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\setkeys{Gin}{width=1\textwidth} \pagestyle{kjh} \title{\bigskip
\bigskip Choosing Your Workflow Applications} \author{\normalsize
Kieran Healy {\par\vskip 0.15em} \emph{Duke University}}
\published{The latest version of this document is at
\href{<span class="org-link">}{\texttt{</span>}}. The
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<span class="org-meta-line">#+begin_abstract
</span>\noindent As a beginning graduate student in the social sciences, what
sort of software should you use to do your work? More importantly,
what principles should guide your choices? This article offers some
answers. The short version is: write using a good text editor (there
are several to choose from); analyze quantitative data with R or
Stata; minimize errors by storing your work in a simple format (plain
text is best) and documenting it properly. Keep your projects in a
version control system. Back everything up regularly and
automatically. Don't get bogged down by gadgets, utilities or other
accoutrements: they are there to help you do your work, but often
waste your time by tempting you to tweak, update and generally futz
with them.<span class="org-meta-line">
You can do productive, maintainable and reproducible work with all
kinds of different software set-ups.\symbolfootnote<span class="org-footnote">[0]</span>{I thank Jake
Bowers for helpful comments.} This is the main reason I don't go
around encouraging everyone to convert to the applications I use. (My
rule is that I don't try to persuade anyone to switch if I can't
commit to offering them technical support during and after their
move.) So this discussion is not geared toward convincing you there is
One True Way to organize things. I do think, however, that if you're
in the early phase of your career as a graduate student in, say,
Sociology, or Economics, or Political Science, you should give some
thought to how you're going to organize and manage your
work.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:faculty]</span> This is so for two reasons. First, the transition to
graduate school is a good time to make changes. Early on, there's less
inertia and cost associated with switching things around than there
will be later. Second, in the social sciences, text and data
management skills are usually not taught to students explicitly. This
means that you may end up adopting the practices of your advisor or
mentor, continue to use what you are taught in your methods classes,
or just copy whatever your peers are doing. Following these paths may
lead you to an arrangement that you will be happy with. But maybe
not. It's worth looking at the options.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:faculty]</span> This may also be true if you are about to move from being
a graduate student to starting as a faculty member, though perhaps the
rationale is less compelling given the costs.
Although in what follows I advocate you take a look at several
applications in particular, it's not really about the gadgets or
utilities. The Zen of Organization is Not to be Found in Fancy
Software. Nor shall the true path of Getting Things Done be revealed
to you through the purchase of a nice <span class="org-link">Moleskine Notebook</span>. Instead, it
lies within. Unfortunately.
<span class="org-level-2">** Just Make Sure You Know What You Did </span>
For any kind of formal data analysis that leads to a scholarly paper,
however you do it, there are basic principles that you will want to
adhere to. Perhaps the most important thing is to do your work in a
way that leaves a coherent record of your actions. Instead of doing a
bit of statistical work and then just keeping the resulting table of
results or graphic that you produced, for instance, write down what
you did as a documented piece of code. Rather than figuring out but
not recording a solution to a problem you might have again, write down
the answer as an explicit procedure. Instead of copying out some
archival material without much context, file the source properly, or
at least a precise reference to it.
Why should you bother to do any of this? Because when you inevitably
return to your table or figure or quotation nine months down the line,
your future self will have been saved hours spent wondering what it
was you thought you were doing and where in the hell you got that
stuff from, anyway.
A second principle is that a document, file or folder should always be
able to tell you what it is. Beyond making your work reproducible, you
will also need some method for organizing and documenting your draft
papers, code, field notes, datasets, output files or whatever it is
you're working with. In a world of easily searchable files, this may
mean little more than keeping your work in plain text and giving it a
descriptive name. It should generally <span class="italic">/not/</span> mean investing time
creating some elaborate classification scheme or catalog that becomes
an end in itself to maintain.
A third principle is that repetitive and error-prone processes should
be automated if possible. (Software developers call this "DRY", or
<span class="org-link">Don't Repeat Yourself.</span>) This makes it easier to check for and correct
mistakes. Rather than copying and pasting code over and over to do
basically the same thing to different parts of your data, write a
general function that can be called whenever it's needed. Instead of
retyping and reformatting the bibliography for each of your papers as
you send it out to a journal, use software that can manage this for
you automatically.
There are many ways of implementing these principles. You could use
Microsoft Word, Endnote and SPSS. Or Textpad and Stata. Or a pile of
legal pads, a calculator, a pair of scissors and a box of file
folders. Still, software applications are not all created equal, and
some make it easier than others to do the Right Thing. For instance,
it is <span class="italic">/possible/</span> to produce well-structured, easily-maintainable
documents using Microsoft Word. But you have to use its styling and
outlining features strictly and responsibly, and most people don't
bother. You can maintain reproducible analyses in SPSS, but the
application isn't set up to do this automatically or efficiently, nor
does its design encourage good habits. So, it is probably a good idea
to invest some time learning about the alternatives. Many of them are
free to use or try out, and you are at a point in your career where
you can afford to play with different setups without too much trouble.
