provides algorithms for time series clustering and classification using a technique called Dynamic Time Warping. Sounds cool, huh!) If you aren’t happy with one package, you can probably find a comparable package that someone else wrote that implements your desired functions in a different way.
  • (And if you aren’t satisfied by those packages, there’s always someone out there coding a new one.)
  • R helps me meditate. OK, so we can’t go to tai chi class together, but I do find it very easy to get into the flow (a la Csikzentmihalyi) when I’m using R.
  • R doesn’t argue with me for no reason. Most of the error messages actually make sense and mean something.
  • R always has time to spend with me. All I have to do is turn it on by double-clicking that nice R icon on my desktop. I don’t ever have to compete with other users or feel jealous of them. R never turns me down or says it’s got other stuff to do. R always makes me feel important and special, because it helps me accomplish great things that I would not be able to do on my own. R supports my personal and professional goals.
  • R has its own journal. Wow. Not only is it utilitarian and fun to be around, but it’s also got a great reputation and is recognized and honored as a solid citizen of the software community.
  • R always remembers me. I can save the image of my entire session with it and pick it up at a later time.
  • R will never leave me. (Well, I hope.)

The most important reason I like R is that I just like spending time with it, learning more about it, and feeling our relationship deepen as it gently helps me analyze all my new data. (Seriously geeky – yeah, I know. At least I won’t be disappointed by the object of MY affection today : )

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