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Wed, 20 May 2009

Wolfram Alpha: what a load of rubbish

Wolfram Alpha is the shiny new knowledge search thing from the makers of the excellent (if mis-spelled) Mathworld. It claims to be a "computational knowledge engine".

It fails.

The first three things I tried searching for it got hopelessly wrong.

First, my name. Apparently "David" is a surname. So it displayed some basic stats for the David and Cantrell surnames, although uselessly limited to some far-off foreign land. What it should have done is say "that's not something I can use in computation".

Second, my date of birth. It correctly parsed 1973-11-28 as the 28th of November 1973 (I was expecting it to calculate 1973 minus 11 minus 28, which would have also been correct) but then let itself down terribly in the date formats department. It displayed the stupid middle-endian 11/28/1973 (it should have detected my preferred language, which my browser told them was en-gb, and so displayed 28/11/1973) but that's not too bad an error. However, in the "more formats" section it has all kinds of ridiculous calendars and formats, it even has the "star sign" (something that is the very antithesis of knowledge coming from a "computational knowledge engine" - nice!), but it doesn't display the date normally anywhere on the page. Predictably it also ignores my preferred language when I ask it about 10/7/2000. But this time it does at least acknowledge that I might mean the 10th of July. However, it should have picked that up automatically, or at least displayed both interpretations. And it is amusingly inconsistent that it acknowledges the existence of DD/MM/YYYY in one place but not others. Internationalisation fail.

Finally, my parents' home town. It picks the right Bexhill out of its database unlike Google which, until quite recently, thought I meant a town in New South Wales even when I used google.co.uk. But it thinks it's a city. FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL. Not only does it not have a Charter, but it also lacks all the other attributes that are popularly and traditionally associated with cities - namely a cathedral, a large population, and a university. It gets even stupider if I ask it about my home town. It thinks that both Thornton and Heath are surnames, and the link to "use as a city instead" provides data about a town (called Thornton) and a village (called Heath) in Foreignistan. The closest it can get to what I meant is the villages of Thornton (in Fife) and Heath (in Foreignistan). EPIC FAIL. Again, what it should have done is say "that's not something I can use in computation".

Posted at 11:06 by David Cantrell
keywords: software
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