<span class="org-level-2">** What Sort of Computer Should You Use?</span>
The earliest choice you will face is buying your computer and deciding
what operating system to run on it. The leading candidates are
Microsoft Windows, Apple's Mac OS X, and some distribution of
Linux. Each of these platforms has gone some of the way --- in some
cases a long way --- toward remedying the main defects stereotypically
associated with it. I would characterize the present state of things
this way:
- Windows dominates the market. Because of this, far more viruses and
malware target Windows than any other OS. Long-standing design and
usability problems have been somewhat ameliorated in recent
years. The previous major version, Windows Vista, was not very
popular, though its main problems were not primarily related to
security. Its successor, Windows 7, is generally accepted to be a
solid improvement.
- Mac OS X runs only on computers made by Apple (the existence of
"hackintoshes" notwithstanding). Unlike in the past, Apple computers
today have the same basic hardware as computers that run
Windows. This has two consequences for those considering Mac OS
X. First, one can now make direct price comparisons between Apple
computers and PC alternatives (such as Dells, Lenovos, etc). In
general, the more similarly kitted-out a PC is to an Apple machine,
the more the price difference between the two goes away.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:compare]</span>
However, Apple does not compete at all price-points in the market,
so it will always be possible to configure a cheaper PC (with fewer
features) than one Apple sells. For the same reason, it is also
easier to find a PC configuration precisely tailored to some
particular set of needs or preferences (e.g., with a better display
but without some other feature or other) than may be available from
Second, because Apple now runs Intel-based hardware, installing and
running Windows is easy, and even catered to by Mac OS's Boot Camp
utility. Beyond installing OS X and Windows side-by-side,
third-party virtualization software is available (for about \$80
from <span class="org-link">VMWare</span> or <span class="org-link">Parallels</span>) that allows you to run Windows or Linux
seamlessly within OS X. Thus, Apple hardware is the only setup where
you can easily try out each of the main desktop operating systems.
- Linux is stable, secure, and free. User-oriented distributions such
as <span class="org-link">Ubuntu</span> are much better-integrated and well-organized than in the
past. The user environment is friendlier now. Installing, upgrading
and updating software --- a key point of frustration and
time-wasting in older Linux distributions --- is also much better
than it used to be, as Linux's package-management systems have
matured. It remains true that Linux users are much more likely to be
forced at some point to learn more than they might want to about the
guts of their operating system.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:compare]</span> Comparisons should still take account of remaining
differences in hardware design quality, and of course the OS itself.
These days, I use Mac OS X, and the discussion here reflects that
choice to some extent. But the other two options are also perfectly
viable alternatives. Rather than try to convince you to plump for one
option or another, let's look at some applications that will run on
all of these operating systems.
The dissertation, book, or articles you write will generally consist
of the main text, the results of data analysis (perhaps presented in
tables or figures) and the scholarly apparatus of notes and
references. Thus, as you put a paper or an entire dissertation
together you will want to be able to easily <span class="bold">*edit text*</span>, <span class="bold">*analyze
data*</span> and <span class="bold">*minimize error*</span>. In the next section I describe some
applications and tools designed to let you do this easily. They fit
together well (by design) and are all freely available for Windows,
Linux and Mac OS X. They are not perfect, by any means --- in fact,
some of them are kind of a pain in the ass to learn. (I'll discuss
some nicer alternatives, too.) But graduate-level research and writing
is kind of a pain in the ass to learn, too. Specialized tasks need
specialized tools and, unfortunately, even if they are very good at
what they do these tools don't always go out of their way to be
<span class="org-level-2">** Edit Text</span>
If you are going to be doing quantitative analysis of any kind then
you should write using a good text editor. The same can be said, I'd
argue, for working with any highly structured document subject to a
lot of revision, such as a scholarly paper. Text editors are different
from word processors. Unlike applications such as Microsoft Word, text
editors generally don't make a big effort to make what you write look
like as though it is being written on a printed page.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:cottrell]</span>
Instead, they focus on manipulating text efficiently and assisting you
with visualizing the logical structure of what you're writing. If you
are writing code to do some statistical analysis, for instance, then
at a minimum a good editor will highlight keywords and operators in a
way that makes the code more readable. Typically, it will also
passively signal to you when you've done something wrong syntactically
(such as forget a closing brace or semicolon or quotation mark), and
<span class="org-link">automagically</span> indent or tidy up your code as you write it. If you are
writing a scholarly paper or a dissertation, a good text editor can
make it easier to maintain control over the structure of your
document, and help ensure that cross-references and other
paraphernalia are correct. Just as the actual numbers are crunched by
your stats program --- not your text editor --- the typesetting of
your paper is handled by a specialized application, too. Perhaps more
importantly, a text editor <span class="italic">/manipulates plain text/</span> as opposed to
binary file formats like <span class="org-code">=.doc=</span> or <span class="org-code">=.pdf=</span>, and plain text is the
easiest format to manage, control, manipulate, back up, and come back
to later with some other application.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:cottrell]</span> For further argument about the advantages of
text-editors over word processors see Allin Cottrell's polemic, ``<span class="org-link">Word
Processors: Stupid and Inefficient</span>.''
<span class="bold">*Emacs*</span> is a text editor, in the same way the blue whale is a
mammal. Emacs is very powerful, and can become almost a complete
working environment in itself, should you so wish. (I don't really
recommend it.) Combining Emacs with some other applications and
add-ons (described below) allows you to manage writing and
data-analysis effectively. The <span class="org-link">Emacs Homepage</span> has links to Windows
and Linux versions. The two most easily available versions on the Mac
are <span class="org-link">GNU Emacs</span> itself and <span class="org-link">Aquamacs</span>. The former is the ``purest''
version of Emacs and does not implement many Mac conventions out of
the box. The latter makes an effort to integrate Emacs with the Mac
OS. For Windows users who would like to use Emacs, the developers
maintain an <span class="org-link">extensive FAQ</span> including information on where to download
a copy and how to install it.
