Surf's up -
The first time I read about WolframAlpha (and the second, fourth and many other times), it was described like Google, or at least compared to it.
Appearances would suggest as much: it's an engine with an impeccably clean look, and it's supposed to make your life wonderful. Well, maybe it will, so long as what you're looking for are numbers and not descriptions.
WolframAlpha is a product from Stephen Wolfram, a former wunderkind who has made a mint parlaying his genius in physics and mathematics into things people can use. WolframAlpha is most certainly not, we have been instructed, a search engine, even though you use it to, well, search the Internet. Instead, the phrase "computational knowledge engine" seems to suffice.
It actually is pretty awesome. After asking for precise driving distances between places I would like to visit, I tried out other things: data on exports, the size of things, dates in history. Google will give you the links that mention your words; WolframAlpha will do your math.
Instead of using a conversion tool, WolframAlpha constantly bears this in mind, so you'll get your answers in multiple ways: imperial and metric, and sometimes with clever comparison. (I learned Newfoundland, for instance, is 5.2 times the size of Wales.)
But - and it's a big but - WolframAlpha often can't be bothered to help you out. Type in the phrase "best book ever," for instance, or countless others, and you'll get this: "WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input." (Could it be any nerdier? Of course not. That's it's charm.)
Qualitative searches, or ones that involve opinions or descriptions or writings about something's value (as opposed to, say, the precise values in a formula), are useless here. In fact, they're considered pointless. Verifiable, neutral, stone-cold facts? Perfectly fine.
Launched on May 15, WolframAlpha says it was set to handle 100,000 queries in its first 10 days. That is teensy compared to Google's load and traffic, but I bet Google is watching keenly.
Give it a shot. It looks to be a powerful tool that anyone can use to help with their research.
Elsewhere this week:
In a recent column, I mentioned the special issue of Wired that Lost co-creator and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams edited, all about mysteries and the pleasure to be had in unravelling things, piece by piece. The link above will take you to a collection of puzzles, all of them crafted specially for that particular issue. I have a warning: it's actually the answer key, so refrain from hitting the answer button for each if you'd really like to give your noggin a workout.
The alternative St. John's paper is trying something new out: restaurant reviews, submitted by ordinary eaters. So far, not the greatest response from the eating public, and while I would be worried about "spiked" reviews from insiders, I have to say I found the entries so far worth reading.
Here's a site that I often take for granted. TV.com is something I consult at least once a week, and often to answer a question like, "Where have I seen Bucko before?" The Internet Movie Database (us.imdb.com) serves a similar function, but nothing beats TV.com for filling in the gaps on shows you follow, not to mention the ones you scarcely watch. It offers one-stop browsing for episode guides, backgrounds, news and viewer responses.
Keep up with music bands and singers who are getting online buzz and shout-outs in the magazines, but whose music has escaped you to date. Find MP3s to download (above board, to boot), or blogs written by passionate music zealots. Some of the names will no doubt be confusing - finding new talent, after all, is a key mission - but you can be sure that the fans are making their best case for what you should try next.
John Gushue is a news writer for CBCNews.ca in St. John's. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com. Twitter: twitter.com/JohnGushue.