Friday, May 22, 2009

math is hard; let's go shopping

Today's recommendation is Pretty Charts & Graphs.

I realize that seems pretty insipid, but wait.

As a female living in the virulently anti-intellectual America, I have had a complicated relationship with math & science my entire life. This is not why I went into the humanities, but there you go. Anyway, despite the fact that I haven't made a career of math or science (much to humanities-haters' lamentations), I still respect elegant ways to organize information. I prize optimization, and I respect ways to visualize and organize said optimization.

Therefore, I'm something of a meta-hobbyist. For me, half of the fun of Netflix is using Feedflix and trying to get my cost per disc into the green (current cost per disc: $1.06). Thom introduced me to the Gas Cubby app for the iPhone (Aren't we yuppie douchebags? We have iPhones) and now I compulsively check to make sure that overnight, my Buick didn't suddenly start getting a better MPG or that I didn't drunkenly soup up the rims. If it costs me 9 cents a mile PLUS gas to go somewhere, do I really want to go?

The other day, I was extremely excited (not nerdily excited, not geekily excited - I'm sick of having to qualify & pathologize excitement just because it centers around things mainstream society considers uncool) to hear about the premiere of Wolfram Alpha, a promising new site that, if it develops right, will kinda change everything. For one thing, it is the most unfortunate URL ever. It is difficult to remember - is it that hard to get a straight WWW? - and egotistical on a level that competes with Stephen Colbert. I, too, hope my name is someday a verb, but I also have a name less cringeworthy than "Wolfram." I like to think.

Anyway - Wolfram is pretty much in alpha / beta (parking lot?) mode but once it's up and running it will be rather revolutionary. It unites computational knowledge with something close to natural language searches.
This means, for me, that all the math questions I ripped my hair out over in 11th grade, I can suddenly enter natural-language-type inputs- like - "volume cylinder height 3" and see a PRETTY CHART and a multitude of other information.
Wolfram Alpha has gotten a lot of hate. I see both sides, and I suspect I would disagree with Stephen Wolfram on a lot of things. I am still puzzling out how to use Wolfram, and at least 90% of the time it doesn't work, but this is also how I remember the early, all-textual Internet working.

The Internet was built on binary. It is a system in which things are either on or off, 1 or 0, right or wrong; yet in this system, in a short period of time, a Wild West society of freedom, libertarianism, acceptance, and a multitude of other things has sprung up. In this society, free information is key. Wolfram's pompous project uses the very form/ media of the Internet to subvert it, refusing to divulge information or to buy into trendy, world-changing notions such as open-source software.

But, they have pretty graphs. And charts.

I decided long ago that if I was going to spend a long time puzzling over something, it would be something vast and unknowable. I decided this long before I really knew that mathematics and physics and biology could be vast and unknowable; I'm the product of a sub-mediocre public school education where science meant memorizing boldfaced words and literature meant spewing plot details onto a quiz; however, I'm telling you this so you understand the framework in which I made this vague decision. Words were infinite and I'd spend hours puzzling in frustration at the dining room table only to be left with a hollow and unsatisfying number.

I recommend them to you!


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