While very powerful and flexible, Emacs is not particularly easy to
learn. Indeed, to many first-time users (especially those used to
standard applications on Windows or Mac OS) its conventions seem
bizarre any byzantine. As applications go, Emacs is quite ancient: the
first version was written by Richard Stallman in the 1970s. Because it
evolved in a much earlier era of computing (before decent graphical
displays, for instance, and possibly also fire), it doesn't share many
of the conventions of modern applications.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:emacs]</span> Emacs offers many
opportunities to waste your time learning its particular conventions,
tweaking its settings, and generally customizing the bejaysus out of
it. There are several good alternatives on each major platform, and I
discuss some of them below.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:emacs]</span> One of the reasons that Emacs' keyboard shortcuts are so
strange is that they have their roots in a model of computer that laid
out its command and function keys differently from modern
keyboards. It's that old.
At this point it's reasonable to ask why I am even mentioning it, let
alone recommending you try it. The answer is that, despite its
shortcomings, Emacs is nevertheless very, <span class="italic">/very/</span> good at managing the
typesetting and statistics applications I'm about to discuss. It's so
good, in fact, that Emacs has recently become quite popular amongst a
set of software developers pretty much all of whom are much younger
than Emacs itself. The upshot is that there has been a run of good,
new resources available for learning it and optimizing it easily. <span class="org-link">Meet
Emacs</span>, a screencast from PeepCode, walks you through the basics of the
If text editors like Emacs are not concerned with formatting your
documents nicely, then how do you produce properly typeset papers? You
need a way to take the text you write and turn it into a presentable
printed (or PDF) page. This is what <span class="bold">*LaTeX*</span> is for. LaTeX is a
freely-available, professional-quality typesetting system. It takes
text marked up in a way that describes the structure and formatting of
the document (where the sections and subsections are, for example, or
whether text should be <span class="bold">*in bold face*</span> or <span class="italic">/emphasized/</span>) and typesets it
properly. If you have ever edited the HTML of a web page, you'll know
the general idea of a markup language. If you haven't, the easiest way
to understand what I mean is to look at a segment of LaTeX markup. An
example is shown in Figure \ref{fig:latex}. You can get started with
LaTeX for Mac OS X by downloading <span class="org-link">the MacTeX distribution</span>. On Windows,
<span class="org-link">ProTeXt</span> and <span class="org-link">MiKTeX</span> are both widely-used. Linux vendors have their own
distributions, or you can install <span class="org-link">TeXLive</span> yourself.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:distributions]</span>
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:distributions]</span> For more about these distributions of TeX, see the
<span class="org-link">LaTeX project page</span>. The proliferation of "-TeX" acronyms and names can
be confusing to newcomers, as they may refer to a distribution of an
entire TeX/LaTeX platform (as with MikTeX or MacTeX), or to a
particular program or utility that comes with these distributions
(such as BibTeX, for dealing with bibliographies), or to some bit of
software that allows something else to work with or talk to the TeX
<span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\begin{figure}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+begin_src [latex]tex :exports code
</span> \subsection{Edit Text} This is what \textbf{LaTeX} is for. LaTeX is
a freely-available, professional-quality typesetting system. It
takes text marked up in a way that describes the structure and
formatting of the document (where the sections and subsections are,
for example, or whether text should be \textbf{in bold face} or
\emph{emphasized}) and typesets it properly. If you have ever edited
the HTML of a web page, you'll know the general idea of a markup
language. If you haven't, the easiest way to understand what I mean
is to look at a segment of LaTeX markup. An example is shown in
Figure \ref{fig:latex}.<span class="org-meta-line">
#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\caption{Part of the \LaTeX\ source for an earlier version of this document.}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\label{fig:latex}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\end{figure}
LaTeX works best with some tools that help you take full advantage of
it with a minimum of fuss. You can manage bibliographical references
in LaTeX documents using <span class="bold">*BibTeX*</span>. It does the same job as <span class="bold">*</span><span class="org-link"><span class="bold">Endnote</span></span><span class="bold">*</span>,
the commercial plug-in for managing references in Microsoft
Word. BibTeX comes with any standard LaTeX installation. Whichever
text editor or word processor you use, you should strongly consider
some kind of reference-manager software for your bibliographies. It
saves a tremendous amount of time because you can easily switch
between bibliographical formats, and you don't have to worry whether
every item referenced in your dissertation or paper is contained in
the bibliography.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:biblatex]</span>
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:biblatex]</span> If you plan to use BibTeX to manage your references,
take a look at <span class="org-link">BibLaTeX</span>, a package by Philipp Lehman designed to
overcome some of BibTeX's limitations. BibLaTeX is not yet officially
stable, but it is very well-documented, very usable, and has many nice
<span class="bold">*</span><span class="org-link"><span class="bold">AUCTeX</span></span><span class="bold">*</span> and <span class="bold">*RefTeX*</span> are available for Emacs. These packages allow
Emacs to understand the ins-and-outs of typesetting LaTeX documents,
color-coding the marked-up text to make it easier to read, providing
shortcuts to LaTeX's formatting commands, and helping you manage
references to Figures, Tables and bibliographic citations in the
text. These packages could also be listed under the ``Minimize Error''
section below, because they help ensure that, e.g., your references
and bibliography will be complete and consistently
formatted.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:fonts]</span>
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:fonts]</span> A note about fonts and LaTeX. It used to be that getting
LaTeX to use anything but a relatively small set of fonts was a very
tedious business. This is no longer the case. The <span class="org-link">XeTeX</span> engine makes
it trivially easy to use any Postscript, TrueType or OpenType font
installed on your system. XeTeX was originally developed for use on
the Mac, but is available now for Linux and Windows as well.
