Pointers/shortcuts in R with the ‘pointr’ package
R’s built-in copy-on-modify behavior prevents the user from having two symbols always pointing to the same object. Because pointers, as they are common in other programming languages, are essentially symbols (variable) related to an object that has already another symbol attached to it, it is clear that pointers do not fit naturally into R’s language concept.
However, pointers would indredibly useful, e.g. when you work with complex subsets of dataframes. These complex filtering conditions make the code harder to read and to maintain. For this reason, it would be good to have a kind of ‘abbreviation’ or ‘shortcut’ that lets you write such filtering conditions more efficiently.
pointr package provides functionality to create pointers to
any R object easily, including pointers to subsets/selections from
Installing and loading
To install the CRAN version of
pointr from the R console, just
install.packages("pointr", dependencies = TRUE)
pointr, it needs to be attached to the package search
Now, we are ready to go.
From the user’s perspective,
pointr provides three simple
ptr(symbol1, symbol2)creates a pointer called
symbol1to the object in
symbol2. The function has no return value. The
symbol1pointer variable is created by the function. Both arguments,
symbol2, are strings.
rm.ptr(symbol1, keep=TRUE)removes the pointer. It deletes the hidden access function
keep == FALSEit also deletes the pointer variable
symbol1. If, however
keep == FALSEa copy of the object that the pointer refers to is stored in the
symbol1argument is a string.
where(symbol1)shows the name of the object the pointer
symbol1points to. The
symbol1argument is a character vector.
Pointers work like the referenced variable itself. You can, for example, print them (which prints the contents of the referenced variable) or assign values to them (which assigns the values to the referenced variable).
Example 1: A simple vector
First, we define a variable
myvar and create a pointer
this variable. Accessing the pointer
mypointer actually reads
myvar <- 3 ptr("mypointer", "myvar") mypointer
##  3
Accordingly, changes to
myvar can be seen using the pointer.
myvar <- 5 mypointer
##  5
The pointer can also be used in assignments; this changes the variables the pointer points to:
mypointer <- 7 myvar
##  7
Example 2: Subsetting a dataframe
We create a simple dataframe:
df <- data.frame(list(var1 = c(1,2,3), var2 = c("a", "b", "c")), stringsAsFactors = FALSE) df
## var1 var2 ## 1 1 a ## 2 2 b ## 3 3 c
Now we set a pointer
sel to a subset of
i <- 2 ptr("sel", "df$var2[i]")
We can now change…
sel <- "hello" df$var2[i]
##  "hello"
and read data from
df using the
df$var2[i] <- "world" sel
##  "world"
We can also check easily where our pointer points to:
##  "world"
When the index variable
i changes, our pointer adjusts accordingly:
i <- 3 sel
##  "c"
Active bindings are used to create the
pointr pointers. For each
pointer an object with active binding is created. Every time the pointer
is accessed, the active binding calls a hidden function called
pointer is the name of the pointer variable. This
function evaluates the assignment (if the user assigns a value to the
pointer) or evaluates the object the pointer refers to as such (if the
user accesses the contents of the object the pointer points to). This
way it is possible not only to address objects like vectors or
dataframes but also to have pointers to things like, for example,
subsets of datafames.
pointr functions operate in the environment in which the
pointer is created.