Wolfram Alpha: First Impressions

A friend recently told me about the recent debut of a new search engine called Wolfram Alpha. I had heard about it a while back from some coworkers and heard about how Stephen Wolfram, the inventor of the system, was either a super-genius or a little bit crazy.

I hadn’t been excited about trying a new search engine since Google, so I figured I would try running it through its paces. The claim is that one should pose it questions in natural language and receive answers to those questions rather than links. So that’s the approach I tried.

The first question I asked it (and I don’t know why) was “How many calories are there in an egg mcmuffin?” I was very impressed by the first response. It not only told me, first, how many calories were in an egg mcmuffin. It then proceeded to give me the entire nutritional information and compare it to other foods on a variety of metrics! I was very very impressed.


The next thing I did was ask “How many people live in Silver Spring, Maryland?” It seemed to understand my question and it gave me an answer, but the answer was quite succinct. The thing about Silver Spring is that it’s not incorporated; it’s a census-designated place. There’s a lot of different ways to calculate that number and I’d love to have seen more of them and more details like with the first answer.

I started asking more mundane questions at this point; things that would be useful in my daily life like:

None of these questions were even understood by the knowledge engine, and no answer was attempted to be given. I kind of understand this; it may not be the kind of thing it’s meant for, but Google can provide answers for questions of this type (even if the answers are only the opinions of random people on the internet.)

So, in short, I am amazed by what it can do but it doesn’t do enough for it to be my go-to search engine yet. I will keep an eye on it. Let me know if you find anything really cool it can do!


Welcome to Tinkertown: Population Poob

It's got gears and pullies up the wazoo!

It's got gears and pullies up the wazoo!

(as narrated by poober)

STOP! Collaborate and Listen.  Poob is back with a brand new edition.

What’s up, running crew?  It’s been a while but I’m back with a perspicacious invention (patent pending).  ROCKET CAR!  Mark 2.  Don’t ask about Mark 1.  It’s not really a rocket car, it’s a car that fires rockets.   Soviet rockets, to be specific.

And it’s got six wheels, which kind of makes it a tank, not even a car.  So scratch that.  It’s my new ICBM launcher.

The make-it-go lever was the easy part.  It’s the launch arm that gave me the most difficulty.  The counterweight has to be proportional to the Fibonacci Sequence.  When all else fails, glue a heavy iron weight to the back.

The troublesome counterweight and the rocket's fuel gauge.  Plus, wires.

The troublesome counterweight and the rocket's fuel gauge. Plus, wires.

So, the most enjoyable part was firing the rocket.  The second most enjoyable was building the rocket so everyone should go out and buy model rockets again; it’s a dying art.  If the youth of the nation can’t work with explosive devices, what a bleak future we have.  Tell all the parents to get out there and teach their children explosives.

I’m promoting rockets.  Rocket explosions.  I’m a rocket man.

[Poob continued his patriotic speech for many days without food or drink but luckily you don’t need to listen; you only need to watch this video:]

Please vote in the poll:

The Nerd’s Dream Cabinet

There has been much talk lately about who Obama will appoint to the U.S. Cabinet. I don’t know enough about the current mix of possible nominees to make predictions or picks, and I’m sure the people he picks will be statists and so I won’t be a fan.

So, I decided to come up with my own list! The rules: the Cabinet is made up of fictional characters, and only one is allowed from each SciFi “universe” (although I play fast and loose with that definition and include characters from, for example, multiple incarnations of Star Trek). Here’s what I came up with:

Position Nominee Rationale Policy Statement Photo
Secretary of State Jean-Luc Picard The best diplomat in the Federation! “Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. Make it so.”
Secretary of the Treasury Hank McCoy With things being what they are today, we need the smartest we can get. Plus, he’s blue. “As Churchill said, ‘There comes a time when every man must…’ Oh, you get the point!”
Secretary of Defense Bill Adama If he can lead the military of the entire human race, he can definitely do the same for America.  Besides, is there a difference? “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
Attorney General Nathan Petrelli He’s a lawyer. Are there any other SciFi lawyers? “Only together can we be the stewards of our own destiny.”
Secretary of the Interior Clark Kent If anything bad happens, he can fly fast enough around the world to reverse time and fix it. He needs to be in charge of something American, since that’s what he stands for. “Truth, justice, and the American way.”
Secretary of Agriculture Samuel Beckett He has multiple PhDs, and the best picture I could find of him he was holding a pig. Plus, we need farmboy Clark Kent at Interior. “Oh, boy.”
Secretary of Commerce Quark A small businessman. Also, we need a token Republican. “Greed is the purest, most noble of emotions.”
Secretary of Labor HAL 9000 In the future, all labor will be performed by robots. We need someone who they can identify with. “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”
Secretary of Health and Human Services Stephen Franklin A true doctor’s doctor. “Sometimes you have to heal the family before you can heal the patient.”
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Lando Calrissian The mayor of cloud city has experience in an urban environment. “Here goes nothing.”
Secretary of Transportation Hoban “Wash” Washburne C’mon, he’s Wash! “Like a leaf on the wind…”
Secretary of Energy Tony Stark He built a tiny and safe personal nuclear reactor! “Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?”
Secretary of Education Clara Clayton We need some more diversity on the team: not enough time travelers. Plus, what other teachers are there in scifi? “Golly!”
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sarah Connor She certainly understands PTSD and the way a soldier thinks. “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
Secretary of Homeland Security Fox Mulder He is the only one who sees the truth that is out there. Aliens. Threatening the homeland. “Sometimes the only sane answer to an insane world is insanity.”

