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Getting Help
Roger D. Peng, Associate Professor of Biostatistics
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
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io2012
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tomorrow
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selfcontained

• Asking questions via email is different from asking questions in person
• People on the other side do not have the background information you have
• they also don’t know you personally (usually)
• Other people are busy; their time is limited
• The instructor (me) is here to help in all circumstances but may not be able to answer all questions!

• Try to find an answer by searching the archives of the forum you plan to post to.
• Try to find an answer by searching the Web.
• Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.
• If you're a programmer, try to find an answer by reading the source code.

• It’s important to let other people know that you’ve done all of the previous things already
• one email round wasted

Example: Error Messages

> library(datasets)
> data(airquality)
> cor(airquality)
Error in cor(airquality) : missing observations in cov/cor

• What steps will reproduce the problem?
• What is the expected output?
• What do you see instead?
• What version of the product (e.g. R, packages, etc.) are you using?
• What operating system?

• Stupid: "Help! Can't fit linear model!"
• Smart: "R 3.0.2 lm() function produces seg fault with large data frame, Mac OS X 10.9.1"
• Smarter: "R 3.0.2 lm() function on Mac OS X 10.9.1 -- seg fault on large data frame"

Do

• Describe the goal, not the step
• Do provide the minimum amount of information necessary (volume is not precision)
• Be courteous (it never hurts)
• Follow up with the solution (if found)

Don't

• Claim that you’ve found a bug
• Grovel as a substitute for doing your homework
• Post homework questions on mailing lists (we’ve seen them all)
• Email multiple mailing lists at once
• Ask others to debug your broken code without giving a hint as to what sort of problem they should be searching for

Case Study: A Recent Post to the R-devel Mailing List

Subject: large dataset - confused
Message:
I'm trying to load a dataset into R, but
I'm completely lost. This is probably
due mostly to the fact that I'm a
complete R newb, but it's got me stuck
in a research project.

Response

Yes, you are lost. The R posting guide is
at http://www.r-project.org/posting-
guide.html and will point you to the
right list and also the manuals (at
e.g. http://cran.r-project.org/
manuals.html, and one of them seems
exactly what you need).

Analysis: What Went Wrong?

• Question was sent to the wrong mailing list (R-devel instead of R-help)
• Email subject was very vague
• Question was very vague
• Problem was not reproducible
• No evidence of any effort made to solve the problem
• RESULT: Recipe for disaster!

Places to Turn

• Class discussion board; your fellow students
• r-help@r-project.org
• Other project-specific mailing lists (This talk inspired by Eric Raymond’s “How to ask questions the smart way”)