More information on Emacs and LaTeX is readily available via Google,
and there are several excellent books available to help you get
started. \textcite{kopka03:_guide_latex} and
\textcite{mittlebach04:_latex_compan} are good resources for learning
<span class="org-level-2">** Analyze Data and Present Results </span>
You will probably be doing some --- perhaps a great deal --- of
quantitative data analysis. <span class="bold">*R*</span> is an environment for statistical
computing. It's exceptionally well-supported, continually improving,
and has a very active expert-user community who have produced many
add-on packages. R has the ability to produce sophisticated and
high-quality statistical graphics. The documentation that comes with
the software is complete, if somewhat terse, but there are a large
number of excellent reference and teaching texts that illustrate its
use. These include \textcite{dalgaard02:_introd_statis_r,
fox02:_r_s_plus_compan_applied_regres, frank01:_regres_model_strat},
and \textcite{gelmanhill07:data_analysis}. Although it is a
command-line tool at its core, it has a good graphical interface as
well. You can download it from <span class="org-link">The R Project Homepage</span>.
R can be used directly within Emacs by way of a package called <span class="bold">*ESS*</span>
(for ``Emacs Speaks Statistics''). As shown in Figure \ref{fig:ess},
it allows you to work with your code in one Emacs frame and a live R
session in another right beside it. Because everything is inside
Emacs, it is easy to do things like send a chunk of your code over to
R using a keystroke. This is a very efficient way of doing interactive
data analysis while building up code you can use again in future.
<span class="org-meta-line">#+CAPTION: An R session running inside Emacs using ESS. The R code file is on the left, and R itself is running on the right. You write in the left-hand pane and use a keyboard shortcut to send bits of code over to the right-hand pane, where they are executed by R.</span>
<span class="org-meta-line">#+LABEL: fig:ess </span>
<span class="org-meta-line">#+ATTR_LaTeX: width=5in</span>
<span class="org-link">file:figures/ess-r-emacs.png</span>
You'll present your results in papers, but also in talks where you
will likely use some kind of presentation software. Microsoft's
PowerPoint is the most common application, but there are better
ones. If you wish, you can use LaTeX, too, creating slides with the
<span class="org-link">Beamer document class</span> and displaying them as full-screen
PDFs. Alternatively, on Mac OS X Apple's <span class="org-link">Keynote</span> is very good. One
benefit of using a Mac is that PDF is the operating system's native
display format, so PDF graphics created in R can simply be dropped
into Keynote without any compatibility problems. Microsoft's
PowerPoint is less friendly toward the clean integration of PDF files
in presentations.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:giving]</span>
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:giving]</span> The actual business of <span class="italic">/giving/</span> talks based on your work
is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice to say that there is
plenty of good advice available via Google, and you should pay
attention to it.
<span class="org-level-2">** Minimize Error </span>
We have already seen how the right set of tools can save you time by
automatically highlighting the syntax of your code, ensuring
everything you cite ends up in your bibliography, picking out mistakes
in your markup, and providing templates for commonly-used methods or
functions. Your time is saved twice over: you don't repeat yourself,
and you make fewer errors you'd otherwise have to fix. When it comes
to managing ongoing projects, minimizing error means addressing two
related problems. The first is to find ways to further reduce the
opportunity for errors to creep in without you noticing. This is
especially important when it comes to coding and analyzing data. The
second is to find a way to figure out, retrospectively, what it was
you did to generate a particular result. These problems are obviously
related, in that it's easy to make a retrospective assessment of
well-documented and error-free work. As a practical matter, we want a
convenient way to document work as we go, so that we can retrace our
steps in order to reproduce our results. We'll also want to be able to
smoothly recover from disaster when it befalls us.
Errors in data analysis often well up out of the gap that typically
exists between the procedure used to produce a figure or table in a
paper and the subsequent use of that output later. In the ordinary way
of doing things, you have the code for your data analysis in one file,
the output it produced in another, and the text of your paper in a
third file. You do the analysis, collect the output and copy the
relevant results into your paper, often manually reformatting them on
the way. Each of these transitions introduces the opportunity for
error. In particular, it is easy for a table of results to get
detached from the sequence of steps that produced it. Almost everyone
who has written a quantitative paper has been confronted with the
problem of reading an old draft containing results or figures that
need to be revisited or reproduced (as a result of the peer-review
process, say) but which lack any information about the circumstances
of their creation. Academic papers take a long time to get through the
cycle of writing, review, revision, and publication, even when you're
working hard the whole time. It is not uncommon to have to return to
something you did two years previously in order to answer some
question or other from a reviewer. You do not want to have to do
everything over from scratch in order to get the right answer. I am
not exaggerating when I say that, whatever the challenges of
replicating the results of someone else's quantitative analysis, after
a fairly short period of time authors themselves find it hard to
replicate their <span class="italic">/own/</span> work. Computer Science people have a term of art
for the inevitable process of decay that overtakes a project simply in
virtue of its being left alone on the hard drive for six months or
more: bit--rot.
