A view of useR!2011


Brian Ripley

The conference was opened with a talk by Brian Ripley.  I’ll distort his talk into 3 points that came across to me.

1. R Core is finite

The time available from R Core members is a strictly limited good.  The more that is pushed onto R Core, the less attention to details.  That doesn’t sound good.  The more things that can be pushed out of R Core, the more attention to details.  Sounds better to me.

2. Privilege

For those of us not in R Core, the use of R is a privilege.  There is a metaprivilege that goes with the privilege: the privilege of using R is not going to go away on a time scale that any of us needs to worry about.

3. Packages rule

R Core granted us three wishes.  I’m not sure how to phrase the first two wishes, but the third wish was more wishes.  The package system allows us to add whatever functionality we want very easily.

Traditional summaries

Other people have summarized Brian’s talk more literally.  These include:

Have I missed any?

David Smith

There were three talks tied for second, but the one I saw was a brilliant complement to the first.  Brian’s talk gave us insight into the center of R.  David’s talk showed us the vast ecosystem that surrounds that center.  The visual portion of the talk is worth a look.


The new kid on the block regarding finance is R-adamant. There is some overlap with Rmetrics but it is coming at things with a different approach.  It just came on-line — what is available is a small fraction of what is planned.


At the conference I had two surprises regarding “The R Inferno”. My first surprise was the large number of people at the conference who didn’t know of it.  A group of people who are motivated enough to come to a conference dedicated to R would seem to be a group that would diligently seek out documents on R.

In one session I asked for a show of hands of those who hadn’t known of the Inferno before the conference.  About a third of the room raised their hands.  (Meeting people was closer to random sampling but a smaller sample, and suggested a higher number.)  Next came my second surprise: I asked those who did know of it if they were surprised that so many raised their hands.  No hands went up.

My surprise is obviously some combination of being too close to the Inferno and not knowing how bad searching for R documents already is.

This isn’t about one document — no matter how amusing it might be — but the general issue of getting the most useful documents into the hands of each R user.  There was talk about problems as the number of packages approaches 10,000.  But the number of documents about R is a few orders of magnitude greater than the number of packages.  We’ll be talking millions of documents before long.

Connecting users and documents is going to get harder and harder.  We need to find ways to increase the probability of good matches.

Lightning talks

The last session of talks on the first day was an hour of lightning talks.  Each speaker had 15 slides.  There were 3 slides between speakers.  All slides appear for precisely 20 seconds.  One quick question was allowed during the changeover.

Lightning talks are absolutely wonderful for the audience.  They were the talk of the town.

However, lightning talks are a tough medium for speakers.  To be effective:

  • slides need to be very visual with few words
  • the speaker must practice, practice, practice

Lightning talks are not only good in their own right, they are good training for longer talks.


Frank Harrell

The final official event was Frank Harrell describing plans for useR!2012. It will be 2012 June 12-15 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee.

My final event happened to be a spontaneous chat with Frank and others about ideas for next year’s conference.  If you have ideas, Frank is keen to hear them.

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8 Responses to A view of useR!2011

  1. Ram says:

    Great review. Thanks for taking the time.

    Do you know where we could view (on video) any of these UseR talks? Esp these lightning talks would be good viewing on YouTube.


    • Pat says:

      I don’t think any talks will be on video. However, I asked Frank if he thought there would be lightning talks at next year’s conference and he really liked them, so I suspect that is a yes. I suggested that they be videoed, and he seemed to like that as well.

      There seems to be more resistance to doing video for other talks, so those are less likely.

  2. Tom says:

    I didn’t attend Brian Ripley’s talk, but given your notes and a few others plus getting wind of other encounters with R core, I get the sense that the core team is a bit full of themselves. Did I create a wildly successful platform that has helped millions? No, but speaking of the use of R as a “privilege” (unless you’re a member of R core of course) seems a bit laughable. Is not R core as “privileged” as the rest of us to be able to use the thousands of great packages written on top of the core by so many volunteers representing millions of man-hours of work? Or is only credit due to the genesis inventors in which case they should be looking to Edison for the “privilege” of using his electricity?

    I definitely appreciate all the work that has been put into R, but I don’t see how this hoity toitiness is going to help anything.

    • Richie says:

      I chatted with several members of R-core at useR, and I was surprised at how unassuming and modest they all were. If I get to be that successful, I’m going to wear sunglasses all day long and have an entourage of stats-groupies.

      I think Brian Ripley is something of an outlier in his opinions, so don’t don’t generalise across all of R-core. Also, note that problem is that he doen’t suffer fools gladly, and compared to his crazy-awesome intellect, everyone is a fool.

      • Tom says:

        Excellent. I suppose I would be pretty grizzled too after years of being lambasted on the R-help mailing list. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly grateful for all that the core team and others have done. And I’m glad to know I was wrong about R core in general. Knowing the main people behind R are so cool somehow makes R cooler.

        Stats-groupies! I’m still laughing about that.

  3. Hmm, the word “privilege” was used on this one occasion by one member of R-core. As another (even longer time) member let me add this (to Pat’s summary): Brian’s point here was to show that we are *not* paid to develop R or to fulfill “customer demands”, but that most of us are working as professors with other obligations, and almost all of us have been spending an enormous amount of our own leisure time for the advancement of R.

    While that is not so uncommon in the world of Free Software, and I therefore would not have used the term “privilege” myself, we have been seeing a non-negligible (but still small in my view) fraction of useRs with an attitude of “please do this for me (and do it now) as I have paid for your product”.. and that has been an attitude somewhat “off putting” .. and one much less common in the FS universe.

    Let me emphasize that I’m very happy with the largest part of useRs and the FS spirit of collaboration and sharing… and I think I have encouraged collaboration and contributions very much and hope that this will continue happening into the future
    development of R and its package universe.

  4. Pingback: Highlights of R in Finance 2012 | Portfolio Probe | Generate random portfolios. Fund management software by Burns Statistics

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