Sunday, May 17, 2009


Wolfram|Alpha is the newest InformationSite to hit the webs, released to the public this weekend. Its long-term goals are highly ambitious.
Wolfram|Alpha's long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.

Wolfram|Alpha is an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come. With a world-class team and participation from top outside experts in countless fields, our goal is to create something that will stand as a major milestone of 21st century intellectual achievement.
Keeping in mind that this is the long-term goal, and it is fresh on the scene, what is available there now?

When you go to the site, you can enter your request in the input box at the top of the page. But what should one enter? On the right hand side, there are a few examples of commands to try, as well as a link to Examples by Topics

One of their examples is to enter any date, so I chose my birthdate
Input: January 21, 1969
Time difference from today (Sunday, May 17, 2009):
40 years 3 months 27 days ago
2103 weeks 5 days ago
14 726 days ago
40.32 years ago

Daylight information for January 21, 1969 in Saint Louis, Missouri:
sunrise | 7:15 am CST
sunset | 5:11 pm CST
duration of daylight | 9 hours 56 minutes

and it was a waxing crescent moon.

(It clearly looked up my IP address to figure out what city I was in. That isn’t magic, though some people might wonder how it knows.)

The ability to look up sunrise/sunset info for any day could be useful to an author who wants their historical novel to be nitpickingly exact.

There are also two sections that are blank

Observances for January 21, 1969 (United States):
(no official holidays or major observances)

Notable events for January 21, 1969:
(no known major notable events)

If you want information for a city other than your IP address, you can add a city to your input:
Input: January 21, 1969 Warsaw, Poland
I learn the sunrise/sunset info for Warsaw, and I also learn that it was Grandmother’s Day in Poland. (My paternal Grandmother’s parents were both born in Poland, so this is nice to know.)

I kind of would have liked to know this information without having to have hit upon it by luck. I’d like Wolfram|Alpha to list Observances worldwide for the date. I tried: January 21, 1969 World – but was told there are no observances for the date in World (It understood the word ‘World’ as the input January 21, 1969 Everywhere yields their standard error msg: “Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.” )

Their next suggestion was to enter “Any City”
Input: Cekiske, Lithuania
Wolfram|Alpha didn’t understand the input
Input: Losice, Poland
Wolfram|Alpha interprets as a typo for Lostice, Czech Republic, and provides me the distance from there to Poland, and compares the population of the Czech town to the population of Poland.
Input: Warsaw, Poland
SUCCESS! Warsaw is large enough for Wolfram|Alpha to recognize, as is nearby Warka, which surprised me. Warka only has 11,000 people. Losice has a population of 7,000 (according to Wikipedia). I believe Cekiske is smaller. Wolfram knows cities in the US which are significantly smaller. It doesn't recognize Dixville Notch, NH (population 75, and infamous for voting first in US elections), but it does recognize Cuba, MO (population 3,447)

For cities I see population, a visual map of the country, and a red dot where the city is located, the current local time and weather, approximate elevation, and nearby larger cities.

For Warka, Poland I am told the population of and distance to Warsaw and Radom, Poland

For Warsaw, Poland I am told the population and distance to Minsk, Belarus (because it’s the nearest larger city). For Minsk, the nearest larger city is Kiev, Ukraine, and for Kiev, they stop providing the information. (I think this means there is no larger city on the same continent, or within an unknown specified distance. If I enter as my input: Kiev Beijing – for example – it will provide me the distance between the two cities, and their respective populations, and the Beijing population is five times the size of Kiev. So it knows the information, but it stops providing the information for this command, and the user has to figure out another way to retrieve it.)

In their table of Examples they have a Genealogy section:

You can enter a relationship:
Input: father's mother's father's mother's sister's son's daughter
You’re given a visual representation of the relationship
Told you’re second cousins twice removed
And that your ‘blood relationship’ is 1/256.

They also have a section on names:
Input : Name ____
It will try to guess whether it is a surname or given name, and provide a link to the other if it guessed wrong. For surnames, they will provide numbers and ethnic distribution from the US Census. If you want information outside the US, Wolfram|Alpha appears stumped
Input: Name Smith England
Yields a comparaison between the surnames Smith and England in the US.

With given names, they will provide historical distribution information going back to 1880. Once again, for the US. (For example, Smith as a given name was significantly more popular in 1880 (.015%) than it is today (0%).)

My biggest gripe here is if I enter:
Input: Surname Smith
Wolfram|Alpha has no idea what I want to find out. I have to enter: Name Smith. I realize their goal to accept free-form input is long term. But it may be the area where it needs the most work beyond additional content.

Also, of my sixteen great great grandparents, it only knows the surnames: Weiss, Adler, Hartley, and Stuart. For my other twelve surnames (Newmark, Cantkert, Feinstein, Blatt, Mojsabovski, Cruvant, Wyman, Perlik, Deutsch, Lichtman, Van Every, and Denyer) the command Name Surname results in “Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.” I’m more surprised for some of these surnames than others. (I’d prefer the response – statistical information for given surname unavailable, since surely it recognizes the ‘Name’ command.)

Other commands Genealogists might find useful:
Input: Soundex [Surname]
Provides the Soundex code for the given surname

Date calculations:
Input: August 10, 1906 - 60 years 5 months 21 days
Results in Feb 17, 1846.

(My g-g-g-grandmother, Gitel Slupsky Dudelsack died on Aug 10, 1906, and her death certificate said she lived 60 years, 5 months, and 21 days. This is the same result I achieved when I did the calculations with pen and paper, so I am pleased. Though her tombstone says she was born in 1831.)

I suspect I missed some applications of genealogical interst. There are a lot of examples they have provided, and I haven’t browsed through them all. There are a lot of examples in science and math categories which I am certain will be useful for those whose field of study falls in those areas. These areas lend themselves best to objective datasets.

There is a lot of information where Wolfram|Alpha is not the first place I would head. If I wanted to look up information on a city, I would go to Wikipedia first (and look at the sources the entry provides, and try to find those sources for further research, like I was trained to do with traditional encyclopedias as a youth.) Each of Wolfram|Alpha's results does include a source list. This is usually a list of several sources which Wolfram|Alpha says 'may have been used' for the particular results. I noticed Wikimedia as one of the sources on the geographical queries.

One of their categories is Movies, and if you input a movie title, and it recognizes it as a movie title, it will provide director, writer, and cast information. But I would still go to IMDB for this information. (And unsurprisingly, IMDB is listed as one of Wolfram's sources for this query.)

I think one of their ideas is they want to be a general - go to first - site for any data, but they have a long way to go. Of course, it was released this weekend, and I am sure they will improve as time progresses.

No comments: