20 June 2010


A FaceBook friend recommended an intriguing website in one of her posts. WolframAlpha is an online service that answers factual queries by computing the answer from structured data. This makes it an answer engine, distinguishing it from familiar search engines like Google, which provide a list of documents or web pages which might contain the answer -- you have to do your own digging from that list.

I followed the link to WolframAlpha's demo page, which provides dozens of examples of queries which anyone might want answered -- math computations, demographics, what the weather was like on your birthday, life expectancy, history, minutiae from the natural world -- it is an impressive list, and fun to explore.

However, when I emailed the link to an old friend who has been programming computers for decades, he cautioned me that WolframAlpha is not without its drawbacks. He noted that "This has been out for some time now [since 2009]. The tech community is not all that impressed with it, as it is quite easy to find problems for it that it should be able to solve. There are a number of goofy things with this site. For example, if you get it to solve a problem for you, they copyright the result. This means that you can't use it somewhere else without permission. The really odd thing about this site and other ventures is Wolfram himself. He wrote a book called "A New Kind of Science." The most common word in this tome is "I" .... one of the more, er, poignant reviews of this book can be found here, titled "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity," in which the author pretty much destroys any credibility Wolfram might have had .... "

One quote from this book review (which is well worth reading in its entirety) stands out -- "As the saying goes, there is much here that is new and true, but what is true is not new, and what is new is not true, and some of it is even old and false, or at least utterly unsupported." A briefer customer book review, which draws similar conclusions, may be found here.

Getting back to the website. My takeaway impression is that if you want to play with it for personal use only, it is a very versatile tool. But if you are doing research for a book or journal article, you could be courting (as it were) a lawsuit if you use Wolfram Alpha data without prior permission. My suggestion is that you check out the demo page for yourself, to see what the possibilities are for personal use. Bottom line -- a recommendation from a non-tech friend is no substitute for an evaluation from a tech person who knows more about the field. Which only makes sense. I wouldn't want my mechanic t0 perform heart surgery on me, nor my doctor to rebuild my truck's engine.

Footnote: It seems that BP's embattled CEO Tony Hayward is either astronomically clueless, or he simply does not care. After weeks of making insensitive, insulting and uninformed comments about the Gulf oil spill, even in moments when he is trying to act as a reassuring company figurehead, Hayward has done it again. Yesterday while the US Coast Guard, the Federal government, BP employees and Gulf Coast residents entered their 60th day of battling environmental degradation and economic ruin, Hayward spent the day attending a yacht race off the coast of England. This man, who sounds cultured and minimally intelligent, nevertheless can do nothing right. Whether he's stonewalling before a Congressiional investigation, appearing in insincere TV ads, or whining about wanting his life back, he might as well be trying to walk across an oily floor covered with banana peels. He's gonna fall on his face, he just can't help himself. I'm tired of his incompetence, which mirrors that of BP's corporate culture. I hope never to see even one more time that furrowed, vacuous face which gives the impression of total focus on his own intellectual constipation. As was true for GWB, Hayward (like his oil wells) is so far out of his depth that surely someone else is writing his lines for him -- perhaps a schoolchild from his home town in Kent.

For those who are so inclined, at this website there is a real-time counter which updates the number of gallons of oil which have hemorrhaged into the Gulf .... so far. It's important to keep track of units of measure. Some news sources use barrels, others use gallons. For the record, a barrel of crude oil contains 42 US gallons. The current flow is approximately 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons. If that figure were the total extent of the spill, it would be shocking. But that's the amount spilled each day for 61 days .... with no end in sight. There are no words.

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