WolframAlpha: Just the facts, mam

These days, I have become the techno- Cliff Claven of the Gold Pan Saloon here in Whitehorse.

These days, I have become the techno- Cliff Claven of the Gold Pan Saloon here in Whitehorse.

Because I am known to be never without my iPod Touch, and because that iPod can connect to the bar’s wireless network, I have become the fact-finding factotum of the other regulars of my after-work watering hole.

What automobile has the longest production history in the world?

Answer: The Volkswagen Beetle, in production from 1938 to 2003.

Why are amateur radio operators called “ham” operators?

Answer: Nobody really knows for sure, though the history of usage shows that the term was usually used in a pejorative sense, as in “ham actor;” the term itself actual pre-dates the radio era, since unskilled telegraph operators were also called “ham operators.”

The two most common tools I use to dig up these little informational gems are, predictably, Google and Wikipedia.

Of late, though, I have started to make more frequent use of the new Wolfram informational site (wolframalpha.com), especially when what is being asked for is some hard, specific fact.

What is the height of Mount McKinley in Alaska? Answer: 6194 metres, which is 70 per cent as high as Mount Everest, which stands at 8850 metres.

What is the distance, as the crow flies, from Whitehorse to Calgary? Answer: 1686 kilometres; average flight time is 1 hour 55 minutes.

Once you learn some of the tricks for asking questions on WolframAlpha (its “natural language” support is really pretty suspect), you can whip out quick answers to trivial but beerhall-important answers much more quickly than using Google or Wikipedia.

The reason for that is that WolframAlpha is not a “search” engine like Google, or a virtual-encyclopedia like Wikipedia.

Google responds to your questions by searching the internet to find web pages that appear to be relevant to your query.

Wikipedia responds to your questions by directing you to the articles in its on line encyclopedia that appear to be related to your query.

WolframAlpha responds to your question by creating its own query, and searching through its own, huge and ever-growing database to bring you back an answer directly related to what it understands to be your question.

This is pretty heady stuff, when you stop to think about it.

Its ambition is to allow you to accept you questions or requests in whatever form you present them, figure out what you are trying to understand, then give you the answer.

As it stands, it sometimes does this very well, particularly when you are dealing with mathematics-based topics.

You can, for instance, type in “25,000 pounds to kilos,” and WolframAlpha will respond first with how it is understanding that input (as “convert 25,000 lb (pounds) to kilograms”), then by giving you the answer to the question: 11,340 kilograms.

If you type in “coldest known temperature,” it will advise you that “WolframAlpha isn’t sure what to do with your input,” and give you an alternate input to try: “coldest temperature.”

When you click on that, you will find the answer you were looking for: The coldest recorded surface temperature on Earth was -89 Celsius, in Vostok, Antarctica, July 21, 1983.

As I say, it takes a little time and training to figure out how best to phrase you question, to avoid running into too many of those failures to understand your input, but once you get the hang of it, WolframAlpha can be a very powerful informational tool.

Unfortunately, it also has some enormous gaps in the things it knows about, and it does not take the average user long to stumble upon any number of them.

It is an American-based enterprise, and it shows.

Like most Americans, for instance, WolframAlpha, knows precious little about Yukon geography or history.

It knows that Whitehorse exists, for instance, and that it has an approximate elevation of 633 metres; but its information about our population is out of date.

It says we have 19,616 people, while the latest census, from June 2009, says we have 25,616, according to our city government’s home page.

Its knowledge about other Yukon communities is also pretty hit and miss.

It knows about Haines Junction, for instance, but not about Watson Lake or Faro or even Dawson City.

As I have already shown, it knows the height of Mount McKinley in Alaska, but does not even know that Mount Kennedy in the Yukon exists – even though it is named after a dead American president!

Similarly, WoframAlpha can tell you that the California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, and was started by a find by James Marshal on the property of John Sutter.

Try searching for either the Klondike or Yukon gold rush, though, and you are told that it “isn’t sure what to do with your input.”

If you type in “Bill Gates” it will tell you that William Henry Gates III was born on October 28, 1955, and is currently 53 years old.

It will make no mention of “Swiftwater Bill Gates,” a legendary Klondike Gold Rusher, famous for his exploits and follies.

So, while WolframAlpha is at the moment an interesting computational undertaking, and can be fun at parties or in beer halls, it has a lot of growing up to do before it is a fully mature source of information.

But, hey, the next time somebody says, “You know, I wonder how much 100 gallons of water weighs,” you can slap back in seconds with a WolframAlpha-ready answer: 379 kilograms, or 835.6 pounds.

With WolframAlpha, you too can become the celebrity geek of whatever beer hall or coffee bar you frequent.

Just make sure the questions don’t have too much non-American content.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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