Structuring R projects

There are some things that I call Smith goods:1 things I want, nay, require, but hate doing. A clean room is one of these – I have a visceral need to have some semblance of tidiness around me, I just absolutely hate tidying, especially in the summer.2 Starting and structuring packages and projects is another of these things, which is why I’m so happy things like cookiecutter exist that do it for you in Python.

While I don’t like structuring R projects, I keep doing it, because I know it matters. That’s a pearl of wisdom that came occasionally at a great price.
I am famously laid back about structuring R projects – my chill attitude is only occasionally compared to the Holy Inquisition, the other Holy Inquisition and Gunny R. Lee Ermey’s portrayal of Drill Sgt. Hartman, and it’s been months since I last gutted an intern for messing up namespaces.3 So while I don’t like structuring R projects, I keep doing it, because I know it matters. That’s a pearl of wisdom that came occasionally at a great price, some of which I am hoping to save you by this post.

Five principles of structuring R projects

Every R project is different. Therefore, when structuring R projects, there has to be a lot more adaptability than there is normally When structuring R projects, I try to follow five overarching principles.

  1. The project determines the structure. In a small exploratory data analysis (EDA) project, you might have some leeway as to structural features that you might not have when writing safety-critical or autonomously running code. This variability in R – reflective of the diversity of its use – means that it’s hard to devise a boilerplate that’s universally applicable to all kinds of projects.
  2. Structure is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The reason why gutting interns, scalping them or yelling at them Gunny style are inadvisable is not just the additional paperwork it creates for HR. Rather, the point of the whole exercise is to create people who understand why the rules exists and organically adopt them, understanding how they help.
  3. Rules are good, tools are better. When tools are provided that take the burden of adherence – linters, structure generators like cookiecutter, IDE plugins, &c. – off the developer, adherence is both more likely and simpler.
  4. Structures should be interpretable to a wide range of collaborators. Even if you have no collaborators, thinking from the perspective of an analyst, a data scientist, a modeller, a data engineer and, most importantly, the client who will at the very end receive the overall product.
  5. Structures should be capable of evolution. Your project may change objectives, it may evolve, it may change. What was a pet project might become a client product. What was designed to be a massive, error-resilient superstructure might have to scale down. And most importantly, your single-player adventure may end up turning into an MMORPG. Your structure has to be able to roll with the punches.

A good starting structure

Pretty much every R project can be imagined as a sort of process: data gets ingested, magic happens, then the results – analyses, processed data, and so on – get spit out. The absolute minimum structure reflects this:

└── my_awesome_project
    ├── src
    ├── output
    ├── data
    │   ├── raw
    │   └── processed
    ├── run_analyses.R 
    └── .gitignore

In this structure, we see this reflected by having a data/ folder (a source), a folder for the code that performs the operations (src/) and a place to put the results (output/). The root analysis file (the sole R file on the top level) is responsible for launching and orchestrating the functions defined in the src/ folder’s contents.

The data folder

The data folder is, unsurprisingly, where your data goes. In many cases, you may not have any file-formatted raw data (e.g. where the raw data is accessed via a *DBC connection to a database), and you might even keep all intermediate files there, although that’s pretty uncommon on the whole, and might not make you the local DBA’s favourite (not to mention data protection issues). So while the raw/ subfolder might be dispensed with, you’ll most definitely need a data/ folder.

When it comes to data, it is crucial to make a distinction between source data and generated data. Rich Fitzjohn puts it best when he says to treat

  • source data as read-only, and
  • generated data as disposable.

The preferred implementation I have adopted is to have

  • a data/raw/ folder, which is usually is symlinked to a folder that is write-only to clients but read-only to the R user,4,
  • a data/temp/ folder, which contains temp data, and
  • a data/output/ folder, if warranted.

The src folder

Some call this folder R– I find this a misleading practice, as you might have C++, bash and other non-R code in it, but is unfortunately enforced by R if you want to structure your project as a valid R package, which I advocate in some cases. I am a fan of structuring the src/ folder, usually by their logical function. There are two systems of nomenclature that have worked really well for me and people I work with:

  • The library model: in this case, the root folder of src/ holds individual .R scripts that when executed will carry out an analysis. There may be one or more such scripts, e.g. for different analyses or different depths of insight. Subfolders of src/ are named after the kind of scripts they contain, e.g. ETL, transformation, plotting. The risk with this structure is that sometimes it’s tricky to remember what’s where, so descriptive file names are particularly important.
  • The pipeline model: in this case, there is a main runner script or potentially a small number. These go through scripts in a sequence. It is a sensible idea in such a case to establish sequential subfolders or sequentially numbered scripts that are executed in sequence. Typically, this model performs better if there are at most a handful distinct pipelines.

Whichever approach you adopt, a crucial point is to keep function definition and application separate. This means that only the pipeline or the runner scripts are allowed to execute (apply) functions, and other files are merely supposed to define them. Typically, folder level segregation works best for this:

  • keep all function definitions in subfolders of src/, e.g. src/data_engineering, and have the directly-executable scripts directly under src/ (this works better for larger projects), or
  • keep function definitions in src/, and keep the directly executable scripts in the root folder (this is more convenient for smaller projects, where perhaps the entire data engineering part is not much more than a single script).

output and other output folders

Output may mean a range of things, depending on the nature of your project. It can be anything from a whole D.Phil thesis written in a LaTeX-compliant form to a brief report to a client. There are a couple of conventions with regard to output folders that are useful to keep in mind.

Separating plot output

My personal preference is that plot output folders should be subfolders of output/, rather than top-tier folders, unless the plots themselves are the objective.
It is common to have a separate folder for plots (usually called figs/ or plots/), usually so that they could be used for various purposes. My personal preference is that plot output folders should be subfolders of output folders, rather than top-tier folders, unless they are the very output of the project. That is the case, for instance, where the project is intended to create a particular plot on a regular basis. This was the case, for instance, with the CBRD project whose purpose was to regularly generate daily epicurves for the DRC Zaire ebolavirus outbreak.

With regard to maps, in general, the principle that has worked best for teams I ran was to treat static maps as plots. However, dynamic maps (e.g. LeafletJS apps), tilesets, layers or generated files (e.g. GeoJSON files) tend to deserve their own folder.

Reports and reporting

For business users, automatically getting a beautiful PDF report can be priceless.
Not every project needs a reporting folder, but for business users, having a nice, pre-written reporting script that can be run automatically and produces a beautiful PDF report every day can be priceless. A large organisation I worked for in the past used this very well to monitor their Amazon AWS expenditure.5 A team of over fifty data scientists worked on a range of EC2 instances, and runaway spending from provisioning instances that were too big, leaving instances on and data transfer charges resulting from misconfigured instances6 was rampant. So the client wanted daily, weekly, monthly and 10-day rolling usage nicely plotted in a report, by user, highlighting people who would go on the naughty list. This was very well accomplished by an RMarkdown template that was ‘knit‘ every day at 0600 and uploaded as an HTML file onto an internal server, so that every user could see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. EC2 usage costs have gone down by almost 30% in a few weeks, and that was without having to dismember anyone!7

Probably the only structural rule to keep in mind is to keep reports and reporting code separate. Reports are client products, reporting code is a work product and therefore should reside in src/.

Requirements and general settings

I am, in general, not a huge fan of outright loading whole packages to begin with. Too many users of R don’t realise that

  • you do not need to attach (library(package)) a package in order to use a function from it – as long as the package is available to R, you can simply call the function as package::function(arg1, arg2, ...), and
  • importing a package using library(package) puts every single function from that package into the namespace, overwriting by default all previous entries. This means that in order to deterministically know what any given symbol means, you would have to know, at all times, the order of package imports. Needless to say, there is enough stuff to keep in one’s mind when coding in R to worry about this stuff.

However, some packages might be useful to import, and sometimes it’s useful to have an initialisation script. This may be the case in three particular scenarios:

  • You need a particular locale setting, or a particularly crucial environment setting.
  • It’s your own package and you know you’re not going to shadow already existing symbols.
  • You are not using packrat or some other package management solution, and definitely need to ensure some packages are installed, but prefer not to put the clunky install-if-not-present code in every single thing.

In these cases, it’s sensible to have a file you would source before every top-level script – in an act of shameless thievery from Python, I tend to call this requirements.R, and it includes some fundamental settings I like to rely on, such as setting the locale appropriately. It also includes a CRAN install check script, although I would very much advise the use of Packrat over it, since it’s not version-sensitive.

Themes, house style and other settings

It is common, in addition to all this, to keep some general settings. If your institution has a ‘house style’ for ggplot2 (as, for instance, a ggthemr file), for instance, this could be part of your project’s config. But where does this best go?

I’m a big fan of keeping house styles in separate repos, as this ensures consistency across the board.
It would normally be perfectly fine to keep your settings in a config.R file at root level, but a config/ folder is much preferred as it prevents clutter if you derive any of your configurations from a git submodule. I’m a big fan of keeping house styles and other things intended to give a shared appearance to code and outputs (e.g. linting rules, text editor settings, map themes) in separate – and very, very well managed! – repos, as this ensures consistency across the board over time. As a result, most of my projects do have a config folder instead of a single configuration file.

