Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Making more sense with numbers, part 3

One of the early mantras one hears in statistics is "Plot the data." When I first heard it, it was followed by "by hand"; I suspect that part gets elided these days. Still, the advice is good. It's often easier to make sense of a list of numbers if you can visualize them.

Most of the time, that takes time we don't have. When we get an email or a report with a table of numbers, we know that plotting the numbers means grabbing a piece of graph paper (does your office supply cabinet even stock graph paper anymore?) or opening up your favorite spreadsheet, copying numbers, and drawing a graph. I rarely take the time.

Last week, I got yet another email with a table of numbers showing how something had changed over time. I was curious, so I wrote a short J script (now edited into a one line script) to turn the clipboard into data and another to plot the data.

Voilá! Now I had an easy and quick way to grab and plot data. I tried grabbing data out of an OpenOffice.org Writer document, and it worked, too. Grabbing data out of a Writer table was almost as good; my script lost the shape of the table, but that's easy to fix.

What's more, when you've got it in J, you can also apply various J statistical routines to the data, or you can pass it to R for more advanced statistical processing.

Yet another simple productivity tool, yet another reason to learn J as a tool for thinking and doing, yet another way to make sense with numbers.

I don't really care if you use J or some other tool; just pay appropriate attention to the data you handle. I just happen to think J is a powerful tool for this task (and for many other tasks). If you're learning J, check out the J lab called "An Introductory Course in J" by Henry Rich (thanks to Kip Murray of the University of Houston for pointing that out recently on the J Programming forum. Kip notes that Henry's lab covers a lot of territory very clearly but with a steep learning curve. If you are just seeing J for the first time, check out the J Primer.).

Interested readers might also be interested in tables2graphs.com and Using Graphs Instead of Tables.

So, if you have a table in email that looks like


Year Amount
2000 150
2001 200
2002 250
2003 225
2004 260
2005 254


and you'd like to graph it, one J program is


require 'format misc files plot'
sd=: > @: (". each ) @: |: @: clipunfmt @: wdclipread


Just copy the numbers, and type


plot ;/ sd''


to see your graph. I'll let you figure out how to add options and how to deal with multi-column data tables (it's easy).

Why is this part 3? Because there already has been a first and a second making sense with numbers, of course.

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