When I was 10 (no vague memories on the internet – Wikipedia has dated the incident quite well for me) I was old enough to be aware of some niceties of adult discourse, but not enough to understand them.
An instance of this that has stayed with me came about when my mother talk me to visit with a friend of hers. This friend was a lovely lady but we (as a fairly bourgeois family) considered her a little out there as she was into herbal medicines, macrobiotic diets, sustainable gardening – things that many of my good friends are into now, but I digress. Back then they were the twilight zone to us.
This friend had herself another friend to visit – a friend who was of the intelligentsia. A wholly new creature to me.
As a child, I always had a revolting tendency to insert myself into adult conversation (to be fair, as an adult I tend to include children) and so, when a movie was being discussed and I asked what it was about, I was rewarded with an indignant shriek: It’s not… about… *anything*!”
As I mentioned, I was aware a nicety applied. I suspected the movie was about something, but that a sacred cow of some kind was involved. I didn’t see the movie for a long time, but the nagging suspicion stayed with me. Here was a movie that was so great that – it just couldn’t be described. We usually talk of ineffability in religious matters, not in terms of moviemaking.
The movie was The Gods Must Be Crazy. Somehow I didn’t see it when it was out, but I have seen it as an adult. I saw a movie that contained a good (if not new – cargo cults and other responses to European technology by isolated tribes have been well documented) idea – a tribesman finds a coke bottle thrown out of a plane, and goes on a quest to make sense of the effect it has on his tribe.
The good idea was surrounded by a large amount of comedy, usually slapstick and often racist. It was about something, and it was much more genre-conforming than genre defining. The people who championed its caused took pains to ignore a great deal of the movie in order to enshrine the one central theme as being above and beyond.
Maybe I’m a pedant. I’m ready to admit that, but I still think the movie was about something, and I still get leery whenever people get really excited about something without taking the time to really digest it.
So it is for me with Wolfram|Alpha. There’s been a lot of furore about the project – it was compared favourably with google sight unseen. Personally, I’m sure “this will be the new google” is the first six words made in presentations to venture capital companies.
But let’s not dispense with WA just because it was hyped. Plenty gets hyped that does well.
WA is based on Mathematica, a computing platform which originally was designed to handle data – mathematical (obviously), scientific, engineering – number related. And when it’s working with queries that can be described in numbers it does great.
Take their featured sample search – type in IBM and Apple, hit the go button (it’s even an equals sign) and voilà – results. Even though I personally don’t follow the stock market, I can clearly see the value of this. If I were someone who plays the market a little, this would be a great way for me to keep up with my stocks and bonds. (I say amateurs because professional brokers use professional tools to monitor their performance).
But well… WA doesn’t stop with those promises. It promises to do everything google can do. I’m a longtime fan of the beat writers so I was delighted to find one of its sample searches in the books category was a comparison of On the Road and The Naked Lunch. What would this brave new beast serve up? Nothing inspiring. Author, publication date, publisher, language. I set aside my professional pride and put the clumsy search string compare on the road and the naked lunch into google much as a newbie, noob or nub would. Once I got past the inevitable page of sales sites I found the jackpot in the form of an essay quality article. An interesting read it was too.
Now, I know there’s a way that pedant of a child is still here with us. I know I’m being unfair – from what I can see WA has sprung from over a decade of very solid work on a platform for presenting numerically-based data in a useful, dynamic format. I truly do like what it was. But please, can we not pretend it can do things it simply can’t? Can’t we just hint that neat though it is, it won’t take your questions – any questions? Or, if it will, it won’t necessarily give you an answer that’s in any way useful across the greater part of human knowledge?
Admittedly not everyone is completely in awe. A brief discussion with Adam Cath of the Canterbury University’s Physical Sciences Library confirmed my (at that point growing) suspicion that this was definitely a tool for the number crunchers – helped me realise that I was indeed being a little naïve in expecting a comparative essay, or anything like it from WA (my words, not his implication).
But there’s the fifth column rallying already. The new emperor has stepped out, and some of us have seen that he is if not starkers at least a little skimpily attired. Never fear, Keith Ng over at Public Address tells us we’re looking at it the wrong way. Apparently, WA isn’t for people, it’s for computers.
Oh well, that’s ok then.