It is paramount to separate project configuration and runtime configuration:

  • Project configuration pertains to the project itself, its outputs, schemes, the whole nine yards. For instance, the paper size to use for generated LaTeX documents would normally be a project configuration item. Your project configuration belongs in your config/ folder.
  • Runtime configuration pertains to parameters that relate to individual runs. In general, you should aspire to have as few of these, if any, as possible – and if you do, you should keep them as environment variables. But if you do decide to keep them as a file, it’s generally a good idea to keep them at the top level, and store them not as R files but as e.g. JSON files. There are a range of tools that can programmatically edit and change these file formats, while changing R files programmatically is fraught with difficulties.

Keeping runtime configuration editable

A few years ago, I worked on a viral forecasting tool where a range of model parameters to build the forecast from were hardcoded as R variables in a runtime configuration file. It was eventually decided to create a Python-based web interface on top of it, which would allow users to see the results as a dashboard (reading from a database where forecast results would be written) and make adjustments to some of the model parameters. The problem was, that’s really not easy to do with variables in an R file.

On the other hand, Python can easily read a JSON file into memory, change values as requested and export them onto the file system. So instead of that, the web interface would store the parameters in a JSON file, from which R would then read them and execute accordingly. Worked like a charm. Bottom line – configurations are data, and using code to store data is bad form.

Dirty little secrets

Everybody has secrets. In all likelihood, your project is no different: passwords, API keys, database credentials, the works. The first rule of this, of course, is never hardcode credentials in code. But you will need to work out how to make your project work, including via version control, while also not divulging credentials to the world at large. My preferred solutions, in order of preference, are:

  1. the keyring package, which interacts with OS X’s keychain, Windows’s Credential Store and the Secret Service API on Linux (where supported),
  2. using environment variables,
  3. using a secrets file that is .gitignored,
  4. using a config file that’s .gitignored,
  5. prompting the user.

Let’s take these – except the last one, which you should consider only as a measure of desperation, as it relies on RStudio and your code should aspire to run without it – in turn.

Using keyring

keyring is an R package that interfaces with the operating system’s keychain management solution, and works without any additional software on OS X and Windows.8 Using keyring is delightfully simple: it conceives of an individual key as belonging to a keyring and identified by a service. By reference to the service, it can then be retrieved easily once the user has authenticated to access the keychain. It has two drawbacks to be aware of:

  • It’s an interactive solution (it has to get access permission for the keychain), so if what you’re after is R code that runs quietly without any intervention, this is not your best bet.
  • A key can only contain a username and a password, so it cannot store more complex credentials, such as 4-ple secrets (e.g. in OAuth, where you may have a consumer and a publisher key and secret each). In that case, you could split them into separate keyring keys.

However, for most interactive purposes, keyring works fine. This includes single-item secrets, e.g. API keys, where you can use some junk as your username and hold only on to the password.

For most interactive purposes, keyring works fine. This includes single-item secrets, e.g. API keys.
By default, the operating system’s ‘main’ keyring is used, but you’re welcome to create a new one for your project. Note that users may be prompted for a keychain password at call time, and it’s helpful if they know what’s going on, so be sure you document your keyring calls well.

To set a key, simply call keyring::key_set(service = "my_awesome_service", username = "my_awesome_user). This will launch a dialogue using the host OS’s keychain handler to request authentication to access the relevant keychain (in this case, the system keychain, as no keychain is specified), and you can then retrieve

  • the username: using keyring::key_list("my_awesome_service")[1,2], and
  • the password: using keyring::key_get("my_awesome_service").

Using environment variables

The thing to remember about environment variables is that they’re ‘relatively private’: everyone in the user session will be able to read them.
Using environment variables to hold certain secrets has become extremely popular especially for Dockerised implementations of R code, as envvars can be very easily set using Docker. The thing to remember about environment variables is that they’re ‘relatively private’: they’re not part of the codebase, so they will definitely not accidentally get committed to the VCS, but everyone who has access to the particular user session  will be able to read them. This may be an issue when e.g. multiple people are sharing the ec2-user account on an EC2 instance. The other drawback of envvars is that if there’s a large number of them, setting them can be a pain. R has a little workaround for that: if you create an envfile called .Renviron in the working directory, it will store values in the environment. So for instance the following .Renviron file will bind an API key and a username:

api_username = "my_awesome_user"
api_key = "e19bb9e938e85e49037518a102860147"

So when you then call Sys.getenv("api_username"), you get the correct result. It’s worth keeping in mind that the .Renviron file is sourced once, and once only: at the start of the R session. Thus, obviously, changes made after that will not propagate into the session until it ends and a new session is started. It’s also rather clumsy to edit, although most APIs used to ini files will, with the occasional grumble, digest .Renvirons.

Needless to say, committing the .Renviron file to the VCS is what is sometimes referred to as making a chocolate fireman in the business, and is generally a bad idea.

Using a .gitignored config or secrets file

config is a package that allows you to keep a range of configuration settings outside your code, in a YAML file, then retrieve them. For instance, you can create a default configuration for an API:

        url: 'https://awesome_api.internal'
        username: 'my_test_user'
        api_key: 'e19bb9e938e85e49037518a102860147'

From R, you could then access this using the config::get() function:

my_awesome_api_configuration <- config::get("my_awesome_api")

This would then allow you to e.g. refer to the URL as my_awesome_api_configuration$url, and the API key as my_awesome_api_configuration$api_key. As long as the configuration YAML file is kept out of the VCS, all is well. The problem is that not everything in such a configuration file is supposed to be secret. For instance, it makes sense for a database access credentials to have the other credentials DBI::dbConnect() needs for a connection available to other users, but keep the password private. So .gitignoreing a config file is not a good idea.

A dedicated secrets file is a better place for credentials than a config file, as this file can then be wholesale .gitignored.
A somewhat better idea is a secrets file. This file can be safely .gitignored, because it definitely only contains secrets. As previously noted, definitely create it using a format that can be widely written (JSON, YAML).9 For reasons noted in the next subsection, the thing you should definitely not do is creating a secrets file that consists of R variable assignments, however convenient an idea that may appear at first. Because…

Whatever you do…

One of the best ways to mess up is creating a fabulous way of keeping your secret credentials truly secret… then loading them into the global scope. Never, ever assign credentials. Ever.

You might have seen code like this:

dbuser <- Sys.getenv("dbuser")
dbpass <- Sys.getenv("dbpass")

conn <- DBI::dbConnect(odbc::odbc(), UID = dbuser, PWD = dbpass)
Never, ever put credentials into any environment if possible – especially not into the global scope.
This will work perfectly, except once its done, it will leave the password and the user name, in unencrypted plaintext (!), in the global scope, accessible to any code. That’s not just extremely embarrassing if, say, your wife of ten years discovers that your database password is your World of Warcraft character’s first name, but also a potential security risk. Never put credentials into any environment if possible, and if it has to happen, at least make it happen within a function so that they don’t end up in the global scope. The correct way to do the above would be more akin to this:

create_db_connection <- function() {
    DBI::dbConnect(odbc::odbc(), UID = Sys.getenv("dbuser"), PWD = Sys.getenv("dbpass")) %>% return()

Concluding remarks

Structuring R projects is an art, not just a science. Many best practices are highly domain-specific, and learning these generally happens by trial and pratfall error. In many ways, it’s the bellwether of an R developer’s skill trajectory, because it shows whether they possess the tenacity and endurance it takes to do meticulous, fine and often rather boring work in pursuance of future success – or at the very least, an easier time debugging things in the future. Studies show that one of the greatest predictors of success in life is being able to tolerate deferred gratification, and structuring R projects is a pure exercise in that discipline.

Structuring R projects is an art, not just a science. Many best practices are highly domain-specific, and learning these generally happens by trial and error.
At the same time, a well-executed structure can save valuable developer time, prevent errors and allow data scientists to focus on the data rather than debugging and trying to find where that damn snippet of code is or scratching their head trying to figure out what a particularly obscurely named function does. What might feel like an utter waste of time has enormous potential to create value, both for the individual, the team and the organisation.

As long as you keep in mind why structure matters and what its ultimate aims are, you will arrive at a form of order out of chaos that will be productive, collaborative and useful.
I’m sure there are many aspects of structuring R projects that I have omitted or ignored – in many ways, it is my own experiences that inform and motivate these commentaries on R. Some of these observations are echoed by many authors, others diverge greatly from what’s commonly held wisdom. As with all concepts in development, I encourage you to read widely, get to know as many different ideas about structuring R projects as possible, and synthesise your own style. As long as you keep in mind why structure matters and what its ultimate aims are, you will arrive at a form of order out of chaos that will be productive, collaborative and mutually useful not just for your own development but others’ work as well.

My last commentary on defensive programming in R has spawned a vivid and exciting debate on Reddit, and many have made extremely insightful comments there. I’m deeply grateful for all who have contributed there. I hope you will also consider posting your observations in the comment section below. That way, comments will remain together with the original content.

References   [ + ]

1.As in, Adam Smith.
2.It took me years to figure out why. It turns out that I have ZF alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. As a consequence, even minimal exposure to small particulates and dust can set off violent coughing attacks and impair breathing for days. Symptoms tend to be worse in hot weather due to impaired connective tissue something-or-other.
3.That’s a joke. I don’t gut interns – they’re valuable resources, HR shuns dismembering your coworkers, it creates paperwork and I liked every intern I’ve ever worked with – but most importantly, once gutted like a fish, they are not going to learn anything new. I prefer gentle, structured discussions on the benefits of good package structure. Please respect your interns – they are the next generation, and you are probably one of their first example of what software development/data science leadership looks like. The waves you set into motion will ripple through generations, well after you’re gone. You better set a good example.
4.Such a folder is often referred to as a ‘dropbox’, and the typical corresponding octal setting, 0422, guarantees that the R user will not accidentally overwrite data.
5.The organisation consented to me telling this story but requested anonymity, a request I honour whenever legally possible.
6.In case you’re unfamiliar with AWS: it’s a cloud service where elastic computing instances (EC2 instances) reside in ‘regions’, e.g. us-west-1a. There are (small but nonzero) charges for data transfer between regions. If you’re in one region but you configure the yum repo server of another region as your default, there will be costs, and, eventually, tears – provision ten instances with a few GBs worth of downloads, and there’ll be yelling. This is now more or less impossible to do except on purpose, but one must never underestimate what users are capable of from time to time!
7.Or so I’m told.
8.Linux users will need libsecret 0.16 or above, and sodium.
9.XML is acceptable if you’re threatened with waterboarding.

Assignment in R: slings and arrows

Having recently shared my post about defensive programming in R on the r/rstats subreddit, I was blown away by the sheer number of comments as much as I was blown away by the insight many displayed. One particular comment by u/guepier struck my attention. In my previous post, I came out quite vehemently against using the = operator to effect assignment in R. u/guepier‘s made a great point, however:

But point 9 is where you’re quite simply wrong, sorry:

never, ever, ever use = to assign. Every time you do it, a kitten dies of sadness.

This is FUD, please don’t spread it. There’s nothing wrong with =. It’s purely a question of personal preference. In fact, if anything <- is more error-prone (granted, this is a very slight chance but it’s still higher than the chance of making an error when using =).

Now, assignment is no doubt a hot topic – a related issue, assignment expressions, has recently led to Python’s BDFL to be forced to resign –, so I’ll have to tread carefully. A surprising number of people have surprisingly strong feelings about assignment and assignment expressions. In R, this is complicated by its unusual assignment structure, involving two assignment operators that are just different enough to be trouble.

A brief history of <-

IBM Model M SSK keyboard with APL keys
This is the IBM Model M SSK keyboard. The APL symbols are printed on it in somewhat faint yellow.

There are many ways in which <- in R is anomalous. For starters, it is rare to find a binary operator that consists of two characters – which is an interesting window on the R <- operator’s history.

The <- operator, apparently, stems from a day long gone by, when keyboards existed for the programming language eldritch horror that is APL. When R’s precursor, S, was conceived, APL keyboards and printing heads existed, and these could print a single ← character. It was only after most standard keyboard assignments ended up eschewing this all-important symbol that R and S accepted the digraphic <- as a substitute.

OK, but what does it do?

In the Brown Book, the underscore was actually an alias for the arrow assignment operator.
In the Brown Book (Richard A. Becker and John M. Chambers (1984). S: An Interactive Environment for Data Analysis and Graphics), the underscore was actually an alias for the arrow assignment operator! Thankfully, this did not make it into R.
<- is one of the first operators anyone encounters when familiarising themselves with the R language. The general idea is quite simple: it is a directionally unambiguous assignment, i.e. it indicates quite clearly that the right-hand side value (rhs, in the following) will replace the left-hand side variable (lhs), or be assigned to the newly created lhs if it has not yet been initialised. Or that, at the very least, is the short story.

Because quite peculiarly, there is another way to accomplish a simple assignment in R: the equality sign (=). And because on the top level, a <- b and a = b are equivalent, people have sometimes treated the two as being quintessentially identical. Which is not the case. Or maybe it is. It’s all very confusing. Let’s see if we can unconfuse it.

The Holy Writ

The Holy Writ, known to uninitiated as the R Manual, has this to say about assignment operators and their differences:

The operators <- and = assign into the environment in which they are evaluated. The operator <- can be used anywhere, whereas the operator = is only allowed at the top level (e.g., in the complete expression typed at the command prompt) or as one of the subexpressions in a braced list of expressions.

If this sounds like absolute gibberish, or you cannot think of what would qualify as not being on the top level or a subexpression in a braced list of expressions, welcome to the squad – I’ve had R experts scratch their head about this for an embarrassingly long time until they realised what the R documentation, in its neutron starlike denseness, actually meant.

If it’s in (parentheses) rather than {braces}, = and <- are going to behave weird

To translate the scriptural words above quoted to human speak, this means = cannot be used in the conditional part (the part enclosed by (parentheses) as opposed to {curly braces}) of control structures, among others. This is less an issue between <- and =, and rather an issue between = and ==. Consider the following example:

x = 3

if(x = 3) 1 else 0
# Error: unexpected '=' in "if(x ="

So far so good: you should not use a single equality sign as an equality test operator. The right way to do it is:

> if(x == 3) 1 else 0
[1] 1

But what about arrow assignment?

if(x <- 3) 1 else 0
# [1] 1

Oh, look, it works! Or does it?

if(x <- 4) 1 else 0
# [1] 1

The problem is that an assignment will always yield true if successful. So instead of comparing x to 4, it assigned 4 to x, then happily informed us that it is indeed true.

The bottom line is not to use = as comparison operator, and <- as anything at all in a control flow expression’s conditional part. Or as John Chambers notes,

Disallowing the new assignment form in control expressions avoids programming errors (such as the example above) that are more likely with the equal operator than with other S assignments.

Chain assignments

One example of where  <- and = behave differently (or rather, one behaves and the other throws an error) is a chain assignment. In a chain assignment, we exploit the fact that R assigns from right to left. The sole criterion is that all except the rightmost members of the chain must be capable of being assigned to.

# Chain assignment using <-
a <- b <- c <- 3

# Chain assignment using =
a = b = c = 3

# Chain assignment that will, unsurprisingly, fail
a = b = 3 = 4
# Error in 3 = 4 : invalid (do_set) left-hand side to assignment

So we’ve seen that as long as the chain assignment is logically valid, it’ll work fine, whether it’s using <- or =. But what if we mix them up?

a = b = c <- 1
# Works fine...

a = b <- c <- 1
# We're still great...

a <- b = c = 1
# Error in a <- b = c = 1 : could not find function "<-<-"
# Oh.

The bottom line from the example above is that where <- and = are mixed, the leftmost assignment has to be carried out using =, and cannot be by <-. In that one particular context, = and <- are not interchangeable.

A small note on chain assignments: many people dislike chain assignments because they’re ‘invisible’ – they literally return nothing at all. If that is an issue, you can surround your chain assignment with parentheses – regardless of whether it uses <-, = or a (valid) mixture thereof:

a = b = c <- 3
# ...
# ... still nothing...
# ... ... more silence...

(a = b = c <- 3)
# [1] 3

Assignment and initialisation in functions

This is the big whammy – one of the most important differences between <- and =, and a great way to break your code. If you have paid attention until now, you’ll be rewarded by, hopefully, some interesting knowledge.

= is a pure assignment operator. It does not necessary initialise a variable in the global namespace. <-, on the other hand, always creates a variable, with the lhs value as its name, in the global namespace. This becomes quite prominent when using it in functions.

Traditionally, when invoking a function, we are supposed to bind its arguments in the format parameter = argument.1 And as we know from what we know about functions, the keyword’s scope is restricted to the function block. To demonstrate this:

add_up_numbers <- function(a, b) {
    return(a + b)

add_up_numbers(a = 3, b = 5)
# [1] 8

a + b
# Error: object 'a' not found

This is expected: a (as well as b, but that didn’t even make it far enough to get checked!) doesn’t exist in the global scope, it exists only in the local scope of the function add_up_numbers. But what happens if we use <- assignment?

add_up_numbers(a <- 3, b <- 5)
# [1] 8

a + b
# [1] 8

Now, a and b still only exist in the local scope of the function add_up_numbers. However, using the assignment operator, we have also created new variables called a and b in the global scope. It’s important not to confuse it with accessing the local scope, as the following example demonstrates:

add_up_numbers(c <- 5, d <- 6)
# [1] 11

a + b
# [1] 8

c + d
# [1] 11

In other words, a + b gave us the sum of the values a and b had in the global scope. When we invoked add_up_numbers(c <- 5, d <- 6), the following happened, in order:

  1. A variable called c was initialised in the global scope. The value 5 was assigned to it.
  2. A variable called d was initialised in the global scope. The value 6 was assigned to it.
  3. The function add_up_numbers() was called on positional arguments c and d.
  4. c was assigned to the variable a in the function’s local scope.
  5. d was assigned to the variable b in the function’s local scope.
  6. The function returned the sum of the variables a and b in the local scope.

It may sound more than a little tedious to think about this function in this way, but it highlights three important things about <- assignment:

  1. In a function call, <- assignment to a keyword name is not the same as using =, which simply binds a value to the keyword.
  2. <- assignment in a function call affects the global scope, using = to provide an argument does not.
  3. Outside this context, <- and = have the same effect, i.e. they assign, or initialise and assign, in the current scope.

Phew. If that sounds like absolute confusing gibberish, give it another read and try playing around with it a little. I promise, it makes some sense. Eventually.

So… should you or shouldn’t you?

Which raises the question that launched this whole post: should you use = for assignment at all? Quite a few style guides, such as Google’s R style guide, have outright banned the use of = as assignment operator, while others have encouraged the use of ->. Personally, I’m inclined to agree with them, for three reasons.

  1. Because of the existence of ->, assignment by definition is best when it’s structured in a way that shows what is assigned to which side. a -> b and b <- a have a formal clarity that a = b does not have.
  2. Good code is unambiguous even if the language isn’t. This way, -> and <- always mean assignment, = always means argument binding and == always means comparison.
  3. Many argue that <- is ambiguous, as x<-3 may be mistyped as x<3 or x-3, or alternatively may be (visually) parsed as x < -3, i.e. compare x to -3. In reality, this is a non-issue. RStudio has a built-in shortcut (Alt/⎇ + ) for <-, and automatically inserts a space before and after it. And if one adheres to sound coding principles and surrounds operators with white spaces, this is not an issue that arises.

Like with all coding standards, consistency is key. Consistently used suboptimal solutions are superior, from a coding perspective, to an inconsistent mixture of right and wrong solutions.

References   [ + ]

1.A parameter is an abstract ‘slot’ where you can put in values that configure a function’s execution. Arguments are the actual values you put in. So add_up_numbers(a,b) has the parameters a and b, and add_up_numbers(a = 3, b = 5) has the arguments 3 and 5.

The Ten Rules of Defensive Programming in R

Where R code is integrated into a pipeline, runs autonomously or is embedded into a larger analytical solution, writing code that fails well is going to be crucial.
The topic of defensive programming in R is, admittedly, a little unusual. R, while fun and powerful, is not going to run defibrillators, nuclear power plants or spacecraft. In fact, much – if not most! – R code is actually executed interactively, where small glitches don’t really matter. But where R code is integrated into a pipeline, runs autonomously or is embedded into a larger analytical solution, writing code that fails well is going to be crucial. So below, I have collected my top ten principles of defensive programming in R. I have done so with an eye to users who do not come from the life critical systems community and might not have encountered defensive programming before, so some of these rules apply to all languages.

What is defensive programming?

The idea of defensive programming is not to write code that never fails. That’s an impossible aspiration. Rather, the fundamental idea is to write code that fails well. To me, ‘failing well’ means five things:

  1. Fail fast: your code should ensure all criteria are met before they embark upon operations, especially if those are computationally expensive or might irreversibly affect data.
  2. Fail safe: where there is a failure, your code should ensure that it relinquishes all locks and does not acquire any new ones, not write files, and so on.
  3. Fail conspicuously: when something is broken, it should return a very clear error message, and give as much information as possible to help unbreak it.
  4. Fail appropriately: failure should have appropriate effects. For every developer, it’s a judgment call to ensure whether a particular issue would be a a debug/info item, a warning or an error (which by definition means halting execution). Failures should be handled appropriately.
  5. Fail creatively: not everything needs to be a failure. It is perfectly legitimate to handle problems. One example is repeating a HTTP request that has timed out: there’s no need to immediately error out, because quite frankly, that sort of stuff happens. Equally, it’s legitimate to look for a parameter, then check for a configuration file if none was provided, and finally try checking the arguments with which the code was invoked before raising an error.1

And so, without further ado, here are the ten ways I implement these in my day-to-day R coding practice – and I encourage you to do so yourself. You will thank yourself for it.

The Ten Commandments of Defensive Programming in R

  1. Document your code.
  2. In God we trust, everyone else we verify.
  3. Keep functions short and sweet.
  4. Refer to external functions explicitly.
  5. Don’t use require() to import packages into the namespace.
  6. Aggressively manage package and version dependencies.
  7. Use a consistent style and automated code quality tools.
  8. Everything is a package.
  9. Power in names.
  10. Know the rules and their rationale, so that you know when to break them.

ONE: Document your code.

It’s a little surprising to even see this – I mean, shouldn’t you do this stuff anyway? Yes, you should, except some people think that because so much of R is done in the interpreter anyway, rules do not apply to them. Wrong! They very much do.

A few months ago, I saw some code written by a mentee of mine. It was infinitely long – over 250 standard lines! –, had half a dozen required arguments and did everything under the sun. This is, of course, as we’ll discuss later, a bad idea, but let’s put that aside. The problem is, I had no idea what the function was doing! After about half an hour of diligent row-by-row analysis, I figured it out, but that could have been half an hour spent doing something more enjoyable, such as a root canal without anaesthetic while listening to Nickelback. My friend could have saved me quite some hair-tearing by quite simply documenting his code. In R, the standard for documenting the code is called roxygen2, it’s got a great parser that outputs the beautiful LaTeX docs you probably (hopefully!) have encountered when looking up a package’s documentation, and it’s described in quite a bit of detail by Hadley Wickham. What more could you wish for?

Oh. An example. Yeah, that’d be useful. We’ll be documenting a fairly simple function, which calculates the Hamming distance between two strings of equal length, and throws something unpleasant in our face if they are not. Quick recap: the Hamming distance is the number of characters that do not match among two strings. Or mathematically put,

H(s, t) = \sum_{k=1}^{\mathcal{l}(s)} I(s_k, t_k) \mid \mathcal{l}(s) = \mathcal{l}(t)

where \mathcal{l}() is the length function and D(p, q) is the dissimilarity function, which returns 1 if two letters are not identical and 0 otherwise.

So, our function would look like this:

hamming <- function(s1, s2) {
  s1 <- strsplit(s1, "")[[1]]
  s2 <- strsplit(s2, "")[[1]]
  return(sum(s1 != s2))

Not bad, and pretty evident to a seasoned R user, but it would still be a good idea to point out a thing or two. One of these would be that the result of this code will be inaccurate (technically) if the two strings are of different lengths (we could, and will, test for that, but that’s for a later date). The Hamming distance is defined only for equal-length strings, and so it would be good if the user knew what they have to do – and what they’re going to get. Upon pressing Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+Alt+R, RStudio helpfully whips us up a nice little roxygen2 skeleton:

#' Title
#' @param s1 
#' @param s2 
#' @return
#' @export
#' @examples
hamming <- function(s1, s2) {
  s1 <- strsplit(s1, "")[[1]]
  s2 <- strsplit(s2, "")[[1]]
  return(sum(s1 != s2))

So, let’s populate it! Most of the fields are fairly self-explanatory. roxygen2, unlike JavaDoc or RST-based Python documentation, does not require formal specification of types – it’s all free text. Also, since it will be parsed into LaTeX someday, you can go wild. A few things deserve mention.

  • You can document multiple parameters. Since s1 and s2 are both going to be strings, you can simply write @param s1,s2 The strings to be compared.
  • Use \code{...} to typeset something as fixed-width.
  • To create links in the documentation, you can use \url{} to link to a URL, \code{\link{someotherfunction}} to refer to the function someotherfunction in the same package, and \code{\link[adifferentpackage]{someotherfunction}} to refer to the function someotherfunction in the adifferentpackage package. Where your function has necessary dependencies outside the current script or the base packages, it is prudent to note them here.
  • You can use \seealso{} to refer to other links or other functions, in this package or another, worth checking out.
  • Anything you put under the examples will be executed as part of testing and building the documentation. If your intention is to give an idea of what the code looks like in practice, and you don’t want the result or even the side effects, you can surround your example with a \dontrun{...} environment.
  • You can draw examples from a file. In this case, you use @example instead of @examples, and specify the path, relative to the file in which the documentation is, to the script: @example docs/examples/hamming.R would be such a directive.
  • What’s that @export thing at the end? Quite simply, it tells roxygen2 to export the function to the NAMESPACE file, making it accessible for reference by other documentation files (that’s how when you use \code{\link[somepackage]{thingamabob}}, roxygen2 knows which package to link to.

With that in mind, here’s what a decent documentation to our Hamming distance function would look like that would pass muster from a defensive programming perspective:

#' Hamming distance
#' Calculates the Hamming distance between two strings of equal length.
#' @param s1 
#' @param s2 
#' @return The Hamming distance between the two strings \code{s1} and \code{s2}, provided as an integer.
#' @section Warning:
#' For a Hamming distance calculation, the input strings must be of equal length. This code does NOT reject input strings of different lengths. 
#' @examples
#' @export
hamming <- function(s1, s2) {
  s1 <- strsplit(s1, "")[[1]]
  s2 <- strsplit(s2, "")[[1]]
  return(sum(s1 != s2))

The .Rd file generated from the hamming() function’s roxygen2 docstring: an intermediary format, resembling LaTeX, from which R can build a multitude of documentation outputsThis little example shows all that a good documentation does: it provides what to supply the function with and in what type, it provides what it will spit out and in what format, and adequately warns of what is not being checked. It’s always better to check input types, but warnings go a long way.2 From this file, R generates an .Rd file, which is basically a LaTeX file that it can parse into various forms of documentation (see left.) In the end, it yields the documentation below, with the adequate warning – a win for defensive programming!

The finished documentation, rendered as it would be in an online documentation pane in RStudio

TWO: In God we trust, everyone else we verify.