<span class="org-level-3">*** Literate Programming with Sweave </span>
A first step toward closing this gap is to use <span class="bold">*Sweave*</span> when doing
quantitative analysis in R. Sweave is a <span class="italic">/literate programming/</span>
framework designed to integrate the documentation of a data analysis
and its execution. You write the text of your paper (or, more often,
your report documenting a data analysis) as normal. Whenever you want
to run a model, produce a table or display a figure, rather than paste
in the results of your work from elsewhere, you write down the R code
that will produce the output you want. These ``chunks'' of code are
distinguished from the regular text by a special delimiter at their
beginning and end. A small sample is shown in Figure
\ref{fig:codechunk}. The code chunk begins with the line <span class="org-code">=&lt;&lt;load-data,
echo=true&gt;&gt;==</span>. The character sequence <span class="org-code">=&lt;&lt;&gt;&gt;==</span> is the marker for the
beginning of a chunk: <span class="org-code">=load-data=</span> is just a label for the chunk and
<span class="org-code">=echo=true=</span> is an option. The end of each chunk is marked by the <span class="org-code">=@=</span>
<span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\begin{figure}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+begin_src r :exports code</span>
\subsection{Some exploratory analysis} In this section we do some
exploratory analysis of the data. We begin by reading <span class="keyword">in</span> the data
file: &lt;&lt;load-data, echo=true&gt;&gt;=
<span class="comment-delimiter"># </span><span class="comment">load the data.
</span> <span class="constant">&lt;-</span> read.csv(<span class="string">"data/sampledata.csv"</span>,header=<span class="type">TRUE</span>)
<span class="comment-delimiter"># </span><span class="comment">OLS model
</span> out <span class="constant">&lt;-</span> lm(y ~ x1 + x2,
<span class="comment-delimiter"># </span><span class="comment">... More R code would follow until the end delimiter:
</span> @ % now we are back to normal latex This concludes the exploratory
<span class="org-meta-line">#+end_src
#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\caption{\LaTeX\ and R code mixed together in an Sweave file.}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\label{fig:codechunk}
</span><span class="org-meta-line">#+LaTeX:</span><span class="comment"> </span><span class="org-block">\end{figure}
When you're ready, you "weave" the file: you feed it to R, which
processes the code chunks, and spits out a finished version where the
code chunks have been replaced by their output. This is now a
well-formed LaTeX file that you can then turn into a PDF document in
the normal way. Conversely, if you just want to extract the code
you've written from the surrounding text, then you "tangle" the file,
which results in an <span class="org-code">=.R=</span> file. It's pretty straightforward in
practice. Sweave files can be edited in Emacs, as ESS understands
The strength of this approach is that is makes it much easier to
document your work properly. There is just one file for both the data
analysis and the writeup. The output of the analysis is created on the
fly, and the code to do it is embedded in the paper. If you need to do
multiple but identical (or very similar) analyses of different bits of
data, Sweave can make generating consistent and reliable reports much
A weakness of the Sweave model is that when you make changes, you have
to reprocess the all of the code to reproduce the final LaTeX file. If
your analysis is computationally intensive this can take a long
time. You can go a little ways toward working around this by designing
projects so that they are relatively modular, which is good practice
anyway. But for projects that are unavoidably large or computationally
intensive, the add-on package <span class="org-code">=cacheSweave=</span>, available from the R
website, does a good job alleviating the problem.
<span class="org-level-3">*** Literate Programming with Org-mode</span>
<span class="bold">*</span><span class="org-link"><span class="bold">Org-mode</span></span><span class="bold">*</span> is an Emacs mode originally designed to make it easier to
take notes, make outlines and manage to-do lists. Very much in the
spirit of Emacs itself, its users have extended it so that it is
capable of all kinds of other things, too, such as calendar
management, time-tracking, and so on. One very powerful extension to
org-mode is <span class="org-link">Org-Babel</span>, which is a generalized literate-programming
framework for org-mode documents. It works like Sweave, except that
instead of writing your papers, reports, or documentation in LaTeX
and your code in R, you write text in Org-mode's lightweight markup
syntax and your code in any one of a large number of supported
languages. Org-mode has very powerful export capabilities, so it can
convert <span class="org-code"></span> files to LaTeX, HTML, and many other formats quite
easily. Examples of it in use can be seen at the <span class="org-link">Org-babel website</span>.
This article was written as a plain-text <span class="org-code"></span> file and the raw
version is available for inspection <span class="org-link">as a repository on GitHub</span>. You
can treat Org-Babel just as you would Sweave, or you can take
advantage of the fact that it's fully part of org-mode and get all of
the latter's functionality for free.
