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Inside Teaching : August 2010
Reviews Inside Teaching | August 2010 REVIEWS 54 Wolfram Alpha www.wolframalpha.com Reviewed by Steve Holden Wolfram Alpha is a ‘computational knowledge engine’ that aims, according to the website, ‘to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone’ online. Unlike, say, Google, where the aim is to provide the broadest, albeit prioritised, possible list to an online search, Wolfram Alpha computes the narrowest possible answer or answers. The brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, and driven by Wolfram’s Mathematica software, Wolfram Alpha draws on 10 trillion or so pieces of data, 50,000 or so algorithms and models, and linguistic capabilities for 1,000 or so domains for the purpose of enabling natural language processing of a query that might involve even quite vague linguistic input. According to the website, ‘Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematisations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for defnitive answers to factual queries.’ Start thinking of defnitive answers to factual queries and you’ll probably think about mathematical procedures and scientifc formulae, but Wolfram Alpha also offers defnitive answers to factual queries like ‘Where is Melbourne?’ Did you know there’s one in Florida? A Wolfram Alpha search will deliver very basic information – the more basic, the more likely the search will offer links to Wikipedia and the Notable Names Database. Wolfram Alpha’s natural language processing makes sense of a question like ‘How old is a dog?’ Answer: 15 to 20 years. Ask Google the question and your frst page results will offer a dog years calculator, how to love your dog, how old is too old for a dog to be having puppies, and reviews and information about Old Dogs, a 2009 movie with Robin Williams and John Travolta. It stinks, apparently. Will Wolfram Alpha dent Google’s 65 per cent share, Yahoo’s 14 per cent or Bing’s 13 per cent of searches? Probably not. EDNA Groups www.groups.edna.edu.au Reviewed by Steve Holden Web 2.0 or social networking tools – think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, for a while there, MySpace – are hugely useful or dangerous new communication tools, depending on your point of view. We’ve seen headlines about teachers and students being targeted and possibly bullied by other students, and even headlines about teachers posting ‘a series of raunchy photos’ on Facebook – because their Facebook ‘friends’ included journalists. One of the balancing acts for those who create social networking tools is to ensure security and privacy for their users while also maximising the capacity for the viral, word-of- mouth spread of things. EDNA Groups is a free service funded by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments