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!

Code Jamming: Backronyms

jamExcuse me if I reference my first post ever on this blog but it’s right: I am very bad at following through with projects. I am, however, very good at following through with commitments and promises I have made.

Luckily I have friends with good ideas, and one of them came up with this one: every few weeks hold a “code jam” that gets all of us both excited and motivated about projects we could do. If we make it a commitment to each other to work on the projects and just feed ideas off one another, it will mean projects are more likely to get started and to get completed.

We decided to start with something easy. The organizer of the group, Kevin, recently posted about the problem of generating backronyms. There is an internet site out there does this, but it doesn’t do a very good job.

Well, let’s back up: what are backronyms? Sometimes you have a clever acronym you want to create for a project but you don’t know what the letters should stand for. So you invent the words that the letters stand for out of whole cloth! This is a backronym. This is used all the time in government: an example would be the USAPATRIOT act.

Well, the group has met three times and we have come up with three different algorithms for how to do this. I’m the first one to get my algorithm ready to run so it’s up now! On the internet! You can find it at pheared labs. It’s written in Python using django.

At first, it was only able to make sensible things out of 3 letter acronyms (try your initials). I’ve recently improved the algorithm so that it does fairly well with up to 5 letters and I hope to make it better. I also hope my friends will come up with their alternative algorithms so we can have more options.

If you live in or around Silver Spring and would be interesting in attending a Jam, let us know! Exciting!

Mario Kart Love Song

I wish I could write songs like this:

The Deadliest Animals

I thought this comic about how cats are trying to kill you was right on the money, and I know a few of my readers are cat lovers. Hopefully you’ll appreciate it.

It also reminded me of the excellent Simpsons educational video Meat and You: Partners in Freedom.  “If a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about!”

Three Strikes: You’re In – Movie Trilogies Worth Sticking With

Today on Plans Mr. Orr posed this question:

Christopher Nolan, when asked if he would make a third Batman film, asked, “How many good third movies in a franchise can people name?

So I’m thinking: how many are there?

He listed a fair number of the most obvious:

  • Return of the Jedi
  • Return of the King
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Back to the Future III
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Goldfinger
  • The Search for Spock

I agree with all his choices.  I did a fair amount of research before coming up with what I thought was a comprehensive list.  Here are the other films I decided to include:

  • Die Hard with a Vengeance
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan
  • Chasing Amy
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Then I came up with a few where the entire series is questionable, but the third movie is certainly no worse and probably better than many of the others:

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III
  • Police Academy 3: Back in Training
  • Ernest Saves Christmas
  • King Kong vs. Godzilla

Am I missing anything?

They Got the Band Back Together

More Ben Folds News!

His band Ben Folds Five reunited recently for one show to pay tribute to their album The Autobiography of Reinhold Messner!

It must be good if I’m willing to link to Myspace!

I meet the Hodg-man

Tonight I went to a booksigning for John Hodgman‘s new book More Information Than You Require.  It was an excellent time.  I have not yet read the book but I intend to over the next several days.

I am, however, going to subject you to more puns.  The pumpkin names in the previous post was certainly not the end of these portents.  When I got up to the table to discource with John Hodgman as he signed my book, the exchange went something like this:

Me: Hi, I’m Greg.

The Hodge: I’m John.

Me: I have had this pun bouncing around in my head and I can’t help but let it out.  If you converted to Islam and visited Mecca during the high holy times, you would be entitled by tradition to change your name.  What could you change it to?

The Hodge: Er… Greg?

Me: No, Hajji Hodgman!

The Hodge: Ah ha!  And my wife’s middle name could be Sweet…  No, nevermind.

He then proceeded to call me a punster.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing. But his “Sweet” comment was impressive off the cuff. I’d had plenty of time waiting in line to construct my spiel.  I was very impressed.

My parents and I were talking recently about famous people we had met; I only had one on my list until tonight: Bill Nye.  So now I can say I’ve met The Science Guy AND The Resident Expert.