Wolfram|Alpha Adds Military Data

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.

Wolfram|Alpha Celebrates First Anniversary with Some New Features

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!

Ever Wondered? Site Helps You Answer “Life’s Little Mysteries”

If you have kids or like “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” You’ll enjoy Life’s Little Mysteries, a Web site that answers all those random questions that you constantly wonder about. It’s available at http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/. It’s a terrific reference site, though it does in my opinion suffer from a lack of sourcing.

Life’s Little Mysteries is sort of like a question engine but human-powered, with extensive articles to answer the questions. So the data pool isn’t particularly wide, but it is pretty deep. The front page divides its answered questions into sections, like Body & Mind, Animals, and Just Plain Strange. Ancient mysteries (“Do Fish Sleep?”) exist side-by-side with more contemporary questions (“How Are Oil Spills Cleaned?”)

There is a keyword search available; a search for baseball found six results, including “Why Is Baseball Spring Training in Both Florida and Arizona?” and “Are Left-Handed People Smarter?” (the keyword search is a full-text search, so you will find questions that are far afield.) Questions are answered by articles that range from a couple hundred to several hundred words; terrific detail. I was surprised to see that while many articles had links, some that didn’t didn’t offer much sourcing. For example, “Why Is Baseball Spring Training in Both Florida and Arizona?” offers several quotes and dates, none of them are sourced in the article that I can see.

I bring this up because of the quality of the site wranglers, which you can read about here. Several of the staffers have journalism or science degrees, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to cover this resource. So I know research has been done to create these articles, so why not source it?

Though the site has just launched, it looks like there have been articles added since at least March, so there’s plenty to see here. I just wish there was more bibliography available.

Embedding Tweets With Blackbird Pie: Why?

I will be the first to admit that sometimes I don’t “get” stuff that I come across on the Internet. And such it is with Twitter’s new offering, Blackbird Pie. The whole time I was trying it, I was thinking, “And this is better than a screen shot how?”

You can get an overview of Blackbird Pie at http://media.twitter.com/411/fresh-baked-tweets and the tool itself at http://media.twitter.com/blackbird-pie/. Briefly:

You might find an interesting quote on Twitter that you want to, well, quote. You can quote it the regular way, with, like, quotation marks, or you can take a screen shot of the quote. (I don’t know why this developed as a method — do you take a screen shot of a Web page every time you quote it?) Or you can use Blackbird Pie.

With Blackbird Pie, you enter the URL of a tweet (Direct URLs look like this: http://twitter.com/FakeAPStylebook/status/13449746429), and it spits out a huge line of code. Copy that line of code to your Web site, and you may or may not get a live version of the quote (that is to say, the direct URL is clickable, the Tweeter’s account is clickable, etc.) I say “May or may not” because this tool is not meant to work with some sites.

Let’s see if it works for me.

.bbpBox{background:url(http://a3.twimg.com/profile_background_images/62706301/fakeapbg.gif) #EBEBEB;padding:20px;}p.bbpTweet{background:#fff;padding:10px 12px 10px 12px;margin:0;min-height:48px;color:#000;font-size:18px !important;line-height:22px;-moz-border-radius:5px;-webkit-border-radius:5px}p.bbpTweet span.metadata{display:block;width:100%;clear:both;margin-top:8px;padding-top:12px;height:40px;border-top:1px solid #fff;border-top:1px solid #e6e6e6}p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author{line-height:19px}p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author img{float:left;margin:0 7px 0 0px;width:38px;height:38px}p.bbpTweet a:hover{text-decoration:underline}p.bbpTweet span.timestamp{font-size:12px;display:block}

Do not confuse the Mexican holiday “Cinco de Mayo” with the recent condiment stock trading scandal, “Sinkhole de Mayo.”less than a minute ago via HootSuite

If you saw a snarky tweet from FakeAPStylebook, it worked. If not…

The person who developed this, Robin Sloan, said he did it because “we just think it’s a pain to take screen grabs of tweets.” My setup makes it incredibly simple to take screen shots (which is why most of my writeups include screenshots nowadays). Further, I’m a little worried about the external image reference to Twimg.com. If Twitter goes down will that make the tweet impossible to load? And what happens if FakeAPStylebook deletes this quote?

I like Mr. Sloan’s idea, and if it were something like embedding a live, refreshing Twitter List I would be right there (why oh why oh WHY don’t Twitter Lists offer RSS feeds?) but I don’t understand the need to embed one tweet at a time. I just don’t get it. It’s probably me.

Answers.com Pushes Answers to Twitter

Answers.com, which you might remember from WikiAnswers or ReferenceAnswers, announced last Wednesday a new alpha feature called “Hoopoe,” which ties in with Twitter. Hoopoe’s Twitter account is at http://twitter.com/answersdotcom.

Here’s how it works. Either send a tweet to @AnswersDotCom or write a tweet with the hashtag #AnswersDotcom or #hoopoe . Answers.com will send an autoresponse with a snippet of information and a pointer to the answer on its Web site.

The first thing I did was send a tweet to @AnswersDotCom asking “What is a hoopoe?” No more than a minute or so later I had the tweet you see above. The URL ponted me to an Answers.com page that provided information from a dictionary, Columbia Encyclopedia, Western Bird Guide, and a huge Wikipedia article with lots of images. I am now very confident about my basic hoopoe knowledge.

Next I tried a more abstract question, “When is the sun coming up tomorrow?” I tried that twice with #AnswersDotCom and #hoopoe. Be careful about including extraneous text in your question; Hoopoe will try to answer all of it. (It would be great if it only tried to answer the text set before the hashtag. That way you can warn all your followers you’re playing footsie with an autoresponder.) AnswersDotCom couldn’t answer the question, referring me to the site instead.

Thinking that perhaps that question didn’t provide enough data (like where I was) I asked a simpler reference question, “What is the square root of 12?” I got an answer from Answers.com but it was incorrect. And it completely ignored my similar question from a few minutes later — I think it searched for “Square root of” and gave me the first thing it could find in its database.

So if you’re looking for reference-type information, Answers.com’s Twitter service is fast and good. And #hoopoe is a hashtag I could actually type on my cell phone without too much trouble. On the other hand if you want math questions or almanac questions answered, you’ll have to keep waiting for Wolfram|Alpha to come out with a twitter service.