Wolfram|Alpha, Creeping into My Workday

Even after all the hype, Wolfram|Alpha ( didn’t do all that much for me. Yeah, I liked it, thought it was neat, and had used it a little bit as a reference engine, but it just hadn’t turned me into a rampaging evangelist. Then I found I was using it a lot because of the functionality that goes beyond just giving answers. It’s kind of edging its way into my daily search chores.

Like I said, I started using it as a reference engine when I had basic questions. And the nice thing is when you need to get the same data point for several different items, you can list all the items in your query — separated by commas — and WA will give you a table of the results.

(If you’re having a hard time visualizing what I mean, search WA for population of durham county, population of guilford county, population of carteret county, population of harnett county.)

This seems like kind of a silly example but wow was it convenient when I quickly needed sets of data for certain counties to compare population densities.

Then later on I was working on a finicky spreadsheet that uses lots of calculations and a huge lookup table. I could not run calculations through the lookup table and know at a glance that everything was being calculated as it should. So I just opened my browser, called up WA, and had it do algebra for me when something didn’t look right. If you query WA with, say, 712x = 3.15, WA will solve for x. It told me when percentages were being rounded, when maybe I needed to add more detail to my lookup table, etc.

I had concerns about WA not being personally useful and totally missed that it would end up being so handy. I also discovered a fun WA game: enter in several different items that could be part of a set, just not the same set. So you might want to combine planets and colors: saturn green blue mars yellow earth. WA will go a little nuts trying to put all the items into one set. Then it’ll give up and give you additional options for those query words which might be relevant, which is how I discovered WA had data on the Yellow River and that WA considers “Mars yellow” a color.

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