Personal R Packages

I came across this R package on GitHub, and it made me so excited that I decided to write a post about it. It’s a compilation by Karl Broman of various R functions that he’s found helpful to write throughout the years.

Wouldn’t it be great if incoming graduate students in Biostatistics/Statistics were taught to create a personal repository of functions like this? Not only is it a great way to learn how to write an R package, but it also encourages good coding techniques for newer students (since it encourages them to write separate functions with documentation). It also allows for easy reprodicibility and collaboration both within the school and with the broader community. Case in point — I wanted to use one of Karl’s functions (which I found via his blog… which I found via Twitter), and all I had to do was run:


(Note that install_github is a function in the devtools package. I would link to the GitHub page for that package but somehow that seems circular…)

For whatever reason, when I think of R packages, I think of big, unified projects with a specified scientific aim. This was a great reminder that R packages exist solely for making it easier to distribute code for any purpose. Distributing tips and tricks is certainly a worthy purpose!

About that p-value article…

Last night on twitter there was a bit of a firestorm over this New York Times snippet about p-values (here is my favorite twitter-snark response). While the article has a surprising number of controversial sentences for only 180 words, the most offending sentence is:

By convention, a p-value higher than 0.05 usually indicates that the results of the study, however good or bad, were probably due only to chance.

One problem with this sentence is that it commits a statistical cardinal sin by stating the equivalent of “the null hypothesis is probably true.” The correct interpretation for a p-value greater than 0.05 is “we cannot reject the null hypothesis” which can mean many things (for example, we did not collect enough data).

Another problem I have with the sentence is that the phrase “however good or bad” is incredibly misleading — it’s like saying that even if you see a fantastically big result with low variance, you still might call it “due to chance.” The idea of a p-value is that it’s a way of defining good or bad. Even if there’s a “big” increase or decrease in an outcome, is it really meaningful if there’s bigger variance in that change? (No.)

I’d hate to be accused of being an armchair critic, so here is my attempt to convey the meaning/importance of p-values to a non-stat, non-math audience. I think the key to having a good discussion of this is to provide more philosophical background (and I think that’s why these discussion are always so difficult). Yes this is over three times the word count of the original NYTimes article, but fortunately the internet has no word limits.

(n.b. I don’t actually hate to be accused of being an armchair critic. Being an armchair critic is the best part of tweeting, by far.)

(Also fair warning — I am totally not opening the “should we even be using the p-value” can of worms.)

Putting a Value to ‘Real’ in Medical Research

by Hilary Parker

In the US judicial system, a person on trial is “innocent until proven guilty.” Similarly, in a clinical trial for a new drug, the drug must be assumed ineffective until “proven” effective. And just like in the courts, the definition of “proven” is fuzzy. Jurors must believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that someone is guilty to convict. In medicine, the p-value is one attempt at summarizing whether or not a drug has been shown to be effective “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Medicine is set up like the court system for good reason — we want to avoid claiming that ineffective drugs are effective, just like we want to avoid locking up innocent people.

To understand whether or not a drug has been shown to be effective “beyond a reasonable doubt” we must understand the purpose of a clinical trial. A clinical trial provides an understanding of the possible improvements that a drug can cause in two ways: (1) it shows the average improvement that the drug gives, and (2) it accounts for the variance in that average improvement (which is determined by the number of patients in the trial as well as the true variation in the improvements that the drug causes).

Why are both (1) and (2) necessary? Think about it this way — if I were to tell you that the price between two books was $10, would you think that’s a big price difference, or a small one? If it were the difference in price between two paperback books, it’d be a pretty big difference since paperback books are usually under $20. However if it were the difference in price between two hardcover books, it’d be a smaller difference in prices, since hardcover books vary more in price, in part because they are more expensive. And if it were the difference in price between two ebook versions of printed books, that’d be a huge difference, since ebook prices (for printed books) are quite stable at the $9.99 mark.

We intuitively understand what a big difference is for different types of books because we’ve contextualized them — we’ve been looking at book prices for years, and understand the variation in the prices. With the effectiveness of a new drug in a clinical trial, however, we don’t have that context. Instead of looking at the price of a single book, we’re looking at the average improvement that a drug causes — but either way, the number is meaningless without knowing the variance. Therefore, we have to determine (1) the average improvement, and (2) the variance of the average improvement, and use both of these quantities to determine whether the drug causes a “good” enough average improvement in the trial to call the drug effective. The p-value is simply a way of summarizing this conclusion quickly.

