[LINK] R programming language

Richard Chirgwin rchirgwin at ozemail.com.au
Thu Jan 8 06:45:37 AEDT 2009

Wow, the NYT leads the scoops with a story about a bit of software
that's 13 years old ... this is the "slow news week" syndrome with a


stephen at melbpc.org.au wrote:
> Data Analysts Captivated by R Power
> By ASHLEE VANCE  www.nytimes.com  Published: January 6, 2009 
> . R is the name of a popular programming language used by a growing 
> number of data analysts inside corporations and academia. 
> It is becoming their lingua franca partly because data mining has entered 
> a golden age, whether being used to set ad prices, find new drugs more 
> quickly or fine-tune financial models. Companies as diverse as Google, 
> Pfizer, Merck, Bank of America, the InterContinental Hotels Group and 
> Shell use it.
> But R has also quickly found a following because statisticians, engineers 
> and scientists without computer programming skills find it easy to use.
> “R is really important to the point that it’s hard to overvalue it,” said 
> Daryl Pregibon, a research scientist at Google, which uses the software 
> widely. “It allows statisticians to do very intricate and complicated 
> analyses without knowing the blood and guts of computing systems.”
> It is also free. R is an open-source program, and its popularity reflects 
> a shift in the type of software used inside corporations. Open-source 
> software is free for anyone to use and modify ..
> R is similar to other programming languages, like C, Java and Perl, in 
> that it helps people perform a wide variety of computing tasks by giving 
> them access to various commands. 
> For statisticians, however, R is particularly useful because it contains 
> a number of built-in mechanisms for organizing data, running calculations 
> on the information and creating graphical representations of data sets. 
> Some people familiar with R describe it as a supercharged version of 
> Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software that can help illuminate data 
> trends more clearly than is possible by entering information into rows 
> and columns. 
> What makes R so useful — and helps explain its quick acceptance — is that 
> statisticians, engineers and scientists can improve the software’s code 
> or write variations for specific tasks. Packages written for R add 
> advanced algorithms, colored and textured graphs and mining techniques to 
> dig deeper into databases. 
> Close to 1,600 different packages reside on just one of the many Web 
> sites devoted to R, and the number of packages has grown exponentially. 
> One package, called BiodiversityR, offers a graphical interface aimed at 
> making calculations of environmental trends easier. 
> Another package, called Emu, analyzes speech patterns, while GenABEL is 
> used to study the human genome. 
> The financial services community has demonstrated a particular affinity 
> for R; dozens of packages exist for derivatives analysis alone. 
> “The great beauty of R is that you can modify it to do all sorts of 
> things,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And you have a lot 
> of prepackaged stuff that’s already available, so you’re standing on the 
> shoulders of giants.”
> R first appeared in 1996, when the statistics professors Ross Ihaka and 
> Robert Gentleman of the University of Auckland in New Zealand released 
> the code as a free software package. 
> According to them, the notion of devising something like R sprang up 
> during a hallway conversation. They both wanted technology better suited 
> for their statistics students, who needed to analyze data and produce 
> graphical models of the information. Most comparable software had been 
> designed by computer scientists and proved hard to use. 
> Lacking deep computer science training, the professors considered their 
> coding efforts more of an academic game than anything else. Nonetheless, 
> starting in about 1991, they worked on R full time. “We were pretty much 
> inseparable for five or six years,” Mr. Gentleman said. “One person would 
> do the typing and one person would do the thinking.”
> Some statisticians who took an early look at the software considered it 
> rough around the edges. But despite its shortcomings, R immediately 
> gained a following with people who saw the possibilities in customizing 
> the free software. 
> John M. Chambers, a former Bell Labs researcher who is now a consulting 
> professor of statistics at Stanford University, was an early champion. 
> At Bell Labs, Mr. Chambers had helped develop S, another statistics 
> software project, which was meant to give researchers of all stripes an 
> accessible data analysis tool. It was, however, not an open-source 
> project. 
> The software failed to generate broad interest and ultimately the rights 
> to S ended up in the hands of Tibco Software. Now R is surpassing what 
> Mr. Chambers had imagined possible with S. 
> “The diversity and excitement around what all of these people are doing 
> is great,” Mr. Chambers said.
> While it is difficult to calculate exactly how many people use R, those 
> most familiar with the software estimate that close to 250,000 people 
> work with it regularly. 
> The popularity of R at universities could threaten SAS Institute, the 
> privately held business software company that specializes in data 
> analysis software. SAS, with more than $2 billion in annual revenue, has 
> been the preferred tool of scholars and corporate managers. 
> “R has really become the second language for people coming out of grad 
> school now, and there’s an amazing amount of code being written for it,” 
> said Max Kuhn, associate director of nonclinical statistics at 
> Pfizer. “You can look on the SAS message boards and see there is a 
> proportional downturn in traffic.”
> SAS says it has noticed R’s rising popularity at universities, despite 
> educational discounts on its own software, but it dismisses the 
> technology as being of interest to a limited set of people working on 
> very hard tasks. 
> “I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want 
> free, readily available code," said Anne H. Milley, director of 
> technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who 
> build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I 
> get on a jet.”
> But while SAS plays down R’s corporate appeal, companies like Google and 
> Pfizer say they use the software for just about anything they can. 
> Google, for example, taps R for help understanding trends in ad pricing 
> and for illuminating patterns in the search data it collects. Pfizer has 
> created customized packages for R to let its scientists manipulate their 
> own data during nonclinical drug studies rather than send the information 
> off to a statistician. 
> The co-creators of R express satisfaction that such companies profit from 
> the fruits of their labor and that of hundreds of volunteers. 
> Mr. Ihaka continues to teach statistics at the University of Auckland and 
> wants to create more advanced software. Mr. Gentleman is applying R-based 
> software, called Bioconductor, in work he is doing on computational 
> biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. 
> “R is a real demonstration of the power of collaboration, and I don’t 
> think you could construct something like this any other way,” Mr. Ihaka 
> said. “We could have chosen to be commercial, and we would have sold five 
> copies of the software.”
> » A version of this article appeared in print on January 7, 2009, on page 
> B6 of the New York edition.
> --
> Cheers people
> Stephen Loosley
> Victoria, Australia
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