Google Translate for code, and an R help-list bot

May 3, 2012
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(This article was first published on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

What we did in our Stan meeting yesterday:

Some discussion of revision of the Nuts paper, some conversations about parameterizations of categorical-data models, plans for the R interface, blah blah blah.

But also, I had two exciting new ideas!

Google Translate for code

Wouldn’t it be great if Google Translate could work on computer languages? I suggested this and somebody said that it might be a problem because code isn’t always translatable. But that doesn’t worry so much. Google Translate for human languages isn’t perfect either but it’s a useful guide. If I want to write a message to someone in French or Spanish or Dutch, I wouldn’t just write it in English and run it through Translate. What I do is try my best to write it in the desired language, but I can try out some tricky words or phrases in the translator. Or, if I start by translating, I go back and forth to make sure it all makes sense.

An R help-list bot

We were talking about how to build a Stan community that will be helpful to a diverse range of users without taking up too much of our time, and that’s when I came up with a brilliant idea. Let’s take a successful existing help group—for example, the R-help mailing list—then make a database of the helpful bits of advice of a distinguished and frequent contributor to the list. The bot would be easy: whatever the question is that comes in, just send back a random tip. I have a feeling that advice such as “PLEASE do, and not send HTML” and “My guess is that this is a Mac-specific question (e.g. you are using the R.app GUI), so please consider if this is the appropriate list” and “The posting guide was not followed” and “Please use the R-devel list to comment on current development versions” would work pretty well for almost any question (maybe after some global sub of Stan for R).

It’s sort of like when we were kids and had this book, Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles—it was a gray with a picture of a big red rock-eater on the cover. We started out by just reading through the riddles one at a time but we had more fun after inventing a game where we’d open the book and read a riddle, then open again at random to give the answer. For example:
Q: What’s big, red and eats rocks?
A: Two cats stuck in a tree!

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