Tag: apply

Generating Book Covers By Their Words — My Dissertation Cover

Generating Book Covers By Their Words — My Dissertation Cover

As some of you might know, I am defending my PhD dissertation later this year. It’s titled “Data-Driven Human Resource Management: The rise of people analytics and its application to expatriate management” and, over the past few months, I was tasked with designing its cover.

Now, I didn’t want to buy some random stock photo depicting data, an organization, or overly happy employees. I’d rather build something myself. Something reflecting what I liked about the dissertation project: statistical programming and sharing and creating knowledge with others.

Hence, I came up with the idea to use the collective intelligence of the People Analytics community to generate a unique cover. It required a dataset of people analytics-related concepts, which I asked People Analytics professionals on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other channels to help compile. Via a Google Form, colleagues, connections, acquitances, and complete strangers contributed hundreds of keywords ranging from the standard (employees, HRM, performance) to the surprising (monetization, quantitative scissors [which I had to Google]). After reviewing the list and adding some concepts of my own creation, I ended up with 1786 unique words related to either business, HRM, expatriation, data science, or statistics.

I very much dislike wordclouds (these are kind of cool though), but already had a different idea in mind. I thought of generating a background cover of the words relating to my dissertation topic, over which I could then place my title and other information. I wanted to place these keywords randomly, maybe using a color schema, or with some random sizes.

The picture below shows the result of one of my first attempts. I programmed everything in R, writing some custom functionality to generate the word-datasets, the cover-plot, and .png, .pdf, and .gif files as output.


Random colors did not produce a pleasing result and I definitely needed more and larger words in order to fill my 17cm by 24cm canvas!

Hence, I started experimenting. Using base R’s expand.grid() and set.seed() together with mapply(), I could quickly explore and generate a large amount of covers based on different parameter settings and random fluctuations.

expand.grid(seed = c(1:3), 
            dupl = c(1:4, seq(5, 30, 5)),
            font = c("sans", "League Spartan"),
            colors = c(blue_scheme, red_scheme, 
                       rainbow_scheme, random_scheme),
            size_mult = seq(1, 3, 0.3),
            angle_sd = c(5, 10, 12, 15)) -> 

       param$seed, param$dupl, 
       param$font, param$colors, 
       param$size_mult, param$angle_sd)

The generation process for each unique cover only took a few seconds, so I would generate a few hundred, quickly browse through them, update the parameters to match my preferences, and then generate a new set. Among others, I varied the color palette used, the size range of the words, their angle, the font used, et cetera. To fill up the canvas, I experimented with repeating the words: two, three, five, heck, even twenty, thirty times. After an evening of generating and rating, I came to the final settings for my cover:

  • Words were repeated twenty times in the dataset.
  • Words were randomly distributed across the canvas.
  • Words placed in random order onto the canvas, except for a select set of relevant words, placed last.
  • Words’ transparency ranged randomly between 0% and 70%.
  • Words’ color was randomly selected out of six colors from this palette of blues.
  • Words’ writing angles were normally distributed around 0 degrees, with a standard deviation of 12 degrees. However, 25% of words were explicitly without angle.
  • Words’ size ranged between 1 and 4 based on a negative binomial distribution (10 * 0.8) resulting in more small than large words. The set of relevant words were explicitly enlarged throughout.

With League Spartan (#thisisparta) loaded as a beautiful custom font, this was the final cover background which I and my significant other liked most:

cover_wordcloud_20-League Spartan-4.png

While I still need to decide on the final details regarding title placement and other details, I suspect that the final cover will look something like below — the white stripe in the middle depicting the book’s back.


Now, for the finale, I wanted to visualize the generation process via a GIF. Thomas Lin Pedersen developed this great gganimate package, which builds on the older animation package. The package greatly simplifies creating your own GIFs, as I already discussed in this earlier blog about animated GIFs in R. Anywhere, here is the generation process, where each frame includes the first frame ^ 3.2 words:

cover_wordcloud_20-League Spartan_4.gif

If you are interested in the process, or the R code I’ve written, feel free to reach out!