Snow Crash

I’ve already told a fair number of people about binaural beats, and they’ve been bumping around the blogosphere, but I figure I’ll mention it on the blog for completeness; plus if I ever go over the archives I’d be interested in rediscovering them again.  Essentially, it’s static mixed with some soothing sounds that is supposed to stimulate your brain waves into a certain state, which might cause different effects.

I’ve only tried it once in the middle of the night on last Friday night.  I listened to the “energy drink” track, which is the most popular, and then I stayed up until 5, which is very very late for me.  I got a lot done that evening, though.

You have to use headphones and they have to be good.

Hat tip: The Agitator

My First Meme: Startup Fun!

I’ve never participated in any blog memes, mostly because I’ve never been tagged. I was wondering if I would be able to start one! So here it is:

Come up with the most absurd, weird, unworkable pitch for a Web 2.0 startup that you can think of.

Answer this question, then tag three others to do so as well. Here’s my idea:

It’s a fruit/geocaching/social networking mashup. You hide your various fruitstuffs somewhere out in the world, publish the GPS coordinates to the site, and the race is ON! Which of your friends can uncover the fruit first? Will any of them get there before the ants do? Monkeys escaped from the zoo? Rhino Beetles? Who knows! All your friends will, as soon as you upload pictures of yourself eating the fruit from the cache from your mobile device. I was thinking of calling it wheresmybanana.com, but that seems to be taken. Maybe we could expand it to include vegetables and go with gpsparagus.com.

Who should I tag? Well, certainly Mr. Wellons. I’d like to hear what Courtney Sherwood comes up with. Finally, the man notorious for his free thinking, Mr. Stone.

thesporiest: Round 1, FIGHT!

So yesterday at Mayorga my brother let me play around with his Spore creature creator. I was hoping there would be some nerdy girls around who might be enticed by the creative geekiness of it all, but no luck. And yet! We created some pretty excellent monsters.

Unfortunately you can’t actually play with the monsters until the game comes out. But no worries, we can have our very own monster battle on this very site! Sort of a thefunniest.info sort of thing, except only once, and you don’t really get to vote unless you comment.

My brother sent me these and I forget the names; they didn’t show up in the e-mails. Which Spore creature is better? Mine is on the bottom! (hint, hint, nudge nudge)

Poober\'s Spore Creature
Gregorus\'s Spore Creature

Mini-Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Those of you who saw my bookcase filled with recommendations may have noticed two books on there by Cory Doctorow: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe. I am a fan of Doctorow’s work, and his newest title, Little Brother, did not change that. Like all of Doctorow’s books, you can read it online for free. This is the first book of his where I went that route instead of buying the hard copy.

Ostensibly written for the young adult crowd, Little Brother is the story of a young man from San Francisco who gets caught up in a DHS dragnet after a terrorist attack.  He is treated like a suspected terrorist and vows to take his revenge the only way he knows how: by using and spreading technology that will help people keep themselves safe and secure, and that will foil any DHS plans that violate the bill of rights and the freedom of Americans.

Doctorow always writes very simply and forthrightly, and I think that he did not have to work very hard to fit his style to the young adult genre.  The book is perfectly accessible to adult audiences as well, and actually some of the simplified explanation of various technologies such as cryptography and DNS is helpful to the average adult reader as well.

I thought the book very good; I generally don’t review things I don’t like, but I did find a few faults, and no review would be complete without at least mentioning them.  The characterization, I felt, was pretty weak.  I didn’t identify with the characters as strongly as I thought I would; I generally share their politics and their passion for technology but their personality and personal details were left very vague.  The somewhat stilted nature of the romantic and sex scenes didn’t help.

Overall the strength and passion of the politics of the book are what make it worth reading.  What is a society like when everyone is a suspected terrorist?  What is it like to be arrested and imprisoned as an enemy combatant?  Why is the bill of rights important and in what ways is it being trampled?  Do we have a responsibility to fight for freedoms we cherish dearly?  I’ll leave you with a quotation from the Declaration of Independence which features prominently in the book:

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Revolutionary!  Read this book!