Mr. Wolfram, will you please show your work?

Wolfram Alpha is gonna be pretty fucking neat. From the creators of Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram and Wolfram Research, the system proposes to be “an authoritative source for data” from the sciences, social science, finance, pop culture, and damn-near anything else that can be quantified and calculated. Ask it for the volume of your favorite lunar crater, expressed in wheels of parmesano reggiano, and it’ll run the numbers. Math, FTW!

But as far as I can tell from Wolfram’s recent presentation at Harvard, Alpha will tell you the source of the data, and will sometimes show you an example formula for a type of calculation (how to figure the volume of a cylinder, etc.), but it will not show you the actual calculations necessary to arrive at the answer.

Instead, we’re supposed to trust the system. Alpha’s code is so complex, says Wolfram, that it would be vastly inefficient for a mere human to read the steps. The more sensible approach is to “try to do the best QA that we can.” (QA = quality assurance, a.k.a. testing) And I’m certain that he’s right — that thing has got to be a bear to test.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out

The problem is, if I want to use Alpha’s answers in a news article, scientific paper, or anything else requiring an authoritative source, I need to know that it’s right. Unless we arrive at some kind of universal agreement among scientists, academics, mathematicians, and everyone else that Wolfram’s creation is always right, I can’t believe Alpha’s answers if I can’t test them.

I’m baffled by this omission. Alpha can do extraordinarily complex work, but it wouldn’t pass high school physics. You’ve got to show your work! Scientists validate hypotheses by repeating experiments and comparing the results. “Trust me” is not an authoritative answer.

“An authoritative source for data” is misleadingly simplistic. If it does what it’s supposed to, Alpha is more like “an authoritative source for quantitative thought” — the ultimate almanac, complete with a staff of uber-geeks from every field worth researching, backed by machines capable of turning around complex calculations in microseconds.

It’s cool as hell.

It’s a pocket calculator for *everything*.

It’s the realization of Leibniz’s characteristica universalis.

But is it correct? Only one way to tell. Mr. Wolfram, will you please show your work?

Got a job

Next week, my internship at ProPublica will end. The chance to work here was an extraordinarily lucky break, and I can say without reservation that this is the best job I’ve ever had. Never before have I worked with so many brilliant, interesting, and damn nice people.

I love living in New York, and am disappointed to be leaving so soon. The Grand Army Plaza green market just turned from great to brilliant, and I only had my first, proper NYC pastrami on rye this week.

So it’s somewhat bittersweet to announce that in a couple of weeks, I’ll be leaving NYC and returning to my adopted hometown, sunny Chicago, Illinois.

The World’s Greatest Newspaper

In June I’ll start my first full-time journalism gig, as the News Applications Editor at the Chicago Tribune. The team I’ll be leading will be a new one, composed of programmers and investigative journalists, and we’ll be building news applications in conjunction with the Trib’s fantastic investigative team.

Specifically what we’ll make, I don’t know, but I anticipate building a wide variety of data-driven web applications to visualize data and present investigative stories online. (If only the PolitiFact crew hadn’t set the bar so high…)

For the nerds in the audience

What I do know is that we’ll be using Python, Django and lots of other open-source tools. Chicago has quietly become a very important place in the open-source world — the Second City is home to both Django and Ruby on Rails, the two hottest web frameworks — and I’m committed to making the Chicago Tribune a contributing member of the community.

If you haven’t figured it out yet — I’m geeked. This’ll be fun.

So, adios, City That Never Sleeps. The City That Works is calling me home.

Stock charts for everything else: Google Public Data

Google rolled out a simple little feature today: enter “unemployment rate wayne county” and they’ll offer you a chart. Click it, and you’ll see the unemployment rate since 1990, and be able to add other counties to compare. It ain’t much, but it’s neat.

Now, unemployment data *is* take-my-shirt-off-WOO-HOO-high-five thrilling, but this’ll get much more interesting if Google follows through (from the Official Google Blog):

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. … we have been working on creating a new service that make lots of data instantly available for intuitive, visual exploration. Today’s launch is a first step in that direction.

Tidy snippets of civic information, linkable and comparable, from all aspects of public data — that’s one damn cool almanac! More like Everyblock than Wikipedia. Data, but easier. Fucking linkable!

Who’s gonna step up?

From this day forward, any news story about unemployment must link to the chart, just like business stories link to stock charts. Anything less is a disservice to readers. It’s zero-effort, free, informative, and damn neat. Why the hell not?

The future

The sci-fi geek in me sees this as just one more step towards Google’s lofty mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s coming: All the data, one gesture away, on my cornea-screen. Oh, hell yes.

Twitter lightning talk

Wikipedia sez: “A Lightning Talk is a short presentation given at a conference or similar forum. Unlike other presentations, lightning talks last only a few minutes and several will usually be delivered in a single period by different speakers.”

This particular lightning talk was delivered to the ProPublica newsroom a couple weeks ago. To experience it best, open all the links in tabs, print the talk, then read through it and flip the tabs as quickly as possible. (Warning: may cause seizures.)

What’s Twitter?

Really, what’s Twitter?

So it’s like a blog?

…so, how does this all work?

Replies, retweets and links, oh my!

Searches, hashtags, and trends

The Twitter website sucks

  • Desktop applications like Twhirl and TweetDeck make Twitter immediate. You use them to tweet and to see replies and search results, live, similar to how you’d use Gchat or AIM.

I know kung fu.

  • Twitter can be like your own Headline News, but tuned to your
    interests. You can know, to the moment, what’s happening with people
    and topics you care about.
  • With a well-configured TweetDeck, you can hear the Internet hum.
  • We call this experience “ambient intimacy.”

…Twitter for journalists

Tweet your beat

Ask for help

Be aware

Find a job

  • I tweeted two weeks ago that my friend wanted a job at Playboy. Jimmy Jellinek called her last week, and this morning she got the job. I’m not trying to take credit for this, but it really was all me.

And remember, if you don’t tweet, they will.

Some members called it a new age of transparency, a bold new frontier in democracy. But to view the hodgepodge of text messages sent from the House floor during the speech, it seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder.

Further reading

Battlestar Galactica panel at the U.N. — Liveblogging tonight!

BSG is coming to the United Nations, and I’ll be there. Woot!

From the Chicago Tribune:

On March 17, there will be a “Battlestar” retrospective at the U.N. in New York and a panel discussion of how the show examined issues such as “human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith,” according to Sci Fi.

The “Battlestar” contingent on the panel will consist of executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, as well as stars Mary McDonnell (who plays president Laura Roslin on the show) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama).

UN representatives on the panel are Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning, executive office of the Secretary-General.

The panel will be moderated by “Battlestar” fan Whoopi Goldberg.

Tune in at 7PM EDT for the play-by-play!

Battlestar Galactica panel at the U.N.

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