Skip to main content

Is Apple's vision coming true in Alpha?

Many years ago when I was running the Emerging Technologies unit at British Airways, I was fascinated by an Apple video featuring a computer of the future. It was called Knowledge Navigator. The screen opened up like a book. It was all touchy-feely. You used it for video calls. It acted as a PA, reminding you of appointments (and putting off your mother's phone calls). It was just wonderful.

In one segment it demonstrated how data might be accessed in the future. The user, an academic, talked to the Navigator, saying he wanted to see data on the shrinking of the Amazon rain forest, then wanted to get data on the growth of desertification in North Africa. Then put the two together to produce an interesting (if scientifically doubtful) presentation show visual correlation between the two as they visibly changed over time.

I SO WANTED ONE. I hadn't thought about the Knowledge Navigator for years until I came across Wolfram Alpha. This is a new style search engine, just launched, that seems to promise the sort of flexible data presentation that the Navigator offered. You ask for some information in free text and it goes away, pulls it together and presents it for you.

I had three attempts with Alpha. The first, trying to recreate the Knowledge Navigator demonstration was a failure. The data requirements were just too complex. I couldn't get it to understand what I wanted.

Then I tried something I desperately wanted to know when writing a book a few years ago. What was the weather like in San Francisco on a particular date in history? So I entered weather in San Francisco 17 October 1874. The first time I pressed the 'go' button was not promising. I got this:

Then I tried again and got this:
it had managed to parse my request okay, but then spent too long scratching its head as to what to do with it.

Finally I tried a third piece of information I wanted more recently. A plot of the FTSE 100 share index between March 2008 and February 2009. This had been quite tricky to get hold of - but this time Alpha shone and whipped it up for me in no time.

So Alpha may not be the ultimate data-based search engine yet - and certainly isn't Knowledge Navigator - but it has promise.


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Best writing advice

I saw on Twitter the other day (via someone I know answering it), the question 'What's the best writing advice you would give to someone who wants to become a writer?' My knee-jerk response was 'Don't do it, because you aren't one.' What I mean by this is that - at least in my personal experience - you don't become a writer. Either you are one, or you aren't. There's plenty of advice to be had on how to become a better writer, or how to become a published writer... but certainly my case I always was one - certainly as soon as I started reading books.  While I was at school, I made comics. I wrote stories.  My first novel was written in my teens (thankfully now lost). I had a first career that wasn't about being a writer, but I still wrote in my spare time, sending articles off to magazines and writing a handful of novels. And eventually writing took over entirely. If you are a writer, you can't help yourself. You just do it. I'm writ