NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, July 2010
WolframAlpha - Computational Knowledge Engine
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)


We are all familiar with the common search engines, such as Google, Bing, AllTheWeb, and Yahoo. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of search engines, and they all pretty much provide somewhat the same information. Last year Microsoft introduced Bing, its latest search engine iteration, which also had some decision making capabilities and built-in intelligence. Microsoft used its power and wealth to inundate the computing world with information and promotional materials about Bing in an attempt to steal market share from Google and the other major search engine providers. At about the same time (May 15, 2009), a much smaller company, Wolfram Research, the publisher of the Mathematica software, introduced its computational knowledge engine WolframAlpha.

WolframAlpha is not a traditional search engine that displays listings of web links, but instead displays the answer to a question, formula, or other inquiry. For example, if I type "Beaumont Texas" in Google, I am presented with a listing of nearly 7 million web links containing the term "Beaumont Texas", with some rank ordering placing the most popular results near the top of the display. If I type "Beaumont Texas" in the search box on WolframAlpha (http://www.wolframalpha.com), it directly displays the facts about the topic. In this case, WolframAlpha displayed the population, map, current local time and weather, cost of living index, median home price, unemployment rate, sale tax rate, crime rate, commute time, geographic information, links to the county and nearby cities, and a hyperlinked list of famous people born in Beaumont.

WolframAlpha displays a lot more than just text, as it is a powerful computational engine. There is an entire menu consisting of hundreds of sample inquiry topics at http://www.wolframalpha.com/examples, and some other suggestions in the margins of several of the pages that the user can utilize to practice on the system, and master some of its powerful features. One of the suggested sample ideas is to enter the user's date of birth; I entered mine and was presented with a lot of information about my birthday. The results showed my age in years, weeks, and days; holidays and observances that are held on my birthday; historical events that occurred on that day (not necessarily in the same year) and a listing of celebrity and historical figures who were born or died on that day. Other information is displayed about the selected date, including the moon phase on the day I was born. By entering one or more stock symbols, a wealth of information is displayed. As a test, I entered the symbol "VZ" for Verizon, and was presented with current price information, financial fundamentals, dividend and yield, historical returns, a large variety of charts, performance comparisons between Verizon and it competitors, histograms, and other detailed information about the company.

WolframAlpha is one of the handiest and most informative calculators available. Using the example "$250 + 15%" displays both the result ($287.50) and how it was calculated; this could be a great tool for teaching basic arithmetic. Mathematical formulae are computed with ease, displaying detailed results of the computation. Using the digital term " x^2 sin(x)" (x squared times sine of x) displays graphical plots on various scales, alternate forms of the mathematical expression, roots, derivatives, and other functions.

Math and simple facts are not the only computational capabilities of this excellent service; it also has hundreds of other forms of information that can be calculated and displayed. Other areas in which WolframAlpha can provide extensive information are statistics and data analysis, physics, chemistry, engineering, astronomy, earth and life sciences, money and finance, dates and times, places and geography, socioeconomic data, weather, health and medicine, food and nutrition, sports and games, music, and many other topics. Users of my weather page sometimes ask me for historical weather information, usually for a specific date and location; as a default, WolframAlpha uses the location of the computer requesting the information, which is in my case, Beaumont. I simply entered "weather summer 2008" (for other locations enter the city or other geographic information), and was presented with time and temperature ranges, humidity, graphs showing meteorological information, and information about the weather stations that gathered the information presented. I picked this particular search to display the effects of Hurricane Ike, such as the wind speed and barometric pressure, which conspicuously stand out on the graphs. Using the hurricane template under the topics menu, the user is presented with detailed information on a particular storm, wind speeds, and comparisons. Using the comparison feature, I compared Rita to Ike by entering the search term, "Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Rita", and was presented with a table comparing those two local disasters. Rita was the stronger storm, but according to the composite tracking chart displayed, both had nearly identical tracks.

The amount of computational knowledge available from WolframAlpha is almost endless. If the user needs to calculate monthly payments and an amortization table, this can do it. If an investor needs commodity and futures prices, WolframAlpha provides that information in detail. Mortgage terms can be directly compared; by searching with the expression, "mortgage $150,000, 6.5%, 30 years" produces charts and graphs that display the monthly payments, graphical comparison of principle and interest over time, and other information. Present values, currency conversions, bond evaluations, different forms of options and derivatives, salaries, wages, income taxes, sales taxes, and historical financial information are easy to determine with WolframAlpha. In the economics classes that I teach every semester, the students are asked to calculate what has happened to prices over their lifetimes, and what may happen to prices when they are ready to retire. Using this engine the students can instantly calculate the current value of a historical quantity of money ($1000 in 1965 is worth what today?), compute historical equivalent value of today's money ($1000 today compared to 1980), and convert one historical quantity of money to another ($1000 in 1945 was worth what in 1990?).

While WolframAlpha is accessible from any internet browser, it is also accessible using other means, without a browser, or as a browser plug-in to automate the computational process. From the website at wolframalpha.com/downloads.html, the user can put a gadget, widget, or deskband on his desktop (Mac OS X, Vista and Windows 7) to enable him to access information directly from his desktop. WolframAlpha toolbars are available for Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox which enable searching from the browser toolbar. Firefox and IE8 users can add WolframAlpha as a search engine add-on, automating the search function from the browser menu. Apps (applications) are available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch that enable users of those devices to directly access the capacity of this service. Regardless of how accessed, the massive capabilities of WolframAlpha are readily available.

Now that I have had some experience with WolframAlpha, I will be more likely to use it to acquire information and calculate data, and less likely to use the traditional search engines such as Google when I need to find something. WolframAlpha is one of those services that I did not originally know that I needed, but now I cannot do without it.

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