So, to put things back in terms of the p-value: let’s say that someone reports that NewDrug is shown to increase healthiness points by 10 points on average, with a p-value of 0.01. The p-value provides some context for whether or not an average increase of 10 points in this trial is “good” enough for the drug to be called effective, and is calculated by looking at both the average improvement, and the variance in improvements for different patients in the trial (while also controlling for the number of people in the trial). The correct way to interpret a p-value of 0.01 is: “If in reality NewDrug is NOT effective, then the probability of seeing an average increase in healthiness points at least this big if we repeated this trial is 1% (0.01*100). The convention is that that’s a low enough probability to say that NewDrug has been shown to be effective “beyond a reasonable doubt” since it is less than 5%. (Many, many statisticians loathe this cut-off, but it is the standard for now.)

A key thing to understand about the p-value in a clinical trial is that a p-value greater than 0.05 doesn’t “prove” that NewDrug is ineffective — it just means that NewDrug wasn’t shown to be effective in the clinical trial. We can all think of examples of court cases where the person was probably guilty, but was not convicted (OJ Simpson, anyone?). Similarly with the p-value, if a trial reports a p-value greater than 0.05, it doesn’t “prove” that the drug is ineffective. It just means that researchers failed to show that the drug was effective “beyond a reasonable doubt” in the trial. Perhaps the drug really is ineffective, or perhaps the researchers simply did not gather enough samples to make a convincing case.

edit: In case you’re doubting my credentials regarding p-values, I’ll just leave this right here… statusbitchin

Hilary: the most poisoned baby name in US history

I’ve always had a special fondness for my name, which — according to Ryan Gosling in “Lars and the Real Girl” — is a scientific fact for most people (Ryan Gosling constitutes scientific proof in my book). Plus, the root word for Hilary is the Latin word “hilarius” meaning cheerful and merry, which is the same root word for “hilarious” and “exhilarating.” It’s a great name.

Several years ago I came across this blog post, which provides a cursory analysis for why “Hillary” is the most poisoned name of all time. The author is careful not to comment on the details of why “Hillary” may have been poisoned right around 1992, but I’ll go ahead and make the bold causal conclusion that it’s because that was the year that Bill Clinton was elected, and thus the year Hillary Clinton entered the public sphere and was generally reviled for not wanting to bake cookies or something like that. Note that this all happened when I was 7 years old, so I spent the formative years of 7-15 being called “Hillary Clinton” whenever I introduced myself. Luckily, I was a feisty feminist from a young age and rejoiced in the comparison (and life is not about being popular).

In the original post the author bemoans the lack of research assistants to perform his data extraction for a more complete analysis. Fortunately, in this era we have replaced human jobs with computers, and the data can be easily extracted using programming. This weekend I took the opportunity to learn how to scrape the social security data myself and do a more complete analysis of all of the names on record.

Is Hilary/Hillary really the most rapidly poisoned name in recorded American history? An analysis.

I will follow up this post with more details on how to perform web-scraping with R (for this I am infinitely indebted to my friend Mark — check out his storyboard project and be amazed!). For now, suffice it to say that I was able to collect from the social security website the data for every year between 1880 and 2011 for the 1000 most popular baby names. For each of the 1000 names in a given year, I collected the raw number of babies given that name, as well as the percentage of babies given that name, and the rank of that name. For girls, this resulted in 4110 total names.

In the original analysis, the author looked at the changed rank of “Hillary.” The ranks are interesting, but we have more finely-tuned data than that available from the SSA. The raw numbers of babies named a certain name are likewise interesting, but do not normalize for the population. Thus the percentages of babies named a certain name is the best measurement.

Looking at the absolute chance in percentages is interesting, but would not tell the full story. A change of, say 15% to 14% would be quite different and less drastic than a change from 2% to 1%, but the absolute change in percentage would measure those two things equally. Thus, I need a measure of the relative change in the percentages — that is, the percent change in percentages (confusing, I know). Fortunately the public health field has dealt with this problem for a long time, and has a measurement called the relative risk, where “risk” refers to the proportion of babies given a certain name. For example, let’s say the percentage of babies named “Jane” is 1% of the population in 1990, and 1.2% of the population in 1991. The relative risk of being named “Jane” in 1991 versus 1990 is 1.2 (that is, it’s (1.2/1)=1.2 times as probable, or (1.2-1)*100=20% more likely). In this case, however, I’m interested in instances where the percentage of children with a certain name decreases. The way to make the most sensible statistics in this case is to calculate the relative risk again, but in this case think of it as a decrease. That is, if “Jane” was at 1.5% in 1990 and 1.3% in 1991, then the relative risk of being named “Jane” in 1991 compared to 1990 is (1.3/1.5)=0.87. That is, it is (1-0.87)*100=13% less likely that a baby will be named “Jane” in 1991 compared to 1990.

