10 tips to harness the hidden potential of Wolfram Alpha

July 7th, 2009 by dario

Wolfram Alpha, the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram (who allegedly put its company to work on this project for several years before its official launch in May this year), has been out for a while now and is probably no more making the headlines. The long list of examples on the frontpage, organised visually or by topic, proudly shows off what Alpha is capable of. wolframalpha The natural language interface may still be a bit sloppy and some data may be flagrantly missing (how about a dump of the world’s scientific literature, Stephen?), but all in all it manages to live up to the promise of a universal tool to compute an impressive amount of factual knowledge. Alpha allows you, among other things, to:

Depending on your field of expertise, Alpha is likely to provide a powerful combination of computational tools and relevant data sources to calculate virtually anything you might want to know about the universe.

Apart from technical use, though, I am curious to understand whether and how people will start using Alpha as a productivity tool and integrate it in their daily workflow.

Granted, the title of this post may be overstated, as I am sure there are better ways to use Alpha to work less and live happy. Here’s my take of the 10 best productivity tips I was able to find out, please prove me wrong with better examples and I will add them to the list below.

1. Word count for humans

How often have you tried to figure out how many pages or words make 7,000 characters? Alpha can help you out, even if you speak German.

2. Convert any character

Type a character (e.g. ) and quickly look up its corresponding Unicode, HTML, TeX or Mathematica representation. You can obviously do a reverse lookup as well.

3. Look up URL information

You can display a nice summary of information on site ownership (from WHOIS), popularity (from Alexa) and HTML structure for any given URL.

4. Find English words matching a specific pattern

No more tip-of-the-tongue frustrations! OK, I have to think of an actual use for this one but I am sure that the poets among us will appreciate.

5. Calculate time differences

Ever wondered how much hours are left before light comes through your friend’s window in Tokyo?

6. What’s in a word

Definitions, synonyms, antonyms, word frequency, pronunciation (AmE only though…), hy–phen–a–tion patterns for any word in the English language. I even discovered that “hack” and “adulteress” are neighbours in a synonym network.

7. Where am I?

Check your current network name and IP address.

8. Tame nutritional values

If you desperately need to know how much iron is in your spinach salad or how many calories your breakfast is worth, Alpha has answers for you.alpha8

9. Convert currency

Enjoy watching how your purchasing power in Europe kept falling indefinitely over the last months, before showing some timid sign of recovery.

10. Estimate download times

Stay zen when you know that it will take slightly more than one day to download those 90GB with your 7.5Mb/s broadband connection.

Even more ideas

There are plenty of tools and Web services to do most of the above searches, but it’s nice to be able to query anything from a single search field. I obviously can’t wait for the day when the full power of Alpha will be unleashed via its API so as to be mashed with external data sources and applications, or integrated as a clever QuickSilver plugin to put the world’s knowledge at the tip of your fingers. Unfortunately it will take some time before this happens.

In the meantime, if you are looking for inspiration, you can browse the Wolfram Alpha community page: it’s a goldmine of ideas (and a good source of information on some ridiculous flaws and limitations in Alpha).

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7 Responses to “10 tips to harness the hidden potential of Wolfram Alpha”

  1. VincentNo Gravatar Says:

    That’s really interesting. I’m just wondering: say I’d like to compare unemployment rates. Different countries/organizations use different definitions for “unemployment” (e.g. # of weeks of active job search). How do I know if the data are comparable? I guess I should look at the sources.

    Just try it. Follow the link, click on “Source information”, and then “Background sources and reference”.

  2. VincentNo Gravatar Says:

    Oh, and amidst all those sources, I read “wikimedia foundation”. Is that a user-submitted page?

  3. darioNo Gravatar Says:

    re: unemployment rates
    I agree, all these comparisons should be taken at face value. I anticipate that more and more people will start quoting and referring to Alpha’s output as an authoritative source nevertheless. People will assume its sources have been carefully vetted and its computations are reliable, even when in reality they are not.

    re: wikimedia foundation data
    No, that doesn’t count as user-submitted (at least not in the sense I was referring to in my post). W|A has been using Wikipedia from the beginning as a source of information for individuals, such as Barack Obama. Using Wikipedia as a reliable source in a computational knowledge engine will lead to interesting results indeed…

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