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Non-Standard Evaluation and Function Composition in R

In this article we will discuss composing standard-evaluation interfaces (SE: parametric, referentially transparent, or “looks only at values”) and composing non-standard-evaluation interfaces (NSE) in R.

In R the package tidyeval/rlang is a tool for building domain specific languages intended to allow easier composition of NSE interfaces.

To use it you must know some of its structure and notation. Here are some details paraphrased from the major tidyeval/rlang client, the package dplyr: vignette('programming', package = 'dplyr')).

  • ":=" is needed to make left-hand-side re-mapping possible (adding yet another "more than one assignment type operator running around" notation issue).
  • "!!" substitution requires parenthesis to safely bind (so the notation is actually "(!! )", not "!!").
  • Left-hand-sides of expressions are names or strings, while right-hand-sides are quosures/expressions.

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On indexing operators and composition

In this article I will discuss array indexing, operators, and composition in depth. If you work through this article you should end up with a very deep understanding of array indexing and the deep interpretation available when we realize indexing is an instance of function composition (or an example of permutation groups or semigroups: some very deep yet accessible pure mathematics).


A permutation of indices

In this article I will be working hard to convince you a very fundamental true statement is in fact true: array indexing is associative; and to simultaneously convince you that you should still consider this amazing (as it is a very strong claim with very many consequences). Array indexing respecting associative transformations should not be a-priori intuitive to the general programmer, as array indexing code is rarely re-factored or transformed, so programmers tend to have little experience with the effect. Consider this article an exercise to build the experience to make this statement a posteriori obvious, and hence something you are more comfortable using and relying on.

R‘s array indexing notation is really powerful, so we will use it for our examples. This is going to be long (because I am trying to slow the exposition down enough to see all the steps and relations) and hard to follow without working examples (say with R), and working through the logic with pencil and a printout (math is not a spectator sport). I can’t keep all the steps in my head without paper, so I don’t really expect readers to keep all the steps in their heads without paper (though I have tried to organize the flow of this article and signal intent often enough to make this readable). Continue reading On indexing operators and composition