In the above example, we have taken the user at face value: we assumed that his inputs will be of equal length, and we assumed they will be strings. But because this is a post on defensive programming, we are going to be suspicious, and not trust our user. So let’s make sure we fail early and check what the user supplies us with. In many programming languages, you would be using various assertions (e.g. the assert keyword in Python), but all R has, as far as built-ins are concerned, is stopifnot(). stopifnot() does as the name suggests: if the condition is not met, execution stops with an error message. However, on the whole, it’s fairly clunky, and it most definitely should not be used to check for user inputs. For that, there are three tactics worth considering.

  1. assertthat is a package by Hadley Wickham (who else!), which implements a range of assert clauses. Most importantly, unlike stopifnot(), assertthat::assert_that() does a decent job at trying to interpret the error message. Consider our previous Hamming distance example: instead of gracelessly falling on its face, a test using
assert_that(length(s1) == length(s2))
  1. would politely inform us that s1 not equal to s2. That’s worth it for the borderline Canadian politeness alone.
  2. Consider the severity of the user input failure. Can it be worked around? For instance, a function requiring an integer may, if it is given a float, try to coerce it to a float. If you opt for this solution, make sure that you 1) always issue a warning, and 2) always allow the user to specify to run the function in ‘strict’ mode (typically by setting the strict parameter to TRUE), which will raise a fatal error rather than try to logic its way out of this pickle.
  3. Finally, make sure that it’s your code that fails, not the system code. Users should have relatively little insight into the internals of the system. And so, if at some point there’ll be a division by an argument foo, you should test whether foo == 0 at the outset and inform the user that foo cannot be zero. By the time the division operation is performed, the variable might have been renamed baz, and the user will not get much actionable intelligence out of the fact that ‘division by zero’ has occurred at some point, and baz was the culprit. Just test early for known incompatibilities, and stop further execution. The same goes, of course, for potentially malicious code.

In general, your code should be strict as to what it accepts, and you should not be afraid to reject anything that doesn’t look like what you’re looking for. Consider for this not only types but also values, e.g. if the value provided for a timeout in minutes is somewhere north of the lifetime of the universe, you should politely reject such an argument – with a good explanation, of course.

Update: After posting this on Reddit, u/BillWeld pointed out a great idiom for checking user inputs that’s most definitely worth reposting here:

f <- function(a, b, c)
    if (getOption("warn") > 0) {
            length(a) == 1,
            a > 0,
            # Other requirements go here

    # The main body of the function goes here

I find this a great and elegant idiom, although it is your call, as the programmer, to decide which deviations and what degree of incompatibility should cause the function to fail as opposed to merely emit a warning.

THREE: Keep functions short and sweet.

Rule #4 of the Power of Ten states

No function should be longer than what can be printed on a single sheet of paper in a standard reference format with one line per statement and one line per declaration. Typically, this means no more than about 60 lines of code per function.

Rationale: Each function should be a logical unit in the code that is understandable and verifiable as a unit. It is much harder to understand a logical unit that spans multiple screens on a computer display or multiple pages when printed. Excessively long functions are often a sign of poorly structured code.

In practice, with larger screen sizes and higher resolutions, much more than a measly hundred lines fit on a single screen. However, since many users view R code in a quarter-screen window in RStudio, an appropriate figure would be about 60-80 lines. Note that this does not include comments and whitespaces, nor does it penalise indentation styles (functions, conditionals, etc.).

Functions should represent a logical unity. Therefore, if a function needs to be split for compliance with this rule, you should do so in a manner that creates logical units. Typically, one good way is to split functions by the object they act on.

FOUR: Refer to external functions explicitly.

In R, there are two ways to invoke a function, yet most people don’t tend to be aware of this. Even in many textbooks, the library(package) function is treated as quintessentially analogous to, say, import in Python. This is a fundamental misunderstanding.

In R, packages do not need to be imported in order to be able to invoke their functions, and that’s not what the library() function does anyway. library() attaches a package to the current namespace.

What does this mean? Consider the following example. The foreign package is one of my favourite packages. In my day-to-day practice, I get data from all sorts of environments, and foreign helps me import them. One of its functions, read.epiinfo(), is particularly useful as it imports data from CDC’s free EpiInfo toolkit. Assuming that foreign is in a library accessible to my instance of R,4, I can invoke the read.epiinfo() function in two ways:

  • I can directly invoke the function using its canonical name, of the form package::function() – in this case, foreign::read.epiinfo().
  • Alternatively, I can attach the entire foreign package to the namespace of the current session using library(foreign). This has three effects, of which the first tends to be well-known, the second less so and the third altogether ignored.
    1. Functions in foreign will be directly available. Regardless of the fact that it came from a different package, you will be able to invoke it the same way you invoke, say, a function defined in the same script, by simply calling read.epiinfo().
    2. If there was a package of identical name to any function in foreign, that function will be ‘shadowed’, i.e. removed from the namespace. The namespace will always refer to the most recent function, and the older function will only be available by explicit invocation.
    3. When you invoke a function from the namespace, it will not be perfectly clear from a mere reading of the code what the function actually is, or where it comes from. Rather, the user or maintainer will have to guess what a given name will represent in the namespace at the time the code is running the particular line.

Controversially, my suggestion is

  • to eschew the use of library() altogether, and
  • write always explicitly invoke functions outside those functions that are in the namespace at startup.

This is not common advice, and many will disagree. That’s fine. Not all code needs to be safety-critical, and importing ggplot2 with library() for a simple plotting script is fine. But where you want code that’s easy to analyse, easy to read and can be reliably analysed as well, you want explicit invocations. Explicit invocations give you three main benefits:

  1. You will always know what code will be executed. filter may mean dplyr::filter, stats::filter, and so on, whereas specifically invoking dplyr::filter is unambiguous. You know what the code will be (simply invoking dplyr::filter without braces or arguments returns the source), and you know what that code is going to do.
  2. Your code will be more predictable. When someone – or something – analyses your code, they will not have to spend so much time trying to guess what at the time a particular identifier refers to within the namespace.
  3. There is no risk that as a ‘side effect’ various other functions you seek to rely on will be removed from the namespace. In interactive coding, R usually warns you and lists all shadowed functions upon importing functions with the same name into the namespace using library(), but for code intended to be bulk executed, this issue has caused a lot of headache.

Obviously, all of this applies to require() as well, although on the whole the latter should not be applied in general.

FIVE: Don’t use require() to import a package into the namespace.

Even seasoned R users sometimes forget the difference between library() and require(). The difference is quite simple: while both functions attempt to attach the package argument to the namespace,

  • require() returns FALSE if the import failed, while
  • library() simply loads the package and raises an error if the import failed.

Just about the only legitimate use for require() is writing an attach-or-install function. In any other case, as Yihui Xie points out, require() is almost definitely the wrong function to use.

SIX: Aggressively manage package and version dependencies.

Packrat is one of those packages that have changed what R is like – for the better. Packrat gives every project a package library, akin to a private /lib/ folder. This is not the place to document the sheer awesomeness of Packrat – you can do so yourself by doing the walkthrough of Packrat. But seriously, use it. Your coworkers will love you for it.

Equally important is to make sure that you specify the version of R that your code is written against. This is best accomplished on a higher level of configuration, however.

SEVEN: Use a consistent style and automated code quality tools.

This should be obvious – we’re programmers, which means we’re constitutionally lazy. If it can be solved by code faster than manually, then code it is! Two tools help you in this are lintr and styler.

  • lintr is an amazingly widely supported (from RStudio through vim to Sublime Text 3, I hear a version for microwave ovens is in the works!) linter for R code. Linters improve code quality primarily by enforcing good coding practices rather than good style. One big perk of lintr is that it can be injected rather easily into the Travis CI workflow, which is a big deal for those who maintain multi-contributor projects and use Travis to keep the cats appropriately herded.
  • styler was initially designed to help code adhere to the Tidyverse Style Guide, which in my humble opinion is one of the best style guides that have ever existed for R. It can now take any custom style files and reformat your code, either as a function or straight from an RStudio add-in.

So use them.

EIGHT: Everything is a package.

Whether you’re writing R code for fun, profit, research or the creation of shareholder value, your coworkers and your clients – rightly! – expect a coherent piece of work product that has everything in one neat package, preferably version controlled. Sending around single R scripts might have been appropriate at some point in the mid-1990s, but it isn’t anymore. And so, your work product should always be structured like a package. As a minimum, this should include:

  2. The source code, including comments.
  3. Where appropriate, data mappings and other ancillary data to implement the code. These go normally into the data/ folder. Where these are large, such as massive shape files, you might consider using Git LFS.
  4. Dependencies, preferably in a packrat repo.
  5. The documentation, helping users to understand the code and in particular, if the code is to be part of a pipeline, explaining how to interact with the API it exposes.
  6. Where the work product is an analysis rather than a bit of code intended to carry out a task, the analysis as vignettes.

To understand the notion of analyses as packages, two outstanding posts by Robert M. Flight are worth reading: part 1 explains the ‘why’ and part 2 explains the ‘how’. Robert’s work is getting a little long in the tooth, and packages like knitr have taken the place of vignettes as analytical outputs, but the principles remain the same. Inasmuch as it is possible, an analysis in R should be a self-contained package, with all the dependencies and data either linked or included. From the perspective of the user, all that should be left for them to do is to execute the analysis.

NINE: Power in names.