<span class="org-level-3">*** Use Revision Control</span>
The task of documenting your work at the level of particular pieces of
code or edits to paragraphs in individual files can become more
involved over time, as projects grow and change. This can pose a
challenge to the Literate Programming model. Moreover, what if you are
not doing statistical analysis at all, but still want to keep track of
your work as it develops? The best thing to do is to institute some
kind of <span class="bold">*version*</span> <span class="bold">*control*</span> <span class="bold">*system*</span> to keep a complete record of
changes to a file, a folder, or a project. This can be used in
conjunction with or independently of a documentation method like
Sweave. A good version control system allows you to easily "rewind the
tape" to earlier incarnations of your notes, drafts, papers and code,
and lets you keep track of what's current without having to keep
directories full of files with confusingly similar names like
<span class="org-code">=Paper-1.txt=</span>, <span class="org-code">=Paper-2.txt=</span>, <span class="org-code">=Paper-conferenceversion.txt=</span>, and so
In the social sciences and humanities, you are most likely to have
come across the idea of version control by way of the ``Track
Changes'' feature in Microsoft Word, which lets you see the edits you
and your collaborators have made to a document. Think of true version
control as a way to keep track of whole projects (not just individual
documents) in a much better-organized, comprehensive, and transparent
fashion. Modern version control systems such as <span class="org-link">Subversion</span>, <span class="org-link">Mercurial</span>
and <span class="org-link">Git</span> can, if needed, manage very large projects with many branches
spread across multiple users. As such, they require a little time to
get comfortable with, mostly because you have to get used to some new
concepts related to tracking your files, and then learn how your
version control system implements these concepts. Because of their
power, these tools might seem like overkill for individual
users. (Again, though, many people find Word's ``Track Changes''
feature indispensable once they begin using it.) But version control
systems can be used quite straightforwardly in a basic fashion, and
they increasingly come with front ends that can be easily integrated
with your text editor.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:magit]</span> Moreover, you can meet these systems
half way. The excellent <span class="org-link">DropBox</span>, for example, allows you to share
files between different computers you own, or with collaborators or
general public. But it also automatically version-controls the
contents of these folders (using Subversion behind the scenes).
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:magit]</span> Emacs comes with support for a variety of VCS systems built
in. There's also a very good add-on package, <span class="org-link">Magit</span>, devoted
specifically to Git.
Revision control has significant benefits. A tool like Git or
Mercurial combines the virtues of version control with backups,
because every repository is a complete, self-contained,
cryptographically signed copy of the project. It puts you in the habit
of recording (or ``committing'') changes to a file or project as you
work on it, and (briefly) documenting those changes as you go. It
allows you to easily test out alternative lines of development by
branching a project. It allows collaborators to work on a project at
the same time without sending endless versions of the "master" copy
back and forth via email, and it provides powerful tools that allow
you to automatically merge or (when necessary) manually compare
changes that you or others have made. Perhaps most importantly, it
lets you revisit any stage of a project's development at will and
reconstruct what it was you were doing. This can be tremendously
useful whether you are writing code for a quantitative analysis,
managing field notes, or writing a paper.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:dvcs]</span> While you will
probably not need to control everything in this way (though some
people do), I <span class="italic">/strongly/</span> suggest you consider managing at least the
core set of text files that make up your project (e.g., the code that
does the analysis and generates your tables and figures; the dataset
itself; your notes and working papers, the chapters of your
dissertation, etc). As time goes by you will generate a complete,
annotated record of your actions that is also a backup of your project
at every stage of its development. Services such as <span class="org-link">GitHub</span> allow you
to store public or (for a fee) private project repositories and so can
be a way to back up work offsite as well as a platform for
collaboration and documentation of your work.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:dvcs]</span> Mercurial and Git are <span class="italic">/distributed/</span> revision control systems
(DVCSs) which can handle projects with many contributors and very
complex, decentralized structures. Bryan O'Sullivan's <span class="italic">/</span><span class="org-link"><span class="italic">Distributed
Version Control with Mercurial</span></span><span class="italic">/</span> is a free, comprehensive guide to one
of the main DVCS tools, but also provides a clear account of how
modern version-control systems have developed, together with the main
concepts behind them. For Git, I recommend starting <span class="org-link">at this site</span> and
following the links to the documentation.
<span class="org-level-3">*** You don't need backups until you really, really need them</span>
Regardless of whether you choose to use a formal revision control
system, you should nevertheless have <span class="italic">/some/</span> kind of systematic method
for keeping track of versions of your files. The task of backing up
and synchronizing your files is related to the question of version
control. Apple's Time Machine software, for example, backs up and
versions your files, allowing you to step back to particular instances
of the file you want. Other GUI-based file synchronization tools, such
as <span class="org-link">DropBox</span> and <span class="org-link">SugarSync</span>, are available across various platforms.
Even if you have no need for a synchronization application, you will
still need to back up your work regularly. Because you are lazy and
prone to magical thinking, you will not do this responsibly by
yourself. This is why the most useful backup systems are the ones that
require a minimum amount of work to set up and, once organized, back
up everything automatically to an external (or remote) hard disk
without you having to remember to do anything. On Macs, Apple's <span class="bold">*Time
Machine*</span> software is built in to the operating system and makes
backups very easy. On Linux, you can use <span class="org-link">rsync</span> for backups. It is also
worth looking into a secure, peer-to-peer or offsite backup service
like <span class="org-link">Crashplan</span> or <span class="org-link">Spider Oak</span>. Offsite backup means that in the event
(unlikely, but not unheard of) that your computer <span class="italic">/and/</span> your local
backups are stolen or destroyed, you will still have copies of your
files.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:tornado]</span> As Jamie Zawinski <span class="org-link">has remarked</span>, when it comes to
losing your data ``The universe tends toward maximum irony. Don't push
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:tornado]</span> I know of someone whose office building was hit by a
tornado. She returned to find her files and computer sitting in a foot
of water. You never know.