I’m sharing a digital version of the dissertation online sometime around the defense date: November 9th, 2018. If you’d like a copy, you can still leave your e-mailadress in the Google Form here and I’ll make sure you’ll receive your copy in time!

Functional programming and why not to “grow” vectors in R

Functional programming and why not to “grow” vectors in R

For fresh R programmers, vectorization can sound awfully complicated. Consider two math problems, one vectorized, and one not:

Two ways of doing the same computations in R

Why on earth should R spend more time calculating one over the other? In both cases there are the same three addition operations to perform, so why the difference? This is what we will try to illustrate in this post, which is inspired on work by Naom Ross and the University of Auckland.

R behind the scenes:

R is a high-levelinterpreted computer language. This means that R takes care of a lot of basic computer tasks for you. For instance, when you type i <- 5.0 you don’t have to tell R:

  • That 5.0 is a floating-point number
  • That i should store numeric-type data
  • To find a place in memory for to put 5
  • To register i as a pointer to that place in memory

You also don’t have to convert i <- 5.0 to binary code. That’s done automatically when you hit Enter. Although you are probably not aware of this, many R functions are just wrapping your input and passing it to functions of other, compiled computer languages, like C, C++, or FORTRAN, in the back end.

Now here’s the crux: If you need to run a function over a set of values, you can either pass in a vector of these values through the R function to the compiled code (math example 1), or you could call the R function repeatedly for each value separately (math example 2). If you do the latter, R has to do stuff (figuring out the above bullet points and translating the codeeach time, repeatedly. However, if you call the function with a vector instead, this figuring out part only happens once. For instance, R vectors are constricted to a single data type (e.g., numeric, character) and when you use a vector instead of seperate values, R only needs to determine the input data type once, which saves time. In short, there’s no advantage to NOT organizing your data as vector.

For-loops and functional programming (*ply)

One example of how new R programmers frequently waste computing time is via memory allocation. Take the below for loop, for instance:

iterations = 10000000
   j = c()
   for(i in 1:iterations){
     j[i] <- i
##    user  system elapsed 
##    3.71    0.23    3.94

Here, vector j starts out with length 1, but for each iteration in the for loop, R has to re-size the vector and re-allocate memory. Recursively, R has to find the vector in its memory, create a new vector that will fit more data, copy the old data over, insert the new data, and erase the old vector. This process gets very slow as vectors get big. Nevertheless, it is often how programmers store the results of their iterative processes. Tremendous computing power can be saved by pre-allocating vectors to fit all the values beforehand, so that R does not have to do unnecessary actions:

   j = rep(NA, iterations)
   for(i in 1:iterations){
     j[i] <- i
##    user  system elapsed 
##    0.88    0.01    0.89

More advanced R users tend to further optimize via functionals. This family of functions takes in vectors (or matrices, or lists) of values and applies other functions to each. Examples are apply or plyr::*ply functions, which speed up R code mainly because the for loops they have inside them automatically do things like pre-allocating vector size. Functionals additionally prevent side effects: unwanted changes to your working environment, such as the remaining i after for(i in 1:10). Although this does not necessarily improve computing time, it is regarded best practice due to preventing consequent coding errors.


There are cases when you should use for loops. For example, the performance penalty for using a for loop instead a vector will be small if the number of iterations is relatively small, and the functions called inside your for loop are slow. Here, looping and overhead from function calls make up a small fraction of your computational time and for loops may be more intuitive or easier to read for you. Additionally, there are cases where for loops make more sense than vectorized functions: (1) when the functions you seek to apply don’t take vector arguments and (2) when each iteration is dependent on the results of previous iterations.

Another general rule: fast R code is short. If you can express what you want to do in R in a line or two, with just a few function calls that are actually calling compiled code, it’ll be more efficient than if you write long program, with the added overhead of many function calls.

Finally, there is a saying that “premature optimization is the root of all evil”. What this means is that you should not re-write your R code unless the computing time you are going to save is worth the time invested. Nevertheless, if you understand how vectorization and functional programming work, you will be able to write more faster, safer, and more transparent (short & simple) programs.