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

Phil Karlton

In general, R has a fair few idiosyncrasies in naming things. For starters, dots/periods . are perfectly permitted in variable names (and thus function names), when in most languages, the dot operator is a binary operator retrieving the first operand object’s method called the second operand:

a.b(args) = dot(a, b, args) = a_{Method: b}(args)

For instance, in Python,, arg2) means ‘invoke the method pay of the object wallet with the arguments arg1 and arg2‘. In R, on the other hand, it’s a character like any other, and therefore there is no special meaning attached to it – you can even have a variable contaning multiple dots, or in fact a variable whose name consists entirely of dots5 – in R, .......... is a perfectly valid variable name. It is also a typcal example of the fact that justibecause you can do something doesn’t mean you also should do so.

A few straightforward rules for variable names in R are worth abiding by:

  1. Above all, be consistent. That’s more important than whatever you choose.
  2. Some style guides, including Google’s R style guide, treat variables, functions and constants as different entities in respect of naming. This is, in my not-so-humble opinion, a blatant misunderstanding of the fact that functions are variables of the type function, and not some distinct breed of animal. Therefore, I recommend using a unitary schema for all variables, callable or not.
  3. In order of my preference, the following are legitimate options for naming:
    • Underscore separated: average_speed
    • Dot separated: average.speed
    • JavaScript style lower-case CamelCase: averageSpeed
  4. Things that don’t belong into identifiers: hyphens, non-alphanumeric characters, emojis (🤦🏼‍♂️) and other horrors.
  5. Where identifiers are hierarchical, it is better to start representing them as hierarchical objects rather than assigning them to different variables. For example, instead of monthly_forecast_january, monthly_forecast_february and so on, it is better to have a list associative array called forecasts in which the forecasts are keyed by month name, and can then be retrieved using the $key or the [key] accessors. If your naming has half a dozen components, maybe it’s time to think about structuring your data better.

Finally, in some cases, the same data may be represented by multiple formats – for instance, data about productivity is first imported as a text file, and then converted into a data frame. In such cases, Hungarian notation may be legitimate, e.g. txt_productivity or productivity.txt vs df_productivity or productivity.df. This is more or less the only case in which Hungarian notation is appropriate.6

And while we’re at variables: never, ever, ever use = to assign. Every time you do it, a kitten dies of sadness.

For file naming, some sensible rules have served me well, and will be hopefully equally useful for you:

  1. File names should be descriptive, but no longer than 63 characters.
  2. File names should be all lower case, separated by underscores, and end in .R. That’s a capital R. Not a lower-case R. EveR.
  3. Where there is a ‘head’ script that sequentially invokes (sources) a number of subsidiary scripts, it is common for the head script to be called 00-.R, and the rest given a sequential corresponding to the order in which they are sourced and a descriptive name, e.g. 01-load_data_from_db.R, 02-transform_data_and_anonymise_records.R and so on.
  4. Where there is a core script, but it does not invoke other files sequentially, it is common for the core script to be called 00-base.R or main.R. As long as it’s somewhere made clear to the user which file to execute, all is fair.
  5. The injunction against emojis and other nonsense holds for file names, too.

TEN: Know the rules and their rationale, so that you know when to break them.

It’s important to understand why style rules and defensive programming principles exist. How else would we know which rules we can break, and when?

The reality is that there are no rules, in any field, that do not ever permit of exceptions. And defensive programming rules are no exception. Rules are tools that help us get our work done better and more reliably, not some abstract holy scripture. With that in mind, when can you ignore these rules?

  • You can, of course, always ignore these rules if you’re working on your own, and most of your work is interactive. You’re going to screw yourself over, but that’s your right and privilege.
  • Adhering to common standards is more important than doing what some dude on the internet (i.e. my good self) thinks is good R coding practice. Coherence and consistency are crucial, and you’ll have to stick to your team’s style over your own ideas. You can propose to change those rules, you can suggest that they be altogether redrafted, and link them this page. But don’t go out and start following a style of your own just because you think it’s better (even if you’re right).
  • It’s always a good idea to appoint a suitable individual – with lots of experience and little ego, ideally! – as code quality standards coordinator (CQSC). They will then centrally coordinate adherence to standards, train on defensive coding practices, review operational adherence, manage tools and configurations and onboard new people.
  • Equally, having an ‘editor settings repo’ is pretty useful. This should support, at the very least, RStudio lintr and styler.
  • Some prefer to have the style guide as a GitHub or Confluence wiki – I generally advise against that, as that cannot be tracked and versioned as well as, say, a bunch of RST files that are collated together using Sphinx, or some RMarkdown files that are rendered automatically upon update using a GitHub webhook.


Always code as if your life, or that of your loved ones, depended on the code you write – because it very well may someday.
In the end, defensive programming may not be critical for you at all. You may never need to use it, and even if you do, the chances that as an R programmer your code will have to live up to defensive programming rules and requirements is much lower than, say, for an embedded programmer. But algorithms, including those written in R, create an increasing amount of data that is used to support major decisions. What your code spits out may decide someone’s career, whether someone can get a loan, whether they can be insured or whether their health insurance will be dropped. It may even decide a whole company’s fate. This is an inescapable consequence of the algorithmic world we now live in.

A few years ago, at a seminar on coding to FDA CDRH standards, the instructor finished by giving us his overriding rule: in the end, always code as if your life, or that of your loved ones, depended on the code you write (because it very well may someday!). This may sound dramatic in the context of R, which is primarily a statistical programming language, but the point stands: code has real-life consequences, and we owe it to those whose lives, careers or livelihoods depend on our code to give them the kind of code that we wish to rely on: well-tested, reliable and stable.

References   [ + ]

1.One crucial element here: keep in mind the order of parameters – because the explicit should override the implied, your code should look at the arguments first, then the environment variables, then the configuration file!
2.Eagle-eyed readers might spot the mutation in the example. This is indeed the T310C mutation on the TNFRSF13B gene (17p11.2), which causes autosomal dominant type 2 Common Variable Immune Deficiency, a condition I have, but manage through regular IVIG, prophylactic antibiotics and aggressive monitoring.
3.Holzmann, G.J. (2006). The Power of 10: Rules for developing safety-critical code. IEEE Computer 39(6):95-99.
4.R stores packages in libraries, which are basically folders where the packages reside. There are global packages as well as user-specific packages. For a useful overview of packages and package installation strategies, read this summary by Nathan Stephens.
5.The exception is ..., which is not a valid variable name as it collides with the splat operator.
6.In fact, the necessity of even this case is quite arguable. A much better practice would be simply importing the text as productivity, then transform it into a data frame, if there’s no need for both versions to continue coexisting.

Are you looking for a data science sensei?

Maybe you’re a junior data scientist, maybe you’re a software developer who wants to go into data science, or perhaps you’ve dabbled in data for years in Excel but are ready to take the next step.

If so, this post is all about you, and an opportunity I offer every year.

You see, life has been very good to me in terms of training as a data scientist. I have been spoiled, really – I had the chance to learn from some of the best data scientists, work with some exceptional epidemiologists, experience some unusual challenges and face many of the day-to-day hurdles of working in data analytics. I’ve had the fortune to see this profession in all its contexts, from small enterprises to multi-million dollar FTSE100 companies, from well-run agile start-ups to large and sometimes pretty slow dinosaurs, from government through the private sector to NGOs: I’ve seen it all. I’ve done some great things. And I’ve made some superbly dumb mistakes.

And so, at the start of every year, I have opened applications for young, start-of-career data scientists looking for their Mr. Miyagi. Don’t worry: no car waxing involved. I will be choosing a single promising young data scientist and pass on as much as I can of my so-called wisdom. At the end, your skills will shine like Mr. Miyagi’s 1947 Ford Deluxe Convertible. There’s no catch, no hidden trap, no fees or charges involved (except the one mentioned below).

Eligibility criteria

To be eligible, you must be:

  • 18 or above if you are taking a gap year or not attending a university/college.
  • You do not have to have a formal degree in data science or a relevant subject, but you must have completed it if you do. In other words: if you’re in your 3rd year of an English Lit degree, you’re welcome to apply, but if you’re in the middle of your CS degree, you have to wait until you’re finished – sorry. The same goes if you intend to go straight on to a data science-related postgrad within the year.
  • Have a solid basis in mathematics: decent statistics, combinatorics, linear algebra and some high school calculus are the very minimum.
  • You must be familiar with Python (3.5 and above), and either familiar with the scientific Python stack (SciPy, NumPy, Pandas, matplotlib) or willing to pick up a lot on the go.
  • Be willing to put in the work: we’ll be convening about once every week to ten days by Skype for an hour, and you’ll probably be doing 6-10 hours’ worth of reading and work for the rest of the week. Please be realistic if you can sustain this.
  • If, as recommended, you are working on an AWS EC2 instance, be aware this might cost money and make sure you can cover the costs. In practice, these are negligible.
  • You must understand that this is a physically and intellectually strenuous endeavor, and it is your responsibility to know whether you’re physically and mentally up for the job. However, no physical or mental disabilities are regarded as automatically excluding you of consideration.
  • You must not live in, reside in or be a citizen of any of the countries listed in CFR Title 22 Part 126, §126.1(d)(1) and (2).
  • You must not have been convicted of a felony anywhere. This includes ‘spent’ UK criminal convictions.

Sounds good? Apply here.

