[R] Function hints

From: hadley wickham <h.wickham_at_gmail.com>
Date: Mon 19 Jun 2006 - 22:51:07 EST

One of the recurring themes in the recent UserR conference was that many people find it difficult to find the functions they need for a particular task. Sandy Weisberg suggested a small idea he would like to see: a hints function that given an object, lists likely operations. I've done my best to implement this function using the tools currently available in R, and my code is included at the bottom of this email (I hope that I haven't just duplicated something already present in R). I think Sandy's idea is genuinely useful, even in the limited form provided by my implementation, and I have already discovered a few useful functions that I was unaware of.

While developing and testing this function, I ran into a few problems which, I think, represent underlying problems with the current documentation system. These are typified by the results of running hints on a object produced by glm (having class c("glm", "lm")). I have outlined (very tersely) some possible solutions. Please note that while these solutions are largely technological, the problem is at heart sociological: writing documentation is no easier (and perhaps much harder) than writing a scientific publication, but the rewards are fewer.


Relatively trivial problems:


hints <- function(x) {

	db <- eval(utils:::.hsearch_db())
	if (is.null(db)) {
		help.search("abcd!", rebuild=TRUE, agrep=FALSE)
		db <- eval(utils:::.hsearch_db())

	base <- db$Base
	alias <- db$Aliases
	key <- db$Keywords

	m <- all.methods(class=class(x))
	m_id <- alias[match(m, alias[,1]), 2]
	keywords <- lapply(m_id, function(id) key[key[,2] %in% id, 1])

	f.names <- cbind(m, base[match(m_id, base[,3]), 4])
	f.names <- unlist(lapply(1:nrow(f.names), function(i) {
		if (is.na(f.names[i, 2])) return(f.names[i, 1])
		a <- methodsplit(f.names[i, 1])
		b <- methodsplit(f.names[i, 2])
		if (a[1] == b[1]) f.names[i, 2] else f.names[i, 1]		
	hints <- cbind(f.names, base[match(m_id, base[,3]), 5])
	hints <- hints[order(tolower(hints[,1])),]
	hints <- rbind(    c("--------", "---------------"), hints)
	rownames(hints) <- rep("", nrow(hints))
	colnames(hints) <- c("Function", "Task")
	hints[is.na(hints)] <- "(Unknown)"
	class(hints) <- "hints"


print.hints <- function(x, ...) print(unclass(x), quote=FALSE)

all.methods <- function(classes) {

	methods <- do.call(rbind,lapply(classes, function(x) {
		m <- methods(class=x)
		t(sapply(as.vector(m), methodsplit)) #m[attr(m, "info")$visible]

methodsplit <- function(m) {

	parts <- strsplit(m, "\\.")[[1]]
	if (length(parts) == 1) {
		c(name=m, class="")
	} else{
		c(name=paste(parts[-length(parts)], collapse="."), class=parts[length(parts)])


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