Wolfram|Alpha announced at the end of September that it had overhauled/updated/spat and polished its data on jobs and salaries in the US. And I’m glad I didn’t cover it then because according to the comments the data was a bit buggy. But hopefully it’s better now.
You can now go to WA and ask questions about employment in various regions of the United States. I can make the query teachers in South Carolina.
Wolfram|Alpha returns data with a count, information on wages, a breakdown of subcategories, and a list of related categories. In this case, I got information on the number of librarians, curators, and archivists in South Carolina, as well as postsecondary teachers.
While this information is interesting the real fun (as is almost always the case with WA) comes when you start mixing the data together.) The query teachers and truck drivers in South Carolina shows data about the two occupations side by side, graphs an employment history in SC over the last several years, and shows each occupation’s presence in the workforce as a percentage. However while it shows wages for the truck drivers, it doesn’t for the teachers — as there are many subcategories of teachers the query may be too general.
You can also compare teachers in metro regions (compare teachers in charlotte to teachers in columbia) or specific job information between states and regions. (compare truck driver salary in Montana to truck driver salary in Texas).
And remember, when we get right down to it, it’s all just numbers. Wolfram|Alpha is about lots and lots of numbers. And if you can figure out the syntax you can compare those numbers. This query works: Box office of Iron Man 2 versus aggregate salary of all California plumbers. As does this one: cost of ten thousand gallons of gas versus salary of South Carolina truck driver. (WA will even graph that for you.)
I love searching with Wolfram|Alpha, but more than that I love playing with Wolfram|Alpha. To get a sense of the scope of what WA covers at this point, visit the examples page.
Whenever I hear about a new data set on WA I always check to see if you can access it randomly. And in this case you can: the query random movie got me the result New Wave Hookers (I am not kidding) with basic information as well as a brief cast listing. A few random searches later I found Cabaret, and this is where the box office data started coming in.
Cabaret, according to WA, was released in 1972. There was a brief mention of total box office receipts but clicking on “More History” brought me to … nothing. Total receipts was all the information this movie had. I went to look at something more recent, and picked Dead Again, which was released in 1991. For that movie, WA had statistics about its highest rank at the box office, highest receipts for the weekend, highest number of screens it played on at one time, and highest average receipts per screen for a single weekend. There were also graphs that showed the performance of the movie over time. It looks like most of the recent movies have a good amount of data, though one that I looked at (the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie that came out a few years ago) had no box office data at all.
If you want to do some comparisons, you can search for several movies at once and get the box office data presented in a table. See the screenshot for a comparison of super hero movie sequels, pitting Iron Man 2 against X2 and the Fantastic Four sequel.
I discovered to my delight that you can also use movie release dates as a time unit, making the query minutes since iron man release date — well, let’s not get nuts and say useful, but how about viable. Just so you know, at this writing it’s been 21024 hours since the release of Iron Man. You can also calculate time between movies, as in minutes between iron man release date and iron man 2 release date.
Search engine Wolfram|Alpha has announced Wolfram|Alpha widgets.
Oh boy! I love widgets. What are they? Widgets are little bits of code that you can usually embed somewhere — like on your Web site or Facebook page. Widgets perform calculations, provide information, or other small feats of data crunching. W|A has tons of widgets available at http://developer.wolframalpha.com/widgets/.
You can look at featured, top rated, and the newest widgets, but there’s also a list of popular categories which includes Money & Finance, Physics, Weather, and Astronomy. Just poking around for a few minutes I found a lot of interesting widgets, including a genealogy relationship calculator, calculator for heart disease risk, SAT score analyzer, and to my surprise a bunch of tools for Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
When you find an interesting widget you can try it right from within the gallery. If you like it you can customize it (you’ll have to have your own Wolfram|Alpha account to do this) or you can embed it. There are embed options for specific Web sites, but the WordPress one requires that you have another plugin already installed.
I have been playing with WA since it launched and I still haven’t found all the cool stuff it can do. Widgets might be a more targeted way to explore its capabilities.
One of my responsibilities at work is keeping up with the various computers we use across several different locations. Among the things that has to be monitored is the expiration date of antivirus software installed on the machines. Getting this information together would have been a lot tougher if it wasn’t for Wolfram|Alpha.
Some antivirus products provide a full date of when a subscription is going to expire. Some products, however, just provide a countdown — 99 days left, for example. Wolfram|Alpha makes it easy to calculate dates based on a number of days left.
The query 99 days from today — or yesterday, or tomorrow — will give you a future date and information on that date, including phase of the moon. I didn’t need that in this case, but having a solid date for antivirus expirations let me put them on a list and create a series of reminders for my calendar.
(Would you ever need phase of the moon information? Say you are bitten by a werewolf. You will need to know how many days there are until the next full moon. The query days until the next full moon will give you an answer. On the other hand, maybe you took some instant werewolf time-release capsules and they won’t kick in until 15 days after the next full moon. You can ask 15 days after the next full moon and get a result.)
Back to computers. Most of the computers in our system are Windows XP. I know that support for Windows XP SP 3 will expire on April 8, 2014. I can go to Wolfram|Alpha and ask days until April 8, 2014 and get a day count. That’s interesting to know, but not useful until it gets a little closer to the expiration date for Windows XP report. However I can also do a search for 90 days before April 8, 2014 in order to create an outline of steps I will have to take before the expiration of the support.