Preferred applicants

When assessing applications, the following groups are given preference:

  • Persons with mental or physical disabilities whose disability precludes them from finding conventional employment – please outline this situation on the application form.
  • Honourably discharged (or equivalent) veterans of NATO forces and the IDF – please include member 4 copy of DD-214, Wehrdienstzeitbescheinigung or equivalent document that lists type of discharge.

What we’ll be up to

Don’t worry. None of this car waxing crap.

Over the 42 weeks to follow, you will be undergoing a rigorous and structured semi-self-directed training process. This will take your background, interests and future ambitions into account, but at the core, you will:

  • master Python’s data processing stack,
  • learn how to visualize data in Python,
  • work with networks and graph databases, including Neo4j,
  • acquire the correct way of presenting results in data science to stakeholders,
  • delve into cutting-edge methods of machine learning, such as deep learning using keras,
  • work on problems in computer vision and get familiar with the Python bindings of OpenCV,
  • scrape data from social networks, and
  • learn convenient ways of representing, summarizing and distributing our results.

The programme is divided into three ‘terms’ of 14 weeks each, which each consist of 9 weeks of directed study, 4 weeks of self-directed project work and one week of R&R.

What you’ll be getting out of this

Since the introduction of Docker, tolerance for wanton destruction as part of coursework has increased, but still won’t earn you a passing grade by itself.

In the past years, mentees have noted the unusual breadth of knowledge they have acquired about data science, as well as the diversity of practical topics and the realistic question settings, with an emphasis on practical applications of data science such as presenting data products. I hope that this year, too, I’ll be able to convey the same important topics. Every year is a little different as I try to adjust the course to meet the individual participant’s needs.

The programme is not, of course, accredited by any accreditation body, but a certificate of completion will be issued to any participant who wishes so.

Application process

Simply fill in the form below and send it off by 14 January 2018. The top contenders will be contacted by e-mail or telephone for a brief conversation thereafter. Finally, a lucky winner will be picked by the 21st January 2018. Easy peasy!



Q: What does ‘semi-self-directed’ mean? Is there a fixed curriculum?

A: No. There are some basic topics (see list above) that I think are quite likely to come up, but ultimately, this is about making you the data scientist you want to be. For this reason, we’ll begin by planning out where you want to improve – kinda like a PT gives you a training plan before you start out at their gym. We will then adjust as needed. This is not an exam prep, it’s a learning experience, and for that reason, we can focus on delving deeper and getting the fundaments right over other cramming in a particular curriculum.

Q: Can I bring your own data?

A: Sure. In general, we’ll be using standard data sets, because they’re well-known and high-quality data. But if you have a dataset you collected or are otherwise entitled to use that would do equally well, there’s no reason why we couldn’t use it! Note that you must have the right to use and share the data set, meaning it’s unlikely you’re able to use data sets from your day job.

Q: Will this give me an employment advantage?

A: I don’t quite know – it’s impossible to predict. The field of data science degrees is something of a Wild West still, and while some reputable degrees have emerged, others are dubious. Employers still don’t know what to go by. However, you will most definitely be better prepared for an employment interview in data science!

Q: Why are you so keen on presenting data the right way?

A: Because as data scientists, we’re expected to not merely understand the data and draw the right conclusions, but also to convey them to stakeholders at various levels, from plant management to C-suite, in a way that gets the right message across at the first go.

Q: You’re a computational epidemiologist. Can I apply even if my work doesn’t really involve healthcare?

A: Sure. The principles are the same, and we’re largely focusing on generic topics. You might be exposed to bits and pieces of epidemiology, but I can guarantee it won’t hurt.

Q: Why do you only take on one mentee?

A: To begin with, my life is pretty busy – I have a demanding job, a family and – shock horror! – I even need to sleep every once in a while. More importantly, I want to devote my undivided attention to a worthy candidate.

Q: How come I’ve never heard of this before?

A: Until now, I’ve largely gotten mentees by word of mouth. I am concerned that this is keeping some talented people out and limiting the pool of people we should have in. That’s why this year, I have tried to make this process much more transparent.

Q: You’re rather fond of General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. Will there be yelling?


Q: There seems to be no upper age limit. Is that a mistake?


Q: I have more questions.

A: You can ask them here.

cookiecutter-flask-ask: a quick(er) start to Alexa skills!

If you develop for Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices, you must at some point have come across Flask-Ask, a project by John Wheeler that lets you quickly and easily build Python-based Skills for Alexa. It’s so easy, in fact, that John’s quickstart video, showing the creation of a Flask-Ask based Skill from zero to hero, takes less than five minutes! How awesome is that? Very awesome.

Bootstrapping a Flask-Ask project is not difficult – in fact, it’s pretty easy, but also pretty repetitive. And so, being the ingenious lazy developer I am, I’ve come up with a (somewhat opinionated) cookiecutter template for Flask-Ask.


Using the Flask-Ask cookiecutter should be trivial.  Make sure you have cookiecutter installed, either in a virtualenv that you have activated or your system installation of Python. Then, simply use  cookiecutter gh:chrisvoncsefalvay/cookiecutter-flask-ask to get started. Answer the friendly assistant’s questions, and voila! You have the basics of a Flask-Ask project all scaffolded.

Once you have scaffolded your project, you will have to create a virtualenv for your project and install dependencies by invoking pip install -r requirements.txt. You will also need ngrok to test your skill from your local device.

What’s in the box?

The cookiecutter has been configured with my Flask-Ask development preferences in mind, which in turn borrow heavily from John Wheeler‘s. The cookiecutter provides a scaffold of a Flask application, including not only session start handlers and an example intention but also a number of handlers for built-in Alexa intents, such as Yes, No and Help.

There is also a folder structure you might find useful, including an intent schema for some basic Amazon intents and a corresponding empty sample_utterances.txt file, as well as a gitkeep’d folder for custom slot types. Because I’m a huge fan of Sphinx documentation and strongly believe that voice apps need to be assiduously documented to live up to their potential, there is also a docs/ folder with a Makefile and an opinionated configuration file.

Is that all?!

Blissfully, yes, it is. Thanks to John’s extremely efficient and easy-to-use Flask-Ask project, you can discourse with your very own skill less than twenty minutes after starting the scaffolding!

You can find the cookiecutter-flask-ask project here. Issues, bugs and other woes are welcome, as are contributions (simply raise a pull request). For help and advice, you can find me on the Flask-Ask Gitter a lot during daytime CET.

cookiecutter-flask-ask is, of course, Swabware.

Give your Twitter account a memory wipe… for free.

The other day, my wife has decided to get rid of all the tweets on one of her twitter accounts, while of course retaining all the followers. But bulk deleting tweets is far from easy. There are, fortunately, plenty of tools that offer you the service of bulk deleting your tweets… for a cost, of course. One had a freemium model that allowed three free deletes per day. I quickly calculated that it would have taken my wife something on the order of twelve years to get rid of all her tweets. No, seriously. That’s silly. I can write some Python code to do that faster, can’t I?

Turns out you can. First, of course, you’ll need to create a Twitter app from the account you wish to wipe and generate an access token, since we’ll also be performing actions on behalf of the account.

import tweepy
import time

CONSUMER_KEY=<your consumer key>
CONSUMER_SECRET=<your consumer secret>
ACCESS_TOKEN=<your access token>
ACCESS_TOKEN_SECRET=<your access token secret>
SCREEN_NAME=<your screen name, without the @>

Time to use tweepy’s OAuth handler to connect to the Twitter API:

auth = tweepy.OAuthHandler(CONSUMER_KEY, CONSUMER_SECRET)
auth.set_access_token(ACCESS_TOKEN, ACCESS_TOKEN_SECRET)

api = tweepy.API(auth)

Now, we could technically write an extremely sophisticated script, which looks at the returned headers to determine when we will be cut off by the API throttle… but we’ll use the easy and brutish route of holding off for a whole hour if we get cut off. At 350 requests per hour, each capable of deleting 100 tweets, we can get rid of a 35,000 tweet account in a single hour with no waiting time, which is fairly decent.

The approach will be simple: we ask for batches of 100 tweets, then call the .destroy() method on each of them, which thanks to tweepy is now bound into the object representing every tweet we receive. If we encounter errors, we respond accordingly: if it’s a RateLimitError, an error object from tweepy that – as its name suggests – shows that the rate limit has been exceeded, we’ll hold off for an hour (we could elicit the reset time from headers, but this is much simpler… and we’ve got time!), if it can’t find the status we simply leap over it (sometimes that happens, especially when someone is doing some manual deleting at the same time) and otherwise, we break the loops.

def destroy():
    while True:
        q = api.user_timeline(screen_name=SCREEN_NAME,
        for each in q:
            except tweepy.RateLimitError as e:
                print (u"Rate limit exceeded: {0:s}".format(e.message))
            except tweepy.TweepError as e:
                if e.message == "No status found with that ID.":
            except Exception as e:
                print (u"Encountered undefined error: {0:s}".format(e.message))

Finally, we’ll make sure this is called as the module default:

if __name__ == '__main__':

Happy destruction!

Immortal questions

When asked for a title for his 1979 collection of philosophical papers, my all-time favourite philosopher1 Thomas Nagel chose the title Mortal Questions, an apt title, for most of our philosophical preoccupations (and especially those pertaining to the broad realm of moral philosophy) stem from the simple fact that we’re all mortal, and human life is as such an irreplaceable good. By extension, most things that can be created by humans are capable of being destroyed by humans.

