R for inquisition

December 21, 2012

(This article was first published on Quantum Forest » rblogs, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

A post on high-dimensional arrays by @isomorphisms reminded me of APL and, more generally, of matrix languages, which took me back to inquisitive computing: computing not in the sense of software engineering, or databases, or formats, but of learning by poking problems through a computer.

I like languages not because I can get a job by using one, but because I can think thoughts and express ideas through them. The way we think about a problem is somehow molded by the tools we use, and if we have loops, loops we use or if we have a terse matrix notation (see my previous post on Matrix Algebra Useful for Statistics), we may use that.

I used APL fairly briefly but I was impressed by some superficial aspects (hey, that’s a weird set of characters that needs a keyboard overlay) and some deeper ones (this is an actual language, cool PDF paper). The APL revolution didn’t happen, at least not directly, but it had an influence over several other languages (including R). Somehow as a group we took a different path from ‘Expository programming’, but I think that we have to recover at least part of that ethos, programming for understanding the world.

While many times I struggle with R frustrations, it is now my primary language for inquisitive computing, although some times I dive into something else. I like Mathematica, but can access it only while plugged to the university network (license limits). Python is turning into a great scientific computing environment—although still with a feeling of sellotape holding it together, J is like APL without the Klingon keyboard.

If anything, dealing with other ways of doing things leads to a better understanding of one’s primary language. Idioms that seem natural acquire a new sense of weirdness when compared to other languages. R’s basic functionality gives an excellent starting point for inquisitive computing but don’t forget other languages that can enrich the way we look at problems.

I am curious about what are people’s favorite inquisitive languages.

Gratuitous picture: inquisition, Why bloody trees grow like this? (Photo: Luis).

Gratuitous picture: inquisition, Why bloody trees grow like this? (Photo: Luis).

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