<span class="org-level-2">** Pulling Things Together: An Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences </span>
A step-by-step guide to downloading and installing every piece of
software I've mentioned so far is beyond the scope of this
discussion. But let's say you take the plunge and download Emacs, a
TeX distribution, R, and maybe even Git. Now what? If you're going to
work in Emacs, there are a variety of tweaks and add-ons that are very
helpful but not set by default. To make things a little easier, I
maintain an <span class="org-link">Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences</span>. It's designed
to smooth out Emacs' rough edges by giving you a drop-in collection of
default settings, as well as automatically installing some important
add-on packages. It will, I hope, help you skirt the abyss of Setting
Things Up Forever. The <span class="org-link">original version</span> of the kit was written by Phil
Hagelberg and was made to go with the "<span class="org-link">Meet Emacs</span>" screencast
mentioned above. It was aimed at software developers in general. Eric
Schulte, one of the authors of Org-babel, <span class="org-link">modified and further
extended</span> the kit. <span class="org-link">My version</span> adds support for AucTeX, ESS, and other
bits and pieces mentioned here. As you can see if you follow the
links, the kit is stored on GitHub and you are free to fork it and
modify it to your own liking.
<span class="org-level-2">** Do I Have to Use this Stuff?</span>
<span class="org-level-3">*** Pros and Cons </span>
Using Emacs, LaTeX and R together has four main advantages. First,
these applications are all free. You can try them out without much in
the way of monetary expense. (Your time may be a different matter, but
although you don't believe me, you have more of that now than you will
later.) Second, they are all open-source projects and are all
available for Mac OS X, Linux and Windows. Portability is important,
as is the long-term viability of the platform you choose to work
with. If you change your computing system, your work can move with you
easily. Third, they deliberately implement ``best practices'' in their
default configurations. Writing documents in LaTeX encourages you to
produce papers with a clear structure, and the output itself is of
very high quality aesthetically. Similarly, by default R implements
modern statistical methods in a way that discourages you from thinking
about statistics in terms of canned solutions to standard problems. It
also produces figures that accord with accepted standards of efficient
and effective information design. And fourth, the applications are
closely integrated. Everything (including version control systems) can
work inside Emacs, and all of them talk to or can take advantage of
the others. R can output LaTeX tables, for instance, even if you don't
use Sweave.
None of these applications is perfect. They are powerful, but they can
be hard to learn. However, you don't have to start out using all of
them at once, or learn everything about them right away --- the only
thing you <span class="italic">/really/</span> need to start doing immediately is keeping good
backups. There are a number of ways to try them out in whole or in
part. You could try LaTeX first, using any editor. Or you could try
Emacs and LaTeX together. You could begin using R and its GUI.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:try]</span>
Sweave or Org-babel can be left till last, though I have found these
increasingly useful since I've started using them, and wish that all
of my old project directories had some documentation in one or other
of these formats. Revision control is more beneficial when implemented
at the beginning of projects, and best of all when committing changes
to a project becomes a habit of work. But it can be added at any time.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:try]</span> If you already know Emacs, you should certainly try R using
ESS instead of the R GUI, though.
You are not condemned to use these applications forever, either. LaTeX
and (especially) Org-mode documents can be converted into many other
formats. Your text files are editable in any other text
editor. Statistical code is by nature much less portable, but the
openness of R means that it is not likely to become obsolete or
inaccessible any time soon.
A disadvantage of these particular applications is that I'm in a
minority with respect to other people in my field. This is less and
less true in the case of R, but remains so for LaTeX. (It also varies
across social science disciplines.) Most people use Microsoft Word to
write papers, and if you're collaborating with people (people you
can't boss around, I mean) this can be an issue. Similarly, journals
and presses in my field often do not accept material marked up in
LaTeX, though again there are important exceptions. Converting files
to a format Word understands can be tedious (although it is quite
doable).<span class="org-footnote">[fn:lightweight]</span> I find these difficulties are outweighed by
the day-to-day benefits of using these applications, on the one hand,
and their longer-term advantages of portability and simplicity, on the
other. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:lightweight]</span> Getting from LaTeX to Word is easiest via HTML. But
if you really want to maximize the portability of your papers or
especially your reading notes or memos, consider writing them in a
modern lightweight markup format. Org-mode's native format is
effectively one of these already, and it provides built-in support for
export to many others. An org-mode file can also be exported easily to
rich-text or HTML, and from there Word or Google Docs will open
it. Other options for lightweight markup include <span class="org-link">Markdown</span> or its close
relation, <span class="org-link">MultiMarkdown</span>. Documents written in these formats are easy
to read in their plain-text form but can be simply and directly
converted into HTML, Rich Text, LaTeX, Word, or other
formats. TextMate has good support for Markdown and MultiMarkdown,
allowing you to do these conversions more or less automatically. John
MacFarlane's <span class="org-link">Pandoc</span> is a powerful tool that can read markdown and
(subsets of) reStructuredText, HTML, Org, and LaTeX; and it can write
to MarkDown, reStructuredText, HTML, LaTeX, ConTeXt, RTF, DocBook XML,
groff man, and S5 HTML slide shows. Pandoc is terrifically useful and
I recommend checking it out. Lightweight markup languages like
Markdown and Textile have a harder time dealing with some of the
requirements of scholarly writing, especially the machinery of
bibliographies and citations. If they could handle this task elegantly
they would be almost perfect, but in practice this would probably just
turn them back into something much less lightweight. Even here,
though, good progress is being made as Pandoc will soon include
support for citations.