(Note that I’m not doing any model fitting here because I’m not interested in any parameter estimates — I have my entire population! I’m just summarizing the data in a way that makes sense.)

So, for each of the 4110 names that I collected, I calculated the relative risk going from one year to the next, all the way from 1880 to 2011. I then pulled out the names with the biggest percent drops from one year to the next.


#6?? I’m sorry, but if I’m going to have one of the most rapidly poisoned names in US history, it best be #1. I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to win. Furthermore, the names on this list seemed… peculiar to say the least. I decided to plot out the percentage of babies named each of the names to get a better idea of what was going on. (Click through to see the full-sized plot. Note that the y-axis is Percent, so 0.20 means 0.20%.)


These plots looked quite curious to me. While the names had very steep drop-offs, they also had very steep drop-ins as well.

This is where this project got deliriously fun. For each of the names that “dropped in” I did a little research on the name and the year. “Dewey” popped up in 1898 because of the Spanish-American War — people named their daughters after George Dewey. “Deneen” was one name of a duo with a one-hit wonder in 1968. “Katina” and “Catina” were wildly popular because in 1972 in the soap opera Where the Heart Is a character is born named Katina. “Farrah” became popular in 1976 when Charlie’s Angels, starring Farrah Fawcett, debuted (notice that the name becomes popular in 2009 when Farrah Fawcett died). “Renata” was hard to pin down — perhaps it was popular because of this opera singer who seemed to be on TV a lot in the late 1970s. “Infant” became a popular baby name in the late 1980s for reasons that completely defy my comprehension, and that are utterly un-Google-able. (Edit: someone pointed out on facebook that it’s possible this is due to a change in coding conventions for unnamed babies. This would make more sense, but would also make me sad. Edit 2: See the comments for an explanation!)

I think we all know why “Iesha” became popular in 1989:

“Khadijah” was a character played by Queen Latifa in Living Single, and “Ashanti” was popular because of Ashanti, of course.

“Hilary”, though, was clearly different than these flash-in-the-pan names. The name was growing in popularity (albeit not monotonically) for years. So to remove all of the fad names from the list, I chose only the names that were in the top 1000 for over 20 years, and updated the graph (note that I changed the range on the y-axis).


I think it’s pretty safe to say that, among the names that were once stable and then had a sudden drop, “Hilary” is clearly the most poisoned. I am not paying too much attention to the names that had sharp drops in the late 1800s because the population was so much smaller then, and thus it was easier to drop percentage points without a large drop in raw numbers. I also did a parallel analysis for boys, and aside from fluctuations in the late 1890s/early 1900s, the only name that comes close to this rate of poisoning is Nakia, which became popular because of a short-lived TV show in the 1970s.

At this point you’re probably wondering where “Hillary” is. As it turns out, “Hillary” took two years to descend from the top, thus diluting out the relative risk for any one year (it’s highest single-year drop was 61% in 1994). If I examine slightly more names (now the top 39 most poisoned) and again filter for fad names, both “Hilary” and “Hillary” are on the plot, and clearly the most poisoned.


(The crazy line is for “Marian” and the spike is due to the fact that 1954 was a Catholic Marian year – if it weren’t an already popular name, it would have been filtered as a fad. And the “Christin” spike might very well be due to a computer glitch that truncated the name “Christina”! Amazing!!)

So, I can confidently say that, defining “poisoning” as the relative loss of popularity in a single year and controlling for fad names, “Hilary” is absolutely the most poisoned woman’s name in recorded history in the US.

Code for this project is available on GitHub.

(Personal aside: I will get sentimental for a moment, and mention that my mother was a at Wellesley the same time as Hillary Rodham. While she already knew that she wanted to name her future daughter “Hilary” at that point, when she saw Hillary speak at a student event, she thought, “THAT is what I want my daughter to be like.” Which was empirically the polar opposite of what the nation felt in 1992. But my mom was right and way ahead of her time.)

