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Tools of the trade

Wed 10 September 2014 by Rick Gilmore

Data plot

I spent most of yesterday making graphs for two different manuscripts using the ggplot2 library under R. My how-to books about R fill most of a shelf, and if I'd bought hard copies of those I have in the Kindle app, I might need part of a second. R is a powerful programming environment, but it is unforgiving.

I think that is true of most expert tools. My friends who creators of various sorts swear by theirs. For some, it's a cordless drill/driver and professional grade bit set. For others, it's an oscilloscope or logic analyzer. For musicians, it's might be this Martin or that fiddle. And, for writers it might be a special type of paper and a roller ball, gel, or even fountain pen. The tools enable their wielder to bring forth and make concrete and beautiful what were previously inchoate and poorly formed notions.

I'm not going to call my graphs art -- the songwriting I leave to my wife and daughter -- but making them involves tapping into a creative spirit. It also requires establishing some mastery over a powerful tool. The satisfaction I derive from my initial efforts motivates me to to learn more. I'm finding the same cycles of challenge, provisional success, and renewed drive to learn in my use of the version control system Git, software repository GitHub, and the command line. All of these tools contribute to making my professional work more open and reproducible and serve as a means of communication among my many colleagues with interests from vision science to data sharing. So, while much of the actual work itself requires deep concentration and solitude, the intended audience is never far out of mind.

Makers of all stripes and media, what tools enable your craft? What makes them special to you? How goes your journey from apprentice to master?


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