Monday, April 6, 2020

Interview of Hadley Wickham (woot)

The real purpose of this blog, you may not have realised, is to have a place to put things where I can conveniently find them again.  Am in the middle of an interview of Hadley Wickham by Will Chase, an interview in which HW (we are not worthy) says:

So I think for a long time there was this big pool of people that could potentially be contributing, but they were really put off by R-help (note: R-help is a notoriously hostile mailing list and was the only way to get help with R in the early days). And then the timing was lucky enough that there were two significant changes that allowed the community to reinvent itself to some degree.

The first of those was StackOverflow. It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time, StackOverflow was so incredibly welcoming and friendly. And I think part of that was that in contrast to R-help, anything would seem welcoming and friendly, 

This made me laugh, because I had spent countless hours trawling through installments of the R-help mailing list, and the principal contributors of answers (Brian Ripley, Uwe Ligges, Duncan Murdoch, Peter Dalgaard, others I could once have named without thinking) were often very severe. But after one had trawled through HUNDREDS of installments one couldn't help but be struck by the generosity of contributors who kept answering question after question for months, years on end.  To this day I feel an affection for Ripley, Ligges and all (the mere name Uwe Ligges has only to come to mind to make me smile), an affection yet to be inspired by professional contacts who are EXTREMELY friendly and dodge questions like so many bullets. 

The whole thing here (this is, of course, the link I want in a convenient place).


Paolo said...

I had the same exact feeling reading those words. As a LONG time R user (early 2000s) I think that, despite the sometimes "round around the edges" approach (I myself was 'Ripleyd' a couple of times), all of them deserve gratitude from the entire R community for their hard work.

Andrew Gelman said...


You might be interested in something I posted a few years ago on the Ripley Paradox

Paolo said...

An amazing post which summarizes perfectly in few sentences my thoughts about the contributors:
"Being mean isn’t so nice, but it can be an effective way of helping the list function better, thus serving the public good. Contributors to lists can often seem snappy and downright nasty, but they’re really being altruistic."

"The downside of these mean commenters is sometimes they seem sooooo eager to give snappy answers to stupid questions, that I fear that they go out of their way to answer the easy questions and skip out on the toughies. "

Thank you, Helen!

Languagehat said...

Since Helen can't leave a comment on her own post (!), I'll provide it for her (quoted from there): "Andrew! Such a great post!" (I myself, while I appreciate the theoretical point about meanness serving the public good, find that in practice most people who say/write mean things are just assholes and don't give a damn about the public good. Mind you, it's important to distinguish meanness from curtness [omission of conventional markers of politeness]. New Yorkers are often accused of being mean, when in fact they simply don't want either their own or other people's time wasted; they will interrupt you impatiently if you start rambling about how different it is here from the way it was back in Topeka, but they will often go out of their way to help you get where you're going if you ask for directions. But they'll walk fast; try to keep up.)

Andrew Gelman said...


Sure, but if Brian Ripley (the famous statistician and commenter on the R list) didn't give a damn about the public good, why was he on this free help forum in the first place? Why not just snap at the servants or whatever? I feel like his ultimate goal was altruistic, even if his actions were mediated by his particular style. (Then again, I'd say that about myself.)

Languagehat said...

Fair enough, but as someone with no experience with the R list or the topics discussed on it, I have to go with what I know, which is people being mean. You're doubtless right about Ripley.