Update: This seems to be an analysis everyone is interested in. For perhaps the first time in internet history, Godwin’s Law is wholly appropriate.


Creating a random calendar with R

Sometimes this is my life. But it’s so satisfying when you write a program that saves you time! Here is an example.

The Problem: 

For several years at Hopkins I have been involved in teaching a large (500+ person) introductory Biostatistics class. This class usually has a team of 12-15 teaching assistants, who together staff the twice-daily office hours. TAs are generally assigned to “random” office-hours, with the intention that students in the class get a variety of view-points if, for example, they can only come to Tuesday afternoon office hours.

When I started the course, the random office-hours were assigned by our very dedicated administrative coordinator, who sent them out via email on a spreadsheet. Naturally, there were several individual TA conflicts, which would result in more emails, which would lead to version control problems and — ultimately — angry students at empty office hours. Additionally, assigning TAs to random time-slots for an 8-week class was a nightmare for the administrative assistant.

The Solution: 

I really wanted us to start using Google Calendar, so that students could easily load the calendars into their own personal calendars, and that changes on the master calendar would automatically be pushed to students’ calendars. So, in order to achieve this goal, I wrote a function in R that would automatically generate a random calendar for the TAs, write these calendars to CSV documents that I could then upload to a master Google Calendar. It has worked wonderfully!

My general philosophy with this project was that it is much easier to create a draft and then modify it, than it is to create something from scratch that fits every single parameter. So, I controlled for as many factors as I reasonably could (holidays, weekends, days when we need double the TAs, etc.). Then, as TAs have conflicts or other problems arise, I can just go back and modify the calendar to fit individual needs. You’d be amazed — even with each TA having several constraints on his or her time, I generally only need to make a few modifications to the calendar before the final draft. Randomness works!

There are a few tricks that made this function work seamlessly. My code below depends on the chron package.  To assign TAs, it’s best to think about the dates for your class as a sequence of slots that need to be filled, omitting weekend days, holidays and other days off, and accommodating for days when you might need twice as many TAs (for example right before exams when office hours are flooded).

dts <- seq.dates(start_date,end_date)
weekdts <- weekdays(dts)
dates <- dts[weekdts!="Sat"&weekdts!="Sun"&!as.character(dts)%in%no_TA_dates]
dates <- c(dates,double_days)
dates <- sort(c(dates,dates))

Now that you have the sequence of dates, you need to randomly fill them. I accomplish this by dividing the sequence of dates into bins that are equal to the number of TAs, and then randomly sampling the TA names without replacement for each of the bins. This might leave a remainder of un-filled days at the end, so you have to make up for that as well.

len_dates <- length(dates)
len_tas <- length(ta_names)
mult <- floor(len_dates/len_tas)
temp <- rep(NA,len_tas)
ta_sched <- 0
for(i in 1:mult){
ta_sched <- ta_sched[-1]
rem <- length(dates)-length(ta_sched)
temp <- sample(ta_names,rem,replace=FALSE)
This way, even though the TAs are randomly assigned, I avoid assigning one person to time-slots only during the last week of classes, for example.
The final step is writing these schedules out into a CSV format that can be uploaded to Google Calendar (here’s the format needed). I create a separate CSV for each of the TAs, so that each has his or her own calendar that can be imported into a personal calendar.
nms<-c('Subject','Start Date','Start Time','End Date','End Time','All Day Event','Description','Location','Private')
len_names <- length(nms)
mat <- matrix(nrow=len_dates,ncol=len_names)
mat <- data.frame(mat)
mat$Subject <- ta_sched
mat$"Start Date" <- dates
mat$"End Date" <- dates
mat$"All Day Event" <- "False"
mat$Description <- "Biostat 621 TA Schedule"
mat$Private <- "False"
start_times <- c("12:15:00 PM","2:30:00 PM")
end_times <- c("1:15:00 PM","3:20:00 PM")
mat$"Start Time" <- start_times
mat$"End Time" <- end_times
mat$Location <- ta_location
for(i in 1:len_tas){
This saves a HUGE amount of hassle!