Of course, I might need to work these dates into my own schedule of working with my computer-wrangling team. I might contact my team on the same day each week — say, Monday. If 90 days before an important date is a Wednesday, I’ll have to either move the contact date or contact my team on a non-usual day. If I want to keep my team contact consistent, I can run the search First Monday after 90 days before April 8, 2014 — or 60 days, or 30 days — and get all my dates as Mondays.
I know I have written about Wolfram|Alpha’s date functions before, but the features here have proved so useful to me in organizing my computer-tracking activities that I wanted to mention them again.
Wolfram|Alpha announced on June 1 that it had added information on army, navy, and air force personnel for over 150 countries as well as armament statistics (tanks, nuclear warhead stockpiles, etc.)
I wondered if this new data means you could now do a Wolfram|Alpha search for random army, but it doesn’t. However you can do country army requests and separate them with commas to get a table of results comparing army sizes. For example, you could search for South Korea army, North Korea army.
You’ll get a result page that compares several different data points, including total population, military population, military fit population, and military expenditures. This is interesting, but I liked
taking it a step further and comparing military statistics with non-military data. I could run this search: South Korea army, North Korea army, Luxembourg population and get data about the size of the armies of South and North Korea, and by comparison the Luxembourg population. In case you’re wondering, the population of North Korea’s army is over twice that of the country of Luxembourg.
You can also stack up several bits of data about the same countries and put those together in a table. I did a search for North Korea army, North Korea Population, North Korea GDP, South Korea army, South Korea population, South Korea GDP and got a table of information comparing the two countries. Note when you do a search this way you don’t get all available information about a country’s military.
Finally, you can also do military information math by using military statistics with other data. If I wanted to get the ratio of the population of South Korea to its military population, I could do a search like South Korea Population / South Korea Army and get the answer 86 — in other words, 86 people in the general population of South Korea for every member of the military. There’s also a chart showing how this number has changed over the last 210 years and how it is expected to change over the next 40.
As I’m discovering more and more with Wolfram|Alpha, the data itself is of secondary interest to discovering all the new and interesting ways you can divvy it up.
Happy birthday, dear Wolfram|Alphaaaaaaa…. happy birthday to youuuu….. Search engine Wolfram|Alpha put up an interesting blog post Tuesday about its first anniversary and the way it has changed over the last year. The search engine also announced a few changes.
The home page is a bit different, pretty but still simple. If you’ve never quite “gotten” W|A, check out the examples by topic, so you can get an idea of what Wolfram|Alpha can do. If you really want to get under the hood, check out the still-incomplete entity index, which shows you very specific examples of what W|A covers in different categories. (This is still under development but it’s fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it fills out.) The home page also has settings now, too, though it’s just for background settings (the blue one is nice) and whether W|A shows hints or not. Looks like it relies on cookies to keep these settings.
There’s also some new content; the site now offers street maps; searching for something like Sydney Opera House shows, in addition to information about the structure itself, a street map to where the structure is located. There’s also several ways to search for diseases — pulling up that URL will let you calculate disease risk, look at the incidence of disease in populations, get information on specific diseases, and more. I did find that I had to play with my searches a bit to get some of these results. And of course I knew a long time ago that the phrase random disease works.
W|A also announced that when the search engine doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’ll will try to find the “nearest” query to interpret. It doesn’t work all the time, but W|A is working on making this better. I’ll need it, because I’m still not great at figuring out Wolfram|Alpha’s syntax sometimes, though I find myself using it more and more.
In fact, I’m using it so much that I find myself actually looking for a couple of features, though neither one of them is probably what W|A is made for. First of all is an expansion of random words. You can search W|A for random word and get a word with definitions, synonyms, etc. But though the definitions include the parts of speech, you can’t search for, say, random noun. I wish you could; it would be a handy tool for Mad Libs or generating random queries for Flickr. You also can’t stack random queries, either, which is a shame. Wouldn’t it be a great creativity tool for writers if you could run the query random first name, random surname, random occupation, random city and get all the answers on one page?
Happy birthday, Wolfram|Alpha. You’re not getting as much attention as you probably deserve, but it hasn’t stopped you from evolving in new and useful ways. Keep it up!
Wow, I’m talking about Wolfram|Alpha a lot lately, aren’t I? Sorry, I gots a bit more to say. The site announced last week that there’s a new site developed for educators. The new site’s at http://www.wolframalpha.com/educators/.
What’s here? There are some videos showing how W|A is used in the classroom (from fourth graders to college students) as well as examples of how to search Wolfram|Alpha for any number of concepts and a bunch of lesson plans covering science, social studies, and math (of course.) The lessons plans are PDFs — I downloaded the one for creative writing and learned that W|A works with queries like random name and random city and random food. After some more messing around I found out random disease works and freaked myself out a bit, so here I am back at the review. But these lessons plans may teach you about some new W|A commands that you hadn’t known about.
Obviously when you think W|A and education you’re going to think about math, but I was surprised at the amount of science and especially social studies resources available. Teachers, take a look!