Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Remnant

Remnant
Madison Central High School, the oldest high school in Wisconsin's capital, graduated its last class 40 years ago this year. In 1986 the Cass Gilbert building was torn down to make space for a parking lot. All that remains is this arch on Wisconsin Avenue that was once the main entrance.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha loses Madison trial to Google, Wikipedia and, oddly enough, Letter from Here

New Paradigm for Using Computers and the Web Stumbles in Madison
I've been reading a lot about the new so-called "Google killer" or "Wikipedia killer" (depending on who's doing the labeling), the new search engine, Wolfram Apha, that was developed by Stephen Wolfram, who modestly describes its potential as virtually unlimited.
I think it’s going to be pretty exciting. A new paradigm for using computers and the web.

That almost gets us to what people thought computers would be able to do 50 years ago!
I couldn't wait to try it out. I began by trying one of those statistical inquiries that this "computational knowledge engine" should eat right up -- the population of the city I live in -- a nice, easy warm-up question before I moved on to the harder stuff. The answer was startling: 6,236 people. Google's top-of-the-page answer was 223,389, which is good enough for me, especially since it was confirmed as the 2006 population estimate by the #2 listing, Wikipedia.

Somehow, Wolfram Alpha had managed to misplace 217,153 Madison residents. Even for a beta bug, that's pretty far off the mark. Maybe, as T suggested, Wolfram Alpha only counted Madison's PhDs as people.

Of course, you can't judge a search engine on just one search result, or even just one "computational" result. I decided to ask something that would really enable Wolfram Alpha to sink its teeth into a large number of databases and really shine -- something with a large number of conflicting numerical answers, something its computational engine could really chew on. I typed in "madison wisconsin square miles," as in the famous quip, "Madison is x square miles surrounded by reality." Wolfram Alpha thought, and came up with this answer: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." I thought the problem might be my syntax and tried "square miles in Madison Wisconsin." Same result.

I typed the same query into Google. The top result was a Wikipedia entry that not only quoted the famous phrase coined by former Governor Lee Dreyfus -- "78 square miles surrounded by reality" -- but also cited an authoritative source for the current area, after decades of annexation.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Madison has a total area of 84.7 square miles (219.3 km²), of which, 68.7 square miles (177.9 km²) of it is land and 16.0 square miles (41.5 km²) of it (18.91%) is water.
Google went on to cite, in third place among 181,000 listings, a Letter from Here posting on this question several years ago.

I'm sure Wolfram Alpha will eventually iron out its kinks, populate its databases with more data and become another useful search engine alternative for those times that Google doesn't come up with useful answers. But until then, we'll just sit back and revel in having, at least briefly, outperformed this vaunted player on the search engine stage.