<span class="org-level-3">*** Some Alternatives</span>
There are many other applications you might put at the center of your
workflow, depending on need, personal preference, willingness to pay
some money, or desire to work on a specific platform. For text
editing, especially, there is a plethora of choices. On the Mac,
quality editors include <span class="org-link">BBEdit</span> (beloved of many web developers),
<span class="org-link">Smultron</span>, and <span class="org-link">TextMate</span> (shown in Figure \ref{fig:tm}). TextMate has
strong support for LaTeX and good (meaning, ESS-like) support for
R. Because it is a modern application written specifically for the Mac
it can take advantage of features of OS X that Emacs cannot, and is
much better integrated with the rest of the operating system. It also
has good support for many of the ancillary applications discussed
above, such as version control systems.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:tm2]</span> On Linux, an
alternative to Emacs is <span class="org-link">vi</span> or <span class="org-link">Vim</span>, but there are many others. For
Windows there is <span class="org-link">Textpad</span>, <span class="org-link">WinEdt</span>, <span class="org-link">UltraEdit</span>, and <span class="org-link">NotePad++</span> amongst
many others. Most of these applications have strong support for LaTeX
and some also have good support for statistics programming.
<span class="org-meta-line">#+CAPTION: An earlier version of this document being edited in TextMate.</span>
<span class="org-meta-line">#+LABEL: fig:tm</span>
<span class="org-meta-line">#+ATTR_LaTeX: width=5in</span>
<span class="org-link">file:figures/textmate.png</span>
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:tm2]</span> Its next major version, TextMate 2, has been in development
for a very long time and is awaited with a mixture of near-religious
hope, chronic anxiety and deep frustration by users of the original.
For statistical analysis in the social sciences, the main alternative
to R is <span class="org-link">Stata</span>. Stata is not free, but like R it is versatile,
powerful, extensible and available for all the main computing
platforms. It has a large body of user-contributed software. In recent
versions its graphics capabilities have improved a great deal. ESS can
run Stata inside Emacs in the same way as it can do for R. Other
editors can also be made to work with Stata: Jeremy Freese provides an
<span class="org-link">UltraEdit syntax highlighting file for Stata</span>. There is a <span class="org-link">Stata mode</span>
for WinEdt. Friedrich Huebler has a <span class="org-link">guide for integrating Stata with
programming editors</span>. Gabriel Rossman's blog <span class="org-link">Code and Culture</span> has many
examples of using Stata in the day-to-day business of analyzing
sociological data.
Amongst social scientists, revision control is perhaps the least
widely-used of the tools I have discussed. But I am convinced that it
is the most important one over the long term. While tools like Git and
Mercurial take a little getting used to both conceptually and in
practice, the services they provide are extremely useful. It is
already quite easy to use version control in conjunction with some of
the text editors discussed above: Emacs and TextMate both have support
for various DVCSs. On the Mac, <span class="org-link">CornerStone</span> and <span class="org-link">Versions</span> are
full-featured applications designed to make it easy to use
Subversion. Taking a longer view, version control is likely to become
more widely available through intermediary services or even as part of
the basic functionality of operating systems.
<span class="org-level-2">** A Broader Perspective </span>
It would be nice if all you needed to do your work was a box software
of software tricks and shortcuts. But of course it's a bit more
complicated than that. In order to get to the point where you can
write a paper, you need to be organized enough to have read the right
literature, maybe collected some data, and most importantly asked an
interesting question in the first place. No amount of software is
going to solve those problems for you. Too much concern with the
details of your setup hinders your work. Indeed --- and I speak from
experience here --- this concern is itself a kind self-imposed
distraction that placates work-related anxiety in the short term while
storing up more of it for later.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:merlin]</span> On the hardware side,
there's the absurd productivity counterpart to the hedonic treadmill,
where for some reason it's hard to get through the to-do list even
though the caf&#233; you're at contains more computing power than was
available to the Pentagon in 1965. On the software side, the besetting
vice of productivity-enhancing software is the tendency to waste a lot
of your time installing, updating, and generally obsessing about your
productivity-enhancing software.<span class="org-footnote">[fn:devil]</span> Even more generally,
efficient workflow habits are themselves just a means to the end of
completing the projects you are really interested in, of making the
things you want to make, of finding the answers to the questions that
brought you to graduate school. The process of idea generation and
project management can be run well, too, and perhaps even the business
of choosing what the projects should be in the first place. But this
is not the place --- and I am not the person --- to be giving advice
about that.
All of which is just to reiterate that it's the principles of workflow
management that are important. The software is just a means to an
end. One of the <span class="org-link">smartest, most productive people I've ever known</span> spent
half of his career writing on a typewriter and the other half on an
<span class="org-link">IBM Displaywriter</span>. His backup solution for having hopelessly outdated
hardware was to keep a spare Displaywriter in a nearby closet, in case
the first one broke. It never did.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:merlin]</span> See <span class="org-link">Merlin Mann</span>, amongst others, for more on this point.
<span class="org-footnote">[fn:devil]</span> Mike Hall's brilliant "<span class="org-link">Org-Mode in your Pocket is a
GNU-Shaped Devil</span>" makes this point very well.
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