That time is ending, and we need a new ethics for that.

Consider the internet. We all know it’s vulnerable, but is it existentially vulnerable?2 The answer is probably no. Neither would any significantly distributed self-provisioning pseudo-AI be. And by pseudo-AI, I don’t even mean a particularly clever or futuristic or independently reasoning system, but rather a system that can provision resources for itself in response to threat factors just as certain balancers and computational systems we write and use on a day to day basis can commission themselves new cloud resources to carry out their mandate. Based on their mandate, such systems are potentially existentially immortal/existentially indestructible.3

The human factor in this is that such a system will be constrained by mandates we give them. Ergo,4 those mandates are as fit a subject for human moral reasoning as any other human action.

Which means we’re going to need that new ethics pretty darn’ fast, for there isn’t a lot of time left. Distributed systems, smart contracts, trustless M2M protocols, the plethora of algorithms that have arisen that each bring us a bit closer to a machine capable of drawing subtle conclusions from source data (hidden Markov models, 21st century incarnations of fuzzy logic, certain sorts of programmatic higher order logic and a few other factors are all moving towards an expansion of what we as humans can create and the freedom we can give our applications. Who, even ten years ago, would have thought that one day I will be able to give a computing cluster my credit card and if it ran out of juice, it could commission additional resources until it bled me dry and I had to field angry questions from my wife? And that was a simple dumb computing cluster. Can you teach a computing cluster to defend itself? Why the heck not, right?

Geeks who grew up on Asimov’s laws of robotics, myself included, think of this sort of problem as largely being one of giving the ‘right’ mandates to the system, overriding mandates to keep itself safe, not to harm humans,5 or the like. But any sufficiently well-written system will eventually grow to the level of the annoying six-year-old, who lives for the sole purpose of trying to twist and redefine his parents’ words to mean the opposite of what they intended.6 In the human world, a mandate takes place in a context. A writ is executed within a legal system. An order by a superior officer is executed according to the applicable rules of military justice, including circumstances when the order ought not be carried out. Passing these complex human contexts, which most of us ignore as we do all the things we grew up with and take for granted, into a more complicated model may not be feasible. Rules cannot be formulated exhaustively,7 as such a formulation by definition would have to encompass all past, present and future – all that potentially can happen. Thus, the issue moves on soon from merely providing mandates to what in the human world is known as ‘statutory construction’ or interpretation of legislative works. How are computers equipped to reason about symbolic propositions according to rules that we humans can predict? In other words, how can we teach rules of reasoning about rules in a way that is not inherently recursing this question (i.e. is not based on a simple conditional rule based framework).

Which means that the best that can be provided in such a situation is a framework based on values, and target optimisation algorithms (i.e. what’s the best way to reach the overriding objective with least damage to other objectives and so on). Which in turn will need a good bit of rethinking ethical norms.

But the bottom line is quite simple: we’re about to start creating immortals. Right now, you can put data on distributed file infrastructures like IPFS that’s effectively impossible to destroy using a reasonable amount of resources. Equally, distributed applications via survivable infrastructures such as the blockchain, as well as smart contract platforms, are relatively immortal. The creation of these is within the power of just about everyone with a modicum of computing skills. The rise of powerful distributed execution engines for smart contracts, like Maverick Labs’ Aletheia Platform,8 will give a burst of impetus to systems’ ability to self-provision, enter into contracts, procure services and thus even effect their own protection (or destruction). They are incarnate, and they are immortal. For what it’s worth, man is steps away from creating its own brand of deities.9

What are the ethics of creating a god? What is right and wrong in this odd, novel context? What is good and evil to a device?

The time to figure out these questions is running out with merciless rapidity.

Title image: God the Architect of the Universe, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, f1.v

References   [ + ]

1.That does not mean I agree with even half of what he’s saying. But I do undoubtedly acknowledge his talent, agility of mind, style of writing, his knowledge and his ability to write good and engaging papers that have not yet fallen victim to the neo-sophistry dominating universities.
2.I define existential vulnerability as being capable of being destroyed by an adversary that does not require the adversary to accept an immense loss or undertake a nonsensically arduous task. For example, it is possible to kill the internet by nuking the whole planet, but that would be rather disproportionate. Equally, destruction of major lines of transmission may at best isolate bits of the internet (think of it in graph theory terms as turning the internet from a connected graph into a spanning acyclic tree), but it takes rather more to kill off everything. On the other hand, your home network is existentially vulnerable. I kill router, game over, good night and good luck.
3.As in, lack existential vulnerability.
4.According to my professors at Oxford, my impatience towards others who don’t see the connections I do has led me to try to make up for it by the rather annoying verbal tic of overusing ‘thus’ at the start of every other sentence. I wrote a TeX macro that automatically replaced it with neatly italicised ‘Ergo‘. Sometimes, I wonder why they never decided to drown me in the Cherwell.
5.…or at least not to harm a given list of humans or a given type of humans.
6.Many of these, myself included, are at risk of becoming lawyers. Parents, talk to your kids. If you don’t talk to them about the evils of law school, who will?
7.H.L.A. Hart makes some good points regarding this
8.Mandatory disclosure: I’m one of the creators of Aletheia, and a shareholder and CTO of its parent corporation.
9.For the avoidance of doubt: as a Christian, a scientist and a developer of some pretty darn complex things, I do not believe that these constructs, even if omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent as they someday will be by leveraging IoT and surveillance networks, are anything like my capital-G God. For lack of space, there’s no way to go into an exhaustive level of detail here, but my God is not defined by its omniscience and omnipotence, it’s defined by his grace, mercy and love for us. I’d like to see an AI become incarnate and then suffer and die for the salvation of all of humanity and the forgiveness of sins. The true power of God, which no machine will ever come close to, was never as strongly demonstrated as when the child Jesus lay in the manger, among animals, ready to give Himself up to save a fallen, broken humanity. And I don’t see any machine ever coming close to that.

If you love something, let it break your heart.

A few days ago, I finished re-reading Michele Cushatt‘s book Undone, an incredible journey through what she describes as an ‘unexpected life’. I cannot possibly do the book justice, save by telling you to go out and buy it, right now. I was reminded of her book today when thinking about coding and software development (which I do way too much for someone who is principally supposed to be a tool user, not a toolmaker).


There’s a style of Japanese pottery known as 金繕い (kintsukuroi), in which broken pottery is repaired with a mixture of lacquer and fine-grained gold or silver dust. The first time I saw a kintsukuroi bowl, I must have been about 12. It was unceremoniously stacked among a lot of other stuff in a side room of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which hosted an exhibition on Asian pottery. It was as close to a transcendental experience as I have ever had.

Kintsukuroi accepts brokenness as part of life. It accepts the fact that Things Break, and sometimes not all the king’s horses and not all the king’s men can put what was broken back together again. It is a brutally honest acknowledgement of what it means to live in an imperfect, fallen world. But at the same time, it is an acknowledgement of the fact that yes, sometimes, you cannot put something broken back together again with seams fitting in lattice-to-lattice perfection. But what fills up the empty spaces, what fills up the gaps of what used to be, can be valuable. Just as the few drops of gold lacquer in a kintsukuroi bowl are worth more than the bowl itself ever was, brokenness and healing can make us something more valuable.

Coding is hard. It’s heartbreaking. It’s sometimes frustrating. A few weeks ago, I spent hours trying to figure out what to make of a fifteen-line, completely obscure error message in R citing various Java code citing C++ code… I was near punching the screen.

It turns out it was the system’s way of telling me the server connection timed out. Did it say so? Heck no. It took hours of digging and debugging around to find out how a Java exception in the middle of R code even made sense. Those are the moments you just want to smash some of the objects in arm’s reach.

The only good thing about these moments is that there’s a faint chance you’ll remember them. That, by the way, is called growth.


Which leads me to the point of developing immunity to heartbreak. I wrote my first piece of code that I actually dared to share with the wider public in 2000. Github wasn’t around yet, so people shared code on mailing lists and messageboards. I posted this snippet of code I wrote to calculate the haversine distance, written in Python, that for some reason didn’t run.

Within an hour, I had 25 comments. They ran the gamut of “just give up already” to “this is some of the worst code I’ve ever seen”. In other words, the kind of feedback you aren’t allowed to give these days. Now, I’m not a particularly thick-skinned person, and it duly broke my heart.

I got upset… until I felt something stir in me, a resolve and an unwillingness to leave it at this. I decided I’m going to work on my code until I could turn out the best haversine implementation that I can. It took me the best part of a month. I posted it to the same messageboard, in the same thread.

The same people I thought were absolute jerks now sent appreciative comments. One even noted he learned a new trick from my code.

That’s when I understood the people who broke my heart only weeks ago didn’t do so out of ill-will or meanness. They did so because they, too, had their hearts broken day by day by the interpreter’s harsh output. And they knew that getting your heart broken by people is a lot easier than getting your heart broken by a machine.

Heartbreak is important. Heartbreak is what happens when you try to scale a mountain too high. Heartbreak is the sign that you’ve gone beyond your comfort zone.

And growth happens in that space. Growth cannot happen in a space of continual heartbreak – that’s just pure frustration, and frustration causes resignation, not growth. But a space without heartbreak has no challenges, no risk, no disappointment, no growth.

If you love something, go out and make it break your heart.

Then stand up, and try again.

And again.