The Workflow:

Here’s the workflow for creating the calendars. Of course, this is very specific to the class I helped teach, but the general workflow might be helpful if you’re facing a similar scheduling nightmare!
  1. Using this function (github — use the example template which calls the gen_cal.R function), create a random calendar for each of the TAs. These calendars will be saved as CSV documents which can then be uploaded to Google Calendar. There are options for the starting day of class, ending day of class, days off from class, days when you want twice as many TAs (for example, right before an exam), and some extra info like the location of the office hours.
  2. On Google Calendar, create a calendar for each of the TAs (I might name mine “Hilary Biostat 621″ for example). Make the calendar public (this helps with sharing it to TAs and posting it online)img1
  3. For each TA, import the CSV document created in step 1 by clicking “import calendar” under the “other calendars” tab in Google Calendar. For the options, select the CSV document for a specific TA, and for the “calendar” option, select the calendar you created in step 2 for that specific TA. (Life will be easiest if you  only perform this step once, because if you try to import a calendar twice, you’ll get error messages that you’ve already imported these events before.)img2
  4. Bonus step: Once all the calendars are imported, embed the calendars onto a website (keep secret from students in the class if you don’t want them to know when certain TAs are working!). This serves two purposes. First, it serves as the master calendar for all of the TAs and instructors. Second, by distributing it to TAs, they can add their calendar to their personal Google Calendar by clicking the plus icon on the bottom right corner. Your final beautiful product will look something like this! (Note that I also created a calendar that has important class dates like the quizzes and exams).img3

The Result:

Time spent developing and implementing: ~3 hours. Time spent each semester re-creating for new TAs: ~30 minutes. Time saved by myself, the administrative coordinator, and all of the TAs — and instead spent feeling awesome: infinity.

More derby wife gushing

My derby wife Logistic Aggression (aka Hanna Wallach) posted a fantastic essay (via her blog) about things she’s learned from roller derby. Some points are pretty derby specific, and some are more broadly applicable. Points 4 and 5 – about “growth mindset” and “grit” – are especially worth a look for non-roller-girls, and apply directly to challenges in grad school. Kate Clancy,  an Anthropology professor and roller girl in Illinois, has also written a series of awesome, insightful essays about the connection between derby and academics. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for discussions about the parallels between sports and real life. But there’s been something about doing such an intense organized sport outside of the traditional time to do so that has made it a much more enlightening experience.

Basically if you want to figure out who the really cool, insightful professors are, look for the roller girls! (No offense to the male professors of course – but there is male roller derby so no excuses!)

edit 3/13/13: Logistic Aggression’s essay has been featured in DerbyLife!

Editing papers using text-to-speech software

I spent a large chunk of today editing a paper that I’m submitting for publication this week, which has inspired me to share one of my favorite tricks for editing in general. Inspired by this ProfHacker article last year, I started using a text-to-speech tool to “read” my papers to me for the final look-through.

This has the huge advantage of being completely objective, slowly-paced, and able to pick up things like doubled words or missing modifiers. There are a ton of tools out there, but I am partial to the Announcify Chrome extension, which has a nice pause button and is easy to use. Plus I like cloud software way better than desktop software, and I sometimes use it to read online articles well.

My (extremely hacky) workflow for this is as follows. Note this works especially nicely if you have two screens.

  1. Copy LaTeX text into a Google Doc, and publish the document to the web (under File).
  2. Read the published document using Announcify, skipping through tables and long equations.
  3. Edit document in Texmaker, pausing Announcify if necessary.

There was also an article about how you can use the built-in software in a Kindle to edit long documents, presumably while lounging on your couch sipping hot cocoa.

NYC Financial Crime Task Force, a.k.a the “get shit done people”

I just got back from DataGotham, an awesome conference for the data science community in NYC. All of the talks were really great and are worth checking out on YouTube, but the one I want to mention was by Michael Flowers of the NYC Financial Crime Task Force. I was aware of the NYC FCTF because one of the quants, Lauren Talbot, gave a great interview on my advisor’s blog.

This was a talk that made me want to jump out of my seat and go save the world using statistics (OK maybe I’m exaggerating… but not by much). It was so refreshing to see data analysis being implemented on a broad scale to make things immediately better for everyone involved. And I think that it’s stories like these that make people excited about statistics. Who doesn’t want to be one of the “get shit done people”?

(An aside: if you’re not initiated with the data science label, there was a really interesting talk by Harlan Harris discussing just that, complete with a survey analysis! And another aside: I’d love to see what the NYC FCTF is doing on Wall Street – I mean it is in their banner photo! – but sadly this wasn’t discussed…)

Enjoy! I assure you it’s worth the 20 minutes.